We were enjoying a company of family and close relatives after Christmas dinner; soft Christmas music was in the background, playing Crossword Puzzle or just chatting with a dram of Scotch in hand.  A lovely time indeed.  At one point my brother-in-law asked us to  turn off the music.  We didn’t understand him.  Why could he not enjoy a nice soft  music in the background?  Nonetheless we felt we should respect his wish, for a while anyway, and turned the music off.  He is a musician – a classic guitarist.  At that moment suddenly I remembered similar situations where professional musicians did not want background music.

A sister of mine is a church organist.  She played organ at the church or taught music all her life.  Her home is often very quite devoid of the sound of music.  When music is on, she does not do anything else but listen to it.  Recently, my wife Muriel and I had a lovely visit with a couple of good friends who are both professional musicians.  She is a flautist and he a composer.  Music is their calling, their life.  While enjoying tea and conversation, I suddenly felt total silence as loud as any auditory sensation we can detect.  Even our hushed voices were interruptions.  I asked her if hers was the same disposition as my sister’s.  She said, “yes.”  She said that art of creating music is her calling, a serious business indeed.  Her mind is full of sound all the time.  For her music can not be a mere backdrop.  I now realize that I have changed since I was a child growing up in Japan.

When I was growing up, music was very important in my family.  We made music together, Mom at a cranky old reed organ.  We could not afford a piano nor a gramophone with a Methodist minister’s salary.   Dad led us singing hymns and Stephen Forster’s “Old Black Joe” or some such American old time favourites.  We still remember many Japanese folk songs Dad taught us.  We made music.  We listened to my sister playing piano in the church hall after she practised hours for a recital, critically but respectfully.  We listened to music not as a background but as an art that deserved a serious attention.

There is an old movie about the life of Frederick Chopin played by Cornel Wilde. One scene described a scene where Chopin was playing piano at a dinner for an arch-duke from Russia or somebody like that who was a foreign occupier.  Chopin angrily walks out in the middle as no one was paying attention to his music.  He becomes a marked man since then and had to go into exile.  I always feel bad for a musician playing at restaurants providing background music.  Music is their calling but it is diners’ mere backdrop.  It is like preaching at a soup kitchen.  I did that once, in front of homeless people eating dinner.  What an useless and unrewarding experience.   Understandably eating was the most serious preoccupation for them.  A sermon was an annoying nuisance in the background.  Consumer culture has made art into a mere backdrop, not an uniquely human act of creation.  We hardly make art anymore, we consume it.

I can not pinpoint an exact time when music became a mere mood creating background for me.  I think it was after Americans brought the kind of soft music that was played in the background, during the fifties.  I remember calling it “mood music.”  It took a little while for me to learn not to pay serious attention to the music in order to continue uninterrupted whatever I was doing.  Of course, background music has always been with us, in movies, in theatres, and in restaurants, but “mood music” was something else.  It is meant to be ignored but to help us do something else more efficiently  like wall paper.  It took some work, but now I mastered the art of ignoring the mood making backdrop.  Now our home is full of music, all the time.  I don’t even know what’s on a lot of the time.  We have become consumers of art hardly knowing how to make art.  Art has become something professionals make not us.  We consume what they make.

Likewise, we don’t do many things ourselves anymore, what we used to do them ourselves: such as sports, religion, cooking, entertainment, and art.  In the meanwhile we, have lost opportunity to exercise our own creativity.  We are losing joy of creating things and of participating in them.

Sports for us is not for our health: we watch them.  We sit in front of a television set on a couch eating junk food and consuming gallons of beer.  Sport has become bad for our health.  Religion has become an entertainment industry.  People look around like we do at a supermarket and pick the one that entertains us well with good preaching and music. Leaders of religion are now performers.  Like entertainment, those churches and religions that attract more people hence better income are considered to be “successful”.  Those don’t are failures.  It’s a business model.  “Love thy neighbour” no more.  We don’t understand the meaning of commitment, dedication, and service, no more sacrifice.  Religion has become a way to pursue happiness.  Others be damned.   We are saved, fulfilled, and happy, thank you very much.

I do love beautiful and soothing music in the background.  It’s one way to appreciate artistic creation.  However, when you love making music, you can appreciate other people making it more.  When you play a sport yourself, you appreciate the dedication and the skills of professional athletes more.  Art is not just a backdrop like wall paper.  Music is not a mere background.  Religion is not entertainment.  It’s a calling.  It’s life itself.

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