Monthly Archives: October 2012

Mozart and Cognitive Dissonance

It seems like almost all of the time we are trying to justify Mozart. Most of the time, those justifications—including that classical music makes us smarter—irritate me. But a new study, detailed in Pacific Standard magazine, gets to the heart of John Cage’s proposal that “good music can act as a guide to good living,” so I do appreciate it. The study, to my mind, shows us that instead of tearing apart our ideas and hierarchizing them, and instead of acting as though our thoughts fault or contradict one another, we can simply incorporate discordant information in our constellation of understanding. In other words, we don’t have to succumb. Limitations may help us flip more switches and solve more problems in a constructive way. And music can foster the right environment to make that happen.

When I play the Mozart Clarinet Concerto, I often feel that unless I execute each note and passage in precisely the right way, the melodic line will crumble. That’s a lot of responsibility! But instead of trying to alter my mind and fingers to Mozart’s standards, I take what Mozart has written and mold it to my own. That doesn’t mean I consider my standards “lower” than Mozart’s; what I mean is that I take this network of rules, practices, and styles and add it to my existing set of rules, practices, and styles. I hear and conceive of the music with respect to my past, but not in contradiction of it. I refrain from hearing it as what it isn’t, but as what it is despite that. Since what I just wrote is pretty abstract, let me boil it down to this: listening to Mozart (though other classical composers may apply) can help us feel like we are part of a mobile, pliable system. It can makes us feel security in what we already know and a courage to rise above cognitive dissonance. It could help us reinforce our ways despite pointed “evidence” against us. Because that evidence—restrictions, guidelines, facts, disharmonies, new situations, new locations, new interpretations—may not even be “evidence” at all. The only thing it’s evidence of is that we, like music, are mutable, and that our development doesn’t have to be destructive or confusing. It can transform in different contexts and maintain its distinctive qualities at the same time.


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October 21, 2012 · 7:35 pm

Perspectives & Changes

Because I haven’t written in a while—and because a blog post on a single topic or theme could not possibly sum up all of the changes that have occurred to me in the past three months—this first post after my long hiatus will be guided by expediency and not necessarily depth or specificity.

There are just two things you need to know about what I’m up to right now. The rest is just what comes with the territory: growth, new situations, new people, and lots of thinking.

1) In late July, I accepted a job as Production Assistant for NOVA, the PBS documentary series housed at the WGBH Educational Foundation in Boston. NOVA’s mission is to show people at home (who might otherwise be sitting on their couches watching Honey Boo-Boo) how cool, thrilling, and important science is. I feel extremely lucky and excited to be there; it seems like the perfect opportunity to do meaningful work, exercise my many interests, and learn tons of new skill sets. (And by the way, here’s a shameless plug: follow @novapbs and @novascinow on Twitter; I am their social media guru now.)

2) Moving to a new city and starting a new life after graduation was a lot harder than I expected it would be. I think I’m doing a pretty good job with the transition, but of course, there have been some rough patches, sores, burns, and uncertainties. How do you make a home feel like “home”? How do you manage money? How can you be academic but practical and worldly at the same time? How do you learn to give yourself time and patience, and respect yourself no matter what? How do you start a new era of your life and still hold on to the previous one? How do you navigate everything and still take time to figure out who you are? I’ve come to many conclusions, but I think the most crucial have to do with the last two questions. First: My four years at Hamilton College were an amazing, wonderful time in my life, and part of me will always be there. But I like working, I like making my own ends meet, I like seeing new things every day, and I like knowing that I’m changing even if I can’t pinpoint exactly how or why. Sometimes I miss academia, but I have the comfort of knowing that I can return either physically (by visiting the Hill), intellectually (by reading or thinking the way my professors taught me to), or emotionally (by seeing and keeping in touch with the people there—and elsewhere—who I care about). Second: I’ve resigned from believing that any of us has this mountainous “Me” that we carry around… or that we should even care about finding it. Who I am changes all the time;  of course, at the most basic level, there are trends and feelings that stay constant, but that doesn’t mean I need to be in constant search of what those trends and feelings amass to, or whether or not I am most “myself” with one person versus  another. Ambiguity, attention, empathy, patience, and perspective are all good things. And because I’m kind of a freak, I make lists about these things and I’m always eager to receive new insights. Has everyone else evolved as much as I have in the months since graduation? Maybe. Probably. But then again, change isn’t really quantifiable, so one person’s can’t be measured against another’s.

Maybe a list of the books I’m reading right now—and what they make me think about—would be an appropriate way to reacquaint myself with writing and with the purpose of this blog. Here we go!

1) [I already finished this one, but it’s worth mentioning] Living, Thinking, Looking by Siri Hustvedt. This is an absolutely fantastic interdisciplinary work in which Hustvedt explores art and neuropsychology. Weaving the two together results in a new way of seeing art and circumstance—as ways of being and of behavior itself. If only our teachers in middle school and high school encouraged us to drift askew, to think of what we were learning and reading as not necessarily symbols pointing to some other lesson or “meaning” but as gateways, as styles, as rhythms. Hustvedt writes in one essay about the artist Morandi and the “drama of perception”: “In Morandi’s work, I feel a desire, at least partially, to unhinge the thing from its nature.” In this example, among many others, she writes about visual art the way I would like to write about music and science and sensibility in general.

2) A Susan Sontag Reader  by Elizabeth Hardwick. Having just finished her newly-published personal journals, I was so impressed by her ability to write piquant but mind-blowing statements and to get to the core of a specific feeling in just a few words that I was interested in learning more about her fictional and critical work. So I turned to this book, which I hope will give me some useful tools to resist “interpretation,” but at the same time, embrace multiple perspectives. Because I often feel that things are better when they’re not interpreted, but at the same time, I think perspective is what makes us able to figure out our lives at all. The way she writes and applies a critical eye to society also really appeals to me.

3) Mythologies by Roland Barthes. I read this for my literary theory class at Hamilton, and want to revisit it now that I’m not living in the middle of farmland. And I’d like to emulate this way of thinking in my life—dismantling some of the basic stuff we deal with every day and building up.

4) Cutting for Stone by Abraham Verghese. I obviously need a novel or two, and this book is thick enough and well-regarded enough to make me feel like it’ll be an excellent ride. It’s about medical practice in Africa, which is something I know little about, but I realize could be very interesting. In the beginning of the novel, the narrator’s father tells him that he should seek to accomplish the hardest thing he can think of—and so he becomes a doctor. What would it be like to pursue the very thing that you feel least equipped to do?

5) Mrs. Dalloway by Virginia Woolf. I love Virginia Woolf. Anything she writes might sound absurd out of context, but somehow in context it’s perfect. I’m not even reading this for the story so much as the way it’s written and for the little sections or paragraphs that I find to be sustainable pieces of advice beyond the pages of the book—regardless of whether or not Woolf or anyone else intends for them to be that way. Sometimes the passages that are furthest from explicit “lessons” or “quotables” are the most interesting and re-fashionable, anyway.

6) The Pema Chodron Collection by Pema Chodron. I’m not religious, nor would I consider myself a Buddhist at all, but this woman is amazing. Her lectures are funny and reassuring, and at age 22, I don’t know a better guide to life than this one.

More to come, but that’s all for now. I’m glad to be back!

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