Brain Pickings

Posts Tagged ‘music’

31 MAY, 2013

Patti Smith Reads Her Poetic Tribute to Robert Mapplethorpe, Plus Her Handwritten Verses

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“Blessedness is within us all.”

“The mere addition of meter does not in itself entitle a work to the name of poem, for nothing can permanently please which does not contain in itself the reason why it is so and not otherwise,” Coleridge asserted. “Poetry is the first and last of all knowledge — it is as immortal as the heart of man,” Wordsworth famously proclaimed. Nowhere is this dual definition more ablaze with life than in The Coral Sea (public library) by the eclectically brilliant Patti Smith — a breathtaking collection of prose poems exorcising Smith’s profound grief for her lifelong spirit-mate, beloved photographer Robert Mapplethorpe (1946–1989). She describes the collection as “a season in grief” and writes:

All that I knew of him encrypted within a small suite of prose poems. They speak of his love for art, his patron Sam Wagstaff, and his caring for me. But most importantly his resolute will to live, that could not be contained, not even in death.

Her short foreword stirs the soul intensely:

The first time I saw Robert he was sleeping. I stood over him, this boy of twenty, who sensing my presence opened his eyes and smiled. With few words he became my friend, my compeer, my beloved adventure.

When he became ill I wept and could not stop weeping. He scolded me for that, not with words but with a simple look of reproach, and I ceased.

When I saw him last we sat in silence and he rested his head on my shoulder. I watched the light changing over his hands, over his work, and over the whole of our lives. Later, returning to his bed, we said goodbye. But as I was leaving something stopped me and I went back to his room. He was sleeping. I stood over him, a dying man, who sensing my presence opened his eyes and smiled.

When he passed away I could not weep so I wrote. Then I took the pages and set them away. Here are those pages, my farewell to my friend, my adventure, my unfettered joy.

At the recent opening of exhibition of the same title at Cincinnati’s Contemporary Arts Center — which also gave us Smith’s delightful lettuce soup recipe for starving artists — I recorded Smith’s moving reading of some poems from the book and photographed the handwritten originals of the poems, below, on display at the CAC.

I had the pleasure of hearing — and, to our shared delight, recording — Smith’s reading my favorite poem from the book, the stirring “Reflecting Robert”:

Blessedness is within us all
It lies upon the long scaffold
Patrols the vaporous hall
In our pursuits, though still, we venture forth
Hoping to grasp a handful of cloud and return
Unscathed, cloud in hand. We encounter
Space, fist, violin, or this — an immaculate face
Of a boy, somewhat wild, smiling in the sun.
He raises his hand, as if in carefree salute
Shading eyes that contain the thread of God.
Soon they will gather power, disenchantment
They will reflect enlightenment, agony
They will reveal the process of love
They will, in an hour alone, shed tears.
His mouth a circlet, a baptismal font
Opening wide as the lips of a damsel
Sounding the dizzying extremes.
The relativity of vein, the hip of unrest
For the sake of wing there is shoulder.
For symmetry there is blade.
He kneels, humiliates, he pierces her side.
Offering spleen to the wolves of the forest.
He races across the tiles, the human board.
Virility, coquetry all a game — well played.
Immersed in luminous disgrace, he lifts
As a slave, a nymph, a fabulous hood
As a rose, a thief of life, he will parade
Nude crowned with leaves, immortal.
He will sing of the body, his truth
He will increase the shining neck
Pluck airs toward our delight
Of the waning
The blossoming
The violent charade
But who will sing of him?
Who will sing of his blessedness?
The blameless eye, the radiant grin
For he, his own messenger, is gone
He has leapt through the orphic glass
To wander eternally
In search of perfection
His blue ankles tattooed with stars.

The Coral Sea is sublime in its entirety, as is Smith’s album of the same title.

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28 MAY, 2013

The Power of Process: What Young Mozart Teaches Us About the Secret of Cultivating Genius

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On the “powerful blend of instruction, encouragement, and constant practice.”

“The trick to creativity … is to identify your own peculiar talent and then to settle down to work with it for a good long time,” observed Denise Shekerjian in reflecting on her insightful interviews with MacArthur “genius” grantees. “Success is the product of the severest kind of mental and physical application,” attested Thomas Edison. “It is the man who carefully advances step by step, with his mind becoming wider and wider … who is bound to succeed in the greatest degree,” Alexander Graham Bell proclaimed. And yet our culture continues to perpetuate the notion that genius is a “God”-given blessing.

In The Genius in All of Us: New Insights into Genetics, Talent, and IQ (public library), David Shenk presents a rigorously researched blend of historical evidence and scientific data to debunk the myth that genius is a special gift serendipitously bestowed upon the chosen few and shows, instead, that it is the product of consistent, concentrated effort, applied in the direction of one’s natural inclination. But beyond the familiar argument for the power of process, Shenk stresses the importance of early childhood experience in recognizing and cultivating the inklings of talent, and building the right framework for achievement. He gives “the mystifying boy genius” Mozart as a prime example:

Anonymous portrait of the child Mozart, possibly by Pietro Antonio Lorenzoni; painted in 1763 on commission from Leopold Mozart (public domain)

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart [was] alleged to be an instant master performer at age three and a brilliant composer at age five. His breathtaking musical gifts were said to have sprouted from nowhere, and his own father promoted him as the “miracle which God let be born in Salzburg.”

