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

Monday, March 28, 2011

Timely Fashions

Timely Fashions

     The definition of a style period consists of a list of commonly held social assumptions. It is the character of these assumptions that defines the era. The people of any time period all share a specific perspective on the changeless all of existence; although the content of this vision is eternally fixed in timelessness, the sequencing of the time dimension creates, for the observer, now this perspective, now that; and the differences in perspective result in unique changes in the experience, interpretation, and expression of reality. The people of any time period will share in a certain a prior conceptual framework, a unique method for:

1. structuring ideas, and
2. verbalizing commonly held social attitudes.

Each phase in the progress, each link in the chain of thought, is forged from and flows out of the thought of its historical predecessor.

I have mentioned, in passing, the idea that many composers have been ahead of the current thinking of their time, while some have been behind their times; very few have been in perfect sync with the spiritual movement of their historical time period. Some few composers, like Beethoven and Verdi, have been capable of expressing, in their best art, a generalized summary of the conceptual world of their eternal present; these summaries, vibrant with archetypal resonance, telescope the moment into an articulate focus of now, and give us a streamlined view of the attitudes and values of an entire age.

This type of "contemporary" artist gains acceptance because he is capable not only of giving the public exactly what they want, but of making the public want what he wants them to want. This is not to say that this would be the artist's conscious goal (or at least his ONLY goal)--that he, like any Hollywood hack, has set out to give the people (whoever they are) some watered down approximation of what they think they want (never all that they are truly capable of)--it is simply to observe that, at certain precise moments in time, it has been possible for the faces the composers and the faces of their audiences at large, to be all turned in the same direction; all seeking after that same ineffable truth contained in that same set of articulate collective expressions.

In the collective mind resides all truth, expressed in all possible configurations of subjectively and objectively oriented media; but the collective mind is also in a constant state of flux, revolving on an axis which exposes, to nearest view, first this configuration of articulate expressions, now that one. The collective mind is not opaque nor obtuse, it merely IS, in its current state of revolution, on its infinitely turning axis, aligned at a certain time to expose a certain constellation of conceptual entities, and at a different time a different constellation. The essential truth always comes out the same, but the character of the expression, the mask of the truth, must vary from age to age. When the composer's vision and the majority's vision is the same--well, you do the math.

     Many other composers find their personal vision at odds with their own time; these are the misunderstood composers, the outcasts, the geniuses who march to a different drummer, and who achieve varying levels of professional success in exact proportion to how FAR OFF the mark they are. This out-of-syncness happens because of an inherent danger in any clearly defined style: any style can make a creator lazy; the cliches out of which the style is made tend to relieve the creator of the responsibility of reaching deep inside himself for the cosmic interpretation of the archetypal symbols; for the hack composer it is enough to parrot back the stylistic patterns without deep consideration of their abstract relationships to each other. Stylistic fashion has always been a substitute for real effort.

In the following quotation from C.S. Lewis's The Screwtape Letters, the demon comments on the spiritual significance of fashion:

"The use of Fashions in thought is to distract the attention of men from their real dangers. We direct the fashionable outcry of each generation against those vices of which it is least in danger and fix its approval on the virtue nearest to that vice which we are trying to make endemic. The game is to have them all running about with fire extinguishers whenever there is a flood, and all crowding to that side of the boat which is already nearly gunwale under. Thus we make it fashionable to expose the dangers of enthusiasm at the very moment when they are all really becoming worldly and lukewarm; a century later , when we are really making them all Byronic and drunk with emotion, the fashionable outcry is directed agains the dangers of the mere "understanding." Cruel ages are put on their guard against Sentimentality, feckless and idle ones against Respectability, lecherous ones against Puritanism; and whenever all men are really hastening to be slaves or tyrants we make Liberalism the prime bogey.

But the greatest triumph of all is to elevate this horror of the Same Old Thing into a philosophy so that nonsense in the intellect may reinforce corruption in the will. It is here that the general Evolutionary or Historical character of modern European thought (partly our work) comes in so usefully. The Enemy love platitudes."

"The Enemy love platitudes."! I love it. The archetypal symbol suffused with spiritual radiance, a platitude! Ha! No attentive mind would make so insensitive a reductio ad absurdum. And yet inattention in the search for the truly anomalous now, yields as vapid a product as insensitivity to "platitudes."

