Monday, October 25, 2010

Useless Places II

Last summer I was looking at an old children’s picture book from the 1960’s called “Nature” that kept talking about “useful” insects and “useful” animals—presumably all of the “useless” ones were the “harmful pests” that kept popping up in the text. This is an attitude that would bend the whole earth to our human uses, and classify all beings by their relationship to our technologies. And it runs so deep that we teach our children to parrot it before they can even fully read.

As we give in to our habitual ideological separation of ourselves from the world, we are prone to justify our destructions as being themselves akin to natural processes—the children’s book I mentioned above flogged the old imaginary equivalence of a Hoover Dam to a beaver, explicitly suggesting the rectitude of the ways and means by which we alter our environment by analogy with purposeful animal behavior. Leaving aside for a moment even the question of the scale of such alterations in considering the relative merits of that justification, it seems to me that there is a major difference in the set of assumptions that drive such behavior.

I’m no beaver psychologist, but we can make a solid guess that the animals around us do not suffer from the same chronic sense of separation from their environments that we do, and this artificial mind-trick we engage in allows harm to flow from us. We may talk of mother earth, but we somehow fail to give her credit for what we fancy we have been able to achieve with all our usefulness—we’re like a toddler when we point to our tottering constructions with pride, as if we had done it all ourselves, when of course our loving parent stood behind us so we wouldn’t fall, bought us the blocks, fed us the food that would give us the energy to make our tower, kept the tigers away while we did it, and repeatedly and surreptitiously righted our mistakes so that we could have a feeling of accomplishment.

Perhaps we should reflect on our own true position: are we “useful” beings, or are we “harmful pests?” Can we aspire instead to achieving the unstated designation in the center, and redeem ourselves by becoming “useless?”

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Useless places

I’ve thought for some time that the most beautiful places are often the “useless” ones. Where I live, the productive properties are almost all ugly: quarries, industrial parks, commercial strips, giant mono-cultural factory farms, office-cubicle hives…all ugly and based on destruction, seemingly free from the vibrant organic flowering forth of life.

I want to sing a song of the beautiful useless places, the places that have no economic benefit. Because they are worthless and unwanted, they were either abandoned, or left alone. The swampy headwaters that no one bothered to drain, the too-steep slopes of the bluffs down to the river, the shifting dunes by the lake, or the poor land that could not support farming and was left to heal, slowly, ever so slowly. Wherever we thoughtless modern humans gave up on “getting” anything from the land and it could just tend to itself: those are the places we are drawn to in our hidden animal minds.

It wasn’t always that way. I visited my friend Keith Taylor on a huge tract of research land owned by the University of Michigan, which was itself “worthless” in the late 1800’s after its forest had been clear-cut, and fires had killed off most all of the vegetation and wildlife. Since it was worthless, the timber barons gave it to the state for cheap. Since it was useless, it was allowed to sit undisturbed until it became beautiful again. Keith told me about a site he found near there with the archeological remnants of an old Ojibway summer encampment on a lake, a productive place for fishing and hunting and gathering food. When he looked around the site, he thought about why they’d chosen that particular spot, and came to the conclusion that it was because it was the most beautiful one that they could find. They wanted to be in beauty even in the “production” of food. Every fall when they left, they buried their gear, and the place was no less beautiful for their habitation of it.

I wonder if we will ever learn to do that—to find the uses of a place and work with it so it can still be beautiful. Until we do, I give thanks for all the useless places and their worthless beauty.

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Tradition All Over Again

It's in the air, I guess--composer Ben Broening sent me Washington Post critic Anne Midgette's thoughts on tradition today; she's writing about opera singers, but I think the thought applies very well to music-making in a general sense:

"Tradition isn’t something to which you mold yourself. It’s something that you absorb in order to be able to express yourself more individually. It’s like a rhyme scheme for a poet: a framework, an organizing principle, or an inspiration rather than a straitjacket. Too often, I fear, the straitjacket is what ends up coming across..."

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Tradition is a Metaphor...

"Tradition is a guide and not a jailer."
- W. Somerset Maugham

A traditional musician I know (Jim Perkins, of Finvarra's Wren) has this quotation as his email signature; it identifies a burning issue for those who undertake to learn a tradition and to inflect it by carrying it forward into the present moment, and of course into the future. It's something to think about for composers as well: how much of what we take as given do we let imprison us? This question applies not only to those assumptions that seem to be actively imposed on us by authoritative sources, but also to the places in our minds in which we bend to common custom without reflection. We can be true to the singularities of our particular historical moment and also honor our cultural origins without overtuning them, or being imprisoned by them.

It made me think: What if tradition is a companion, so we don’t have to be all alone, and so that we can stand with our ancestors as we face the future? Can we come to see tradition also as the ground we stand on? We may choose to lie down on it in order to be in as close contact with it as possible, or we may try to leap off of it, but everything we do is launched from that soil, and we always come back down to it in the end.