Saturday, September 7, 2013

Fragmented Thoughts on Fragments

Here's a weird confession. Background: I've been a big sports fan all my life, and like most Boston-area folks, have experienced all the melodramatic ups and downs of being a Red Sox fan for 20 years now. The last two nights, the Sox beat the dread rival Yankees in wonderfully unlikely fashion, each game uniquely compelling. The stakes shouldn't have been that high, because we have a pretty safe lead in the standings, but Boston had one of the worst-ever collapses at the end of 2011, and New York has been on a late-season push that meant if they could sweep this four-game series, things would've gotten uncomfortably interesting on many levels.

What I have to admit, and what probably makes me a bad fan, is that as the years have gone by, I have less patience with Sox-Yankees games that go on for 4+ hours (as they always seem to do) and I find the stress of these games more than I care to endure. So, on Thursday, when the Sox had blown their own 7-2 lead and trailed 8-7, I watched them tie the game dramatically with two outs and two strikes in the bottom of the 9th against the best closer in the history of the universe - and then I went to bed thinking, whatever happens now, THAT was rewarding enough, and I don't want to be up until past midnight if this game goes 15 innnings, especially if it means watching the Yankees win. I've done that kind of thing before, but I'm getting to a "life's too short" stage where I just don't need that, especially since I had to get up early for school the next day.

Then, last night, the Sox were trailing 8-3 in the seventh inning and things were looking bleak, although having won the first game of the series softened the sense of dread. Still, I hung in there, half-asleep (it had been an unbelievably long and crazy day) as my wife noted we'd loaded the bases. I became a bit more alert when an infield single yielded another run, and then watched as the epically bearded Mike Napoli hit a seemingly harmless fly ball that became one of the shortest, least impressive grand slams you'll see - particularly strange because the lumberjack-like Napoli is known for hitting no-doubt-about-it towering shots. So, 8-8, tie game, just like the night before.

And, again, I decided THAT's enough. Even though it was a Friday, it had been a long day and I felt like I'd gotten what I needed out of this game - plenty of excitement and satisfaction. Better to go out on a high note (like noted Yankee fan George Costanza once learned) than risk seeing a dispiriting loss. So, two nights in a row, the game "ended" for me with the score tied 8-8. In true, modern, consumer-driven fashion, I'd gotten what I wanted out of the product, and then I threw it away before it was fully consumed. (Again, bad fan!)

In each case, the very first thing I did the next morning was check the score on my phone, and I was twice rewarded to discover Boston had come out on top both nights. You might think I'd be disappointed to realize I'd skipped out on happy finishes, but for some reason, at this stage of life, I was perfectly content - it even made for an exciting way to start the day, two days in a row. I'd seen (from a Boston perspective) the best parts of each game, but I hadn't invested too much time in either game (both of which I started half-watching mid-game), had spent time with my family, etc.. It all worked out - this time.

I suppose the broader point here is that fragments can be as rewarding - or, in some cases, more rewarding - than the whole thing, although that notion goes against a lot of typical thinking. And, though I wouldn't literally argue that one should leave an opera or symphony after the highest note, I'm often struck by how much I enjoy music in fragments as well. I attended six chamber concerts at my daughter's music camp this summer, and never really regretted that I was hearing single movements of major works. I have nothing against the "perform everything as intended" model of course, and I have nothing against watching baseball games in their entirety, and I believe true understanding of either art form requires an appreciation of the "big picture."

But, just as I've enjoyed watching this stunning Mendelssohn movement (divorced from its full 4-movement context)  multiple times in the past week, I'm enjoying the idea that I can sometimes take in a baseball game on my own terms.

As Charles Rosen has beautifully described, many Romantic Era composers loved exploiting the idea of the fragment - a musical structure that, by design, is incomplete. Actually, the first couple of times I listened to the video above, it seemed to me that it was starting in the middle of that trio's final movement, when what's happening is that Mendelssohn wrote music that has the "feeling" of beginning in the middle. But I love fragments in lots of other ways as well. For the past few weeks, Daughter of MMmusing has been preparing some difficult excerpts from Shostakovich's Symphony No. 5 for an audition, and I have loved hearing these excerpts repeated again and again, even though this is about as fragmented as a musical experience gets. She's playing music intended to be played along with about 12-16 other violinists, with another 70 or so musicians onstage playing lots of other stuff, all going on for close to an hour. But it turns out also to be pretty cool to hear these 3-5 minutes of fragments (mostly half-filtering in through the walls from downstairs), in part because they connect me back to the full experience of the symphony, but also because of their own quirky, musical value.

Returning to baseball, it's always kind of strange to me that the most famous moment in Red Sox history is a Carlton Fisk home run that won a game in a series that Boston ended up losing. That fragment has somehow become more important than the purpose (winning the World Series) it supposedly served. Of course, ultimately, a great sporting event or a great musical experience is filled with a series of moments that range from pedestrian to exhilarating, so it makes sense that those moments could be thought of as satisfying on their own, and please don't think I don't value the way in which the broader context informs those moments.

But this post itself will have to remain a fragment...something, perhaps, to return to at another time. For now, you can always read this 2007 post on Fragments or just enter "fragment" into the search box at the upper left of this page...

P.S. I wrote this earlier this afternoon, but can't help mentioning that since then, the Sox topped the Yanks 13-9 this afternoon. Good times.

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