The reality about Mozart turns out to be far more interesting and far less mysterious. His early achievements — while very impressive, to be sure — actually make good sense considering his extraordinary upbringing. And his later undeniable genius turns out to be a wonderful advertisement for the power of process. Mozart was bathed in music from well before his birth, and his childhood was quite unlike any other. His father, Leopold Mozart, was an intensely ambitious Austrian musician, composer, and teacher who had gained wide acclaim with the publication of the instruction book A Treatise on the Fundamental Principles of Violin Playing. For a while, Leopold had dreamed of being a great composer himself. But on becoming a father, he began to shift his ambitions away from his own unsatisfying career and onto his children — perhaps, in part, because his career had already hit a ceiling: he was [assistant music director]; the top spot would be unavailable for the foreseeable future.

Uniquely situated, and desperate to make some sort of lasting mark on music, Leopold began his family musical enterprise even before Wolfgang’s birth, focusing first on his daughter Nannerl.

[…]

Then came Wolfgang. Four and a half years younger than his sister, the tiny boy got everything Nannerl got — only much earlier and even more intensively. Literally from his infancy, he was the classic younger sibling soaking up his big sister’s singular passion. As soon as he was able, he sat beside her at the harpsichord and mimicked notes that she played. Wolfgang’s first pings and plucks were just that. But with a fast-developing ear, deep curiosity and a tidal wave of family know-how, he was able to click into an accelerated process of development.

The Mozart family on tour: Leopold, Wolfgang, and Nannerl. Watercolor by Carmontelle, 1763 (public domain)

But buried in Shenk’s argument for the power of nurture is also a subtle but menacing dark side that speaks to the power of how social norms and gender expectations shape the investment in nurture:

As Wolfgang became fascinated with playing music, his father became fascinated with his toddler son’s fascination — and was soon instructing him with an intensity that far eclipsed his efforts with Nannerl. Not only did Leopold openly give preferred attention to Wolfgang over his daughter; he also made a career-altering decision to more or less shrug off his official duties in order to build an even more promising career for his son. This was not a quixotic adventure. Leopold’s calculated decision made reasonable financial sense in two ways: First, Wolfgang’s youth made him a potentially lucrative attraction. Second, as a male, Wolfgang had a promising, open-ended future musical career. As a woman in eighteenth-century Europe, Nannerl was severely limited in that regard.

From age three, then, Wolfgang had an entire family driving him to excel with a powerful blend of instruction, encouragement, and constant practice. He was expected to be the pride and financial engine of the family, and he did not disappoint.

How many genius-level female composers never received this “powerful blend” we’ll never know. But the bigger point in The Genius in All of Us resonates loud and clear: To reap the fruits of genius, we must plant the seeds of practice and process.

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22 MAY, 2013

Edna St. Vincent Millay on the Love of Music

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“Even poetry, Sweet Patron Muse forgive me the words, is not what music is.”

“Music is at once the most wonderful, the most alive of all the arts,” Susan Sontag exclaimed. Anaïs Nin found in it “the mystery of our secret life.” And though science may have attempted to decode how music tickles our emotions and enchants our brains, its magic remains utterly ineffable to most of us — all but the most poetically perceptive. From The Letters of Edna St. Vincent Millay (public library) — the same magnificent out-of-print tome that gave us Millay’s stirring love letters to Edith Wynn Matthison — comes this lyrical meditation on the mesmerism of music, found in a September 11, 1920 letter to her friend and literary comrade, Allan Ross MacDougall, who also edited the anthology of missives. Exquisitely beautiful both in sentiment and in its mastery of language, the passage captures Millay’s unrelenting devotion to beauty in all its forms:

I can whistle almost the whole of the Fifth Symphony, all four movements, and with it I have solaced many a whining hour to sleep. It answers all my questions, the noble, mighty thing, it is “green pastures and still waters” to my soul. Indeed, without music I should wish to die. Even poetry, Sweet Patron Muse forgive me the words, is not what music is. I find that lately more and more my fingers itch for a piano, and I shall not spend another winter without one. Last night I played for about two hours, the first time in a year, I think, and though most everything is gone enough remains to make me realize I could get it back if I had the guts. People are so dam lazy, aren’t they? Ten years I have been forgetting all I learned so lovingly about music, and just because I am a boob. All that remains is Bach. I find that I never lose Bach. I don’t know why I have always loved him so. Except that he is so pure, so relentless and incorruptible, like a principal of geometry.

Pair with another love letter to Bach, the solar system set to music in perpetual homage to the great composer.

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