There Is No Center
Please don’t panic. This title has nothing to do with the American Music Center. It is as alive and thriving upon my return as it was when I left it for a week to head to Wellington, New Zealand, for the 2007 conference of the International Association of Music Information Centres (IAMIC). Rather, my title refers to geometry and geography, two interrelated topics that my traipsing over to the other side of the world has made me even more keenly aware of.
The advertisement for the IAMIC concert performed by the new music ensemble Stroma says it all. Basically the way you see and hear the world depends on where you are. Last week, I was in the middle of winter and regretted not taking along a pair of gloves. I even attended a winter solstice ceremony. And today, back at my desk in Manhattan, I’m sweating because it’s over 90 degrees (Fahrenheit—even the way we measure the weather is not universal). Everyone who talks about time zones brings up jetlag, but there’s something even more curious about the world’s time differences. If someone is celebrating their birthday today in New Zealand, where it is Wednesday morning, June 27, 2007, while it is still Tuesday afternoon, June 26, 2007, here, should we celebrate it right now as well or wait until tomorrow?
What does all this have to do with music you ask? Everything and nothing. I’ve been reading a fascinating book called Harmonious Triads by Myles W. Jackson which traces the relationships between musicians and scientists in various German principalities over the course of the 19th century. The chapter I just finished recounts the push to standardize pitch and tempo scientifically through the use of devices that had been recently invented such as tonometers and metronomes and the various pro and con arguments that ensued at the time. Yet to this day, A = 440 is not a universal standard and almost no one—not even the staunchest avatars of the historical performance practice movement—follows metronomic guidelines 100 percent. That’s because we’re living in a world where everything is relative.
Much has been made on these pages in the past about New York’s position vis-à-vis the rest of the United States as a focal point for culture. New Yorkers—whether lifers like myself or the numerous transplants from all over the country and, in fact, all over the world—are often accused of thinking that New York is the center of the universe by folks who don’t live here. In New Zealand, it seemed to me that folks were well aware that they were not the center of the world and were quite happy not to be. Someone there even jokingly referred to NZ as a pimple on the edge of the earth.
Of course on the surface of a sphere there is no center and there are no edges. It is all a level playing field, but where you are determines what you see in the horizon. Luckily computers, cellphones, airplanes, and suchlike make it possible for us to expand our horizons, pardon the pun, once we get over the long distance bills and the jetlag.