31 January 2008

Feeling the Music

I'd like to take a moment away from my cynical and honest side to detour. Something more pleasant and quite beautiful is in order.

I've been a flute player for nearly 12 years now and have enjoyed nearly every minute of it. I am not a music major and have no interest in making music into a profession. I do it as a profound respite into a magical world where bodies sway and emotions flow freely. I am quite fortunate to have won the spot as principal flute here in the Butler Symphony Orchestra and I have taken a lot of recent enjoyment in working more on my playing. I have been reflecting on my brief past in music and it is a pleasing thing.

I have always been a good flute player and I was quite serious in high school, although I ultimately decided not to major. My flute slipped for a few years as I focused on anthropology and other aspects of my life. But I have been working harder of late and have brought myself up to a familiar level. Ultimately, though, I think my success has little or nothing to do with practice time, inherent skill, perfection or even devotion. Instead I owe it all to feeling the music.

Our conductor makes many detours from the music during rehearsal time, but a common theme he speaks to is feeling in music. He asks us to move with emotional parts and inject an energy into our playing. The reality is that we can only physically control the speed and amount of air going into our instruments. Regardless, we can alter the sound and overall feeling of a piece of music by feeling the music. Without changing tempo or volume we can add great energy to a passage. Without slowing or stretching, or even adding vibrato we can make a theme tear at the heartstrings of the audience. This ability is what separates good and great musicians.

I decided not to go into flute performance because I knew that that future would entail a great deal of regimenting of and professionalizing music, breaking down music into often times frivolous categories. I thought this would kill music for me. And, to be honest, a lot of musical terminology is lost on me. Nonetheless I can be successful because I connect with symphonies passages and sounds. This is the beauty of music, it is something that comes from within, something that also embeds itself deep in your mind making certain passages unforgettable. It is something that can change feeling with mere thought and mind-driven expression. It is something that creates goose-bumps on my skin at truly wondrous moments.

We are playing Schumann's 1st Symphony in B Flat and the final movement is a exciting allegretto that wraps this symphony up in that magical way that can only be achieved by these grandiose pieces of music. We often rehearse this movement last and I am often stuck with parts of it in my head for the rest of the day. I have not been able to articulate what I wanted to as well as I normally do, but this perhaps does it best. The tempo for that last movement is roughly equivalent to the tempo of my walking stride. For this reason, walking away from rehearsal I often feel the music in each step, my body rising and falling and my mind swirling with chords and attacks and beautiful themes. Its enough to bring a grin to my face for no obvious reason. I am truly feeling the music, it is something that pleases me, something that works its way into my being, something that never leaves me.

22 January 2008

The Death Pedestal

My mind has been racked with a new capacity and has little time to dawdle on those seemingly meaningless nothings that prove so though provoking when we step back.

I had been every so slightly perturbed of late and I was struck today with the reason for it. No its not politics or the economy, though those are surely troubling things. Nay, it was one of the things I detest and fail to understand, celebrity news. It was this evening upon hearing of and seeing the reaction to the death of Heath Ledger that my mind clicked into gear.

Facebook is becoming prevalent in many ways and if used critically can offer broad insight into small networks. I say that to say this: I counted no less than 12 facebook related statuses that mentioned and mourned the death of this actor. To this I had a series of responses. First: This has no bearing on me. Second: Its caused a media storm and is already provoking public debate (People care.). Third: Am I emotionally dead so as not to be affected by a sudden death of a talented actor? Finally: No, I am not emotionally dead, perhaps (and forgive the vanity), perhaps just far more broad minded.

Death is no stranger to the human race; people die daily, hourly, even minutely. Old people die, rich people die, young people die, poor people die, babies die, fat, thin, black and white. This makes death no less tragic on individual and situation bases, but I doubt that so many know Heath so well as to truly feel sorrow. Still, on daily news coverage I see reports of shooting and death. And I say, "this happens all the time, why does it make news?" Perhaps a better question would be why do certain deaths make news? The media and the general population seem to pick and chose which deaths matter most and such choices are often fleeting and trivialize a deeply saddening occurrence.

Celebrity news and gossip is perhaps the most perverted sort. People spend much of their time and sometimes even lives to being completely in the know about, ultimately, meaningless people.
(I use meaningless not to downplay success and influence in certain spheres but rather to question their being arbitrarily "made" as significant.) People even become significantly insignificant from studying insignificant people. (Have fun with that one!) I see Britney Spears on covers of magazines that have no qualms of exploiting her downfalls. I hear people feeling sorry for her. But should we seek out the miserable and mourn death, or celebrate that the reason we seek out exciting news of death and misery is because of the large absence of it in our daily lives? Perhaps it makes us feel human and gives a sense of community. But have we gone so astray as people that, in order to feel human community, we must seek out the terrible in the lives of the insignificant?

Heath's death is no less sad and tragic and sudden to me, but merely put in perspective with the millions of other, equally as affecting, deaths. I mean not that the world will be the same without him or that individuals will miss his presence. It is the act of placing, not only death, but certain "elite" deaths on a pedestal to be mourned and become topics of debate and conversation that I disagree with and hope to challenge.

