A Close Encounter with J.S. Bach (of the 4th Kind)
Transsexual Guitars
Of Ducks, Music, and Cultural Relativism

CRAPS Lectures, University of Chicago, Chicago, December 7, 2007

A Close Encounter (of the 4th Kind) with J.S. Bach

I guess you probably found yourself, at least once, in that rather awkward situation, when you go to the restroom, and right there and then you meet someone important, someone you very badly wish to talk to and get to know better – but not certainly in that kind of a place! Pretty embarrassing, isn’t it? When it happens, we never exactly know what to do; whether to just say hallo, smile, say something more, or nothing at all, or simply leave the restroom as soon as possible – maybe, even before doing what we were there to do.

Well, such encounters, in the restroom, unexpected and embarrassing, I call, “close encounter of the 4th Kind”. Now, you may wonder what that may have to do with Bach at all. Let me tell you.

One day a friend of mine met me at the airport of Roanoke, Virginia, to take me to Blacksburg. We were in the middle of a hot Summer. So, we thought we could first of all have lunch in an air-conditioned restaurant which was part of a rather big and pretentious hotel located nearby. So hot it was outdoors, and so cold the air-conditioning made it indoors. Everything seemed so clean, sterilized. The restaurant was large, and almost empty, so very few people around. And everywhere piped music. Really an unusual place, almost spooky, and little did I know, what experience I was going to have in the following minutes.  

While waiting for the meal, decided to visit the Man’s room. And there it was, large, luxurious, clean, with marble sinks and even gold-plated taps. I felt uncomfortable but, nonetheless, I directed myself to the place where I could do what I had in mind to do. I was alone there, and something was really strange. I knew it, but I just could not put my finger on it. Or, at least, it took me a few seconds to realize what really was the matter. Exactly when I was about to…there it was, it dawned on me: it was the soft music reverberating from sing to sink and from toilet to toilet: Bach, the IX Prelude and Fugue from the Well-tempered Clavier : The one in E Major. You know, that kind of music is almost sacred for a Western musician. It was not easy to go ahead and fulfil the reason for my going to the Men’s room – with that kind of background! But somehow I did it. But, just think about it. In that moment of urgent physiological urge, for its release I had the accompaniment of Bach’s Well Tempered Clavier.

Certainly, neither Mendelssohn when in 1829 he gave a strong impulse to the rediscovery of Bach, by performing the Matthew Passion, nor Schumann, when in 1850 he founded the “Bach Gesellschaft” to help promote the music of the Old Master, they would have ever imagined how successful they were going to be. They never anticipated, I am sure, that their authority as opinion-makers would have succeeded to make Bach so popular, to the extent that his music is now available even in the restrooms – albeit of elegant hotels.

If you are a composer and your music is piped in elevators, hospitals and supermarkets –  I suppose, that’s fine, that’s ok. But if it can be heard between the noise of flushing toilets, then, I guess, by today’s standards – that’s when you have really made it!

Transsexual Guitars (you can read this story, only if you are 18 or older)

Let me be very clear. Musical instruments are not really sexual in any biological sense of the word. To be sure, they do not reproduce themselves. That is, if you leave alone in the same room two grand pianos, there is no chance that – nine months later – you will ever get a baby-grand. But instruments do have “gender” (and here I am not speaking of the “diatonic”, the “chromatic”, and the “enharmonic”). Instruments have gender because they reflect the gender sensitivity of human cultures.

You may have noticed how, in our society, we use instruments that were once mostly played by men, and others mostly by women. And you may also have noticed how this is changing, as gender is progressively interpreted in more flexible terms.

In most other cultures gender attitudes are often less flexible, and the flute (considered a phallic symbol) is frequently “tabu” for women, who are not allowed to play it or even to look at it. Intriguingly, it was the other way around in the West, where up until fairly recent times, the flute was an instrument for women; as if by playing it a man might show some kind of a latent homosexuality.

What I am trying to say is that, while in tribal societies instruments carry clear-cut gender connotations, in ours the situation is right now a bit fuzzy. We have instruments that we preferably find in the hands of men, and others in the hands of women. We have instrument like the guitar and the violin, whose shape has a pleasant feminine look, and yet they are played by men and women without distinction. Director Federico Fellini, in his film Orchestra Rehearsal, has some of his characters discuss whether the violin is a “male” (because of its perforating sound) or “female” because of its shape. The question is, therefore, open.

