Unlike a painting, a sculpture, or even a large building - all of
which may be experienced in a single moment - music unfolds in time.
It is a succession of events run "against the clock,"
and thus children engaged in the study of music get accustomed to
taking time seriously from a very early age.
Time, in fact, is so important in music as to determine the fate
of a performance. Great conductors often accounted for their success
by citing the tempo (Italian for "time," and denoting
the pace at which music is played) they would set at the beginning
of a work.
Every time I perform Liszt's famous Sonata in B Minor, the longest
single span of music ever composed for the piano, I am still haunted
by memories of my great master, Dohnanyi, more than once taking
out his pocket watch after I had finished, and exclaiming as he
shook his head, "28 minutes! I used to play it in 27."
The trouble, he explained, was not with the fast passages which
were more than fast enough. No: the slow passages were too slow,
self-indulgent. Self-indulgence got in the way of maintaining momentum
by arresting the forward movement upon which a successful performance
Recently, the attention of the world has been focusing on time
as never before. "Never" is one of those frequent exaggerations
we like to use, but it does fit the bill on this occasion. The last
time the counter jumped to triple zero, most of the world was not
yet aware of the existence of what we now call the world. A thousand
years earlier, the medley of calendars and sort-of calendars in
existence was still confined to the few civilizations who even bothered
to give it thought.
We measure time because we realize that, individually, only a limited
quantity is available to us, and because its passage is utterly
beyond our control. By measuring it, we presume that we will make
better use of what is available and, more importantly, claim a sense
of control over the uncontrollable.
"Time is money" is a maxim that, for many around the
world, used to characterize the uniquely American approach to this
precious commodity. It stood for the pragmatic use of resources,
the avoidance of waste, efficiency in every respect.
No self-indulgence would arrest the forward movement of this society.
That has certainly been true for much of what is increasingly called
"The American Century." Will it continue into the next
America's secret has been to keep its eyes firmly fixed on the
future. Often criticized, often apologetic for a lack of concern
with history, Americans nonetheless paid their respect to the inevitable
forward movement of time.
Not any more.
The last decades of the twentieth century have ushered in a veritable
obsession with the past. While our technology leaders are still
busy inventing the future, an ever-growing club made up of academics,
film makers, journalists, commentators, activists, and political
parasites is mired in the past, dissecting it, complaining about
it, reinventing it every day. Listening to them, the inescapable
conclusion is that the thousands of years directly preceding Woodstock
were all a gigantic mistake, none greater than the arrival and proliferation
of English-speaking and other European settlers (especially the
male variety) on what is now called the North American continent.
Never mind. "If you don't like the past," so the privileges
of membership in this club provide, "write one you do and we
will put it in next year's history textbooks in our public school
The trouble - the reality - about times past is that we cannot
change them. Goodness knows, others have tried. I grew up in two
supposedly different regimes (one called national socialism, the
other Soviet socialism) both of which routinely reinvented the past.
Yet sooner or later the truth catches up with everyone and it is
foolish to suppose otherwise.
But while meddling with the past is merely foolish, our current
meddling with the present may well affect the future.
A major component of the American miracle has been the continuous
effort to make every benefit embodied in the founding documents
reality for an ever-growing proportion of those who live here, until
all participate fully. Yet no sooner had obstacles been removed,
and doors flung wide open, than self-indulgence pervaded the scene,
trading the forward momentum toward a great future for the stalemate
of a mediocre present.
It is generally believed that a majority of Americans (curiously
referred to as "women and minorities") have not before
enjoyed the opportunity to realize their full potential. Having
secured that opportunity, the once-prevalent common sense of Americans
would have left the rest to the passage of time, realizing that
mortals cannot speed up processes which time alone can complete.
Cannot speed it up? Then how about declaring that the future is
now? Let us pretend that everybody can do everything right now,
and let us write histories of the past that will support the pretense.
And so we have.
In doing so, we have arrested the forward momentum of those who
most depend on it, and whom we profess to "help." We do
it with quotas, with Title this-that-and-the-other, with multi-lingual
education - all tear-jerking proof of how good we are.
Not so. Misguided by our self-indulgent ways, we deprive millions
of the chance of getting there - in their own good time.