Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Steve Jobs on Gregorian Chant

I got eight books for Christmas, so I've been trying to get through them as quickly as possible so that I don't lose momentum and neglect any of them. Last night I stayed up until I finished the exceedingly lengthy biography on Steve Jobs by Walter Isaacson. It is at turns highly informative and inspiring, not to mention a tad bit repetitive and gory, I must say, but a worthwhile read.

It's no secret that Jobs operated with a mindset that quickly cast people either as geniuses or bozos, and that a person could go from one category to the next in an instant. He was the same way with products and ideas: It could either be the greatest thing ever, or a useless pile of garbage, and verdicts were often rendered within microseconds. This is a value system based exclusively on competence and incompetence, which I'm not necessarily judging, at least not in blanket fashion, but just want to point out, because there is one paragraph where that paradigm seems to be suspended. In March 2011, after the iPad2 came out, Isaacson sat with Jobs as he scrolled through some of his favorite music. From page 413:

"We went through the usual Dylan and Beatles favorites, then he became more reflective and tapped on a Gregorian chant, 'Spiritus Domini,' performed by Benedictine monks. For a minute or so he zoned out, almost in a trance. 'That's really beautiful,' he murmured."

Jobs goes on to discuss Bach, his favorite classical composer, and the differences in the two famous recordings of the Goldberg Variations made by Glenn Gould. I'm fascinated that Jobs seems to simply be sitting at the feet of this music, just taking it in. I was kind of surprised by this paragraph, because in other parts of the book Isaacson documents how Jobs owned a historic mansion that he wanted to tear down to build a modern house. He was resisted by preservationists, and by the time he won the court battle he had lost interest in the project, but he clearly didn't care about a beautiful historic house. So here is this guy with a revolutionary, possibly even iconoclastic, spirit who liked to call people bozos and products garbage who listens to a Gregorian chant and just says, "That's really beautiful."

I wonder which recording he was listening to. I actually prefer the work of the Cistercian Monks of Stift Heiligenkreutz, who put out a recording a few years ago, which includes a number of the chants for Pentecost, Spiritus Domini being the Introit for the feast. These monks have a light and airy but full-blooded sound (ok, I need to knock it off...starting to sound like a wine-taster) and it is really head and shoulders above the recordings from some more famous monasteries.

In a way, it makes sense that such a revolutionary character as Steve Jobs would like chant. Chant is so different from what we're used to hearing that it forces us to actually listen. Music ceases to be ear candy or entertainment and becomes art.