A World of Choices

15th April, 2008: Posted by glpease in Enjoyment

Some years ago, I was having lunch with a friend, a classical pianist with a penchant for the avant-garde. We always had lively conversations, and hours would fly by in what seemed minutes. He was telling me about the challenges of some of the latest pieces he was adding to his already impressive repertoire.

It was always a joy listening to his insights into the music, though, at the time, I didn’t share his passion for much of the modern 20th Century works. It was all Baroque-and-Roll for this longhair, whilst my shave pated friend, with the countenance of a Zen monk, was a gently walking lexicon of Hindemuth, Shoenberg, Arvo Pårt, Philip Glass, none of which I really ever got my musical brain wrapped round.

A further prying open of my musical mind came during a conversation with another friend, an oboist who was preparing for an orchestral performance of Bartók’s pantomime The Miraculous Mandarin. I told Steve that I just plain didn’t like it. “Have you ever spent any time trying to understand it?” His question was a fair one; I hadn’t. The horse and carriage on which my musical education was delivered stopped in the 18th Century, and didn’t start rolling again until sometime in the 1970s, when I discovered KSAN. That left quite a hole to fill.

When Mandarin was first performed in Cologne in 1926, it resulted in a monumental uproar within the community - likely only slightly less dramatic than the near-riot caused by Stravinsky’s 1913 Paris premier of Le Sacre du Printemps. The audience walked out. The conductor was reprimanded and shunned. The work was banned from further performance. Fortunately for Bartók, Cologne was not the epicentre of the musical world, and the internet did not exist, or the infamy of the event would have spread like a virus. Still, Mandarin was not again performed in its entirety until staged in Budapest in 1946, nearly a year after the composer’s death. It was simply considered too controversial, both materially, and musically, for most audiences.

Steve invited me to a rehearsal, and my reaction wasn’t quite so dramatic as that of Bartók’s premier audience; I simply didn’t like it. Or, perhaps, as Steve had pointed out, I just didn’t get it. But, afterwards, I bought a recording, spent some time with it, and with music by other composers who wandered outside of the arc of convention, and listened more critically. Over time, I began to apprehend something of the direction the music was taking, and interestingly, found something truly enjoyable in the overall modern gestalt. I still didn’t quite make friends with The Mandarin, though I did begin to truly enjoy some of the other modernists. But, something more important came from the experience; the breadth of my understanding was widened, and my appreciation for music in general was deeper than ever before. (As I type, in fact, I’m listening to, and very much enjoying a recording of the Gothenburg Symphony Orchestra’s performance of Arvo Pärt’s intriguing, yet wonderfully minimalistic Tabula Rasa.)

Often, we don’t immediately like what is unfamiliar to us. Most people’s minds are pretty much made up by the time they reach their early twenties, and it takes something severe to change them. We become quick to pass judgement, and move on to something that does lie more within the realms of our experience. It’s that way with music, with art, with literature, with food, and, certainly, with pipes and tobaccos. (Ah! He’s finally getting to the point!)

There are tobaccos I like, and tobaccos I don’t, but thanks to Steve’s question all those years ago, I approach the ones I don’t enjoy differently than I might have had he not challenged me to try to understand what I didn’t like. My friend Neill, in fact, was intrigued to learn of my continued exploration of a certain popular blend, despite the fact that it lies completely outside of the range of tobacco styles I enjoy. I continue to try it, on occasion, seeking some sort of insight, perhaps some understanding of its popularity.

Part of what makes our pastime, and my job, continually fascinating to me is just this. Preference is a very personal thing, and there’s nothing wrong with liking or disliking something based solely on taste. In fact, it’s the very diversity of tastes that broadens the horizons for those who do want to explore more widely. There are still things in the world of tobacco that I do not like, and possibly never will, but by continuing to engage them in some way, attempting to bring a fresh perspective each time, my overall enjoyment and appreciation of what I do enjoy is deepened in ways that it might not be were the field limited, either by choice or by absence.

Viva diversity!