Oh, the Places You’ll Go

I just came back from a very compelling press luncheon with the folks who run the Usedomer Musikfestival. For those who are not familiar with Usedom (like me only a couple of hours ago), it is an island in the Baltic Sea that was a spa to the German nobility and intelligentsia back in the 19th century—famous visitors included King Frederic William III, Fanny Mendelssohn, Theodor Fontane, and even Leo Tolstoy. After the government of Germany (and soon thereafter many other parts of Europe) was hijacked by Adolf Hitler (whom Germans nowadays are shocked to see recently invoked by Americans to describe completely incomparable politicians in this country), Usedom got turned into a storage facility for the Nazi’s notorious V2 rockets. After World War II, a small portion of Usedom was ceded to Poland whose citizens now make up more than half of the island’s total population. But since German reunification, the island has been restored to its former resort town glory. The tourist renaissance in Usedom is in no small part due to a festival devoted to music and musicians from countries bordering the Baltic Sea that was established there in 1993 and which presents concerts in a variety of venues including, believe it or not, the former V2 rocket factory.

While it sounds extremely intriguing, after all my travels the past couple of months the last thing I want to think about is packing a suitcase and getting on another airplane. However, it did get me thinking in more abstract and less personal terms about all the journeys I’ve recently taken. In every case—Santa Cruz, Amsterdam, Donaueschingen, and Minneapolis—the purpose of my journey had been to hear live music performances of things that I otherwise would not have been able to hear, or at least would not have been able to hear for quite a while. (Unlike the music festivals in this country, the Donaueschinger Musiktage is very thoroughly documented annually on commercially available CDs.) Despite the myriads of extraordinary recordings that are out there in the world (a more than healthy percentage of which flood my apartment) and the allegedly infinite amount of music that is there for the hearing only a few clicks away online, there’s an even greater amount of music that only takes place in real time in person. (That is, if it’s possible to measure degrees of infinitude as the 19th-century mathematician Georg Cantor claimed.)

While collecting recorded music is a lifelong passion and listening to those recordings is an immense source of joy for me, there’s a particularly amazing and somewhat paradoxical experience that occurs when listening to live music in a town that’s not your own that is impossible to replicate any other way. On the one hand, if the music is really aesthetically moving (which as we determined last week is a completely subjective phenomenon), it can ideally transport you beyond your current geographical space and chronological time. But the other thing that listening to live music does, which seems somehow contradictory, is that it makes you feel totally at home wherever you are. There was an extraordinary commonality to the listening experience everywhere I heard music these past few months—and this included clubs and street performances, as well as cushion-lined concert halls. I imagine the same is even true for performances in that recontextualized stockade for weapons of mass destruction. The coming together of people in silence (or as much silence as is possible in clubs and outside) to focus on sounds made by, in comparison, a much smaller group of people, is an extraordinary phenomenon that is an unbelievably powerful metaphor for how and why organized human society is a better way to go than “every one for him/herself.” But it is an experience that risks getting marginalized in a world where people use music as a private, personal soundtrack to shield them from the rest of society.

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