About Those Trees Falling in the Forest
There’s something very comforting about the rhythm of regularly doing an activity—whether it’s writing music or words or even brewing a pot of tea—and it is contrapositively unsettling to suddenly break that rhythm. So I was very discombobulated last Tuesday when I did not write something here. But since we were having serious technological difficulties which made the site inaccessible for most of the time, if I had written something and posted it, no one would have been able to read it. So it seemed an exercise in futility.
But since then I’ve been thinking a lot about that kind of futility. Despite common sense telling us even if no one is around to hear a tree falling in a forest that it will still make a sound, we have an unresolvable semantic argument when we declare that it doesn’t. Even John Cage, who admitted all sound as music, defined music in his final years as “sounds heard.” Doesn’t that somehow imply that sounds which aren’t heard cannot be music? Shostakovich famously composed “music for the drawer,” but in the final analysis wasn’t his drawer a place he hoped future generations would discover and not an end in and of itself. While a handful of composers throughout history have in fact seemed to be oblivious to whether or not anyone would ever hear their music, the very act of committing something to paper or making an audio recording of it contain within them the implication that the information collected by those means is meant for someone else to experience in some way. Otherwise why bother preserving it?
However there is a long history of a different kind of sonic obfuscation by composers and the critical response to it has usually been negative. E.g. the orchestration prowess of both Robert Schumann and Charles Ives has been called into question because there are passages in their symphonic works that are not possible to hear if their instructions are followed judiciously. But perhaps the inability to hear the totality of something is purposeful by design. If indeed you are creating a viable metaphor for the cosmos, which Schumann and Ives both conjured, doesn’t it require a realization that is not completely discernable?
Last Thursday night I attended a fascinating dramatic presentation inspired by Herman Melville’s last novel The Confidence Man presented by The Woodshed Collective. The performance took place in various rooms and decks on board the LILAC, a decommissioned United States Coast Guard vessel which is currently docked at Pier 40 in Manhattan. Melville’s novel, one of my all-time favorite books, is a wild non-linear narrative that confounded 19th century literary critics who deemed it unreadable. While today it is recognized as a masterful social commentary which exposed deceit on all levels of society (as well as a precursor to Joyce, Pynchon, and hosts of others), a straight-ahead rendering of it as theatre would still be impossible. So The Woodshed Collective cleverly re-invented it as a collage of simultaneous vignettes which are inter-related but do not necessarily develop from one another. There is no way that a single audience member could experience all of it, which can be frustrating to a traditional theatre-goer but is ultimately a liberating experience. It is, afterall, like those sometimes maligned orchestrations of Schumann and Ives, an attempt to convey the unknowable, the unattainable, the sound of those trees falling in the forest that no one was around to hear.