On the first day of my Christian Renaissance of the Twentieth Century course — mentioned here — I played for my students a few minutes of the first movement of Rachmaninoff’s Second Piano Concerto. We paused to talk a bit about the musical language of late Romanticism, about Rachmaninoff’s gift for lush melody, etc. Then I played them this:
Hard to believe it was composed by the same man, isn’t it? But (I suggested) that’s the difference between a young Russian composer in 1901 — he wrote that concerto when he was 27 — and a middle-aged Russian composer living through overwhelming political turmoil and world war. In time of desperate need Rachmaninoff, not a churchgoer, turned to the liturgical and musical inheritance of Orthodoxy to make sense of his world, to begin the long healing that would be necessary.
But the healing didn’t happen. Russia was further broken by the war, then entered the long nightmare of Bolshevik rule, and Rachmaninoff became one of many exiles. In some ways he never recovered from this experience. Many years later, while living in California, he lamented his inability to compose music: “Losing my country, I lost myself also.” (Exile versus homecoming — one of the themes of my class.) But the All-Night Vigil remains, for me, one of the transcendent works of music. Rachmaninoff himself thought it perhaps his best composition.
But I have another motive in having my students listen to this music, which is to get them to listen to music. People these days, especially but not only young people, have music on all the time, but that’s not the same as listening to it. Indeed, as Ted Gioia and Damon Krukowski have documented repeatedly, Spotify — and pretty much all my students use Spotify — positively wants its users to unlisten, to merely have music on in the background, in part because that allows the company to shift from actual music made by human musicians to AI-generated neo-Muzak. The tiny amount that Spotify pays musicians is already shameful, but it’s too much for a company that doesn’t have a workable business model, so the best way to limit costs is to cut human musicians out of the game altogether. But this will only work if Spotify can habituate its users to empty, mindless schlock, made up of endless variations on the same four chords.
I’ve made it a classroom practice in the last year or so to indulge in theatrical rants against Spotify, which is fun for me and for my students. They argue with me and I denounce them, all in good humor. But for all the smiles, I am quite serious. Spotify is creating in millions and millions of its users a new kind of Attention Deficit Disorder, not one that has them jumping from one thing to another, but rather has them in a kind of vague trance state. Spotify is like soma from Brave New World in audio form. And to be in such a state is to experience a deficit of attention, an inability genuine to attend to what one is hearing.
So one of the things I am doing in this class, and will be trying in other classes, is to get my students to spend five minutes listening to music. I forbid digital devices in my classes, so they just have their books and notebooks in front of them — they can of course be distracted from the music, but it’s not automatic, not easy. If listening is the path of least resistance, then maybe they’ll listen. I’ve started with five minutes, but I hope to work our way up to longer pieces. My dream — and alas, it is but a dream — is, one Holy Week, to sit together with my students and listen to the single 70-minute movement that is Arvo Pärt’s Passio.