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

Sunday, February 20, 2011

Two John Cage Stories

Two John Cage Stories

Even as the 19th century aesthete cherished the divinely inspired genius, and chaired him through the market place, a significant number of 20th century aesthetes might be said to have deplored the whole concept of genius--as well as all the other external trappings of excellence with which we adorn our attitudes. The 19th century needed musical heroes--the 20th century much preferred anti-heroes. The 19th century affirmed something positive and transcendental, but 20th century science turned the artist's face away from the ideal and turned it, with a cynical smirk, toward the ironic.

One of the main ideas, behind both modernist and the post-modernist academic concert music, was that original solutions to musical problems, thus the creation of unique musical identities, was no longer possible using the musical materials handed down to us from our immediate forebears; the implications of this inherited material were laid on too thick for the music to overcome by any other means than rejection. Thus, anything that displayed a self-conscious break with tradition was considered original. Of course vogues and cliques rapidly developed, and thus we got a whole bunch of original music that all sounded the same.

The first Cage story I want to tell takes place at UCLA where Schoenberg was having him realize a figured bass in four parts on the blackboard. Cage wrote his first realization.
Schoenberg said, "Write another."
Cage wrote another realization.
Schoenberg said, "Write another."
Cage wrote another realization.
Schoenberg said, "Write another."
Cage wrote another realization.
Nine times. Finally, Schoenberg said, "Write another."
And Cage said, "There are no more."
And Schoenberg accepted this.

This story is often upheld, to defend the position that all the musical potentials of the style materials of the past are used up, and only a radical departure will yield anything new. This attitude has been a thorn in my side my whole life--so much so that to comment on it even briefly would be to invoke not a blog, but a book from my fevered brain. Let it go with this one disgusted retort:

it may be that, under the confining restrictions of a 4-part exercise, the number of a certain type of mathematical solution may eventually be exhausted, but, you do the math, there are so many other variables in any style period that it would use up many, many lifetimes for them ALL to be used up. The monkey may some day write Hamlet, but who's got the time?

One of the other main ideas, behind both modernist and the post-modernist academic concert music, is that the emphasis of musical expression should be turned away from what is said, placing the main emphasis upon what is NOT said. Anti-Art readily brings forth Anti-Artists.This brings us to our second Cage story. This one takes place during Cage's residency at the University of Illinois in the 60s:

Once upon a time John was having an argument with a musicologist who considered Cage to be an impostor, a charlatan, a non-musician--certainly NOT a genius. The musicologist made a list of all Cage's musical sins, like a priest accusing a prodigal son, and compared him with Beethoven, that paragon of snooty quality. "This, and this, and this, and this, and this is why Beethoven was a great composer and you're not!"

To which Cage replied, "But, you see, Beethoven HAD to be a great composer and I don't." Buddhist non-attachment trumpets to the anti-composer's rescue.

In a way, Cage is pretty much of a punk for passing the buck on to the audience--asking THEM to make up his music for him. And yet . . . there's something magnificent, indeed heroic, nay, SAINTLY in the gesture of giving up control of a created artwork and letting GOD step in! What a selfless act, to create situations in which the personality of the creator is completely canceled out by the technique of the piece! It may not be a stroke of musical genius, but it is certainly a stroke of philosophic genius--and if you accept the mode of transmission of this philosophic truth as SOUND, how is that not music?
Does anybody sound like Cage? Does nobody sound like Cage? What's the difference?

Glennallen, AK
February 20, 2011

Sunday, February 13, 2011

On the Ethics of Genius

On the Ethics of Genius

"If a tree falls in the forest, with no one there to hear, does it make a sound?" Frankly, my dear, I don't give a damn. Definitions of sound may be consigned to the quibble/semantics garbage pail for all I care. However, sound or no, I have never had any doubt that if a tree falls in the forest, with no one there to hear, it makes no music. Music is communication or it is nothing. With no one there to hear, there is no transmission of idea or energy from one subjective reality to another. Musical truth brings the soul of the individual into more intimate communion with the oversoul, with the saints, with God. The divine intelligence of music wouldn't even bother manifesting without an audience--put another way, it is the subjective reality of the audience that brings the truth of music into energetic manifestation.

