As my many devoted readers have already noticed and let me know, though I do love good music, it’s hard to convey the intensity of that devotion. So it occurred to me to write about abject rather than exalted musical experiences. They’re easier to deal with, yet also productive, particularly as the experience of ugly is an inversion of the beautiful. I am also aware that a dentist is not properly called a “tooth dentist,” yet I find somehow that this redundant solecism is valuable in marking a certain cultural void.
But before we approach the realm of the tooth dentist, let’s pull back a little to the larger picture. I have found that in waiting rooms such as car dealerships and at the offices of medical doctors, where the sheep gather as one, the singular sensation is the Big Screen, and most of what we hear is a lot of noise and gabble. What we see is pretty ugly as well, and everything we see is an expression of political mandates—allegories of equality, diversity, and identity. The news, the weather, and discussion are all problematized and predetermined. There will be no chance for an old movie—that would be too dated and insufficiently pious about contemporary taboos. I do realize that film today is about noise, violence, and nudity, but I want to see people dressed up or even just dressed, smoking. And there is much else to say, but the experience is familiar enough. The waiting room of the tooth dentist is similar, but the room where the business is done—where the drill is—is something else.
The room is small, and usually there are three people in it—the tooth dentist, the henchperson, and the victim/client/injured/payer/insured. But wait! We are getting to the musical part now! Do not be distracted in the tooth dentist’s chair by its La-Z-Boy flip from chair to medieval torture device! No, the musical part has already happened, before you stared at the ceiling because there was nowhere else to look, at the “tile” of tropical fish overhead that was supposed to be a pleasant distraction but was not.
The musical part happened or was determined before the tooth dentist showed up, when the henchwoman offered to let you choose your music for the execution—of the dental agenda. There was the rehearsed generosity of customer-specific tailored musical programs. This was not only an exploitation of financial relations but a statement that music is a pain reliever and a tedium-enhancing drug. That was before your choice of musical nirvana. And there were many choices, a menu of equalities. There were names of groups and performers and types of music—the genres were market determined, and included many varieties, including pop music of seven decades, various ethnic identifications, and many other kinds of groupings, until finally we come to elevator-type music, including “classical.” I waited for a name and heard “Beethoven.” So I said I was interested in Beethoven because I didn’t see how they could mess that up, and because I didn’t want to hear The Four Seasons or Pachelbel’s Canon or suchlike.
I was wrong: They could mess Beethoven up, and they did. What I hadn’t counted on was that, with the usual combination of crudities from corporate technological innovations and the antimusical mindset of many people, the Beethoven I had known a bit was not the Beetrootfarms I got. And that Beetrootfarms was sliced and diced.
I had forgotten the obvious, which was that the tail wags the dog. Because popular music is “songs,” the forms of pop music are supposed to determine other forms inscribed and known for centuries. So we began, and I heard the first movement of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony, but I was not too pleased, thinking in my way, If it is not conducted by Carlos Kleiber or his father, Erich, then I don’t want to hear it at all, after these many years. I was ungrateful! And then after the first movement, because that was a song, we switched to another. It took me a second to recognize it, out of context: the slow movement of the Sonata Pathétique, of course. I remembered when Horowitz recorded it for the only time, back in the early 60’s, and he couldn’t play the slow movement at all adequately! Simplicity daunted him. On to the Ninth Symphony, which again was out of context and sequence: the Scherzo, which was, as was unconventional, the second movement. But that was not as unconventional as presenting it freestanding. Then yet another decontextualized presentation of the third movement of the Fourth Piano Concerto, and I didn’t know who was playing, but I did know who was not: not Schnabel, not Hoffman, not Backhaus, not Arrau, not Moravec, and not Perahia, nor many another.
By that time, the smell of burning that had emanated from my oral cavity had suggested that my thoughts should be elsewhere—and also by that time, the extraction of money from my insurance cavity had been accomplished. And as I headed for the parking lot, picking my way past Jaguars and Mercedes-Benzes and Porsches that I was pretty sure weren’t, any of them, not one, my vehicle, I reflected on my experience with Beetrootfarms and the tooth dentist’s office. I had a lot to think about—it was much better to think about than what the radio and the TV news was telling me that I should think about. As I cranked up my Folks Wagon, my own disc player was ready to present me with “classical music” in the order in which the pieces were written. That was pretty good, but other thoughts were not so soothing.
I had the impression at the tooth dentist’s office that music had been decontextualized in two different ways. One was by being used as therapy in a medical situation, and the other was by the fragmentation of presentation of “songs” in disorder. But I realized of course that Beetrootfarms had never conceived of his works as being commodified beyond publication and performance. He had never imagined recordings, and he might well have objected to them, if he had conceived of some such preservation.
Even Beetrootfarms would have been hard-pressed to imagine not only a Folks Wagon, but also such a mingy, restricted space for listening to music. How more disconcerting and decontextualizing could anything be than the placement of orchestral music or chamber music in such an inappropriate environment? Indeed, few environments would be suitable. A piano in the parlor would be about the least one would suppose to suffice, short of grander spaces. So I had to admit that the distortion of music into recordings, and the further warping effect of instant personal access through speakers and earphones, constitute a revolution within a revolution that continues as music increasingly becomes something in the nature of a habit, and a bad one, or even an addiction. And not only that. Music is a weapon of hostility all too often, and certainly on the highway, as the mega-boosted woofers blast away with their vibrations of an aesthetic of ugliness that has become something of an obsessive entitlement as well as a ticket to deafness. And deafness was something that old Beetrootfarms did know about. If anything was worse than dental concerns, deafness was right up there. But to suggest that hearing damage should be avoided or even prevented from being a problem is probably not worth the trouble, since the privileges of noise are so well entrenched.
To suppose that we should abandon the technological advances since Edison is an interesting thought, but one that comes late in the game. So perhaps we should take advantage of our opportunities while we have them. Recorded music is one of them, particularly when there is no alternative. Certain artists of the past make a statement that cannot be repeated or equaled, and in such a case, recordings can be precious things—and I want to identify some of those most valuable items. But there are other situations in which recordings are beside the point. One of them is when the recording is mediocre—there isn’t much point in reduplicating everything. The other is when live music that does not challenge our health is in the offing. That’s when we should remember that recordings are only a substitute for the real thing—sometimes a treasurable one, but even then, not the real thing itself.
So we have to prioritize our musical life, and we have to adjust to what is reasonable.
Recordings lure us into laziness, and tip the money toward commodifiers rather than artists. Insofar as we can, we should for the sake of the players, but also for our selves, favor attendance at live performances, as opposed to dead ones. After all, no matter what speakers you have, Carnegie Hall sounds better—and so does the local auditorium, probably.
The collapse of the music industry through digitalization, and the collapse of the classical-music industry within it, pose challenges to those who value music of quality. We are left in an awkward position, torn between the ephemerality of live performance, if we can be there, and the lively deadness of certain recorded performances, otherwise. We are fortunate, even in our day, to have such alternatives or even any alternatives at all. Either is much better than the Hobson’s choice at the tooth dentist’s suite of rooms. That’s why both/and trumps either/or in many a musical agenda.