I learned about gratitude in Martin Seligman’s book Authentic Happiness. Dr. Seligman is a key figure in a new kind of psychology, called “Positive Psychology”, positive because it’s oriented not on disorders and dysfunctions, but on happiness. I am not saying I was never thankful before, but I now actually use gratitude as part of a deliberate practice, hoping to feel better by appreciating the blessings of this world.
At bedtime–although one can do it anytime you wish—I like to look back on my day, remembering people who have done something helpful, and then feeling gratitude for what they did. It might be a good deed. It might be something indirect, like remembering your mom who brought you into this world, or the choir who sang so well in church, or the joy you felt with some member of the family. I try to say five “gratefuls” each day, and am especially pleased when I take something I might have found aggravating or upsetting, and reframe it as a reason to be thankful.
It occurs to me today that I should be thankful to Rob Ford, the Mayor of Toronto. Depending on which Torontonians you speak to, you’d get some very different answers about how Mr Ford might inspire gratitude. Conservatives seem to like him, but I am not a Conservative.
For a person who thinks of himself as left of centre, though, it might seem like a stretch, that I say “Thank you, Rob Ford”. But I mean it sincerely.
Ford came into office as a kind of crusader against the “gravy” of over-paid workers & excessive taxes. The Toronto Public Library emerged as a likely target for cuts. The local media delighted in the bizarre battle between Rob Ford and his brother Doug (also a Toronto city councillor), against defenders of the Toronto Library system, especially Margaret Atwood, an especially articulate champion of books & literacy.
It’s too early for me to report a happy ending in that battle between the forces interested in promoting the reading of books, and those who seek to balance the books. But it’s at this point that I realized I wanted to thank Rob & Doug Ford for their gift.
I thank them for making me think about libraries. Don’t get me wrong, I am not a big user of the Toronto Public Library: because I have privileges at the University of Toronto Library system. But I am thankful for libraries, for the books I have in my home, for the books I dream of reading, and the blessed privilege i possess to look at a page and read.
Earlier this week I took out a copy of the score to Saariaho’s Amour de Loin, the new opera (composed about a decade ago) to be presented by the Canadian Opera Company, and that I watched on a DVD a little while ago. Yes I can go see the opera in the theatre. But it’s in the piano-vocal score that I actually see what the composer has notated, shedding light on sounds I haven’t previously encountered from an opera singer. I can play through the score –although in places it looks very challenging to execute—or follow along with the DVD. It’s a kind of magic, to look at a score, and ponder the interpretive choices one sees or hears, springing to life on a stage or in my TV, that came to life on a page covered with words & lines and dots.
In The Dragons of Eden Carl Sagan spoke of extra-somatic memory, in other words memory outside the body. I can remember things by trying to hold those images or thoughts in my head. Or I can take notes, sketch a picture, and thereby recall what I notated or drew. A camera or a tape-recorder enlarges my ability to recall. These are all ways to help me remember, tools that enlarge our abilities.
Books? They up the ante, being a kind of social memory that offers humanity the ability to remember together, as we recall what we never saw or felt through the virtual eyes of authors, composers, poets, painters, and so many others.
Before there were DVDs or CDs, before anyone had heard a Victrola, music was still made available to an eager public for home consumption. Great works were made smaller, transcribed for instruments people could play in their parlour, if not in a concert hall. It’s enormous fun to chase down a reduction of a large-scale composition (i.e. orchestral or operatic works), and then plunk it out on a piano.
This morning I renewed a few books that I had out over the Christmas holiday (when one has extra time for fun):
- Shchelkunchik, which never seems to go out of the library possibly because the title doesn’t betray the contents: a piano arrangement of the entire Nutcracker ballet. Some parts are silly & dramatic, such as the battle with the mice, other parts are lyrical and remarkably lovely even for solo piano. Often the textures are greatly reduced, because there’s just so much going on in the orchestra that the transcription had to choose what to paraphrase from the much denser whole. As this version was likely meant for a rehearsal pianist, it’s not very challenging, but that doesn’t stop Tchaikowsky’s melodies from coming across.
- The library recently acquired a solo piano transcription of the first two Nocturnes in Debussy’s triptych, namely Nuages and Fêtes. I had previously taken out the four-handed transcription by Maurice Ravel, attempting to fathom Debussy’s composition.
This reduction by Gustave Samazeuilh led me to ask: who is this man? I found a Wikipedia page in French only, describing him as a composer & pianist, who died in 1967 at the age of 90, a student of Debussy’s intimate friend Chausson, and known for reductions of some of the works of his contemporaries.
My extra-somatic memory is enlarged by Google and Wikipedia, telling me of Gustave Samazeuilh, but nothing can enlarge my appreciation for him as much as opening his score. When I play through his exquisite reduction of Nuages and Fêtes, I am surely playing notes that he played, a paraphrase he made as he puzzled over Debussy’s complexities, wondering which notes to include and which to omit.
We have access to a hive-brain whereby we are all able to hear what the hive has produced, feeding off the honey of our brilliant forebears, as well as the poisons of madmen who are also part of our heritage. Painful as it can sometimes be, we must listen and read, or fail to learn the important lessons. I repeat my thank you to Rob and Doug Ford: thanks for reminding me of the treasure of our libraries, more than i can sample in my lifetime.
I’ll add one last little bit of gratitude. Alexis Weissenberg passed away this week, a fascinating soul. I am so glad I was able to hear some of his wisdom online, preserved even though he’s now gone. I shared one of his performances of Jesu Joy of Man’s Desire on Facebook while musing a bit sentimentally that he has gone to another salon where he’s playing in the presence of JS & Jesu, and being critiqued by both the author and the subject. Or listen to his amazing versions of the Trois Movements de Petrouschka, a work that seems to have been an unending source of fascination to him, filmed when he was still at the height of his powers.
Years later, we get a wonderful retrospective commentary on Weissenberg’s process, and a lovely glimpse of the man recalling his magical first encounters with music