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

Thursday, April 21, 2011

Something Happened--Easter 2011

Something Happened
Easter 2011

I was raised in the Nazarene Church, a fundamentalist denomination on the far right of a continuum between Episcopalian and Southern Baptist. I went to church 3 times a week. I got to play on the church pianos before and after church and during Thursday night choir practice, but other than that, I got nothing from the experience but guilt and condemnation.

Due to my eccentric Asperger's personality I felt rejected and misunderstood by my family. My mother’s only care was for my eternal salvation, her only real world was the church, so, aside from daily warnings about Hell, she had nothing to say to me. She was proud of me for singing those Sunday school songs I performed so well, but, outside that limited repertoire, even my musical identity made me a stranger to her. She had some kind of vague idea that music was important to me, as it was to her, but, like my father, she could not imagine music as a modus operandi in this wicked world, and therefore gave me only slight encouragement. As a family member, I orbited on the periphery of all activities, just like on the school playground, and as a child of God, I was pursued by the tangy scent of sulphur.

Nobody in my extended family had any mercy either. Everybody was convinced I put on my antic disposition out of spitefulness, and there was no-one in the entire Toole clan willing to toss me a crumb of forgiveness or understanding. To my mother I was a lost soul destined to burn in Hell; indeed, Hell loomed large in her mind as the most clearly defined pre-destination of my entire future—high school, college, skid row, Hell. Hell was invoked daily as the ultimate punishment for the most minor moral infractions. She wept over me and my undone chores with an hysterical passion, sobbing, "Rickie, honey, Jesus WANTS you to take out the garbage! You don't want to go to Hell do you?" (She also told me that the Bible says, "Early to bed, early to rise makes a man healthy, wealthy, and wise.") I was even publicly attacked from the pulpit of my church by not one, but a string of small-town ministers who made overt reference to my personal eccentricities as object lessons of evil which the other children must avoid if they didn't want to burn in Hell.

“You don't want to go to Hell do you?" Well, no, I didn't actually want to burn in Hell, so, in one incredibly momentous moment, when I was thirteen, I simply chose not to believe in Hell; which, of course meant not believing in God, in Jesus, in the afterlife, and just about every other article of my mother's fundamentalist Protestant belief system. This choice allayed a good number of my existential anxieties, but aggravated just as many other ones. I had to reject my parents' religion, because I rejected a God who sent people to Hell for not taking out the garbage; but I couldn't reject my own religion, the Church of Music, which had already, at my tender age, shown me angel faces and heavenly light. It was a quandary.

Anyway, a career of staunch atheism ensued for about ten years. The turning point came during my two and a half year tenure as a church choir director at a little Methodist church in Redondo Beach. I've told this story before, but want to tell it again, because it leads directly to my Easter message:

One particular Sunday, midway through those two and a half years, the choir was not well‑prepared, and I was nervous about the performance about to take place. I still didn't believe in God, as we know, but I did believe in good performances; so I decided to indulge in a little motivational manipulation to try and focus the choir's performance energy up to a little higher level. Right before the anthem I turned to the congregation and asked if someone wouldn't be so kind as to offer up a prayer of dedication. Of course, I didn't believe in prayer either, but I knew they did, so I figured a little cathartic adrenalin rush wouldn't hurt (a good conductor, like a good psychologist, knows it's all in your mind). A woman from the congregation rose, invoked the presence of Jesus, and asked that the choir be inspired to sing with the voices of angels.

I could feel that things were better as I raised my arms to begin the number, but I was not prepared for the surprise they had in store for me. They opened their mouths, and out poured a sound just like ANGELS! These people whom I had coached and coddled for more than a year had never even remotely approximated the sounds I heard at that moment. It was pure, it was elevated, it was IN TUNE! Not only their voices but their faces were transformed as well—there was something ecstatic, infinitely knowing about their eyes, as the piece flowed from harmony to harmony. Something had entered that space and filled those people. All the clever mind games in the world could not have induced that scene. With all my charisma and linguistic virtuosity, I could not have brought forth that kind of power from within them—this power came from OUTSIDE. There was a presence there that lent us all (me too) some extra octane in our pistons. We became vessels for the transmutation of higher intelligence into the mundane. It was one of those moments C.S. Lewis talks about, when a moment transcends its earthly definitions and vibrates with an archetypal, mythological resonance. It was by far the peak experience of my infant conducting career.

