Saturday, June 13, 2009

Commercialism and Legacy Ramble

The spoils of my morning walk left two words on an index card: commercialism and legacy, which is what I suppose I was thinking about this morning, before I started to practice. Now my mind is filled with Bach (on the viola) and paying attention to the way double stops feel on the right hand on the viola compared to the way they feel on the violin at the sounding point.

The monologues that I have during my walks always seem profound, but, like the dreams I have at night, they never feel quite the same after they have been translated into sentences and paragraphs.

We live in a history-obsessed culture. It is especially true now, because history is delivered to us so easily through books, television (and video recordings), audio recordings, and the internet. We also have a history of commercial culture through archived magazines and newspapers, archives of television shows, commercials, and more than half a century of news footage. If it was sold or used to sell something, someone probably has access to it; and someone can probably reproduce it (unless it is something that has flaked off a reel of magnetic tape, was destroyed by fire or flood, or the paper it was written on had already decomposed).

Our culture is obsessed with the ideal of legacy and afterlife. The idea of an afterlife, whether through reincarnation or resurrection, draws people into the arms of religious organizations that offer promise for some kind of "future" after death. It is even true with Judaism, which is not an afterlife-based religion. During every Shabbat service, Jews who go to synagogue remember those in the congregation who have died in previous years during the current month, and Jews often celebrate the anniversary of a person's death with the lighting of a Yahrzeit candle. Every practicing Jew knows that s/he will be remembered, as long as there is a continual congregation to keep his or her memory alive. And then there is the idea of cryonical freezing, which involves a large monetary investment, and a great deal of faith in the organization doing the freezing.

Most musicians who lived before the 20th century knew that their time to perform was limited to a few good decades. Their idea of leaving some kind of a legacy was to have children, teach students, write music, and write instruction books. I don't really know if the idea of leaving a legacy was a motivating factor for many of them, though preserving impressions of a way of life that was clearly changing (due to technology, war, musical taste, or politics) might have given them good reason to write.

(People write music for many reasons, but I'm not sure if the idea of leaving a legacy is a big enough motivating factor to write a piece of music. I'm too much in the middle of my life, as well as in the middle of what I do, to have any kind of objective view on that matter.)

It seems that for a long time any kind of lasting legacy for musicians, aside from having children and teaching students, involved some kind of a commercial endeavor. In order for a composition to survive, it had to have a publisher. The publisher would sell it to make money, and the composer would get a cut. It had to be useful music, and it had to be good. It really helped if the composer was already well known, or knew someone who was well known to recommend him (or the occasional pre-20th-century her) to a publisher.

In order for a musical memoir to be published, the person writing it had to be a significant enough person for a publisher to invest a serious amount of money into having it printed, bound, and sold. A person of little commercial significance would have a very slim chance of having his or her memoir published, unless there was a personal investment on the part of the writer or the writer's friends and/or family involved.

Before the 20th century, most biographies were about people who had already died, and many must have been about people who didn't think of their lives as being "an open book," as it were. Some were written by people who knew the subject for a long time, and some were written by total strangers.

Biographers use information taken from diaries, which people often keep as a way of documenting impressions of events and preserving personal feelings that can not be shared with others (for various reasons). Letters are also important source material for biographies. The most valuable biographical material comes from personal letters, written to people long dead who might have saved them for posterity (or for sale), even though the letter writer might not have intended the material in them to be read by anyone except the recipient. I can't imagine that Mozart intended the contents of his letters to his sister for any eyes except her eyes. Someone who didn't know Mozart really well might judge him unfairly.

We are fascinated by "dirt" about composers we love. I am certainly fascinated by reading things I shouldn't know about composers' lives. There is no literary genre I enjoy more than the musical biography, except, perhaps, the musical memoir, books of letters, and the occasional musician's diary.

With every kind of media at our fingertips, we are surrounded by biography. We love the idea of watching biography as it happens, and people go out of their way to take part in historic moments. There are people who have their most private moments preserved on film (actually video), and there are people who have those moments (or hours, or days, or even years) broadcast on television for commercial use. The idea of legacy seems to have taken even more of a turn towards the commercial, as we see commercial entities pay large amounts of money for biographical material. There is money to be made, for the time being, on mothers of sextuplets and octuplets (a word that is not yet listed in my computer's dictionary), but this too shall pass.

My interest in legacy has mostly to do with musicians, and I believe that there is a great deal of value in hearing and preserving audio and video recordings of people who are no longer alive, as well as hearing audio and video recordings from people who are still alive, but no longer play or sing. I also enjoy seeing YouTube videos of musical children as they grow and develop as musicians. I love the fact that it is now possible, by way of the free spaces on the internet (like blogger and YouTube), for people to leave a series of "snapshots" covering what they did in their musical lives (or what they are doing with their musical lives) without having to be judged as not being important enough by commercial entities. And this accumulation of musical legacies makes for a very interesting future, provided that there are large spaces on the internet that remain free of commercialism.


T. said...

A marvelous "ramble!" I especially loved this: "The monologues that I have during my walks always seem profound, but, like the dreams I have at night, they never feel quite the same after they have been translated into sentences and paragraphs. " It rings true in terms of how language can sometimes FEEL so inadequate to convey our thoughts, but I must say I do think your writing makes the connection.

In college I worried about legacy. It's hard not to wish for some kind of lasting impact in the world when you're reading great (published) poetry and the like. When I had kids, I felt more at peace with my own anonymity and relative mediocrity: I realized that what we pass on through our teaching is so meaningful, and renders what we pass on genetically or achieve academically or otherwise so much less important.

Finally - your rich post has generated so many thoughts! - I can't remember where I read about Mahler's conjugal troubles, but your remarks about biography reminded me of how sorry I felt that I was privy to such intimate details, yet how tantalizing it can be, too, to know some secrets about people, secrets that demonstrate vulnerability behind greatness and thus make the "great" person a little more accessible in a way.

Thanks for this wonderful food for thought!

Crayons said...

Ooof! What an essay -- well, actually as T. wrote, a ramble. I'd not have agreed that we are a culture obsessed with history. I see so little awareness of even the decisions made in the last decade. But you convinced me - almost - that there is a longing and a passion there. I agree that television has made history so much more palatable than dusty books.

I liked thinking about musicians and legacy. I'd somehow never matched the two.

I am so glad you visited my blog and left a trace. I remember being quite enthused about your writing last year, but then lost the link.

I am eager to read more. I am off to an outdoor marimba concert. I'll be back to read more of your engaging writing.