End of writing, 5

I have generally wrapped up each series within the year, but here I will not do so. In some sense, this is my place to write when I feel like taking a break, and in fact I have a long list of sketches for this series. It started in such disjointed & chattery fashion, but I guess feeling stupid was a good step toward liberating myself for future such occasions. There is certainly something to be said for not being careful, as I more or less said last time. This week, there are no major political events occupying the world, our politicians' protestations to the contrary notwithstanding, so I really have nothing to say, making for a refreshing lightness.

Feeling competitive

If I have no particular inspiration, then I am obviously writing to hear myself talk (or read myself write). However, I told you I would write an article this week, so I have to do so, for reasons of credibility — or simply to compete with some unidentified adversary. The challenge, as always, is expressing something worth expressing. I have been making some updates to other areas, but you probably noticed that few releases of medieval music have made their way here so far this year. Of course, this is really the lifeblood of our work, not so much because cataloging & evaluating them is challenging, but because it keeps a background flow of fresh mental stimulation. New recordings make for a straightforward task, which prevents me from stewing in my own ideas too much, and generally serve to keep things in motion on the web site. The music retail situation is very much in disarray from my perspective, and instead of more philosophical musings on the subject, I will simply admit that it is discouraging. It hurts our finances, and more than that, it places a barrier between our assessment of worthwhile interpretations and what people can actually buy.

The situation will settle itself, of course, and medieval music will enjoy another upswing. In the meantime, stewing in my own ideas only makes me surlier about what is indeed done, because I think too far ahead, and become even more demanding. So I have to remind myself that I enjoy this music. While our ability to pay expenses via sales commissions decreases with the inability of retailers to deliver product — and I have not done everything I should to make direct donations more convenient — the traffic on the web site has shown another thirty percent increase this year, and I have various ideas about what we might do. However, many of these inclinations arise from personal vanity and a sense of competition. I start to be aggravated by what others do, so I think "I will show them!" And that is really no basis for making decisions. I know that many people do not consider our web pages to be serious, since they are in a very simple format. They are that way because I like them that way, and in fact I consider most web pages to be ugly & obnoxious. So institutions are giving more credence to newer sites with flashy "designs" and less traffic, and moreover a less targeted audience (how marketers can miss the significance of this, I do not know). That makes me angry, doubly so because these people tend not to believe our traffic is what it is. Regardless, I am not going to play their game.

Whether I feel angry or not is unimportant. One should feel every emotion regularly, frankly. What is more intriguing is the sense of competition which often seems to lie just beneath the surface. I would like nothing more than to join forces with some of these people, and not only to put together some bigger longterm projects, but to smooth over some basic difficulties the economic situation is causing everyone involved. I know many of them will go out of business, as others have in the past, because there simply is not very much money to be collected (let alone for a for-profit business!), and posturing will only take them so far. So there really is no competition, except maybe from people who steal from us directly, and this entire set of impulses tends to be very unhelpful. If I did not ponder all the duplicated effort, and think of what might be, it would be much easier to simply forget about what other people are doing, which is usually good advice anyway. "Just mind your own business" is something I certainly have occasion to say to my children regularly.

I have mentioned sports, and I am fascinated by the emotional ties built to particular sports teams. I enjoy sports; I enjoy physical activity, as well as the strategic aspects which can arise from straightforward rules, especially in a team setting. Sports can be very conclusive, since there is a winner by the rules, and hopefully some sportsmanship, so that losing does not have real consequences. Winning in team sports has always been thrilling for me, and I think I understand why, but the transfer of those impulses to professional teams of which I am not a part is more curious. Somehow, I have developed allegiances to particular sports teams. Since I am not from a big city, we did not have our own teams, so I follow a hodgepodge assortment. This makes it more palatable, but I still find that rooting detracts from my enjoyment of pure sport. I try not to take a specific interest in who wins, but merely watch to follow the intricacies of the game, yet I cannot completely shake such interest. It is thrilling to win this way too, of course, yet only one of "my" teams has ever won a national championship. This aspect is certainly telling, as opposed to people who only root for perennial winners. Why not simply stop, I ask myself. Moreover, the entire situation is quite absurd: Everything about the teams changes, including the uniforms. Yet there is a thirst for those emotional highs and lows, a competitive connection I resist in my work, because it would be extremely counterproductive. Some of the stupidest things I have said have been about sports....

I do not have a favorite composer, as so many people do, but what would it mean to say "My favorite composer is better than yours?" One could extend the sentiment to broader taste in music, of course, thus including me. In sports, we have the score — although we can always claim to have been cheated by the judges — and in music we have aesthetics & criticism, certainly a trickier lot. I spend a great deal of time examining both aesthetic fundamentals and musical details of specific eras, so I do feel a privilege for my opinions, let me admit. The average listener is entitled to his opinion too, of course, and I do not want to suggest otherwise. I honestly feel no competition on this point, not with anyone, precisely because of all the time spent on aesthetic fundamentals and what it means to choose. Competitive impulses enter my professional life in other places... where an author will submit an article, for instance, or where the public turns for basic factual information. I feel competitive regarding the simple volume of straightforward information we have, which is a silly way to feel, but I should admit it.

That competitive feeling can be healthy if it leads to new information being available, but if it leads to duplicating information others have already provided, it is simply vanity. From an organizational standpoint, such a view is clear enough, but what of competition per se in music? I have little interest in "How fast can you play?" competitions of virtuosity, as either participant or spectator; likewise for "How much music can you compose?" Unlike sports, where scoring a goal or running fast is precisely the metric, those questions are quite irrelevant to musical evaluation. What is not irrelevant to musical creation, however, is finding some sort of creative spark, whether that comes from competitive urges or elsewhere. Having & channeling emotion is fundamental to artistic effectiveness, and the same is true here. They may be no replacement for a flow of new music, but competitive urges are another non-insular stimulation. At their worst, they can lead to academic-style pettiness, but at their best, they can lead to new horizons.

To be continued....

Administrivia: Next column in three weeks.

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Todd M. McComb