Tuesday, April 2, 2013

800 Words: What Inspires You: My Answer (part 2)

1. Fanaticism:

I was going to write an essay. And like many of the things I’ve been trying to write lately, I worry that my thoughts grow too extensive and unwieldy in my mind to organize. Maybe I’m going senile, or perhaps my thoughts on a subject like this have simply grown too extensive to be contained in a blogpost - perhaps even a 5,000 word one or a series of a half-dozen 2,000 word ones. Which is, perhaps, why I need to find a new form to contain them.

So let’s now get to the real goodies...

Glossary of Inspirations (A-B)


Affluence: For all, not for some. I, thank God, come from a reasonably well off family. I do not believe in the redistribution of our wealth - that implies wealth was ever truly distributed before. Those of us who are part of the ‘higher’ classes need to be taxed at 90% of our marginal income with severe penalties (and possibly jailtime) for hiding our money overseas. As John Kenneth Galbraith outlines in The Affluent Society , if America were ever serious about maintaining its postwar prosperity and raising the income of its ‘lower’ classes, it would have invested still much more money into public transportation and social welfare programs. Investment in education would be at least doubled with thousands of commissions established for how to maximize the efficiency education spending. Doctors should be among the richest people in our societies, but so should research scientists, engineers, and at the top of the income pyramid should be teachers. Oh...by the way... I still haven’t read The Affluent Society.

Art: Once war is eliminated; once poverty and disease and hopelessness for a better life are things of the past, when the sword is buried into the ploughshare and the lion lies with the lamb, what are we going to do with all that free time? Well, there are three answers. One is that we’ll play games - sports games, video games, board games, whatever else we can think of. The second is that we’ll be entertained - go to shows that please us, and whatever other places give us pleasure.  The third is that we’ll spend our time in the creation and contemplation of Art with a capital A.  But only one of these would (hopefully) show us the value of maintaining a peaceful and prosperous society. It should come as no surprise that Peace and Art seem to flourish together. Cultural golden ages seem only to occur in places not blinded by war. Peacetime, and the leisure it gives, is the wellspring from which Art thrives. ... on the other hand, a society without conflict would probably create very boring Art - and fortunately there is no evidence that such an era is at hand. Art is the space where we can freely contemplate why there is not more space for contemplation.  And to the inevitable question: are video games art? Well, so far from what I’ve seen, a few of them are. But from what I’ve seen, they’re still bad art. It’s entirely possible that they’ll one day be good art, but not yet. But that’s just my opinion, and in case you haven’t noticed, I have some pretty odd ones.

America: “America! The only country that matters. If you want to experience other cultures, use an atlas or a ham radio.” - Ron Swanson  ... There are many things I hate, truly hate about America. Nevertheless, I still believe it is the greatest, most varied, most fascinating, most bottomless and endless country on Earth - even in what I can only hope is a temporary decline. Like Russia and China, it is large and diverse enough to be its own world - but unlike either, its people are allowed to be itself. One day, soon I hope, India and Brazil will probably join America in the endlessness of its fascination. And one day, still sooner I hope, Europe will unify to create a country very nearly as fascinating. But I never felt so American as I did this summer in Europe, where the harmony of European society seemed coalesced into a dull grey which made it a less interesting place. I realized all too quickly I could never live in Europe unless America were torn asunder by war. One day, sooner than we may know, it may well happen. If so, we can only mourn that what is truly the most interesting country the world has ever known is lost to the same sands of time as every other great civilization.

American Judaism: There’s an argument to be made that even the American Carnival itself is a Jewish invention. We weren’t here for the beginning of American history. And frankly, except for the Founding Fathers, Mark Twain, and a side order of genocide, America seemed like a pretty dull place. But once we Jews arrived, along with everybody else, this country got a lot more interesting. A British/Jewish friend in Baltimore recently told me he’d never think about moving back to England.  Contemporary Europe may have many things better than America, but the liveliness of America, the sense that the world never stops moving, seems completely missing from that continent. Until I was sixteen, I longed for the great wide world I only saw on TV, and it was all these Jews in various types of show business who showed me that the American carnival is waiting for all who want to take part like an orange to be squeezed.Thus far, America is the true promised land of Judaism, and the only reason we currently thrive as never before.

