|by Sam Glaser
Growing up in suburban America during the 60’s included a certain rite of passage: as you drove down the freeways, if you wanted to hear your favorite songs, you needed an 8-track tape player in the dash. In one clunky cassette about the size of six iphones, a CD worth of material would play in gorgeous stereo. There were a few caveats. You couldn’t rewind. And when you least expected it, a metallic piece of tape signaled that it was time for the tape head to switch tracks. That meant a somber moment of silence in the middle of movements, sometimes in the middle of your favorite song. It wasn’t ideal but it was certainly more graceful than trying to balance your record player when changing lanes.
About three times a year our family would load up into our nine passenger Olds Vista Cruiser, equipped with skylights, a 450cc V8 and a trusty tape deck.On our way to Lake Tahoe, Arizona or Colorado we would sing at the top of our lungs with our favorite thirty-two 8-track tapes. That’s all that would fit in the black vinyl carrying case and that’s about all the music we owned. We had several Beatles albums, War, Tower of Power, Carole King, Roberta Flack, Joni Mitchell, Temptations,Shostakovich and Beethoven’s 5thsymphonies and assorted musicals. This was also the car that became my college ride at the University of Colorado, Boulder. A favorite collegiate pastime was stuffing the car with a dozen freshmen from the dorms, cranking the tunes and doing donuts in the Safeway parking lot on snowy nights.
I’d like to share an epiphany I had at an LA Philharmonic concert last week. It was a perfect, sunny spring Sunday and I was knee deep in over thirty vocal arrangements for the half dozen CDs I am juggling for clients. I was about to embark on 25 hours of background vocal sessions with some of the finest singing specialists that I know. These sessions aren’t cheap to run and I wanted to make sure that every piece was ready to go with all the vocal parts, lyrics and recording templates prepared. Midday I glanced at my calendar and remembered that the LA Phil was presenting a matinee of Beethoven’s 5th at 2pm. One voice in my head said: “Sam, just buckle down and get these charts done.” The victorious voice said: “you deserve a break today…” I hadn’t heard this immortal masterpiece in years and I couldn’t pass up the pleasure of hearing it performed by one of the greatest orchestras in the world in Disney Hall, one of the greatest concert halls ever constructed.
No, I didn’t have tickets. And no, that doesn’t matter. There are always seats. I have a maxim that is particularly relevant in an entertainment town like LA: you don’t get in the show if you don’t go. In other words, “if you build it, he will come.” I found an amazing seat for cheap just beforethe show started and was treated to a few hours of symphonic bliss. Beethoven’s 5thaffects me in the most visceral way. It’s just not that I share my birthday with the great composer…I have memorized every last passage intimately and during the concert I had to force myself not to conduct. I was even ready for that measure mid-movement when my family 8-track tape would clunk as it switched to the next section.
Here’s the epiphany. I grew up getting to know certain pieces of music very deeply. The power of knowing every crevice of my records or the wow and flutter of every 8-track creates an unmistakable magic when I revisit that music. Repetition and commitment deepens the experience…and isn’t depth what we want out of life? After the concert I wandered downtown LA uplifted, recharged and filled with a sense of possibilities. Rather than go right back to work I crossed the street and visited the Museum of Contemporary Art. What a collection! I must be a fan since I knew the names of most artists without having to look at the descriptions. The most powerful (and valuable) pieces of art are those where the creator limited him or herself to a certain medium and theme. Rothko’s rectangles of sultry color. Jackson Pollack’s monochrome splatters. Jasper John’s maps and flags.
My children on the other hand have grown up with unrefined chaos in the form of millions of YouTube videos, online games and the App Store. All geared for a five-minute attention span. They don’t leave home without the iPod/iPad. Unlimited songs for free forever. And thousands more appearing daily. It’s impossible to keep up with what’s new and knowing what’s hot is increasingly irrelevant. There will be something hotter in a few hours. With the landscape changing so radically everyday, there is no opportunity to make a deep musical connection. Other than my songs, which my kids are forced to listen to just by living here, their musical diet is as fickle as KISS FM.
The repercussions are significant. Are our kids processing relationships in the same way? Instant satisfaction online does not translate well in “meat-space.” A great conversation takes hours to nurture before one reaches revelatory territory. So too with friendships, professional experience and reputations. There is no quick fix for the test of time. If we didn’t kick the kids out of the house, their play dates would consist of observing each other texting, playing video games or watching The 70’s Show. My son tries to hide his distraction when his phone vibrates with a new text. Over 2500 a month. I smile as he fumbles for where he left off in the discussion.
One of my favorite rabbis, Natan Lopes Cardozo from Jerusalem, comments on the essential difference between Beethoven and Bach. Bach was a dutiful adherent to the “rules” of music in his days. In spite of his discipline we hear vast creativity within the confines of this Baroque construct. Beethoven, on the other hand, broke with these accepted rules and liberated music much the way the Beatles rescued rock and roll from the doo-wop of the 50’s. Not to dis ole Ludwig V. but there is a certain power in Bach’s approach. Cardozo quotes the philosopher Goethe stating, “In limitation does the master really prove himself and it is only the law which can provide us with freedom.”
Does this sound familiar? As we march from Pesach to Shavuot, echoing the steps of our forefathers on their way from Egypt to Sinai, we relive the reality that true freedom is within the confines of Torah. Learning a musical instrument takes tremendous discipline and hours of practice. Learning to live as a Jew takes a lifetime of study to master the instrument of the soul. Like Bach, within the yoke of our Torah, we compress our creativity; we deepen our context and explode in our human potential.
Sinai was our wedding day. Our exclusive covenant with the Creator of the Universe. Marriage is the melding of two hearts together into an altogether new entity. Thanks to the exclusion of all other potential mates, a couple has the chance to blossom into a symbiotic oneness. Thanks to our willingness to discard idol worship and focus on the laws of Torah, we explode into the full blossoming of our potential as members of God’s holy nation. It’s no surprise that Jewish law is called halacha, or path. It’s a pathway, not a goal in and of itself. By striving to sensitize ourselves to this path we hear God’s voice, feel God’s love supporting our every step.
Once a week we have the chance to recreate our commitment to our heavenly “spouse.” I have led nearly a thousand Shabbatons over the past twenty years. That seems to be my specialty, and anyone who has attended can testify that I take the celebration of Shabbat very seriously. I, too, am driven to distraction, overwhelmed by data, news, economics and electronics. My friends, Shabbat is the very antidote to the iPod. It’s the antidote to shallow connections with people, God, music, life. Thanks to the restrictions of the day we are forced to deepen our focus on those things we can do, which are praying, eating, and spending quality time with one another. That’s it. Deep interactions, deep (and sometimes very long) prayers, great food accompanied by song, stories and laughter. Shabbat serves as a bookend to a week of superficiality. It gives context to the chaos, a refuge from the rat race. Now I can’t imagine life without it.
Sixty years ago the 8-track tape made our favorite music portable. A product of a simpler time, it allowed us to deepen our experience with the few dozen “desert island” albums we couldn’t live without. It sowed the seeds for other such miraculous revolutions that allow us to keep our music close at hand. Now I have a compass, chronograph, 12 feature films, a siddur, bible, hundreds of books, GPS, a word processor, camera, newspaper, web-browser, games and a jukebox in my pocket. Yes, it’s a phone too. Funny how with 1500 songs I still listen to the same 32 albums. I have 4,300 Facebook friends but I still call my parents with big issues. I love having choices. I don’t want to go back to my 8-track repertoire. But I’ll take my friendships deep, my food cooked with love and my God on God’s own terms.