From that moment I was utterly changed. The religion of music had finally presented me with a supernatural sacrament I could endorse, a sacrament totally new, totally exciting;

and lo, the Angel who chose, through grace, to reveal this sacred insight unto me, was merely pointing a tremulous finger back in the direction of my broken past, my demon, my doubt.

In that moment, my dedicated atheism was brought into serious question—where had those angel voices come from? Now, to reclaim the theology, that I had just spent the last ten years aggressively rejecting, was a hard row to hoe for me, pride and stubbornness being what they are—but, no matter how hard I tried, I could not ignore that choir performance. The more I relived the experience, the more profound it became for me. The event was deeply shocking to me and gave me much more food for thought than I had consumed in years. It reminded me of all those emotion-laden altar calls I had suffered through at my mother’s church: all that wailing and weeping for Jesus that called to me on a visceral level, but which ultimately amounted to a low-vibratory thud in the basement of my mind--an act, a feint, a pimp, a parlor trick.

This angelic event at the Methodist Church was more than a parlor trick, this was REAL, this was TRUTH; and no matter how much it conflicted with the dogmatic principles I had mentally fixed in place, no matter how much it compromised the comfortable sense of cognitive security I had installed in my mind, this REALITY refused to be ignored. It would not be consigned to a back seat. I had to consider where this experience had come from, and where it would lead me; because lead me it must, as a composer, as a conductor, as a man. The heaviest part of the revelation was that it appeared to bridge the gap, the painful yawning chasm I had struggled with my whole life, between the fantasy world of creativity (with which I was very comfortable), and the real world of people and things (with which I was extremely uncomfortable, to the point of abject denial). Here was music that not only spoke to me as a musician, but as a person. A person. A spiritual being.

Remember that, as an aspie, I still had no experience of myself as a person—my whole identity was based on my sympathetic resonance with music; I was music, only music, nothing but music. But now music had become an energy that not only sang with the voice of pure reason, an oasis of static, perfect sense, soaring above and beyond the vain illusions of terrestrial madness--it had become imbued with PERSONALITY; there was a face behind the voice, and it exalted not only the impersonal truth of itself, it EXALTED ME. ME, the pitiful, disguised, mild-mannered reporter, who had nary a phone booth from which I might spring in superhuman triumph over the pedestrian mediocrities of the world. The angels had raised the meaning of music from “the fitful tracing of a portal” to a living, individualized identity, corporate, but singular, universal yet discreet.

The event shook the foundations of my whole world view, and since I could not incorporate it into the weave of my otherwise cynical and shallow attitudes, I was plunged into a deep depression. I felt that everything I had understood about life was being called into question. I know, I should have felt joy at having the clouds lifted from my eyes, but instead I just felt insecure. Having to revamp the philosophical underpinning of your existence is a lot of work, and I did not feel quite up to it, what with U.C.L.A. and all. Nevertheless, I could not deny what I had heard—I could deny almost anything else in my life, but not what I had HEARD. It resonated in my memory every day, and twice on Sundays, ha ha, and made me hungry for more. It was no accident, I thought, that the name of the tune, through which the angels had chosen to sing to me, was "Open Our Eyes". "Open our eyes, oh loving and compassionate Jeeeeee-sus." I remembered the line, hearing it over and over, and always in conjunction with that special look I had seen on my lead soprano's face-- Betty her name was—a look of peaceful mindlessness, yet somehow knowing and seductive. It was so real—real, and deep, and beautiful, and disturbing.

This event precipitated the first major spiritual crisis I had experienced since becoming an atheist back in junior high. I began to get very depressed, burdened by many nagging questions I could not answer. I could not go back to my mother's religion, but I could not forget those angel voices. They sang to me every time I entered the sanctuary, and haunted my doubts with intimations of a dimension of existence whose reality I could not accept, nor forget.

The bottom line of all my ruminations was death. I started to spend every waking moment thinking about death. It wasn't as though I had decided to contemplate death, as if it were an intellectual curiosity, a subject for academic study, a mind game—it was an irrational obsession over which I had no control, no ability to edit out, from which I could not protect himself. It was like the French fry machine at McDonald's, whistling relentlessly in my ear, which I could not turn off, from which there was no escape, in which I could find no peace. I remember sitting in that church looking up at the cross‑frosted‑white windows and imagining myself disappearing forever, never to know another thing, another sensation, another impulse of life. I did this a lot, trying to get used to it, and, each time I tried to imagine nonexistence I experienced a sinking feeling, my hands went sweaty and cold, and a panic gripped me with such ferocity I felt like screaming. The more I thought about death, the more I tried to accept it, the more terrified I became. A friend of mine once said that we already knew what it was like to dead, because we had not existed for an eternity before we were born. I cannot tell you what small comfort that was. It was not the unknown eternity I feared, it was that split second after death when I would never ever know what happened next.