My son has urged me many times to shorten these blog entries by breaking them up into pieces. I finally think that's a good idea. We will continue this discussion next week with a look at some composers who were unstuck in time.

March 29, 2011

Sunday, March 20, 2011

Genius According to Robert Heinlein

Genius According to Robert Heinlein

     Contradictory opinions and statements abound in this blog--I know that. Sometimes I appear to affirm the existence of genius--supernormal ability, insight. Sometimes I appear to denigrate the whole idea. To be sure, one primary posture is negative--it pisses me off that the snob appeal of genius desensitizes people to the accomplishments of artists with little or no reputation. It pisses me off that so many people people tend to invent their own aesthetic experiences, weaving them out of expectation, and surface scanning--this instead of focusing their minds and seeking for the truth, always, in the expressions they contemplate. I have tried to emphasize that: it is the expression of character, in its glorious essential humanity, that imbues an artwork with social validity, and that spark of eternal truth, that is the same, the same now and forever, amen, irregardless of the height of the artist's profile. It is not the idea of genius I wish to denigrate, it is the idea that divine humanity is to be found in relative quantities--that this man's truth is another man's merest intimation. I do not think that divine truth is transmitted in a continuum of levels of relative WORTH. I believe that divine truth may be found to pervade, in some form or other, every single created thing. And, I believe that divine forms will brook no literal definition at all--in higher planes all is one, all equally to be cherished.

     Several blog entries have drawn on writing of well-known authors. Certainly if any man deserves credit for a towering intellect, and breathtaking erudition it is Robert Heinlein. Heinlein's work always combines solid science with reflective summaries of just about every known discipline of world culture. His magnum opus, Stranger in a Strange Land, 1961, is a virtuosic display of encyclopedic knowledge not only of science, but history, politics, law, medicine, philosophy, religion, and aesthetics. The following excerpt from chapter 30 is an in-depth survey of principles that validate the work of any creative artist. Its springboard is an off-hand disparaging remark, by Ben Caxton, about a Rodin sculpture, La Belle Heaulmière, "she who was the Helmet-maker's once beautiful wife":

"Ben, I don't know what you have on your mind but it will have to wait while I give you a lesson in how to look at sculpture-though it's probably as useless as trying to teach a dog to appreciate the violin. But you've just been rude to a lady and I don't tolerate that. . ."

"You know I wouldn't be rude to the old woman who posed for that. Never. What I can't understand is a so-called artist having the gall to pose somebody's great grandmother in her skin . . . and you having the bad taste to want it around." . . .

Ben looked at it. "But I don't get it."
"All right, Ben. Attend me. Anybody can look at a pretty girl and see a pretty girl. An artist can look at a pretty girl and see the old woman she will become. A better artist can look at an old woman and see the pretty girl that she used to be. But a great artist-a master-and that is what Auguste Rodin was-can look at an old woman, portray her exactly as she is . . . and force the viewer to see the pretty girl she used to be . . . and more than that, he can make anyone with the sensitivity of an armadillo, or even you, see that this lovely young girl is still alive, not old and ugly at all, but simply prisoned inside her ruined body. He can make you feel the quiet, endless tragedy that there was never a girl born who ever grew older than eighteen in her heart . . . no matter what the merciless hours have done to her. Look at her, Ben. Growing old doesn't matter to you and me; we were never meant to be admired-but it does to them. Look at her!"

Ben looked at her. Presently Jubal said gruffly, "All right, blow your nose and wipe your eyes-she accepts your apology. Come on and sit down. That's enough for one lesson."
"No," Caxton answered, "I want to know about these others. How about this one? It doesn't bother me as much . . . I can see it's a young girl, right off. But why tie her up like a pretzel?"
Jubal looked at the replica "Caryatid Who has Fallen under the Weight of her Stone" and smiled. "Call it a tour de force in empathy, Ben. I won't expect you to appreciate the shapes and masses which make that figure much more than a 'pretzel'-but you can appreciate what Rodin was saying. Ben, what do people get out of looking at a crucifix?"
"You know how much I go to church."
"'How little' you mean. Still, you must know that, as craftsmanship, paintings and sculpture of the Crucifixion are usually atrocious-and the painted, realistic ones often used in churches are the worst of all . . . the blood looks like catsup and that ex-carpenter is usually portrayed as if he were a pansy . . . which He certainly was not if there is any truth in the four Gospels at all. He was a hearty man, probably muscular and of rugged health. But despite the almost uniformly poor portrayal in representations of the Crucifixion, a poor one is about as effective as a good one for most people. They don't see the defects; what they see is a symbol which inspires their deepest emotions; it recalls to them the Agony and Sacrifice of God."

