Composers (and other artists): Does It Take One to Know One?

The death of writer Norman Mailer ten days ago has brought to my mind two Mailer books about artists not himself: Picasso and Henry Miller. Very likely I thought of these books because the third volume of John Richardson’s massive Picasso biography was the cover page book review in The New York Times Book Review on the very day Mailer’s death was announced. Mailer never wrote about classical music, it is true, but he did write, I have always thought, with extraordinary perceptiveness about other artists—no, no, more: with the kind of perception that only an artist, being an artist, can bring to the understanding of another artist.

First follow this passage by The New York Times‘s Michiko Kakutani from her January 22, 2003 review of Mailer’s book The Spooky Art: Some Thoughts on Writing: “Even more annoying are Mr. Mailer’s self-pitying complaints about the hardships writers suffer—in having to face down writer’s block, slog through narrative problems and grapple with reviews—and the implication that these hardships are somehow more special, more burdensome than the routine frustrations faced by people in other vocations. He whines that ‘only another writer can know how much damage writing a novel can do to you.'”

I, for one, believe the formidable Ms. Kakutani (whom I always read with great interest) got it all wrong here. Mailer was not talking about Mailer: he was talking about creative artists sub specie aeternitatis. That he was not “advertising for himself” but rather astutely describing common predicaments that all writers (and composers) implicitly understand would be “gotten” by artists, but not by a critic untried in creative-process trench warfare: such a person might well only see Mailer’s remarks as peevish ego explosions. (For all I know it may be that Ms. Kakutani has secretly written cartloads of novels and poems, but as they are not published I’ll assume she hasn’t.) Substitute the word “composer” for “writer” in the quoted Mailer extracts and their meaning is little altered. Kakutani’s suggestion that the dark night of the soul that the creative person experiences is not qualitatively different from “the routine frustrations faced by people in other vocations” is—excuse me—ridiculous, especially coming from an arts critic. (I use “arts” generically.) If critics don’t understand the way the soul, the psyche, the organism can get bent out of shape by the agonies of the muse, and, further, how the muse can get bent by professional failure, the critics should recuse themselves.

An artist’s view of a fellow artist has a different kind of validity than a critic’s or scholar’s. In his book on Harry Truman, Plain Speaking, author Merle Miller asked Give ‘Em Hell Harry what Truman and ex-president Herbert Hoover small-talked about when they met: “We talked about what it was like to be president of the United States,” Truman replied. Any professional in any trade is going to have an insider’s, shop-talk view of his colleague that no outsider could. If you’re a professional make-up artist, you’ll probably critique the make-up when you go see the latest blockbuster movie. Mailer’s book on Picasso sees the forest for the trees in the art business in a way that professional art historians could never muster; composers should read it to learn more about the “art trade” of the music business. Another example is W. H. Auden’s book of lectures on Shakespeare (as transcribed by students). Auden’s take on Shakespeare is splendidly indifferent to the cant of professional literature appreciation (so was Byron’s). He says what he damn pleases, and always from a poet’s insights. Like Mailer, Auden was an amateur and outsider as a scholar, but an insider as a member of the Tribe of Art.

Yes, art is differently seen and experienced from being on the inside as a fellow creator. This is why the astute composer can learn from Ned Rorem’s writings – not only Mr. Rorem’s taste crotchets, but useful shop details and secrets of the trade. It may be that composers often have ridiculously illogical, biased views of other composers (see Composers on Music, ed. Josiah Fisk), and that some composer-critics can be icily severe (Andre Hodeir). But it is doubtful that even Thomas Mann could understand what a fellow composer was “up to” in a given piece of music as well as a fellow composer.

What experiences have you had of composer-to-composer empathy? Or have you received your most meaningful mentoring and artistic advice from artists from other disciplines?

14 thoughts on “Composers (and other artists): Does It Take One to Know One?

  1. William Osborne

    Empathy? Isn’t that a girl thing? How much will it be discussed here on NMB, which is in practice a men’s group? (I wish I were kidding.) Anyway, this topic of empathy and transcendental inspiration so interests me I fear I will write a little too much here.

    We might remember that the conception of the artist as someone riven by “divine spirit” is less than 200 years old, and that it is far less prevalent in other cultures. We might find a life roiled with transcendental inspiration the highest human state for an artist, but in Buddhist cultures it is a still mind.

