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Saturday morning quotes 5.1: Too much information

May 16, 2015

After a slight pause to reboot, we begin our fifth year of quotations with a loosely-themed sampling.

“Our hunger for knowledge…can distract us or keep us engaged in a lifelong quest for deep learning and understanding.  Some learning enhances our lives, some is irrelevant and simply distracts us.”

– Daniel J. Levitin, The Organized Mind, The Penguin Group, New York, 2014, p. 33.

Distraction indeed.  With a tremendous glut of information available on the internet it is now more challenging than ever to sort out the meaningful from the meaningless, making a focused pursuit of specific knowledge an exercise in organization, and requiring more time wasted in learning and troubleshooting search terms, software, keystrokes and menus.

In the not so distant past, knowledge was gained from visits to the library and reading books.  And wisdom was the result of testing knowledge through practical real-world experience. The epidemic of information overload began when television came on the scene:

“…I  believe television is going to be the test of the modern world, and that in this new opportunity to see beyond the range of our vision we shall discover either a new and unbearable disturbance of the general peace or a saving radiance in the sky.  We shall stand or fall by television—of that I am quite sure.”

– E. B. White, “Removal,” July, 1938, One Man’s Meat, Harper & Row, New York, 1983.

Television offered every household a portal through which to view the world at large, replacing domestic interactions – like making music – with a constant barrage of information and influence disguised as entertainment.  And entertainment disguised as news.  Television refined the act of targeted persuasion and set the tone for our currently over-commercialized view of the world.

“…The Founding Fathers did not foresee that tyranny by government might be superseded by another sort of problem altogether, namely, the corporate state, which through television now controls the flow of public discourse in America…Those who run television do not limit our access to information but in fact widen it. Our Ministry of Culture is Huxleyan, not Orwellian.  It does everything possible to encourage us to watch continuously.  But what we watch is a medium which presents information in a form that renders it simplistic, nonsubstantive, nonhistorical and noncontextual; that is to say, information packaged as entertainment.”

– Neil Postman, Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business, Penguin Books, New York, 1985, pp. 139-141.

Of course, such ideas are not new.

“All liberties are interrelated and are equally dangerous. Freedom in music entails freedom to feel, freedom to feel means freedom to act, and freedom to act means the ruin of states.”

–  Jean-Baptiste le Rond d’Alembert (1717 – 1783), La Liberté de la musique (1759), in Oeuvres de d’Alembert, v. 1, Slatkine, Geneva, 1967, p. 520.

Looking backwards just a few years, things were a little less complicated and music was not such a highly politicized medium. In describing the elements of good taste in harpsichord playing, François Couperin justly makes mention of les choses luthees (the things of the lute) as worthy of imitation.  But he goes further in requiring more than playing what is on the page.

“Just as there is a great distance between grammar and Eloquence, there is the same infinity between notated music and music played well…”

– François Couperin, L‘Art de toucher le clavecin, 1717

Freedom of expression in music was not bold and daring, it was expected.  As we look ahead to our fifth year of weekly quotations, the themes will touch on how musicians of the past were taught to use music as a natural means of expressive communication.

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