Wednesday, January 16, 2013

800 Words: What Influences the Music and Books I Don't Write (Part 1 of ...)

In the last two days, I’ve gotten variations on the exact same question: what influences your music-making? On Sunday I was at a rehearsal of Peabody musicians. The composer, the cellist, and I were hanging out after rehearsal, and they asked me what sort of music I write. It was rather painful to admit that aside from some time-consuming arrangements of Jewish songs for my chorus of Jewish singers, I have not finished an original piece or even worked hard on an original piece worthy of the name in roughly a year-and-a-half. And I haven’t been truly impressed with anything I’ve written in nearly five years.

The next day I was hanging out at the break during the open-mike Jazz night at which I often play. Our regular keyboardist asked me what jazz violinists inspire me. I couldn’t name a single one except Stephane Grappelli, whose music making I adore as much as any classical violinist. I can’t remember a single piece Jean-Luc Ponty played or even that the Mahavishnu Orchestra had a violinist. Instead I named some extremely cliché old school jazz musicians – Duke Ellington, Art Tatum, John Coltrane,  early Miles. Basically, my vision of jazz is as the American twin to classical music. I have little knowledge of modern jazz, and unfortunately, it’s usually because I have even less patience for it. The keyboardist looked visibly disappointed, and I don’t blame him. He then asked me if I play classical pieces for my practice routine… “What practice routine?” I answered. Fortunately, he laughed. But I think I deserve a little credit here… if I practiced regularly I’d be a much, much better violinist than I am now.

Perhaps I’m exactly as delusional as I seem, but I honestly believe that some pretty good music or novels exist somewhere in the dark recesses of my brain. But I have no idea how to drudge them out. I’ve probably listened to too much music and read (OK…started) too many books to stop other people’s examples from flooding my head. My brain is a 24/7 radio of other people’s music, and on those rare moments when the music stops, I can quote dialogue from plays and movies, whole passages of books, almost word-for-word. My car has probably died a dozen times in the last year from my forgetting to turn the headlights off, but I can vividly recall music I haven’t heard in twenty-five years.  

But there’s another reason that I can’t write down what I know is in my head, and that is lack of confidence. Not lack of confidence in the way which most people mean it, though I suppose that’s possible, I mean lack of confidence that anybody but me would find anything I have to say interesting. I think everybody who’s friends with me knows that I find myself to be an endlessly fascinating subject… but my life-experiences are so different, so outside the mainstream of most people’s lives, what audience is there for most of what I want to produce when I find so much of what they produce to be so pedestrian.

To give but one obvious example: I love what most people call classical music; truly, madly, deeply. It is a life-endowing spiritual quest at whose destination I hope I never arrive, and a mad obsession whose passion has rarely been shared by anyone else in my life. I also hate, loathe, boil with disgust for the over-refined, genteel, embalmed culture of luxury and perfection which goes with its contemporary incarnation – a tradition only 100-years-old which maintains a rod-of-iron omerta on anything which might remotely be construed as playing to the gallery. I hate the anonymous perfection to be found in most of its performers, I hate the holier-than-thou distrust of anything which gives the slightest whiff of frivolity, and I hate the idea that great music cannot be made in a different way than classical musicians make it – even if, more often than not, it isn’t.

I could name hundreds of other examples like this: the lowest-common-denominator populism of most Hollywood movies vs. the vapid pretension of the independent film industry, the anonymous insipidity of Top-40 hits vs. the simple-minded distrust of complexity in most independent label ‘scene’ music, the narrowness of genre fiction vs. the naval gazing of high modern literature, the hallmark-card placidity of the art in most people’s homes vs. the decadent stupidity of modern art. Where is the ambition in any of this? Where is the desire to capture the entire world? Where is the belief that what we do is valuable to everybody - even if it isn't true? Where is the conviction that the masses should not abandoned? Where is the desire to unite the world in greater understanding? Where is the desire for people of different viewpoints to view each other with something other than enmity? Because such desires almost completely absent from contemporary life in virtually any place I’ve ever visited as an adult. I can name plenty of contemporary exceptions, and no doubt you can too, but I can name many more from other epochs. Some of them came from times that truly divided people or united them in suffering, but most hailed from eras which viewed humanity with far more hope than most people have for ourselves today. We are, in so many ways, better off than in virtually any era of human history. And yet the more progress we make, the bifurcated our society grows between those privileged enough to benefit from that progress and those who are not.

Inevitably, I’ll be construed as a snob for believing all this by the few people patient enough to get through it all. Even if I think I sometimes convince myself that I’m virtually the only (pseudo) intellectual who hasn’t abandoned the larger population, I’m resigned to the fact that most of what I believe would be construed as snobbery by the vast majority of the people who listen. But if believing what I believe means I’m a snob, then no one in the world would be prouder to be one; because to me, this ‘snobbery’ isn’t just a reaction to a precipitous historical drop in aesthetic standards. I wonder every day if our contemporary climate is indicative of a culture that has lost its intellectual dynamism, and as a result, I fear, teeters once again upon the brink of multiple cataclysms. The best lack all conviction while the worst are full of passionate intensity. It often, though not always, seems as though the only cultural phenomena which exhibit enough health or dynamism to be attractive on a mass scale is stuff which is watered down to the point of being absolutely vanilla. The large mass of people are encouraged every day to go through life without using their brains, and the only result is that they can only develop stupider beliefs, and still more desire to enforce them on those privileged enough to be smart. It would seem that the philosophy which increasingly prevails in modern times is that if it can be consumed by everybody, it can be made by anybody. And if it can’t be consumed by everybody, then it should only appeal to people who think exactly like the person who made it. I look around me, and nearly wherever I look, I can’t help it that I see an irreparably broken contemporary culture. Intelligence and popular taste must go together, or else the content of both is almost worthless. Perhaps we stand on the brink of an age in which this becomes a passing trend; but as of this moment, I hate the culture of what I love, and love the culture of what I hate.

I don’t make such sweeping declarations to analyze why culture is this way or even to give examples. In this particular conundrum, I don’t need to show proof. I only need to say that perhaps this is the main reason (this and sheer laziness) why I can’t produce what I long to produce. How can I possibly create something for such a culture when there is so little demand for what I not only like, but believe any society which makes life worth living would like?

Hopefully, over the next while or so, I’ll start to detail the kind of work which I think is indicative of a healthy culture which captures the world. Or, more importantly (if only to you…), captures my world. 

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