    It was during the Napoleonic era, as feudalism was collapsing and being replaced with bourgeoisie cultural nationalism, that the idea of the hero-artist channeling divine will and speaking as the soul of a nation was born. Through the cult of the hero-artist, the composer began to speak as the voice of “his” nation. Artists such as Wagner, Dvorak, and Verdi, helped emerging European countries assert their ethnic identity and claims to national sovereignty. At the same time, the growing autocracy of the conductor (which already had a feudalistic heritage) increasingly objectified musicians who became
    functionaries, highly responsive instruments, embodiments of his musical fantasies. Transcendent radical will became a central characteristic of the romantic artist-prophet and was continued by modernism.

    Nineteenth century philosophy also played an enormous role in the creation of the transcendentally inspired artist-prophet. In “The World as Will and Idea” (1819), and other influential works that followed, Arthur Schopenhauer created a philosophy which advocated turning away from the classical era’s spirit of reason to the powers of intuition, creativity, and the irrational. This view deeply influenced Nietsche, who in “The Birth of Tradgedy” (1872) proclaimed that art and literature must harness Dionysian elements of the irrational in order to exist. This view led to the radical will of Nietsche’s “superman” in “Also Sprach Zarathustra.” Schopenhauer and Nietsche profoundly influenced the European cultural realm, ranging from Wagner and Berlioz to Wedekind and Freud.

    These conceptions of ended in catastrophe. Misappropriated notions of radical will became part of Fascism’s cult of the hero and formulated actions describable as radical evil. This was vividly illustrated by Hitler’s appropriation of the image of the modernist artist-prophet. The itinerant painter-cum-artist Führer from the garrets of Vienna was finally heard, and with his “divine” inspiration and “scientific” understanding, hoped to destroy the world and create a revolution based on “scientific” notions of racial evolution, eugenics and euthanasia. Similarly, the Italian Futurists, who worshipped both modern technology and the romantically transcendent authority of the “superman”, were among the first devotees of Mussolini.

    This was culturally isomorphic with the modernist continuation of the 19th century concept of the artist-prophet who was viewed as a source of truth and justice, and who was to be followed through a cycle of destruction and rebirth. Fortunately, Hitler’s Götterdämmerung was more complete than the revolution that he hoped would lead to a new world order of scientifically bred but romantically transcendent supermen.

    Even though patriarchal transcendentalism can be a great source of creativity, it is inherently self-destructive, because its raises Mind over Nature, or the spiritual over the material. In artistic expression it thus tends toward recurrent cycles of ecstasy, revolution, destruction and remorse. This is clearly seen in Karlheinz Stockhausen’s comments about the World Trade Center attacks. In an interview before a concert of his music in Hamburg shortly after the attacks, he said the perpetrators brought “…about in one act what we in music cannot dream of, that people practice madly for ten years, completely fanatically, for a concert and then die. That is the greatest work of art for the whole cosmos. I could not do that. Against that, we composers, are nothing.”

    If one understands that pathological transcendence can be, and frequently is, an inherent part of the artist-prophet’s patriarchal mindset, Stockhausen’s statement is not so unpredictable. Later he qualified his remarks, stressing that it was “Lucifer’s” greatest work of art.

    Stockhausen is not a man with malice or hatred, and as European intellectuals go, he is by far one of the most American friendly. He is, however, a person deeply involved in rather cosmic conceptions of a patriarchal divine order of which he is an artist-prophet on an exalted mission. Seen in that light, his basic world view is really not so different from the vast majority of contemporary artists, even if they don’t claim to be prophets from Sirius.

    I think we almost all feel some sort of divine communication through art. A couple years ago I attended a concert of John Zorn’s music at Miller Hall in NYC. Before the concert there was an hour long interview with the composer conducted by George Steel. Zorn repeatedly stressed that his music comes from some sort of higher power. He said that it would not have been possible for him to complete over 300 of his Masadic melodies during a very short time period without some sort of supernatural help. In the program, he wrote that composition is at its best “when the piece is seemingly writing itself and the composer is merely an observer.” He says that some of his works, “transcend my expectations and my abilities. I cannot explain them. They are part of the Mystery.” It was also notable how abusive he was to George Steele during the interview, and to the public during the question and answer session.

    In a way, it is ironic to combine a discussion about empathy with the way our souls are torn by the artist’s muse. There is something about patriarchal transcendentalism that’s extremely self-oriented and self-important, and that is anything but empathic. Examples range from radical evil, such as Hitler’s attempt to sculpt the human race through the Holocaust, to Stockhausen’s benign but radical placement of his foot in his mouth, to the postured abusiveness of Zorn, Rorem, and many others.

    How do we combine the consuming fires of the creative drive with being decent, balanced human beings who can be compassionate and caring for others?

    Pauline Oliveros has spent most of her career developing concepts of music and empathy. Maybe I will write about that later. Or maybe not. I am already embarrassed that I have written so much lately.

