Walking through Central Park a week or so ago, a perfect summer afternoon. Here are the trees, the birds, people playing frisbee, reading, walking dogs, picnicking, the rollerbladers performing by the bandshell, a woman working on an oil painting of Turtle Pond, a pickup soccer game. And look: nothing is for sale, no one is giving orders. But this isn’t passive, private leisure: All around is activity, often intense, focused; all around people are cooperating, being together, in a thousand different ways.
Like here, just past Sheep Meadow, where two middle-aged men are performing intricate classical and baroque pieces arranged as saxophone duets. They’re playing just for themselves, they don’t even have a tip basket. But they’re good, they’re tight; they must have been playing together for years. I’m walking somewhere but not in a hurry. I stop and join the two or three other people leaning against the fence and listening.
Is there any music recording, any music performance, that compares to the music that emerges, unexpectedly in the middle of something else? Is there ever a better performance than the one that’s not for any audience?
In The Ring of Time, E. B. White describes watching a young circus rider practicing some “elementary postures and tricks” in a back lot of the Ringling Brothers’ winter home in Florida:
The ten minute ride the girl took achieved — as far as I was concerned, who wasn’t looking for it, and unbeknownst to her, who wasn’t even striving for it — the thing that is sought by performers everywhere, on whatever stage, whether struggling in the tidal currents of Shakespeare or bucking the difficult motion of a horse. …
Long before the circus comes to town, its most notable performances have already been given. Under the bright lights of the finished show, a performer need only reflect the electric candle power that is directed upon him; but in the dark and dirty old training rings and in the makeshift cages, whatever light is generated, whatever excitement, whatever beauty, must come from original sources — from the internal fires of professional hunger and delight, from the exuberance and gravity of youth. It is the difference between planetary light and the combustion of stars.
This saxophone duo was the combustion of stars. The ten or fifteen minutes I spent listening to them I felt so purely happy, I almost cried.
We don’t need to build socialism, or not from scratch. It’s here all around us. We just have to scrape away the other crap.