I have just seen something lovely and hope-inducing.
It’s a video of a performance of Ravel’s Bolero by the Copenhagen Philharmonic Orchestra – manifesting as a flash mob at a train station. Go see it now; I’ll wait.
What is truly wonderful about this is not the music itself. Oh, the Bolero is pleasant enough, and this performance is competent. What was marvelous was to see classical music crack its way out of the dessicated, ritual-bound environment of the concert hall and reclaim a place in ordinary life. Musicians in jeans and sweaters and running shoes (and one kettledrummer with a silly fishing hat), smiling at children while they played. No boundary from the audience – there were train sounds and crowd noise in the background and that was good, dammit!
And the audience – respectful, but not because the setting told them they were supposed to be. Delight spreading outwards in waves as the onlookers gradually comprehended the hack in progress. Parents pointing things out to their kids. Hassled businesspeople pausing, coffees in hand, to relax into something that wasn’t on the schedule. It was alive in a way that no performance from a lofty stage could ever be.
But there was an even more beautiful level of meaning than that.
These musicians took heritage art, pried it out of its stuffy conventional box, and made it shine again. And the audience understood what they were doing. The 2500-year conversation we call Western civilization is made of moments like this, when we connect with the best of our past and re-purpose it for the present and the future. And that conversation is not over; our capacity for keeping that best, casting off the junk and accretions around it, and using it in fresh ways it is still with us.
Ravel could not even have imagined the cellphones the musicians used for coordination; our capacity to transvaluate old forms – and our willingness to do so – is unparalleled in human history. What I saw in that video is that embracing this process of perpetual reinvention is what being “Western” means. We have developed more than any previous or competing civilization the knack of using our past without being limited by it.
I looked at those musicians and that audience, and what I didn’t see was decadence or exhaustion or self-hating multiculturalism. I felt like pumping my fist in the air and yelling “This is my civilization!” It lives, and it’s beautiful, and it’s worth defending.