Brain Pickings

Posts Tagged ‘music’

11 SEPTEMBER, 2014

Jeff Buckley on Music and Life: A Rare Interview with One of Creative History’s Most Tragic Heroes

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“Be awake enough to see where you are at any given time and how that is beautiful and has poetry inside.”

In 1995, while working for an Italian radio station, journalist Luisa Cotardo conducted what would become the most candid, soulful, and profound conversation with legendary musician Jeff Buckley. His only studio album, the now-iconic Grace — which includes Buckley’s extraordinary cover of Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah,” the song for which he remains best-loved — had been released a few months earlier and Buckley had just performed in the town of Correggio in Northern Italy as part of his European tour. Less than two years later, at the age of thirty, he would drown by accident while swimming in Tennessee’s Wolf River during a tour, becoming one of creative history’s most tragic heroes — doubly so because Buckley’s critical acclaim only crescendoed after his death. Rolling Stone eventually proclaimed him one of the 100 greatest singers of all time.

Cotardo has kindly shared with me her recording of this rare and remarkably rich interview, in which Buckley discusses with great openness and grace his philosophy on music and life. Transcribed highlights below.

On why he chose not to include lyrics in the album booklet, a deliberate effort to honor music as a deeply personal experience interpreted and inhabited differently by each listener:

So that instead of people being compelled to read through the blueprint of the songs — instead of them looking at the dance steps ahead of time, they would just go through the dance. So that they would let the songs happen to them. Later on, they will find out what the meaning is, but for now — I mean, you know, we’re just meeting for the first time and it’s better… It’s better to grab your own reality from it right now instead of like, you know, read.

On what he seeks to communicate with his music, echoing composer Aaron Copland’s conviction about the interplay of emotion and intellect in great music:

[What I want to communicate] doesn’t have a language with which I can communicate it. The things that I want to communicate are simply self-evident, emotional things. And the gifts of those things are that they bring both intellectual and emotional gifts — understanding. But I don’t really have a major message that I want to bring to the world through my music. The music can tell people everything they need to know about being human beings. It’s not my information, it’s not mine. I didn’t make it. I just discovered it.

On the problem with Western charity efforts like LiveAid:

I would like for the starvation and oppression to end in Africa. I like for money from concerned people to go there, you know, to go to Africa, to aid. But … the real solution will come from Africa ruling Africa and not Britain ruling Africa, not America ruling Africa — it’s the only real key. If Africa rules Africa, that’s the only way that pattern of oppression from the outside can be stopped — not money, not only money. Money is a tool and it can be, I don’t know, I really don’t… It’s great that Mandela came out and took office in Africa. I think that’s the real revolution.

On place and what constitutes home and belonging for a global nomad like himself:

I don’t know what belonging means… I can only use my brain and intellectualize. I really wouldn’t able to tell you from the heart what belonging means… My memories of that place are my link to the place — memories of your experience in a place is your link… All people belong to the world. There is no exclusivity in that… The soil from America can differ from the soil in Malaysia, but its soil, it’s still the same. And the color of people’s skin can differ from place to place but it’s still skin. And, in that regard, there is no difference. People must belong to the earth and a traveller must belong to world somehow and the world must belong to her or him somehow. But, you know, then there’s the social level — that’s just the archetypal level, people usually live in the social level.

Echoing what Jackson Pollock’s father so poetically told his son in 1928, Buckley parlays this into his humble yet wonderfully wise advice on being in the world:

I have no advice for anybody except to, you know, be awake enough to see where you are at any given time and how that is beautiful and has poetry inside, even in places you hate.

On one’s journey of self-actualization and the organic letting go of dreams that no longer fit that journey:

It’s part of maturity, to project upon your life goals and project upon your life realized dreams and a result that you want. It’s part of becoming whole … just like a childish game. It’s honest — it’s an honest game, because … you want your life to hold hope and possibility.

