Sunday, January 21, 2007


People do a lousy job when it comes to labels -- we apply them when they're not needed or even when they're unhelpful or even objectionable. And when they'd really be handy and uncontroversial, we tend, in the rush of everyday life, to forget to make the things.

Auto parts, for example. Wouldn't it be great to be able to lift up the lid and find a label -- legibly clear, bright, facing forward and right-side-up -- to that hose or gasket or pump that's demanding its immediate excision and replacement? Instead, we're usually left to the goodwill, if not mercy, of the brotherhoods of mechanics and parts store clerks with their tightly controlled access to catalogs and data bases and other mysteries of the profession.

Every once in a while it's useful to survey the insides of computers, checking to see what could or should be upgraded. Of course, somewhere in my (unlabeled) files is a stack of motherboard manuals, and I could go online and search for the information, but shouldn't it be possible to just open up the box and find a clear label identifying the make and model of a motherboard or a the speed of a graphics card slot?

I have done a better job in the the kitchen drawer with forty-some spice bottles, each with a little label on top, "galanga", "cardamom (black pods)", or "gumbo filé". No fancy taxonomy, not even alphabetization, just the names, and it's enough. However, the little cabinet with drawers full of nuts, bolts, screws, washers, hinges, and the rest does need more attention, as the lack of labels threatens to turn every minor repair job into a hardware safari.

But there are whole domains in which convenient labels are precisely what we don't need, most of them having to do with human identity: politics, or sexual preferences, or religious beliefs, certainly. Aesthetics, music. Real music can be messy and ambiguous, and the best of music is usually both. I find that the utility of a tonal analysis, for example, often reaches its maximum at precisely the point in which one cannot honestly decide between alternative descriptions.

(I've been trying for months to write an item about Sibelius's Fourth and Seventh Symphonies. But each time I try a label on for one feature or another, it vanishes, like sand between fingers. His inventions -- melodic, textural, formal -- are real and abundant, but they are always elusive, not wanting to be pinned down in one way or another. With Sibelius, it's like hit-and-run driving: you never hear anything coming, and once its gone, you're never quite sure what hit you. The only certainty is that you've been hit).

A piece of music, or a work of art, or a person: complicated, contradictory, frustratingly and joyously refusing to let any label stick. I can't imagine a better state of affairs.

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