Friday, September 1, 2017

Genius and Dysfunction

If you read many biographies of famous artists you will soon discover that a lot of them tended to behave in dysfunctional ways. Perhaps the most brilliant person I ever knew personally drank himself to death by age forty. I was just reading about Sergiu Celibidache who fought for twelve years to remove a principal trombonist from the Munich Philharmonic, unsuccessfully (and was considerably less than graceful in his criticism of, well, everyone). Igor Stravinsky was very, very unkind and unfaithful to his first wife, Katya. Jean Sibelius was also very unkind and neglectful of his wife not to mention an alcoholic and spendthrift. If you read how he spent his time, you wonder he was able to compose anything! Indeed, so many of the great musicians and composers we know of were quite insufferable in their personal lives. Bach, Mozart and Haydn are among the few that seemed to be pretty decent people, but they were the minority!

So why is this? And why should we be forgiving? One reason is that we owe a great deal to great artists and it costs us nothing to be grateful. Another is that it is rather more gracious to be forgiving to the dead. But we are still left with the why. In order to answer that, I think we have to put ourselves in their shoes.

A lot of very, very talented people somehow never manage to achieve success and the reason why begins to answer the question: they are too nice. If you are very talented at something, the greatest opposition you will face is not, as with most of us, your own incompetence. No, indeed, the greatest resistance will come from your friends, neighbors and associates who will resent, sometimes bitterly, that you are more talented than they are. Most people can be pretty mean about this. Children are particularly adept at picking out those who do not fit well in the herd and punishing them unmercifully. One suspects that the arrogance and narcissism and dysfunction of great artists forms pretty quickly--as soon as they encounter their less-talented peers! You either give in and try and fit in, which means concealing if not actually suppressing your abilities, or you fight back and try to give them as good as you are getting. This means learning how to be a nasty piece of work yourself!

Going back to my friend, who provided me with some insight. He was a brilliant, truly brilliant, musician. But when I met him in first year university he was not, as one would expect, enrolled in the music department. No, he did a degree in psychology instead. After meeting the theory professor I started to see why. This fellow, a perfectly decent mediocrity, probably knew half as much about music theory as did my friend James. I recall one conversation with him in which he explained at length the difference between conical and parallel recorder bores in the Renaissance and Baroque. This guy is going to sit in first year theory and have someone explain that 7ths resolve down? I don't think so!

Nasty bullying is one thing, but as your young talented genius grows older he will encounter something even worse: mediocrity. At least with bullies you recognize that they are the enemy and you fight back. But what about the host of well-meaning mediocrities that staff most music schools and are the arts administrators hiring and firing and giving out grants and commissions? They are the ones that are going to make or break your career. And most of the time, if you really are a brilliant artist, you are going to make them uncomfortable with their mediocrity and they will simply sidetrack you every chance they get.

A truly talented artist often has the choice between marinating in bitterness or fighting back. How do you fight mediocrity? As we see from the careers of many artists, it is with boldness and arrogance--but a special kind of arrogance that comes out whenever you encounter a mediocrity trying to tell you what to do. Now doesn't that explain a lot of seemingly dysfunctional behavior? Some artists learn to deal with people by being, well, a bit outrageous, most of the time. And it often seems to work.

Let's listen to one genuine genius who had to fight the particularly strong and determined mediocrity that dominates Canadian cultural life: Glenn Gould. Here he is playing the Brahms Piano Concerto No. 1 conducted by Leonard Bernstein. Bernstein was so uncomfortable with Gould's interpretation that he felt he had to deliver a speech before, separating himself from the interpretation!

(No, Bernstein was not Canadian, nor was he a mediocrity. Still, this was the most salient example I could find in YouTube of genius struggling to be heard.)


Anonymous said...

Interesting observations. A teenage Proust wrote "I'm better than Victor Hugo and I will prove it." He did. But one can only imagine how well that kind of cockiness went down with his teachers.

I think the term "genius" is being overused and abused. Plato, Newton, Einstein, Bach, Beethoven, Proust, etc. All geniuses. If the word has any meaning, these people qualify.

