Tuesday, 20 November 2012

The Enthralling Enigmas of the Boring Banalities

                If there is one theme that I like to return to from time to time in this blog, it is the idea that things are not always as they seem. Sometimes we are mistaken, sometimes we are deluded, sometimes we are hoodwinked and sometimes we are cheated. There are times when this is fine - good even - for that’s how optical illusions and magic tricks work. Trompe l’oeil art is a delightful genre and an intriguing source of fascinating imagery. 

Guiseppi Arcimboldo - Winter - 1573

Other times, it’s not so good, as when the quacks, sugar pill sellers and other woo merchants roll up their sleeves and apply themselves to separating us from our hard-won dosh. And there are times when it’s simply harmless. Someone slips a little white lie, knowingly or unknowingly, just to spice up a tale and make it a tad more titillating. Take the phrase, “May you live in interesting times,” for instance. Use it, and it won’t be long after you’ve finished your cornflakes before somebody pipes up that it’s an Ancient Chinese Curse. Except it isn’t. The Chinese didn’t have a curse like that, never had, and certainly not the Ancient Chinese, but somebody, somewhen, tacked the ancient Chinese bit on to make it sound more inscrutable. 

An Inscrutable Ancient Chinese Gentleman

You know, to make it sound all double-edged and wise; you might think you’d like to live in interesting times until you start to think what the interesting bit might entail. Then it doesn’t sound so great. Interesting means that stuff is happening, and that might include stuff like wars, disasters and upheavals. No, it’s better to live in uninteresting times, when things just chug along nicely, there aren’t any nasty surprises, and you just keep on keeping on. It just sounds better if it’s a Chinese curse, makes it sound all ironic and knowing. 

A Scrutable 1930s British Diplomat

It probably comes from the 1930s, when British diplomats were doing whatever it is that diplomats do, (separating the natives of some foreign field from their goods and chattels, in all likelihood), and one of them, wanting to sound like he’d been exposed to ancient wisdom whilst posted out East, dropped the description in, hoping to impress the folks back home in Blighty. And it does sound good. Since then, other people have added a hierarchy of ancient Chinese curses to the phrase. “May you come to the attention of the Government,” is one. Not nearly as subtle, though.

A Very Interesting Book. Terry Pratchett - Interesting Times

But what about uninteresting times? When, exactly, was the most uninteresting day in history? Well, some Cambridge boffins once wrote a computer program that analysed newspaper headlines and so on, and it came up with the answer that the most boring day in the twentieth century was April 11th 1954, (and they used this revelation as a publicity stunt for their program, so just out of devilment, I’m not mentioning any names here. If you are interested, then Google is your friend. And yes, I did call them ‘Cambridge boffins’. Just out of devilment.). 

A Boffin Buffooning

Nothing really happened on that day. Sure, some things did happen, it’s just that they weren’t all that interesting. No really, really famous people were born (there was one Turkish physicist, Abdullah Atalar, who is undoubtedly a nice man and loves his mother dearly) and no really, really famous people died; obviously some people were born and some others died – Jack Shufflebotham, who once played centre half for Oldham Athletic, hung up his boots for the last time, for example, but no really, really famous folks. The Queen opened Parliament in Ceylon, there was an election in Belgium, Mike Hawthorn (the racing driver) crashed his Ferrari and there was some local unpleasantness involving the Mau-Mau in Kenya. But that’s your lot. 

So, paradoxically, the most boring day is interesting because it’s boring, thereby making it not boring and disqualifying itself from its only claim to fame.

The Daily Telegraph - April 11 1954

However, what about April 18th 1930? When it came to 6.30 pm, the BBC Radio newsreader read the following broadcast,
Good evening. Today is Good Friday. There is no news.”
And that was that – they played piano music instead of reading any un-news.

Most Featureless Place in England

Talking of boring, the most boring place in England is on a farm near Ousefleet, Scunthorpe. On the Ordnance Survey Landranger map 112, grid reference SE830220, there is an almost featureless one kilometre square (I say almost, it is clipped in the bottom left corner by an overhead power line). But nowt else. No contour lines. No roads. Not a sausage. Zip. Zero.

John Cage (doing his infamous Alan Bennett impression)
But does the absence of something automatically make a thing boring? I’m thinking here of John Cage’s 1952 composition entitled 4′33″ (Four minutes and thirty-three seconds), which is popularly called ‘Four Minutes and Thirty-Three Seconds of Silence’. Except it isn’t. Well, it is, but there is more to it than that. I don’t know if Cage planned it, but four minutes and thirty-three seconds is the same as 273 seconds in total, and –273 degrees Celsius is 0 on the Kelvin scale - Absolute Zero, a point at which nothing happens (and which can’t, theoretically, be reached)(and I’m rounding, so no snarky comments about –273.16 C, please). 

Absolute Zero? Score of John Cage - 4' 33"

The point of the piece is that an audience is present before an orchestra and the circumstances are exactly the same as if they were about to play a ‘conventional’ classical work. But they do not play a note. It is all about the circumstances, the occasion and expectations. The ‘music’ is the ambient noise that accompanies the performance. Basically, it’s a question of ontology – what is music? What is Art? It is a very valid question, and it should be asked by everyone (not just musicologists or aestheticians). Without going off on a rant, the bland insistence of the “I know what I like” brigade is simply not good enough when they are faced by ‘challenging’ art. All they mean is “I like what I know,” or, in other words, “I am satisfied in this shell I inhabit,” – or - 
I don’t want to live in Interesting Times, thank you very much.

No comments:

Post a Comment