What I found at Bratislava Castle (March 27, 2002)

I’ve been meaning to post this for a long time: sorry for the volume of this week’s verbiage, but in an oddball way this seems to relate to what’s gone before.

Last fall I went to Slovakia (because it was there…and because I was in Slovenia anyway) and, on November 27, in the midst of a significant snowstorm, trudged up the steep hills and stairs of the old town to the squarish and hard-to-love castle. I may have been the only visitor that day; no one else was about but the staff, who seemed to want only to be left alone to knock about the halls. I ended up in the Libresso Historia kavarna, a coffeehouse done up in high 1920s style, where, to refresh myself after strolling through exhibits of historic furniture, I sat down over a plate of crepes and a mug of never-seemed-more-appropriate Irish coffee. On that snowy Tuesday, I gazed out over the houses of the old town, as well as the monster bridge built under Communism (to make way for which bridge the greater part of the old Jewish quarter was demolished), as the B-52’s’ “Love Shack” blared from the speakers and the bartender and waitresses had nothing to do besides wait on me and gossip among themselves. It was one of those moments in life where you’re just glad to be where you find yourself.

The castle itself was moderately interesting at best, but the real find was the humble Museum of the Heritage of Musical Instruments (Hudobne Muzeum) in another building within the complex. It was just a few rooms filled with antique instruments that sat behind glass, doing nothing, but it was the text next to them that blew me away. (One Ivan Macek is credited with “theme and scenario,” which aims to do more than simply instruct one on the bare essentials.)

This is what the text next to the bagpipes says: “Since the origin of new musical instruments was always closely connected with new ideas, the origin of bagpipes was probably also associated with a new idea of the arrangement of the world.”

The text next to the violins informs us that in Slovakia, there is a “long tradition of homemade violins (made by) amateurs from all walks of life.” Such domestic production of musical instruments is common in folk cultures throughout the world, reminding us that the DIY ethic didn’t start with punk rock or even the Velvet Underground. Average people once created and sustained their own culture in a profound and meaningful way.

Music indicates the presence of life, I read on. “Culture is the roofing system which unifies the developmental processes of a certain society.” (You can’t get more Central European Intellectual than that last sentence.)

There was a display of kids’ rattles, the kind that were thought to scare away evil spirits. The text helpfully explained: “It is possible that children’s sound toys are the only group of functioning archetypes which carry the message of the thought of the oldest layers of culture. If the individual is acquainted with them, he may also be able to understand the logic of the direction of the whole culture.”

To the curator, music is a personal expression of an entire life lived in a specific culture. Thus, he concludes, “For music to be heard, interpreters must lend their lives to it, since life is born from the living.”

It seems to me that music, and the creative process in general, is the way the universe explains itself to itself; it’s a natural process that goes wherever we humans do.

What have we lost by losing sight of this?

How long does it take, and what will it take, before we realize what’s really important?

Because I think that what I read in the Slovak musical instrument museum deserves some serious thought.

I’d love to hear yours.

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