UNDISCOVERED GENIUS

A commentary on the history, contexts, and meanings of the word "genius."

Sunday, January 30, 2011

Genius According to Somerset Maugham

Genius According to Somerset Maugham

The Moon and Sixpence, (1919) a novel by Somerset Maugham, is ostensibly about Paul Gauguin, but could be about anybody. Moreover, it is a very broad and general discussion of the subject of genius. The word "genius" occurs in the book more than 50 times, and is examined from many varying perspectives. However, Maugham lets us have it right up front, in the second paragraph, with a definitive, early 20th century definition of genius. In speaking of his protagonist, Charles Strickland, he says:

". . . he had genius. To my mind the most interesting thing in art is the personality of the artist; and if that is singular, I am willing to excuse a thousand faults. I suppose Velasquez was a better painter than El Greco, but custom stales one's admiration for him: the Cretan, sensual and tragic, proffers the mystery of his soul like a standing sacrifice. The artist, painter, poet, or musician, by his decoration, sublime or beautiful, satisfies the aesthetic sense; but that is akin to the sexual instinct, and shares its barbarity: he lays before you also the greater gift of himself. To pursue his secret has something of the fascination of a detective story. It is a riddle which shares with the universe the merit of having no answer. The most insignificant of Strickland's works suggests a personality which is strange, tormented, and complex; and it is this surely which prevents even those who do not like his pictures from being indifferent to them; it is this which has excited so curious an interest in his life and character.

Thus it may be seen that "genius" is associated, in the early 20th century mind, with singularity of character at least as much as it is with richness of talent, or loftiness of intellect. The emphasis on the unique character of the genius leads us easily into the realm of originality, since singularity of artistic style must certainly follow from singularity of character.
Originality was the biggest bugga-boo of my early years as a composer. Everybody was so busy trying be original that everybody was trying all the same "new" (sic) things. The students at the university practically screamed in my ear, "How can you be original, if you don't sound just like us?" Another good one was, "Whoever heard of a composer that wasn't famous?"
I have always tried to take a broad view of style, and prided myself on my ability to effortlessly weave together stylistic references from an array of historical and cultural sources. The result was a potpourri with enough stuff in it to offend everybody: to the low-brow, it was too high-brow, and to the high-brow it was too low-brow. In 1995 I had a composition teacher tell me that including a swing drum part and a walking bass in the middle of an abstract piece was the most dissonant thing he'd ever heard.
I don't get it; I mean I didn't make this up, Charles Ives did it all 100 years ago, and Charles Ives is well respected. I guess few have had the courage to be as free with their ego-resolution as Ives was: to him, he and music, all music, were spiritually linked; like a babe in arms, he could not tell where he left off and the sweet breast of mother music began. It is the archetypal resonance in his pieces, that reaches into the soul of his attentive audience, and invokes, more than nostalgia, a sense of timelessness.
Are originality and singularity of character linked with honesty? Is the genius simply he/she who has the courage (or the stupidity) to speak only the truth of him/herself? In a later description Strickland, Maugham notes:

"But though he said nothing of any consequence, there was something in his personality which prevented him from being dull. Perhaps it was sincerity. He did not seem to care much about the Paris he was now seeing for the first time (I did not count the visit with his wife), and he accepted sights which must have been strange to him without any sense of astonishment. I have been to Paris a hundred times, and it never fails to give me a thrill of excitement; I can never walk its streets without feeling myself on the verge of adventure. Strickland remained placid. Looking back, I think now that he was blind to everything but to some disturbing vision in his soul."

Are we all unique beings, flecks of God-consciousness, some more or less willing (in this conformist society) to fess up to our individuality? If so, who chooses which spark of eternal mind will rise to distinction, and which to the obscurity of the void? Who brands the chosen one with the inner vision, so irresistible, so unattainable?

