Tuesday, June 19, 2012

The Righteous Mind

Yesterday afternoon I finished reading Jonathan Haidt's The Righteous Mind: Why Good People are Divided by Politics and Religion. And then, in the evening, I attend a free concert at the New England Conservatory, as a part of the annual Summer Institute for Contemporary Performance Practice (SICPP), aka: Sick Puppy. The Callithumpian Consort, with Stephen Drury and Yukiko Takagi on piano were the evenings performers. They performed two Christian Wolff pieces, and two John Cage pieces.

Just briefly, I'd like to connect Jonathan Haidt's work with two of the pieces performed: the world premier of Christian Wolff's Overture (2012), and John Cage's Music for Seventeen (1984-87).

Haidt's main thesis is that humans are groupish. We like belonging, and seek experiences that join us to others. He cites one process, that of "muscular bonding" (specifically in relation to military training), that yields to - in one young cadet's words - "a sense of pervasive well-being is what I recall; more specifically, a strange sense of personal enlargement; a sort of swelling out, becoming bigger than life, thanks to participation in collective ritual." pg. 202

I have had similar experience making things with other people, most notably when raising the copper crown for the recreation of Bushnell's 1776 Turtle with my friend and colleague Professor Joe Wood. Donned in safety gear to protect our eyes and ears, communication was severely limited. Joe was moving the two foot copper disc beneath the sledgehammer I was attempting to consistently and accurately drop on a particular spot. A wrinkle in the copper appeared, and although it wasn't directly below my hammer, and although Joe didn't manipulate the piece to the optimal spot, hammer and copper collided and the wrinkle disappeared. And Joe and I both laughed out loud.

Wolff's Overture (2012), will be understood by listeners as a contemporary work; little melody or rhythm present. I have a fairly limited experience and only an amateur appreciation for this type of music. I do find it fascinating. Obvious is the fact Wolff composed the work with ensembles in mind. It seemed that the musicians were paired, and worked their parts out in relation to each other - often visibly and joyfully - smiles and nods as they played together to create a beautiful, new work of art. Haidt explains this experience as belonging to the "hive". He even goes into neuroscience and cognitive science - some of my favorite non-fiction topics - to explain these kinds of groupish interactions. Read up on mimesis and mirror neurons in Merlin Donald's A Mind So Rare if you like.

So let's go back to Cage's Music for Seventeen (1984-87). In this piece, Cage produced individual pieces for each instrument. The real title is Music for _________ , because it can be played with number of different parts - 17 being the maximum. There is no overall score. From the liner notes from last night's performance "The players are to rehearse independently, and then to decide on a total number of pieces to be performed, before meeting together."

In essence, what we see happening on stage is seventeen musicians playing their own music, while ignoring everyone else on stage. In this respect, performances of Cage's "time bracket' pieces cannot be  called concerts, for in almost every respect they reject the notion of the players working together. I can only imagine that these are difficult pieces to perform because of the tendency (and requirement for most music!) for ensemble players to work together. So kudos to the Callithumpian Consort for their performance! But to Cage, I would critique the final work in its lack of gestalt. The parts do not work together to create a greater whole. In fact, watching the musicians on stage, intent on their music and their stopwatches (or timers on iPhones), I was a bit angry. Cage did an extraordinary job disassembling the ensemble. I think in the end I'd rather see them work together.

While I didn't get into the moral psychology part of Haidt's book here, I was happy I could connect some of Haidt's work into my immediate experience with the work of Cage and Wolff. In Cage's Music for Seventeen, there is a sensation of anomie - a term Haidt borrows from Durkheim, "a word for what happens to a society that no longer shared moral order" pg 245. There was something sad and isolating about the Cage piece, the complete antithesis to the contemporary practice of the flash mob.

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