Sunday, April 30, 2006

"holding up all this falling"

While coaching a clarinetist's Mozart Concerto in a master class the other evening, Michael Tilson Thomas brought up a Rilke poem, which I think was this one:


The leaves are falling, falling as if from far up,
as if orchards were dying high in space.
Each leaf falls as if it were motioning "no."

And tonight the heavy earth is falling
away from all other stars in the loneliness.

We're all falling. This hand here is falling.
And look at the other one. It's in them all.

And yet there is Someone, whose hands
infinitely calm, holding up all this falling.

Rainer Maria Rilke

He made the point that every leaf falls in its own individual way - even though they all might be saying "no", it is a slightly different no in each case. And so he challenged the clarinetist to explore different ways of executing the graceful falling gesture of the first phrase, and to find one suited to his own personality and his conception of the piece. He quickly came up with something that was very different than what MTT had sung - but delightful nonetheless.

It was an interesting exchange, and a reminder of how idiosyncratic the performing arts can be. I often find myself trying to make things "right", meaning in tune and in time, among other things. I think much less often about how to make things "right" in mood, in gesture, or in psychological terms - even though all these are aspects we respond to immediately. It's why that poem speaks to us in such a beautiful way.

This also reminded me of a passage from Shunryu Suzuki's Zen Mind, Beginner's Mind, in an essay called "Nothing Special":

Of course, whatever we do is the expression of our true nature, but without this [Zen] practice it is difficult to realize. It is our human nature to be active and the nature of every existence. As long as we are alive, we are always doing something. But as long as you think, "I am doing this," or "I have to do this," or "I must attain something special," you are actually not doing anything. When you give up, when you no longer want something, or when you do not try to do anything special, then you do something. When there is no gaining idea in what you do, then you do something. In zazen what you are doing is not for the sake of anything. You may feel as if you are doing something special, but actually it is only the expression of your true nature; it is the activity which appeases your inmost desire. But as long as you think you are practicing zazen for the sake of something, that is not true practice.
I think it's wonderful to think that just by acting in a mindful, unaffected way, one can manifest one's true nature - something entirely unique to oneself. And of course it is true that just as no two voices sound alike, no two hands fall quite the same way, and no two musicians sound the same. This is the magic of musical performance - while we may have our standards, and follow standard practices and forms, no live performance needs to sound standard.

It's worth reminding ourselves of this, I think, in a world where too many things have lost any taste of individuality. Just yesterday I was reading Eric Schlosser's essay "Why McDonald's Fries Taste So Good", which appeared originally in the Atlantic Monthly. In answering his title's question, Schlosser penetrates the secrets of the "flavor industry" and reveals that a great deal of the flavors we crave and consume daily are synthesized by a few little-known chemical companies; not only that, but these companies all seem to be located along one stretch of the New Jersey Turnpike. They work to insure that every french fry tastes pretty much the same as any other - as does every box of cereal, cup of yogurt, or can of soda. Lest you think I've strayed too far from the subject, here's a bit from the article:
One flavorist compared his work to composing music. A well-made flavor compound will have a "top note" that is often followed by a "dry-down" and a "leveling-off," with different chemicals responsible for each stage. The taste of a food can be radically altered by minute changes in the flavoring combination. "A little odor goes a long way," one flavorist told me.
They may be sophisticated artists in flavor manipulation, but reading this article was a bit like finding I had been living (or at least eating) in the Matrix, a world entirely manufactured and designed to deceive my sensory perceptions. It's a bit disconcerting but well worth reading - an excerpt is available online, and Schlosser's book Fast Food Nation may cover some of the same ground.

Many might argue that we live in a musical matrix as well - and one of the prime culprits they would point to is Muzak. I have a slightly more positive view of the company though, after reading another recent article, "The Soundtrack of Your Life" by David Owen. This appeared in the April 10th New Yorker, and it explains the company's development from a producer of aural narcotics to a much more sophisticated use of music in "audio branding." They're still piping in music that might not even catch your attention - but it's being used to communicate a definite mood, concept, or even physical activity.

I suppose all this audio branding seems a bit nefarious and evil, at least until you are aware of what's being done. Once I realized how they do it, I was almost grateful to these clever people who design these ingenious sound messages. I guess the differences between the chemical companies' "flavorists" and Muzak's "creative managers" may not be all that great; but I would much rather unknowingly consume a Beatle's song than a ground-up insect. Given the choice, of course.

Thanks for reading!

1 comment:

Lydia Si-Ngaw Lui said...

By all means you should get your hands on a copy of Eric S.'s book. That excerpt was undoubtedly right from a chapter in the book, and I am sure you would find his other discoveries tasty- or perhaps not- as well.

It was wonderful reading S. Suzuki's view on zazen, and on reaching into ourselves and fully realizing what we really are. I haven't been as deeply involved in reading Buddhist texts and ideas lately as I had been last year, and I was gently reminded how important spiritual practice is to my daily life. Thanks-