Tuesday, November 4, 2014

Why We Do What We Do

I was talking to a friend the other day, just ordinary everyday conversation. I mentioned the diet I just started--I really need to lose about twenty pounds--and she mentioned that she works out about an hour a day. These sorts of things plus our jobs, our budgets and a host of other details are what occupy our minds.

But I am also a musician and composer and thus, for me, life also has another dimension. I certainly don't think of myself as a romantic, but, as one writer described it
In the old, Romantic dispensation, art was understood to be salvific. “The priest departs,” said Whitman, “the divine literatus comes.” Art took you from the dark and brought you into the light. Its purpose was transcendental; its effect, transfigurational. But who believes that anymore? First high culture was dethroned by a popular art that asserted equally exalted claims—think Dylan or the Beatles—then that itself became so commercialized, so commodified, that it lost its position, as well.
Now we’re on to something new. Art has become a kind of DIY affair that’s felt to be in anybody’s reach. Think of the number of people who fancy themselves to be writers or visual artists in these days of technologically assisted narcissism—all those would-be novelists and memoirists, those photographers and videographers. How easy it is to reach an audience now, or to think you’re reaching one.
I don't think that the transcendence of art was merely an artifact of the Romantic Era. Think of the ancient Greeks listening to Homer recount the story of Troy at 800 years before Christ. Or the sublime delight of a mass by Josquin in the 15th century. Imagine Prince Nikolaus listening to a new Haydn symphony in his concert hall at Esterházy. The writer, William Deresiewicz, has written elsewhere about how central food has become to our culture, tending to displace art:
I wrote a piece not long ago about foodism as the new culture. Food, I argued, has replaced art as the object, among the educated class, of aspiration, competition, conversation, veneration. But food, I concluded, is not art, is not narrative or representational, does not express ideas or organize emotions, cannot do what art does and must not be confused with it.
Yes, absolutely. Classical music a hundred and more years ago, was a huge element in our culture, but it has diminished in recent decades. If we glance at the Wall Street Journal we see the occasional (very occasional) article on classical music, while every edition has dozens of articles on food.

So back to my conversation with my friend. She sets aside a significant part of her energy every day to working out. This is probably the largest discretionary expenditure of time and energy in her day--not counting work, study, sleep, eating and so on. It is, as the saying goes, "something I do for me". She is not a narcissist, but this is a kind of narcissistic endeavor. Our culture cultivates narcissism: this we do for us.

But anyone who devotes a significant amount of time and energy to the arts must not be doing it for narcissistic reasons, not if they are doing it properly.

The part of my time and energy that I could spend working out I devote instead to composition. But I have the feeling that most people don't really understand why. It is not for fame--that, at this juncture, is unlikely. It is not out of economic need--I am a non-commercial musician if there ever was one! It is not out of an obsessive compulsion--though I'm sure some people think so.

No, the reason I do it is because I can. Composition interests me. It is the most challenging thing I can think of doing. I have a predilection towards it. It is fulfilling. But most of all, it is something that I hope will give pleasure to others. I do not do it principally for myself. There is some kind of Aristotelian impetus that says to me, if you can do something of lasting worth in your life, then you simply must do it.

So that is why I compose music. I hope that some of you, at least, will enjoy it. Here are three pieces I have written. The first one is from my avant-garde phase, written around 1980 for guitar orchestra. This performance is from 1990:

The next piece is a song setting a poem by Li Po written around 2009. The unusual sound that begins and ends the piece is produced by attaching a paper clip to the sixth string of the guitar.

Finally, a piece for violin and guitar written in 2013. Coincidentally, this piece was inspired by the friend I mentioned having the conversation with.


Damián López-de Jesús said...

Do you have a published copy of the Li Po song poem?

Bryan Townsend said...

Hi Damián,

It hasn't been published yet. I have talked to my publishers in Vancouver, the Avondale Press, about publishing the cycle, but we haven't gotten around to it yet. Did you want to perform it? If so, I could get you a copy.

Damián López-de Jesús said...

More like study it. I'm a composer, and the cycle is quite inspiring for ideas on voice and guitar for me.

Bryan Townsend said...

Just give me an email address and I will send you a pdf.