But it really makes no sense to me to call Gould a genius, or for that matter any performing artist. Don't get me wrong. I am a big fan of Gould. He was a brilliant virtuoso with an astonishing command of the musical literature. His interpretations were often fascinating. He was also seriously neurotic (maybe on the spectrum). But I don't see what could possibly make him a genius. I can name many pianists who are just as brilliant and play Bach at least as well. None of them is a genius. Also, it's striking that someone as musically talented as Gould couldn't compose to save his life. His attempts were truly embarrassing. (Bernstein at least could compose.)

Final point: You probably know more on the subject than I do but I was not aware that Canada treated Gould badly. My impression was just the opposite: that he was treated as a national hero and indulged in all sorts of ways.

Someone else I admire greatly is John Eliot Gardiner. He is not a genius either, but I mention him because he has a reputation as a pompous obnoxious jerk. Not sure what his excuse is.

David Hume was a clearly a genius. Apparently he was also a very pleasant, considerate, charming, humble man. My kind of genius!

Bryan Townsend said...

Darn you for pointing out my inconsistencies! I do tend to agree with you about the overuse of the term "genius." But there are occasionally performers who do live up to the standard. I think Glenn Gould might be one. Grigory Sokolov, Sviatoslav Richter, a couple of others. I have heard concerts by Nigel Rogers that seemed to me to fit and there is a recording of Scarlatti sonatas on guitar by Leo Brouwer that I would rate that highly. Typically performers are not what we would call geniuses. But very occasionally a performer achieves something rather transcendent.

Do you exclude performers from the genius category because their role is essentially secondary? This is something I wonder about. For example, I am writing a piece right now for violin and guitar and we were reading through some bits on the weekend. It seemed to me that the first problem was performance practice. How is this music to be played, as there are no models? (It uses a bottleneck slide on the guitar combined with a lot of glissandi in the violin, so it is rather unusual.)

Yes, you are correct, after Gould's spectacular Goldbergs in the 50s Canadians fell over themselves adulating him. That is after he was anointed by the Americans, which is usually how it works.

Yes, I too admire John Eliot Gardiner, and Trevor Pinnock.

The only reason I chose this particular example of Gould and Bernstein, was because it was the only concrete illustration I could think of! But perhaps it was not felicitous.

Anonymous said...

It's just terminology and maybe it's nitpicking on my part. I am in awe of great performers. Listening to Sokolov, Gould, Perlman, etc., can be a transcendent, life-changing experience. I think the world of these people and if someone insists on calling them geniuses, then fine. The reason I don't do it is because a distinction needs to be made. Listen to Perlman play the Chaconne (bbc concert -- on youtube). No doubt in my mind I am watching a superior, heroic being. Perlman's mastery is a joy to behold! But then I am reminded of an angry Karajan quip to one of his singers: "Who is the genius here: you or Mozart?"

When it's all said and done, Gould, Perlman, and Karajan will be forgotten. Other, better pianists, violinists, and conductors will come along, but Bach and Mozart never will be forgotten. Gielgud will be forgotten but Shakespeare never will. It's not just a difference: immortality is a huge difference.

Bryan Townsend said...

Thanks, Anon, for teasing out the distinction and making it clear. I agree entirely.

Marc Puckett said...

Fascinating. There's a weekly feature at the Times, appears Fridays, I think, in which critics briefly note this and that; Zachary Woolfe, I think, while discussing recent performances of Julius Eastman's work linked back to this essay-- 'genius and dysfunction' indeed.

But that points to a difference in the use of the term 'genius', doesn't it: on the one hand, it means the phenomenon that you and Anon. have been discussing, but on the other it refers to that spark of creativity or moment of achievement that even many of us lesser mortals experience, that excellence when we achieve something truly worthwhile (however one wants to define or describe what that might be), this sense depending on the Romans, ultimately, who imagined that each person and each state and city and place had a minor divinity guiding it or him, analogous to the Christian doctrine which teaches that we each have 'guardian angels'. In that sense, Eastman certain had 'genius', however exaggerated the present Times-ean ascription to him of the status 'genius' may be (or may not be, for all I know; I'm taking a mild but certainly real pleasure in Evil Nigger-- that there is enough 'there' there to entitle him to 'genius' status, I'm not the one to judge).

