If There Are To Be Lines

“It’s a beautiful thing, […] a beautiful little scientific concoction, but it doesn’t move me. It doesn’t speak to me. It’s not art. […] Science cannot be art. It’s a contradiction in terms.”
—Amanda Filipacchi, Vapor (New York: Carroll & Graf, 1999), p. 71

“I would rather spend the rest of my life trying without success than succeed at anything else.”
—Ibid, p. 15.

I still believe that, as a listener, it is my duty to be open to any and all possible sonic encounters, and by extension I have tried to be as open to other sensory experiences as well (visual, olfactory, culinary, etc.). Nevertheless, I am very much aware that no matter what, there will still be barriers despite my most valiant attempt at aesthetic neutrality. Some would argue that it is neurologically impossible to tune yourself out in order to truly perceive someone else’s thoughts—I won’t go there because I’m not a scientist and I think that examining art from a scientific point of view just produces statistics and doesn’t really help with aesthetic appreciation. But I will concede that there are insurmountable limitations which have to do with our own temporal existence.

I spent most of last week recovering from an illness which left me unable to perform any of my normal activities. The first few days were so bad that I was not even able to listen to music. Even quasi-ambient listening without paying close attention was too much for me. I actually couldn’t bear it. It was like every one of my appetites was on hiatus; I couldn’t read and mostly was uninterested in eating, nor was I able to think about my own music or anything else of consequence. But halfway through the week, the ability to listen was the first thing that came back, and I made up for lost time with a vengeance, listening practically non-stop for several days.

When it seemed like I was definitely on the mend, I used the opportunity of long, uninterrupted time to again listen to La Monte Young’s The Well-Tuned Piano, this time the 6 ½-hour performance from 1987 that was released on DVD. I wish I had my full energy at the time, since I could definitely perceive some important differences between this performance and the 1981 5-hour performance of WTP that was released on LP by Gramavision in the 1980s, with which I am far more familiar. Of course, if I had my full energy back I would have had tons of other things to do and would not have taken the time to probe the details of performances of such extreme duration. So it might be a very long time before I ever figure this out.

This realization definitely makes a case for musical compositions of somewhat shorter duration. It definitely bursts the bubble of my fantasy about 24-hour pieces. After being at home for six days straight, I can’t imagine wanting to do any single activity—even listening to music—for that long a stretch. But it also leads to a realization that the joy of listening is ultimately far more rewarding than any post-listening analytical frame I would want to put on it. Even if I never figure out the precise details of what made the 1987 performance of WTP different from the 1981 performance, it doesn’t really matter. The pieces of music I have recently been treasuring more than most other things on this planet—whether it’s the solo clavichord music of C.P.E. Bach, chamber music of Brahms and Debussy, the art songs of Dora Pejačević, the small group improvisations of Charles Mingus, or the Number Pieces of John Cage—are amazing whether I totally understand how they are put together or not.

Ultimately, it doesn’t matter because art is not science. While I will continue to fight against aesthetic lines of any kind, I’ll acknowledge the line between science and art. If there must be lines, as so many people seem to believe, that is the one line I can’t and won’t try to knock down.

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