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?