". . . how strange it was that the creative instinct should seize upon this dull stockbroker, to his own ruin, perhaps, and to the misfortune of such as were dependent on him; and yet no stranger than the way in which the spirit of God has seized men, powerful and rich, pursuing them with stubborn vigilance till at last, conquered, they have abandoned the joy of the world and the love of women for the painful austerities of the cloister. Conversion may come under many shapes, and it may be brought about in many ways. With some men it needs a cataclysm, as a stone may be broken to fragments by the fury of a torrent; but with some it comes gradually, as a stone may be worn away by the ceaseless fall of a drop of water. Strickland had the directness of the fanatic and the ferocity of the apostle."

The "ferocity of the apostle" is just the way the personality of Beethoven might be described. The idea of the hero, burdened with a special quest, is so attractive, so romantic, that few weak-minded individuals can avoid the seduction of its ego-stroking balms. Little do they know that the truly unique individual craves, with all possible heart, to be enfolded in the affections of the herd, protected and affirmed by the hearths of mediocrity. The fact that they suffer an outcast station in their own country, all for not being like other people--this is something the truly mediocre never think of; as they promote their own self-esteem, with the bells and baubles of their in-group, they blind themselves to the sensitivities necessary to discern real quality.

"When people say they do not care what others think of them, for the most part they deceive themselves. Generally they mean only that they will do as they choose, in the confidence that no one will know their vagaries; and at the utmost only that they are willing to act contrary to the opinion of the majority because they are supported by the approval of their neighbours. It is not difficult to be unconventional in the eyes of the world when your unconventionality is but the convention of your set. (italics, mine). It affords you then an inordinate amount of self-esteem. You have the self-satisfaction of courage without the inconvenience of danger. But the desire for approbation is perhaps the most deeply seated instinct of civilised man. No one runs so hurriedly to the cover of respectability as the unconventional woman who has exposed herself to the slings and arrows of outraged propriety. I do not believe the people who tell me they do not care a row of pins for the opinion of their fellows. It is the bravado of ignorance. They mean only that they do not fear reproaches for peccadillos which they are convinced none will discover."

To close this week's blog I quote Arnold Schoenberg:

"It is neither "obligatory" nor "permissible" to write either tonally or atonally. Write or not; but in either case, ask no questions, but do your best. Whoever really has it in him will produce it, whether it be tonal or atonal; let the others--those who do what they can--write tonally or atonally, or make what noise they please. They will certainly shout us down, who fulfill our musical destinies as we may: and they will quickly find the ears of all those who keep their ears open for everything ambiguous, but closed to the truth."

Character, Apostle, Destiny, Truth, all terms from the jargon of high universals. How is the true genius able to tell himself apart from just some schmuck with an obsessive-compulsive personality? The expression of Ego as an end in itself, works against the individual's development of sensitivities to his/her true identity. The use of Ego energy as the motive key to higher dimensions, promotes a consciousness of unimagined levels of self. Thus, doth divine truth pass a course through the entrails of a human being, and shit itself out on the concert stage for the edification of us all.

