Tuesday, November 05, 2013

American Cheese - the cat who never stops smiling


As a counterpoint to reports that the Louisville Symphony Orchestra has appointed a 26 year old music director I offer the good news from Avignon that Wolfgang Zuckermann recently celebrated his 91st birthday and is in good health. Mr Zuckermann - who has become a legend in his own lifetime - played a central role in rehabilitating the harpsichord with his self-assembly kits and influential book The modern harpsichord. During his years in New York Wolfgang Zuckermann supplied instruments to John Cage and many other musicians from his workshop in Greenwich Village. Born in Berlin, he had become an American citizen in 1938 and fought with the Allies in World War II. But in 1969 he sold his harpsichord business and left America in protest against the Vietnam War. After settling in France he became a social activist, environmentalist and, eventually, bookshop owner, and it was in the latter role that I first met him.

In the 1990s Wolfgang Zuckermann worked as an editor and researcher for the Paris-based EcoPlan (also known as The Commons) - a think-tank established with the aim of studying the impact of technology and consumerism on peoples' daily lives and trying to do something about it. During his time at EcoPlan he wrote his fable Alice in Underland. This deals presciently with the now topical theme of the negatives that counterbalance the many positives of new technologies, and prompted Lawrence Ferlinghetti to say "Adults should read this [book] to find out how a sane child might view our demented grown-up world". Coincidentally - or perhaps not bearing in mind the starting point of this path - one of the principal characters in Alice in Underland is American Cheese, the cat who smiles every time you say her name.

I am afraid that is not American Cheese in my header photo: it is the resident cat at the lovingly restored La Lucerne Saint Trinity Abbey in Normandy which I visited recently. Cats are celebrated for their ability to sit for long periods doing nothing more than musing. While at EcoPlan Wolfgang Zuckermann developed an interactive project (which eventually morphed into Buy Nothing Day) called 'Consumer Holiday' - "the one day a year we turn off the economy and think about it". As prophecies of the negative impact of new technologies on our lives come true should we not follow Wolgang Zuckermann's example and instigate an 'Internet Holiday' - the one day a year we turn off the internet and think about it?

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