We also have instruments who only exist in one musical genre (oboe and bassoon, for instance). Others that easily move from one genre to another (the piano and the violin). Others still, in order to move across genres, may need to change their gender connotation. The guitar, once a feminine classical and folk instruments, in order to be accepted in rock bands had to change its gender connotation altogether, undergo surgery, so to say, and become a transsexual instrument. No hormone therapy was needed for the transition, but the transformation was quite drastic nonetheless.

Just think of how shapely and feminine the classical guitar is. Consider how sensually the guitar-player embraces its instrument in order to get the sound he likes. And consider, on the contrary, how things changed when Elvis still had a shapely and rather feminine kind of guitar, but no longer wanted to embrace it. And consider what happened shortly after. The rock guitar is indeed the result of a sex change operation. Just look at its body, lean and dry, and how overdeveloped is the handle is in proportion to the body. Observe how musicians hold it, hanging it pretty much where their reproductive organ is located. Observe how aggressively it is brandished. You do not need a shrink to see that means. The rock guitar is brandished by male musicians, as if it were an extension… of their penis. And at times you may even read on their faces a sense of frustration. As if they meant to say: …I wish I had it that long. And in any case, just consider the masturbatory movements of their hand in plucking the strings. Whether that helps to overcome their inferiority, I do not really know.

One thing is certain: in the course of its long existence the guitar has seen a lot of change. Once it was known in Europe as kaitara arabija, and would remind people of the mysterious lands of the Orient. Then it became folk instrument, a flamenco instrument, a classical music instrument, a pop and jazz instrument and, finally it even underwent a sex change operation. Life is unpredictable, often adventurous – even for musical instruments.

Of Ducks, Music, and Cultural Relativism

American Philosopher Robert Nozick, once brilliantly answered relativists who maintain that the truth only depends on your angle of observation. Nozick said that the statement “all is relative” can either be “absolute” (in which case it contradicts itself), or “relative”, in which other case it lacks all general validity. I quite agree. Not everything is relative, but among human cultures, values and forms of behaviour often are. For instance, it is difficult to understand a person, or a social group, without grasping its experience of history and its worldview. And this may be true as well for the many forms of animal life inhabiting our planet. And, unfortunately, we do not know how the world appears to a horse, a snake, or a fly; and that is something I started to consider a few weeks ago.

I was in Lugano by the lake, sitting on a bench and reading a magazine. I like to do that –  the view is pleasant and I get to see many lovely birds. I like ducks, in particular, they are so different from one another, and each one of them manifests a distinctive personality. Just, one day, I realized that rather than being the observer, I had become the object of observation by one of them.

There was this duck who approached me and stood still a few feet away from my bench, staring at me! Pretty embarrassing. I did not know what to do. I tried to smile – because smiling increases your “face value”. But then, he or she, moved a few steps to left, and then to the right, and again stared at me, as if to get a better view of this funny human being. It felt strange to be the object of such curiosity; and, let me tell you, at that point, I almost had the impression I could hear what the duck was thinking. Something like: “How ugly you are. You  poor thing! You have no beak, you have no webbed hands, and you cannot even fly! – What kind of a life is that! You know what, if I were you I would probably simply kill myself.

No doubt, that was the work of my imagination. This train of thoughts, however, did help me understand that – from the point of view of a duck – capable of flying, and orienting itself on a continental scale, a poor thing like myself, who easily gets lost not just in Chicago, but even in the much smaller city of Zurich, is undoubtedly an inferior form of life. I might think I am superior to a duck, because I can play the piano. But ducks probably do not consider piano-playing that important at all. Points of view, that’s what they are. But they count, especially in matters of culture and art.

Do you know the story told by musicologist Curt Sachs, of that one gusle-player from Montenegro who one day, in Germany, heard Beethoven’s Ninth, and commented the music was not at all disagreeable, but nonetheless “rather naïve”. And Curt Sachs explained how the man was neither an incompetent nor an idiot – but simply was judging by the standard of his native culture, where people like additive rhythms of the aksák type, rather than our simple binary or ternary meters. And, of course, that one gusle-player, so sensitive to the metrical organization of music, could not appreciate Beethoven’s thematic development. And there we are: so much our culture allows us to see things that in other cultures are invisible or irrelevant, and just as much makes it impossible for us to see and appreciate things that others grasp very easily, and for us will remain invisible or irrelevant.

All this I would have liked to be able to explain to that duck staring at me; to make it clear that, even without a beak, even without webbed hands and feet, and no ability to fly at all, life, nonetheless, can be worth living – even for an inferior animal like myself.