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The Aerobics of the Soul

It's odd. Our unprecedented affluence and technology have brought about an information explosion that we ourselves, let alone our forebears, could not have imagined possible. The mind boggles at the seemingly infinite data available to us, and the blinding speed with which they may be accessed. And at the same time, we learn that less people wish to avail themselves of these resources, that less new books and music (and certainly far fewer magazines devoted to concert music) are being produced, that markets are shrinking and libraries lack browsers.

Are we contemplating a paradox or oxymoron? A grave societal dilemma or a mere glitch in the development of a new world?

Perhaps the answer is all of the above. For we are using the fruits of our scientific sophistication to make us ever more passive. Cowed by the complexity of today's information — be it in the sciences, arts, or humanities — we throw in the towel. Arts to the artist, we say grudgingly, or science to the scientist. We are insufficiently qualified, we say, to "understand" this stuff. The rationale absolves us from exercising judgment. In deferring to the "specialists," we seek to legitimate to our peers, if not to ourselves, that we have become drop-outs.

Our societal sedentariness is a far cry from yesteryear when everyone was a do-it-yourselfer. If you wanted to know what most music sounded like, you sang or played it. If you were curious about the world, you read about it in books and periodicals. And above all, you made sure that you were always finding your own personal threshold of resistance — ideas that tested your comprehension, that you might have to work at a few times before being totally assimilated into your consciousness.

It's peculiar that we sense today, probably more than ever before, that our bodies need exercise if we are to be in adequate physical shape. We methodically jog, run, swim, or find countless ways to get our aerobic points, that level of physical intensity we need to get our cardiovascular system working. But at the same time, we are willing to let our minds drift into an intellectual passivity bordering on stupor.

Look at the people you most admire. Are they not all — irrespective of their calling — productive? Have they not struck an admirable balance between the creative and the consumptive dimensions of life? Do they not order their dockets to reserve time for thought and reflection, for an avenue that permits them to expend their constructive energies, for the nurturing of their inner lives? Are they not self-starters, men and women who need no directives, no authority figure to motivate them to action, but who find the determination and direction to chart their own course?

It is this self-starting compulsion, this unequivocal need to confront resistance — the obstacles of risk, discomfort, fruitlessness, and failure — that makes the artist type so interesting to most of us. (Note: we refer to a personality type and not to the way a person makes his living. One may do anything at all for a livelihood and nevertheless be the artist type; the temperament is an indispensable ingredient, however, of the professional artist.) If you want to witness a fascinating convocation of highly professional artists in a broad spectrum of disciplines, try to get yourself invited to an annual Ceremonial at the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters in uptown Manhattan. One invariably comes away with the feeling that one has shared time and space with the most vital and imaginative energies generated by our society. And the admiration one feels, bordering on awe, transcends understanding. It suffices to sense that each one of these distinguished men and women has been a unique contributor to the societal fabric.

Understanding was already much on Roger Session's mind over 40 years ago when he gave a set of six lectures at The Juilliard School, subsequently to be published as The Musical Experience (1950, Princeton University Press). Sessions dismisses the "mistaken idea as to the real meaning of musical 'understanding. "Theory," Sessions says, "is not of the least use to the listener; in practice it is a veritable encumbrance if he allows preoccupation with it to interfere with his contact with the music as such." He compares musical and literary understanding, insisting that the ability to parse the sentences and describe the functions of the various words in Hamlet or Ulysses had nothing to do with our understanding of Shakespeare or Joyce. Returning to music, he writes: "The listener's real and ultimate response to music consists not in merely hearing it, but in inwardly reproducing it, and his understanding of music consists in the ability to do this in his imagination... .The really 'understanding' listener takes the music into his consciousness and remakes it actually or in his imagination, for his own uses. He whistles it on the street, or hums it at his work, or simply 'thinks' it to himself. He may even represent it to his consciousness in a more concentrated form — as a condensed memory of sounds heard and felt, reproduced for his memory by a vivid sensation of what I may call character in sound, without specific details but in terms of sensations and impressions remembered."

While Sessions seems to negate the importance of bookishness in the development of the cultivated listener, he clearly emphasizes the need to work on the visceral element of hearing music. It is akin to what Charles Ives meant when he spoke of "ear stretching," a conscious and deliberate effort to perceive more complex musical sound in the mind's ear. Instead of going out of our way to broaden our musical receptors, however, we have gone in the other direction. We have too often reduced music to a subliminal dimension, background sounds to do one's homework by, hear in connection with visuals, or even sleep through. Even the most divine and complex compositions such as late Beethoven string quartets may be thus diluted, if presented in a way that makes absolutely no demands on the non-listening hearer. And an entire chapter of music history is much in vogue, represented by music whose appeal lies precisely in the fact that one may hear it without listening to it: it is called minimalism.

Artists, it is said, are expected to endure certain deprivations for the sake of their art. They must, if they are to be true artists, prioritize their lives in such a way that they become windows to the world. Not having the artist's genius, the rest of us may at least be curious and sensitive spectators, eager to glimpse, through the artist's vision, what may be revealed to us that we cannot fathom for ourselves. In concluding a three-day symposium on music librarianship in America at Harvard University three years ago, Richard F. French observed that "the world rewards not the answerer but the questioner, not the imprisoner but the liberator; that great art, like great scholarship, great teaching, and great performance, does not provide answers but shows us only how to begin to interrogate the world in a new way."

And asking once more what we demand of the composer, Roger Sessions writes: "Do we demand always what is easiest, music that is primarily and invariably entertainment, or do we seriously want from him the best that he has to give? In the latter case, are we willing to come to meet him, to make whatever effort is demanded of us as listeners, in order to get from his music what it has to give us? Once more, it is for the listener and not for the composer, as an individual, that the answer is important. On the answer we ultimately give depends the future of music in the United States."

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