There is a commonly held opinion that genius dwells in a rarefied atmosphere beyond the ken of the common man. I vigorously reject this attitude. It may be true that savants like Mozart and Mendelssohn have insight into the mechanics of creation that surpasses the average or even above average aptitude for understanding the abstract mathematics of music, but without the innocence of the child and the connection with the pulsing blood, those abstractions mean nothing.

The following comments are taken from my doctoral thesis article, "On the Ethics of Music Composition."

The single most powerfully validating attribute an expression can have is the ability to invoke the collective mind in the subject, thereby giving him a super-personal experience of himself and, vice versa, the collective mind a super-personal experience of him (see p. 9 of "On the Improv Mind State"). Therefore, since entering a transcendent state, in this regard, becomes a social act, the degree to which an expression is absorbed into the collective mind is very much a measure of its ethical legitimacy.

The "social" dimension of art is the critical point here--the artist does not create in a vacuum, even if there is never a single other living person listening, the vestiges of human intelligence residing in the collective mind field hear every note.

The rightness or goodness of an expression is intimately linked with its presence as a universal identity. A basic proposition of this paper, supported by suggestions made in "On the Improv Mind State," is that humans are multi-dimensional beings. Human beings exist as foci of ego-consciousness graduated over a vertically aligned strata of planes of existence; a whole person does not live on one single plane at a time, but simultaneously on several, possibly an infinite number. A truthful expression of a multi-dimensional being must, therefore, initiate shifts in mind state, and must generate trans-dimensional energies; otherwise the living referent of the expression is only partially represented. Therefore an expression, if it refers to the multi-dimensional world of humanity, must have something to say to humanity, just as any vibration has something to say to a potentially sympathetic frequency.

Contrariwise, if the elements of an expression are fixed in one dimension or another, then the expression cannot be parallel to humankind; since a human being cannot duplicate the experience of such a non-parallel expression with his whole being, complete contact cannot be made. Such a lapse is sufficient to invalidate the expression and to ensure its hasty demise.

Thus an expression may be said to be ethically invalid when it does not engage the whole multi-dimensional being in an intercourse of sympathetic resonance (or duplication). Because higher and the lower constitute a unified reality, the omission of any aspect of this unity makes for a false representation. This invalidation can occur in the material dimension
(1) with expressions which slavishly repeat the literal identities of their referents without initiating a shift in mind state, or
(2) with expressions whose referents are completely ideational, or abstract, with no material point of reference.
The choices a composer makes in building his composition may initiate psychological responses which lead the subject, step by step, toward an experience of his higher self; or they may not.

The virtuoso mental gymnastics at play in a work of genius will always take a secondary place relative to the motion of the heart in its strivings to reach out to the world and touch the heart of another. The heart's desire moving across the waters, undefined or contained by an abstract form, does not express or manifest true feeling, but rather sentimentality, the echo or shadow of feeling; but form without feeling is sounding brass signifying nothing. The a priori logic of music supports and directs the energy of musical truth, but it is not a substitute for this energy; the truth of music cannot be expressed by rational constraints, only articulated by it. The logic is the needlework that holds the magnificent gown of light in place over the restless frame of transcendent reality. Focus on any single aspect of the multi-dimensional resonance of music, at the expense of the others, limits the range of the expression, deflating it, emasculating it, killing it. Thus the work of genius, while in need of abstract underpinnings, must always strive to embrace the scope of a WHOLE person--an holistic spiritual being.