"Jubal, I thought you weren't a Christian?"
"What's that got to do with it? Does that make me blind and deaf to fundamental human emotion? I was saying that the crummiest painted plaster crucifix or the cheapest cardboard Christmas Crèche can be sufficient symbol to evoke emotions in the human heart so strong that many have died for them and many more live for them. So the craftsmanship and artistic judgment with which such a symbol is wrought are largely irrelevant. Now here we have another emotional symbol-wrought with exquisite craftsmanship, but we won't go into that, yet. Ben, for almost three thousand years or longer, architects have designed buildings with columns shaped as female figures-it got to be such a habit that they did it as casually as a small boy steps on an ant. After all those centuries it took Rodin to see that this was work too heavy for a girl. But he didn't simply say, 'Look, you jerks, if you must design this way, make it a brawny male figure.' No, he showed it . . . and generalized the symbol. Here is this poor little caryatid who has tried-and failed, fallen under the load. She's a good girl-look at her face. Serious, unhappy at her fafrure, but not blaming anyone else, not even the gods . . . and still trying to shoulder her load, after she's crumpled under it.

"But she's more than good art denouncing some very bad art; she's a symbol for every woman who has ever tried to shoulder a load that was too heavy for her-over half the female population of this planet, living and dead, I would guess. But not alone women-this symbol is sexless. It means every man and every woman who ever lived who sweated out life in uncomplaining fortitude, whose courage wasn't even noticed until they crumpled under their loads. It's courage, Ben, and victory."

"Victory in defeat, there is none higher. She didn't give up, Ben; she's still trying to lift that stone after it has crushed her. She's a father going down to a dull office job while cancer is painfully eating away his insides, so as to bring home one more pay check for the kids. She's a twelve-year old girl trying to mother her baby brothers and sisters because Mama had to go to Heaven. She's a switchboard operator sticking to her job while smoke is choking her and the fire is cutting off her escape. She's all the unsung heroes who couldn't quite cut it but never quit. . . "

Uh ... we won't look at any others; . . ."
"Suits. I feel as if I had had three quick drinks on an empty stomach. Jubal, why isn't there stuff like this around where a person can see it?"

"Because the world has gone nutty and contemporary art always paints the spirit of its times. Rodin did his major work in the tail end of the nineteenth century . . . Rodin died early in the twentieth century, about the time the world started flipping its lid . . . and art along with it.

"Rodin's successors noted the amazing things he had done with light and shadow and mass and composition-whether you see it or not-and they copied that much. Oh, how they copied it! And extended it. What they failed to see was that every major work of the master told a story and laid bare the human heart. Instead, they got involved with 'design' and became contemptuous of any painting or sculpture that told a story- sneering, they dubbed such work 'literary'-a dirty word. They went all out for abstractions, not deigning to paint or carve anything that resembled the human world."

Jubal shrugged. "Abstract design is all right-for wall paper or linoleum. But an is the process of evoking pity and terror, which is not abstract at all but very human. What the self-styled modern artists are doing is a sort of unemotional pseudo-intellectual masturbation . . . whereas creative art is more like intercourse, in which the artist must seduce- render emotional-his audience, each time. These laddies who won't deign to do that-and perhaps can't-of course lost the public. If they hadn't lobbied for endless subsidies, they would have starved or been forced to go to work long ago. Because the ordinary bloke will not voluntarily pay for 'art' that leaves him unmoved-if he does pay for it, the money has to be conned out of him, by taxes or such."

"You know, Jubal, I've always wondered why I didn't give a hoot for paintings or statues- but I thought it was something missing in me, like color blindness."

"Mmm, one does have to learn to look at art, just as you must know French to read a story printed in French. But in general it's up to the artist to use language that can be understood, not hide it in some private code like Pepys and his diary. Most of these jokers don't even want to use language you and I know or can learn . . . they would rather sneer at us and be smug, because we 'fail' to see what they are driving at. If indeed they are driving at anything-obscurity is usually the refuge of incompetence. Ben, would you call me an artist?"

