Bach, Vulfpeck, Socrates, and the Infinite

By Karl Schudt, Seminar Host

I’ve been listening to a lot of Bach recently, specifically the solo violin works. You can find a good example here [They are sparse, mathematical, non-emotional exercises in pattern manipulation. I wonder if the sparseness and Doric purity of the music is part of the appeal. I listen and my mind is free to go wherever it will. My mind flits around in the gaps of the music, and the entire universe feels like it is within my grasp. I think there are similarities between Bach and what we do here at Online Great Books. Seminars are like Bach variations, fugues, and preludes, in that he and we don’t tell you how to feel or what to think.

Compare Bach to later Romantic composers who use the techniques of music to make you feel a certain weepy. Can you help being thrilled at the glorious, heroic first movement of Beethoven’s 3rd symphony? Try to listen to the prelude of Wagner’s Tristan and Isolde without desperate longing. Later composers wrote “tone poems” to evoke specific feelings and moods, and they got very good at it. Debussy’s Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun is a famous example. John Williams is a modern master. All of the action of a Star Wars movie is incidental to the story happening in the score.

Modern popular music is even more emotionally explicit. Is there any doubt the emotions, or more likely, the appetite that one is supposed to feel at Ariana Grande’s work “Side to Side?” If there is any doubt, the video removes it. Very little scope is left for the imagination or the intellect.

At Online Great Books we would like the experience to be much more like Bach than Grande. New members are often surprised that we discourage the reading of introductions and secondary literature. We don’t want anyone to tell you what to think. We would rather you come to the look as empty as possible.

It’s like a Bach keyboard work. It leaves you room for your mind to roam. It makes you active rather than passive. Our books and seminars do the same thing. Homer rarely tells you what to think. Achilles is presented to you as a literary whole, and you have to decide what to think of him. Plato does much the same thing. Socrates doesn’t tell you what to think, and uses strategic gaps to invite you to think.

In fact, if Socrates gave you a list of settled positions, even if Socrates thought they were true, and even if they were true, you could read them without ever doing any philosophy or thinking at all.

Seminars must be sparse like Bach, not lush like Brahms or explicit like Ariana Grande. The participants should take ideas wherever they may lead without any preconceived direction. The activity of mind is the entire goal. This often requires strategic silence on the part of the seminar leader.

Indulge me with one more music example. Go listen to the appropriately named “Hero town” by Vulfpeck. Drummer Michael Bland plays a solo that is a masterpiece of Socratic restraint. He doesn’t play on the beats which you think he should. The stuttering restrained drum break leaves so much creative emptiness that your funky soul cannot help but grow wings and soar. At Online Great Books, we want the seminar experience to be just as funky.

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