Letter To the New York Times Editor

April 18, 2013 | Tags: ,

To the Editor:

Daniel Levitin’s contention about the need always to link music with actual physical movement (Op-Ed Oct. 26, 2007, Dancing in the Seats) is an extraordinarily limited and dangerous position. In Shakespeare’s day, the Globe was populated by a crowd who interacted if not always pleasantly. Yet, in the movie theater (likely the most populated of venues in America today and the world at large, with all its different cultures) there is no room for dance and no expected movement, or interaction. The movie audience sits, just as Dr. Levitin’s disparaged concert audience,  “in rapt attention with their hands folded quietly in their laps,” or perhaps with their hands in the popcorn.

After all, there has been music in churches for 1000 years, mostly with no dancing whatsoever. So the notion that we have been only listening with no physical participation for a scant couple hundred years seems misinformed. Lyric poetry dating at least as far back as Homer, (ca 750 BCE) probably did not permit much dancing when the audience must have been spellbound and straining, no doubt, to try to hear lyric poetry fused with music.

Music is often alloyed to dance, and sometimes it is not. Our very usual (and sensible) split for music and its association is “song vs. dance.”  Three of the nine Renaissance muses were musical ones, and of the three only Terpsichore involved dance as well. The other two, Euterpe and Polyhymnia fused music and word. Music is joined with word and/or with movement and sometimes with nothing, just as word and movement are sometimes disassociated with music.

Perhaps most disturbing, this op-ed piece reflects an implicit lack of tolerance in our hyperactive, shoot-from-the-hip America for a contemplative, meditative art form. Such art forms reward and require stillness of mind, spirit, and—dare I say it?— of body.  Must everything aspire to the exulted form of the rock concert, just because the marketplace has rewarded that expression? Is there not room for different kinds of expression? No doubt Dr. Levitin is a skilled psychologist, and his revelations about brain activity and related art forms are intriguing. It would be nice, however, if, before he recommends fundamentally abolishing one way in which we perceive art, that his historical forays were a little more complete, and the considerations of his advancements a lot more rigorous.  By his logic, every tennis match should be sound-tracked.

Jed Gaylin,
Music Director, Bay-Atlantic Symphony (NJ)
Music Director, (Johns) Hopkins Symphony Orchestra