Maybe it's stupid to believe in art and ideas above all other things - the Germans and Russians and French believed in all that and we see exactly where it got them... But what else ever is there? What else ever was there for me?
I only had two real ambitions in my life - the first was to serve music, perhaps the way a priest serves God. In the godless age, music - invisible, seemingly without form and void - is the closest thing we can ever experience to the transcendental. It is the most beautiful, miraculous phenomenon in our existence. To make great music, to evangelize for it, to bring it to people, to make converts for it, was the thing that always makes me happiest. When I left last week's wonderful performance at Liam Flynn's, I was on air. I thought I was fulfilling, or so it seems, my first, best destiny.
The second, perhaps contradictory, ambition, was to create music that transcended simple entertainment and took on all the properties of great art. But this is not only my contradiction, it's everybody's who loves music. The truth is that there is no one more selfish, and less service oriented, than a true artist. Art may give something priceless to the people who experience it, but in order to create it, the artist takes, and takes, and takes, until the people unfortunate enough to serve him have nothing left to give, at which point most artists move on to new 'servants', whom they exhaust just as badly. Just as a charismatic clergyman might be a serial abuser in private when he isn't exhorting us to burn heretics in public, a great artist or musician will act like a swine as often as not to the people who love him when he isn't exciting the public to an irresponsible state of endorphin overdose. Listen to Wagner, or look at the paintings of Caravaggio, and try telling me that these artists are not trying to excite their audiences to an ecstatic state in which they can be worshipped like any Pope or Dictator.
In case you haven't figured it out, I have not proven particularly skilled in fulfilling either ambition. As with most people, my aspirations are probably askew from where my true abilities lie. If any of us achieve exactly what we always sought, we'd probably be too boring to make our aspirations worthwhile. Most of us have a general idea of our talents, but we don't know their specific parameters.
It was clear that I had real musical talent from the earliest age - by the time I was four, I had perfect pitch and could harmonize melodies on the piano. But somehow, my development as a 'musical prodigy' was clearly stymied by something, and by the time I was eight, it was being asked by just about everyone why I hadn't become a prodigy my obnoxiously precocious gifts seemed to promise - in music or a dozen other fields.
This isn't the place to go into my various learning, organizational, and developmental disabilities, or my long and dark struggles with depression and anxiety - those are scrawled all around this blog for anyone who cares to look for more than two minutes. And I'll probably touch on them later in this post - briefly. What is important here is to say that I was not cut out for a career in the music I loved best. Not then, not now, probably not ever. I have neither the temperamental patience for practicing instruments, nor the gift for composing truly original music, nor the tolerance for bullshit which a career in music history demands.
But when I was sixteen, I discovered a completely unexpected gift - the gift of improvisation. A gift which most truly classical musicians would be at a loss to understand. Classical music, at least classical music as it's today practiced, is almost completely a technical exercise. Impeccable intonation and quality of sound, but with interpretations that are indistinguishably anodyne, generic phrasing and, a dispassionate, boring lack of expression that feels manufactured to seem completely antiseptic. If this is what classical music is, no wonder nobody everybody feels intimidated into staying away. People can't bond with performers because they can't tell the differences between them, and that's because there aren't any meaningful differences between performers.
When instrumentalists spend their entire youths perfecting technique, no wonder they never develop the creativity it takes to use their technique in the service of creating something. Theoretically, I suppose people can still be truly creative if they have little meaningful life experience or a generic personality, but I'd imagine it's thousands of times harder.
In order to give your creativity meaning, you have to have lived a real life - you have to know what it means both to suffer and to experience joy, you have to know loss and gain; you have to have something meaningful to express, you have to examine your life; your surroundings, your beliefs, your roots, your future. You have to have read and listened widely, and you have to have lived enough life to understand what you're reading. By no means do you have to be an intellectual (and it usually helps if you're not), but you have to at least have an awareness of what ideas exist. By no means do you have to have gone out into the world to have a wide variety of experience (though it usually helps if you have), but if you haven't experienced everything in life that there is to experience, you at least require an awareness of what you haven't.
But how many 'artists,' even talented ones, can truly claim to have done all that? The nature of artistic gift is elusive, and even among the people who have done all that, you can still create a mediocre product if you don't have talent. But if you do have talent, it has to be properly molded. There are so many artists I know, both by their work and personally, who clearly know everything about their field and nothing about what they want to express. Perhaps they're too young, or too boring, or too personally well-adjusted, or too intellectually limited, but there is something in their personality that is as yet missing, and it is, sadly, reflected in their work. Technique is just empty notes or words or paint unless the person who orders them positively burns with the desire to express something with his technique.
What did I burn to express?
I didn't know for the longest time. When I was a composition student, I didn't do nearly enough composing, but the composing I did was, charitably speaking, derivative. Unlike most composition students these days, I knew the classical canon extremely well. I don't think it's particularly arrogant of me to say that this knowledge has served me rather well as a composer - most composers don't even really know what great compositions sound like. I do, and this awareness of how big and great music can be at least got me to 'level 2' of 'how to compose,' but no further...
