Monday, August 14, 2006

Motes and Beams

Do as I say

And why beholdest thou the mote that is in thy brother's eye,
but considerest not the beam that is in thine own eye?
Matthew 7:3
David Vroon is unhappy. David Vroon is often unhappy. Editor of the American Record Guide, Vroon has a regular platform from which he can share his unhappiness. The July/August issue of ARG is no different. Oh, is he unhappy!

I am just like David Vroon, except that I am a cheerful person. When ARG appears in the mail, I snatch it up happily. Each issue is stuffed with hundreds of mid-length reviews of classical music recordings and lengthy surveys of the works of individual composers or essays on particular music genres. I love it.

I even love Vroon's curmudgeonly essays, although some of my enjoyment is at Vroon's expense. He inveighs against the barbarisms of the day, of which there are many, and I confess an abiding sympathy for his point of view. What aficionado of classical music could fail to sympathize with a critic of our popular culture? Vroon himself, however, does not come across as a particularly sympathetic character. He may be aware of this and perhaps dismisses it as beneath the concern of an upright connoisseur such as himself. Perhaps. However, Vroon does not seem to have any talent for self-examination. He's right, damn it! Disagree, and be damned! So there. He is in awe of his own accomplishments, as exemplified by a recent brilliant conversation with a friend:
We tend to start on a simple subject like “The Crisis of Attentiveness” and then move deeper and deeper into the subjects we both know. By the end of an afternoon it is no longer clear who thought of what: we have built a whole thought-edifice together. Somebody should record those sessions.
Someone should quickly secure the distribution rights to these monuments of contemporary thought and culture. Can you imagine the market for the recordings? I can. Oh, yes.

The July/August installment of Vroon's Critical Convictions column reads as an unconscious self-parody. He's a censorious finger-wagger on a cultural crusade, but the depths of his convictions do not protect him from running into the pots-and-kettles trap. His topic here is one of his favorites: short-attention-span young people and their dearth of refinement:
Kids won’t sit still long enough to understand or appreciate our music. It demands an attention span and a concentration of attention that they never had and never learn to develop. Perhaps it was just permissive parents; I’m sure one of the earliest things I had to learn as a child was to sit still. Perhaps it is overstimulation, too many distractions, too much clamoring for their attention (our music becomes just one more of those things)....

[W]e can hope age will mellow some of these people so they will begin to pay attention to life and the world around them. (But in my experience very few people ever really grow up.) I always saw and heard and noted everything around me.
Yes, Vroon is a whole lot more perceptive than you, and he doesn't mind telling you about it. And you'd appreciate just a bit more if you were as attentive as he is—and really, really smart, like he is.

There's nothing like finger-wagging to put oneself at risk of poking out one's own eye. Vroon manages to give himself a couple of sharp jabs without even realizing it:
I never passed thru a place without registering all there was to see or hear about it. I never lay on a beach with a radio playing; I listened to the waves and the birds.
Uh, David—“thru”? That's what the kids write in their text messages (or perhaps I should say “txt msgs”). You're not being trendy, are you? Or did you learn your spelling from the Department of Motor Vehicles? For a moment there, I thought you were also misusing “lay on the beach” for “lie on the beach,” but I see you are using past tense. Close one! I do wonder, though, how you can be sure that you register “all there was to see or hear.” After all, if you missed something, you would not know it. Right?

Vroon, by the way, is dreadfully unhappy about the Internet:
Note: thanks to the internet any idiot can write anything and no matter how bad it is it looks the same as anything else out there. The internet makes no judgements. The internet is chaos. Everything is there, and there’s no way to decide what to bother with. All its information is on the same cheap level, and all its merchandise is the same. There is not even a human salesman to give you advice or confirm your choice, as there is in a store or on the phone. You’re on your own. And every two-bit composer knows that and hopes to take advantage of it.

Anybody can put anything on the internet and sell anything on it. He need not have an education; he need not be accredited (credentialed?) by a reputable school, taught by outstanding teachers, screened by a faculty committee. He can be anybody—self-educated even.
Oh. My. God. Can you imagine? Even self-educated! We must protect ourselves from the scary autodidact. No doubt Vroon learned everything sitting at the feet of credentialed professionals. (In which case I wish one of them had told him that “Internet” is a proper noun and that proper nouns are capitalized in English.)

Vroon favors attentiveness. I agree. He favors fine music. I do, too. He likes contemplation and quiet reflection. Ditto. He believes in high standards and discriminating tastes. I have no problem with that (although he should practice more of what he preaches). Ultimately, though, I wonder why Vroon spends so much time preaching to the choir. The readers of ARG are mostly on his side, although I imagine that many of us roll our eyes at his myopic sallies against “multiculturalism” and “political correctness” (which appear to mean whatever he wants them to mean—and he means bad stuff).

To all of those things that Vroon favors, I think I'd like to add one more: Human kindness. Vroon thinks this automatically involves suspension of critical judgment (which he likes to spell in an affected British way as “judgement”), but that's too facile a response. Adults have always decried the excesses and irresponsibility of the young. High culture has always been the province of a small (and usually pampered) minority. If we want fine music to survive, it behooves us to share it, spread it around, and promote it. Yet Vroon decries all such outreach to the masses as pandering to uncultured tastes. “Greatest hits” excerpts of single arias from major operas are so ni kulturni! He should listen to himself, since he claims to listen to everything so very carefully. How else will people with short attention spans get drawn into classical music and opera? If you subject a novice to all four hours and three acts of some grand opera, you're likely to see them sprinting for safety. If you ravish them with a single dramatic aria, you might set a hook that draws them back for more. Vroon wants his favored art forms to survive and thrive while he mans the barricades and smites in the face any untutored wretch who might try to clamber aboard.

Geez, David, I mostly agree with you, but can you try not to be such a prig?

1 comment:

eProf2 said...

Off thread: It looks as though the CA community college school year is about to begin, so have a great one.