‘Re-enchanting the quotidian’

‘Re-enchanting the quotidian’, writes Stuart Jeffries in his Guardian review of Michael Foley’s 2012 book ‘Embracing the Ordinary’. I quite like that. An interesting read particularly for the comparison of Proust and Joyce, this book attempts to instil a sense of wonder in the minutiae of existence that perhaps we often overlook. I latched onto the commentary in the earlier chapters about the connections of fine art and ‘normal processes of living’, as Dewey writes (quoted by Foley):

The hostility to association of fine art with normal processes of living is a pathetic, even a tragic, commentary on life as it is ordinarily lived. Only because that life is usually so stunted, aborted, slack, or heavy laden, is the idea entertained that there is some inherent antagonism between the process of normal living and creation and enjoyment of works of aesthetic art… The works and the responses they evoke are continuous with the very processes of living as these are carried to unexpected happy fulfilment. (John Dewey, 1980)

Foley takes the reader from Dewey to discuss Joyce and Proust, seeing them as the ‘high priests of low life’. I quite like this, and the irony of their major works being the mainstay of academic circles yet the works focus on the ordinary, the everyday, the minutiae of life. Foley writes of some of the more provocative parts of the two authors’ characters, and draws some interesting comparisons between the two. I was amused to read that Proust thought railway timetables were the most exciting works in print, he bought a lover an aeroplane and he was sexually excited by rats and used them in foreplay (while Joyce would supposedly faint at the sight of a rat). Equally intriguing was to read that Joyce was thrilled to be prosecuted due to the obscenity in Ulysses – both authors write of their ‘heroes’ masturbating, and Foley sums this up well by writing that ‘it is a sign of the great strides taken by twentieth-century fiction that the heroes of its two greatest novels were wankers’ (Foley 2012).

Where do I go from here? It got me thinking about music. 1913 saw Russolo using everyday sounds to construct musical works; perhaps these sound more of a comic gesture than an artistic one but it seems attempts were being made in music at similar times as Proust and Joyce to re-enchant the musical quotidian.

Noise was really not born before the 19th century, with the advent of machinery. Today noise reigns supreme over human sensibility. For several centuries, life went on silently, or mutedly. The loudest noises were neither intense, nor prolonged nor var- ied. In fact, nature is normally silent, except for storms, hurricanes, avalanches, cas- cades and some exceptional telluric movements. This is why man was thoroughly amazed by the first sounds he obtained out of a hole in reeds or a stretched string.

I can’t imagine how very different the Western world must have been before the noise that creates our current quotidian. I do wonder when western music became incongruent with its listeners. Howard Goodall made a point at the start of his Big Bangs series – something I saw just before I went to university – that really stuck with me: our ancestors would recognise modern art and detect perhaps what it may depict; modern music on the other hand would sound very foreign. It is the rapid dislocation of listeners with ‘new music’ that fascinates me. Giving a pre-concert talk in Guildford in May emphasised this, when members of the choral society singing a Will Todd piece (nothing too adventurous) felt the musical language of the piece was something they found difficult to comprehend. The BBC seems to edit out some of the new works when it broadcasts Proms at a later date this year. When speaking at a conference for students and teachers of A-level Music there was a real bias against the more contemporary music sound world, and often they gave lower marks to works that were from such a rhetoric. Interesting.

When teaching composition pupils often swing between two poles; either they enjoy the freedom of a musical language they can create themselves, or they mock it as something so free it surely can’t be considered legitimate against the burden of the common practice period.

I’ve attended lots of concerts of ‘new’ music. The venues vary from car parks, pubs, concert halls. Artistic direction seems to want to place this dislocated ‘new’ music in quotidian venues as an attempt to ‘re-chant the quotidian’ of contemporary music. I guess Art Everywhere is doing the same thing for visual arts. Fundamentally, I think we’re fighting an imagined decline in classical\contemporary music. You can’t force a musical-musuem culture on a generation of young people that are creating their own; perhaps taking this musical past and musical future to locations where the less-conversed audience feel safe is a good step. They will only ever be ephemeral steps however, as musical tastes change so rapidly. To think how undervalued J.S. Bach’s works were until some time after his death. It may be some time before listeners can look back and reconnect with our current new music and re-enchant a past quotidian.

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