An(y) Occasion

Music is a temporal art. A song takes a couple minutes. An opera – a couple hours. That much is obvious.

But imagine, for instance, that you were invited to the grand opening of a new show at a gallery. ‘Get there at 6:00’ the advertisement says. On the dot, paintings will be put up for 3 minutes and then taken down. If you get there at 6:04 you are out of luck. The paintings will be gone.

First we have the duration of the music. This duration is then nestled within a date and time of day. For the music to be enjoyed we must be there when it occurs. French philosopher Paul Valéry writes about this dependence in a short essay titled “The Conquest of Ubiquity”. “Formerly”, he writes, “we could not enjoy music at our own time, according to our own mood. We were dependent for our enjoyment on an occasion, a place, a date, and a program. How many coincidences were needed!”

Notice the past tense. These coincidences are now shattered: “we are liberated from a servitude so contrary to pleasure and, by that same token, to the most sensitive appreciation of works of music.” Valéry finds the occasion stifling our own freedom to hear a piece whenever we like. It restricts, as he puts it, our ability to “choose the moment of enjoyment, to savor the pleasure when not only our mind desires it, but our soul and whole being craves and as it were anticipates it…”

Thanks to technology, music is now ubiquitous. Now, occasion is not something thrust upon us but something we can choose freely. “In recorded music”, Valéry declares, “the work of composer or performer finds the conditions essential to the most perfect aesthetic returns.” A work can now be listened to when someone wants it, needs that composer’s art to resound in one’s being.

Paul Valéry’s ‘now’, however, is not ours. The essay was written in 1928. Regardless of what we now consider antiquated technology, music was finding its way out of time pre-established. It could now be on our own clock. We now take that as a given more than ever. Even an album’s release date can be taken as a suggestion with pirated streams up days before.

Lightness, especially in regards to mobility, is a fundamental characteristic of music. It progressed in Valéry’s ‘now’ with the phonograph and has gone further with the MP3. Taking the physicality of musicians out of the equation, lightness allows for music’s ease of accessibility. It is important for us to try and understand music’s lightness on a historical and cultural level.


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