Saturday, November 29, 2008

A Shocking Event at the Kimmel Center

Last night I went to the Kimmel Center to hear a symphony concert of the Philadelphia Orchestra perform Wagner (Prelude and Liebestod from Tristan and Isolde), Beethoven (Piano Concerto No. 4), and an orchestration of the Brahms Piano Quartet No. 1 in G Minor by Shoenberg. An incredible experience that I had to enjoy - with my head lowered and my eyes closed.

The Kimmel Center is one of the jewels in Philadelphia's crown. For readers who may not have experienced its astonishing acoustical properties, it may be considered one of the wonders of the world, right up there with the Pyramids and Taj Mahal. Clarity and mellowness can only describe it. It is a splendid concert hall - a worthy monument to the Philadelphia Orchestra and to the city of Philadelphia - its people, its architecture, and its culture.

I had not attended a symphony concert for some years, and upon entering the hall, I was shocked - shocked, I tell you! - to find two screens mounted on either side of the upper walls behind the orchestra. They bore the mottos "Live Image Magnification." Now truly, is my shock at this innovation to be compared with the political and economic disasters that seem to pop up at every turn in our national life? No, and not exactly. It is a different kind of shock, shock on a different level - that even here, in this sacred space devoted to great music, we are to be subjected to the "Tyranny of the Eye."

My conversations with Kimmel personnel and fellow orchestra-goers left me with some uncertainty as to whether these gigantic TV screens are a permanent innovation or a temporary expedient. So now we can see the conductor's face and the pianist's hands. But this is an apocalyptic projection of image - 'apocalypse' being, in its meaning, an uncovering, and unveiling. The TV screens reveal what before was hidden. But I think it is wiser to preserve a mystery and a hiddenness. Something of this same conversation surfaced when the Catholic Church changed the direction of the Mass. Before, the priest faced the altar. In the new days the priest faces the people. I believe that the analogy, while not perhaps wholly accurate, is valid. What we gain in "seeing" we lose by distraction and the dissipation of attention. The deterioration of attention is the most serious spiritual problem of our time, and I was very sorrowful to see that the Kimmel Center had fallen for the cheap trick.

I like what architect Rafael Vinoly said in answer to a question:

"You encourage dissimilar programs to intersect; and you create their place of intersection in the most direct and transparent way. What are the implications, for you, of achieving complex, unpredictable uses through simplicity?

R.V.: To me, it's a colossal, illogical leap in thinking, the idea that to handle complexity, you have to represent it. The problem with representing complexity -- representing any interpretation -- is that you fix the scenario. I think it's better to pull back a little bit. It's an instance of elegance -- which has nothing to do with lack of engagement. You just don't attack the problem with the attitude that you alone can tell everyone how this thing should work."

"I think it's better to pull back a little bit." This is an attitude in short supply these days, as we confront the consequences of the overbuilding of our environment. Wisdom leaves an opening, it refuses the conquistadorial approach. There is nothing ascetic or understated about the Kimmel,mind you, yet it is a fullness without ostentation, a fullness for purpose. That purpose was stated by acoustical engineer Russell Johnson:

"From the beginning, they emphasized that they did not want their hall to change what they described as "the sound of the Philadelphia Orchestra." This was their major concern: they wanted a hall that would support their sound as they now hear it, but not change it. A very, very challenging task..."

He goes on to say:

"As in any concert hall, the complete elimination of extraneous noise, including but not limited to exterior vehicular noise and sirens, boilers, transformers, escalators, elevators, fans pushing air into the room at too high a speed, drinking fountains, refrigerators nearby...There are literally hundreds of noises to be aware of and eliminate.... Under perfect conditions, the musicians and the conductor can hear, or sense, what the audience is hearing. There should be no distancing effect between the orchestra and the public, no harshness of sound, no echoes, no frequency imbalances. It should feel as if there is air around the music, as if the music is floating..."

I can attest that there was a "feeling of air" around the music, and that the experience was heavenly.

Why, then, the TV screens? Why the visual noise of these TV screens? Why this act of desecration to something already perfect? The ethic of contemporaneity is that of not knowing when to stop. The fact that we have TV screens that can project the motions of the music being performed is not a sufficient reason to instigate them. Technological capacity - "might" -- does not make right. I felt this capitulation to multimedia as a adulteration, a violation of something virginal and pure. I don't like it in science --cloning and mixing DNA to create new creatures -- and I don't like it in music.

