Pachelbel’s Kanon

The first notes of a piano sound from the stereo and I am instantly transported back to school.

I am 13 again, or maybe a bit older.

I am walking quietly in time with the piano, in a line of uniformed girls that stretches forward down the hall and back the other way, as far as the eye can see. A sea of deep forest green and white. We are each a mirror of the next, though we may be taller, shorter, blonder, darker.

It is the same this day as it is every day. We all line up in our home rooms, quietly waiting to be called to assembly, and then we begin the procession, snaking uniformly, unspeaking, toward the great assembly hall.

The sound of piano now, in the present, echoes from that assembly hall of my past. I can hear the notes coming from up ahead, around the bend at the the end of the hall, just out of sight.

I know that as we keep moving, past hundred-year-old stone walls, hundred-year-old  windows, past all the framed pictures of past graduating classes, we will eventually pass through the rotunda with its tall columns, round the corner to the right and file into the large hall with its soaring ceilings, its cathedral-like stained glass windows, its stage upon which stands the altar, adorned with gold stars and blue sky and St. Catherine, and her lambs.

In front of the altar will be the Principal, and anyone else who will be speaking that morning.

Sometimes, the school band will get up and play, following the hymn and prayers, the watchful eyes of St. Catherine hidden then by the heavy, velvet curtain that cuts off the religious from the secular.

I was not, am not, religious; I’ve known I am atheist since well before walking into that hall. But I always enjoyed the feeling of oneness, the contemplation at the beginning of the day before classes started. I liked the various hymns, too, especially the poetry of William Blake’s Jerusalem. And the sound of the piano.

As we file in, we will see the oldest girls all sitting around the outer edges of the hall, while the rest of the school seats themselves in two blocks, one on the right, one on the left, forming an aisle of negative space down the middle, exposing the parquet floor.

Just as I am about to round that corner in my mind, the piano ends, all is quiet, and I find myself not at school, not in the assembly hall with the piano playing, but at home, 25 years later.

It is cold and the first snow is scattered softly across the ground.

I ponder the wrinkle in time, the revelation that in doing the same thing day in, day out for all those years, it very quickly became rote and taken for granted.

As much as I may have liked the hymns and the quietly united school, I remember too, that I could hardly wait for those days to end so I could get on with life.

I never thought about the sweetness of the moment while I was in it.

We do that all the time. Take things for granted, miss the beauty, the opportunity to see the goodness in something that is boring, common place, just part of daily life.

That’s normal. It’s just the way people think.

But it’s nice to be transported back and to see things differently, to remember the banalities for their importance, their worth and their charm.

That is the magic of memory and the power of music.

Beyond Modern Culture

Daily Prompt: NASA is building a new Voyager spacecraft that will carry the best of modern human culture. What belongs onboard?

My son and I had a conversation about his generation’s culture versus ours just yesterday. I believe it began with me dissing Miley Cyrus.

He very rightly pointed out that just because I don’t like something doesn’t mean it’s bad. Or actually, I said she was talentless and he said just because I didn’t like her music didn’t mean she was talentless.

After some thought, I agreed. Although I actually do think she’s talentless, but that may be a separate issue. My son, in fact, said he didn’t like her much either but didn’t really appreciate me saying that everything that is currently being produced is rubbish.

Fair enough. I like a well-argued point, especially in an 8 year old.

I admitted that each generation thinks their music, art, culture is better than what is produced by the next generation. And that for the most part, parents wonder what on earth their kids are listening to and mourn their lack of appreciation for “decent” music, movies, etc.

Of course our grandparents were shocked when our parents lost all semblance of sanity listenting to Elvis and the Beatles. And then there was the hippie movement. Glam rock. Hard rock. Grunge.

The list goes on. Right up to Bieber and Miley.

So what did I tell my son in the end? Did I agree with him or did I hold onto my square, old fashioned views?

I must say, the fact that I have introduced him to music by the Beastie Boys and Nirvana, and that my husband has introduced him to AC/DC and Led Zeppelin, not to mention jazz, makes it hard for me to accept that I/we are some old stuffed shirts, stuck in an idealized past, unable to accept our son’s newfangled, “out there” taste in music. And thankfully, for the most part he really enjoys – almost obsessively – the music we continue to play for him.

So what I said was this:

I am not saying that the music and movies and other aspects of culture which are currently being produced are of poor quality and lacking in talent because I am from a different generation and therefore feel the things my generation produced are better.

I feel I am being objective when I say that the music (especially) that is being produced now is being manipulated by production engineers and producers and big companies. It sounds overproduced and sanitized and even if some of the artists are truly talented, all that is hidden by the big production sound. It’s like anything that is mass-produced – it becomes common and uniform, like all the perfect apples in a big chain grocery store.

There is little that feels original or creative anymore. And that is the source of my discomfort with today’s culture. That is why I feel today’s young talents are, well, not talented.

But this is not the end of the story.

Mass-produced, mass-marketed music is not all that there is to modern human culture. There are novels and poems and short stories and movies and paintings and photographs and plays and even music that are being created all the time outside conventional, popular culture. They are beautiful, meaningful and speak from the soul of humanity. These should not be overlooked just because they are not mainstream.

In fact, it is precisely because they are not mainstream that they should not be overlooked.

And it is so narrow and ethnocentric to consider only American, or even Western, culture when considering this question. However inevitable this way of thinking might be.

Modern human culture doens’t stop at the Western divide.

“Modern” refers to what is happening now, and there is much happening now, outside our own cultural sphere.

Arts and culture throughout Africa, Asia, South and Central America, and the Middle East are creative, stunning in their ability to reflect the human condition in a way that is often untainted by the West. Even when you find music influenced by Western pop culture, it remains so utterly different because it has been interpreted through the understanding of the culture that created it, that it could never (thankfully) be Westernized.

Tempted though I am to provide a list of what I think deserves to be mentioned, I am not going to. There are others, more knowledgeable, more able to source and argue their selections.

What I will say is that any of these fertile and innovative creations, whether from the West and flying under the pop culture radar, or from other societies, should be lauded, conserved and held up as examples of the best that modern culture has to offer.

Thankfully there is more to modern culture than Miley and Bieber.


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