Tuesday, May 15, 2012


I've been trying to find an opportunity to watch Entre les murs (The Class), the French movie that won the top prize at Cannes in 2009. What it's about (from what I've read) is a year in the life of a middle school French class in inner-city Paris--which means the students are ethnically diverse and anything but privileged. Even though I've not seen it, I have found some scenes on TV5, including one in which an Antillean student named Carl delivers his "autoportrait" as part of a class assignment. He says:
I like to play soccer. I like to play on the computer. I like to flirt with pretty girls. I like to go on vacation to the Antilles. I like fries, zouk, and dancehall. I like to watch MTV Base. I like my parents and my brother. I like my friends, and staying up all night. I like the show Bitter Tropics. I like my apartment complex. I like the show Internal Security. I like to eat out and daydream. I don't like people who cry over nothing. I don't like techno and techtonic. I don't like showoffs. I don't like visiting my brother in prison. I don't like New Star and Star Academy. I don't like politicians, the Iraq War, goths, and skaters. I don't like mean teachers. I don't like math, racists, and I don't like Materazzi. I don't like Paul Eluard College and I kind of like being here.
Likes and dislikes. This is who we are, isn't it? How many of us, asked for an autoportrait, would come up with something much different in substance? We might even want some help, as seems to have happened here, along the lines of "just say what you like and then what you don't like." A strange thing happens, though, going from likes to dislikes.

The likes make sense as a category, because, no matter what it is, it's something that produces a simple pleasure. What's zouk? I had to find out (it's an Antillean dance), but it didn't make any difference. Included in the list of likes, whatever it was, I knew it was something that somebody enjoyed.

The dislikes, though, lack that kind of immediate understanding. Rather, reading through Carl's list of dislikes produces a destabilizing, complex, questioning attitude. The only thing immediate about it is the question "Why?"
  • people who cry over nothing
  • techno
  • techtonic [techno dance]
  • showoffs
  • visiting my brother in prison
  • New Star [French TV show similar to American Idol]
  • Star Academy [French reality TV show featuring wannabe pop singers on tour]
  • politicians
  • Iraq War
  • goths
  • skaters
  • mean teachers
  • math
  • racists
  • Materazzi [the Italian soccer player who, in the 2006 World Cup Final, provoked the French player Zidane to head-butt him, which led to Zidane's expulsion from the game. Materazzi had grabbed Zidane's shirt; Zidane said if Materazzi wanted his shirt he could have it after the match; Materazzi--according to himself--countered with "I'd rather have your sister;" that's when Zidane went all metalogical on him.]
  • Paul Eluard College [French middle school]
Why, for example, does Carl in a single sentence lump together math, racists, and Materazzi? Don't these represent different types of dislike, and various degrees? The sentence, however, is a confrontation: it challenges this reaction. Judge, jury, and executioner, it condemns the lot to a confraternity of badness and loads them into a guillotine-bound tumbril (hey, this is France).

Just like the dislike button on Youtube.

I've never used it myself, but it's been used on me, or rather on some videos I've posted to exhibit an oboe technique I've developed called the Celtic oboe, most recently one that gave a little explanation as to what it was and how it came to be. 

Celtic oboe is one of my many follies. It's a frivolous, fringe example of the phenomenon known as "the adjacent possible" in which someone takes things lying around, well-known and well-used, like wheels and shoes, puts them together and, voilĂ , roller skates. Well, there was the classical oboe, and there was traditional Irish music as played by the uilleann pipes; put the two together and, voilĂ , Celtic oboe.

Except it was anything but as easy as that. I had to learn circular breathing. I spent hours tinkering with different fingering combinations and applying them to music. The inventing continues. As far as oboe is concerned, when I started this folly there was no technique, no tradition, and certainly no teacher.

In general the purpose of the videos has been to say "Hey, random oboe player out there in the universe, this is interesting. You might like trying this yourself. You might figure out something else to do with this kind of technique. Like put it on roller skates."

I don't know if it's had that effect at all. I do know that there are people who dislike it enough to go beyond ignoring it and punch the dislike button. I'm imagining that the haters are either oboe (classical) purists or Irish trad purists who think I've committed an act of mongrelization that shouldn't be allowed to stand. You know, the kind of thinking that produces Aryan supremacists and ethnic cleansing.

But, painful as it is to think that my cherished folly (I don't deny that it is folly) properly belongs in some cultural landfill, I've learned to put things in proper perspective through a series of serendipitous encounters with books.

I recently (back before the most recent Youtube dislike) started reading How the Beatles Destroyed Rock 'n' Roll: An Alternative History of American Popular Music, by Elijah Wald (and liked on its back cover by Tom Waits: "It nailed me to the wall."). Wald's introduction explains how his history will be different. He would try to go beyond such labels as "jazz" and "rock," which, as shibboleths, have become in our time static categories rather than the fluid potentialities they were when they were being invented. Those fluid potentialities were being transformed by all kinds of influences and factors--like the commercial one--that purists would just as soon forget.

But what stands out is Wald's adoption of classical pianist and modern music expositor Charles Rosen as his guide to how we should go about explaining music. This quote from Rosen (in slightly altered form) heads Wald's introduction:
Dislike has no significance and no importance if it is not accompanied by understanding--and that implies the admission of at least the possibility of love.
Wald joins Rosen in his assertion that "Some of us are willing to try to understand what is alien to our experience" unlike those whose respond with outrage to something that is "disconcertingly new."  Wald says of his historical work, "The most difficult thing about understanding the past is appreciating the choices and tastes that seem strange or disagreeable and trying to confront them on their own terms." [my emphasis]

Then, reading Abundance: The Future Is Better Than You Think, by Peter H. Diamandis, I encountered the notion of the adjacent possible, which seemed to fit Wald's expository apparatus like a glove. Finally, preparing for a session of my book club and familiarizing myself with When God Talks Back: Understanding the American Evangelical Relationship with God, by T.M. Luhrmann, the author's own summation of her approach to her subject jumped out at me: "Anthropologists are taught as students to seek to understand before we judge."

It all stacked up, from the music historian, music critic, technologist, anthropologist: admitting the possibility of love, appreciating music by confronting it on its own terms, discovering via the adjacent possible, understanding before judgment. All of these writers contributed haphazardly to the idea that the Celtic oboe, however foolish, had some value ... because someone valued it.

But it's important, too, to go back to Carl's equality of dislikes and remember that we're talking about music. We're not talking about racism. Rather, we shouldn't be talking about racism. But opinions of music that don't admit the possibility of love have descended to the same gutter that flows into racism.

So there you have it: serendipity, with the capstone from a book about God, clearly evidence of divine favor on behalf of my folly. Dislikers, be warned: someday down the road you'll be working your way out of purgatory and will catch sight of me in the angel band of Celtic oboes and will disappointedly exclaim "Oh. My. God." And you will go right back where you belong: to the Garden of Perpetual Dislike.

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