    William Osborne
    http://www.osborne-conant.org

    Reply
  2. Chris Becker

    “It was also notable how abusive he (John Zorn) was to George Steele during the interview, and to the public during the question and answer session. “

    I was at that concert and the pre-concert talk and it should be noted that one question to Zorn from the audience was “Why do you wear those pants?” referring to his camouflage pants (which Zorn happily explained he liked for the large pockets which can hold DVDs). It should also be noted that his Tzadik label and The Stone are both ventures not guided by profit but simply to sustain and preserve the creative work of Zorn and his contemporaries (which include many women as well as a diverse collection of Jewish and Asian artists).

    When I first heard Zorn’s music I immediately grasped the profound collaborative nature of the work and realized that much of his work could be a blueprint for my own compositional ventures which over the years has come to include musical participants from a wide spectrum of communities. The notion of the composer as an autonomous figure is (unless I’m really missing something here) not what Zorn is about. It is clear from listening to his work and reading interviews with the man that without his collaborators, his work would be lifeless. Just notes on a page.

    That said, my own work doesn’t sound at all like Zorn’s, but he is definitely a profound influence upon it.

    Zorn pushes buttons. But I believe that says more about the constrictive norms of our so-called “new music” community than any tendency in his character to “abuse” people.

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  3. William Osborne

    Your points are very valid, Chris. Zorn was definitely abusive during the interview. (For example, he told Steele and audience members asking questions to“fuck off” about 8 or 10 times.) But on the other hand, I noticed the remarkable collaboration by the performers. And not only that, they were pretty much the first-call freelancers in NYC. And he has done a lot for many musicians with his recording company, his performance space, and his collaborator as an improviser. But as you say, he “pushes buttons” and that sometimes puts people off. I noticed, for example, that the concert, which was attended by at least 500 people, wasn’t even reviewed in the Times. I don’t think it was just an oversight.

    Is Zorn perhaps an example of someone riven by the muses, but also empathetic to his colleagues – at least under a sometimes gruff exterior? The evidence seems to point that way.

    William Osborne

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  4. Chris Becker

    William, I was in the second row and I do not recall Zorn telling anyone sitting in the audience to “F— off.” 8 or 10 times? I would have remembered that. I do remember him telling Steele “F— you…” after Zorn had explained he did not like commissions as he did not compose according to timelines. Steele then told him he wanted to commission a work from him (I don’t recall though how he put it) and Zorn smiled and said “F— you…”

    Which, I thought was pretty funny. It was obvious the two men had a mutual respect for each other.

    Zorn’s most recent concert at the Miller was reviewed in the NY Times. Zorn has had a long standing “blackout” policy with the press.

    It may be a cultural thing…Jewish, Tibetan and African American folks (hang on…I’m about to make a broad generalization) can debate and converse with an emotional intensity that might to an outsider seem like its verging on a fistfight but is in fact instead just a healthy entertaining and LOUD conversation.

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  5. William Osborne

    He might have used “fuck you” instead of “fuck off,” but it didn’t change my impression that it was rude, abusive, and unprofessional. Why say to George Steele, “fuck you” in front of 500 people? And he used the same expression with audience members. On the other hand, to support your point, the term became frequent enough that it began to lose its meaning and became a sort of exclamation in rough New York-style conversation. It was my impression, however, that the audience was intimidated by his behavior, and that it inhibited the question and answer session. It also seemed to me that Steele knew how he was going to behave and came prepared for it.

    Anyway, personal opinions about Zorn’s behavior can be endlessly debated are not central to my point. The larger issue is that self-images based on transcendence can lead to behavior ranging from insensitivity to horrific violence, and that they are often incompatible with empathy.

    Ryan Tanaka has summarized the problem well in his article “Transcendentalism and Materialism: Classical Music and Improvisation in the United States”:

    “For some, the paradoxes engrained within Modernist ideologies would prove itself to be
    too much. Arshile Gorky, a seminal influence on the Abstract Expressionist movement, hanged himself in 1948 after a series of traumatic events, including his wife and children leaving him after seven years of marriage. Jackson Pollack, who was well known for his alcoholism, died in an accident while driving drunk in 1956. [Ed. Note: A young admirer he had recently met was with him and was also killed.] In 1970, Mark Rothko was found dead in his studio after slashing his veins with a razor blade. According to some of Rothko’s friends, part of the suicide might have been motivated by the fact that he wasn’t able to “cope with the contradiction of being showered with material rewards for works which ‘howled their opposition to bourgeois materialism.’”

    Is the image of the artist as transcendentally inspired and internally conflicted changing as modernism declines? All thoughts are welcome.

    William Osborne

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  6. Chris Becker

    The three dead artists add up to some sort of collective malaise birthed by the philosophy timeline presented in the first post?

