Randomness and Drift   1 comment

Crossing the Mississippi in twilight, eastward rolling on the interstate toward home after dwelling among the Rocky Mountains for a spell — those grand vistas of the West are far behind us.  Back in our level, low lands, we become re-accustomed to the absence of the long, wide view.  Prospects lose their luster.

Exceptions, however, can occur, moments of vision not infrequently fed by rivers.  Jeremy Denk, “classical music’s Tina Fey” (Timeout New York), writes of such a moment when recalling his struggle to produce a recording of Charles Ives’s “Concord” Sonata.  Some of the difficulties were philosophical: it’s seldom easy to wrestle with Emerson’s “disordered epiphanies.”  Some were technical: how to deploy a crude wooden board while hammering out “Hawthorne.”  These complications lead Denk to recall an earlier trouble with Ives’s Piano Trio. Driving across the Connecticut River one afternoon, Denk’s violinist at the time glanced out the window and said, “You should play it like that.”  Bang! A musical epiphany caused by river-crossing:

From the bridge the river seemed impossibly wide, and instead of a single current there seemed to be a million intersecting currents — urgent and lazy rivers within the river, magical pockets of no motion at all. The late-afternoon light colored the the water pink and orange and gold. It was the most beautiful, patient, meandering multiplicity. ¶ Instantly, I knew how to play the passage. (The New Yorker 2/6/12)

I had no such sudden clarity as we crossed the Mississippi this July.  But rather than have us rely on the flash of insight, Ives and the subjects of his sonata encourage us to roll on, ever “onward,” though not necessarily in a straight-line toward a particular end.  Denk writes of the “Concord” composer that his rivers “aren’t constrained by human desires and stories; they sing the beauty of their own randomness and drift.”  Emersonian “onwardness,” as I understand it, is not moving beyond or above nature but into it, or into a heightened awareness of our being with/in it.

The Nobel Prize-winning psychologist Daniel Kahneman asserts that “The main benefit of optimism is resilience in the face of setbacks.”  Perhaps what we call optimism is less the belief in a light at the end of the tunnel than acceptance of chance and variation in nature, going on in spite of a lack of clear direction, crossing the river back and forth, time and again.


Posted August 2, 2012 by the meaning of rivers in Uncategorized

One response to “Randomness and Drift

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  1. Once again, brother–thanks for the deep thoughts. I shall ponder.

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