African-American Culture:  I’m a perennial candidate for the title of Whitest Person on the Planet. Furthermore, there’s a lot of music and literature created by black people which I don’t much like. In recent decades, a lot of Black culture seems to have taken its cue from the worst of white culture and embraced all the nihlism, resentment, and self-destruction of people more privileged than they. But that doesn’t change the fact of Black America - manifest in everything from the music of spirituals intoned by Paul Robeson, to Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison, to the exuberant dignity of Soul, to the wrathful movies of Spike Lee, to the roaring twenties joy of Langston and Satchmo, to the earned optimism of Ellington and Joplin , to the cut short greatness of Coltrane and Otis, to the spiritual cadences of Mahalia and Mavis. This is THE cornerstone of the American experience, and to ignore it is to ignore America itself. If you want to understand what America is, and why America is great in spite of all its terrible sins, you begin and end at the awesomely joyful resolve of the Black Experience.


Bartok - Schoenberg banished tonality, Stravinsky stayed in a museum of old music, Webern banished everything except music’s barest essentials (and a few of those too). Only Bartok was ready to reconcile the modern world with music of the people. Imagine this little man going from town to town with his gramophone, recording the peasant music of the Balkans just as Alan Lomax did in America, but infusing as much of his findings into his music as any musician ever could - infusing our great art with healthy minerals nearly unseen in any other classical music of the 20th century. Bartok is the music of globalization, and his contemporaries will be a generation still not yet seen.

Beethoven - What’s there to say, everything about him is the model for every musician who came afterward, and should be. There is no rock music without him, it’s debateable whether there’s jazz or modernism, there is certainly no grand romantic symphony,, and without his example, no artist would be brave enough to put his intimate thoughts down on a blank page.  Beethoven was neither Mozart nor Bach nor Schubert nor the young Mendelssohn, he was not divine. He was human, and there are many weak passages in his music. He fought for every inch of greatness he ever attained. He is the greatest model of courage and compassion, and tenacity and humanity which an artist can hope for. In everything from his reach to his grasp, he is the greatest model of us all - and therefore perhaps the greatest artist in any form. I don’t believe in God, I believe in Beethoven.

Berg - If you want to peer into the pure, dark heart of the twentieth century, you begin and end with Berg - the true heir to Mahler and the musician who peered all the way into the decline of Germany, the decadence of European music, and the end of Old Europe. He was the greatest of the Second Viennese School. After Berg, music could not grow more chromatic, more violent, or more luxuriant. He was the true end of the line.

Berio - If the second half of the twentieth century has an equivalent to the Rite of Spring, it is neither a Beatles nor a late quartet by Shostakovich. It is Berio’s Sinfonia, the postmodern answer to Stravinsky’s modernism (even though The Rite of Spring is actually a postmodern piece, but that’s for another day). If it is not quite as great as either The Beatles or Shostakovich, it’s because you have to be well-acquainted with the music he references to make his musical collage appear to you as it should. But what we hear in this music is not the music itself, but the experience of hearing music. We are listening to the very stream of consciousness.

Berry - Not Mark Berry of Boulezian, inspirational as he is. Chuck Berry is one of those moments when America becomes America. He is not simply a great guitarist, he is one of the great American songwriters, the composer of happy songs full of sadness, anger, and irony. With Chuck Berry, it was official, no orchestra could equal the visceral thrill of an electric guitar, but rock didn’t have to hit that point home so hard in its later years. No amount of decibels in later groups can equal his electricity and vitality. Is the composer of Roll Over Beethoven the American Beethoven? Who knows? But being Chuck Berry’s enough.

Berlioz - The ultimate outsider among composers. A literary man who barely played the flute and the guitar, so he made himself at home in the house of music by exposing precisely what was lacking in music before him. Until the twentieth century, music never felt more free of the hidebound rules of craft. And at no point did music ever feel more fun. Berlioz was the first great composer after the Golden Age, and after music reached its zenith, only Berlioz could demonstrate where music still had not gone. A music defined not by harmony, but by sound.