It’s just that, when you get to the real meat of life, is that life has its own rhythm and you cannot impose your own structure upon it — you have to listen to what it tells you, and you have to listen to what your path tells you. It’s not earth that you move with a tractor — life is not like that. Life is more like earth that you learn about and plant seeds in… It’s something you have to have a relationship with in order to experience — you can’t mold it — you can’t control it…

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09 SEPTEMBER, 2014

Legendary Composer Aaron Copland on the Conditions of Creativity, Emotion vs. Intellect, and the Trap of Public Opinion

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“The main thing is to be satisfied with your work yourself. It’s useless to have an audience happy if you are not happy.”

In 1970, long before our present barrage of books on creativity, even before Vera John-Steiner’s pioneering investigation of the creative mind and the influential tome The Creativity Question, psychologists Lawrence E. Abt and Stanley Rosner set out to tackle the question of what makes creators create by bridging the sociological and the psychological approach, which previous frameworks of studying creativity had kept separate. With the help of former Life magazine science editor Albert Rosenfeld and noted art critic Clement Greenberg, they identified 23 celebrated figures in the arts and sciences — from choreographer Merce Cunningham to cognitive scientist and linguist Noam Chomsky to astronomer Harlow Shapley — and conducted extensive interviews with them to discern the conditions, motives, and personality traits most conducive to the creative experience. The result was The Creative Experience: Why and How Do We Create? (public library) — an ambitious effort not only to understand the creative mind, but also to expose the false divide between intuition and intellect and to debunk the then-dominant, still-toxic notion that creativity in the arts is the product of hot emotion, while creativity in the sciences that of cool intelligence.

Rosenfeld captures the book’s ethos of integration beautifully:

There do not exist two distinct and separate types of mind, one for the arts and humanities, the other for the sciences… You must possess both intuition and imagination to be creative in the sciences as well as the arts… There is science in all good poetry and vice versa.

Among the most eloquent and interesting interviewees is the influential composer (and the one-time object of Leonard Bernstein’s infatuation) Aaron Copland, recipient of the prestigious Presidential Medal of Freedom, the National Medal of Arts, and the Pulitzer Prize in composition.

Copland begins by considering the nature of creativity:

It is very difficult to describe the creative experience in such a way that it would cover all cases. One of the essentials is the variety with which one approaches any kind of artistic creation. It doesn’t start in any one particular way and it is not always easy to say what gets you going.

I’ve sometimes made the analogy with eating. Why do you eat? You’re hungry. You are sort of in the mood to eat, and if you are in the mood to eat, the food tastes better; you’re more interested in what you’re eating. The whole experience is more “creative.” It’s the hunger that stimulates you to eat. It’s the same thing in art; except that, in art, the hunger is the need for self-expression.

How does it come about that you feel hungry? You don’t know, you just feel hungry. The juices are working, and suddenly you are aware of the fact that you want a piece of bread and butter. It’s about the same in art. If you pass your life in creating works of art in one field or another, you recognize the “hunger” signs and you are quick to take advantage of them, if they’re accompanied by ideas. Sometimes, you have the hunger and you don’t have any ideas; there’s no bread in the house. It’s as simple as that.

Illustration from 'Inside the Rainbow: Russian Children's Literature 1920–35.' Click image for more.

Copland’s concept of creativity is similar to the notion of chance-opportunism common to great scientific minds — the art of being prepared not only to capture great ideas when they occur but to also direct attention to them and shepherd them into a fruitful direction. Copland points to the importance of cultivating the right parameters for this process — something psychologists have since confirmed in examining the ideal environment for creativity — and outlines the conditions most conducive to productivity:

If you were to set up the ideal situation, I’d have to be in my studio, where conditions are conducive to work and where I don’t have any distractions. It’s difficult to write music on the subway train; it can be done, but it’s not usual. If I feel in the mood to write, something starts me off. I might feel sad. I might feel lonely. I might feel elated. I might have gotten a good letter from somebody. Something starts me off.

