Pete's Blog

A Letter to the Times #2

So the Times didn't print my letter, which is not the end of the world. They printed four letters today in reply to the Scottish novelist's account of his happy adventures with the Really Terrible Orchestra. Three of them were full of praise for the idea that music should be used to such a noble purpose. At least two of these were from people calling themselves music educators. The one dissenting voice came from a woman who identified herself as the wife of a musician, and she spent her designated 150 words talking about how one wouldn't feel so jolly about the RTO after hearing one's husband forlornly practicing day after day only to be replaced with drum machines and sequencers and the like. He must be a drummer, I guess. Nobody talked about, or at least the Tmes did not choose to print anything that talked about, the effect on a society's musical culture of the PUBLIC display of self-consciously bad music. I will not rehash my arguments here, considering that they lie only a few inches below this post. But it does seem as if the Times, and its favored correspondents, have missed the point, perhaps, in the Times' case, deliberately. Let's start with the question of what music's purpose is. All four published letters seem to agree: the purpose of music is to boost the self-esteem of the people who make it, either through the everybody-wins esthetic of modern education or in a professional musician's satisfaction at being able to support his family. Is that music's sole purpose? Let's not quarrel with modern man's pursuit of self-esteem. That's too big a subject to be ventilated here. Instead let's talk about another form of self-esteem, the pride one may justly feel at being part of a society whose PUBLIC musical culture features the finest music human beings can play, music that challenges and expands a listener's sense of what it is possible for human beings to do. I'm talking about PUBLIC music-making here. There's a widely anthologized Norman Rockwell painting of a rural barbershop, after hours. The only light comes from the back room, where you can see a small group of men concentrating with sweetly comic earnestness on the piece of chamber music they're playing. This is a heartwarming image of amateur music-making, with all the hard-won self-esteem the term implies. But this music is not being played in a public forum. The players make no statement of inclusion in the history of their time. Future anthropologists will not include their work in any survey of the era's musical culture, saying, "Well, some of it was pretty good but some of it was awful." They are esteeming themselves where people are supposed to esteem themselves, outside the public gaze. Perhaps an Op-Ed piece....

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