Formosa: An Essay by Bill Morelock

by Bill Morelock, Minnesota Public Radio
November 21, 2011

St. Paul, Minn. — Every explorer names his island Formosa, beautiful. To him it is beautiful because, being first, he has access to it and can see it for what it is. But to no one else is it ever as beautiful, except for the rare individual who manages to recover it, who knows that it has to be recovered. — Walker Percy “The Loss of the Creature”

Here, in a musical context, may be the kind of thing Percy is getting at: You're walking through the skyway on your way to an orchestra concert. There at the turn of the corridor a young woman is playing a violin. Her instrument case is open on the floor. She's playing something aching. Bach, maybe, though you're not sure. As you approach, you see that she's absorbed in the music; her eyes are closed. There are a few scattered bills and coins in the case, a couple of fives. You drop in a few dollars yourself. She nods almost imperceptibly, without opening her eyes. You continue on down the corridor. Who knew the skyway could be so acoustically rewarding?

How do we compare this experience with the admittedly astounding formal presentation you witness in the next couple of hours? Or do we even bother? After all, a street musician and a first-class symphony orchestra — there is no comparison. And yet the encounter with the girl and the Bach and the nod are indisputably yours; with the concert the issue is not so clear. And when, perhaps by accident, you hear that music again, you'll likely feel a authentic thrill. It's your discovery, you call it beautiful, and you've forever recovered a bit of Bach for yourself. What will you manage to recover from the first-rate orchestral experience?

The opportunity to name something for ourselves has a lot to do with how we experience it. And if we are latecomers to classical music (and we're all latecomers to some degree) we find that everything has already been named, in a towering catalogue of rigid categories and technical minutiae. Experts with access to arcane secrets tell us what's good and why. All this before we've enjoyed a single sound. It's an art form as specialized and demanding as architecture or mathematics — and yet it tries and must try to operate as entertainment as well as a field of serious study. Tall order!

So what is it that's happened in our skyway scenario? What's been achieved? What's been avoided? These aren't rhetorical questions, but the answers, likely, are rhetorically complex.

The point here is not to shun formal ensembles or the variety available on the radio in favor of the accidental potency of the skyway experience. That was a chance romance. It found you. Wait for it to happen again and you may begin to feel jilted.

Yet, it was real, and it was significant.

Presenters of this music — orchestras, small ensembles, and of course this radio station — are perpetually worried about the Future of Classical Music. The hard fact they face is that the great majority of people regard this music with the same level of curiosity they devote to the dark side of the moon. There are grand plans afoot to address this situation: more education, more outreach, more flash, more fun. You can't believe the good intentions. They'll have an effect. It's hard to say how much.

As listeners we have a crucial role to play. It amounts to this: the refusal to remain mere consumers of an experience. There's a certain art in training our imaginations to be supple enough to accept technical expertise, to acknowledge the nuances that may deepen our listening, and yet retain sovereignty over what we see and hear.

We're not only allowed to step in and name what's meaningful to us and why, it's practically part of the contract between artists and ourselves. Presenters of classical music can only offer us the art, framed as attractively and meaningfully as possible. But try as they might, they can't give us that skyway experience.

So we actually can revisit the essence of the skyway reverie — not by waiting, but through a creative struggle, a particular engagement. Look for case studies (of a sort) on this struggle in the weeks to come. Their common theme is a neglected element in this discussion: our individual imaginations. The music may very well live or die, as a vital part of our culture, on our willingness to recover it for ourselves; live or die as it exists, or not, as essential sounds in our heads that we name Formosa, beautiful.

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