Monday, November 21, 2011

Some things that are true

I stole the title of this post from the composer David Maslanka, whose article of the same name has now unfortunately disappeared from his website. Happily, one of my students used the Wayback Machine to dig up a copy, which I recently reread: an experience that reminded me of why I like it so much.

Before I elaborate, I need to mention that I recently encountered an article in the New York Times suggesting that, despite what Geoff Colvin thinks, there may be something to the idea of talent after all. Apparently, if you're not in that top .1% to begin with, it's very hard to fake it, no matter how hard you try.

Since my earlier post on this topic (See August: "Golden Oldies: Is Talent Overrated?") ended inconclusively, I see no need to revise my previous views. I'm still not really sure how big a role inborn talent plays compared to hard work or other less tangible advantages. (The latter, I take it, are the main subject of Malcom Gladwell's Outliers; thanks, Debbie, for the recommendation.)

What I do want to discuss is exactly what it is that defines, not the top .1%, or even the top .01%, but the top .00001% or so. What makes the difference between a Mozart and a Shakespeare, who manage to write for the ages, and your average phenomenally gifted artist who just doesn't quite measure up? (I won't name any names, so as not to raise any unnecessary hackles.)

Certainly a part of the answer, as I suggested in a Facebook post yesterday, is that the truly great are not simply speaking for themselves. They manage, through the combination of their hard work and some mysterious additional factor, to give voice to things that touch upon our common humanity, in ways that are still apparent centuries later.

An essential read for anybody who is interested in this subject is Robertson Davies's novel What's Bred in the Bone, which I first encountered about 25 years ago and have reread several times since. Davies tells the life story of Francis Chegwidden Cornish, the son of a prominent Canadian banking family whose talents happen not to lie in the world of finance.

Through an elaborate metaphorical back-story (a frequent device with Davies), it is shown that Francis's life was ruled by a daemon: not your stereotypical evil spirit, but a hermaphroditic, amoral font of artistic inspiration who forces Francis inward by repeatedly denying him satisfaction in real life. Having become mixed up with a spy ring that is involved in smuggling art out of Nazi Germany, Francis creates two paintings that, if they had not been great works of art, would have been simply forgeries.

What makes them great is that Francis has managed to use figures and themes from his own life, heritage and confused religious upbringing to crystallize content from the deep unconscious. His paintings, which appear to come from a Renaissance master (even down to artificial craquelure created by baking them in ovens), are actually timeless.

Maslanka, a fellow Oberlin grad whose Symphony no. 4 will be performed by the Baylor Wind Ensemble tonight, is unusual among modern composers in that he acknowledges deliberately trying to do the same thing. Here are a few ponderable quotes from his essay:

"After a lifetime of being myself I have come to the conclusion that the only tool I have for the perception of the 'click of rightness' is myself! On the conscious level that self is patently limited: the senses have limits, the talents have limits, the intelligence has limits. It is possible nonetheless for the conscious mind to reach 'inward' and find a universe of powerful images and feelings, and conversely to have things thrust on it from an unknown source—which means that there is the possibility for revelation."

"One of the most profound revelations that human consciousness has received is symbolic language in all its forms. ... The great tradition of musical language exists apart from the individual. I remember awakening gradually to this tradition, first as a young clarinet player, and then as a young theory student and beginning composer. I remember at age 18 the sudden realization how little I knew of this vast language, and what a complicated business composing really was. For more than 40 years I have been actively exploring that language, and understand that I will never encompass it all."

"The idea of the language using you is a profound one. It implies that the language wishes to speak, that there is a partnership between your conscious mind and the unspoken forces of the universe. My tonal musical language uses me. No matter what I do it won't be denied. In allowing myself to open to language, I open to the great common pool of human musical experience, and the language uses me. Out of tradition is invented the personal voice."

Anyone familiar with the controversies in modern music, and in post-modernism generally, will recognize these as fighting words. The idea that there are universals, revelations, and vast pools of common experience that can speak to all mankind and always will, are, to say the least, out of fashion. When Maslanka acknowledges that the musical language that seeks to speak to him is tonal, and that one of its fonts is the Bach chorales, he is making claims for tonality and for Bach that many are still eager to dispute. Just last summer I tried to make a similar claim for Bach on my professional society's listserve, and was treated to a lecture from another contributor explaining that any advantage Bach appeared to enjoy stemmed solely from the privileging of the German tradition that he represents. The implication was that exactly the same thing could have happened to any number of other composers from other national traditions who are now considered also-rans.

I am going to say here what I did not say there: I don't believe it. The privileged positions accorded to tonality, and to Bach's particular take on tonal language, are due to the fact that both are capable of drawing vast amounts of material from the universal human unconscious. This is what any great art does, and it's what makes it great. Yes, an artist needs extraordinary gifts and needs to work extraordinarily hard. To be truly great, though, an artist needs to become a vehicle for the language of art, and there's no way to make that happen unless, like Francis Cornish, you are also the vehicle of expression for a daemon of your own.

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