Anyone who knows my co-worker can attest that he is a bit of a character. Well, that’s probably an understatement. I should say that anyone who’s ever met him probably thinks that. John Blyth, Library Assistant 5 in the Music section of the John E. Robbins Library at Brandon University, easily fits the definition of eccentric, and not just in a “kindly old[er] man who works in a library” kind of way. Since I’ve known John for over half of my life – only ten of those years as a co-worker, the rest as a good friend – I’m pretty used to his various idiosyncrasies and not easily fazed, even on the Friday afternoon when he was bored and gave himself a haircut with the dull library scissors. Sometimes it takes a comment by one of our regular patrons for me to notice that he has been wearing the same sweatshirt for the last two weeks, and I’ve grown used to tuning out his lengthy responses to the innocuous question “How are you?” John is the way he is and he’s not going to change – and my life in the workplace became much easier once I just accepted that.
One thing that still does drive me crazy about my quirky colleague, however, is his tendency to wax poetic about something he has just seen, heard, read, eaten or experienced. If John likes something, he likes it A LOT, and he doesn’t mind sharing his feelings about these things to anyone within earshot. I can’t count the times I have heard him declare Object or Experience A as “the best thing I’ve ever”-ed, and, to his credit, these items do encompass a wide range of experience. By way of illustration, here is a short list of items recently upheld by John as The Best Thing Ever:
Various Haydn string quartets
A community theatre production of the musical RENT
The movie Avatar
The song “Complicated” by Avril Lavigne (“She’s the next Mozart!”)
A particularly strong Mimolette cheese
A diverse list, to be sure. Each item on it, however, made me roll my eyes when it was pronounced as the occupant of John’s rotating personal pedestal. How could all these disparate things be, even sequentially, The Best Thing Ever? How does Avril Lavigne replace Haydn? or Avatar usurp every other movie John’s ever seen in his 50-odd years? …Cheese?
I guess the real questions for me concerned the ways that John determined his favourites, and what that said about both of our characters. Declaring favourites is not something I do lightly, but although I like to think that this is because I am discerning in such matters, it may simply be that my natural caution and reserve prevents me from enjoying events to the same extent as my colleague. Did John’s effusion mean that he had mastered living in the moment – so much so that his life was a continuous progression of Bests, with each new experience trumping the last? Were his responses based solely on a gut response that over-powered any kind of introspection, or was there a system of checks and balances in place that allowed John to weigh each new item against its predecessor before declaring it the new “top of the heap”? It seemed the best way to find out was to ask John himself about his thought-process, and so I did:
Me: Hey, John.
John [by way of response]: I think the crab canon in Bach’s Musical Offering is some of his best work. The riddle canons also provide an excellent example of the freedom in compositional style which Bach employed so spectacularly in his writing of fugues.
Me [unaffected]: I need to ask you something. Can you listen for a minute?
[Pause while I waited for John to set aside his score and direct his attention my way. I have learned that without this transitional period, any attempt at conversation is futile]
Me: The day after you saw Avatar, you came to work and said, “It’s the best thing I’ve ever seen.” What made you say that?
John launched immediately into a detailed and convoluted response involving his own childhood notions of science fiction, current developments in mathematics, and his own personal hormonal and endocrine fluctuations in response to either positive or negative stress. Out of this, I managed to glean that John’s positive responses are prompted by a connection to what is happening in front of him and the production of a sense of wonder that “appeals to the child within.”
This seemed reasonable as I pondered it. A sense of resonance when experiencing art – the notion that a song, scene or canvas is somehow targeted specifically at me – is something I have certainly felt, but now I was curious to delve deeper and discover what else motivated my own preferences. Luckily, I soon had an opportunity to do just that, by engaging in some direct research in the field.
Perhaps a concert I had been anticipating for a couple of weeks was not really the objective forum necessary for quality psychological investigation, but I’ve never laid claim to honouring the scientific method. And besides, I was considering the notion of “favourites” here: wasn’t a little predisposition only going to help my cause? I decided that it would. Whether or not I ended up bestowing the title of Best Thing Ever on the event I was about to experience, it would still be interesting to examine my reactions to it, and to see if I learned anything about myself.