"Huh? Well, I've never thought about it. You write a pretty good stick."
"Thank you. 'Artist' is a word I avoid for the same reasons I hate to be called 'Doctor.' But I am an artist, albeit a minor one. Admittedly most of my stuff is fit to read only once . . . and not even once for a busy person who already knows the little I have to say. But I am an honest artist, because what I write is consciously intended to reach the customer-reach him and affect him, if possible with pity and terror . . . or, if not, at least to divert the tedium of his hours with a chuckle or an odd idea. But I am never trying to hide it from him in a private language, nor am I seeking the praise of other writers for 'technique' or other balderdash. I want the praise of the cash customer, given in cash because I've reached him-or I don't want anything. Support for the arts-merde! A government-supported artist is an incompetent whore!

Embedded in this dense harangue are several gold nuggets.
My favorite is the last bit about,
"A government-supported artist is an incompetent whore! "
It's a cute reversal--usually it's the university composers who accuse the successful movie composers of being incompetent whores--selling their souls for a buck, prostituting the lofty ideals of whatever ism is in question at the moment. To turn around and tell these institutionally supported ivory tower wackos that they are cheap sluts is a very interesting twist. It was very clever to accuse them of harlotry just because they cater to a smaller, elitist clientele--a clientele confused by the vicissitudes of vogue and shallow thinking, and whose product will never ever attract the audience that bears the mighty dollar.

This brings to mind all the historical examples of composers being more or less ahead or behind their time, hence more or less professionally successful. Bach and Brahms were behind their time, while people like Mozart and Schoenberg were far ahead of their time. The rare Beethoven or Verdi, who were right spot on with their time, is often the exception rather than the rule because time is so slippery, and truth so large. But, since time immemorial, the value of things has been expressed in pesos, so pesos MUST have something to do with it.

This other bit from further up makes me stand up and applaud, too:

"Most of these jokers don't even want to use language you and I know or can learn . . . they would rather sneer at us and be smug, because we 'fail' to see what they are driving at. If indeed they are driving at anything-obscurity is usually the refuge of incompetence."

Indeed the idea of obscurity figures centrally in the mechanism of art, and it is the ability to make statements forthrightly that separates the called from the chosen. I always like to reread this Schoenberg quote:

It is neither "obligatory" nor "permissible" to write either tonally of 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 them open for everything ambiguous but closed to the truth."

Musical Truth!
Musical Truth!
The more you eat, the more you--
March 20, 2011
tomorrow is Bach's birthday (maybe)

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Escape from Success

Escape from Success

The following is a piece written several years ago for my website, freemantlemusic.com. The ideas of success discussed below are pertinent to the comment, "Whoever heard of a great composer who wasn't famous?" They also relate to the Somerset Maugham novel, The Moon and Sixpence, which assigns genius to its own moral world, content to express itself in a private ontology. To the true creative personality, fame never enters into the mix--indeed, seeking after fame has been a corrupting influence since the dawn of civilization. Sour grapes? Maybe, but I always admired Cyrano de Bergerac as the non plus ultra of artist-heroes, and, with him, have chosen to flaunt my white plume in obscurity rather than risk losing my soul in the assembly line outside the temple of fame.

June 17, 08

The Freemantle Music Conservatory just presented another baroque music concert on June 13. The presentation was an artistic success; all the performances were solid technically, and very listenable by any standard. I played two concerti, the Bach Am Violin Concerto, and the Telemann Viola Concerto in G. I was once again asked the question that I have been asked many times since I came here, "What the heck is a musician of your level doing in this tiny, insignificant, backwater town?" It is a question I stopped asking myself years ago, but it is one that deserves an answer, because it is basic to what I am about, and what I am trying to do with my life.

One of the hardest lessons I have learned in life is that success depends not on what you can do, but who you do it for. In other words, success is only possible in the big city where all the main cultural venues are situated, and where, for better or worse, all the best people are forced to live. It took many years, but I eventually decided it was more important to me to live my everyday life in a place that was sane and safe. I'm sure my Asperger's condition has a lot to do with it, because I have never been comfortable with people in social situations; an over-populated environment was always a constant reminder of my inadequacy as a person, and an agonizing stress which, with age, became more and more unbearable. I had to choose between success before the footlights and a walk in the woods in my back yard. It was that simple.

