Things have calmed down after what was really three weeks of constant change. This has made me reflect a lot on what makes me happy and what doesn’t. If I had told myself last year that I would have four days where somebody made me meals and I had no responsibilities to leave the house or check my email I would have called that heaven. But the four days I spent between going to Bangalore and my family’s arrival were an extremely stressful and lonely slog. When they arrived I was both overjoyed at the sight of a familiar face and frustrated about my inability to make the experience wholly enjoyable for them. What I could not control was the reality that India is an extremely chaotic place. Buying groceries, taking a cab, just walking outside is a stressful and overwhelming experience for a Westerner. It’s stressful even for the people here. I know that because I see the strategies that people who live here use to keep themselves from going crazy. The woman who lives in the room next to me takes a walk to the end of the block twice a day. Other than that I think she hardly leaves the house. She only goes that far because if she goes any further she is exposed to relentless honking, yelling, and pollution. I see my other housemates take about forty-five minutes to an hour each day just staring at the wall. When I first observed this I thought “ha! Look at these Indian people just chilling so hard!” (see “Racism” for why this thought arose). Now I realize that they do this because they are so over stimulated that they need to just take a break from everything but they don’t have the peace of mind to take a nap. My guru takes a one-hour walk on the beach every day… at 3AM to avoid the crowds…
The world is big. It is so so so hugely enormously big and we can’t comprehend it. Sure, there are structures in place like seasons, currents, and the rotation of the Earth but as homo-sapiens we can only understand these abstractly. Gravity isn’t something that we feel; it’s something that we know about intellectually. But it seems that we have something ingrained into us that makes us want to understand the chaos around us. Just behind eating and reproducing I would say this is actually our third priority. What’s my evidence? All the abstract structures that we put into place to guide our actions: Some big ones that jump to my mind are Economics, Religion, and Marriage.
Think about all these structures give us: Structured commerce, weekly social and spiritual interaction for a local community, and even stable homes for children. These structures are great! Living in India has made me realize how lovely it is to feel like there is an order to things.
But there is also a dark side to these structures. If a trained economist and a monkey throwing a dart have the same statistical likelihood of predicting the performance of a particular stock (true), and Christianity led to the crusades (true), and over fifty percent of marriages end in divorce (true) then our structures for creating order are pretty futile aren’t they? They are so futile that they come pretty close to a lie in my mind. Anyone who lost it all in 2008, or has been touched by a preacher, or has gone through a really bad divorce has to agree there is a major downside these conceptual frameworks. Most economists I know would say that statistics can be used to prove anything, and religious people would say that it isn’t God touching that little boy it’s a bad person, and most married people would say that their marriage is strong and those people who got divorced shouldn’t have gotten married in the first place. But I don’t think any of those arguments are strong enough to prove that the structures I’ve mentioned are stronger than the forces of chaos. I think they just prove how badly we want to believe in our structures. If our structures are a lie would we just be better off without them at all?
I have come to the conclusion that we would not. Even for all their faults and for all the challenges they present I think we need these structures to keep from going crazy. Even though these formats differ across cultures humans have an instinct to believe in an order to commerce, and spiritual life and kinship relationships. Even for all the badness Wall Street gives us and the Church and the institutionof marriage I just don’t feel right without them around.
But I think that music is the best structure of all because it doesn’t pretend to be anything outside of your head.
Since thinking more about Indian “harmony” I have dispensed with my previous conception of the so-called “elements” of music in favor of a simpler model that my friend Jack Laskey introduced me to: Sound and Time. Once I opened up my mind and started accepting the music that I hear here as beautiful and different from me then I started to really enjoy it in a way that I didn’t let myself enjoy it before because it was too unfamiliar. This made me realize that my schema for what music is was holding me back from enjoying what was around me.
My friend Aakash Mittal who made a 10-month trip to India recently wrote an article for New Music Workshop in which he made the claim that music is a choice in the mind of the listener. It’s cool I’ll link it here: http://www.newmusicbox.org/articles/street-music-noise-and-the-city-of-joy/ He used the noise of an Indian city as his example. If you make the choice then he argues that you are listening to a natural orchestra.
I can’t go this far with him. The noise here sucks. It has made me go a little crazy. And that isn’t my closed mind holding me back that’s just the way I feel. As I write this I’m realizing I don’t have much of a concrete point except for the way this stuff makes me feel…
So my reason for putting these up next to each other as it relates to this post is that our internal framework for what a piece of music sounds like is central to our identity. It is different for every person although there are huge similarities cross-culturally. I think just about everyone in the world would say that they like music. Even if they don’t think about it much or they only like a couple songs, they like it and they use it to make themselves feel better. I think that it makes us feel better because there is some kind of order to it and it makes us feel like the world makes sense and that all the chaos at least has a soul. We really need things to be structured. It’s good for us to open up to what those structures can be because it exposes us to a lot of new pleasures... but we also gotta have some order in the chaos.