mixed greens

What’s your pedal point?

Posted 12/9/20

A lifetime ago (early last April), I had a wonderful conversation with a new acquaintance who peppered me with questions about how our local governments are addressing climate change. He eventually …

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mixed greens

What’s your pedal point?


A lifetime ago (early last April), I had a wonderful conversation with a new acquaintance who peppered me with questions about how our local governments are addressing climate change. He eventually asked me whether knowing what I have learned about climate change made me more optimistic or less so about the chances of real progress. I responded instantly that I felt more optimistic because we know what we need to do—we just have to find the will to do it.

It was one of those moments when you discover what you really think only after hearing it come out of your mouth. I’ve since asked myself whether I was just being glib, falling back on a reassuring emotional default. But I believe this conversation helped me identify what I now think of as “informed optimism,” grounded in the work of scientists and public policy experts who know infinitely more than I do. My answer still feels right and even gives me a certain feeling of pleasure.

Serendipitous insights often come to me not only through chance conversations but also through being a random reader. I will pretty much read anything, even a milk carton if nothing else is handy. Through that random input, I often stumble upon a new idea that illuminates those small fragments of understanding floating in my mental background. And so it happened with my little insight about optimism.

As part of my COVID-coping activities, I’ve been exploring my music collection. That’s how I ended up spending the weekend before Thanksgiving listening to Mstislav Rostropovich’s recordings of the Bach cello suites, music far too cerebral for me when it arrived as a Christmas gift from my brother more than 20 years ago. Compulsive reader that I am, I also consulted the lengthy liner notes and was instantly immersed in Rostropovich’s comments on the suites, their emotional colors and structural complexities. This is how I learned about the “pedal point,” a phrase that has given me a new way to think about my own perspective and to understand others.

Wikipedia describes the pedal point as a “sustained tone, typically in the bass, during which at least one foreign (i.e. dissonant) harmony is sounded in the other parts.” It’s called the pedal point because it is easily identified in music performed on the multiple keyboards of the organ, where a sustained note played on one of the foot pedals (the pedal keyboard) is often held indefinitely “while both hands perform higher-register music on the manual keyboards.” The pedal point features prominently in Western music from the classical period, and also in folk, pop, jazz and rock. It can create a pulsing tension and jarring dissonance underneath the main tune of the piece, or a steady sustained baseline around which other instruments weave melodic variations. Wherever the composition may wander, when it returns to harmony with the pedal point, the listener experiences a satisfying sense of resolution. Rostropovich compares the pedal point to a ship’s anchor: “Every harmony has its own pull... When strong winds blow, the ship tosses and turns but remains anchored to the single bass note of the dominant until it reverts to the tonic key.”

Now that I know what it’s called, I’m hearing the pedal point everywhere, from Christmas carols to Duke Ellington. But I am also aware of it metaphorically in discussions and writings about climate change and other issues where it can reveal an underlying tone, a point of view, the intersection of personality and life experience, and active choice.

Thinking about my own “pedal point,” I couldn’t help imagining the “informed optimism” I aspire to as a warm sustained major chord that supports new knowledge and nurtures innovation for an expanding world view. The “informed” part is essential since blind optimism is just as ineffective as knee-jerk despair. As I’ve asked friends and colleagues what they imagine their own “pedal points” might be, the responses—focusing on faith, family, justice, and a connection with nature—have been eloquent and emblematic of great inner strength. So far, no one has chosen anger or fear as their pedal point. If that says more about our aspirations than our reality, it’s a great start. As Mr. Rostropovich once said: “I would rather have ideas and some difficulties of technique than a perfect technique and no ideas.”

Warmest holiday wishes to you all, and may we hear the harmonies we are ready to hear in 2021.

The Rostropovich quotation about the Bach cello suites is from the liner notes for the EMI Classics recording released in 1995.

For more about the pedal point, visit www.en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pedal_point for an explanation with audio examples.


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