Wednesday, April 27, 2011

The Power Of Music

I mentioned in my last blog that I've been on a reading roll for the past month.

One of the books I picked up at the library during one fruitful visit was "Thus Spoke Zarathustra" by Nietzsche. I've never read anything by the great philosopher. I thought this might be a good time to remedy my ignorance.

I know nothing about his life either, so I also found "Nietzsche: A Philosophical Biography" by RĂ¼diger Safranski. I hoped it would give me context and let me fill in the gaps before I started on the main event.

It used to be that when I started a book I felt a moral obligation to finish it, all the way to the last page. But that's fallen by the wayside. Sometimes you know early on that something's not working for you. Time is precious. Why not take an economist's view, forget about sunk costs, and cease with further investment?

I tried, I really tried, with Joyce's "Ulysses". I got halfway through. I found Leopold Bloom in a bar spouting gibberish and waded right into pages of nonsense syllables. That's where I got stuck. I couldn't push through.

The Nietzsche biography was the same. I read about a quarter of it. It's not that the author didn't do a fine job. It was meticulous and well-researched. I just didn't care about Nietzsche. The book went back to the library last weekend, along "Zarathustra". I'll have to try again someday when I'm feeling more inspired. There were others in the pile that I was anxious to get to, and I only had three weeks.

One feature of Nietzsche's life struck me: his passion for music. Here's a paragraph from the overture that sums it up:

Over the course of many years, Nietzsche used the music of Wagner to gauge his aesthetic pleasure. After hearing the overture to the 'Meistersinger' for the first time, before his personal encounter with Wagner, he wrote to Rohde: 'Every fiber and nerve of my being is tingling. It has been a long time since I experienced such a sustained feeling of rapture.'

And this:

In 'The Birth of Tragedy', Nietzsche called this ecstatic life in music the 'rapture of the Dionysian state, which eradicates the ordinary bounds and limits of existence.'

Does that kind of passion still exist today? Has the ubiquity of music diminished its power to move us?

Music was rare back in those days. If you wanted to hear a musician or composer you either had to go where they lived or hope that a tour brought them to your town. Performances were live. There was no radio, no albums, no cassette tapes, no CDs, no Internet, no .mp3 downloads, no iPods.

Now it's hard to find silence. You can have music everywhere you go. Pop in some ear buds and you can have a hand-picked soundtrack for your life, excluding all other sounds. You can see any artist, alive or dead, who has a performance posted on the Internet. I've seen more of Stevie Ray Vaughn, one of my favorite guitar players, since he passed away in 1990 than I ever saw during his lifetime.

What we might perceive as a superior musical past, when giants walked the earth, is survivor bias. The dross musicians that were The Archies of their day had their music die off. There were a lot of bands and performers in the golden ages of classical music, jazz, rock and roll, and every decade since I've been alive that were terrible. They inspired little more than groans from all but their most devoted, die hard fans. We don't hear much about them anymore.

I asked my oldest daughter her opinion. She says that live performance, and the experience of seeing an artist with a large group, can still evoke that feeling of ecstacy. She assures me that an opportunity to see Daft Punk live, especially in their native Paris, would evoke a response that Nietzsche would both identify with and approve of.

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