January 11, 2005

Two musicians ponder use, abuse, and Yo-Yo Ma

Why speak of the use

of poetry? Poetry

is what uses us.

—Hayden Carruth

Clearly, this applies to music as well. The way words/music course through us informs us of possible ways to live. A passive experience of art betters our lives. Passive because we cannot change a recording as we listen to it; we can only change our experience of it. A passive listener actively creates meaning for himself.

Alexander finds uncomfortable the anthropologist who examines, from a critical distance, the uses of music in our contemporary tangle. He is curious when confronted with Bach on the customer service hold-line. Alexander's straw man, peering down into the fraternity basement, finds the ever-increasing volume of the famous dance tracks to be an excuse like any other: alcohol, drugs, leg-warmers. Ethnomusicologists wonder at radio ads, Christian Rock, bourgeois classical, and ask: Who's holding the strings here?

Alexander submits to you that music is never used, and is never the commodity at hand. Give yourself some credit: You know what the media conglomerates are selling, and it isn't music. Alexander doesn't mean to be vague or split hairs. When you buy a disc, you buy plastic and rights. In the sense of exercise, you can of course use them. But you cannot use music in the sense of manipulation. Music is immutable—you don't change it, you change yourself.

When Auden writes, "poetry makes nothing happen," it is no cause for lament. The nothing that does happen is enough for the aesthete and the epicurean hero. A first-year, the individual in Sosc, Das Kapital in hand, would charmingly agree that music, too, is of no civil utility. His betters would squirm and say, "Yes," but that is not the point. Utility, pleasure, and equality are not ways in which we can engage music, and moreover, Aristotle has it wrong—the eyes are the souls at the window.


Thibault: Pushkin, disregard the immediate above. Tell me a story that deals with the hemiola of the mind as it relates to a harmonic negation of social utility.

Alexander: Once upon a time, there were two cellists playing the circuit in Bean-town. Ronald Thomas was the better of the two, better than the man he mistrusted and abused, Yo-Yo Ma. Yo-Yo Ma used himself to give music to the world. Ronald Thomas used music, trying to make the world take him. Ronald Thomas resented the respect and fame he didn't get, and now lives in obscurity. Yo-Yo Ma made it, and his music remakes him each time he touches his cello.

Thibault: Ms. Pearl, Madrid, are we then supposed to disseminate ourselves merely passively? Why can't I get a sandwich in return for my penultimate ditty?

Alexander: You and your six-string might make you into a new man, but never one who deserves preferential treatment at the deli. I don't want you to go hungry, but nothing about you entitles you to anything at all. In some sense, there are only free lunches.

Thibault: We're not getting anywhere! I want you to systematically derange your senses so as to accurately portray the moment at which we connect with the hinge that might well serve as the umpteenth mechanism of creative dissolution.

Alexander: [munch, gurgle] You are postmodern!

Thibault: Up yours!


[Editors' notes]

1. As far as we can tell, Alexander was upset that anyone might consider using music to any end other than music. Sources indicate that he is a sensitive soul.

2. We received the following note from Thibault: I believe that the hybridity of the arts is both a good and bad thing. Moreover, my hunger will need to be alleviated- or else my excess muses will damn me. For $20 (inflation), I will have Text with you.

[Selected bibliography and further reading]

1. Hayden Carruth, The Collected Shorter Poems.

2. W.H. Auden, some publication (mass noun).

3. Yo-Yo Ma, The Unaccompanied Cello Suites, Sony 37867 (1990) and Sony 63032 (1998).

4. Peter Esterházy, The Glance of Countess Hahn-Hahn (Down the Danube).

5. Michael Palmer. Period.

6. The Poetry of Anthony Madrid.

7. Lila Pearl, Pearls of Wisdom: "The Golden Rule."