09 January 2008

Sought and Found

I sought,
Long and far I sought.
From my own backyard to a high mountain of Kenya,
I sought.
And I found,
Suddenly blinded by a blazing white light.
Near and far, high and low, I found.
I found the glowing brilliance within,
The might thread of human community,
At once majestic and strong,
Yet as simple as thread.
I found Humanity.

08 January 2008


A friend, perhaps a co-conspirator, turned me on to an interesting blog written by a Stanely Fish at the NY Times that suggest that the humanities are useless in our world and that they are essentially (in a philosophical sense) useless as they seek not to validate themselves. This is one of the top things that could produce a truly "honest" if not agitated response from me. Here goes...

Contrary to Fish I think that the humanities are one of the only good things left in the world, indeed one of the few things that I see as hopeful, something so hopeful that I plan to devote my life to the uselessness of the humanities. It is easy, (naive?), to see the humanities are existing in their own little world, having locked themselves within the imposing confines of the ivory tower. Indeed, we bicker among ourselves about trivialities, insignificant details of theory, translation and interpretation. Much of our highly theoretical discussion is lost upon the "lay" people mingling at the gates of our towers. But is this not also so for medical jargon, legalese and the highly specific lingo of biochemists and the like? Perhaps our most fatal flaw is that our subject matter tends to me flaky at best, things uninteresting and often highly dependent on intimate familiarity with ivory debate. I have even described my ethnography as "basically a really long diary entry."

Fish makes three main arguments in his entry: 1, that the best chance of relevancy that the humanities has in its abilities to open minds and impart noble lessons and ideas to its participants. 2, that this is utterly false because professors and students of the humanities are often not the epitome of do-gooders. 3, that the humanities do not have inherent in their studies a need to relate or legitimize against other worldly pursuit and therefore have no relevance in their very definition.

I'll save the first point for last. Regarding points 2 and 3, I suggest that perhaps scholars within the humanities have been driven to their sorry state by a need to compete in a money-hungry and humanitarily empty world that rewards competency, specialization and production in lieu of the subtle noble lessons and wisdoms that drew those scholars to pursue the humanities. As a college student I know that the majority of the student population relates to their field of study with regards to their expected salaries upon graduation. We in the humanities tend to focus elsewhere because of the dismal discussion that would ensue upon discussion of our future after graduation in such terms. The humanities have been squeezed into a world that resists their core ideals. They have become jobs, professions. My very survival as an organic being is tied to my ability to compete in a job market, one that is very small for the humanities. I have already begun to specialize in radical ways, to get caught up in frivolous debate (my decisions within which will likely make or break my career). Perhaps scholars in the humanities are bitter, prime examples of the destruction wrought by a world that has all but forgotten is human side. For A Deity's sake, there is actual ardent debate in this country about the benefits and downfalls of using torture, rather specific types of torture. (Torture that is too tortuous?) Yet we have sought legitimization and for what reasons? What do the humanities offer?

Contrary to Fish again I think that the humanities do offer the ability and time to gain noble wisdom and humanitarian (in a humanist sense, not a Peace Corp sense) lessons. There is far more to offer than just insight into perhaps being, if not a better person, than a more insightful one. I think that that the humanities will be the only thing to save the world, that if not in my time then in the time of my future students, the most respected and relevant positions will be within the humanities. Reliance on science and medicine and business will result in the dismal and dark machine-ridden worlds once described by the likes of H.G. Wells, Asimov, Vonnegut and others. Worlds where human worth is fading as our inefficiencies are exposed. War will reign as resources grow scarce and political decisions are based on a bloody, perhaps nuclear, war for hegemony. Social darwinism will re-emerge. Riots will rage and the rich hide in their own steel towers as the power of medicine falls in the light of pandemic flu and radiation poisoning.

The humanities offer what is already inherent in their name. The human element. A connection to ourselves and the abstract. We offer a break in the rapidity of the day, a chance to reflect, a chance to blog. We recognize the beauty of the human condition, of the great works and varieties of humans. This is an abstract thing, it is terribly difficult to describe the humanitarian message in our language. The humanities offer ourselves, not the selves of scholars, but the self within each and everyone of us; something that has been turned over to the likes of medicine and business. We often associate ourselves with our healths. And truly, how many devote their lives to profit, having been told since childhood that arts and crafts are girly, that music is for nerds, having excelled based on tests that reward scientific and math centered thinking. Like it or not, Fish, were it not for the humanities the world would be a sad place; naught but concrete structures, Fox News, a starving working class and ethnic war. We hold the very essence of the human within our frivolous debate and abstract speak. Likely, we will continue to exist as useless, merely a vessel, but projects like Human Terrain System are already showing the bleak brick wall that is hit without the humanities.

We certainly don't fit in a statistic and we certainly don't force our message down the throats of developing minds like business, science and the like, but our importance is not to be seen as futile and fruity in a world run by the ever false and misleading "fact," facts which are as much products of individuals as are the works of DaVinci. Such talk, as Fish's, shakes me to my very core as I see humanity slipping from the world. If I must, I charge myself with raising and unholy army and waging a humanitarian war on capitalism, democracy and conservatism! And as we march gloriously upon the smitten ruins of our first victory we shall sound our Horn of Culture and cry, "For LJ!"