I began my musical life in Chicago where I played with the Chicago Youth Symphony, and heard many top international classical music stars; my high school class boasted at least ten students who went on to major professional careers--my best friend, not one bit more gifted than I, is now recognized as an important American composer. After four years at the University of Illinois, where I studied with some of the world's most well-known composers and teachers, I went to Los Angeles.

In L.A. I worked with another group of front-line musicians, including David Raksin, the composer of the jazz standard, Laura, one of the most recorded songs in history; Raksin was taking me under his wing and recommending me for low-budget film music gigs, which, if I had followed through, would have given me a solid foot in the door of the film music business. After getting my M.A. in music composition from UCLA, I turned my back on an assistantship offered to me, an opportunity that would have permanently ensconced me in the sheltering arms of academia, for the balmy beaches of Santa Cruz, a place, which was, compared to L.A., a haven of calm. In Santa Cruz, once again I rose to the top of the heap, and was pretty well-known as a composer, conductor, and performer; I played with and wrote for some of the top musicians in San Jose and San Francisco.

And, although I enjoyed the notoriety and the recognition, not of the public but of these few famous people who respected me and considered me one of their own, I was still not satisfied with the world I lived in--a world of smog, traffic, noise, and psychic pollution; eventually I couldn't even walk to the beach anymore without being assailed by an army of skateboards and flying frisbies. When a high-speed police chase ended in a smashed car right in front of my house, just yards away from where my infant son was playing on the porch, I knew I had to escape further into the backwoods, and further away from success. I went to the Northwest, Pullman, Washington, and began another chapter in my flight from fame.

I admit that there is an element of arrogance involved in my escapist behavior. I was a child of the 60s, a long-haired hippy, and it was easy for me to reject all the established values of the 50s, including social respectability, and material acquisition. I placed a higher value on my freedom than on acceptance. My Asperger's condition already had condemned me to an outcast state, and the social rejection I suffered at the hands of insensitive, judgmental people colored all my ambitions--I felt there was no hope, so why try. I also realized that my gifts were extraordinary and that, for better or worse, I was ever so slightly ahead of my time. As my compositional accomplishments developed, it became clear to me that my work was beyond the ken of most of the people in bureaucratic positions who might have helped me if they wanted to. I didn't even enter composition competitions, which is the way many composers make their reputations, because I was sure that my music, outside the mainstream, would not be accepted.

Shortly after I moved to the Pacific Northwest, I stumbled into several activities that renewed my interest in success. Through my connection with the Spokane Symphony (I got a job playing section viola) I had a piece for piano and strings played by Stephan Koszinski, a pianist and conductor who has achieved some national fame. I met and collaborated with Portland composer Jackie T. Gabel, on several performances of my music, in exchange for my performance of his piece Hellenic Triptych for viola and electronics; Gabel also included a set of piano pieces of mine on a CD put out by his recording company, North Pacific Music. But most importantly, I hired on at Lewis-Clark State College in Lewiston Idaho as adjunct faculty. I taught there for eight years, establishing several community ensembles, including the college/community orchestra. By the end of my stay there I was doing much more teaching than either of the so-called full-time faculty, and had people traveling more than a hundred miles to study with me and play in my groups.

Unfortunately, when I dropped out of the Spokane Symphony, my opportunities in that town dried up, and my success at LCSC inspired me to do the singlemost stupid thing of my career--I left town to get a doctorate. I figured that if I could do so well teaching adjunct, I might as well get an advanced degree and get a REAL job. Little did I know that my Asperger's personality would condemn me once again to disappointment and failure. I distinguished myself in many ways at the University, and got many job interviews on the basis of my adjunct teaching experience, but when the smoke cleared, nobody would hire me for a permanent position and I wound up back in Pullman without even an adjunct appointment to show for my pains.

Alaska blew into my life on the winds of fate, and here I sit an anomaly of the Chugach Mountains. Here, I experienced the worst personal disaster of my entire life, but I also found myself a home. Many people have advised me to go to Fairbanks or Anchorage, as if that represented a move to the big city, but I remind them that I have already been to the big city--that's why I'm here.

