On February 25, 1956, twenty-three-year-old Sylvia Plath stepped into a roomful of people and immediately spotted what she later described in her diary as a “big, dark, hunky boy.” She asked her companions if anyone knew the name of this young man but she received no answer. The party was in full swing and the free-form rhythms of the jazz — the “syncopated strut” of the piano, the seductive siren call of the trumpet — made conversation difficult. Sylvia, in Cambridge studying on a Fulbright Fellowship, had been drinking all night: a lethal line of “red-gold” Whisky Macs at a pub in town with her date for that night, Hamish Stewart. The potent combination of scotch and ginger wine had left her feeling like she could almost walk through the air. In fact, the alcohol had had the opposite effect; as she had been walking to the party she had found herself so inebriated that she had kept banging into trees.
On arrival at the Women’s Union — the venue in Falcon Yard chosen to celebrate the first issue of the slim student-made literary journal the St. Botolph’s Review — Sylvia saw that the room was packed with young men in turtleneck sweaters and women in elegant black dresses. Counterpointing the jazz, the sound of poetry was in the air: great chunks of it being quoted back and forth like rallies in a game of literary dominance and seduction. Sylvia was in a bullish mood that night. One of the contributors to St. Botolph’s Review, Daniel Huws, had sneered at two of her poems that had appeared in another Cambridge literary magazine, dismissing her work as too polished and well made. “Quaint and electric artfulness,” he had written in Broadsheet. “My better half tells me ‘Fraud, fraud,’ but I will not say so; who am I to know how beautiful she may be.” Plath felt justifiably angry; after all, she had been writing for publication since the age of eight and she had already earned sizable sums for poems and short stories from Harper’s, the Atlantic Monthly, Mademoiselle, and Seventeen. She walked up to Huws, a pale, freckle-faced undergraduate at Peterhouse, and said in a tone of “friendly aggression,” “Is this the better or worse half?” Huws, who later regarded the words as a “fair retaliation” for his “facetious and wounding” remarks, did not know quite how to respond. From Sylvia’s point of view, Huws looked too boyish. She was equally as dismissive of the rest of the St. Botolph’s set, describing Lucas Myers, who was studying at Downing College, as inebriated and wearing a “satanic smile,” and Than Minton, reading natural sciences at Trinity, as so small-framed you would have to sit down if you wanted to talk to him (in Plath’s world a short man was about as useful and attractive as a homosexual).
By this point, Sylvia had knocked back another drink, emptying its contents into her mouth, down her hands, and onto the floor. She then tried to dance the twist with Myers and, although her movements may well have been less than smooth, her memory was razor sharp. As she danced, she proceeded to recite the whole of Myers’s poem “Fools Encountered,” which she had read for the first time earlier that day in St. Botolph’s Review. When the music came to a temporary halt, she saw out of the corner of her eye somebody approaching. It was the same “hunky boy,” the one who had been “hunching” around over women whom she had seen earlier. He introduced himself as Ted Hughes. She recalled the three poems he had published in St. Botolph’s Review, and in an effort to dazzle him with her vivacity, she immediately began reciting segments of them to him. In retrospect, it’s ironic that one of the poems she declaimed, “Law in the Country of the Cats,” addresses the violent, irrational sense of enmity and rivalry that can often exist between individuals, even strangers. On first meeting, the attraction between Hughes — who had graduated from Cambridge in 1954 and had a job in London as a reader for the J. Arthur Rank film company — and Plath was instant. But Sylvia sensed something else too. “There is a panther stalks me down: / One day I’ll have my death of him,” she wrote in “Pursuit,” a poem that she composed two days later.
