“Break Time” by Joshua A. McGuire

By Kathryn, May 17, 2010 2:22 pm

This keynote address was delivered by Joshua A. McGuire at the Blair School of Music’s Senior Recognition Ceremony on Thursday, May 14 in Nashville, Tennessee. While it was not meant to be a paper, and was written rather as cues for Professor McGuire’s speech, it is one of the most incredible things I have ever read.

Break Time

The story is told of a group of Zen novices who approached their teacher with a question:

“What happens when we die?” they asked.

The old teacher sat in silence for some time, then shrugged and said, “I don’t know.”

“What do you mean, you don’t know?” they replied. “You are a Zen Master.”

“Yes,” he said. “But I am not a dead Master…”

In case you haven’t noticed, you have approached a season in your life filled with many speeches. In general, these speeches pretend to be about your future – what will happen when you go forth armed with the Vanderbilt experience. But today, I am tempted towards that wise silence of the living master – since the unavoidable fact is that none of us doing the speaking has ever experienced your future. None of us knows what we will do, or see, or become tomorrow, the month after that, the year after that — and so the good news is that the world has never even seen what it is that you are going to do – because you have yet to discover it. You have yet to invent it. You have yet to become it. Far be it from me to circumscribe that limitless act of becoming with words about your future – words which are always pale platitudes compared with the reckless beauty of what actually happens.

* * *

And yet I have been asked to mount this twice-familiar stage – not only as your teacher, but today as your fellow Blair alumnus. And so even if I know nothing of your future, I do know something of the present moment in which you find yourself. I have literally sat in your seat. I too have tried to downplay in my mind the significance of tomorrow’s ceremony, tried to quiet that faint anxiety about what will happen in the great blank afterwards. This feeling lives just below the excited chatter over next year’s plans and the veteran’s reminiscences of these four wild years. It hangs there like an unanswered question: what will you do with music now? We like to pacify this question with the use of categories: “I will teach,” or, “I will perform” or “I will keep music around on the side“ – but to make such categorical distinctions is to evade the question, for all performance is teaching and all teaching is performance, and all music you make will be heard by someone, if only you. So the question remains: What will you do with music itself – beyond category — beyond technique, beyond scholarship, beyond career, beyond resume, beyond biography, beyond degree? How will you bring into the world the only music you can make, and the music only you can make? At this most elemental level, what is music?

Well it’s a hell of a day to be asking that question, isn‘t it?! And yet before you take a degree, it is an important one to face squarely: what would I be without the degree? How will I – alone – live music into to the world, and what is it that through my music I can give?

Of course, only you can answer that question completely. But I might share with you a clue I once received. I was able to catch it because I had not yet begun to grapple with all those superficial categories and distinctions on which we expend so much energy. It happened when I was a teenager, so I had no thoughts yet of degree or career, God knows I had no technique – I didn’t even have a great instrument yet. Nor did I have a great transcription for guitar of the famous Etude op. 10 no. 3 in E Major of Chopin. I had a very bad transcription for guitar of the famous Etude op. 10 no. 3 in E Major of Chopin – it was just the theme, repeated too many times, minus the animato middle section, in tablature – and I am sure that I was playing it very badly. You see, it was just about the time that all things coffeehouse-and-bookstore-combined were beginning to be really chic, and we had just gotten our first coffeehouse-slash-bookstore in Paducah, Kentucky. My job was to play guitar in the coffeehouse, and for this work I was paid in books. One night there was only one fellow in the coffeehouse, sitting at the table next to my stand, and trying to fill out the hour I began to play my Chopin transcription. He had been silent the whole time, looking a little bewildered and working on a glass of very, shall we say, budget red wine. I finished the budget transcription of Chopin, he finished his glass, he looked me directly in the eye and said, “You just took me to meet some long-gone friends.”

