Thursday, January 1, 2009

New Year's Resolutions versus The Infinite Varieties of Music

 (In the spirit of cross-promotion, I'm going to share a post from my new blog, Orpheus Remembered. Like Landon's new site, Dissecting the Machine, it's about the inner workings of art, in this case, music, and off-topic for this site. However, I feel my new year's post has some bearing on the topics here. And a good companion piece to Landon's  "athlete as hero" post; I don't need much prodding to make the case for musicians as heroes! Thanks, Joe.)

  "A work of art does not answer questions, it provokes them; and its essential meaning is in the tension between the contradictory answers." 
-Leonard Bernstein
  I've been researching the topic of Romanticism in music and how Ayn Rand's use of the term does or does not apply to her theories on music. A lot of interesting reading, and what I'm finding so far is more argument than consensus. One of the books I'm reading isThe Infinite Variety of Music by Leonard Bernstein, which contains a transcript from his television broadcast "Romanticism in Music." But it is the following essay, detailing his "sabbatical" from music, that found an immediate resonance with me on this New Year's Day, as I mull my own resolutions, my motives and goals for Orpheus Remembered.
  In his "Sabbatical Report," Bernstein reveals no greater insight than he had at the beginning of his hiatus, save this:

The one conclusion that I have reached after a year's mulling is simply the ancient cliche that the certainty of one's knowledge decreases in proportion to thought and experience. The moment you have time to intellectualize your perceptions, established certainties will begin to crumble, and the "other side" of any controversy will beckon appealingly. The inevitable result is that one's liberalism becomes stretched to the point of absurdity.

  I've found myself thinking the same thing with this new forum. Most of my postings so far have been articles I've written in past years in other forums that I'm incorporating into the setting here. While I'm proud of that work, I am finding that no "certain" answers, only more questions, and where I offered strident answers before, I am questioning my own conclusions. And even if I tried to stick my head in the sand, I'm confronted with comments that raise even more questions, revealing my ignorance in some cases, even (though I find myself digging my heels in at other times, ha!). It's funny, because I started this blog largely as a place to work on my own answers after objecting to stifling frustration why do I open my blog to people who threaten to contradict and create even MORE doubt when I think I've found the answers? 

 Maybe it's why I responded strongly to Bernstein's own confession of self-doubt:

If I may be pardoned for a quasi-existential paradox, I suggest that the answer is in the questioning. By experimenting with the problem, by feeling it out, by living with it, we are answered. All our lives are spent in the attempt to resolve conflicts; and we know that resolutions are impossible except by hindsight. We can make temporary decisions...but it is only after death that it can be finally perceived whether we ever succeeded in resolving our conflicts. This is patent, since as long as we live we continue the attempt to resolve them. That attempt is the very action of living.

  I find this interesting from an Objectivist viewpoint, especially on a day dedicated to keep our resolutions. Part of Ayn Rand's appeal is the promise of absolutes and certainty as possibilities. But people have also been turned off to the claims of her dogmatic personality, especially in music (the reality of which is up for debate.) But Rand also knew that we are not omniscient, and so, Bernstein's words have a ring of truth about them. (I do find it interesting, btw, that Bernstein uses the word "temporary," as music is a "temporal" form; this suggests a tension between "timeless" music and music "made for the times." Like every "New World Man," "he knows constant change is here to stay....".)

  Anyway, this all got me to thinking about my own experiences so far as a commentator of music. On the one hand, I chafe at any "restrictions" placed on me by "authority," yet, when challenged, my visceral reaction is to "armor" up.  I advocate free thought, which is a redundancy, yet I have a hard time with dissent. But the danger of hubris requires us, and especially those who would-be heroes, to prepare to be "judged" in their own judgments, lest they follow the Jungian pattern of the hero-turned-tyrant. I think it comes down to that human need for certainty, and the dangers of being "absurdly" liberal in one's approach (which is how I view postmodern atonal music, ha!). I don't like music that claims to break down one's mind. At the other end is a the very human need for exploration, which requires a bit of mystery, and an ability to leave the comfort of one's "hobbit hole." Not coincidentally, this tension of opposites, this dual of certainty versus adventure, devotion and deviance, is the thrust of Romantic music for Leonard Bernstein, who claims that the Romantic composers endure because 

[They] give you what you yearn for secretly, what our bright todays and tomorrows lack. The romantics gave us back our moon, for instance, which science has taken away from us and made into just another airport. Secretly we all want the moon to be what it was before-a mysterious, hypnotic light in the sky. We want love to be mysterious too, as it used to be, and not a set of psychotherapeutic rules for interpersonal relationships. We crave mystery even while we forge ahead toward the solution of one cosmic mystery after the other.

  Which brings us back to the date: isn't this WHY we celebrate New Year's Day? The promise of a better tomorrow, of what might be, for better or for worse? The latter might sound strange; who wants a "worse" year? But that's not to suggest that we are hoping for the worst, but that the possibility of new adventures requires, since we are NOT omniscient, that sense of danger? If it didn't, we would simply be hoping for more of the same in the form of security and comfort. And yet, there is still the appeal of the different, the dangerous, the subversive, even...for Bernstein, the thrill of the "devil in music" remains:


As a conductor I am fascinated by, and wide open to, every new sound-image that comes along; but as composer I am committed to tonality. Here is a conflict, indeed, and my attempt to resolve it is, quite literally, my most profound musical experience. And if this sounds far too existential for an old romantic like me, well and good.

  And with that, I find myself at the same "pass" as Bernstein at the end of his sabbatical. Like Bernstein, I have "two answers to everything and one answer to nothing." Once upon a time, I resolved to find the answer the questions to Rand's musical challenges. While I don't think it's impossible, I don't think that's my primary goal anymore, and it certainly isn't my goal to convince others that I do have the answers for THEM, because ultimately, what matters in any, "Romantic" endeavor, indeed, any HEROIC endeavor, is the individual choice. Heroism requires a sense of certainty in order to create and defend "what is right," and yet, since even heroes are not omniscient, they, too, and perhaps moreso than others, must leave their "hobbit holes" and set out for the unknown. And as long as there is a world of choice, there will remain, if not "infinite," an ever-growing world of music. So I'll give Lennie the last word:


There are two solutions...the choice between them lies in the question "Which one is true?," to which there is no single answer.