Plath recorded this encounter — now one of the most famous in all literary history — in her journal the next day. Suffering from a terrible hangover — she joked she thought she might be suffering from the DTs — she described the sexual tension that had flared up between them. After she had quoted some lines from his poem “The Casualty,” Hughes had shouted back over the music at her, in a voice that made her think he might be Polish, “You like?” Did she want brandy, he had asked. “Yes,” she yelled back, at which point he led her into another room. Hughes slammed the door and started pouring her glassfuls of brandy, which Plath tried to drink, but she didn’t manage to find her mouth. Almost immediately, they started discussing Huws’s critique of her poetry. Hughes joked that his friend knew that Plath was beautiful, that she could take such criticism, and that he would never have attacked her had she been a “cripple.” He told her he had “obligations” in the next room — in effect, another Cambridge student, named Shirley — and that he was working in London and earning £10 a week. Then, suddenly, Hughes leaned toward her and kissed her “bang smash on the mouth.” As he did so he ripped the red hair band from her head and ravished her with such force that her silver earrings came unclipped from her ears. He moved down to kiss her neck, and Plath bit him “long and hard” on the cheek; when the couple emerged from the room, blood was pouring down his face. As Plath bit deep into his skin, she thought about the battle to the death that Hughes had described in “Law in the Country of the Cats” and the perpetrator’s admission of the crime: “I did it, I.” Hughes carried the “swelling ring-moat of tooth marks” on his face for the next month or so, while he admitted that the encounter and the woman remained branded on his self “for good.”
Mad Girl’s Love Song is sublime in its entirety, laced with the same blend of scintillating narrative and fascinating historical context.
“The eye licks it all up instantaneously, and the brain, agreeably titillated, settles down to watch things happening without bestirring itself to think.”
By Maria Popova
“Cinema, to be creative, must do more than record,”Anaïs Nin wrote in 1946 in the forth volume of her diaries. But the question of what this elusive, quintessential creative duty of cinema might be long predates Nin’s observation.
In the spring of 1926, when film was still young and silent, Virginia Woolf found herself at once captivated and concerned by the seventh art and penned an essay exploring its perils and its promise. “The Cinema” was originally published in the New York journal Arts, and a slightly edited version titled “The Movies and Reality” appeared in The New Republic shortly thereafter. It can now be found in The Essays of Virginia Woolf, Vol. 4, 1925-1928 (public library).
Woolf begins with a reserved meditation on the nature of moving images, which at first glance appear to speak to our most primitive underpinnings and invite a strange kind of cerebral resignation, but upon deeper reflection serve as a lubricant between brain and body:
People say that the savage no longer exists in us, that we are at the fag-end of civilization, that everything has been said already, and that it is too late to be ambitious. But these philosophers have presumably forgotten the movies. They have never seen the savages of the twentieth century watching the pictures. They have never sat themselves in front of the screen and thought how for all the clothes on their backs and the carpets at their feet, no great distance separates them from those bright-eyed naked men who knocked two bars of iron together and heard in that clangour a foretaste of the music of Mozart.
The bars in this case, of course, are so highly wrought and so covered over with accretions of alien matter that it is extremely difficult to hear anything distinctly. All is hubble-bubble, swarm and chaos. We are peering over the edge of a cauldron in which fragments of all shapes and savours seem to simmer; now and again some vast form heaves itself up and seems about to haul itself out of chaos. Yet at first sight the art of the cinema seems simple, even stupid. There is the king shaking hands with a football team; there is Sir Thomas Lipton’s yacht; there is Jack Horner winning the Grand National. The eye licks it all up instantaneously, and the brain, agreeably titillated, settles down to watch things happening without bestirring itself to think. For the ordinary eye, the English unaesthetic eye, is a simple mechanism which takes care that the body does not fall down coal-holes, provides the brain with toys and sweetmeats to keep it quiet, and can be trusted to go on behaving like a competent nursemaid until the brain comes to the conclusion that it is time to wake up. What is its purpose, then, to be roused suddenly in the midst of its agreeable somnolence and asked for help? The eye is in difficulties. The eye wants help. The eye says to the brain, ‘Something is happening which I do not in the least understand. You are needed.’ Together they look at the king, the boat, the horse, and the brain sees at once that they have taken on a quality which does not belong to the simple photograph of real life.
Woolf considers the escapist nature of the cinematic experience, and the comforting safety that lies in that escapism:
[The moving pictures] become not more beautiful in the sense in which pictures are beautiful, but shall we call it (our vocabulary is miserably insufficient) more real, or real with a different reality from that which we perceive in daily life? We behold them as they are when we are not there. We see life as it is when we have no part in it. As we gaze we seem to be removed from the pettiness of actual existence. The horse will not knock us down. The king will not grasp our hands. The wave will not wet our feet. From this point of vantage, as we watch the antics of our kind, we have time to feel pity and amusement, to generalize, to endow one man with the attributes of the race. Watching the boat sail and the wave break, we have time to open our minds wide to beauty and register on top of it the queer sensation — this beauty will continue, and this beauty will flourish whether we behold it or not.