Bernstein - My hero. From earliest childhood to this day. I’m tempted to leave it to L so I can call him “Lenny.” Yes, his music is amazing, so is his conducting, and his pianism was pretty awesome too. But it is his teaching that will always remain with me, teaching which many other musicians degraded as masturbatory pseudo-scholarship. In an era when the relevance of classical music is disputed everywhere, it’s Bernstein who showed the world that this music still means something and that a great world is impossible without it. With Bernstein, music was more than simply music. As much as music ever has in any musician's hands, his music making truly meant something. From now until whenever my memory dies, short of family and friends, Lenny will be my hero.

Bizet - His was the only way forward. By the time Carmen gripped the world in 1877, Wagner made music too serious, Brahms made it too beholden to the past, Tchaikovsky made it too narcissistic. Bizet knew what they didn’t; we have to lighten up. Anyone who listens to Rossini, Mozart, Haydn, Liszt, Schumann, Johann Strauss even Beethoven and Berlioz, knows that classical music was not always the reflexively pompous, self-serious thing it eventually became. He was perhaps the last naive, divine composer in classical music history - writing music that was totally at peace with itself without feeling the requirement to make a point or take a stand. And in writing Carmen, he created light music as a serious pursuit and divided the music world into those willing to move to an era where music needn’t always be a Temple of capital-A Art, and those who believe it must. The fact that he died so young is yet another tragedy that set classical music apart from the main wellspring of 20th century music.

Bloch - I go back and forth on the music of Ernest Bloch. The talent he exhibits is fully the equal of Bartok and Berg, but but there is something about his Jewish music that feels kitschy and overblown, like C. B. De Mille Judaism. But then you hear a performance like this, and you know that it’s possible for classical music to do full justice to Judaism.

Brahms - It’s a sure sign of of our era’s decline that the world is beginning to forget Brahms. Brahms is the ultimate upholder of civilization. He has been my favorite composer from the earliest age, and he is home. He is the modest aspirations of every middle class household which tries to squeeze as much out of every dollar as they can get, wants nothing more than a good community, and is worried that the world is about to turn on everything they hold dear. He is meeting the inevitable tragedies of life with as much strength as we can bear. He is the small consolations of family and friends. He is life itself as we ought to live it.

 Brel - Jacques Brel isn't much remembered anymore, not at least in America. If he's remembered at all, he's remembered for the rather stupidly titled "Jacques Brel is Alive and Well and Living in Paris." A reasonably oft-revived cabaret review that does the good work of exposing his songs to people who'd never hear them, even if the singers involved usually butcher the songs. Nevertheless, there are songs by Brel which are heartrendingly beautiful enough to stand as some of the greatest musical glories of the twentieth century. He is everything which people tell you Bob Dylan is - a true genius of songwriting whose music captures every mood and whose every song cut is from fabric so unique that it's almost as though they're all written by a different singer. It's amazing if you speak French (and that's pretty debateable for me...), but even if you don't, the music stands by itself. Perhaps the greatest songwriter of them all.

Brian Wilson - He was basically written out by 25, but he showed it was possible to create music of real value in the rock genre. It can be done, and we can make music just as beautiful as in the classical world which operates by classical rules, but with completely different instruments, sound, and style.

Britten - If America were more like the country I’d like it to be, then composers would be more like Benjamin Britten. A composer who writes music which alienates no audience at the same time as he presents them with overwhelming challenges. A composer who faces all the darkness of the world with unflinching courage and hope, and yet lets unceasing light into his universe, and therefore into ours. A gay composer able to write for a huge public on unreservedly gay themes without fear of discrimination. Able to capture the world in all shades from tormented to bizarre to luminous. An educated composer, for an educated public.

Bruckner - There’s an elephant in this lettered room of composers - a missing B which should be clear to you all by now. Where is Bach? How is the alleged greatest of all composers nowhere to be found on this list of inspirations? The answer, unfortunately, is that Bach is too scary. He is too much perfection itself. He invites no inspiration because there is no way to improve upon his compositions, and he is therefore lacking. He is beyond individuality, he is the music of heaven. The positivism of Bach, the idea that there is a God as perfect as a Swiss watch who can order a perfect universe in which all suffering is rewarded, is not just anti-individual, it’s almost offensively so. Give me Bruckner’s religion, a religion of humility and revelation which can give us shelter from the world’s confusion. A religion howling with as many doubts as anyone who ever experienced the agony of true belief must ever hold within their minds. A religion that acknowledges that God gives us suffering and burden greater than we ever can bear, and that there may be no reward.

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