For various reasons, I’ve been spending a lot of time with my dog lately. He’s a ten-year-old Belgian sheepdog, which means that he’s a slowly calming bundle of energy wrapped in a giant coat of black fur that’s gradually turning white with age. Children find him fascinating, especially the smaller ones who believe that he is some sort of magical dog-pony hybrid. His long hair requires daily brushing or it quickly gets matted and tangled beyond recognition. Recently, I have spent many, many hours slowly brushing his fur while he blissfully lies in a soporific state.
Judging by all the pictures of composers with their cats (Stravinsky and Wuorinen among many others—for a discussion of this trend, go here), it would appear that most composers favor felines. Indeed, the “promotional photograph with cat” is almost de rigueur for a composer’s web presence, a lack that I keenly felt when I was Living Composer of the Month with the Portsmouth Music and Arts Center this summer and I saw their gallery of previous LCOMs with their cats. Unfortunately, my two cats died before I had switched to digital photography, leaving me unable to add my image to this wall.
I imagine that, if the procaninic and felinophilic composers began comparing musical styles, we quickly would find ourselves in the midst of an apocalyptic battle that would make the uptown/downtown tension of the 1960s and ’70s seem quaint by comparison. Surely the rare outliers—like Arlene Sierra who has been photographed with her pet Ducorps Cockatoo—would find themselves ostracized by both armies and would be forced by their composition teachers to adopt one of the prevailing animals while renouncing their avian friends. But I digress.
When I was growing up, scientists generally described the human/pet relationship as a parasitic one, in which the pet drained resources from its human hosts. In more recent years, researchers have focused on the therapeutic benefits of companion animals. It has become fairly common to find therapy dogs (who can even be officially certified “Canine Good Citizens” by the American Kennel Club) roaming the halls of hospitals and extended care facilities. Some colleges have cats and dogs available to interact with students. We currently believe that this desire to care for creatures—creatures who depend completely on us for their wellbeing—is a trait that we share with other primates; that it is an ancient and core element of what makes us human.
Composers, who spend most of our time home alone (often in small, dark, soundproofed rooms), may relish these simple relationships even more than most people. I find myself treasuring the time spent with my dog, feeling his warm bliss emanate outward until it engulfs me. This meditative activity leaves both of us refreshed and at peace with the world.