How subtle is the transition from enhancement to adulteration, to a kind of idolatry. What is "appropriate," what is proper, what is fitting - these are the most difficult areas of life to define, subsisting in a kind of twilight realm of good sense and manners. It is perilous indeed to step out of this twilit realm for the sake of glaring day - perilous to forsake altogether the realms of night, of reticence and of the unseen. Let us rather not see, not know, everything. Let us preserve a corner of our minds for wild, reverent, unconquered being.

Kimmel - take the screens away! - please!

Sunday, November 16, 2008

Peak Decline

Are we living in an age of decline?

Czeslaw Milosz says that he detects "... a historical law, little known but of considerable moment: the process of decline affects people in ways unknown to them, beneath the threshold of their consciousness." (The Land of Ulro, 1984, p. 228) It is for this reason, he continues, that "the same law by which people are unknowingly affected complicates the task of recreating the past, because it is so hard to tell, in retrospect, what was experienced consciously and what unconsciously." All the same he finds in our age the "logic of precipitous decline," only retarded by those "minute particles of virtue residing in specific individuals, who affect the whole through a complex process whereby each particle or grain, is multiplied by others (on such a process, for example, is founded the ethics of well-executed work.)"

I had occasion to reflect on these words in light of the events of this weekend - spectacularly unremarkable, as they may be, but perhaps for that reason all the more revealing. It involved a fair amount of driving - to suburb and city respectively, the contrast between them indicative of the two-faced nature of decline.

The road to Phoenixville, formerly situated in lovely Chester County farmlands, is littered with suburban mini-mansions and housing developments. Perhaps it wouldn't be so bad if the houses were smaller and less ostentatious, or if they had been built in clustered developments, leaving free large swaths of open land - or better, if they had not been built at all. But there they are - these immense twinkling carbon-devouring giant hulks in the dark landscape, connected by a few old roads built half a century ago, hardly adequate to the needs of their current traffic. One wonders at the heating costs, the driving costs, and the maintenance - now not so obvious, but what about the toll of another ten years on these flimsy materials and pseudo-Tudor (is that the design?) of the jilted-up pasteboard housing stock? I shudder. No surprise that one of the largest local development companies is called Toll Brothers, whose stock has plummeted in recent months. Names are omens. The bells have been tolling on this American way of doing business - it can hardly be called a way of life. It's a way of business too disconnected from sensible existence to be called a way of life. But maybe I exaggerate. Perhaps there is some form of life there - though one never sees people outside or walking around these big houses, and the connecting roads are too narrow to permit joggers, walkers or bicyclists. How much of these do the people living there see, how much is conscious and how much unconscious? Vexing to ask, vexing to wonder.

The other end of the road is North Philadelphia, with its miles upon miles, blocks upon blocks, of row houses - many of them gutted, burned, or crumbling. Lots of people about, at least - kids biking or playing, people hanging around a few stores. Not many stores, to tell the truth. This is not the region of shopping centers and urban malls. I don't think I recall seeing a grocery store anywhere. We asked directions at an auto parts store, where some very helpful people told us where to go. But where do the people buy food? Do they have access to books or magazines? There are libraries, to be sure (I didn't see one) though the Mayor says he's cutting back on them to save Philadelphia money.

Two extreme experiences - the antisociality of the suburbs and the forced sociality of the slum. Psychologically, the slum felt better in the sense of its compactness, though "compactness" is a polite way to talk about a suffocating lack of beauty, of perspective or of prospect. The only open places were the vacant lots, choked with weeds and trash. Yet it is possible to imagine beauty in these places - that they could be renewed, re-imagined, and restored to an urbane and civilized standard. But it is hard to imagine a civic renewal in the suburban developments, which are borrowed finery in a world of borrowed time. Their styles are fake, their premise is anti-civic from the beginning - isolated yet conformist.

How have we become such a people of such monstrous and unseeing obtuseness? How have we managed to deface our landscapes with such artificial imitations of human communities?

"Peak decline" is a paradox, even a diabolic paradox. It is an engorgement for its own sake, yet it is full of human pathos. But the pathos somehow failed to make it into the suburban story, and it became the all-consuming narrative for the slum-dwellers. It's a two-faced problem: either forsaking one's humanity, as in the suburbs, pretending to rise above it; or being devoured by it, wholly submerged as in the slums - being unable to spiritualize and transcend it. It's the lack of human scale. Slum and suburb each represent, in their different ways, material or spiritual impoverishment.

Landscape is the unconscious made visible. Choice and cognition are only the end products of a long gestation of style, habits and expectations. Habits are much harder to transform than ideas, and we are conscious only momentarily of the relationship between what we see and what we expect to see. To become fully conscious in this realm demands what is termed a new "skill set." It means becoming stewards first of all of our own minds. I think this is the chief task of our time.