Woolf, who nearly three decades earlier had written of imitation as essential for the arts, proceeds with a rather scathing admonition against cinematic adaptations of literature (cue in Life of Pi…) and argues, aptly for the era, that cinema has to find its own stylistic and narrative voice to fully deserve the label of a new art:
But the picture-makers seem dissatisfied with such obvious sources of interest as the passage of time and the suggestiveness of reality. They despise the flight of gulls, ships on the Thames, the Prince of Wales, the Mile End Road, Piccadilly Circus. They want to be improving, altering, making an art of their own — naturally, for so much seems to be within their scope. So many arts seemed to stand by ready to offer their help. For example, there was literature. All the famous novels of the world, with their well-known characters and their famous scenes, only asked, it seemed, to be put on the films. What could be easier and simpler? The cinema fell upon its prey with immense rapacity, and to the moment largely subsists upon the body of its unfortunate victim. But the results are disastrous to both. The alliance is unnatural. Eye and brain are torn asunder ruthlessly as they try vainly to work in couples. The eye says ‘Here is Anna Karenina.’ A voluptuous lady in black velvet wearing pearls comes before us. But the brain says, ‘That is no more Anna Karenina than it is Queen Victoria.’ For the brain knows Anna almost entirely by the inside of her mind — her charm, her passion, her despair. All the emphasis is laid by the cinema upon her teeth, her pearls, and her velvet. Then ‘Anna falls in love with Vronsky’ — that is to say, the lady in black velvet falls into the arms of a gentleman in uniform and they kiss with enormous succulence, great deliberation, and infinite gesticulation, on a sofa in an extremely well-appointed library, while a gardener incidentally mows the lawn. So we lurch and lumber through the most famous novels of the world. So we spell them out in words of one syllable, written, too, in the scrawl of an illiterate schoolboy. A kiss is love. A broken cup is jealousy. A grin is happiness. Death is a hearse. None of these things has the least connexion with the novel that Tolstoy wrote, and it is only when we give up trying to connect the pictures with the book that we guess from some accidental scene — like the gardener mowing the lawn — what the cinema might do if left to its own devices.
But what, then, are its devices? If it ceased to be a parasite, how would it walk erect?
Woolf cites the 1920 German Expressionist masterpiece The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari as a paragon of what imaginative cinematic storytelling might look like, then considers symbolism and semiotics as vital tools in the emerging language of film:
If a shadow at a certain moment can suggest so much more than the actual gestures and words of men and women in a state of fear, it seems plain that the cinema has within its grasp innumerable symbols for emotions that have so far failed to find expression. Terror has besides its ordinary forms the shape of a tadpole; it burgeons, bulges, quivers, disappears. Anger is not merely rant and rhetoric, red faces and clenched fists. It is perhaps a black line wriggling upon a white sheet. … Is there, we ask, some secret language which we feel and see, but never speak, and, if so, could this be made visible to the eye? Is there any characteristic which thought possesses that can be rendered visible without the help of words? It has speed and slowness; dartlike directness and vaporous circumlocution. But it has, also, especially in moments of emotion, the picture-making power, the need to lift its burden to another bearer; to let an image run side by side along with it. The likeness of the thought is for some reason more beautiful, more comprehensible, more available, than the thought itself.
And yet, Woolf cautions, cinema, already visual by nature, can’t afford to literalize the metaphors of the poets:
As everybody knows, in Shakespeare the most complex ideas form chains of images through which we mount, changing and turning, until we reach the light of day. But obviously the images of a poet are not to be cast in bronze or traced by pencil. They are compact of a thousand suggestions of which the visual is only the most obvious or the uppermost. Even the simplest image ‘My luve’s like a red, red rose, that’s newly-sprung in June’ presents us with impressions of moisture and warmth and the glow of crimson and the softness of petals inextricably mixed and strung upon the lift of a rhythm which is itself the voice of the passion and hesitation of the lover. All this, which is accessible to words and to words alone, the cinema must avoid.
To thrive and blossom into a true art form, Woolf argues, cinema ought to invent is own language:
Yet if so much of our thinking and feeling is connected with seeing, some residue of visual emotion which is of no use either to painter or to poet may still await the cinema. That such symbols will be quite unlike the real objects which we see before us seems highly probable. Something abstract, something which moves with controlled and conscious art, something which calls for the very slightest help from words or music to make itself intelligible, yet justly uses them subserviently — of such movements and abstractions the films may in time to come be composed. Then indeed when some new symbol for expressing thought is found, the film-maker has enormous riches at his command. The exactitude of reality and its surprising power of suggestion are to be had for the asking.
