Tuesday, March 10, 2015

Sheet Music Politics

Sheet Music Politics

This past week, the last New York City bricks and mortar store that sold sheet music rang up the cash register for a final time.  It wasn’t a pretty tune.  The business is dying—the world has changed, and everyone buys their sheet music on line--or downloads it but doesn’t pay for it—or gets someone else’s score and scans or copies it.

When I first heard about the imminent demise of this mecca, I immediately texted my daughter, who is a conservatory student.  I got an almost instantaneous response, the content of which showed me that she might be a teenager, but already she is becoming sophisticated in the ways of people who try to make a living at music—I should only buy things if they are on sale. 

I ignored this.  First, I felt a going out of business sale would mean good prices—after all, the luggage store across the street was offering up to 90% discounts on their “lost-their lease” clearance.  Secondly, I wanted the feeling of going into a great old store, like Argosy, or Strand, and just soaking in all the atmosphere of being surrounded by works of genius.  In my mind’s eye, musicians (and parents who look after them?) would crowd the halls, looking for each scrap, cherishing each note.  If, by some chance, I paid a couple of bucks more for a real version, not some dusty used one, so what?  It would be special. 

The building was perfect—old time New York City pre-war-worn-to-a-nub. The elevator creaked charmingly, opening up to a floor that had been divided into practice rooms, studios, and the obscure object of my search (I walked past it as I came in.)  From the floor above I heard a baritone warming up.  I was psyched.  Tosca and Tristan are what my daughter wanted, and Tosca and Tristan was my mission.  I would not fail. 

The owner had them.  In fact, she had different versions of each, leading me to ignore the “no cell-phone" sign I missed, and call the child in question for guidance.  We decided on the Schirmer Tristan and I picked the Ricordi Tosca with the excellent footnotes.  Ringing off, with a second “don’t buy it unless it’s on sale” ringing in my ears, I made my purchase.  The books were placed into a nice store envelope, to give it an extra touch of formality, and I walked out, past real musicians thumbing through sanctified pages.  I felt good—out of all this digital air, I would give her the real thing, something she could write in and make her own.  I imagined her studying, annotating, going to them again and again until they became like beloved, worn slippers.

It helped that I was clueless. No only did I have no idea how much these things were supposed to cost but they weren’t even marked.  So, I paid what the owner asked, and left with my treasures tucked inside my raincoat.  Suffice to say, it was not my shrewdest purchase of all time, but I will chalk it up to a paying a premium for the experience.  The scores, over-priced or not, will go to good use.

Yet, there was something about this that just didn’t sit right with me.  The store first opened in 1937—it seemed a shame to see it fade into irrelevance, especially since it still sold something of value.  The owner simply could not adapt to changing circumstances—the only visible evidence of even 80’s modernity was an old calculator.  Everything else could have been done by gaslight.  In the end, she was left with a diminished product wedded to an unviable business model.  Maybe there was no way out, but she had clearly made the conscious decision not to try.  She just couldn’t wean herself from the old ways. 

I couldn’t get this experience out of my system; it struck me as so resonant with the messy wider world we live in and the hapless way we are dealing with it.  Just as there are no certainties in business, there are no certainties in the marketplace of political ideas.  Things change, and ideally political parties change with them.  That is hard to do on the fly, because many of their adherents still believe in that old time religion, and because too much of modern politics is about taking. It’s far easier to justify that taking—either liberty or property—by couching it terms intended to imply Constitutional fealty and moral force.  That gives it a virtue that purely secular motives, even those ostensibly for the common good, cannot approach. Ross Douthat, the conservative columnist for the New York Times, makes this argument in the context of human advancement in The Case for Old Ideas.New ideas, rooted in scientific understanding, did help bring societies through the turbulence of industrialization. But the reformers who made the biggest differences — the ones who worked in the slums and with the displaced, attacked cruelties and pushed for social reforms, rebuilt community after it melted into air — often blended innovations with very old moral and religious commitments.”

What is fascinating about Douthat’s piece is what it does not say. He wants innovation wedded to faith—his kind of faith.  But the linkage between “very old moral and religious commitments” has been tested severely by the coopting of the language of religion to justify the use of purely political force to limit freedom. And, there has been a bifurcation, in both parties, in a way that Douthat fails to acknowledge.  The Democrats are far more likely to encourage the social reforms that Douthat professes to admire, albeit it in a secular, government-directed way.  The Republicans have embraced Douthat’s personal religious fervor and desire to proselytize, but have withdrawn from the pastoral aspects.  The true reformers, people like William Lloyd Garrison and Jane Addams, whose passion for justice were clearly influenced by their faith, would probably have felt unwelcome—in both parties.

I think that people in the great middle of the electorate sense this inconsistency as a bankruptcy of conscience, and are looking for a way out. They really do believe this country is the greatest place on Earth, and they wonder when their leaders will be worthy of our heritage. They know that businesses don’t succeed when they turn aside customers—to thrive, you have to adapt and grow.  

That is really the point--to be part of something bigger. As Lincoln, our Poet Laureate once said.  “We can succeed only by concert. It is not "can any of us imagine better” but "can we all do better?" The dogmas of the quiet past are inadequate to the stormy present. The occasion is piled high with difficulty, and we must rise -- with the occasion. As our case is new, so we must think anew, and act anew. We must disenthrall ourselves, and then we shall save our country.”

The Sheet Music lady couldn't disenthrall herself from the old assumptions, until it came time to close the store.  Will politicians take the hint?   Will they disenthrall themselves before we disenthrall ourselves of them? .   

March 10, 2015

Michael Liss (Moderate Moderator)

Join us on Twitter.