Tuesday, January 5, 2016

A Necessary Narcissism?

I am perhaps more opposed to narcissism than most people, seeing it as I do as one of the most dangerous intellectual diseases of our time. But I am coming around to the view that there are occasions and vocations that demand, if not actual narcissism, then something that closely resembles it from the outside.

Could Philip Glass have arrived at his unique musical style if he had paid the slightest attention to anything anyone said about his music? I except Nadia Boulanger as she and her assistant Mademoiselle Dieudonné rarely discussed directly his compositions, but the exercises he did for them, as part of their course in composition.

I seriously doubt if, once they had reached their maturity, composers such as Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven, Bach and so on, had the slightest interest in anything their contemporaries were doing, in the sense of having any influence on what they were doing. They may have noticed and complimented it, as Haydn did Mozart, but this is a mere courtesy, not an aesthetic influence. Past a certain point, the only guide you have is yourself and Philip Glass' memoir is powerful evidence of this.

But how do you know that you are going in the right direction, if you cannot take guidance from anyone past a certain point? I suppose that you cannot really know, but have to proceed based on trust, faith, or instinct. I don't think there is a logic to it, not even a "musical logic" whatever that might be.

We seem to be caught up in short term thinking these days: musical quality is measured by record sales this week, this year, this decade. Political figures are measured by what the polls are saying. The economy is measured by leading and trailing indicators for this year and next. On and on. Our vision extends as far as the screen of our iPhone or laptop. We feel as if the world is at our fingertips when it is really just the moment.

So the practices of composers start to make sense. Elliot Carter retreated to a cabin in the Sonoran desert for a year and came back with the elements of his style in his String Quartet No. 1. Philip Glass retreated to a compound on Cape Breton Island every summer to compose in isolation. Both Mahler and Brahms retreated to mountain isolation for the same reason.

In order to get away from the buzz of the moment, you have to go away somewhere. This is difficult in the musical world these days because it is all about career. You have to be on social media all the time, connecting with fans. You have to be constantly pursuing grants, awards, commissions. You have to be schmoozing at cocktail parties with conductors and donors. But the more you do this, while it advances your career, the less you are able to look up from the short term to see the real path ahead.

We need to be leery of narcissism of course. It is just as bad as it seems. But we have to distinguish it from the necessary practice of retreating from the bustle of everyday events to be able to find the thread, the path, the way towards the music we should be writing.

Perhaps this will explain why, when people sometimes say to me that "you have to hear this" or "you have to go hear so-and-so play" I tend to say "no, I don't!"

Elliot Carter, String Quartet No. 1 (in four clips):

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