How all this is to be attempted, much less achieved, no one at the moment can tell us. We get intimations only in the chaos of the streets, perhaps, when some momentary assembly of colour, sound, movement, suggests that here is a scene waiting a new art to be transfixed. And sometimes at the cinema in the midst of its immense dexterity and enormous technical proficiency, the curtain parts and we behold, far off, some unknown and unexpected beauty. But it is for a moment only. For a strange thing has happened — while all the other arts were born naked, this, the youngest, has been born fully-clothed. It can say everything before it has anything to say. It is as if the savage tribe, instead of finding two bars of iron to play with, had found scattering the seashore fiddles, flutes, saxophones, trumpets, grand pianos by Erard and Bechstein, and had begun with incredible energy, but without knowing a note of music, to hammer and thump upon them all at the same time.
Great times and tall deeds for David Byrne this season: First his fantastic collaborative album with St. Vincent (which made a cameo on Literary Jukebox), and now the release of How Music Works (UK; public library) — a fascinating record of his lifetime of curiosity about and active immersion in music. But rather than an autobiographical work, a prescriptive guide to how to listen, or another neuropsychological account of music, what unfolds is a blend of social science, history, anthropology, and media theory, exploring how context shapes the experience and even the nature of music. Or, as Byrne puts it, “how music might be molded before it gets to us, what determines if it gets to us at all, and what factors external to the music itself can make it resonate for us. Is there a bar near the stage? Can you put it in your pocket? Do girls like it? Is it affordable?”
Among the book’s most fascinating insights is a counterintuitive model for howcreativityworks, from a chapter titled “Creation in Reverse” — a kind of reformulation of McLuhan’s famous aphorism “the medium is the message” into a somewhat less pedantic but no less purposeful “the medium shapes the message”:
I had an extremely slow-dawning insight about creation. That insight is that context largely determines what is written, painted, sculpted, sung, or performed. That doesn’t sound like much of an insight, but it’s actually the opposite of conventional wisdom, which maintains that creation emerges out of some interior emotion, from an upwelling of passion or feeling, and that the creative urge will brook no accommodation, that it simply must find an outlet to be heard, read, or seen. The accepted narrative suggests that a classical composer gets a strange look in his or her eye and begins furiously scribbling a fully realized composition that couldn’t exist in any other form. Or that the rock-and-roll singer is driven by desires and demons, and out bursts this amazing, perfectly shaped song that had to be three minutes and twelve seconds — nothing more, nothing less. This is the romantic notion of how creative work comes to b, but I think the path of creation is almost 180º from this model. I believe that we unconsciously and instinctively make work to fit preexisting formats.
Of course, passion can still be present. Just because the form that one’s work will take is predetermined and opportunistic (meaning one makes something because the opportunity is there), it doesn’t mean that creation must be cold, mechanical, and heartless. Dark and emotional materials usually find a way in, and the tailoring process — form being tailored to fit a given context — is largely unconscious, instinctive. We usually don’t even notice it. Opportunity and availability are often the mother of invention. The emotional story — ‘something to get off my chest’ — still gets told, but its form is guided by prior contextual restrictions. I’m proposing that this is not entirely the bad thing one might expect it to be. Thank goodness, for example, that we don’t have to reinvent the wheel every time we make something.
Byrne gives a number of examples from the history of music that illustrate this contextually-driven creation and what it reveals about the nature of creativity:
It’s usually assumed that much Western medieval music was harmonically ‘simple’ (having few key changes) because composers hadn’t yet evolved the use of complex harmonies. In this context there would be no need or desire to include complex harmonies, as they would have sounded horrible in such spaces. Creatively they did exactly the right thing. Presuming that there is such a thing as ‘progress’ when it comes to music, and that music is ‘better’ now than it used to be, is typical of the high self-regard of those who live in the present. It is a myth. Creativity doesn’t ‘improve.’