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Skalkottas

Nicos Skalkottas

Skalkottas, Greek composer, 1904-1949, is one of a legion of "great" composers who was ALMOST never discovered. Indeed, there are so many worthy artists who have never come before the public eye that one must wonder how many WEREN'T EVER discovered. It is common knowledge that the music of no less a composer than Joh. Seb. Bach lay fallow in a corner of a Leipzig library until the St. Mathew Passion was discovered by Mendelssohn in 1829 (54 years after the composer's death). WHAT IF Mendelssohn had not been looking for a piece for his community choir to sing? We know that, of the approximately 350 cantatas written by Bach, slightly more than 200 survive; if you do the math (one cantata=20 minutes (at least)), that's over forty hours of music, from the mind of one of the greatest musician who ever lived, lost. Lost.
Between 1927 and 1930, Nicos Skalkottas was a member of Arnold Schoenberg's Masterclass in Composition at the Academy of Arts in Berlin. Schoenberg, history's foremost musical snob and elitist, included Skalkottas in a short list of individuals he considered to be "a composer." If Schoenberg said you were good, you HAD to be good. So there!
To be so designated by Schoenberg placed him at the zenith of estimable, artistic worthiness; so although one deplores the fact that Nicos was so completely forgotten, it is easy to explain this artistic anonymity when you remember that the composer's prime was right in the middle of World War II. After returning to Greece in 1933, he attempted to mount some performances of his work, but after meeting with hostility and rejection, he simply gave up, and lived out the rest of his life playing back-bench violin in the Athens Opera Orchestra. For years, nobody even knew that he was a composer.
However, when he died, a closet was discovered, in his house, filled to the top with completed scores plus parts, all copied out neatly and professionally, waiting for someone to come along and discover them. Many of these were then lost or destroyed (although, in 1954, some were recovered in the back of a secondhand bookshop), but we still have a fair sampling of his work.
I confess, the only composition with which I am familiar is the Contrabass Concerto. It made a deep impression on me when I first heard it. The piece is filled with the same concentration of ideas that characterizes the terse epigrams of Schoenberg's star pupil Anton Webern, and yet, in Skalkottas, there is also an expansiveness and humor (dig that string bass tango!), not to mention the tonal freedom, that characterizes Schoenberg's other great student, Alban Berg. You may even be so bold as to suggest that Skalkottas was the PERFECT Schoenberg student, the student who found a balance between two dangerous extremes implied in the 12-tone system.
As I sit here trying to think of how to explain what I mean by "dangerous extremes" I flash on the word "snooty." The Schoenberg Masterclass was filled with "snooty" characters. They bought into Beethoven's egocentric vision of the artist as the voice of God. a prophet, a saint who always looked down on the huddled masses with massive condescension. There is none of that in Skalkottas (I don't think there is in Schoenberg either, by the way)--it is full throated song, innocent and aware of its progenitors only peripherally, as it loses itself in enjoying itself.
It is impossible to give here a complete discussion of Herbert Brun's Statement vs. Argument aesthetic principle, but, to summarize:
1. a piece of music that is made completely of itself, original, anomalous, is called a "statement," and
2. a piece that relies on or makes reference to other pre-existing material (like Nixon jokes), must necessarily take on that material as psychological baggage, and therefore makes an "argument." (Perhaps a better word is "paradox?")
Brun always preferred the "statement," and I always tended toward an open-hearted acceptance of the "argument." In any case, Skalkottas certainly fills in the crack in that area; his music is bursting with personality and humanity that renders the underlying technique invisible and insignificant. A perspective that would have served well both snooty britches Webern and Berg. Skalkottas makes a positive statement about human life without fear of bringing in cultural/archetypal artifacts laden with progeny, unafraid to mix the human with the ideal. In other words, he writes like me.

RFT
Glennallen, AK
January 25, 2011

Monday, January 17, 2011

Undiscovered Genius - 1

UNDISCOVERED GENIUS
A commentary on the history, contexts, and meanings of the word "genius."

My history, wrestling with the word "genius," dates back to about age 14 or 15.

I am a musician, and an Aspie (a victim (sic) of Asperger's Syndrome): at a very early age it became apparent that I was gifted with that Asperger natural fluidity of thought and muscle memory, such that musical instruments and music composition were a mystery revealed. However, having been brought up in the most basic of white trash traditions of Jesus and Mr. Ed, I became a musician in a cultural vacuum. My precocity was noted by all, but my "all" was a congregation of country hicks, to whom the existence of professions of the mind was unknown and unacknowledged. It had not yet occurred to me to compare myself to anybody else, so I was fairly clueless as to the scope of my gift; I did not realize how special I was, and thus I proceeded along my innocent way, uncorrupted, the serpent's apple as yet untasted.

It wasn't until music camp after 9th grade that I met my mad painter friend, son of two nationally known university musicians. He brought the word "genius" into my life. He was an insanely brilliant artist, (who later distinguished himself nationally), but as a teen-ager, he was really pretty much of an asshole. But he had been involved in high culture all his life, and had grown up in the typical artistic atmosphere of ego strife that is always the consequence of intense self-involvement. Thus, the concept of "genius," I'm sure, had been a common subject bandied about his family breakfast table from earliest memory.

To him, to be the BEST was the only way he could validate being who he was. Perhaps, by claiming a divine right of kings, he sought to justify in his mind the excesses of egocentricity that densely characterized his daily life. Surely, as a teen-ager in the 60's, to establish your own personal moral universe must have seemed a reasonable desire for many, and a necessity for some.

