IT

Robin Wallace

I’ve been invited to make some guest posts for the summer, so I’ll start by introducing myself. Unlike Phil, I’m in Texas for the duration, which right now means mid-90s every day and very little rain (it’ll be mid-100s by August). Lawn-watering is a major occupation. I teach at the extremely Baptist Baylor University.
Musicology is in my blood. I had a family member in the profession, which means that (unlike, I’ve come to realize, practically everybody else) I grew up with “musicologist” as a professional career option, somewhere in there with “doctor” and “nuclear physicist” and decidedly above “lawyer” in terms of desirability.
When I started teaching in 1984, I was a discontented young soul. I was interested in writing about meaning and spiritual values in music, and I was impatient with watermarks and archives. Over the next ten years or so, I watched the field (my family heritage, remember!) change course dramatically. The result was that I was now impatient with gender studies and politics. Not enough people were getting IT.
What IT is is hard to define, but that’s what I’m here for, so I’ll try. Music is a human product./Music is a medium of the spirit. Music is a concrete language of human emotions./Music expresses the inexpressible. Music is earthy./Music is divine. Music is a reflection of society and its values./Music can serve as the basis for philosophical inquiry in its own right.
Each of these pairs of statements may seem to contradict each other. They don’t. That’s IT.
In recent years, the middle ground has been re-emerging, much like a sunken batholith from beneath a continental shelf. It’s slow, but it’s rock solid. It may contain precious crystals. As Oscar Wilde said: “I don’t ask for much. Just the very best of everything, and there’s so very little of that.”
I remain concerned, though, because the zeitgeist in academia is still against the discussion of the universal elements that form the crystals within the rock: against, in fact, the very idea that such crystals are there at all, or that we would want them if they were. So I would welcome responses along the lines of: “What have been my experiences of IT in music?” “What are the moments when I have known that IT was there?” Surely you know what I’m talking about. These moments may be politically incorrect and hard to describe, but I bet you’ve all had them, and would like to talk about them.
Consider this an invitation.

About Phil Ford

Chairman of the Committee for the Memorial to the Victims of Modernism
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7 Responses to IT

  1. Jonathan says:

    Welcome, Robin! Looks like I’m first.
    Just after I graduated, I stayed a couple of quarters at UCSB, accompanying ballet classes and getting ready for graduate school. Alicia de Laroccha gave a recital and, among other heart-stopping works, played the Bach-Busoni Chaconne. Now, I had not been all that familiar with the Chaconne itself up to that point, and it was earth-shattering: architecture, varieties of tone, pacing, trajectory, textures, the whole bit. I was basically gibbering afterward–that was the end of the first half. The girl I was with (some blonde–also a piano major) carped at me–how could I have reacted that way after the incredible English Suite she just played?!
    I married her anyway, later. She stayed with me anyway, despite my Philistinism and the fact that I insisted on learning the piece later (and she heard it for hours on end). And it’s a mixed marriage: Baroque on the one side, nineteenth century on the other. But ultmately, that performance was like getting the tablets from Mt. Sinai, even if in translation: time just stopped, and I’ve never forgotten IT.

  2. The probable fact that as one person in an audience is “…getting the tablets from Mt. Sinai”, and another person (maybe only one seat away) is secretly praying that the racket would end, implies that rather then the music itself, the IT might reside in what each member of the audience brings to the music.
    Having returned to school and musicology in mid-life, I find myself drawn to the new empiricism. As also reported by many scientists, I have found the work of those in music perception & cognition amplifies the grand wonderment of, and appreciation for IT.
    As to my experience of IT, I try to get IT at least once a week, still 😉 I have a very eclectic IT taste, and can’t predict IT. If I try to generate IT for myself, I find inconsistancy and at best, a kind of ersatz, less satisfying IT.

  3. Phil Ford says:

    Interesting . . . in “Visions of Cody,” Jack Kerouac wrote up an exchange between himself and Neal Cassady about the IT (similarly capitalized). The IT is “the great moment of rapport all around,” a moment where everyone — musicians and listeners — click into a moment of total mutual awareness and understanding through the abstract medium of music.

  4. Galen says:

    Hi Robin,
    What I find interesting is that while I disagree with your assessment of “It” (I have philosophical problems with most of the statements you ascribe to “It,” but I’ll spare you the in-depth rebuttal), there’s something going on that _persuades so many people_ that “It” exists in the way you think of it. I think that’s pretty remarkable.
    The reason it works that way presumably gets deep into areas of neuroscience and evolution that we haven’t figured out yet, and that I certainly don’t understand, but I’m awfully glad our brains work that way.
    What I’m suggesting is that the things we experience as “IT” itself are actually the delicious byproducts of a different underlying phenomenon. So for instance, Music isn’t actually Divine, but through some sort of fascinating neurological process it stimulates the parts of our brain that handle our conception of the divine.
    That doesn’t change the fact that great (or perhaps I should say memetically successful) music makes us feel really good 🙂

  5. Robin Wallace says:

    Galen –
    Thanks for these thoughtful comments. My only possible response – and it will sound like a non-response to many – is to quote Jung to the effect that just because you’ve explained something, you haven’t necessarily explained it away.

  6. I don’t know that it’s a non-response, but I actually don’t mean to be “explaining it away,” merely claiming that the “It” factor comes from a different place than we might think. To use a fairly clumsy analogy, I don’t think we were created by a supreme being as a lot of people do, but I’m fairly sure we exist, and I’m glad we do 🙂

  7. Robin Wallace says:

    Self-revelation time: It happens that I do believe in God. Saying so convincingly in academic writing is a huge challenge, of course. One of the wonderful things about blogging is that you can say whatever you want to without having to run it by anybody else. I’ll try to get something up later this summer on the challenges of using the “G-word” in academia. 🙂

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