Now, it would be easy to dismiss such a comment as sentimental, and ultimately irrelevant to our daily craft as music-makers — and we have all been told this kind of thing and said thank-you and forgotten about it. But I suspect that the experience represented by this kind of comment goes deeper than the mere chemical vagaries of Woodbridge merlot and human emotion.  All music, simply by virtue of its immanent re-measurement of time, has this potential to bend, batter, and burn away the seconds, minutes, and hours we normally feel grating away at our very selves.  It is a structural fact of music, of its timescape begun and finished, bookended and complete within the larger flow of our own time passing, of which we are usually unaware. Olivier Messiaen called it Turangalila — “time-play.” Or, if you prefer Cyndi Lauper, she called it “this precious time when time is new — until it ends, there is no end.“ At its most fundamental ontological level, no music is simply an entertainment we offer for other people to enjoy during their “break time.”  Rather, music itself can break time.

If we will admit it, we all know this experience ourselves: some music, as it spun its own time in the air, has, for an instant, pushed us over into that breathless place beyond chronology: a place where clock-and-calendar time falls away; the past seems near again, and the future seems blissfully unimportant.  It is also a place literally beyond our selves in that it is beyond our own mental concept of who we are: a little self, measured by clock-time. Even a little taste of this delicious loss of self is enough to animate long stretches of the daily craft. You have experienced it, and perhaps you have kept it to yourself — hidden the fresh tears it sometimes brings, or covered it with the soft noise of distraction. But it persists, that silent music of your own time passing within you that you hear in fleeting instants only. It can never be perfectly heard — it is your wordless secret. It is the reason you came here.

It is also the reason you must leave. For the most important structural feature of all music is that it draws itself to an end. In fact, the knowledge of that end steadily approaching is what allows music to push us beyond time and into deep presence. All music, simply by its sounding, points to the fact of its own terminality. Of course, this is a fact of our own timespan that we virtuosically ignore. But as the needle drops, as the bow is drawn, all music shouts in our ears the urgent news that this note, this phrase, this piece is always coming steadily closer, closer to its own end. All music by its very existence says, “pay attention!” — “this will not last forever…” — “are you catching this?” Music wakes us up, and by reminding us that we are dying, reminds us that we are alive. It returns us to the primeval ground of all attention, and it shatters time by drawing that attention so completely into the present moment that we sometimes wake from the hideous dream of a fixed past or an ephemeral future distinct from it. We sense the stillness of the only thing that has always been and will always be with us — the presence of this present instant. And in this instant music screams the divine tautology: “NOW IS NOW.” We experience the awareness of awareness, the consciousness of consciousness.

We cannot hang on to it for very long, because the naked knowledge of our own existence is too beautiful to bear. So we retreat from this golden realm of paradox — where loss is gain and joy hurts – and return to the four walls around us. We avert our eyes from this relentless gaze of presence, and retreat to a world of anxious understatement and timid text-messaging. “Go, go, go…” says Eliot’s bird in the Four Quartets “…humankind cannot bear very much reality.”

I would simply like to point out to you today that this apparent departure from the statistical norm, this flash when the dull scrim through which we usually perceive time is torn away, is reality. As long as you have the courage to bear it yourself, and to lead other people to it through your art, you will know all the rest to be essentially unreal. But whatever you do with your biography — and tomorrow is a very important day in that biography — you will always have this unquenchable calling: to pick up once again art — which is the opposite of forgetting — and to heal those broken by time, to wake them up to what is.

* * *

Speaking practically as an alumnus, I can honestly say that I do not know a single graduate of this school who has not suffered a nasty case of nostalgia for it. It may be hard for you to believe today, but the nostalgia will come. And so as the odd case who actually had the opportunity to return, I should let you know that the magic that hangs around these four years — this secret garden of nights that glowed with their own shocking newness — is real. But it does not literally reside in the walls of Kirkland Hall, nor is it bounded by Blakemore Avenue or your 22nd birthday. That was music, and you can take it with you. You must take it with you, and as much as you have received, you must give now.

So go, go, go — humankind cannot yet bear very much reality. But when your music sounds, may the dead speak again, and may the living be silent in the excruciating beauty of your presence. We who stay behind will miss your presence here. But then again, wherever we go, we will all always be here.


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