Saturday, April 30, 2011

Transfiguring the everyday…

on Jonathan Harvey’s Music and Inspiration

If, in the music I write, I can create a world of sound wherein some, at least, of my generation can find refreshment for the inner life, then I am doing my job properly. It is a great responsibility; to try to transfigure the everyday by a touch of the everlasting. (Tippett)

Would we listen to Tippett’s music differently having read of what inspires him? I know that I am not alone in finding the words of great artists—their letters, essays and biographies—endlessly interesting, enlightening and inspiring. It is one of the ways we “pass the torch” and help keep Mozart, Michelangelo and Matisse alive and posthumously well. It is a sacred trust that needn’t be shrouded in mystery, mentioned but misunderstood. The connection between inspiration & the creative artist (and the society in which the artist creates) is the subject of composer Jonathan Harvey’s book, Music and Inspiration (Faber, 1999). He trenchantly observes

The artist is distinguished less by his desire for transcendental experience than by his ability to create a beautiful object which goes some way towards satisfying that desire…

So let us continue this observation,
musing (or poetically thinking):

Not only the composer / author,
but the performer / interpreter…
driven by passion,
fuelled by the synergy from technique meeting inspiration

and therefore embodies this important and frequently overlooked distinction…

Understanding this distinction (between having the desire and bearing the gift) is essential in relationships between an artist and society. Artists, amateurs and audiences all may have the desire for the "transcendent experience;" the creative artists who "bestow the boon" are much rarer…And that is why artists must lead…and why for the sake of art, society must join along as followers…

The artist must scrutinize the future, see in the chaos new worlds…let him not be frightened of the dark that surrounds him; let him go on and if sometimes he stumbles and falls, let him get up and still press on (Harvey quoting Verdi).

One is reminded of the ancient Jewish proverb “where there is no vision, the people perish” (Proverbs 29:18).

Creative artists often invoke myths and other ancient stories as metaphors for the creative process. Inspiration appears, rising out of the labyrinth like the wings of Daedalus (Beethoven). Inspiration is the “mysterious Jacob’s Ladder with which art links heaven and earth” (Liszt).

The creative ascent is often plagued with “holy discontent” or “divine dissatisfaction” with the status quo, the limitations of vision, technology or other resource. Mahler described the jarring dissonance between artistic aspiration and “the real world.”

Unfortunately, this wonderful entering-into-possession-of-oneself is undone the moment one returns to the noise and confusion of everyday life…

Mahler was referencing his return to the “city” from the “country;” the return to the “grind” of music administration following the artistic “sabbatical” necessary for creative production. Mahler is a fascinating case study for today’s artistic jugglers, for those wearing “many hats” (increasingly the norm). Is Mahler one of my favorites because I identify with his life / work, or does my simpatico identification with Mahler make him a favorite? And does that distinction matter where such symbiotic “chemistry” is concerned? Mahler was one of the “tortured soul” artists who embody a “type” and restore continuity in our quest for living an authentic, examined life.

One of the prototypes of the tortured artist, Beethoven wrote openly about his creative struggles. His candor is illuminating and inspiring to everyone with “ears to hear:”

Continue to raise yourself higher and higher into the divine realm of art…You must create everything for yourself in your own heart; and only in the world of ideals can you find friends.

In that juxtaposition of divine aspiration / inspiration and human striving for self-realization is a distinguishing dynamic that makes Beethoven such a hero. The uncompromisingly high standards of the artistic ideal are both product and source of the artist’s gift, and a cause of his isolation. That gift is one measure of his “entertainment value” in the public eye, and one source of historical tension between the artist and society. Should we expect that dynamic to be much different today?

Visionary artists like the “mad” poet Christopher Smart have composed some of their most inspired work in the confines of prison, exile or the “lunatic asylum.” Smart’s extraordinary cat, Jeoffry is a symbol of mythological significance for the artist. Smart’s cat inspired one of Britten’s most popular cantatas, Rejoice in the Lamb.

Misfits from Beethoven to Britten have taken both succor and inspiration in such vision. Composer Paul Hindemith’s description of the artist’s role as an ambassador for the “ideal” is apt (and it is worth noting that Hindemith’s standards were so unflinchingly high that his composition program at Yale was considered the most rigorous in the country). His poetic rhetoric is a perfect description of how rare the artistic boon is, and how special the artist’s charge is to society’s well being.

