Sunday, June 5, 2011

I like the unlikely

I just read a book called Catch and Release by the Canadian philosopher Mark Kingwell about, well, fishing and life. As the author keeps pointing out, it’s not that fly-fishing is some microcosm or crude metaphor for life; it is rather that fly-fishing involves the relation between contemplation and action in a way that is easily observable, because less cluttered than most areas of life. And of course, the very popular book Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance fished similar streams decades ago. But still, philosophy and fly-fishing? That got me thinking about unlikeliness. A friend of mine says that all wisdom is boring—simple truths that remain forever true and forever simple. That may be true, but my observation is that beauty is often or always unlikely and I like to think that beauty is part of wisdom.

By ‘beauty’ I mean things that humans create; I don’t have anything to say about the beauty of the natural world. Humans have a need to create beauty and when they do, other humans derive great enjoyment from it. But beauty is unlikely. A simple example is the plastic wafting about on random breezes in the film American Beauty. Beauty always has to surprise us a bit, which is why urban landscapes with their regularity and predictability are themselves not beautiful. We can strike beauty from them by photographing them in motion (power poles whisking by) or in unusual light, or in fragments to capture something unexpected.

I have found over the years that many if not all of the things that I find beautiful are unlikely and hence surprising. My predilections are towards the performing arts: music, drama and dance, and not the static visual arts. The artists that strike me, that seem to produce beauty, are, again, often unlikely. Let me tell you about the most recent to come to my attention. Genki Sudo, who just turned 33 years old in March 2011, is on at least his third career as leader of the musical group World Order. They released their first album last summer and a couple of videos from it are available on YouTube. Here is one of them:

I liked this video almost immediately because it is so unlike nearly all the others out there. It is about discipline, precision, illusion and reality. The ‘message’ is “We Are All One” which is hardly an obvious one. Genki Sudo is a Buddhist and that is a characteristic theme. There are no sexual references in either the images or the lyrics. Apart from passers-by, there are no women in the video. There are no special effects in the video, though you certainly might think so at first. However, all this choreography can be seen in live performances, also on YouTube.

Genki Sudo is the most unlikely music star you could think of. His first career was in Greco-Roman wrestling, Mixed-Martial Arts and Kick-Boxing (for details, see his Wikipedia entry). He retired at 28 and published eight books of essays. Now he has formed a musical group with seven dancers, including himself. He creates the music, writes the lyrics and designs the choreography which has few elements from any other dancing you have seen. The principal components seem to be movements imitative of robots or machinery, movements that are imitations of the look of slow-motion special effects and movements derived from martial arts. The music itself is basic electronica-derived and the lyrics are Buddhist philosophy. But this unlikely combination works amazingly well.

Joss Whedon is another unlikely creator of beauty. He is a third-generation Hollywood sit-com writer (his father wrote for various shows in the 80s and his grandfather for The Donna Reed Show in the 50s). He was a staff-writer for Roseanne and later a script doctor for various movies. He created Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Angel, Firefly and Dollhouse. In the process he casually and self-deprecatingly created some of the best narratives ever seen on TV. With Firefly he created the best science-fiction ever filmed, in my view. This is all very unlikely! Buffy is a perfect example: this story about a young girl with a silly name who fights vampires in high school and college was an instant hit with—academics!—who appreciated the unlikely blend of four different genres that propelled the narrative. Comedy, action, drama and horror were never put together before, not successfully at least. But over and above that, the narrative was really about the most important things: good and evil. And the frivolous way the narrative unfolded actually underlined the seriousness of the truths in the narrative in exactly the opposite way that a pompous lecture on the same truths would have trivialized them.

My third unlikely creator of beauty is Osvaldo Golijov. Born into a Russian Jewish family that had emigrated to Argentina (hence the first name), he was born and raised in Argentina, studied music in Israel and later with George Crumb in the US. He has become a well-known composer, but in neither of the two prominent camps of the second half of the 20th century: atonalism nor minimalism. Instead he writes beautiful, tonal music that is not a tired cliché. Two of the sources of his style are klezmer and tango and of his most successful pieces, Tenebrae is based on music by François Couperin le grand and Lullaby and Doina on a tune ‘stolen’ (the composer’s word) from a Romanian gypsy band, Taraf de Haidouks. Golijov’s origins are not so unlikely, but his inspirations certainly are.

Unlikeliness has an unexpected (unlikely?) power.

This is no recent phenomenon. Isn’t it rather unlikely that probably the greatest work of literature is also nearly the first? The Iliad and Odyssey by Homer have never been excelled as literature, but they date from somewhere before 800 BC, right at the moment when such things began to be written down. Isn’t it also extremely unlikely that the greatest musician would be a rather obscure church organist from Saxony who had to also teach schoolboys Latin and pester the Town Council to get paid for weddings? But his name was Johann Sebastian Bach and he heads all the lists of great composers.

I make these points because I see a great danger in contemporary culture: while we have everything available to us, at the same time mass culture tends to crush the unique and unlikely. Nearly every music video falls into the same few typical gestures: motoric, clichéd, sexual, arrogant and laden with special effects. None of these things are interesting any more, if they ever were.

Beauty is by its very nature, unlikely and those who manage to create it are also often unlikely. Seek it out, whether or not We Are All One, but bear in mind that simply being unlikely or doing something unlikely usually results in something other than beauty…but not always. So what does this have to do with fly-fishing? Creation is a mysterious thing. You sit there casting your fly upon the waters, hour upon hour, and suddenly a trout strikes and you have a moment of furious activity as he, perhaps, leaps in the air. Or you sit at your computer, typing away, and suddenly a phrase comes to mind that just captures what you are trying to get at. Or you are staring at a blank page of music paper or scribbling some notes or harmonies and suddenly you hear just the phrase you have been searching for. Creation is just a bit like fly-fishing for the unlikely.

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