|Amateur music is the best thing in the world||
random trip report
25 May 2022
I recently attended a concert of the Littleton Symphony Orchestra (LSO), a community orchestra near Denver; a friend of mine plays viola in it. LSO is an amateur group: only the conductor and visiting soloists get paid. It's existed for decades and has a loyal local following.
This particular concert featured the 2nd piano concerto by Saint-Saens and selections from The Firebird by Stravinsky. These are challenging pieces, and the orchestra played them pretty damn well.
In the middle of the Saint-Saens, something popped into my head. I realized that the concert was more than just sound; it was people creating, sharing, and hearing beauty. And doing this not for money, but for love - of music, and of each other. The concert was a human event, and - unlike most things involving humans - it was pure good. It was wonderful, almost miraculous.
Then my sphere of awareness expanded, like the universe in the first microsecond (or whatever) after the Big Bang. The concert, I realized, was not an isolated event. Today, maybe at this very moment, there are hundreds or thousands of amateur-music events all over the world - in churches like this one, in cafes, in living rooms. People creating beauty for the love of it. And this wonderful tradition, embodying everything great about being human, has existed for hundreds of years and will (I hope) keep going far into the future.
I felt connected, as if by some quantum entanglement, to every one of these places and moments, to all of the sound, and the joy, excitement and awe that each of them produced. I was a cell in a vast organism. It was overwhelming. By the end of the Stravinsky - a thrilling and optimistic anthem, like Beethoven's Ode to Joy - I was fighting back tears, and my breath was catching in my throat.
The power of my reaction had something to do with how ugly the world has become. Brainwashed zombies, under the control of sick egomaniacs, slaughter civilians. Tycoons destroy the Earth, and their own society, to increase their already absurd wealth. Hatred manufactured and spread with scientific precision by fascist propagandists, like a horrible plague.
And somehow, in the middle of all this, there's amateur music: a beautiful island in an ocean of filth, bringing people together - not to compete, or to be indoctrinated, or to enrich themselves, or to passively absorb corporate entertainment product larded with advertisements. Magnifying the best aspects of human nature. Creating positive emotions - like joy and love - rather than anger and hatred.
As the epiphany unfolded, I thought about my own role in all this. I thought about BAMC, the amateur music group I've been involved with for 7 years. BAMC meets once a month and provides a place where classical musicians of all levels can perform. To me, it's the essence of amateur music. Everyone gets applause, but beginners get the most - as well they should: for them, performing takes much more courage than it does for veterans. In BAMC, positive experiences are what matter, not technical level.
Everyone in BAMC likes everyone else. We hang out after the concert, and we get together in real life. I'm proud of my role in BAMC, and I value it very highly; without it, my life would be significantly impoverished.
I also thought about my current retirement-era activities: Music Match (a website for discovering other musicians) and Numula (a way to make expressive music using computers). I'm happy and proud that I'm doing both of these. I have no idea if either of these will have any impact at all, but they're the best ways I can think of, given my skill set, to contribute to amateur music.
I keep saying "amateur"; what about professional music? Of course, I love to hear music played by people like Grigori Sokolov and Yuja Wang - absolute geniuses, the world's greatest. But I don't feel a need to go to their concerts. I'd much rather hear Esa-Matti playing piano in my living room than hear Yuja at Davies Hall (from the 40th row, with the guy next to me rustling his damn program).. If I want to hear "perfect" performances of a piece, I'll find them on YouTube.
There are things about pro music that weird me out or that seem unhealthy. It's top-down, driven by fund-raising foundations and gifts from billionaires. The pros play the same pieces over and over - at some point the thrill is surely gone. They play on a stage, under spotlights, far from the audience, which is massed like a herd of cattle. The pros are in cutthroat competition with each other, from their conservatory days onward.
There's the hero-worship aspect of it. And if I want to worship heroes, I'll start with my musician friends: Monica and Lily from BAMC. And Gareth, Carson, Maryse, Ellie, Rich, and so on. People with great principles, courage, and persistence. Heroes don't have to be famous.
What about other art forms - theater, dance, visual arts, literature, and so on? I love them too, and I don't mean to diss them, but they don't have what amateur music does. They all have amateur activity, but not on the same scale as music. There's amateur theater, but for some reason it's extremely rare. Maybe it's harder to stage a play than to put on a concert, and perhaps the audience is smaller. In my experience, there's more snootiness and ego in theater than in music.
And some of the art forms don't have much of a social component. There are poetry slams and book groups, but most literature is produced and consumed in isolation.
BTW, when I say "amateur music" I mean all music: sea shanties, grunge, Ragas, Irish folk songs, Gamelan, you name it. I'm not talking just about western classical music.
As the epiphany unfolded, I thought about religion. After all, the concert was being held in a church. Music has been compared to religion, and there's something to that. People go to concerts and church services for roughly the same reason: to reconnect with higher levels of consciousness. And, like music, religion has a social component.
But the similarity ends there. Religion is based on delusions and lies. Faith is gullibility. There is no god, there were no Golden Tablets, there's sure as hell nothing divine about the Pope. No genocides have occurred because of differences in musical taste, as they have for differences in religion.
Music is real; it's the truth. There are no priests. No one can tell you how to react to music, what you should like or not like. And, unlike religion, music is dynamic. Composers write new music all the time. The canon is constantly changing and growing.
Is amateur music the best thing in the world? Opinions vary. Not everyone is into music or other arts, and there are other things that bring people together and make them happy at different levels. In the park near my house, people gather to play tennis, grass volleyball, soccer, and ultimate. People get together to hike and rock-climb in the Sierras and to ride mountain bikes around Mt. Tam. These things can have spiritual components. I do all of them myself, I love them, and I wish everyone did activities like them instead of watching TV.
But for me, amateur music is in a class by itself. It touches every part of my brain, spirit, and soul. It's universal and timeless; it's accessible to everyone who can hear. So yeah, I think it's the best thing in the world.