Then, one Easter morning, the pastor gave a particularly thoughtful sermon from which I can remember, distinctly, only two words: "Something happened." The pastor was saying that no matter what you had to say about Jesus as the Son of God, or prophet, or philosopher, or whatever, on that very special day, "Something happened." No matter what the precise significance of Jesus' crucifixion worked out to be, you could not argue with the fact that "Something Happened." Something important. For these many years I had been so busy rejecting all the popular ramifications of what happened, that I had failed to notice that something really big had happened, and that Jesus (or somebody) had really created a Kingdom on earth. I began to suspect that a disturbed and foolish teen‑ager had thrown the baby out with the bath.

Something happened. To interpret this something has been the task of thoughtful men for 2000 years, and nobody has ever been able to measure its full significance. Clearly one big item is redemption, the restitution for original sin with a commensurate sacrifice.

Restitution for whose sin? Many New Age writers have suggested that Jesus is the reincarnation of Adam; that, therefore, His crucifixion may be seen as restitution for His own ancient failure. I am not any more interested in debating this point than I am in arguing about whether the world was created 5000 years ago or five billion years ago. I simply don't care.

However, I would like to remind you of last week's sermon about the humanity of Jesus and His ability to SYMPATHIZE with mortal man's griefs and to SHARE in his limitations. From this perspective it is not at all difficult to see how Jesus was able to claim Man's Original Sin as His own, and to take responsibility for it. Let me say that again: as a MAN, Jesus had no choice but to take responsibility for Original Sin; He therefore had no choice but to redeem it with a commensurate sacrifice. As Al Rothfuss observed last week, this was in the plan since before time began. And the fact that this debt was finally paid in full, on the cross--that an immortal being poured out His HUMAN blood on a specific spot, in a specific moment in time -- is perhaps the most miraculous thing of all.

Something happened. The flamboyance of it, the pure showmanship of it, staggers my imagination. The demonstration of Divine Love in such a dramatic symbolic gesture makes every other artistic performance, I can think of, pale to insignificance. That he could stand before the world and proclaim that the old impersonal gods are dead; that there is a now new order, never seen on Earth before; that there is now a PERSON in whom we can find comfort and help by the merest act of humble supplication. That is a very big wow.

The establishment of the Kingdom of Heaven on Earth through this magnificent demonstration of compassion was completely new, revolutionary, epoch-making. True, countless atrocities have been committed in Jesus's name; Man's ability to vulgarize every beautiful created thing is almost as mind-boggling as the Crucifixion, but still--for the disciple willing to reach out and touch the face of the PERSON Jesus, what happened is--well, we are saved. And that is enough of a bottom line for me.

There is a David Mamet movie called "We're No Angels" about a couple of convicts who escape from prison and pretend to be Catholic priests visiting a monastery. At one point they steal some clothes off a clothesline, and one of the guys forgets to take a clothespin off the collar of his stolen shirt. One of the monks at the monastery asks about the clothespin, and the convicts says, "You know what that is? You know what that is? Uh, uh, it's a reminder." The next day the gullible monk is seen wearing a clothespin on his collar. For us, the cross, the dove, the lamb, the lilies, the communion, should all serve as reminders that every day we live in peace on Earth is a gift from God--reminders that Jesus watches over us and blesses us, and invites us to take our place in His Heavenly Kingdom.

Glennallen, AK
April 21, 2011

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

The Humble Genius of Jesus

The Humble Genius of Jesus
The foot-washing scene from John 13: has done more for me than just about any text I have read from any source:
2 And supper being ended, . . .3 Jesus, knowing that the Father had given all things into His hands, and that He had come from God and was going to God, 4 rose from supper and laid aside His garments, took a towel and girded Himself. 5 After that, He poured water into a basin and began to wash the disciples’ feet, and to wipe them with the towel with which He was girded. . .
12 So when He had washed their feet, taken His garments, and sat down again, He said to them, “Do you know what I have done to you? 13 You call Me Teacher and Lord, and you say well, for so I am. 14 If I then, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet. 15 For I have given you an example, that you should do as I have done to you. 16 Most assuredly, I say to you, a servant is not greater than his master; nor is he who is sent greater than he who sent him. 17 If you know these things, blessed are you if you do them.

