Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Too Much Information

One of the Polovtsian Dances from Borodin's opera, Prince Igor, captivated Emma for a long time, though she knew nothing of the story. She just enjoyed the music so much that she would play it every day on the piano. Because she was so enamored of it, I decided that I would play the song, "Stranger in Paradise" for her from the musical, Kismet, which is based on the theme that she was playing. I thought that it would be good for her to learn how this theme had been used in a popular song. I remembered my college music appreciation professor doing the same thing with some other classical pieces.

Emma listened, and as she listened her face became somewhat troubled. Then she walked away.

A few days later she started to play the Prince Igor piece on the piano but stopped after only a few measures. "It's ruined," she whispered from the piano bench.

"What's wrong?" I asked, confused.

"I used to see horses and a mysterious oriental court and wonder about what happened to Prince Igor whenever I played this. . ." she explained wistfully. "Now it's all gone."

The enchantment destroyed, she never played it again.


This story flooded back to my memory as I was reading Life is a Miracle by Wendell Berry. It is one that Emma is reading for school. Mr. Berry was talking about how most scientists practice reductionism, the method of analyzing things down to their tiniest components. They do this without first determining whether it would be a good thing to do, proceeding as if knowledge for its own sake is always good. Mr. Berry says that man thrives on mystery, and knowing everything about something not only destroys mystery, it can lead to even worse consequences. Mr. Berry says,

"For quite a while it has been possible for a free and thoughtful person to see that to treat life as mechanical or predictable or understandable is to reduce it. Now, almost suddenly, it is becoming clear that to reduce life to the scope of our understanding (whatever "model" we use) is inevitably to enslave it, make property of it, and put it up for sale.

This is to give up on life, to carry it beyond change and redemption and to increase the proximity of despair."

The incident with the music from Prince Igor helped me understand the point the author was making. By giving Emma the information about how Prince Igor had been used in a pop song, I stole the mystery of it from her. Looking back, I see how presumptuous of me it was to assume that I could enrich her experience in that way, when I had no clue what her experience was. It made me wonder how much we lose every day by being bombarded with the popular culture.

How fragile are the pictures that we paint on the canvas of our minds!

Artwork: Via Turgenev and Russian Music, "Prince Igor takes leave from Yaroslavna before departing on his campaign against the Polovtsy," an illustration by James Mayhew.


James Mayhew said...

Hi, I found your blog because I saw my illustration online. It;'s an older piece so I was slightly intrigued. I loved your post - it is so true. Very often movies destroy books and the populisation of classical music is heartbreaking. How many kids know the galop from the William Tell overture from ads or TV shows or Movies? Ditto Peer Gynt, 1812 etc etc. Every year I do a concert for children, in the UK, where I tell the ORIGINAL stories and then illustrate them while the orchestra plays the music. I think it's helpful to have something to go on with music, but agree the imagination has to have room to enjoy. I've posted about all of this on my blogs... do have a look if you have time! And thanks for choosing my picture!


Wendy Haught said...

Mr. Mayhew,

Thanks so much for your kind words and your beautiful picture.

I love your idea of telling the original stories and illustrating them for the children while the orchestra plays.