There is a region of visionary irrationality in which the vague secrets of art dwell, sensed but not understood, implored but not commanded, imparting but not yielding. He cannot enter this region, he can only pray to be elected one of its messengers. If his prayers are granted and he, armed with wisdom and gifted with reverence for the unknowable, is the man whom Heaven is blessed with the genius of creation, we may see in him the donor of the precious present we all long for…

And the “we” that “may see” in the artist “the precious present” is society. Like all enduring relationships, the one between artist and society must be mutual. That boon is too often not recognized until after the artist has been silenced (by death or society itself).

Each instance of an “unnatural” silencing of the artistic voice should be cause for consideration and reflection by those “deciders” in the for-profit world upon whose support the artists depend. “Holding up the mirror” is one of the functions of art. Such reflection is intended to provoke thought and stimulate discussion. It could help correct some of the imbalance by shifting focus from “what do we want our Clown / Fool / Artist to play today…” to “how can we help make more of this magic possible?”

Smart’s “crazy mad” poem disguises proverbs of wisdom behind visionary imagery. It crackles with energy two centuries on, and affords a rare glimpse into one of the worlds the artist occupies—sometimes discordantly—with society:

For I will consider my Cat Jeoffry…

For he keeps the Lord’s watch in the night against the adversary…

For he counteracts the Devil, who is death, by brisking about the life…

For he can spraggle upon waggle at the word of command…

For he is hated by the hypocrite and the miser.
For the former is afraid of detection.
For the latter refuses the charge…

For by stroaking of him I have found out electricity…

For he can tread to all the measures of the musick…

Artistic vision includes a truth telling that connects the artist to other outcasts like the clown, the “holy fool” and the prophet. The composer’s quest for order and beauty (Keats: “beauty is truth, truth beauty”) is analogous to Gandhi’s “vow to seek the truth, to live by the truth, and to confront untruth wherever I find it.” Are those uncompromising standards removed even a degree from Beethoven’s? So where do “our standards” fall within such a paradigm?

The ambitious vision that “A man’s reach must exceed his grasp/Or what’s a heaven for?” (Browning) does not depend upon one’s belief in an afterlife to resonate. And artistic ambition makes many uncomfortable. It’s unpredictable. Unsafe, even.

Tension makes many uncomfortable. We find it difficult to discuss dissonance rationally.

We find many things difficult to discuss. Those topics our parents taught us it was polite to avoid—money, religion, politics and sexuality—contain some of the most important considerations of our lives. Are the decisions about “who we are” as human beings not paramount? Are decisions about “what to do” or "what to be,” not essential? Identity & purpose defining decisions like choosing a partner (and whether to “get hitched” at all: “marriage” is about so much more than “1 man + 1 woman”) and ultimately, what we believe. These decisions define us and we should evolve to a plane where we can have more meaningful discussions about affective matters where the heart, soul and “guts” are concerned.

Harvey ends his excellent book with one of the reasons the saying “Vida brevis, ars longa” (life is short, art is long) will always ring true. Music has a unique “capacity to represent the ideal.” One of the reason so many artists overcome adversity, endure suffering, and become true heroes (in the metaphysical / philosophical sense) is

music’s ability to transform the everyday world, by revealing the paradise that exists both beyond and within it…

Until every community (in every generation / era of its culture’s manifestation) learns to distinguish between appreciation (art as entertainment) and value (the artist as cultural ambassador), the artist’s ability to “transform the everyday world” will be fraught with tension.

Such dissonance does not always resolve with the affirming harmony of a perfectly crafted, balanced & proportioned cadence. No one knows better than the artist that “the show must / will go on.” But who is most hurt when the show is cancelled? The artist? The public? Art itself?

It is up to the artists to lead. Sometimes that simply means continuing the discussion. Asking pertinent questions. Beethoven turned a “simple” 4-note motive into the most popular symphony in the world. Schubert invented a genre: the “art song.” Leonardo, Michelangelo and Shakespeare are cultural pillars of civilization, and their worth far surpasses that of political dynasties, empires & profit margins.

Why shouldn’t we trust the artists to lead the way?

Thursday, April 14, 2011

Bach, Montaigne & rock climbing...

One of the supposed "tests" of the quality of one's life is how unafraid one is to die. Such freedom is palpable (if not graspable by too many of us) and resonates deep inside the core of our being. Its resonance is another hallmark, an indicator, a barometer of how authentic the experience of our life is.

