America outspends China on defense by a margin of more than six to one, the Pentagon estimates. In another strategic dimension, though, China already holds a six-to-one advantage over the United States. Thirty-six million Chinese children study piano today, compared to only 6 million in the United States. The numbers understate the difference, for musical study in China is more demanding.
It must be a conspiracy. Chinese parents are selling plasma-screen TVs to America, and saving their wages to buy their kids pianos – making American kids stupider and Chinese kids smarter. Watch out, Americans – a generation from now, your kid is going to fetch coffee for a Chinese boss. That is a bit of an exaggeration, of course – some of the bosses will be Indian. Americans really, really don’t have a clue what is coming down the pike. The present shift in intellectual capital in favor of the East has no precedent in world history.
“Chinese parents urge their children to excel at instrumental music with the same ferocity that American parents [urge] theirs to perform well in soccer or Little League,” wrote Jennifer Lin in the Philadelphia Inquirer June 8 in an article entitled China’s ‘piano fever’.
The world’s largest country is well along the way to forming an intellectual elite on a scale that the world has never seen, and against which nothing in today’s world – surely not the inbred products of the Ivy League puppy mills – can compete. Few of its piano students will earn a living at the keyboard, to be sure, but many of the 36 million will become much better scientists, engineers, physicians, businessmen and military officers.
Any activity that requires discipline and deferred gratification benefits children, but classical music does more than sports or crafts. Playing tennis at a high level requires great concentration, but nothing like the concentration required to perform the major repertoire of classical music. Perhaps the only pursuit with comparable benefits is the study of classical languages. It is not just concentration as such, but its content that makes classical music such a formative tool. Music, contrary to a common misconception, does not foster mathematical ability, although individuals with a talent for one often show aptitude for the other.
Western classical music does something that mathematics and physics cannot: it allows us to play with time itself. It is a commonplace that our perception of time depends upon the pace of events (so that time in graduate school seems to proceed slower than time in prison). Classical music, though, gives the composer the tools to extend or elide time in the service of beauty and irony.
Something more than the mental mechanics of classical music makes this decisive for China. In classical music, China has embraced the least Chinese, and the most explicitly Western, of all art forms. Even the best Chinese musicians still depend on Western mentors. Lang Lang may be a star, but in some respects he remains an apprentice in the pantheon of Western musicians. The Chinese, in some ways the most arrogant of peoples, can elicit a deadly kind of humility in matters of learning. Their eclecticism befits an empire that is determined to succeed, as opposed to a mere nation that needs to console itself by sticking to its supposed cultural roots. Great empires transcend national culture and naturalize the culture they require.
China’s commitment to classical music will have effects that are at once too subtle and too powerful to categorize easily. It is not that classical music helps to train good scientists, for example. Music and the sciences are different disciplines to begin with. Mathematicians who learn music, though, are more likely to cast an ironic eye upon their craft, and look for flaws and opportunity in its cracks and crannies. It is not Mozart’s sense of order, but his sense of irony that refines the mind of the mathematician. Mozart goes unerringly toward what is not mathematical in music, but instead is asymmetrical, strange and ambiguous. He can be inspiring, or frightening. Years of instrumental practice, knowledge of repertoire and study of theory are necessary to approach this sort of genius.
It is hard to explain what is important about something that most people never will understand. That is what makes America’s music gap with China so difficult to remedy. Except in a vague way, one cannot explain the uniqueness of Western classical music to non-musicians, and America is governed not by musicians, but by sports fans (the lone recent exception was Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, who is both). Hearing music is a skill somewhat like understanding a foreign language, and to appreciate music is like getting jokes told in a foreign language. Rare is the listener who can do this without having been reared in the language.
American musical education remains the best in the world, the legacy of the European refugees who staffed the great conservatories, and the best Asian musicians come to America to study. Thirty to 40% of students at the top schools are Asian, and another 20 to 30% are Eastern European (or Israeli). There are few Americans or Western Europeans among the best instrumentalists. According to the head of one conservatory, Americans simply don’t have the discipline to practice eight hours a day.
Now all of that is interesting — and perhaps frightening if you are a xenophobe. I am a dismayed Hellenist and I am inspired — a poetical word from Latin that means infused with the breath of hope.
To my left I see the decayed remnants of Greek culture, by now a cannibal cult, drawing lots to see who will be accorded the sacred right to devour whom. To my right I see self-righteous barbarians mere days away from acquiring nuclear weapons. And then, lilting in from the East, I hear the delicate strains of Eine Kleine Nachtmusik. Can we hope that a new West will arise to deliver us to transcendence before the absolute worst of the old East delivers us to incandescence?
Here’s the rub, alas:
As a practical matter, though, American policy-makers might think about it this way. Until now, the West has tended to dismiss China’s scientists as imitators rather than originators. As a practical matter, China had little incentive to innovate; an emerging economy does not have to re-invent the wheel, or the Volkswagen, for that matter.
This was not true in the remote past, of course. China invented the clock, the magnetic compass, the printing press, geared machines, gunpowder, and the other technologies that began the industrial revolution, long before the West. When it comes time to develop the next generation of anti-missile radar, or electric car batteries, Chinese originality may assert itself once again. Chinese who have mastered the most elevated as well as the most characteristically Western forms of high culture will also think with originality. Anyone who doubts this should watch Lang Lang’s performance of the Mozart C Minor Concerto once again.
It means nothing to say that Identity Group X “invented” Technological Marvel Y without the context that only Hellenism provides: If the Chinese printing press was not instantly turned to the task of printing cartoons mocking the emperor, then it was not an invention in the Greek sense, but simply an artifact — the sort of thing that the Greeks, alone among human cultures, put into museums. Camille Paglia wonders why the overwhelming majority of peaceful Muslims do not rise up against the Islamofascists who slaughtered so many innocents in Mumbai. The complex answer is cowardice — the word Islam means submission, after all — but the simple answer is that they are not Greeks. We only get to see the outrage of non-Islamofascist Muslims when we print cartoons mocking the Prophet — peace be unto him alone, apparently.
Read the whole article. I am inspired most by the amount of space given over to discussion of the understanding, by Chinese musicians, of the great Greek mocking joy that is Mozart.
America has been the world’s teenager for sixty years, doted upon and indulged. But sooner or later we all grow up. When we do, being cool means a whole lot less than being talented, educated, experienced, creative, honest and hard-working. It would be wonderful if Americans once again grew serious about the virtues of virtue and the virtues of the mind, but that’s a hard breath to hold. But I can hold my breath listening for the jokes in Mozart and hope that there is much more to be heard of the classical West from the so-very-modern East.