On the Beauty of Leisure

Posted by AJ Harbison at 4:20 am

I recently listened to a podcast on The Scriptorium Daily, the blog of the Torrey Honors Institute at Biola University. The podcast was entitled “An Active Rest”, and it dealt with the nature of leisure and how leisure differs from idleness. One of the contributors–I believe it was Fred Sanders–noted that in American culture today, we tend to class activities in only two categories: work, that is, that which is productive, and idleness, that is, doing nothing. But he and his fellow podcasters explained that there is a third category, leisure, which includes activities that are not necessarily productive but are certainly profitable. They talked about things such as reading, or gardening, or visiting Disneyland with one’s family as examples of leisure. They’re not productive activities because they don’t produce something, some sort of tangible product that you can look back on (except perhaps gardening); but they are still profitable, and the professors argued that healthy forms of leisure are good for the soul, and promote the growth of the soul.

I have to say that I agree, and I experienced an excellent example of leisure time tonight. After bidding goodbye to my lovely girlfriend around 6:30 pm, I remained out on the balcony of my apartment for several minutes, simply enjoying the beauty of the evening: fresh air, a few clouds, the greenery of my apartment complex, the glow from the sun that had just set. Upon reentering my apartment, I decided that I needed to continue the experience of beauty, so I put on some music as I made dinner.

Baroque music–classical art music written between 1600 and 1750–is difficult to match in its elegance, clarity and directness, and I felt that such music would be very appropriate to my mood. So I put on a piece called Water Music, by the German composer George Frideric Handel (German, though he spent most of his life in England). A contemporary of Johann Sebastian Bach, Handel spent his composing career primarily in the employ of the state (unlike Bach who was employed primarily by the church), and Water Music was written for king George I. It was composed for a trip down the river Thames on the king’s barges (thus the title). As I prepared and ate dinner, the elegant beauty of the piece filled the apartment and I found that it perfectly suited my musical appetite.

My thought after dinner was to listen to a very large piece entitled Turangalîla-Symphonie, by the French composer Olivier Messiaen (1908-1992). It’s an orchestral work in ten movements, 78 minutes long, which I had first encountered in a 20th century music class in college. It was accompanied this evening by a glass of Montes Cherub Rosé of Syrah, which I enjoyed quite a bit (I’m usually not a big fan of rosé wines, but this one was rather tasty).

The Turangalîla-Symphonie, though a bit long to listen to all at once without the virtues of a live performance or (perhaps) a lovely girlfriend by your side, is a great piece. It is based around four basic motives, or cyclic themes, which make good “anchors” to listen for throughout. (The Wikipedia article spells out the themes in detail, with music notation for each one.) It’s an exuberant, lively and joyful piece, while incorporating mystical and mysterious elements. Parts of it remind me of a movie score from the first half of the 20th century, particularly the fifth and eighth movements, which makes sense because it was written between 1946 and 1948. There’s a lot of dissonance in the piece–“color,” as Messiaen would call it (I have a quote from him which says, “There aren’t any modal composers, tonal composers, or serial composers. There is only music that is coloured and music that isn’t”)–but it’s not too intense, at least for an open-minded listener, and it certainly is dissonance meant to add color rather than dissonance for its own sake. As I said, it’s a very long piece, and the first half was more interesting to me than the second; but it’s a very good piece, I would love to see it performed live, and it made for a terrific evening.

Now, to wrap these sundry strands together: The time I spent listening to these two pieces tonight was not, in the sense mentioned above, “productive.” Yet it wasn’t idle, either. (Certainly drinking wine, regardless of what else one may be doing, is no waste of time….) Both pieces, albeit in different ways, enriched my evening with their unique style of beauty, and just sitting and listening to them (even apart from eating dinner or drinking wine) was a worthwhile experience. If, as I wrote about in my post about the Concert for Hope, the mere presence of beauty is transformative, then most of us should probably spend more time just sitting and listening to great music. I know I should, as a composer. And, if one has the benefit of a lovely girlfriend and a glass of good wine as well–so much the better!

(I’ve added both of the particular CDs I listened to to the Amazon box in the sidebar. You can listen to audio samples on their respective product pages.)



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    Helen Maritim on 09.30.2008

    You speak your mind so well, AJ. The Leisure part of our lives help us to reconnect with the heart, soul and mind. You depict that in your description and you remind me- that is exactly what i need. Thanks,


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