This passage is one of the most meaningful passages in the Bible for me, because I spent so many years convicted by vain arrogance and egocentric obsession with myself and my own professional disappointments. I felt the world not only owed me a living, but a house in Beverly Hills, and a yacht in the Santa Monica marina. I felt superior to most of the musicians I worked with and was galled by my failure to garner recognition for my talents.

When I finally entered onto the spiritual path, I suddenly realized (with the help of this passage) that the truly superior man gives himself to humanity without regard to reward or recognition. I came to understand that I had a place in the Divine Hierarchy that was uniquely mine, and it was pointless to whine about not receiving the superficial trophies of worldly success which, by any historical definition, is fleeting, while the world of spirit offered me validation eternal in character and substance.

Giving without recompense is a hard row to hoe, especially when poverty has had such a debilitating effect on my self-esteem, and my power to care for and comfort my loved ones. Yet, very time I bemoan my fate, and rage against the unfeeling cruelty of the world, this passage returns to comfort me with the patience of Divine perspective. I know that my reward in Heaven will be great for every moment of time I have donated to those I teach and inspire; I know that every inspired lesson I have given and every inspired note of music I have written comes not from me but from God, and it is just plain silly to envy those who have learned to work the system to their own advantage, but have not learned that the coins of carnal Karma they trade in roots them ever more firmly in the dust of earth when, in humility, they might be trading simple gifts for eternal reward.

Furthermore, the act of the master humbling Himself before His disciples shows, once again that Jesus's mission on the material plane was one of eternal salvation not temporal glory and honor. If we could only remember this lesson in all our interactions with humanity, how holy our lives would become!

From Hebrews Chapter 2, Paul reminds us that the saint must reach out into the world with his heart, not grasping hands:
1 We must pay the most careful attention, therefore, to what we have heard, so that we do not drift away. 2 For since the message spoken through angels was binding, and every violation and disobedience received its just punishment, 3 how shall we escape if we ignore so great a salvation? This salvation, which was first announced by the Lord, was confirmed to us by those who heard him. 4 God also testified to it by signs, wonders and various miracles, and by gifts of the Holy Spirit distributed according to his will.
 5 It is not to angels that he has subjected the world to come, about which we are speaking. 6 But there is a place where someone has testified:
   “What is mankind that you are mindful of them, 
   a son of man that you care for him? 
7 You made them a little lower than the angels; 
   you crowned them with glory and honor 
 8 and put everything under their feet.”
   In putting everything under them, God left nothing that is not subject to them.Yet at present we do not see everything subject to them. 9 But we do see Jesus, who was made lower than the angels for a little while, now crowned with glory and honor because he suffered death, so that by the grace of God he might taste death for everyone.
 10 In bringing many sons and daughters to glory, it was fitting that God, for whom and through whom everything exists, should make the pioneer of their salvation perfect through what he suffered. 11 Both the one who makes people holy and those who are made holy are of the same family. So Jesus is not ashamed to call them brothers and sisters. 12 He says,
   “I will declare your name to my brothers and sisters; 
   in the assembly I will sing your praises.”
 13 And again,
   “I will put my trust in him.”   And again he says,
   “Here am I, and the children God has given me.”
 14 Since the children have flesh and blood, he too shared in their humanity so that by his death he might break the power of him who holds the power of death—that is, the devil— 15 and free those who all their lives were held in slavery by their fear of death. 16 For surely it is not angels he helps, but Abraham’s descendants. 17 For this reason he had to be made like them, fully human in every way, in order that he might become a merciful and faithful high priest in service to God, and that he might make atonement for the sins of the people. 18 Because he himself suffered when he was tempted, he is able to help those who are being tempted.

Glennallen, AK
April 12, 2011

Sunday, April 3, 2011

Timely Fashions II: Unstuck in Time

Timely Fashions II:
Unstuck in Time

The ebb and flow of ideas through art history does not describe a straight line; as we have noted, some artists jump ahead of their peers, while others lag behind. Indeed, the way certain artists are accepted or rejected by their own time is of tremendous significance when attempting to view, with benefit of hindsight, the general shape of art history. This week's blog will mention a few of the exceptional cases which do not jive precisely with what would have been, for them, contemporaneous thought.