Since leaving the Copper River School District I have begun several outreach activities, the most significant one being this website. But, in 2007, I also sent out e-mails to music teachers all over the state, and the result was a lovely performance of a piece I wrote for the Fairbanks Flutists, Dorli McWayne's flute choir; this is the first quasi-professional performance of my music I have had in over five years. Through an odd stroke of luck I got connected to another flute choir director, Gail Edwards, and she is planning a performance of the piece, Aurora, in San Francisco. I also entered a few composition competitions, and already received an Honorable Mention from an international flute composition competition in San Jose. It seems that the world is catching up to me, and my musical style might actually be entering the mainstream at long last. I have always thought it would be possible to make it in the big city via long distance, and connections are now being forged with big city musical entities that appear to be hungry for what I have to offer. This after I had given up all hope. Go figure.

But let's face it, most of you out there in Mooseland couldn't care less about the struggles of a composer trying to carve out his niche in the temple of fame--you care about what he is doing for you and your kids. It is the most startling surprise of my life that I became a teacher and not an ivory tower recluse like my afore-mentioned best friend. That my highest ambition these days is to forge an artistic alliance between Glennallen and Valdez is astonishing beyond reason. And yet, it makes so much sense: I have always thought it was the man who made the music, not the music that made the man; and my sense of responsibility to distribute my gifts where they are most needed is the moral center from which the humanity of my music springs. Therefore, it is not for my career that I remain here, but for you, and you make me more myself. This can only result in better music. And if I never achieve the reputation of my peers in the big city, I know that in the daily activities of my life I am justified, and in heaven my reward will be great.


Saturday, March 5, 2011

On the Relationship of Irony to Abstract Expression

On the Relationship of Irony to Abstract Expression

I have mentioned previously that one of the difficulties of 20th century art is that it, more than other style periods, has depended on irony as a primary synthesizing force in the formation of its internal abstract relationships. The following piece was written some time ago, but I find that it has some relevance to the subject at hand; and although its presentation here may be perceived as a sidestep away from the subject of genius, it nevertheless has a bearing on the choices made a resonance achieved in much 20th century music.

Irony: if something appears to be a certain way, but new information, external to the context of the immediate situation, is introduced which reinterprets the situation to mean something else, it is said to be ironical; a man miraculously escapes from a den of ravenous lions, exultantly grasping life from the very jaws of death, then in his triumph slips on a banana peel and splits his head open--irony. The dictionary refers many times to the idea of "incongruity" to make clear the meaning of "irony." All forms of humor depend, to a greater or lesser degree, on this element of incongruity--the sudden reversal of a the meaning of a word, a situation, even a feeling. This reversal of meaning generates psychological tension, which we expel with laughter. Laughter feels good in the same way a sneeze feels good, or a sexual climax feels good--tension built up then released, feels good. It is the alternate generation and release of psychological tensions that is the stock-in-trade of art.
The questions this article proposes to ponder are these:

1.) Does the presence of incongruity in an expression signal any kind of meaning of a higher nature?
2.) To what extent does the spiritual mind participate in the lower material plane of dualistic opposition and contradiction?
3.) What effect does the abstract energy of super-physical reality have on the mundane universe of human existence?

Of some relevance is the idea put forth by Julian Jaynes in his The Birth of Consciousness in the Bicameral Mind: Jaynes' ingenious conclusion is that consciousness is, part and parcel, a by-product of the mental reality created by the use of language. Already, in terms of our present discussion of irony, it can be seen that the "incongruity" between the "thing" that language represents, and the linguistic signifiers that generate mental images of that "thing" in the mind, seriously calls into question the very validity of consciousness at all. Jaynes provides much food for thought in the detailed defense of his theory, but a fundamental flaw may be seen in his insistence that consciousness is merely a product of the functioning brain; to a spiritually-minded person, it is an a priori principle that the brain is merely a physical organ, capable only of processing material input, whereas the "Mind" is something that resides on a higher plane of the infinite continuum of cosmic existence. Therefore, consciousness, on one level, may indeed be a vestige of verbal manipulations performed by a clever physical organ, but our sense of self, which, since Aristotle, has been thought of as the state of mind which separates human consciousness from the animals, may originate from a place not only higher than but also externally separate from the brain. The reality of higher mind is not fixed in the tension between opposing dual polarities, it is not vitiated by the artificiality of representational expressions, but, rather, is a dynamic, animating force which manifests as a personal presence; it is an eye into the infinite, capable of a breadth of vision far beyond the brain's paltry powers of perception.