Since humans exist simultaneously on more than one plane of being, expressions must resonate sympathetically with human intelligence trans- dimensionally. Only by resonating in tune with all levels of the personality's subjective experience can an expression be meaningful; only by inspiring the ego to experience itself in its vast array of articulated forms and inarticulate modalities, does an expression validate itself as truthful. Thus the challenge and the opportunity of art is to seduce consciousness out of its comfortable literal mode and direct it towards higher levels of its mental constitution.

In Christianity and Evolution (1971), Teilhard de Chardin describes the way the personal mind relates to the collective mind. Chardin says that a human mind generates a kind of magnetic force-field, and that all the minds of mankind, all those little force-fields, exert an attraction on each other, creating a kind of merged consciousness (the Omega Point). The energy of all those individual minds creates (or, at some point in the distant past, created) a magnetic vortex which draws (drew) all similar minds into it. This vortex manifests itself as a kind of magnetic cloud that hovers over the world of man, a cloud into which an individual mind may reach to access information or to make personal contributions. Living beings thus constantly rebuild or modify the corporate content of this cloud, which is made manifest not only in individual consciousnesses but in an anomalous super-personal mind-space of its own.

The content of this cloud, is truly corporate, because in the collective mind environment the individual is subsumed into the group. The collective mind is an egalitarian environment, an average-seeking energy; no one person is more important than another, even though individuals may sometimes influence whole classes of materials. To borrow an expression from Fritjof Capra's The Tao of Physics (1971), the collective mind may be thought of as "patterns of interconnection probabilities," (p. 68).
Interconnection is needed to link
(1) the vertical axis of existence through which a human being encounters his multi-dimensional self, and
(2) the horizontal axis, through which he encounters the rest of humanity.

This discussion is leading somewhere--it is leading to the invalidation of the whole idea of genius in favor of a more democratic system of validating art. Ultimately, we are moving to a definition of genius that negates the word's meaningfulness.

Next week: John Cage Stories

Monday, February 7, 2011

Genius According to J. D. Salinger

Genius According to J. D. Salinger

Much has been said in these first few blog entries about the authentic self expressed in the work of genius. In fact, the expected emphasis, on revelations of towering intellect or of brilliant intuitive connections, has been largely missing from this discussion. I have indicated that if it is honest, true to itself and true to its creator, a work of art will affirm its own validity by transmitting divine truth to its open-minded audience. The introduction of pre-existing formulae compromises the "truth quotient" of a work, only if the formulae self-consciously rely on the external "effects" built into them, rather than on integral relationships discovered between them--
relationships created out of:

affinities of the internal forms each with each other,
affinities inherent in the nature of internal forms--
a relative weighting of archetypal artifacts,
a weighting which depends, for its sense, upon some
cosmic super-structure to fix the artifacts in their proper
place in the arrayed continuum
of the collective unconscious.

What is this gobbledygook about "relative weighting in the collective unconscious?
Well, it's really not gobbledygook. There can be no doubt that there is a kind of electromagnetic cloud of consciousness, surrounding the earth, that is created and used by the corporate mind of man. Residing in this cloud is the library of ideas which have been brought forth from the void by human consciousness, and become common property; these ideas are fixed in place from constant use by, and constant reinforcement of, the collective mind of man.

My teacher Herbert Brun had no patience with music that contained obvious references to earlier works or styles; but perhaps he forgot that the force, that establishes the system of relative weights between the parts of a work of art, is the MIND of the creator; (the anomalous mind of the creator).
NOW HEAR THIS: the relationships found in any sequential system, ultimately make sense only SUBJECTIVELY--we can PERCEIVE truth objectively, but we can only EXPERIENCE it subjectively. There is an inevitable logic that drives all literal, (perhaps literate?) systems, and similar conclusions are arrived at all the time, simply because there is a certain a prior knowledge that consistently predicts the same conclusions over and over again.

