Embracing the present

If "live life in the moment" is generally good advice, then what are we doing here? The simplest answer is that we want to better understand today, by attempting to understand how the conditions (and musical styles) of today were formed. Of course, along the way, that endeavor can easily include a great deal of misunderstanding. Historical facts are imperfect, even in the grossest sense, and even when we have statements and artifacts, we might have difficulty believing we understand what they meant. Again we have a particular juxtaposition: We don't tend to ask what they mean (to us now), but what they meant. Indeed, to the extent that most people ask the former, they believe that they are also asking the latter. We know, though, that things change, and that the exact same statement cannot have the exact same impact today. If nothing else, it has become old rather than new! Why would we even want to believe that things continue to have the same meaning? That answer is fairly simple: Because it seems easier that way.

We take our values, and claim that they are — or should have been — the values of earlier people. We even do the same with people of today, reflecting contempt toward the values of other cultures. This phenomenon is an example, not of embracing the present, but of isolating the present (and the local), of trying to set it above everything else. Such acts become particularly absurd when the next moment's — or at least next generation's — present projects similar contempt back toward today. The past does not yield the same meanings as the present, but the past remains a constituent of the present. To the extent that it is a constituent, embracing the present implies embracing the past. We cannot sensibly applaud ourselves while simultaneously condemning our fathers. The idea that we have "overcome" so much to achieve today's level of "enlightenment" (a word I cannot even utter without a mocking tone) might be worthwhile to some degree. We do need to overcome challenges, perhaps even from our own past, but embracing the present entails more than merely overcoming. It also involves acceptance, understanding.

We speak of understanding other music, and generally believe that we do just that. We want to understand, which is part of the reason that we project our values so strongly onto the past — or onto others. We project into the future too, with marginal success. Rather, I should say, we do not generally view people in the past to have been successful at such an endeavor, although perhaps we misunderstand them or their attempts. We do sometimes find something of ourselves in past descriptions. If our knowledge of the past is necessarily so imperfect, then what is the value in the attempt to understand it? We can easily lose ourselves in the past, turn to historicism, and let it strangle meaning. If understanding the past is part of understanding the present, then we are trapped. We cannot really forget the past, and yet we cannot really know it. Worse than that, from a perspective of practical relevance, there is no clear point at which we know "enough." The time sink can be infinite. Revisiting my convoluted opening wording, what we want is to believe, believe that we know enough.

At its most restrictive, the previous discussion suggests that we cannot really know the present. Of course, at least on some level, we do know the present: It is what is right in front of us, what we perceive. Indeed, "living in the moment" does not tend to imply some large-scale academic study of the forces shaping the moment. To some extent, those forces simply are, and while we can perceive some outline of them immediately, it is only in the description & analysis of them that we need scholarship. We might as well say that to understand history, we must understand the present! The two can be almost synonymous. More than that, the present is so much closer to us that it becomes almost absurd to believe that we know the past better. Yet, any standard analysis of contemporary music suggests just that: It starts with some point in the past, constructs a history, and then attempts to explain the present in that context. This is a standard way to do many things. In the Age of Polyphony series, for instance, I adopt a particular historical center-point, and then examine subsequent events in those terms. The resulting verb tense issues can be reminiscent of the proposed convolutions of time-travel novels.

If we abandon the notion of analyzing the present in terms of how it came to be, i.e. in terms of history, how do we evaluate the present? The art music enthusiast is accustomed to discussing concepts such as stature & influence, and by definition, we do not know the influence of the present. If anything, we try to cheat, by looking at the influence which still-active composers have already had based upon work earlier in their lives. Our "present" is fifty years or more, and this may be the single greatest disconnect in the whole art vs. entertainment breakdown. Contrast some complicated view of historical action with "if it feels good, do it." A desire for the former has much to do with a desire for complication, an urge to grapple with specific mental problems. After all, that is our entertainment, and a drive to understand, to seek meaning is what essentially characterizes intellectual activity. So we must ask: Does that activity destroy the present? Is there any reason to evaluate the present, other than on whether we find it directly pleasing? Is meaning which is sought even meaningful?

The ultimate public glorification of the present is the rite. It asks for complete identification among participants, and adopts particular actions for its own internal reasons. It removes misdirection, yet it is misdirection. A similar paradox infuses the interaction between history and the present, and may even define the present itself. Reduced to "the moment," the present has no duration — not only that, but it cannot be noticed until it is gone. This is the cosmological aspect & the motivation for cyclic descriptions. The present may come again, we think! Well, some aspect of it is bound to repeat itself... and so we want to be ready, to capture it this time. We want not only that, but to capture the part which is pleasing, which brings us back to analysis. We want to evaluate, and accentuate the positive; as I often have cause to say, faced with so many possible things to do, and so little time, we cannot do everything. The implication is that we must choose, yet there is something to be said for not choosing, especially given the destruction inherent to analysis (i.e. division). Does looking for meaning destroy meaning? If we think only of the present, we cannot even ask that question.

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Todd M. McComb