When Whitney Balliett wrote about Alec Wilder, he reproduced part of a letter from Wilder in which the songwriter expounded on how much he abhors having stuff, his “possessions being limited to the contents of three suitcases.”
One of his reasons for traveling light? “My deep fear of loss,” Wilder notes.
Nicholas Carr is currently working neighboring territory on his blog, with a short essay called “Disposable experience: a celebration.”
The money quote:
The record of experience becomes a record of loss and of decay. Every memento turns into a memento mori. Around the hoarder sadness thickens.
Both Wilder and Carr would far rather live in the present than the past. Can you blame them? In objects, there can be terrible sadness. Wilder reported he kept no “records (or recordings), reviews, interviews, programs, or original sketches of my music. I’ve kept only a few letters, no books, and have given to others all the presents that were given to me.”
(The quotes from Wilder are from my copy of “American Singers,” a collection of Balliett’s profiles of singers that were originally written for The New Yorker.)
More optimistically, Carr writes “We want the next experience, not the last one,” and “We flock to the new experience, the new tool, and the more disposable the better: IM, blog, text, tweet, gif, pin, instagram, snap, vine. Words and sounds and images on the wind. Here and gone.”
What, then, is the appeal of old things, and especially old music, beyond nostalgia? If you still listen to Duke Ellington intently in 2013, are you just having a losing argument with the past? It doesn’t feel that way; it feels like Ellington – and Mingus, Tatum, Art Pepper and the rest – are so rich, that there are so many possibilities still implicit in the music, that to not listen is to leave money on the table. Having the recordings, and the stuff to play them on, isn’t an end in itself. It’s a means to an end.
And yet, and yet. It’s easy to sympathize with the urge to make it new, to tweet, blog, whatever without regard for the long haul. We’re a pragmatic bunch, we Americans, and do our best work when we’re not in high/serious mode. Chuck Berry made disposable three minute records, and changed the world. He tweeted, one single at a time.