At first glance, Copland’s experience seems to contradict Tchaikovsky’s famous proclamation that “a self-respecting artist must not fold his hands on the pretext that he is not in the mood.” But the notion of mood, as Copland uses it, seems to be less about awaiting some mythic stroke of inspiration as about being attentive to those essential triggers — the starter-offers — that catalyze the creative process. In fact, he echoes Anaïs Nin’s assertion that emotional excess is the root of creativity, but for him the key to catalyzing the creative process isn’t merely attunement to one’s emotional state — rather, it’s a delicate dialogue between the hotness of emotional excess and the coolness of the intellect:

Whenever you write, you see, nothing will happen unless the creative fantasy is alive. One the other hand, to be alive with creative fantasy suggests, to me, improvising at the piano. But, if you merely improvise, you might never find your improvisation again. And that’s where coolness comes in. You watch yourself being fiery, or sad, or lonely; otherwise you won’t be able to get it down on paper. Writers probably have this same problem of writing fast enough so that they can get it all down while they are under the spell. You can’t be sure how long it will go on. Outside interruption is definitely out. In music, you have to get it down on score paper. Otherwise, you might forget it… If you go on being fiery all the time, by the time you stop being fiery, you will have lost the whole thing.

Copland reflects on his daily routine:

I happen to be a night worker… I don’t know why. Once I read a statement made by Thomas Hardy, in which he said, “Seven-eighths of the intimate letters that are written are written after 10:00 in the evening.” I connected that statement with writing music and working at night, because composing is a kind of intimate letter writing. You are expressing your inward feelings in musical terms.

In a sentiment that legendary songwriter Carole King would come to echo two decades later in her insightful meditation on the interplay between inspiration and perspiration in creative work, Copland returns to this notion of mood:

Musical composition works best when you are in the mood. You can coldly sit down and write anything, but the results will often not be satisfactory either to yourself or to the people who hear it. Nevertheless, it can be induced to a certain extent.

Still, Copland considers emotion not only a far more powerful creative agent than thought but also the primary gateway to self-awareness — an idea quite radical in rationalism’s shadow, which has conditioned us to believe that we think our way into our experience rather than feeling our way into it. Copland writes:

In music, it’s more likely to be an emotion rather than a specific idea or thought that leads to a composition. It’s comparable to a person who starts to sing to himself, though he is not even aware he’s begun to sing. Then, if he suddenly begins to become aware that he’s been singing something with a sad sound to it, he wonders what he’s feeling so sad about.

[...]

Music is a language of the emotions. You can practice it either on a very plain and elementary basis, or you can practice it on a highly complex one. But, it generally gives off some sort of generalized emotional feeling…

Staying with the question of feelings, Copland makes a curious remark about the role of depression in creative work — one that resonates with what psychologists have since confirmed about the relationship between creativity and mental illness and one that counters the “tortured genius” myth:

Too much depression will not result in a work of art because a work of art is an affirmative gesture. To compose, you have to feel that you are accomplishing something. If you feel you are accomplishing something, you won’t feel so depressed. You may feel depressed, but it can’t be so depressing that you can’t move. No, I would say that people create in moments when they are elated about expressing their depression!

Creative work, Copland argues, is invariably a self-portrait of the creator’s unique inner life. His description almost exudes an element of fatedness in the relationship between an artist and his or her art:

The kind of emotion that some of my music expresses would be a reflection of the kind of person I am, because I couldn’t have written that kind of music unless I was that kind of person. The fact that I don’t write other kinds of music means that I am not that other kind of person.

Illustration from 'Herman and Rosie' by Gus Gordon. Click image for more.

More than the mere exorcism of emotion, Copland argues that the magic of music lies in its ability to translate our concrete thoughts and feelings into an enchanting abstract experience, and the degree of fluency in such abstraction is what sets great musical talent apart:

Everyone is supposed to like music, but people who are really musically gifted don’t seem to have the need for having music’s significance made specific. They can think about music and enthuse about it, and that’s all that’s necessary.

[...]

