I am standing at the pickup counter of Peet’s Coffee, waiting for my “double-espresso-macchiato, long pull (for here, please)”. Amidst the soundscape of barrista calls and orders placed in an Italian patois at the cash register, I hear another fake Italian sound, the digitized sound of a Canzona for brass instruments by Giovanni Gabrieli piped in on the muted speakers to provide the upscale equivalent of 1960s Muzak. None of the patrons seems to notice. They are busily pawing their laptops/iPads/iPhones, oblivious to this surreal auditory mirage, a ghost, a Renaissance apparition floating in the air of a coffee shop on State street. I don’t blame them. Gabrieli himself would not have recognized his masterpiece.
We are the graveyard of great works of art. Here in our commercial paradise all immortal symphonies, paintings, and dramas find their eternal resting place, on T-shirts, ringtones, comic strips, mugs, and at Peet’s coffee shop. It’s not just Beethoven the dog or Mona Lisa with a moustache, more recent classics like Lucy in the Sky are now the ambience for buying broccoli at your local supermarket.
My espresso is still far in the future (it’s morning rush at Peet’s) so I cast my mind back to the lofty dome of the San Marco Cathedral in Venice where Gabrieli’s brass players are arrayed on the various balconies, creating their antiphonal splendor to the awe and amazement of the worshipers below. Given the choice would Gabrieli perhaps preferred the dust of history to this ignominious purgatory for his muse’s children? But then I don’t think they worried much about posterity in the 16th century. Worrying about their soul’s journey in the afterlife was work enough.
One thing though is crystal clear. The fate of all great works of art is to become back-end merchandizing. That’s our contribution to human history. There is a consolation here for mediocre artists like myself. At least our work will die along with us and never serve as the sound furnishings for lattes and broccoli.
And here finally is my espresso macchiato.
Every generation despises the music of its young. My grandparents’ idea of “good” music was the warblings of tenors in Franz Léhar’s operetta The Merry Widow, or the waltzes of Johann Strauss. My dad’s taste for the Charleston of the 20s sounded to them like “jungle music”. The opposite is not always true. Young people often take a benign outlook on their parents’ music, perhaps not in their teens but certainly as an expression of nostalgia in later years. Thus, my father although steeped in the European “jazz” music (he pronounced it “Jess”) of the likes of Django Reinhardt, he still enjoyed the sentimental crooning of tenors like Jozef Schmidt and later Mario Lanza.
When I in turn took a liking to Elvis, my parents could not fathom what a classical piano student could possibly find enticing in all this ugly “shouting and croaking”. Eventually they resolved the riddle by ascribing my taste in popular music to nothing more than rebellion, believing that I too secretly loathed it but pretended not to just to annoy them. In hindsight it’s strange that they picked on Elvis of all people, with his velvety voice and ridiculously wide vibrato, so reminiscent of the style of sentimental singing they adored. But then Jailhouse Rock wasn’t exactly The Student Prince. By the time the Beatles and Rolling Stones rolled by there was no more common ground between us, and the sad conclusion had to be drawn that “the young generation is simply going deaf”.
I was reminded of this earlier today while sitting in another coffee shop. It was a sunny day and I chose to sit outside enjoying another espresso, when the soft rock music on the speakers gave way to the most obnoxious repetitive electronic chord, incessantly repeated without change except for occasional undecipherable grunts in the background. I waited patiently for the chord to change, perhaps just modulate its loudness a bit. No such luck. Like a jack hammer or a very loud alarm clock, the chord continued hammering away at top decibels. I have no idea which Noize band it was. Perhaps the lyrics had some meaning (if you bothered to download and read them). I was never to find out any of these irrelevant questions. I left my coffee there and retreated to the safety of the honking horns of the street.
And I was painfully reminded of my dad.
As an opera buff in Vienna of the 1920s he once told me of his experience with a performance of Richard Strauss’s opera Ariadne of Naxos, one of the most lyrical and melodious of the composer’s works. My dad was a member of the Claque (the people given free tickets to clap and hoot and laugh in the appropriate moments). He remembered abandoning his station and escaping the opera house after the first act of Ariadne, standing in the rain on a street corner and savoring the noise of the traffic as a relief from the cacophony he endured indoors.
No one listening to Ariadne today could possibly find any shred of cacophony in it.
It was a disturbing thought. Was it possible that the anonymous jack hammer music I just escaped (that for all I knew went platinum and won a Grammy) is as meaningful to my daughter as the Beatles were to me? Was I listening to a masterpiece like Ariadne of Naxos and it was just my calcified ears and ancient tastes that missed the point, or was the travesty truly junk? This is of course an unanswerable question. You can never tell which music will be vindicated by the passage of time.
But one thing is certain, the young people who enjoy this kind of monotonous noise have musical tastes utterly different than mine, and the gulf is unbridgeable, as was my father’s with mine and his parents’ with his.
The Kvetching Factory
"Start every day with a smile and get it over with" (W.C. Fields)