The concert in question featured The Correction Line Ensemble, a group of stellar Canadian musicians known mostly for their work in other solo or group arrangements. Leanne Zacharias, a cellist and the brainchild of this chamber ensemble, also teaches theory and ear-training classes, and conducts the student orchestra at the Brandon University School of Music. She has also been collaborating and with members of Canada’s independent music scene for quite some time, and for this particular group Leanne had brought together a number of her musical colleagues from both classical and “popular” genres, with the goal of creating compositions that blurred the boundaries between these two worlds and “mapped the current” of contemporary music, in all its varied forms. I was excited about this prospect because I have always been an advocate of music that is beautiful but not easily classifiable, and I had high hopes that these talented musicians would create just that. In the midst of my anticipation, I mused about whether high expectations were a prerequisite for determining a “favourite,” and whether this anticipation would predispose me to experience that feeling of connection and resonance that John had talked about. Although I acknowledged that the danger of having my high hopes dashed also existed, I chose to believe they would be upheld and even lifted.
And indeed they were. From the first notes of the evening, a quirky piano ballad called “What Makes the Cherry Red” by Winnipeg songwriter Christine Fellows, accompanied by background vocals, cello, guitar, violin and marimba, I was captivated. I was familiar with Christine’s work and had heard this particular song before, but to hear it with this instrumentation in this recital hall – where it was much more common to hear classical works –was a thrill. The warmth of the music in the air was reinforced by the dim lights, the golden-brown wood of the stage floor and the cozy cluster of instruments on it, and I felt as if all of us, artists and audience, were cocooned together, with the outside world only a memory. I felt suspended in this magical atmosphere, and realized that this was very possibly one of those resonant moments – one of my Best Things.
My familiarity with the music performed was definitely influencing my opinion, but it was more than that. It was wonderful to hear songs and pieces that I knew, but it was also the delight of the unexpected that added to my peak experience. The unique combination of instruments in use made me hear songs I already knew with new ears, and the seamless aspect of the program meant that I never knew what was going to come next – anything from an acoustic reinterpretation of one of John K. Sampson’s songs with his rock band The Weakerthans to a cello and violin rendering of Bach’s hymn tune “O Sacred Head” or an a cappella vocal rendition of that same hymn, set to lyrics about video games – and half the fun was just going along for the ride. It didn’t hurt that the typical concert dress code of basic black had been relaxed enough to allow for Leanne’s red cowboy boots, Christine’s lime green knee socks and pink-laced sneakers, and Samson’s faded blue and white plaid shirt. There was an obvious rapport among the musicians, and music and banter both flowed easily and effortlessly between them. After the last notes faded, I was left with the certainty that I had just witnessed one of my Best Things Ever. I recalled an exchange I had heard somewhere about being in love: if you have to ask, you’re not in it. I didn’t need to ask.
So then, I asked myself as I wandered home in a daze that evening, what about my psychological experiment? Did my intense enjoyment of the night’s entertainment give me any insight into my own criteria for determining a “best thing ever”? The element of familiarity was definitely a factor, but unpredicted surprises had also enriched and deepened it. As well, it seemed that my particular fondness for this event was aided by the fact that its premise was aligned with thoughts I had already had regarding the cross-pollination of different styles of music and the unique beauty that occurred as a result. It appeared that a peak experience for me involved a certain predisposition towards the event (a priming of my senses) combined with a fusion of the familiar and the unexpected – a mix of seeing my own desires realized and then watching artists shape those desires into delightful new forms I could not have anticipated. When I thought about other artistic experiences I had labelled as life-changing (seeing a Jackson Pollock canvas in the Museum of Modern Art in New York, witnessing the secular church service that was a concert by the Blind Boys of Alabama, for a couple of examples) I found they also contained aspects of this formula of expectation + surprise, and I realized I was discovering a way to define my own Best Thing Ever.
My colleague did not attend this particular concert. When I came to work gushing about it the next morning, John’s response was interested but detached: “I probably wouldn’t have gotten it. I mostly just like music by those dead German guys.” I decided not to mention that JS Bach had featured prominently in the program, nor did I remind him that he had recently declared Avril Lavigne as the reincarnation of one of those deceased Europeans. To each his own Best Thing in his own time, I decided, and now that I knew my own process a little better, I could allow John his own proclivities. Who was I to criticize his love of a particular cheese or a 3D science fiction movie, when the sight of anachronistic red cowboy boots on a recital hall stage had helped to “seal the deal” for me? It seemed clear that the world was big enough for all of us to find our own moments of wonder and resonance, and, despite our differences, we all appeared to have the quest for those moments in common. Even though the triggers for inspiration and beauty are unique to each individual, we can all connect to a certain glint in the eye or a catch in the breath at another’s discovery, and the opportunity to share these moments is, surely, one of the Best Things Ever.
Here is a little video of the Correction Line Ensemble performing at that very concert: