Morton Feldman, For Bunita Marcus (1985)
John Tilbury, piano
According to iTunes, I’ve listened to this piece, which I often put on “repeat” before going to sleep, over a thousand times.
Compositionally I always wanted to be like Fred Astaire.
I never feel that my music is sparse or minimal; the way fat people never really think they’re fat. I certainly don’t consider myself a minimalist at all.
No one has the Houdini school of composition.
Last week a record store in Dupont Circle announced that it was closing. The immediate cause of its demise—it had outlasted national and regional chains—was Price Check, Amazon’s new idea for exterminating competition. It is an app that allows shoppers to scan the bar code on any item in any store and transmit it to Amazon for purposes of comparison, and if it compares favorably to Amazon’s price, Amazon’s special promotion promises a discount on the same item. In this way shoppers become spies, and stores, merely by letting customers through their doors, become complicit in their own undoing. It will not do to shrug that this is capitalism, because it is a particular kind of capitalism: the kind that entertains fantasies of monopoly. For all its technological newness, Amazon’s “vision” is disgustingly familiar. (“Amazon is coming to eat me,” a small publisher of fine religious books stoically told me a few weeks ago.) Nor will it do to explain that Amazon’s app is convenient, unless one is prepared to acquiesce in a view of American existence according to which its supreme consideration must be convenience. How easy must every little thing be? A record store in your neighborhood is also convenient, and so is a bookstore. There is also a sinister side to the convenience of online shopping: hours once spent in the sensory world, in the diversified satisfaction of material needs and desires, can now be surrendered to work. It appears to be a law of American life that there shall be no respite from screens. And so Amazon’s practices raise the old question of the cultural consequences of market piggishness. For there are businesses that are not only businesses, that also have non-monetary reasons for being, that are public goods. Their devastation in the name of profit may be economically legitimate, but it is culturally calamitous. In a word, wrong.
WHEN MY FRIEND at Melody Records told me about the death of his store, I was bereft. This was in part because he is my friend—after my father died, I received a letter from the Holocaust Museum informing me that he had made a donation in my father’s memory—and now he must fend for himself and his family and his staff in the American wreckage. But my dejection was owed also to the fact that this store was one of the primary scenes of my personal cultivation. For thirty years it stimulated me, and provided a sanctuary from sadness and sterility. “Going to Melody” was a reliable way of improving my mind’s weather. The people who worked there had knowledge and taste: they apprised me of obscure pressings of Frank Martin’s chamber music, and warned me about the sound quality of certain reissues of Lucky Thompson and Don Byas, and turned me on to old salsa and new fado. They even teased me about my insane affection for Rihanna. When they added DVDs to the store, my pleasures multiplied. (Also my amusements. Not long ago Marcel Ophuls’ great film arrived in the shop, and the box declared: “Woody Allen presents The Sorrow and The Pity.” Beat that.) Of course all these discs can be found online. But the motive of my visits to the store was not acquisitiveness, it was inquisitiveness. I went there to engage in the time-honored intellectual and cultural activity known as browsing.
IT IS A MATTER OF some importance that the nature of browsing be properly understood. Browsing is a method of humanistic education. It gathers not information but impressions, and refines them by brief (but longer than 29 seconds!) immersions in sound or language. Browsing is to Amazon what flaneurie is to Google Earth. It is an immediate encounter with the actual object of curiosity. The browser (no, not that one) is the flaneur in a room. Browsing is not idleness; or rather, it is active idleness—an exploring capacity, a kind of questing non-instrumental behavior. Browsing is the opposite of “search.” Search is precise, browsing is imprecise. When you search, you find what you were looking for; when you browse, you find what you were not looking for. Search corrects your knowledge, browsing corrects your ignorance. Search narrows, browsing enlarges. It does so by means of accidents, of unexpected adjacencies and improbable associations. On Amazon, by contrast, there are no accidents. Its adjacencies are expected and its associations are probable, because it is programmed for precedents. It takes you to where you have already been—to what you have already bought or thought of buying, and to similar things. It sells similarities. After all, serendipity is a poor business model. But serendipity is how the spirit is renewed; and a record store, like a bookstore, is nothing less than an institution of spiritual renewal.
—Leon Wieseltier, “Going To Melody,” The New Republic, 2/2/12