Friday, April 27, 2007

The Persona Card

Our communities need art and artists. Art helps us by organizing our thoughts, putting issues in perspective, and opening avenues to the imagination. Music is an excellent example. Its very structure demands these principles be well delineated, otherwise its performance will be less than captivating, and thus will render the experience less than profitable for the listener.

An attentive listener, specially one with more experience in it, gathers enough information and psychological nourishment from a good concert to open - and at the same time compartmentalize - our thoughts, giving us, at the same time, a feeling of satisfaction and the feeling that so much more is possible.

Music is not alone on this, of course. All works of art do this. A finely detailed architectural masterpiece. A picture painted hundreds of years ago which appears to have a message drafted just yesterday. A book, theater, Rodin`s thinking man. Looking back in history, it is the art of each period that defines who we were, and forever stands guard at the principles and aspirations of each step in our most recent evolution, as far back as paintings in caves.

But that`s art. Were do artists fit?

The successful artist is able to live at both places simultaneously. The world around us gives us the knowledge we need to confront the issues most easily challenged by our artistic intentions. The path chosen by the artist influences how art will be understood, and valued, by those who await its important role in society.

The "detached" artists, as deep as they can be, and as excentric as they might appear to their audience, many times may end up meaning nothing more than amusement or entertaining to an audience - an excentricity, appropriately. Interesting, yes. "Intriguing", "puzzling". These words describe the artist, maybe even the art. But, do they describe the feelings inside the receiver, the listener, the observer? Do they really change the life perspective of the art receiver to the point of challenging any previously grounded assumption about the world around them? Should we strive to have our efforts be described as being "intriguing"?

The "inclusive" artist will search the database of information around us and wisely chose a point of contention that will produce an appropriately high level of thought-provoking stress on the person receiving the art. Whether this "stress" is a nudge or an insult to the audience, the art must always be "appropriately delivered" so as to elicit the proper response to the subject at hand. An anti-war message, such as those by Britten, Beethoven or Shostakovich, may (or, perhaps, must) be played on the insulting side so as to justify the intensity of the message. The same doesn`t have to hold true for a love letter or a berceuse.

There are those who consider art too precious to be wasted in insults, angry outbursts and audience-challenging presentations. But to accept that a strong message, a bone-shaking experience, is not an effective use of our talents, one must only look at the success of rock and roll. There are also Telemann and Corelli works, Berlioz, Varese, many others. And out with the nonsense of compartmentalizing music styles so as to disassociate them from one another. The measuring stick in musical styles is not how loud it is played, how many beats per minute the music pounds at you, or how gentle the harmony. The proving ground is, has always been, and always will be, the emotional impact the art has on its receiver. From that point of view, the impact made by a Corelli Concerto in the 17th century may not be that far away from the complaints Bach`s parishioners stated regarding the wordly feelings they got from listening to his music, the courage of Beethoven to start his 1st symphony with an harmonically unstable chord leading to the dominant, or Bob Dylan singing away about everyone getting stoned. The good artists have always found an intelligent way to poke at their audience, compelling them to see the world as a different place, and inviting them to join hands in a journey of rebirth, discovery, and all at the same time as embracing them.

Just as disappointing as compartmentalizing musical styles is the sad human tendency to deify those who manage to outgrow their presence on this planet. Some say there are no others like Mozart, Bach, Beethoven, or Bob Dylan for that matter. Others would cringe at the idea of putting all of these names in the same sentence, defending the same point of view. Another point of view is that deifying an artistic creator belittles their art. Since the term implies a superhuman standard of achievement, the ending result (a god producing godly works) doesn`t seem so different that a human producing human-level works. Mozart, Telemann, Elvis, Bocherini and Guillaume de Machaut all made a difference in their surrounding communities. For some, the effect of their difference span generations, cultures, continents. I would argue that Beethoven`s ode to glory is the most recognizable melody in the world, across cultures. And that what is most special about it is that it was created, yes, by one of us.

And where does it start? Where does the human being step into artistic territory?

No artist can succeed without personal pride. No artist will be credible unless he/she is convinced that the art being produced is the best, is complete, is compelling according to the artist`s intentions. Funny, in classical music circles, or I should say in its European tradition at least, "modesty" is a virtue. Lets not mistake "pride" for "arrogance", its uglier cousin, even if arrogance too can be used effectively in the path of the artist, at the right place, at the right time, in the proper fruitful way. Pride reassures us of who we are, our personal views, our principles, and gives us the strength to face the receivers with truth in our hearts.

