In Praise of Not Asking

Tim Kreider, In Praise of Not Knowing, New York Times, June 19, 2011:

When I was 17, I took a record of John Cage’s piano pieces out of the library. The pieces were interesting, but what really arrested my attention was the B-side of the album — a work called “The Dreamer That Remains,” by a composer I’d never heard of named Harry Partch. This was music from another planet: unearthly yowling strings, metallic twangs, rippling liquid percussion. I couldn’t even identify the instruments.

I loaned the record to a friend of mine, the only other person in the world I then knew who liked classical music. The piece’s refrain, in which a chorus of corpses in a funeral home sing, “Let us loiter together/And know one another,” became a two-man in-joke between us. For years, as far as we could tell, we were the only people who knew about Harry Partch. He was, in a sense, ours.

This was in the ’80s, a time when there was simply no way of learning much more about Harry Partch, at least not that I knew of. If I were a 17-year-old discovering Harry Partch today, I could Google him, and I’d immediately find the Harry Partch Information Center and Corporeal Meadows, where I’d learn all about his system of intonation with a 43-note octave and his instruments made of bamboo, jet-engine nose cones, artillery-shell casings and whiskey bottles, with names like the Gourd Tree, Boo II, Zymo-Xyl and Marimba Eroica. …

I hope kids are still finding some way, despite Google and Wikipedia, of not knowing things. Learning how to transform mere ignorance into mystery, simple not knowing into wonder, is a useful skill.

Or he could have gone to his local librarian, who would probably have been able to point him at Partch’s 1949 book, Genesis of a Music, which explained his theories of intonation and temperament, with extended discussion of some of his major compositions. It was helpfully reissued in 1979, just in time for a young Tim Kreider, curious about Partch’s music, to find it. But no. He didn’t even look. It would appear that his editors at the Times didn’t bother using either the old tools or the new ones.

This is not an essay about how the Internet kills a sense of wonder. It is an essay about how the incurious can achieve a sense of wonder in any age. What Kreider is describing is not the numinous touch of the unrecoverable Lost Chord, but rather the tepid satisfaction of giving up too soon.

“simple not knowing into wonder” promising prospects as a media spin doctor.

.. And he could also have gone to concerts by the American Festival of Microtonal Music, operating since 1981. Lotsa rare, unrecorded Partch on recreated and original Partch instruments, and much much more. But I like it when people eventually do break out of their little boxes. It usually takes an accident. There’s probably a way to drag the Google Books decision in here - maybe by guaranteeing that Google Book Searches put a few random selections in with your results.

“It usually takes an accident.” So true, virtually every significant event in my own creative life has involved serendip.

Someone pointed me toward your comment on my old op-ed and I wanted to respond to one or two of your points. I did, of course, learn much more about Harry Partch’s life and work, and read Genesis of a Music, but this wasn’t until later on, in adulthood. I suppose it’s possible I could’ve learned more at the time if I’d taken more initiative, but you may be overestimating the resources available to a teenager in a suburban library ca. 1984. More importantly, I think you’re missing my main intention, which was simply to describe the increasingly rare pleasure of experiencing a work of art without any preconception, background or context.

But I understand the main points you’re trying to make here, which are that 1.) you are very, very knowledgeable about Harry Partch and 2.) you would like everyone to know that. I am no stranger to the pleasures of competitive erudition, and have no wish to deprive anyone of it.