Someone asked me: when did you get your Biggest Compliment?
In my case, it was not a five star review, standing ovation or a phone call from the mayor. I received my biggest compliment a long time ago; I was at the conservatoire and I was doing a lot of experimenting with other music and theatre students. Someone I did not know told me that he had been cycling home after a performance I had designed and had heard a sound from a balcony that, surprisingly, harmonised with a passing tram. His first thought was: is this still part of the piece?
I had written a piece that in some way continued to resound even after it was finished. Except it was not a tune that lingers in your head or an insistent written or visual message. It was the openness of his own ears that surprised this man.
I realised that what this concert had done went much further than was usual. I had succeeded in getting this man to listen, even after the applause had faded. My work of art had briefly become the world; for a moment, his world had become infused with the attentiveness of a performance.
It also made me realise that we have become used to the world. We know her sounds, colours and inhabitants and we find our way, from a place of insecurity via the occasional obstacle, to the habits and familiar places that reassure us.
We take pride in how ordinary everything has become. We show off our indifference as we drive a car, call New York, get cash out of an ATM or meet a traveller. We are irritated by slow Wi-Fi, medical incompetence or a weather forecast that proves wrong. A child’s wonder is soon eradicated by helping her get used to how things work, to understand how everything grows and reproduces and to give everything a label with its name and function.
I do not want to deny people their firm foundations. When life is overpowering and the mystery threatens to overwhelm you, you can find solid ground by putting your faith in your understanding. If you set boundaries within which the world is clear and ordered, it may help to ease your anxiety. It can also be a way of protecting yourself, for instance when you have to get used to a lack of freedom, to powerlessness. And, lacking a suitable alternative, we even let ourselves get used to noise, petrol fumes and each other’s rudeness.
It is perhaps even more painful when we get used to happiness. When the beauty of nature does not charm us. When we start to take our incredibly ingenious technology for granted. When we forget to notice that we are all connected: across nations and across the world.
Recently, as the aeroplane I was on took off and we broke through the clouds, emerging into brilliant sunlight, all my fellow passengers remained unmoved, continuing to stare at their newspaper or mobile phone. In a collective act of wastefulness, the magic, beauty and majesty of that surreal spectacle was ignored. I did not protest, and behaved in the normal, indifferent manner expected of me, but it felt terrifying, how blind we all were up there in the air.
Years later, the man with the Biggest Compliment still haunts me. He makes me rethink my role. Is a composer a creator of music, or can he make people listen more closely? Have we outsourced our wonder and imagination to professional artists so that we ourselves can remain cool and unaffected? And what is the point of the absurd, enchanting or confronting films, books and compositions if they do not pierce through the comfortable indifference of the audience?