Next, then, must come courage. Courage to go in front of others and, with all due respect, take them on a journey. Courage is often made obsolete by the strength of the pride the artist feels about the art being produced. That is, when an artist truly believes in what is being created, it should be the easiest thing possible to let others know what has been uncovered, and why it is so special. Not unlike a child who finds a frog in the backyard mud hole and runs home to show others how interesting it is, or, after making a sand castle, running to their "audience" expecting approval.

And that is our final starting point: love. Human beings crave love, attention, acceptance, approval. Given that artists often find their creative vein in their imagination, far away from certainties, approval and recognition attain an even stronger pull on the artist`s priorities. Art is too fragile to survive without the artist feeling that, somewhere and at some time, someone will render this art worthy of attention. Think back at Beethoven and the 9th symphony. He can`t even hear it. The proximity of the end of his life journey is obvious in that piece and in others he wrote around that time. If the process of creation is a mere exercise in producing income, why bother? Beethoven could not possibly believe that all his thoughts would be appreciated, approved, and loved during what was left of his lifetime. His approval was yet to come. It was good enough to know that, with all his pride, his art was created so as to give a lasting memory of his thoughts. Somehere, somehow, someone would "get it". We did.

Therefore, the pride felt at creation and the courage involved in its delivery must also involve the reality that, deep inside, a hunger for approval haunts the artist, and leads the artist to further and deeper discoveries, never ending as far as artistic creation is of importance to the artist, and as long as the artist lives.

I would argue that there is no love without truth, though I could be wrong. Illusions do exist after all, and art often depends on illusions and games being played with the receiver`s perceptions. Truth, though, grants the artist immeasurable power. Truth eliminates performance anxiety, puts imperfections in perspective and out of the way of our concentration, and brings about strengths from other parts of our being, all to the benefit of the artistic delivery. An artist who truly believes in a message will have at his/her disposal a power that is difficult to quantify in words. Those who are fortunate enough to feel it will recognize it. Leaning on it is one of the artist most trustworthy strategies for creative and delivery success.

Without art, and without the artists to deliver it, where would we be as a society? Who and how would we have challenged our values and built what we have been able to build over the last millenia?


Wednesday, March 28, 2007

Research vs Instruction

Knowledge is better shared through direct instruction, that is, one person with experience in the subject will tell a less-experienced person what to do in order to achieve a similar experience. This understanding places the "teacher" in the position of "instructor".

Knowledge is better attained through research, that is, by relying on its logical and present existence, from which the more experienced person has learned in the past and continues to learn presently, and now passes such principles on to a less experienced person. This understanding places the role of a "teacher" more into a "mentoring" capacity.

An instructor will demand strict adherence to set standards. In the process, the instructed will acquire the skills - and possibly the fears - of the instructor. The result often is a disciplined professional, respectful to the instructor.

A mentor will allow the mentored to seek his/her own path and standards, teaching the principles that guide the proper creation of both. In the process, the mentored will acquire the principles - but not necessarily the experience - of the mentor. The result is a free thinker able to tread new avenues, independently of the mentor`s experience.

Are "instructed" musicians so bound by their discipline so as to be unable to fully trust their instincts?

Are "mentored" musicians so free to create their own path that they end up not being completely understood and valued by their peers?

Are "instructed" musicians truly disciplined?

Are "mentored" musicians truly imaginative?

Judging by its inherited philosophical approach, mentoring should be experienced after instruction, thus guaranteeing that the instructed will have the skills necessary for proper absortion of the mentoring benefits. Mentoring without prior instruction is, therefore, empty.

Due to its philosophical basis, mentoring should be present at the youngest age, so as to guarantee a proper design for the instruction that is to follow. Instruction without purpose, is therefore, questionable.

A duality approach seems reasonable. A decision needs to be made as to how far a person needs to be instructed, vs when does mentoring actually begin. Similarly, under what circumstances will the instructed arguments prevail (and they often do), vs how the benefits of mentoring have historically changed the courses of their fields.

Much as we have a duality of our own, present in our constant internal dialogue between diverging interpretations of right, wrong and grey areas, the internal success of the musician depends on an intelligent balance between instruction and mentoring. Too much of one or the other may lead to extreme conservatism or extreme self-righteousness. Either of which will render the artist incredible. And of course, without internal success, any external kudos will be short-lived.