Making a joyful noise -- the case for music

AS a television season headed for its last week of ratings, with Bobby dying on ``Dallas'' and a wedding-scene murder on ``Dynasty,'' an innocent bystander could not help marveling at what a gloomy business escapist entertainment has become. Here is soap opera, the old-fashioned affirmer of the American family, devising plots that make Eugene O'Neill look like a sunny optimist.

The movies -- once the designated home of the Happy Ending -- now define as a jolly last scene one that finds Sylvester (``Rambo'') Stallone or Clint (``Dirty Harry'') Eastwood standing with a smoking gun in the middle of a cast of a hundred corpses.

Whatever became of Walt Disney, not to mention Shirley Temple?

In the theater Neil Simon wants to make us weep, too -- or at least think -- while ``musical'' has become a term as likely to be followed by ``tragedy'' as ``comedy.''

Lugubrious novels about mad international terrorists are the right stuff for the best-seller list, along with a little domestic terrorism from Stephen King, with his Gothic gropings on Main Street.

No wonder the nonfiction best-seller list consists of self-help books telling us how to flatten our tummies, make a million dollars in real estate, and generally cheer up.

We're not talking about ``modernism.'' We're not talking -- again! -- about how that old team-player, the Serious Artist, gave up telling stories around the campfire or fiddling for the dancers on the village green and went off by himself to become lonely and alienated and very, very cranky on the subject of ordinary life.

We're talking about pop goods. We're talking about how this dark, ``modernist'' vision of life has taken over what used to be the bright and upbeat (if often banal) world of commercial entertainment.

Whatever became of the unwritten contract of art to uplift, to inspire -- at the minimum, to make one feel good?

From highbrow to lowbrow, all art has tended to turn into what the critic Harold Rosenberg called ``the anxious object.''

This ``modernism'' -- this skepticism pushed to the edge of chaos -- has opened our eyes to new modes of perception and taught us all kinds of hard truths. But it has provided little consolation, and now that even our pop arts are being insincerely depressing -- as once they were insincerely cheering -- we find ourselves in a bad way.

To be made gloomy by a potboiler is just too much!

But one oasis remains: music.

Music continues to be festive -- a celebration -- as if nothing ``modern'' ever happened.

The virtues (and limits) of dissonance have become part of the ear's grammar. But unlike the other arts, ``modern'' music does not seem to distance us from the past. In this 300th anniversary year we have a natural and easy access to Bach; we fail to connect so immediately, so personally, to the literature, for instance, or even the architecture of Bach's day.

``Without music, life would be a mistake,'' Nietzsche said, with his usual gift for avoiding understatement. But after noting his penchant for hitting the high notes, fortissimo, we must recognize that he speaks most especially for us.

How few ``moderns,'' starved on the shortage of delight in the other arts, could bear to start their day without some song to set the cadence, the rhythm, the very order of their existence.

Nietzsche, that most disturbed, that least philosophical, of philosophers, found music ``so happy . . . so settled'' -- everything he felt modern life was not.

It is as if music were the last joy he -- and we -- can trust.

``Cheerful'' was the word this lugubrious man used to describe Bizet, and then Mozart.

The 1980s seem to belong to Mozart. Our history moves like Wagner -- to the sound of ``earthquake'' and ``victors in triumphal chariots,'' as Nietzsche described Wagnerian brass. But never mind history. Never mind ``modernism,'' and ``postmodernism.'' Something sweet and lyrical in us dances to a minuet by Mozart.

Music -- the universe as grace notes -- may be the salvation of us yet, teaching us how to put back together into wholeness all the Humpty Dumptys we have so brilliantly shattered into fragments -- including the other arts.

In the film version of James Dickey's ``Deliverance'' -- a story about nothing but the brutal divisiveness of modern life -- there is a scene where a city slicker from Atlanta pulls out a guitar while waiting for gas at a backwoods store. He is a stranger in a strange land -- and indeed a self-divided man within himself, a true ``modern.'' But as he strums, his chords are echoed by a banjo from the porch nearby. The fugue goes on, faster and more complex with each passing phrase. The old man pumping gas begins to dance. Then guitar and banjo finally join in an exuberant duet. For a brief moment, the whole world is in harmony -- the whole world is in step.

A Wednesday and Friday column

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