One of the reasons why cultivated music is one of the glories of mankind, one of the real achievements of mankind, is that we are dealing in amorphous, highly abstract material without any specific thought content.

This, Copland argues, is largely a matter of education — an education the general public simply does not have, which renders many people incapable of appreciating truly great and visionary music. Perhaps his most poignant point, indeed, has to do with the problem of public opinion and the artist’s eternal struggle not to confuse external approval with self-esteem and not to succumb to the trap of people-pleasing. Copland writes:

Composers, unfortunately, have a serious problem with the present-day public. It’s as if you’re talking a language to them which they don’t fully understand… There is some discouragement in writing in a language that you know in advance can’t be fully understood except by people who have bothered with the language sufficiently to feel at home with it.

But the main thing is to be satisfied with your work yourself. It’s useless to have an audience happy if you are not happy.

Even more than self-gratification, Copland argues, artists’ highest responsibility is to capture the cultural backdrop of their time:

[Today's artists] are the only ones who can express the spirit of what it means to be alive today.

That’s what makes the creation of art seem important. You’re not just expressing your own individuality. You, as a person, are an exemplar; you are one of the people living now who can put this thing down. In another twenty years … the world experience will be different, so the need becomes very pressing. You have a sense of urgency, of being occupied with something essential and unique. To leave our mark of the present on the future — what could be more natural?

He parlays this into a final meditation on the creative impulse as our most potent ally in our incurable longing for immortality, as well as a central component in art’s therapeutic potentiality:

The arts in general, I think, help to give significance to life. That’s one of their very basic and important functions. The arts soften man’s mortality and make more acceptable the whole life experience. It isn’t that you think your music will last forever, because nobody knows what’s going to last forever. But, you do know, in the history of the arts, that there have been certain works which have symbolized whole periods and the deepest feelings of mankind, and it’s that aspect of artistic creation which draws one on always, and makes it seem so very significant. i don’t think about this when I write my music, of course, but I think about it after the act, and believe it to be the moving force behind the need to be creative in the arts.

The Creative Experience is a wonderfully stimulating read in its entirety. Complement it with another seminal treatise on creativity from the same era, The Act of Creation by Arthur Koestler — who happens to be one of Abt and Rosner’s 23 subjects — and with one of the twentieth century’s first systematic explorations of the creative mind, the 1942 lost gem An Anatomy of Inspiration by Rosamund Harding.

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28 AUGUST, 2014

Leonard Bernstein’s Moving Letter of Gratitude to His Mentor and a Prescient 1943 Manifesto for Crowdfunding the Arts

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Decades before Kickstarter, a vision for how micro-patronage can help creators “ascend to new heights” and “gain in confidence, in self-esteem and in fortitude.”

As a great proponent of the mutual gift of gratitude to those who touch our lives in a meaningful way and a joyful practitioner of sending regular notes of appreciation to these generous people in my own life, I was extraordinarily moved by a letter of gratitude that legendary composer Leonard Bernstein sent to one of his big heroes and mentors, the Russian-born conductor, composer, and Boston Symphony Orchestra music director Serge Koussevitzky. Found in The Leonard Bernstein Letters (public library) — the same volume that cracked open Bernstein’s dreams — the missive is second only to Bukowski’s letter of gratitude to his first patron.

Shortly after taking Koussevitzky’s conducting classes at the Boston Symphony Orchestra’s Tanglewood summer institute in 1940, Bernstein writes:

Dear Dr. Koussevitzky,

Words are a remote enough medium of expression for any musician, but it is especially difficult for me to find words for this letter. Let it be brief.

This summer to me was beauty — beauty in work, and strength of purpose, and cooperation. I am full of humility and gratitude for having shared so richly in it. These last six weeks have been the happiest and most productive of my life. I have been able, for the first time, to concentrate completely on my main purpose, with a glorious freedom from personal problems.

It was a renaissance for me — a rehabilitation of the twisted and undefined Weltanschauung [worldview] with which I came to you.