This blessing is also a curse. I have very few ideas as a composer that are truly original. Most of my ideas as a composer require other music as a template just to 'get started.' The best thing I wrote as an undergraduate was a one-movement string quartet in which I basically turned Bach's Passacaglia for Organ into a twelve-tone work. For the most part, it wasn't a bad piece of music at all, but Bach did all the heavy lifting, not me. Even today, the slow trickle of music I write is based almost entirely on references to other music. I don't think I kid myself by declaring that the music I write is better than most professional composers, but that's no compliment, because it's an astonishingly low bar to clear.
Love of classical music never got me anywhere much good as a kid, adolescent, or young man. It just made trouble for me. It was a relief and respite from the claustrophobia of the religious Jewish community where I grew up, and will always be part of, but it isolated me from others, sometimes quite painfully, and was very rarely ever an engine of self-discovery. Insofar as the music of Mozart and Beethoven is universal, it belongs to me as it does to you. But after thirty years of listening to it, I don't feel as though it truly belongs to me any more than I ever did. As a music lover, the type bent over a sacred text, I feel completely connected to it, but it will probably always represent an oasis away from the sounds of my life.
Parallel to this music I love is the music of the tradition you all love, and I only came to love through patience and understanding of others I should never even have to have learned - the music of the Beatles and Michael Jackson, of Louis Armstrong and Bob Dylan, of Miles Davis and James Brown, of Madonna and Kurt Cobain. Music that as an insufferable little shit of a kid, seemed frivolous and forbidden, almost shameful. As a kid, there was something in me that was horrified by other kinds of music than classical music, as though I could have been polluted by it, made no different from everybody else, and lose all those traits that made the world seem to love me for being smarter than every other little kid.
At a later age, I learned to love this music too, but I can't deny that there's still a very little bit of my gut reaction that's still there. I feel shame at being ashamed to like music you love so, but please understand that it's no longer the simplicity that bothers me, or even the seemingly omnipresent animal-instinct of American music. Those qualities which classical snobs revile are now qualities I adore. Sadly, the reason I still struggle with the 'pop canon' is the exact reason I still struggle with the classical canon. It just doesn't feel like my music.
My music doesn't exist. I'm a purebread Jew whose childhood, like all the children of Pikesville, Maryland, was almost totally segregated from the larger world in a modern shtetl - a place more purely Jewish than anywhere in Israel.
On Saturday afternoons, right in the middle of Shabbos, was my once-a-week ritual sojourn outside of the ghetto to Towson, where I was take violin lessons with my extremely shiksa violin teacher, and play in chamber ensembles coached by her black husband. I was the youngest kid in the group, sometimes by far, and perhaps as a consequence I didn't really fit in with them either. But those other string ensemble students were the sole peers I knew in my childhood who were not also Jewish.
From the youngest age, I seemed to be infused with the idea that this Jewish identity was absolutely inescapable - long past the point that it is simply self-fulfilling as it is for most Jews. I can't deny that it became a bit of a nightmare. I felt as though I wasn't even allowed to be as goyish as other Jewish kids in Pikesville.
I was a self-hating Jew long before I knew such a term existed. As a small child, my family spoke only Yiddish to me. The only family members who'd reliably speak English to me were my grandparents from Poland, and I'm pretty sure that the Yiddish-inflection is still as noticeable in my everyday speech as my flatly American accent is in my extremely broken Yiddish. A bit after my American grandfather died, I no longer wanted to speak Yiddish to anyone, and even at the age of four, I knew that my family would view it as a betrayal. But the shame of family disappointment was small compared to the fear I remember feeling that my family might start speaking a different language to me around other kids, whom, to my shock, didn't speak this language everybody in my family seemed to view as a moral obligation for me to learn.
And then came the long and cold winter of my youth - I like to think that I started my life being ninety years old and age backwards. But if the rest of my life is anything like ages 8 to 19, I can't imagine much desire to prolong it.
It's not that there weren't wonderful moments in those years - no one can look back on his schooldays and say with truth that they were altogether unhappy. But from 1990 to 2001, it seemed to this spoiled precocious little shit of a child as though misfortune piled upon misfortune. This prodigy fell to earth so early after takeoff that he never even flew. Instead, he was trapped in the kind of inferno that Judaism assures us does not exist. By the time he got to the comparatively amazing years of college - defeated by school after school, prematurely middle-aged, bereft of willpower, and certifiably crazy from hallucinations and voices to boot - if things didn't get better, he easily might have killed himself.
But they did get marginally better, for a time. Better enough that he thought he had a chance to recapture his lost years, and his anger from those years was overwhelming and utterly unable to be slaked. Some people barely remember their childhoods, others run around in them for their entire lives because they can't find the door to leave it.
I didn't want revenge, I simply wanted to be over with all the things that caused my suffering. I wanted to decamp to the other side of the globe and never return. I wanted to live in a place where I was the only Jew and could complain to a sympathetic audience about how unbearably claustrophobic living among Jews is, and since they never knew a Jew, they wouldn't be allowed to argue with me about it...
My Conversation with comedian Dave Barry
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