Evolution and the Anthropic Principle
Richard Dawkins vs Ken Wilber
Where Am I
The Cheshire Cat
I Could Have Been a Contender
What I Wish Id Said
Keeping Up with the World
The Flight of the Phoenix
The Power of Fog
Naming the Unnamed
Principles in Art
Spirit and Matter
The Enlightenment Conundrum
On Believing
Water? What Water?
Telling Stories 2
I believe in Rainbows
Whom Can We Believe
Patterns by Paul Simon and Douglas Hofstadter
Copyright Inheritance
Broad Minded
Beliefs Part Two
A Long drawn-out solstice
The Quest for, and the Illusion of, Certainty
To the Ends of the Earth
The Meaning Of Life
We Hold These Truths
There are Beliefs
Music and Language
Circular Thinking
Runaway World
Deep Playmate
An Alchemy of Telling
Cultural Genes
The Joy of Science
The Conundrum of Human Nature
No, The Computer Isn't Smarter than I Am!
A Rant on Religion
The West Wing Turning Right?
The Geometry of Spring
Music as Language
What is Art
Beauty and Spirit
You Don't Understand Us
The New God of Probability
Gene Hackman as President
Being Lifted Out of the Ordinary
The Head and the Heart
Pay Attention!
Music Poetry and Meaning
On Seeking Truth
Perceptions and Reality
The Marriage Bond
Taboo is a Right
Copyright versus Copyleft
Cycles of Transcendence
Ego and Self
The Big Picture
Mindfulness as Larger Mind
The Power of Words
The State of the Union
Out of My Mind
Family Thoughts
One Life
Telling Stories
Small World
Bigger Realities
What Comes Next
Humor as a Higher Level of Consciousness
Sometimes Everything Goes Wrong
Emotional Resonance
Extraordinary Respect
Insight Meditation
Us and Them
Paradox and Paradigm
To Reach
I Don't Know
Don the Romantic
The Guy in the Blue Saab
The Sound of Silence
Eating is an Intimate Act
Evolution of Spirit
On Cloning and Other . . .
Creativity and Psychic Phenomena
Magic in My Life
My Difficulty with Aaron
Mindful & Mystic
Taste of Irony
Music Appreciation
Levels of Consciousness

Music Appreciation Class

It was a large, cluttered classroom with a high ceiling. One wall was all glass down to about three feet from the floor. The darkness outside pressed against the windows. Against the other walls were stacked musical instruments, music stands, assorted classroom equipment. An upright piano was shoved into a corner, access blocked by stacks of chairs and other furniture. Twenty chairs were haphazardly arranged in a kind of half-circle. The students, mostly young, mostly male, sprawled in the chairs. Al, the instructor, stood in the focal point of the half-circle.

He had just started a CD in the nondescript stereo. I recognized instantly the opening beat of Paul Simon's "The Boy in the Bubble" and my gut began to move in time with it. It was a slow day, and the sun was beating on the soldiers by the side of the road . . .

Al was middle aged, slender, with a neat black beard. I'd heard good things about him in other classes. Part of the course pack he had assigned us was a cassette tape of music from all over the world, snippets of chants, of quivering strings, exotic rhythms. We were supposed to make notes about the excerpts, how they affected us. On the first night of class he had played an assortment of Western music, much of it unknown to me, and asked for our reactions. I had admitted feeling impatient with some of the Bartok, and he explained a little about the origins of the music, about the dissonance of the time and place that had spawned such anguished sounds.

Tonight, to my gratitude, he was playing popular music. There was a bright light, a shattering of shop windows . . . The bomb in the baby carriage was wired to the radio . . . The music was loud, which was just as well, for the students weren't exactly sitting in rapture. Some were moving to the music, some were whispering to their neighbors, others reading or writing in notebooks. A couple (like me?) were just sitting there, perhaps listening, perhaps lost in thought.

I remembered the first time I heard Simon and Garfunkle's "The Sound of Silence." I was moved gently by the music, but stunned by the lyrics. They gave voice to my angst of the time, and eventually led to my identifying with the kids half my age, sitting in the street, tuned in to the counterculture. I had begun to listen to popular music again (after years of avoiding the banalities of rock and roll). Again and again, Paul Simon touched me with his music, especially the sad, dark songs of loss and despair. His newer music, like the Graceland album we were now listening to, intrigued me with the complexity of his rhythms. These are the days of miracle and wonder . . . This is a long distance call . . .

It reminded me of a radio program from my childhood, in which they pretended to play a push-button radio, switching stations abruptly, so that fragments of songs and speech were strung together in a juxtaposition that was usually funny, sometimes poignant. Simon's lyrics were just such bits of familiarity, fragments of clichés from today's culture, "happy face" images: The way the camera follows us in slo-mo . . . The way we look to us all . . .

All the while, the catchy beat, the ordinary voice, the almost pleasant tone of the whole thing. Philip Wylie wrote a book once, in which the protagonist is going through a private art gallery. Each painting is arranged so that one approaches it from a distance, at first seeing something ordinary but colorful, such as an attractive woman posing in a red dress. As one gets closer, however, one feels uneasy. There's something wrong here, but what? The woman's eyes look strange. And then, a foot away from the painting, one sees the blood on the red dress, and then the wound. Back to the eyes--she's clearly dead. The other paintings in the gallery are all the same thing: Ordinary, familiar images, until one approaches closely to find the rot, the decay, the death. Metaphors for society.

Simon's lyrics are like that in this piece, as well as in others. Energetic, upbeat images--until one pays attention. These are the days of lasers in the jungle, lasers in the jungle somewhere . . . Staccato signals of constant information . . . A loose affiliation of millionaires, and billionaires, and baby . . . These are the days of miracle and wonder . . . And don't cry baby, don't cry, don't cry . . .

The boy in the bubble, indeed. The bubble we all live in, protected from the agony outside, bombarded on all sides by television images of unreal death, hearing the now-familiar staccato of automatic arms fire, seeing spectacular, fiery explosions in slow motion, with flying glass and bodies flung through space. None of it real to us. The more real it looks, the less reality we see.

Al stopped the CD at the end of the piece. "So, what did you hear?" he asked.


He nodded to someone sitting nearer to him, someone whose eye he managed to catch. "What did you hear?"

"Well," began the young man, whose long, slender fingers would easy span an octave on a full-size keyboard, "I guess . . . I don't know, I guess it's about, like, how there's a lot of stuff going on, but we should keep cool, I guess. Like, don't let it get to you. You know."

Several others were speaking, but I couldn't hear anything in particular. I was sitting (as I usually do) off to the side, inconspicuous, silent. In my head, however, I was shouting at the young man, Irony! For God's sake, it's irony! Listen! If the words actually came out, nobody heard them. Al didn't comment. Instead, he turned back to the stereo and cued up another song, another voice, another mood.

"Tell me what you hear."


Donald Skiff, January 14, 1999

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