The great composer Herbert Brun laments the inability of language to live in the present moment in his poem Futility:

For it is believable
that you do not yet believe
in hearing the sound of events
as they call on you
to create the suitable language
that will let you say to yourself
that which is said to you
just once and never again
for the first and last time

There is no second time
since a language gained
is a language lost

In Brun's aesthetic lexicon he consistently distinguishes between "statements' and "arguments"; a "statement" is an expression which exists in anomalous singularity, while an "argument" depends for its meaning, at least partially, on its pedigree: the idea that expressions must come from somewhere, and that this general (or specific) somewhere roots the expression in the past to the precise degree that it bears a resemblance to anything that has been expressed before. Brun clings to the possibility that a completely new expression is possible, even though, in his poem, he admits defeat in this regard by virtue of the inability of language to live anywhere but in a single moment.

I have always disagreed with the proposition that "arguments" have less expressive validity than "statements" for two reasons:
1.) It can be seen from the strong implication of Futility that the creation of a "statement" without a pedigree is virtually, if not completely, impossible, given the dualistic character of language; and, more importantly, that
2.) it is the relational interplay of various degrees of an expression's history that drives it into the realm of abstraction.

By abstraction, I mean a reality of mind, (we might say a spiritual state of mind) disconnected from the material referents of the expression. Art is always echoing the material plane by virtue of imitation: this sounds like thunder, this represents buzzing bees, etc.; but, when two material referents are placed in opposition to each other, a third meaning emerges. The relationship between the two becomes an expressive entity in its own right, with a meaning, nay, a resonance that transcends the material origin of either of the two referents.

My contention is that the aesthetic response is, and always has been, a response to this abstract reality, not to the physical reality represented by the abstract expression's lower level components. Hence, if a material expression comes encumbered with a backlog of stock associations that drag it from the present moment into the past, this action does NOT attenuate the potential of the abstract relationship, between the parts, to bring into the physical dimension the power and the living truth of higher mind. The multi-dimensional structure of human consciousness allows the self to traverse many (infinite?) levels, above and below, in a quest to affirm its cosmic identity. Thus, the ironical effect, in its resolution of opposing incongruities, may be seen as an important ingredient an an artwork's effort to penetrate the world of abstraction, and thus enter the world of spirituality.

A discussion of the Aristotelean definition of tragedy may be useful in clarifying this idea. (There is some disagreement as whether it was Aristotle or Shakespeare who defined tragedy in the following way, but, clearly, SOMEBODY did.) In a classical Greek tragedy, the hero is always of high birth, and possessed of all human virtues except one: the tragic flaw. This unfortunate flaw always wreaks the hero's ruin, and drags down numerous of his other personal associates with him. The tragic effect depends on the audience's sympathetic participation in this "fall." The experience of the tragic "fall" is very much connected to the incongruity of the personal values incorporated into the personality of the tragic hero, and degree of our cathartic response to his plight is proportional to our ability to "fall" with him.

Santayana has stated that, "Beauty is pleasure objectified." Hence, although the subject matter of tragedy is always human pain, suffering, and dissolution, our personal reaction, to the events in a good play, is, ultimately, pleasure. It is not only like a good sneeze, the expulsion of pent-up tension, it is also the feeling that the characters have drawn us out of our mundane selves into a world of rarefied spiritual truth. The truth of tragedy is not that life sucks and all is for nought; the truth of tragedy is that the tragic fall is not a downward, but an upward flight into a dimension of higher meaning. The tragic hero, suspended between the opposing attractions of ironical incongruities, is elevated to a higher level of existence; the tragic fall affirms and enhances the hero's sense of cosmic identity.

We are all familiar with the neurotic tendency to generate tragic implications out of our personal life stories. A neurotic person is, in many ways, more alive than a happy person, because pain emphasizes existence with its special brand of attention-getting. Of course the problem with this scenario is that when a play is over, we can return to our lives renewed, ready to start again to integrate our mundane lives into our spiritual ones, but if your whole life is a play, you can never escape the pain that leads to the fall, and hence never obtain the position of objectivity necessary to witness the effects of the fall and benefit from it.

