Mindless television is one of my best friends when it comes to battling jetlag. Last Tuesday evening I was particularly lethargic, so I tuned in to Barbara Walters’s The 10 Most Fascinating People of 2006. During a chat with Jay-Z, the rapper sermonized about truth, claiming that his success was contingent upon his ability to impart absolute truth via his music. It was a convincing enough rant to make me feel a little self-conscious about my own work as a composer.
Artistically speaking, I’ve never even attempted to convey truth—truthiness, maybe, but not the “whole and nothing but” variety. However, looking back upon works created by some of my heroes—Andy Warhol chief among them—I can see a whole lot of truth going on that I wasn’t mindful of in the past. Even the conceptual artist Sol LeWitt, who gave me that final motivational shove into Composer Land, certainly wasn’t fibbing in his work, unless you think it’s dishonest to hire others to create your work for you.
I know a lot of folks out there might think that framing a blank sheet of paper and displaying it inside a museum amounts to a huge load of bollocks. But I’d argue that there are certain artists who are amazingly adept at pulling off such stunts—John Cage was among them. Getting back to that thirty-two-and-a-half inch square piece paper hanging on the gallery wall, in this case it’s Tom Friedman’s 1000 Hours of Staring (1992-97). Friedman puts forth an interesting, if not poetic, paradox: Does it really matter? Does a piece of paper change if someone stares at it for a specific amount of time over the course of five years? Unless you’re one of those metaphysical new-agey types or something—not that there’s anything wrong with that—I believe the answer would be no.
I find Friedman’s potential sham fascinating. Because there is no evidence left behind, except of course that blank piece of paper housed inside a frame, we have to either take the artist at his word—have faith, in essence—or simply not care about the whole conceit and just move on. Personally, I think Friedman’s “stare on paper” might be even more brilliant if he actually cut some corners. That aside, truth becomes a much more elusive concept when it comes into contact with music. There’s simply no point of reference, and if there were, I’m not so sure how artistically relevant I would find such a thing. Anyway, after Jay-Z’s discourse, all I could do to make myself feel better was to say to myself that it’s way more interesting to create with a full ideological spectrum—truth and lies—to shroud a listener in some kind of dysfunctional, yet healthy, relationship. Trust me on this.