For your creative energy, your instinct for truth, your incredible incorporation of teacher and artist, I give humble thanks. Seeing in you my own concepts matured is a challenge to me which I hope to fulfill in your great spirit.

[...]

In devotion, and in gratitude,

Leonard Bernstein

The first page of Bernstein's letter to Koussevitzky (Library of Congress)

Bernstein eventually became Koussevitzky’s conducting assistant, later dedicating the 1948 Symphony No. 2 The Age of Anxiety to his beloved mentor.

But gratitude alone doesn’t keep a roof over one’s head. In addition to his creative influence, Koussevitzky would also come to impact Bernstein with his convictions about the more tangible ways in which culture at large shows its appreciation to musicians. On May 29, 1943, Bernstein writes in another letter to Koussevitzky:

Reading your letter to the Times … I became inspired all over again; and I was very happy to find that the general reaction to your idea is so favorable and understanding. But who can resist an idea at once so bold and so simple?

The idea he is referring to had appeared in The New York Times thirteen days earlier, in an open letter by Koussevitzky titled “Justice to Composers” — a passionate plea to support creative musicians. Koussevitzky writes:

It is hardly necessary to stress the preeminent place that music holds in our world today — not alone in the world of culture, not alone in the art history of mankind, but also in the daily life of the average man.

[...]

What is being done for the composer of our day?

[...]

With the turn of centuries, how much has been done for the creative artist to whom millions of past and present musicians owe their true place in life, their happiness and their welfare? Very little — by far not enough. If the present-day composer is not dying of heartbreak and hunger, he has, nevertheless, to struggle along and to earn his living through other ways and sources than his God-given gift: as a composer he cannot make a living. He is forced to go out and teach, lecture, and crowd his days with trifling obligations which kill his time, his energies, his creative art. If his present-day life is less tragic, it is none the less hard, unfair and maladjusted.

[...]

Therefore I say the time is ripe to act.

It is no surprise that the plea stirred Bernstein, for he was living the very predicament his mentor had described: Bernstein, who had given up his apartment and was residing at the Chelsea Hotel at the time, confessed in his letter to Koussevitzky:

I go on doing my horrible chores for Warner Brothers in order to live. It is dull beyond belief, and takes much too much time; but I feel that somehow better things must be coming for me.

Leonard Bernstein conducting the New York City Symphony in 1945

In fact, Koussevitzky was vehemently opposed to the notion of talented, “serious” composers compromising their creative integrity by doing commercial work catering to popular taste. He actively discouraged Bernstein’s activities as a Broadway composer — indeed, after his 1945 musical On the Town, Bernstein wrote no more Broadway shows until after Koussevitzky’s death.

But what is most extraordinary about Koussevitzky’s letter is that several decades before Kickstarter, Patreon, and other micro-patronage platforms that formalized the art of asking to help support independent creators — the very concept that helps me keep Brain Pickings going — he advocated a crowdfunding solution to the predicament, calling not only on music-lovers but on the community of musicians themselves to chip in:

The appeal for the composer must embrace the whole musical world, reach the musician in every field, the music lover and sponsor, far and wide. It will be a timely and major step forward.

[...]

In this great country alone there are many thousands of performing musicians. A small annual donation of $1 each will bring in a substantial permanent income and, with the joint co-operation and contributions of other groups and organizations, will go a long way toward establishing a composers’ fund… Whatever action we take now will lay the groundwork for the impelling and just cause of the composer. Embracing that cause, we shall ascend to new heights, we shall gain in confidence, in self-esteem and in fortitude.

What a beautiful and prescient testament to the idea that “donating = loving.”

Complement the immeasurably absorbing The Leonard Bernstein Letters with Bernstein on motivation and why we create, then revisit Amanda Palmer’s eloquent modern-day counterpart to Koussevitzky’s plea.

Donating = Loving

Bringing you (ad-free) Brain Pickings takes hundreds of hours each month. If you find any joy and stimulation here, please consider becoming a Supporting Member with a recurring monthly donation of your choosing, between a cup of tea and a good dinner:





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