It seems to me self-evident that one can 'be a genius' or be 'struck by genius' (which two expressions seem to capture the distinction?) while at the same time failing to live up to the obligations of the moral law. I've never understood the fascination of 'art for art's sake' when that is taken to mean that the making of the artefact justifies even the immoral means which the artist may have used or the human failings he has succumbed to in the course of the acts of artistic creation, when it is so obvious that artists are not necessarily any more humane or more wise (and from my point of view, any less immune to the shadows of sin or sin itself) than other people because they are artists, because of their art. Salvador Dali made interesting art, in spite of his private nonsense; Daniel Barenboim is an outstanding pianist and conductor no matter what he did or failed to do to support Jacqueline du Pré as she lay moribund; even if Hans Pfitzner was 'ignorant' of the Nazi evils only by pretense and pleaded with the Nuremberg Court to spare Hans Frank's life not because human life is inviolably sacred but out of human friendship, his Palestrina is a beautiful opera. The beauties of the art that we may admire or revere, made by those three, lie in the artefacts themselves, not in their makers-- although of course one can distinguish via the modes of causality and attribute a certain aspect of beauty-- beauty in potentia-- to the artist himself (which sounds contradictory to our modern ears but really isn't).

So, on the one hand, while I think I'm more free with the term 'genius' that some might want to be, I'm not inclined to 'worship' artists (except those who have been raised to the altars, sure, Romanus, Hildegard, Thomas, Giovanni da Fiesole, Robert Southwell et alii) because I'm well aware and from personal experience how they share in our common human lot of grace and 'dysfunction'. On the other hand, one has one's enthusiasms. May I recommend to you both Thomas Mann's Doctor Faustus, the Life of the German Composer Adrian Leverkühn? Mann discusses these questions beautifully there, if at great length.

Marc Puckett said...

Just listened to the Kristian Zimerman performance of the Brahms First Piano Concerto with the Berlin Philharmonic from 2015 and will now listen to Glenn Gould's here, to see if I can get the sense of 'genius struggling to be heard'. Me being me I will probably think, how wonderful, and not be up to articulating what differences I may or may not hear. Unfortunately, I read comments! late last night on the Gould/Bernstein video; what I seem to have taken away from them-- correctly or incorrectly-- is that Gould's preferences these days amount to the norm and that LB himself conformed to them later in his career.

Bryan Townsend said...

What a beautiful pair of comments, Marc. You bring out many subtle points. Yes, I think that we all have moments in which genius or creativity or inspiration strikes. Perhaps the difference between an ordinary person and one blessed with some amount of genius is that the latter is paying attention and will make use of the moment while the ordinary person may not recognize it as anything important at all. I agree with many of your comments about the artist's human failings. I was just reading that Sibelius had to be dragged out of bars and sobered up in order to finish the last movement of his Violin Concerto, but that has nothing to do with the final quality of the work.

I have read Thomas Mann's Doctor Faustus, though it was too many years ago and I need to read it again!

Yes, there are fashions in performance practice and it is the brilliant performers that tend to be the ones that change those fashions.

Will Wilkin said...

I once read a definition of genius that was something like "one who produces a genuinely original and useful idea." So much of what any of us do or think is mostly just a rearrangement of pre-existing ideas or devices. A truly original idea is indeed a rare and, if useful, very valuable thing. Overall I agree with Marc's summary above, the old understanding that most people have their small genius in something at which they excel and even show originality, and that genius in such cases is that spark of creativity rather than the person. Bryan you seem to want to reserve the label only for those who are great geniuses, those people head and shoulders above everyone else in originality and quality of creation, and certainly that would be the most supreme variety of genius.

Bryan Townsend said...

I suspect that we all tend to use the word "genius" in two different senses. On the one hand, a singular person of remarkable gifts might do something so impressive that we would call him a genius. On the other hand, there can be "genius" in certain actions or ideas or things that we see. We might remark on their "ingenuity," which comes from the same root.