Friday, October 15, 2010

Drawing straight lines and following them

Today, one tube of the Gotthard Basis Tunnel broke through, making the longest tunnel on the planet, 57 kilometers long, cutting through two- and three-thousand foot mountains.  The whole purpose of the new railroad tunnel is to get as much of the North/South traffic that jams through Switzerland in and out of the country on rail and as fast and unobtrusively as possible and that seems laudable enough, particularly when the promised increases in rail speed will eliminate unnecessary car, truck and plane travel. But there are still several years left before the project is really finished and the moment now is one to spend in a little bit of awe at the tunnel as an engineering and, yes, aesthetic achievement, for long tunnels of this sort are indeed major earthworks, with the curves of their surfaces remarkably smooth, minimal art made on an unprecedented scale.  It's a healthy thing, Ithinks, to take some awe from time to time at a large scale human achievement other than war or pro sports or consumerism or mass entertainment. (David Foster Wallace's Great Ohio Desert (catch the acronym) in his novel The Broom of the System was designed and built precisely to provide some awe in a state which, by nature's gifts, was rather devoid of same.)   Ives's Fourth Symphony always leaves me in awe, Cage's Rozart Mix certainly did it,  and there are moments in Mozart, Berlioz, even Beethoven's Seventh in the Kleiber recording that do it for me.  Alvin Lucier's I am sitting in a room and La Monte Young's Chronos Kristalla are reliable sources of awe.  Hearing the late great Carnatik musician K.V. Narayanaswamy sing and playing the great Javanese Gendhing Bonang Tukung and Gadhung Mlathi were experiences which still summon awe.  Often it's not the composition per se, but a performance that transcends the limits of the composition.  Last night, I heard an Olympia in The Tales of Hoffmann sung by Brenda Rae — music that usually leaves me cold — that was both so precise and gracefully musical that there it was again.  What a piece of work and all that. But now, this is a moment of awe at a very long hole dug right straight through a good part of the Alps, before we take another breath and remember that the Alps themselves are pretty awesome in their own right, with or without the tunnel.         

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