One spectacular example of an artist ahead of his time is, of course, Mozart. It is so often claimed, to the point of banality, that Beethoven ushered in the Romantic period; it was Beethoven's acceptance by the public in terms of his many performances, AND, hugely significant, his PUBLICATIONS, that allowed him to exert such a powerful influence on his time. Beethoven became an example for a generation of composers, both in terms of his musical idiom, and his personal aesthetic--his philosophical values. And yet, by 1820, Beethoven had not written a note of music that was more advanced, neither technically nor emotionally, than the work Mozart was putting out in the late 1780's. I have long made the claim that is was Mozart, not Beethoven, who was the first Romantic. Mozart is such a common household item now, that people don't remember that, in his own time, he was far from occupying the pinnacle of renown which he enjoys today, and which, indeed, he enjoyed (sic) just a few years after his death. It boggles the mind to speculate upon the dramatic changes to the shape of music history Mozart might have wrought if he had lived just a few more years--long enough to make his mark on the collective consciousness of the public opera audience. It is not too far from the mark to say that Mozart's pride, his insistence of writing for the imperial opera house, rather than the newly emerging public opera house, that was his undoing.

Brahms represents a perfect example of the composer lagging behind the times. Fortunately, he was not TOO FAR behind the times, such that there was still current a large audience that, with him, rejected the innovations of the Wagnerites, leading to the Mahlerites. Still, Brahms' stubborn rejection of the formlessness of true Romanticism in favor of a kind of neo-classicism, limited his contemporaneity, while certainly not limiting his range of expression.

Bach and Schoenberg are both examples of composers who were both ahead AND behind their times:

Bach was so far behind in the form department, remaining faithful, throughout his life to the contrapuntal ideals of the High Renaissance, that his music almost ceased to exist, at a time when the tamely elegant rococo was favored over densely intellectual materials; fortunately, in the area of harmony, the torturous twists and turns of the diminished chord were in perfect harmony (ha ha) with the sound world of the Romantic. Thus, Bach's music skipped an entire period (the classical) before it found an audience whose ears could handle the emotional tension of his harmonies.

Schoenberg went so far afield in his rhythmic complexity that many average audiences cannot hear any harmonic or melodic coherence at all (although it is certainly there), while, again, like Bach, his adherence to inherited contrapuntal formulae looks (if such a thing is possible) even further back than Bach. The tragedy of the 20th century is that so many emulated the surface features of Schoenberg, while ignoring the deeply personal spiritual resonance of his work. With Schoenberg the technique of the music became more apparent to the audiences and students, than the poetry.

Gershwin presents another interesting twist on the unstuck in time theme: Gershwin was, in one sense perfectly synced with his time--near enough to mainstream thinking to create a ream of popularly successful songs, yet far enough ahead to see a vision of a fusion of popular and concert hall art; his efforts to realize that vision is one of history's most heroic tales. As Gershwin's music was maturing, the totality of this fusion was gaining such power and authority that, again, if he had not died so young, he might have single-handedly changed the course of history.

We could look back at such Renaissance mannerist composers as Gesualdo, who wrote sonorities not to be duplicated again until the 20th century, but, to my mind, the most dramatic example of a composer ahead of his time is Charles Ives. Ives anticipated nearly every 20th century stylistic ism you can think of: tone clusters, polyrhythm, polytonality, serialism (including dodecaphonicism), aleatoricism, minimalism, and on and on. Such a man comes along once in 200 years at best, and one weeps to think of the geniuses greater than Ives who come along once in a thousand years and are never discovered. Thank God for Leonard Bernstein.

How do these composers find the courage to reject the current fashion in favor of a personal vision that may spell rejection, anonymity, and poverty? Perhaps it is the same old song we have been singing through this blog--that it is the CHARACTER of genius not the technique of genius that is the distinguishing factor. It is the rage for order that drives the artist on to his unique destiny, and if he sees the world from a skewed perspective, he must glory in it because it is HIS perspective, not anyone else's. The ultimate judge of an artist's work, when all is said and done, is God not Man. C.S. Lewis observes about God:

“He would rather the man thought himself a great architect or a great poet and then forgot about it, than that he should spend much time and pains trying to think himself a bad one. Your efforts to instill either vainglory or false modesty into the patient will therefore be met from the Enemy’s side with the obvious reminder that a man is not usually called upon to have an opinion of his own talents at all, since he can very well go on improving them to the best of his ability without deciding on his own precise niche in the temple of Fame.”

Glennallen, AK
April 3, 2011