Tree and menorah at entrance to 90 John Street

The most wonderful time of the year?

Well, it’s that time of the year again and, like many people I know, I’m scrambling at the last minute to find the right thing to give various members of my family. On Saturday, in between participating in a six-hour music symposium at Columbia University and attending an evening concert at Merkin Hall, my wife and I eked out a small temporal window to experience the holiday shopping madness in the Columbus Circle area of Manhattan. But if the underlying thread that connected the various talks in the morning and the compositions performed later that evening was the effective realization of really original ideas, our late afternoon navigation was decidedly unoriginal and ultimately ineffective. Ever since the New York Coliseum was torn down to make way for the Time Warner Center’s mall sprawl and independent vendors have set up an annual holiday market across the street from it on the southwest edge of Central Park, the area has become a consumer mecca. So on Saturday evening, it seemed like thousands of people had the exact same idea as we did. Needless to say, we quickly tired of it and therefore did not completely accomplish our mission. So, alas, it must continue tonight.

I must confess that I often have a difficult time shopping for gifts, and I know all too well that over the years I have been a difficult person to get gifts for. My favorite things in the world are books and recordings, so they are frequently my default gift ideas. But in this day and age, many people shun such things and they are also much more difficult to come by in shops. (The still empty storefront that was once the huge Borders in the Time Warner Center is a sad reminder of tons of lost jobs.) Even though it’s extraordinarily simple to order books and recordings online, such activity has yet to give me any sensation of holiday spirit which, admittedly, as a devout secular humanist, is already frequently a challenge to come by. To me, a series of on-screen clicks for ordering, credit card processing (it’s already stored on your computer if you do it a lot—one less step), and confirming shipping method takes away all the magic that comes with chancing upon the right thing, buying it there on the spot, and then wrapping it up and sending it on its way with a personal touch. The impersonal nature of online consumerism seems akin to the same culture that has produced drive-by funeral parlors and drone warfare.

Yes, I know, so far I have not even addressed the phenomenon of the post-corporeal interfaces that are replacing books and physical recordings, a presumably evolutionary direction we are all supposed to believe is the future. I’m not sure how someone would go about wrapping an mp3 file or an eBook. In many shops around town I have seen displays of gift certificates you can purchase which will enable your treasured gift recipient to acquire their own mp3 files or eBooks. But that takes away the whole magical element involved in choosing the specific recording or book you want to share with someone—ideally something that person was not familiar with and would hopefully become transformed by.

Decades ago a friend and I would purposefully exchange gifts every year that would attempt to expand our intellectual horizons—inevitably we’d give each other books and recordings. I still fondly remember two of his gifts. The first was a copy of The Beatles’ LP Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. I know this might seem surprising for someone of my generation, but at the time I did not have a single rock album on my shelves. Such music was all around me, so I didn’t take it seriously—my loss. The record proved to be a life-changing experience for me as a listener as well as a composer, and I continue to reap its rewards every time I hear it. The second was a copy of Roger Kahn’s baseball memoir, The Boys of Summer. I was adamantly not a sports fan at the time. While sports is still not really a world I pay all that much attention to, the book taught me that there is much in common between fans of sports and music and offered some helpful context when I embarked on writing baseball-themed wedding music for some other friends who are sports fanatics.

Decades later I probably have well over 1000 rock albums (I have about 20,000 recordings all told, but I don’t arrange them by genre) and I’ve felt the adrenaline rush of watching a home run in Fenway Park and Yankee Stadium. I owe these experiences to those gifts. I also know that Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band and The Boys of Summer are things I never would have bought for myself. In recent years another friend has given me books about trees and local birds. I’m a self-professed perpetual reveler of the great-indoors and so I don’t explore nature very much, but I should and, thanks to these books, I probably will before too long. I’m saddened that in our desire to always give people exactly what they want, we’re somehow eroding the opportunity to offer someone something that is outside his or her assumed personal taste (which can be an extremely exclusionary filter).

So, in that spirit, any ideas for great gifts herein are wholeheartedly welcome.

NewMusicBox provides a space for those engaged with new music to communicate their experiences and ideas in their own words. Articles and commentary posted here reflect the viewpoints of their individual authors; their appearance on NewMusicBox does not imply endorsement by New Music USA.

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