Monday, December 22, 2014

800 Words: A New Tonality - A Bad Composer's Manifesto - Part 3

I’m a weird guy. I can’t escape the fact that just about every person who meets me thinks some variation on that theme. Here I am, nearly 33 years old - perpetually single, unhealthily overweight, with a bag of facial tics and an extremely unattractive medical problem that causes me to burp every few seconds; tactless in the extreme, living alone in an apartment surrounded by music I listen to obsessively and books I usually stare at rather than read, and working in a nub of a job for my family because the anxiety and depression of working harder is too great.

Ambition is all I have, and I’ve always had enough of it for the entire city of Baltimore. But ambition alone does not make a career, and is practically the enemy of happiness. Were the circumstances of my life rather different, perhaps I’d feel less isolated; but as it is, I live in an inner world of my own creation - a world which, by definition, the outside world cannot provide its requirements.

I may be American by birth, upbringing, language, education, and culture. But I feel like a complete alien to this country. I don’t understand its music, I don’t understand its politics, I don’t understand its optimism. I don’t understand why time passes so quickly in America, or how Americans can be so fickle in every conviction except their sport loyalties, or how Americans can believe that ignorance is the happiest pursuit, or how Americans steadfastly believe that they can be masters of their own destiny when the world exists to prove to them otherwise. My perspective exists so far outside the American norm that I can’t help noticing that it occasionally gives me a certain miniscule amount of charisma in other people’s eyes - I’m so different that surely I must know something they don’t...

Surely I’ve listened to too much classical music over my 32-and-change years to belong anywhere but in Europe. And yet, every time I’ve been in Europe, I felt no less ill-at-ease - whether I was made to feel that way or not, I was acutely conscious of being American, being Jewish, being in extremely unfamiliar circumstances, and still felt as weird as ever. There was nothing about Europe, at least the Europe of today, that made me feel at home.

Whether I’d truly fit as some kind of educated European or New York Jew of fifty-to-a hundred years ago, I suppose that’s how I see myself. If my inner world, my worldview, my tastes, my lifestyle, fits with anywhere, it would be among people like them. Though perhaps my view of them is faulty, and I’d feel just as weird among them as I do among any peer of mine.

But if I sometimes project the air of worldly sophistication which such a background would guarantee, I’m able to do so because it’s completely unearned. I have an unusable bachelor’s degree in music from a third-rate institution, I’ve failed to learn to speak Yiddish, French, Spanish, German, and Italian, and perhaps Hebrew too, or master any math higher than the algebra I could do as a small child. I seem to have read the first 100 pages of every "major literary work," and seem to mean to go back to them all since I was a teenager. Few people wanted to educate themselves as much as I did, and I doubt many people have failed so often at the attempts. Had I succeeded in any of these endeavors, I’d probably be just another boring meritocrat, working some vaguely prestigious job in a vaguely more prestigious city.

But it’s because I fit so badly everywhere that I have a perspective that is so different from virtually everyone. Here I am, a Polish/Lithuanian Litvak Ashkenazi Jew, living in Baltimore - which must be the least European-like major city on the East Coast. For a variety of reasons, I’ve lived parallel to the American vernacular my entire life, and compared to virtually all my contemporaries, it touched me very little. Most classical composers of our day want to reflect American life better, but what does it mean for someone like me to reflect American life when I’ve experienced so little of it?

I’m an emissary from an alternative timeline - the timeline in which the twentieth century never happened and was purely an outgrowth of the nineteenth. People like to sheepishly claim that they have retro-musical tastes as though that proves their nerdiness, well… my preferred tastes start around 1780 and go to 1914 - after World War I breaks out, it gradually gets more and more hit-or-miss. While all the other nerdy college kids were immersing themselves in science fiction, I was enthralled to Chekhov and Kafka and Stefan Zweig. Even among artforms that postdate the 19th century, most people my age think movies and ‘popular’ music start with Star Wars and Michael Jackson, I think movies and pop music pretty much ended with Star Wars and Michael.

Lots of people think that I’m so different by calculated effect, and that most of my interactions are a kind of cultivated theatricalism in which I criticize people’s most cherished beliefs for the sheer joy of watching them sputter. Maybe there’s a very little bit of truth to that, but if there’s any truth in that at all, then surely it’s because I already feel so different that I can only feel comfortable by playing it up and embracing it. I can’t help who I am, and whether it’s by environment or by nature, my way of being is well outside of contemporary life’s norm.

Whether or not my music turns out any good, I think I’m in a unique position to write music very differently from most composers around today. I see myself a bit like a contemporary to the 1920’s generation - still trying to figure out where music can go after Mahler sounded the summit, the glorious final notes of the Symphonic Sonata-Allegro tradition handed down by Haydn to Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert, Mendelssohn, Schumann, Bruckner, Brahms, Tchaikovsky, and Dvorak. In all likelihood, my peers are the more mediocre incarnations of the composers from former generations like Bartok, Stravinsky, Berg, Janacek, Vaughan Williams, Ives, Honegger, Respighi, Hindemith, Prokofiev, Ravel, Szymanowski, Bloch, Holst, Falla, Martin, Martinu, Milhaud, and Villa-Lobos. Soon, young whippersnappers will be nipping at my heels like Shostakovich, Gershwin, Poulenc, Korngold, Copland, Revueltas, Britten, and Messiaen.

If this music actually possesses any quality, then secret to all this is that it’s not at all a conscious pose on my part. I simply can’t help thinking of music on their terms, because their view of the world is mine. I listen to more popular genres, I even enjoy them much of the time. Perhaps some of it will even make itself felt in the music I write. But my heart isn’t with them, I won’t pretend I understand much about what most ‘popular artists’ (in any popular genre) are trying to create. My mind, my heart, my self, is stuck trying to solve problems that existed 90 years ago, and according to some people, my music will probably be stuck in the same place.

I feel like the only person living in the alternative 21st century - a world that never saw Kaiser Wilhelm, or Hitler and Stalin, felt no true need for the State of Israel, and no desire for great powers to wage third world proxy wars. The nineteenth century was based on Euro-centric lies, but at least they had hope for a better future - a future which still hasn’t come to pass. Most importantly for me, my alternative timeline begins where high art and popular art divorced each other, and in my timeline, the marriage was always secure. I now have a hundred years of new music to unearth, and the process will hopefully take a lifetime.

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