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9. Some Opportunity Costs in Music

Once when I was investigating the available recorded performances of Sorabji’s piano compositions, I made a short comment on Amazon about playing or listening to Sorabji’s Opus Clavicembalisticum, a composition for solo piano with the playing taking four hours. A living creature, being mortal, possesses just so much Time. For immortals there would be no scarcity of time and no economic problem with it. Whenever a supply of a good is scarce, then an economic problem occurs. We have known that for quite a while. Nearly three thousand years ago, Hesiod sang that when the wine barrel is full drink thoughtlessly, but when it is almost empty think carefully about every swallow. That is true in all human activities. What I said on Amazon about many-hours-long pieces of solo piano music follows:

“Even for many serious music-lovers, Sorabji's Opus Clavicembalisticum has an opportunity cost too great. Perhaps musicologists, poseurs, and musical geniuses can reasonably find the time for it. For the rest of us, it lies in the stage of negative marginal returns. I am not a critic of Sorabji, nor do I object to ne plus ultra complexity. I believe artists should do whatever they want. But whether it is Finnigan's Wake or grocery boxes nailed to the museum wall, some art is primarily cult material. A cult, one should remember, is not necessarily an elite.”

My remarks annoyed an intelligent reader who commented, “Sorry, I’m no Sorabji cultist and only lukewarm about his music, but this review is econo-babble posing as music criticism.”

I had that coming. I think the annoyed remark was at least half right, or putting it oppositely I was half wrong. Surely some listeners to Sorbji’s long piano pieces (one of them stretches to eleven hours) are not musicologists, cultists, poseurs, or geniuses. They may just find it pleasurable listening to a pianist paging without repetitions for four hours through the 253 pages of the Clavicembalisticum on the piano’s music stand. That may be the way they would rather spend their scarce Time than on some other music. Perhaps I would be one of them if I tried. I only suspect such enduringly patient listeners of that sort will be few. I delight in Sorabji’s acid comments about the likes of me. We children of the lesser gods have never been on the top of Sorabji’s Everest. If he is as great a composer as his devotees think, then he is quite right to dismiss my kind as ignoranti. My exposure to his music has been limited to a few hours in which the opportunity cost was well worth it.  But art is long and Time is fleeting.

As for econo-babble, an opportunity cost refers to the loss of other things we could have done if we had not done this action instead. Negative marginal returns means that each new thing we are doing in a particular activity is costing more than it is worth. Obviously, my Amazon remarks were not a review of the Clavicembalisticum, which I have never even heard. I am simply asking: When selecting from a million hours of musical compositions what will we decide to hear, and why will we decide it?

The first music teacher I ever had was as a high school freshman. Miss Sizer was a beautiful woman who ran a delightful classroom that caught my attention with Grieg. She gave me a ticket to the Cincinnati Symphony under the baton of Eugene Goossens before his great career was destroyed by Philistines in one of the sad stories of music history. I enjoyed that afternoon of music enough to remember it the rest of my life. When my teacher asked me about the performance, I used half of my teenage wit to tell her the number of light bulbs I had counted in the ceiling of the music hall. Her face fell with disappointment. My reverence for that teacher was a smile in the dark. As King James tells us, we do entertain angels unawares. Still, how many angels are unaware that they have visited a person aware of them? Because of Miss Sizer I got the habit of listening to classical music on the radio, usually just before falling asleep at night, listening intently with the lights out in the room but with the lights turned on inside my mind.

My sailor days in the Second World War had limited opportunities for music. In boot camp, I sang in the Great Lakes Naval Choir every Sunday and on the national radio as well. I got out of that experience my first hello to Sibelius that struck up a lifetime acquaintance. He was such an epiphany that I could only whisper, be still my soul. Other than marching to Susa in mornings on the way to an exercise ground at New London, submarine training was for the silent service. Submarines at sea were not music halls, though that is where I encountered my first vinyl LP before they were generally on the market. Still, on the shore at the submarine base in Hawaii or at sea with submarine tenders, I could listen to breakable 78 RPMs in the ship’s library, mostly light classics such as pretty Tschaikovsky excerpts broadway musicals. After the war, upon reading The Caine Mutiny, I recognized the reference to the Oklahoma songs haunting the Caine at sea. I came home from the navy, which had half-starved me for music by the soupcons I had been fed. In spite of being student-poor on the GI Bill, I tithed for the old 78s and made friends with Debussy, Beethoven, and Bach, especially the Brandenburg Concertos heard over and over and over, namely the Adolph Bush version.  Mine was a blue collar family. They were hard working and salt of the earthiness. My proletarian hero stepfather would pause to notice me at my cheap phonograph listening to a Beethoven symphony. At a pause in the music I recall him asking, “They gone to the toilet?”  My family’s music had been the long forgotten radio stars, known as Asher and Little Jimmy, whose cornpone guitar let little Jimmie sing to me to put his little shoes away. Still, I remember the hours I listened to country music on my mother’s windup Victrola, all about the pale wildwood flower and how you boys got to stop kicking my dog around. Kentucky’s cabin and coal-town tunes, lyrics and all, were set like crystallized honey in my head.

After the war, once I had acquired a furniture-sized Magnavox and a small but growing library of vinyl records, getting thoughtful about opportunity costs set in.  The Time demands of opera made me think twice and kept me hearing arias instead of operas. Anyone familiar with Cincinnati in the days following the war will remember the Zoo. There I got a summer of full operas after studying the librettos, some such occasions memorable for the cough of the lions or thunderstorms pouring wind and rain into the open theater, once for an unforgettably wild and windy Aeida. Cincinnati had a rich music life of chamber and choral performances, but these had to be chosen carefully in a life much pressed for music Time that was competing with job and social events.  Many of the choices were based on the need to educate myself in finding out the unheard melodies of the canon that Arnold Schoenberg had told me about. That ten-year errand determined opportunity costs that would have kept me away from the longer Sorabji pieces even if available. While many choices depended on targets of opportunity, the pressing urgency of Time felt much like a money restraint deciding the choice between spending my Time-money on one composition versus another, as well as between choosing music instead of its competitors in the other arts. The elements of taste and intellect emerge in the forefront with the mature music buff possessing a couple of thousand CDs, hundreds of vinyls and with a subscription to Classical Archives that maintain a list of choices by the tens of thousands.  Today I am free to value music according to taste alone. If I value Sorabji enough, I will listen carefully to Marshak playing Sorabji’s Beatus Vir instead of those same eleven hours of Ashkenazi doing Chopin. It seems that, after all, econo-babble has something to do with the music we actually hear. In those young and far-off days of wine and roses, I was a lyrical profligate of Time. Here in the Alder grove of evening, the most precious possession I have is Time. I spend its golden pennies listening to music in the shadow of Hesiod.