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Respecting Time

Washington Times 1.04.00
Balint Vazsonyi


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 depended.

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 one?

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 system."

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.