Book Talk – shadows on Plato’s wall

“I spend all my money on books. Books are my greatest pleasure.” J. Brahms

I relate to this quote. Not that I actually spend all my money on books, but that they are such an important source to me for ideas and imaginary conversations.

Last night I continued reading in Gore’s “The Assault on Reason” and Swafford’s bio of Brahms (the source of the above quote).

This morning I awoke and was thirsting for some intellectual stretching so I returned to “Interaction, Improvisation, and Interplay in Jazz” by the local prof, Robert Hodson.

Gore’s book is getting depressing as he ticks off the many ways the Bush administration has completely changed America. It is a familiar litany for me. One that I think about as I read the news. And he returns depressingly to the misconceptions majority of Americans have about the Iraq war and global warming. Americans just don’t use their brains these days. Basically, Gore says all of us have responsibility for the erosion of the balance of powers in our government and the banality of our tepid public rhetoric and news media. I agree but it’s not a happy read.

Reading the Brahms bio is interesting. I have played Brahms piano music for years and enjoy it. I struggle with the Romantic style as I struggle with the whole notion of a style of music that seems removed from so many listeners today. I do find Brahms full of beauty. His bio is not that familiar to me so Swafford is holding my attention. As a young man, Brahms seems perceptive, creative and very aware of his career. Schuman seems to have launched him (I was aware of this). But Brahms himself was so conscious of his place in music history it’s amusing. Swafford constantly points out the early works that Brahms destroyed later in life.

I wonder why he destroyed his works. It seems as though he was possibly worried they would show something about him he did not want known. Could it be his own perceived inadequacies? I knew an artist once who wanted to destroy all her works. She offered to let me and a friend of mine take what we want before she burned the rest. My friend took everything. The artist was reduced to frustration and tears. Not a happy memory, but instructive.

This artist was probably self-destructive. But I think Brahms was worrying about the laurels of history.

I find this amusing because I am increasingly convinced of the transience of all human cultures.

“Big old buildings
seem like they’ll never fall,
but they’ll all be gone someday.

We’re a big old country.
We’re weak and we’re strong,
but we’ll all be gone someday.”

to quote my song, “So Many People.” Heh.

So if human culture is both transient and a source for meaning (as I believe it is), it’s necessary to ask questions about our approaches to music, art and literature.

Hodson obviously thinks that Jazz is something worth preserving. But is that what art and music is all about? Preserving a canon? If art and music doesn’t mean anything to listeners and observers, does it still have inherent value? Is it like the shadows on Plato’s cave that reflect the essence of some kind of permanent eternal values?

I think Plato was a genius, but I reject many of his notions. Especially regarding the arts and the cave.
So I struggle with the idea that there is a canon of art and music for all humans. I think that humans make meaning and that some humans have made some incredible meaning with their art and music. It has significant and constituent meaning for me personally.

Then I find myself standing in front of fifty young adults and wondering how much meaning Beethoven and Bach have for them. Even can have for them.

Despite this, I personally continue to turn to other people’s music, writings and art for inspiration and edification. This morning I have been going back and forth from Hodson’s book to the piano to play through the examples of Jazz literature he (almost) cites. He almost cites them by making up silly little versions of them instead of using the originals. Fortunately, so far, I can find the orginial tunes in my library. I plan to ask him why he makes up ones instead of using the originals, if I ever get a chance. If he says copyrights I will be unhappy.

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