My friend introduced me to the idea of hierarchies of excellence, and insisted on putting himself on the top rung of the ladder. And, of course, having once heard of it, I wanted to be a genius TOO. An intense ago battle ensued for the next year or so, I constantly testing myself to see if I measured up to the lofty standards of my mad painter friend.

It's interesting that my first step across the Rubicon of genius-self-validation was accompanied by Robert Schumann, the composer and critic who first brought the word "genius" to public consciousness in his new music magazine of the 1830's Die Neue Zeitschrift für Musik (English: New Journal of Music). To Schumann, the term genius did not refer to some specific artist of towering accomplishment, but, rather, to the zeitgeist, the spiritual muse that whispers in the ear of ALL artists. Only later did the word come to refer to somebody who was BETTER than everybody else. I did not know this then. (We'll get back to this.)

It was during the contemplation of Schumann's Traumerei that I first noticed a subtle movement of spirit permeating the internal workings of the music; the music flowed by and there was a "click" like the tumblers in a padlock syncing into place, and suddenly the music was illuminated with the light of truth; notes that were just notes before were transformed into symbols of portent and significance. I could not put a name to this experience, but I could feel the sense of it, the rightness of it, in my body; I know not whether it was in my gut, in my groin, or in my head. But I could FEEL the music come alive in me.

Then I noticed that I could have the same experience listening to a piece of mine. (By this time, say age 16, I had already written two string quartets, other string chamber music, several piano pieces, a full-length musical, and a symphony concertante.) The detection of subtle movements of spirit became the index of greatness in my mind--if I could sense this movement, the piece was great, if I could not, it was trash; no middle ground for me--genius or nothing. And it was with a solemn and frighteningly overwhelming sense of responsibility that I accepted myself into the ranks of the music immortals.

It took me over 30 years to come to truly understand what a crock this was, but considerations like this haunted me and corrupted me for most of that time. School didn't help: college musicians spend 1/3rd of their time learning about music, and
2/3rds of their time learning how to be a snob, and I learned my lesson well. Being a professional failure didn't help either: as an aspie I have always achieved professional distinctions like teaching jobs, commissions, awards, publications, etc., on a level far below musicians of comparable talent and attainment who weren't autistic; thus my ego had to battle with the dissonance that arose from my own sense of inner excellence and the pitiful dearth of tangible rewards it had brought me. I hasten to add that I can claim the admiration and respect of some of the best, most famous musicians in the country, but the musical establishment at large has essentially passed me by. Poverty and anonymity were good breeding grounds for bitter twisted attitudes; sometimes clinging to the persona of undiscovered genius was the only thought that kept my mind afloat during years of emotional hardship and neglect.

If I had not been an aspie, perhaps these critical mind obsessions would have damaged my music more than they did; but, as an autistic person, my conceptual world hardly ever touched my creative world. Therefore my artistic activities were spared the corrupting influence of the ego-centric self-consciousness that has invalidated the work of so many artists, thank God--but my philosophy of art, and my professional personae were not spared. I strove to become as much of an arrogant asshole as my friend. And so, through conversion reaction, I repelled every possible professional distinction I MIGHT have accrued, and became my own worst nightmare--misunderstood genius, eccentric weirdo, professional failure.


There was one tempering consideration that gained positive ground as time went on: all through my ego battles of the 70's and 80's there ran a motto theme that resounded in my ears with a comforting ring: "here we are with eternity on one side and eternity on the other side, and you're telling me it's 1975!" In other words, in the long run, the glittering bauble of earthly fame counts for less than one note of music reverberant through the eternal halls of the astral plane. If nobody listens to me in this world, at least I am known by heart in higher dimensions. Words of comfort to an unrecognized genius, to be sure!


How my attitude changed on the subjects of genius and greatness is to be the primary concern of this blog, with sideways flights into musical aesthetics and ethics. I intend to provide many examples of unrecognized greatness, and reflect on the larger cosmic significance of creativity.

RFT
Glennallen, AK
Jan 17, 2011

Next week: Skalkatos.