Sometimes you know, a lot of the times you don’t. You don’t always know what’s changing your life while it’s happening. You get conscious of moments that transform the way you see or think ... later. That’s so, I believe, because those moments are really long events often best seen from a distance, something like a hindsight.
One such “Monmouth Moment” happened for me in the Fall term of 1966 in Sam Thompson’s aesthetics class. Arriving early to claim one of the few left-handed desk chairs, I noticed that a portable phonograph sat next to the lectern on Dr. Thompson’s desk, open and ready to play. Believe it or not, that was a moment itself! Hardly a novelty in today’s wired, multi-media classroom, but back in the day? In “philosophy?” In a class where the lecture reigned supreme? I still recall thinking, “What the hell’s going on?”
So anyway, in he comes ... strolling to the lectern, briefcase in hand, impish grin scanning the dutiful and the befuddled. There we were, wondering, but mostly waiting to record the notes we hoped would get us through the final exam. He didn’t offer us a word. Instead he clicked on the record player, lifted the tone arm to a band on the LP and let it play for what seemed like forever. It wasn’t The Stones, but that’s not why it seemed like forever. I was simply clueless about why we were listening to a “Virgil” Thompson cut instead of a Sam Thompson lecture. My sense of things was jarred. Eventually he lifted the tone arm from the record, gave us that “I’ve got a secret” grin and said, “Well ... did you get it?”
I have no doubt, at that moment, everyone in class thought the same thing. In today’s idiom, WTF?! “Get what?” Silence. No one spoke.
Let the lecture begin! Nope. Instead he repeated himself; same band on the LP, same endless moment of mystery, and then the same question ... again, “Did you get it this time?”
On Oct. 18, 1966, I wrote in my notes from class that day (yes, I’ve kept them all these years!): “the impossibility of talking about music ... the fact that people do talk about it indicates they don’t hear it, for to talk about it is to take mind off the music and the sense of hearing it.” So how do you “get it”? Listen. Pay attention. Dare to trust what firsthand experience reveals. Don’t expect that some critic or know-it-all can tell you what it means.
In other words, the composer used music to say what talk cannot. If you don’t hear the music, you aren’t going to get it. What came through to me in that moment was that meaning has its own medium. It doesn’t always happen in words or ideas or dogmas or feelings or with things that are perfectly clear. What happened in that moment in Sam Thompson’s aesthetics class I barely realized ... but it has guided me and given to me ever since. It is this: meaning rarely happens in ways we expect or in things that are familiar and comfortable. It often comes to us unawares, through the back door as it were. But when it does, it goes right to our living room, a place we recognize as home. The truths are there. They’ve been there all along. But to get them you have to pay attention, listen to what may not make sense, and imagine that there may be other ways to insight than the ones you think you know. Thanks, Sam ...and thank you, MC!
Class of 1967