Stravinsky's The Rake's Progress is a study in incongruity with its ever-tempting nostalgic indebtedness to an older, more comfortable, musical style. The music of the Rake is attended by a swirling aura of abstract relationships, as reference after reference to 18th century music is mitigated by perversions and misdirections which reinterpret, in every moment, the apparent pedigrees of its expressions. The ideas of false bass, polytonality, and stylistic permutation, are just a few of the expressive incongruities that pervade this work. Thus, the intense pleasure we derive from this complex of incongruous contradictions is directly related to the power of abstract relationships to force us out of one mind state into another.

The Quixote by Luis Borges, the story about the 20th century author who rewrites, word for word, the Cervantes novel, by BECOMING Cervantes, is an examination of how time itself draws antique expressions into the present. A word written in 1550 does not mean the same thing as the same word written in 1950. Why? Because the ever-evolving world of spirit does not allow the abstract relationships, inherent in a work of art, to stagnate like a dead thing, but always revives it Lazarus-like, in the anomalous now.

James Joyce has suggested three stages in the life of the artist: the Heroic, the Epic, and the Dramatic. In this third stage, the Dramatic, Joyce likens the work of an artist to God paring His fingernails. It is not unlike the episode in the Bhagavad Gita, where Krishna enjoins Arjuna to "fight without desire." The middle path of objectivity frees the warrior (artist, human being) to act without reference to what he is acting on, or where or when he is acting. The arbitrariness of the context does not emasculate the potency of the relationship between the doer and the done; the quiet mind ignites the fires of the heart.

Indeed, the dispassionate mind state frees the self from the seductions of mundane existence, and frees it to walk the earth with lighter feet; in this higher mind state, the subject takes what he is given and molds it with his will into expressions which transcend their materials. Thus, the effect of irony is to manipulate the dualities of the physical to a point where their opposing energies explode upward into a dimension of spiritual truth; a dimension in which the self is both less and more than it was. The world may heap tragedy upon tragedy on your helpless life, but your highest self, witness to it all, will only laugh.

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Son of Harpo

Son of Harpo

I think it's the "snooty" aspect of genius I don't like. I have a slogan on my studio wall:

anybody who looks down on somebody else is hanging upside down.

To many people the idea of genius implies exclusivity; only the very best; only this product is worthy of my attention. If somebody is a genius, it HAS to be good; gimme more o' that! It is this confidence in the mystique of genius that has led the public to remain faithful in its affections to artists whose careers began like a burst of brilliant flame, but who, year after year produce a poorer and poorer output (there are many examples); the audience remains faithful because "once a genius always a genius", because they think they are supposed to. They don't really listen to the music and experience it, and thus evaluate it, in its anomalous uniqueness--they rely on pre-programmed responses instead of putting out the effort to meet a difficult piece, at least halfway, one human mind to another..

Confidence in the mystique of genius dulls the edge of critical assessment. This is NOT a good thing, because:



Therefore, take a chance every time you open your ears--there might be genius to be found out there in the most unexpected places. Take Bill Marx, son of Harpo.

My admiration for the Hollywood School of composers of the 40's and 50's is boundless. So many timeless musical images were created in that time, in that place. I have no qualms about declaring that "The Bishop's Wife" by Hugo Friedhofer, is the greatest film score ever written.

A truly unexpected treasure store is to be found in the CD "Two Classic Albums from Harpo Marx." There are as many harmonic investigations, misdirections, subterfuges, and surprises in Bill Marx's arrangement of "Laura", (already a pretty convoluted song) as in the densest passages of Schoenberg.

I have mentioned in an earlier entry that the 20th century was an era of irony. This irony is expressed musically, not only through stylistic disparity, but in the very details of the harmonic language; the quest of the 20th century composer has always and ever been a battle against the tyranny of tonality, and, in particular, the inherited relationships of triadic forms to the bass. These composers took a set of harmonic cliches, learned in the class room, and then, as a denial, perverted them with various categories of "false basses." Thus the ideas of bi-tonality and pan-tonality were made possible. I learned this harmonic misdirection technique at an early age when the U of I opera group put on "The Rake's Progress." Stravinsky's master stroke was to present a vision of classical style that was skewed way into the future--

and "The Rake's Progress" is a work of genius. Never mind that there were Hollywood composers who, at the same time, were coming up with some of the exact same musical solutions as Stravinsky, and yet he was a genius and they were hacks. Hmm.