Brun did not allow for the possibility of a dilettante composer stumbling onto the same truths that were previously discovered, quite independently, by somebody else. If it's been done, we ought to know about it. (Sound familiar?) Brun also had no patience for naivete--to him, the only socially responsible composer was the one who was as well-educated and erudite as himself. The innocent discovery was not valid because innocence itself was to be deplored.

And yet I have heard pieces written by college students that capture the spirit of Chopin just as truthfully and just as legitimately as Chopin himself. Who's to say that the logic systems of Chopin are Chopin's exclusive intellectual property just because he found them first? Indeed it is the innocent, accidental discovery that most completely validates a work of art--the excitement of discovery that uncovers some cosmic secret. There is no shortage of cosmic secrets.

The J.D. Salinger connection for this week comes, of course, from Catcher in the Rye. The anti-hero of this famous work is a screwed-up teen-ager who has an hysterical fear of phonies. He finds himself entrenched in a society that does not encourage intimacy--a society in which formulation is an accepted substitute for intimacy. He can't get close to anybody, because he can't trust the language of formulation to honestly express or create intimacy. Alienation ensues, and all the world informs against his isolation, even the art:

"Ernie's a big fat colored guy that plays the piano.
He's a terrific snob and he won't hardly even talk to you
unless you're a big shot or a celebrity or something,
but he can really play the piano. He's so good he's
almost corny, in fact. I don't know exactly what I mean
by that, but I mean it. I certainly like to hear him play,
but sometimes you feel like turning his goddamn
piano over. I think it's because sometimes when he plays,
he sounds like the kind of guy that won't talk to you
unless you're a big shot." (p. 146)

One of the problems with the academic musical mind set, is that it tends to fiercely and territorially cherish those stylistic artifacts which most dramatically alienate their music from anything like a popular, or even average audience. The thing about Ernie's self-esteem, is that it projects itself into the expressions of his fingers, and flaunts itself like a prostitute flaunts her carnal wares. Ernie has lost the innocence of the child discovering its private truth for the first time--he has become a professor of truth. Those who can't do, teach--and their lessons always proclaim their superiority to all other lessons in the universe.

I used to play at a country club a few nights a week, and I always played the theme from the Goldberg Variations, at the end of the evening, because I wanted those last few diners to get sleepy and go home. This aria is ornately embellished by Bach, and is the type of tune that invites further embellishment by the performer. Consequently, it is easy to become mannered and insincere in the way you play all the trills, and turns, and appogiaturi; I had to remind myself every night to open myself to accidental experience and hear the piece as though I were playing it for the first time. When I consciously put myself in that mind set, I could truly hear the piece for the first time, every time--it's the same kind of mind set I put myself in when I'm getting ready to play jazz.

"In the first place, I hate actors. They never act like
people. They just think they do. Some of the good
ones do, in a very slight way, but not in a way that's
fun to watch. And if any actor's really good, you can
always tell he knows he's good, and that spoils it. . .
Alfred Lunt and Lynn Fontanne were the old couple,
and they were very good, but I didn't like them much.
They were different, though, I'll say that. They didn't act
like people and they didn't act like actors. It's hard to
explain. They acted more like they knew they were
celebrities and all. I mean they were good, but then they
were too good. When one of them got finished making
a speech, the other one said something very fast right
after it. It was supposed to be like people really talking
and interrupting each other and all. The trouble was,
it was too much like people talking and interrupting
each other. They acted a little bit the way old Ernie,
down in the village, plays the piano. If you do something
good, then, after a while, if you don't watch it, you start
showing off. And then you're not as good any more."
(p. 210)

There is a saying among performers that:
"the music must be exciting, but you must not be excited." This rule of thumb speaks for the objective attitude toward performance that forbids emotional involvement with the performance for fear that physical equanimity will be lost, and thereby technical flaws will be introduced. For instance, there is this choral piece by Mendelssohn that I can't sing because I always start to cry--some technical flaw, right? Sobbing through a high tenor line? But to me those tears of sincerity are worth every right note on the page--those tears are showers of truth.