What set me off this time was all the recent isn’t-this-cool? coverage of the Moby-Dick “Big Read Project.” This is “an online version of Melville’s magisterial tome: each of its 135 chapters read out aloud, by a mixture of the celebrated and the unknown, to be broadcast online in a sequence of 135 downloads, publicly and freely accessible.” Hold the presses! An American literary masterpiece, full of untapped contemporary significance…yet largely unread, you say? Enter the Big Read, hybrid fruit of an academic-style summit and the Web, with celebrities and politicians signing on out of the goodness of their hearts to spread the message about the life-altering power of great literature. How could I take offense at such a noble and selfless venture?
Let me count the ways. To start, I’m not a fan of audio books. The way most people admit to using them-during long car trips to stave off boredom-is roughly akin to the widespread habit of playing CD’s in the background while eating, entertaining or engaging in some other completely unrelated activity. To me, entering the world of a fine piece of fiction, read by a gifted actor, while plummeting down the highway at 75 mph is about as dangerous as texting while driving, and the supposition that literature and music are created just to help pass the time or set a mood should be insulting to all artists. If you are unable to read due to some disability, of course audio books are wonderful and indispensable. Even so, there are already many fine recordings of Moby-Dick available (read, inexplicably, by only one person!) including free versions for immediate download. What rankles here is the growing assumption that everyone today suffers from attention deficit disorder, and must be lured in and kept still with a promise of constant novelty, whether or not this come-on is in any way appropriate to the work at hand. The multitasking Internet age, it is often claimed, has made all people so, and we can only hope to gain and hold the fickle interest of the public by constantly refreshing the cast of characters. Hence Tilda Swinton, David Cameron (!) and dozens of other celebrities and non-celebrities are brought together like a patchwork quilt to survey a work that, though certainly ranging through many characters and points-of-view, still relies crucially upon the single-voiced power of one author for its enduring brilliance and cumulative, hypnotic power. It would be nice if this quality was somewhat respected in its presentation.
OK, I will admit there is a bit of goodness in all of this. Though a not-for-profit venture, donations received by the project go to whale and dolphin conservation, and who could argue with that? I listened to the first chapter with the estimable Ms. Swinton, and she was excellent. But just don’t ask me to go beyond; all continuity and artistic architecture would be instantly shattered for me upon the entry of the next new and unrelated voice. Can you imagine a performance of Chopin’s 24 Preludes where the pianist left the stage after each one and was replaced by another player? While we’re at it, wouldn't it be irresistible if some of the performers were local amateurs, or celebrities especially trained to appear like real pianists, like on Dancing With The Stars? Yes, you might have a sell-out house, but it would have nothing at all to do with Chopin’s magnificent, highly integrated masterpiece.
As I have somehow slipped back into music-another broken promise-I've just completed a recording of Charles Ives’ Second Piano Sonata (the "Concord"), a work of similar magnitude to Moby-Dick in the realm of American art. Like that masterpiece, it is much more often discussed than actually experienced in its complex entirety. The edition of the sonata that I chose was published in 1982 by the Ives scholar and pianist John Kirkpatrick, and is itself a massive compilation of over thirty years-worth of Ives’ sketches and variants. Kirkpatrick’s goal was to bring out a version of the Concord that would recreate how the work might have sounded at its earliest conception in the 1910’s, as opposed to the highly revised and arguably less-digestible second edition of 1947. In fact, I do believe it is in many ways more playable and listenable than the later edition. Is this attempt to retell an established classic, in perhaps a more audience-friendly way, really any different in motivation than the Big Read? In choosing to perform and record it, am I any less guilty of pandering to accessibility? In my opinion there is a great difference. Regardless of Kirkpatrick’s decision to sew together, Dr. Frankenstein-like, hundreds of passages from different sources, what results is still the work of one very qualified and gifted mind in conjunction, medium-like, with another. My performance is the work of one pianist, though of course as in most all recordings, it is also the stitching together of multiple takes into a hopefully cohesive whole. But even a subconscious desire to please stops there. I would expect my listeners to attend to the music for the whole 50 minutes or so of its duration, as it is part of Ives’ design that every note on every page means something to the parts and to the whole, and the work can only reach its full emotional power in a cumulative way. I hope they would honor the quality of the recorded performance by listening somewhere other than in their car or on the subway. I expect them to be at times distracted, or even bored, and to accept the fact that it may be necessary to listen to the work-gasp!-more than once to gain understanding. This all requires a commitment to full, undivided attention as a prerequisite to a true artistic experience, and if there is a less rigorous substitute for this acquired skill, I’ve yet to discover what it is.
There is certainly justification and even a necessity for collaboration and compilation in all the art we make, up until the time it is ready to come alive. If at that point we succumb to a variety show format out of a fear of complexity, or to satisfy an assumed shortfall in the attention span of our audience, we have crossed over from the world of fine art into the world of popular entertainment, however we label it or dress it up. Backbone becomes backbeat. Though these two dominant musical worlds inevitably influence each other, sometimes in exciting and productive ways, they are not the same thing and do not usually share anywhere near the same goals. And contrary to popular belief, times have not changed that much. Both the Concord and Moby-Dick were largely neglected when they were written, and remain so today, notwithstanding the ongoing effort of marketers to present fresh, enticing interfaces. Art isn't easy, Stephen Sondheim cautions. My secret hope is that this latest scheme to please devised by the Big Read folks will eventually prove irritating enough to drive people into the desperate but ultimately fulfilling act of just reading the book for themselves, once and for all.