In Search of the Perfect Society

Meanwhile,  at a hockey game in Russia

If I were asked where a perfect society might be found in Charlotte, North Carolina… forgive me, but I’m starting from a geographical disadvantage. North Carolina, where I currently live is a)  home of the “Bathroom Bill”, designed to legalize the persecution the transgender community b) home to the most gerrymandered Congressional District in the US c) enacter of recent Voting rights restrictions described by the Federal Court as the “Smoking Gun” of racism d) a favourite stumping ground of Donald Trump, noted adulterer, racist, xenophobe, and misogynist. It’s fairly clear that the state may be the most imperfect society in a highly imperfect union. But “society” is a broad term, and definition by geography demands too many generalizations. What of the professional orchestras in the state? The words of Kenobi describing Mos Eisely come to mind. My orchestra? We’re working on it. No, if I were asked where the closest thing to a perfect society might be found, I would point south, to the bedroom community of Pineville, and direct the questioner to its ice hockey rink during the timespan of 10:45pm-12:15am Friday night to Saturday morning.

Ice hockey is a notoriously violent, dog-eat-dog sport, but this small window witnesses perhaps the best, most functional example of social contract I know of in the city. Two teams of entirely random, unplanned composition form based solely on who chooses to come, separated by the colour of their jerseys. Then for the remaining 85 minutes, an extraordinary game of hockey is played. Intentional collisions are prohibited, and participant safety is primary. Play only stops – and stops immediately -if an unintentional collision has any potential to injure a player. Some rules are scrupulously observed and self-enforced: it is a surreal experience to see an attacking rush silently dissolve because one player entered the opponents’ zone before the puck did (“offside”). Other rules are amended with the intention of encouraging continuous play: when a puck goes outside the arena, another is flipped in, with possession going to the first team able to get to it, and the game continues unabated. Should the random team assignments prove imbalanced, a trade is quickly and mutually negotiated to even out the sides. Most remarkably, the most skilled players will often take great pride in their ability to help the weakest players score goals. The elegance and skill of the play, the passing of the puck, is far more appreciated than a goal that’s bashed into the net during a scrum.

Were you to visit the arena any other night, when the competitive hockey leagues are in session, the experience would be incomparably different. Then the objective is solely to put the puck in the net as many times as possible, by any means necessary, and players become expert at determining how much leeway they will have from the referees in pursuit of that end. The competition, regardless of the level of skill, is ferocious and dogs regularly feast upon dogs, with the scorekeeper duly noting both the goals and the penalties accumulated.

And the reason for the difference is simple. On Friday night, there are no referees and scorekeepers. With victory on the scoreboard rendered impossible, the point of the game is not the accumulation of goals, but to play the best possible hockey for the longest uninterrupted period of time. It’s still the same arena, largely the same rules and largely the same players from the competitive leagues, but the simple shift in structure forces a change in objective, producing an entirely different experience.

Meanwhile, at a symphony concert in Canada…

And so for 85 minutes, a bunch of randomly assembled men and women achieve something approximating a perfect society in a grand, democratic, self-arbitrated hockey improvisation – and it’s fun. It’s a space to experiment, learn and develop without serious consequence, and the end result is incredibly stimulating, with the Friday night session almost always at capacity.


Perfect societies are temporary and contextual, a product of structures and objectives. Expecting a high-stakes hockey playoff game to demonstrate the best of human nature is nonsensical. Expecting a large ensemble to improvise as successfully as a jazz quintet is ludicrous. Expecting a jazz quintet to produce the full range of sonic colour as a symphony orchestra is moronic. These ensembles have evolved with specific outcomes in mind and are well suited to their media. But the ensembles are not monolithic, nor is this justification for the status quo. The hockey example shows that if we shift the objectives within the limitations of the framework, something different can be accomplished and the participant experience can still be tremendously fulfilling.

Numbers are important. Doubling the players on the ice or in the jazz combo would be hugely detrimental to the experience. Similarly, large ensembles cannot be thinned without changing their most fundamental nature, which is the intentional duplication of performing forces. But rather than bemoaning the elements that are inherent if not fundamental to the genre, such as scale and printed music, we can leverage them as anchors for a different process in which the musician voice manifests in different ways and supports different objectives. All group music making requires compromise. What pedagogical ideals we compromise depends on the genre and the context.

I enjoy Friday nights at the rink. I also enjoy the competitive hockey leagues. One doesn’t replace the other, they serve different functions in my life and my enjoyment of the activity. The first step to accepting new practices is to recognize they can be complementary, not mutually exclusive.

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