One of the joys of my life is singing with my partner, wife, collaborator, assistant and best friend, Amy Cofield. Last week we had the privilege of performing one of the masterpieces of Western civilization, Bach's "Great" Passion of St Matthew. It was in Las Vegas. The Southern Nevada Musical Arts Society has been going strong under the direction of the same conductor since its founding over 45 years ago! I have immense admiration for Dr Doug Peterson's vision and perseverance.

Though he may not be a desert landscape-lover, I cannot help but think his mission--to share the riches of great music with everyone that wants to experience it--is enhanced by the beauty and energy of the Red Rock Canyon in the Mojave Desert just beyond Sin City's limits (one of the perks of this gig was actually being housed near Red Rock and NOT on the infamous "strip").

Amy and I went rock-climbing in a wind-storm. Though it was not literally a near-death experience, it was an enriching one. Any kind of distance hiking over varied terrain reinforces the ever-shifting nature of perception itself. "We've hiked all this way, and that peak is STILL so far off!" Or, "How different the view is from up here." The philosopher Thomas Nagel has a book with a gorgeous Caspar David Friedrich landscape as a cover provocatively titled The View from Nowhere. I shall not be referring to it again. But I shall be referring to Montaigne's near-death experience which heralded a seismic shift in his worldview, the result of which is the origin of the genre in which I currently write, "the personal essay." Montaigne's seminal attempts at charting out "how to live" are the subject of an excellent new book on this unlikely Renaissance artist, How to Live-or-A Life of Montaigne (Sarah Bakewell, Other, 2010).

Montaigne's near-death experience caused him to reflect and change his life. An unusual combination of stoicism and questioning (sometimes labeled "doubt") contributed to his articulating a philosophy whose practical applications continue to speak. He found occasion to stop and reflect on everything.

Anything that gives us pause for reflection may become a source for good. That is one of the ways we turn painful experience into healthy fruit. The Tibetan Buddhist monk, Thich Nhat Hanh is fond of likening life to gardening. For the harvest to be plentiful, one must have good compost. The compost of our lives consists of our "stuff." How we deal with what comes our way determines the quality of the fertilizer we put into our efforts, it effects how we "water the seeds" of our lives.

The desert landscape, seemingly short on compost, is a fascinating one for the proximity of its metaphors to phrases about life. "In barren lands," "hanging by a thread," "stubborn & persistent" "endlessly fascinating" and "unpredictable" are just a few of those phrases that remind us how powerful metaphor can be in communication, in understanding, in forging meaning. Cultivating life itself into a colorful landscape alive with symbol & multi-layered resonance should be a more common pursuit.

Another creative writer who took Montaigne both to heart and head, Stefan Zweig summarized his Burgundian forbear's philosophy with an outline as indebted to Zen & the East as it is to Montaigne's Renaissance (Roman Catholic) humanism.

Zweig wrote an extended essay on Montaigne, without references, as he was isolated in exile from Hitler. "Zweig chose the ultimate form of internal emigration. He killed himself," is how Bakewell summarizes the great writer's tragic end. His closing Montaigne-ism is "Be free from death; life depends on the will of others, but death on our own will."

Proverbial food for thought, and one of the gifts left behind from another link in the chain of artistic saints that form another kind of "great cloud of witnesses" from whom we draw strength, continuity and inspiration. Zweig's list also includes:

"Be free from vanity and pride...Be free from habit. Be free from ambition and greed... Be free from fate; be master of your life."

Montaigne said "this great world is the mirror in which we must look at ourselves to recognize ourselves from the proper angle."

Reading and rock-climbing are but two ways of learning to look from different perspectives so that we may glimpse our true selves from the "proper angle."

Montaigne was an inveterate traveler, with the requisite inquisitiveness necessary to stimulate intellectual & emotional openness, a hallmark of the polymath, "Renaissance" type he helped define.

I believe he would sanction the comparison of perspectives & landscape metaphors the Red Rock Canyon inspires. The wind may be bracing, the landscape parched, but the vistas are amazing. Emily Dickinson writes in "Wild Nights," upon glimpsing the horizon of new perspective, "Ah, the sea!"

Her ecstatic declaration enlivens the voice of everyone who has marveled at any one of nature's miraculous sights: "Just look at that!"