Arvo Part: extraordinary

There’s a mug I love.  I found it on my first day of my first real job, in the office kitchen, and I’ve had it ever since.  On it is a forlorn-looking cow that has become stuck trying to jump over a half-moon.  And there are some words: ‘Nothing is ever simple’.  I didn’t choose the mug because of the cow and its caption.  I chose it because it’s white inside, which is so important to us coffee-drinking types.  Over the years, however, I’ve dwelled on the mug’s message and now, reaching the infamously clarifying middle years, I’ve decided that it is wrong – things are, in fact, always simple.

The best music is simple music.  Take Arvo Part’s Cantus in memory of Benjamin Britten: this five-minute miracle starts with three clangs of a bell and proceeds with a series of cascading notes that gather into a protracted expression of heartache.  Part wrote it because he mourned the loss of Britten, his hero.  It may sound as if anyone could come up with such a simple piece of music, but the composer made so many choices, choices about excluding things.  This is the genius of simplicity.  I love Arvo.

The best technology is simple technology.  Last year my washing machine gave up the ghost.  After months of handwashing, resulting in a bung spine and crumpled clothes that made me look like a hobo, I walked into a white-goods store, the sort that promises the best deals in the galaxy.  To the nearest salesperson I said, ‘I need a new washing machine and it must be the simplest available.’  I was taken past all sorts of whiz-bang devices, including a washing machine-cum-dryer; now that’s absurd – it’s like making a heater that’s also a fridge.  The salesperson pointed to a humble unit tucked away in a corner.  It had just two dials: one for whites or coloureds, and one for on and off.  I bought it then and there, and am now in love.  Please don’t tell the mug (or Arvo Part).

Actually, my love is even more divided: I have a Polaroid camera on the side.  How beautiful it is!  Load up, press and click, and out they come!  It’s not the instant gratification that’s the pleasure.  Indeed, the speed at which the images appear only serves to emphasise how hard it is to take a great Polaroid photograph.  It’s the simplicity: there are no software-interface issues or memory constraints.  And it’s tough – you can treat it rough and it just keeps on fulfilling its happy little promise.

No doubt one day, perhaps in a moment of tiredness, I’ll drop my ever faithful but ultimately misguided cow-mug and it’ll smash on the floor.  Or maybe I’ll leave it in the kitchen only for someone else to decide it has no owner, just like I did all those years ago, and it’ll disappear.  I’ll try not to cry, I will, because the best philosophy is a simple philosophy: things come together, things fall apart – do we need to know any more about life than this?

Yes, the cow is wrong, things are simple.

At least, it’s best when they’re allowed to be.

(First published in Panorama, Canberra Times, September 8 2007)