    I am lost at this point…I will return to my absinthe and playing with my revolver…

    Seriously, I may just need to take time to reread the 8 million paragraphs above this…take care, everyone. Happy Holidays.

    Reply
  7. rtanaka

    Um, thanks for the quip but I think this thread went way off the original topic…

    Even now, I spend most of my timewith non-musicians. I find that their feedback is usually the most helpful, even if its just observing their reactions to certain things. Oh where’s that quote from the Jellyfish article:

    “I don’t know much about music, so I am not exactly sure what to say, because it was really complex, but it was…um…interesting.”

    Yeah, this is iconic. Everyday is a sobering experience of how irrelevent we’ve become in the bigger scheme of things. I honestly don’t think that anybody really cares about what we have to “go through” — compared to life decisions deciding what notes goes next is relatively easy, if you ask me.

    Reply
  8. William Osborne

    I’m phasing out of these discussions here on NMB, but before swimming off into the Internet ethers, I want to answer Mark’s question. Many have experienced composer-to-composer empathy from Pauline Oliveros. The expression of empathy is a central part of her musical philosophy and aesthetic. She specifically defines music as a form of empathy that creates authentic community.

    Her aesthetic philosophies originate in the work of John Cage, but she greatly expanded upon his concepts and developed them into practices she refers to as “Deep Listening.” Some of the principle practices of Deep Listening include nonjudgmental perception; the development of empathy through listening; the creation of nonhierarchical social relationships in music-making; the expanded use of intuitive forms of internal and external awareness; and new understandings of sensuality and the body.

    Since Deep Listening focuses on listening itself as a creative act, it diminishes the hierarchies between the composer, performer, and audience. She identifies creativity as fundamental to human dignity, and feels that helping others to be creative is an essential part of the artist’s work. Most of her compositions are forms of meditation and ritual designed o help others become more creative and aware. They stand in stark contrast to the usual modernist conception of the composer as a lone, transcendentally inspired genius who is regarded as the musical creator, while performers are considered his instruments, and the public a relatively passive receptor.

    I never took any of her workshops, but I have observed Deep Listeners as a community. It’s remarkable how well these practices actually work. The professional relationships that evolve are quite different from those common in most of the new music world. The community is evenly gender-balanced, and there is an atmosphere of empathy, awareness, discernment, and mutual support that is quite remarkable. The aesthetic is centered in Downtown/West Coast traditions, but I think many practices of Deep Listening would be valuable for people making other kinds of musics.

    William Osborne
    http://www.osborne-conant.org

    Reply
  9. Dennis Bathory-Kitsz

    Thank you, William, and have a great swim in the aether.

    I’ve learned a great deal from you here and from your website essays, and thank you for your clarity, broad knowledge and sensitive prose.

    Dennis

    Reply
  10. rtanaka

    Oliveros had a foundation setup near the school of UIUC, and that’s where I largely had the opportunities to get to improvisation. (By in large there weren’t too many places to do such things within the school environment itself, at least while I was there.) She seems to be one of the few people who can bridge certain divides, it seems.

    Her approach of it seems to be a form of “music therapy”, which at least in the California area seems to be fairly popular. In my (continuing) job hunts for music related things, I actually ran into a few positions in that area.

    Reply
  11. MarkNGrant

    hmmm….
    Although all the above posts from all you estimable correspondents are interesting and worthwhile, this is the first time I’ve written a column for NMBox where I feel that the thread has deviated utterly and entirely from what I wrote. Was my original point not clear?

    Reply
  12. Colin Holter

    I think I sometimes have moments as a listener when I can identify a particular compositional predicament the composer might have been in by the music’s response–in other words, reverse-engineer the circumstances of certain aesthetic decisions based on the outcome. For example, when I listen to Brahms sometimes, I think about how he used to do two-piano reductions of his pieces for his buddies in private before sending them off, as a sort of vetting process. I know there are moments in Brahms’ music when Brahms said, somewhat coyly, “I don’t really know if I’ll keep this part in. . .,” and his friends said, “dude, you have to keep that part in!” I don’t know that non-composers would identify those moments the same way.

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  13. philmusic

    “What experiences have you had of composer-to-composer empathy? Or have you received your most meaningful mentoring and artistic advice from artists from other disciplines?”

    It would seem Mark that you are asking folks to relate their “personal” experiences. This might be a very touchy subject for some and very private subject for others. Also, being a mentor-even great one- does not imply that they are also empathetic. Curmudgeonly Dutch Uncles (and Aunts) abound. Hence the misdirection.

    Phil Fried
    Phil’s page

    Reply

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