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On God Being in the Details

I’ve always loved music. Most music, anyway. My record collection began with a little record player my aunt gave me when I was about twelve, along with several records she didn’t want anymore—the one I remember the most was Ravel’s Daphnes et Chloe. The record player was designed to attach to a radio, but I found that I could listen to the music through headphones connected to the output wires. It wasn’t portable, of course, but when I recently acquired an MP3 player, it reminded me of sixty-five years ago, listening to my music, isolated from others, in my own private world.

When I could, I bought records of pieces I’d heard that I particularly liked. What I knew about music was limited to what we were taught in school, where we learned the scales (or one, at least) and how to harmonize in different voices. Sometimes there was a piano in the house (my sister took lessons for a while), and I played around with the sounds I could make on it, experimenting with chords and occasionally “composing” short melodies that only with difficulty could I play all the way through for anyone who would listen. I don’t remember ever asking for formal lessons. What I learned about music (beyond do re mi fa so la ti do) was piecemeal almost throughout my life. I didn’t have the discipline (or whatever it takes) to master any part of it.

One advantage of having a very limited collection of music is that one eventually becomes quite familiar with the few pieces. Not only could I anticipate the different parts of Daphnes et Chloe as they came up, I could almost hear the whole thing in my head when I was away from the record player. Naturally, when I listened to a different recording of the piece I would become annoyed at any differences in treatment that I heard in the playing. That response has been a pattern almost throughout my life, although very occasionally I hear a different interpretation of a familiar piece that makes more sense to me than my old one. And, now and then, I can even appreciate a new reading without criticizing it, accepting that there might be more than one “right” way to play it. (The most dramatic example of that happened to me while watching on cable a movie about Cole Porter’s life, De-Lovely. Sheryl Crow sang “Begin the Beguine” as a wrenching lament that, while opposite in tone from my “standard” version by Artie Shaw, just had to be entered in my list of favorites.)

The big difference between formal education and “self-taught” is that different aspects are learned to different levels of mastery. A college degree in music, for example, ensures that one has at least some exposure to the range of knowledge about a subject. I’ve been reminded of that while reading Aaron Copeland’s 1939 book What to Listen for in Music. My knowledge of the structure of Western music is limited to things like “I’ve heard the term ‘fugue’—it’s when a theme goes off in different directions, right?” Copeland, of course, describes it in relation to musical devices such as imitation, canon, inversion, augmentation, diminution, and cancrizans—each of these terms meaning something specific that I had never encountered in my casual “education.”

Copeland stresses the importance of learning these devices by listening, over and over, to compositions in which they are used, until one can recognize them reliably. Only then can one listen to a new work and appreciate the techniques used by the composer or the performer as well as enjoy the personal emotional responses the piece generates. It’s more than just recognizing that “she’s playing that passage more slowly than I’ve heard it before.” One of the first parts of learning about any subject is learning the vocabulary—the keys to unlocking its mysteries. It is often difficult to identify just what it is you’re experiencing without a handle—a term—to relate it to the larger field.

There’s an old saying, “I don’t know anything about art. I just know what I like.” It’s a stance regarding knowledge which most people share about subjects they haven’t studied seriously. And, obviously, one can’t learn everything there is to know about everything. Dilettantes such as I, picking up scraps of information about the world as we go about our lives, never know the satisfaction of discernment, the recognition and appreciation of subtlety, that comes from depth of knowledge. Even in the field that has been mine for the past thirty years—writing—my knowledge of the craft is sorely limited. I no longer remember, for example, most of the parts of speech that I learned in school sixty years ago, and I write with a casual style that feels easy to me, not because I have consciously chosen it for an intended effect. It’s not that I’m indifferent to eloquence; I’d love to write with the skill and sensitivity—and particularly the passion—that Yo-Yo Ma exhibits with his cello, or the smoothness of prose that Vladimir Nabokov poured onto his pages.

I read many years ago what a psychologist said about sex, “The average man with a woman is like an orangutan with a violin.” The master, in any endeavor, is different from most others. It’s what determines what “average” is. There are so many of us, and so few of them. Of course, one chooses the battles one has a chance to win—or thinks he has. When I gave up (“temporarily,” of course) playing the guitar it was because I was discouraged with my rate of improvement. If I couldn’t be as good as John Williams, it seemed not worth the agony. William Saroyan once wrote some advice to new writers to the effect that “if you don’t have to write, if it isn’t the most important thing in your life—don’t. Go to the movies, be like everybody else. Because the effort and the pain of it isn’t going to be worth it, and what you write won’t be worth a damn.”

That advice always bothered me a little, because I didn’t think I fit his specification. But here I am, after all these years, still writing. For a long time I couldn’t comfortably call myself a writer because what I wrote didn’t come out of my depths; it was simply a living. People paid me for what I wrote, but my work could have been anybody’s. Now that I write for myself, I feel more comfortable thinking of myself as a writer. Nobody (well, almost nobody) pays me for what I write. Yet it’s been only recently that I’ve begun to struggle with how to say clearly what it is that I feel. It’s more—at least I hope it’s more—than just another exercise in narcissism. I’m finally getting to the place I probably should have been fifty years ago, when I thought that to be a writer was the ultimate in goals.

It’s in paying attention to the details that makes one a craftsman. “Expressing yourself,” the goal that some people touted back in the 1970s, might be valuable as psychotherapy, and it might be interesting to others if it’s intelligible. But as in composing a concerto, the expression has to connect with the audience, whoever they are. Unless one is simply writing in one’s journal, the end product needs to acknowledge those who try to understand it.

Often, in my case at least, that’s myself.

 

Donald Skiff, September 13, 2007

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