The Public Humanist

Writing Music

Another post for the Public Humanist! This time explaining why I am not a public humanist:

Recently, I worked on a project to develop a website for a PBS series called Keeping Score, a production of the San Francisco Symphony that presents classical music in the spirit of Leonard Bernstein’s well-known lectures. SF Symphony conductor Michael Tilson Thomas is a great raconteur and presents the historical context along with advice on what to listen for the compositions in the series.

As part of my research, I picked up Alex Ross’ The Rest Is Noise, an award winning history of the twentieth century through music. Ross begins with turn of the century Vienna, where Klimt and Freud and possibly Hitler attended and discussed the latest works by Mahler and Strauss. I dove into the book eagerly, skipping ahead to read about Ives and Shostakovich, Gershwin and Copland. Then I went back to read the book in order and stopped when I got to Sibelius.

Stopped dead.

The lyrical language lay flat. The insightful connections frayed.

This was not Ross’ fault; it was mine. I simply am not familiar with the music of Jan Sibelius and it made reading about it excruciatingly irrelevant.

When I learned the mnemonic to the Morse Code for the letter V (the rhythm of Beethoven’s Fifth [or Vth] Symphony’s famous “hook”), that made sense because I knew the music. But reading about music you’ve never heard is like watching someone dance about a building you’ve never seen.

So consider this post an admiring hurrah to those who write for ignorant audiences: music critics and historians like Ross.

But this experience is also a kick in my own pants. Somewhere along the way of getting a graduate degree, I fell for the book; I felt like everything that could be known was in a book. As a parent of young kids, I felt like if I put the kids to bed and read a book, I was engaged in a humanistic enterprise. But that’s not being a humanist. (Nor is it particularly public.)

Being a humanist is not about reading criticism; it’s about experiencing art. It should be primal, not secondhand. It means actually going to museums and films and concerts and ballets and not just judging them through someone else’s eyes and ears.

Certainly, this will not be a revelation for most people reading this blog. For myself, however, it’s a light out of the solipsistic academic tunnel I seem to have wandered into. Words are essential to the humanist enterprise, but they are not sufficient.

© 2014 The Valley Advocate