Imaginary Instruments

I’ve had a couple tedious work days in a row. The kind that felt like I could not, for the life of me, figure out a solution to the problem I was working on. The sort of hours spent pondering how anyone could every possibly be so pitiful as to pay you for anything you ever make, because it’s all utter rubbish, and you should’ve been an electrician instead. These last couple days, I’ve taken to pacing around my kitchen when I hit the dead ends. It’s a better alternative to tearing my own hair out, but doesn’t come with the brute satisfaction. Sometimes I lay on the couch and toss my baseball up and down, over and over, seeing how close I can get it to the ceiling without putting a dent in the popcorn plaster. But these aren’t sure fire ways to clearing my head or finding a solution, or even alleviating the frustration. It’s in these moments that I wish I played an instrument.

I recently discovered that Einstein, when faced with a problem he couldn’t seem to solve, would pick up his violin, and play.

Apparently he even named his beloved violin – Lina she was called. He often talked about music as an inspiration and source of joy in his life.

If I were not a physicist, I would probably be a musician. I often think in music. I live my daydreams in music. I see my life in terms of music. … I get most joy in life out of music.

This connection between Einstein and music seems an odd one at first, but this video beautifully describes some of the science behind it. 

Recently, Austin Kleon – my favorite author of the moment – has recently taken up piano in his free time.

Playing an instrument can sort of be a super power. A super stimulus for the brain. Plus it’s beautiful and sophisticated and an excellent use of time. There are no downsides to playing an instrument. It is good for you in every way. But… it’s hard. And that’s where I get stuck.

These last couple days of tedious work, though, full of pacing and hair tugging and rubbing my palms into my eyes, may be enough to push me into a new musical journey. Maybe an instrument is just what I need. More music could never really hurt.

My favorite composer, Aaron Copland, said at a concert dedicated to him for his 80th birthday:

I was able to spend my life at music, in music, with music. Not everybody is so lucky.

Aaron Copland

Currently listening to Aaron Copland (1900-1990). I’ve been listening to a fair amount of Copland recently, likely more than most. Appalachian Spring is my favorite of his pieces. It sounds like an early morning – soothing, and peaceful and patient, but full of the excited energy and possibility of the new.

We in America are currently living through an incredibly momentous and strenuous season as a country – and for better or for worse, Aaron Copland’s work reminds me of a time in this country that is now cast in a warm orange glow of an ethereal past. A time of which I’ll never know or understand much. A time that was objectively worse in so many ways – in discrimination, life expectancy, poverty, war, etc. Yet his work brings me a peace and comfort, carrying with it a wave of longing for a time drenched in proud Americana. Of cowboys and ranches and trains and all the things a child imagines the Wild West to be. Of adventure and destiny.
The America that this music was born from is not an America to be proud of in many regards. We have taken many strides forward from the America of the early twentieth century, and for that I am extremely grateful – but even so, I dream childishly of this simpler era.

In too many areas, the problems that haunted the early twentieth century continue to plague our days and years now. Discrimination and racism are at the forefront and the loyalty and pride in the America built over the last 250 years has stumbled, becoming strenuous in the face of a divided culture, people and government.

Listening to Copland, I am struck by two things.

First: that the weight and power we give to music of the past to encompass its time period as a whole is often uncharacteristic of the past’s reality. I hear Aaron Copland’s work, and it is like looking at my own memories as a child growing up amongst my siblings at home. The strife and disagreements and fights and arguments that pervaded our lives on a nearly hourly rate have drifted conveniently out of my memory, leaving only the warm glow of happiness and nostalgia. Copland encompassed the best, most idyllic (in my mind) version of the early twentieth century, but that does not mean he captured the reality of the time.

And second: it is important to listen, to learn and to reflect on the music of the past, but we must separate the music from it’s period. The peaceful and graceful and lovely notions I hold alongside Aaron Copland’s work should not be attributed equally to the period it was created in. Those qualities should be taken independently, but instead put forward: as a template and model for what the future could look like and feel like and sound like, rather than as a masked image of what we think the past was like.

“To stop the flow of music would be like the stopping of time itself, incredible and inconceivable.”
― Aaron Copland