PessimOptimism

Graphite drawing: Self-Inflicted“Prepare for the worst but hope for the best.” It’s part of my credo, I guess, and may well have been aided in its development by doing those hilariously futile duck-and-cover atomic bomb drills of the Cold War era. And the air raid drills—we lived in a Ground Zero area near several military bases, strategic coast, and a handful of Nike missile sites in those days—fire drills, earthquake drills, tsunami drills, and later when we lived in the midwest, tornado drills. You’d think we’d all have grown up incredibly paranoid after such stuff in childhood. But I think that besides being remarkably resilient, kids use logic on such daily puzzles far better than they remember how to do when they hit adulthood and have been taught their prejudices, and are much more easily distracted and blinded by grey areas.

I don’t remember ever believing that crouching under a flimsy little wood-and-steel desk would save me even from the shrapnel of shattering windows and imploding walls in the event of an attack or large-scale disaster, particularly since I imagined the desk itself would become shrapnel along with everything else in the atomizing roar of a bombing. Little and naïve though we were, we had gleaned hints of the enormity of such things from our beginning school studies of the world history of war (skewed to our own culture’s view, of course); no matter how grownups think they’re shielding kids by sanitizing and limiting the information the wee ones are allowed to see and hear, children are quick to notice the blank spaces where redacted information interrupts the flow of facts, and no adult is more curious than a child to hunt for clues as to what was redacted. Frankly, if there really is any use for an institution like the CIA in this day and age when practically anyone can find out practically anything with the aid of easily accessible tools like the internet, cellular phone, and, apparently, privately owned drones, along with all of the more traditional tools of spy-craft, I suggest that the crew best equipped to uncover any facts not in evidence would probably be a band of children all under the age of about twelve.

Meanwhile, we still have large numbers of people who think it prudent to withhold or skew the information passed along to not only kids but even fellow adults, giving out misguided or even malevolent half-truths or remaining stubbornly silent and in full denial about things considered too dark for others’ knowledge. And what do we gain from this? Are there truly adults among us who still think that even smallish tots can’t quickly discern the differences between a fable or fairytale, no matter how brutish and gory it may be, and the dangers and trials of real-world trouble? Does delusion or deception serve any purpose, in the long run, other than to steer us all off course in search of firmer, more reliable realities?

As I just wrote to my dear friend Desi, it seems to me that the majority of humans always assume a fight-or-flight stance in new or unfamiliar circumstances before allowing that these might be mere puzzles to decipher, and more importantly, we assume the obvious solution to be that whatever is most quickly discernible as different from self IS the problem. Therefore, if I’m white, then non-white is the problem; if I’m female, then male. Ad infinitum. And we’re generally not satisfied with identifying differentness as problematic until we define it as threatening or evil. This, of course, only scratches the surface—quite literally, as the moment we get past visible differences we hunt for the non-visible ones like sexual orientation, religious or political beliefs, and so on.

Unless and until we can change this horribly wrongheaded approach on a large scale, we’ll always have these awful problems, from petty playground scuffles right into the middle of the final mushroom cloud. The so-called justice systems of the world are set up and operated by the same flawed humans who make individual judgements, so the cycle is reinforced at all levels. Sometimes it truly makes me wonder how we’ve lasted this long.

Can we learn from kids? The younger the person, the more likely to blurt out the truth, whether it’s welcome or not. The subtleties of subterfuge are mostly wasted on children, who unless they’re engaged in happy storytelling for purposes of amusement and amazement, would rather be actively puzzling out the wonders of life than mucking about in search of evasive answers and duck-and-cover maneuvers. We might gain a great deal by reverting a little to a more innocent and simplistic view of the universe, one that blithely assumes that others are not always out to get us, that direness and doom aren’t lying open-jawed around every blind corner, and that the great powers of the internet and cell phones might just as well bear cheery tidings of goodness and kindness, and drones be removed from deployment as spies and weapons to work instead at delivering birthday presents to friends and packets of food to hungry strangers.

I’m not fooled into thinking any of this is easy to do, any more than any savvy kid would be, but I’m willing to believe it’s possible if more and more of us will commit to such ideals.

Röda tråden (The Red Thread)

Röda tråden is the Swedish phrase for connectivity. I learned it from my husband, who in turn learned it during his dissertation studies on modern Swedish choral history, and in a way it’s the perfect encapsulation of what his research revealed: that the astonishingly deep and broad influence of such a small country, in such a short time, on such a large field as Western choir singing and music came about primarily because of the remarkable and unique confluence and joining together of a huge number of events, people, ideas and resources in that little land at the end of the Second World War. As unimaginably terrible as war is on any scale, it’s all the more a testament to connectedness that at the end of one of the largest we’ve known, such good and meaningful and positive elements were all drawn into one significant, beautiful growth spurt in the art of singing together.digital illustrationAs a miniature of String Theory in the arts, this surge of the choral art in Sweden is notable (no musical pun intended) not only because it posits a reasonably substantial explanation for the larger choral sector’s modern expansive development amid the general devastation and struggle following the end of WWII, but also because in doing so it illustrates wonderfully how the intertwining of all sorts of seemingly disparate elements such as safe havens from political unrest and postwar reevaluation of norms, personal and professional relationships and experimentation with new media could come into contact and interact to create a new mode of thinking, acting, composing, teaching and singing. In turn, this is a striking model of how people from distinct cultures, educational backgrounds, economic resources and political systems and of widely varying personalities, unified by the one tiny thread of choral music, could be pulled together into a complicated system that, though still colorfully messy and imperfect, led to a potent common end that has had lasting and marvelous influence for long and fruitful decades since.

I am, of course, grateful on a personal level because this Swedish postwar influence on Western choral culture has not only enriched my husband’s professional and artistic endeavors–not to mention was the basis for his award-winning doctoral dissertation that in turn opened a lot of friendly doors to us both in Sweden–but because it produced so much spectacular music and inspiration for so much more.

digital illustration

Röda Tråden is the Swedish version of the idea that–indeed literally–fascinates so many of us: the connecting thread–that which binds one thing to another. I can think of nothing greater than to spend life seeking the Red Thread that shows us our commonalities and binds all people together as well.

Further, though, I am grateful that such an otherwise inexplicable event as the ‘Swedish Choral Miracle‘ seems to me ample proof that all things and people really are connected. And that through recognizing and making good use of those connections, however, odd or tenuous they may appear, there is hope for new and better songs to be sung everywhere.

If I needed further proof of this, last night’s concert gave it amply. My spouse conducted the combined forces of the Chancel Choir of the church where he’s currently interim choirmaster plus their excellent hired pro orchestra in performing Haydn and Dvorak’s two settings of the Te Deum text as the concert opening and closing, respectively, bookending the extraordinarily lovely and moving Missa Brevis of Kodaly. I came in to sit for the concert among strangers and acquaintances from the church and discovered a friend from another parish sitting across the aisle from me, then learned from one of the choir administrators that a friend of hers in attendance turned out to be a long-ago colleague of my husband’s from another state, and finally went up to greet my guy after the concert and found him speaking with a group of ladies in the front row, one of whom was the wife of a former US president. What brought all of us divergent people together in this moment? Music. Beautiful singing and playing. Chance, kismet, divine intervention. Call it what you will, the slender but unbreakable thread that connects us all drew us into one place for a time of basking in the inscrutably beautiful harmony that is beyond craft, beyond art. That is a concert without peer.