He turns to nature for confirmation of this model:
The adaptive aspect of creativity isn’t limited to musicians and composers (or artists in any other media). It extends into the natural world as well. David Attenborough and others have claimed that birdcalls have evolved to fit the environment. In dense jungle foliage, a constant, repetitive, and brief signal with a narrow frequency works best — the repetition is like an error-correcting device. If the intended recipient didn’t get the first transmission, an identical one will follow.
Birds that live on the forest floor evolved lower-pitched calls, so they don’t bounce or become distorted by the ground as higher-pitched sounds might. Water birds have calls that, unsurprisingly, cut through the ambient sounds of water, and birds that live in the plains and grasslands, like the Savannah Sparrow, have buzzing calls that can traverse long distances.
So musical evolution and adaptation is an interspecies phenomenon. And presumably, as some claim, birds enjoy singing, even though they, like us, change their tunes over time. The joy of making music will find a way, regardless of the context and the form that emerges to best fit it.
Byrne brings this evolutionary lens back full circle to the emotional content of creation:
Finding examples to prove that music composition depends on its context comes naturally to me. But I have a feeling that this somewhat reversed view of creation — that it is more pragmatic and adaptive than some might think — happens a lot, and in very different areas. It’s ‘reversed’ because the venues — or the fields and woodlands, in the case of the birds — were not built to accommodate whatever egotistical or artistic urge the composers have. We and the birds adapt, and it’s fine.
What’s interesting to me is not that these practical adaptations happen (in retrospect that seems predictable and obvious), but what it means for our perception of creativity.
It seems that creativity, whether birdsong, painting, or songwriting, is as adaptive as anything else. Genius — the emergence of a truly remarkable and memorable work — seems to appear when a thing is perfectly suited to its context. When something works, it strikes us as not just being a clever adaptation, but as emotionally resonant as well. When the right thing is in the right place, we are moved.
We do express our emotions, our reactions to events, breakups and infatuations, but the way we do that — the art of it — is in putting them into prescribed forms or squeezing them into new forms that perfectly fit some emerging context. That’s part of the creative process, and we do it instinctively; we internalize it, like birds do. And it’s a joy to sing, like the birds do.
The rest of How Music Works goes on to explore such absorbing facets of music as the intricate inner workings of the music business, the secret of successful collaborations, Byrne’s own life in performance, and how the history of recording technology shaped music.
And what makes for a particularly enjoyable read is Byrne’s decidedly non-dogmatic, non-didactic tone — instead, he wraps his keen cultural insights in a sheath of self-aware subjectivity and unapologetic personal conviction, with just the right amount of conversational candor. (In a section discussing the social shifts in the early 1900s when classical audiences were suddenly forbidden from shouting, eating, and chatting during a performance, he opines with equal parts snark and cultural sensitivity: “I do wonder how much of the audience’s fun was sacrificed in the effort to redefine the social parameters of the concert hall — it sounds almost masochistic of the upper crust, curtailing their own liveliness, but I guess they had their priorities.”)
In an effort to reconcile his lifelong passion for music with his self-admitted chronic musical inaptitude, Marcus set out to debunk one of science’s longest-running theories about learning — that there are “critical periods” in which complex skills can be learned, and that they slam shut after adolescence.
If critical periods aren’t quite so firm as people once believed, a world of possibility emerges for the many adults who harbor secret dreams — whether to learn a language, to become a pastry chef, or to pilot a small plane. And quests like these, no matter how quixotic they may seem, and whether they succeed in the end or not, could bring unanticipated benefits, not just for their ultimate goals but of the journey itself. Exercising our brains helps maintain them, by preserving plasticity (the capacity of the nervous system to learn new things), warding off degeneration, and literally keeping the blood flowing. Beyond the potential benefits for our brains, there are benefits for our emotional well-being, too. There may be no better way to achieve lasting happiness — as opposed to mere fleeting pleasure — than pursuing a goal that helps us broaden our horizons.
To his astonishment, however, Marcus found a dearth of scientific literature and research on music learning in people of his age. The problem, it turned out, wasn’t lack of scientific interest but, rather, a lack of subjects — studying the outcomes of adults who put in 10,000 hours of practice proved difficult since most people of that age have life responsibilities that prevent them from putting in that time in the first place. So, Marcus decided to turn himself into the guinea pig.
For a glimmer of hope, he looked to a number of well-known musicians who arrived at their particular musical talent late in life — Patti Smith didn’t consider becoming a professional singer until she was in her mid-twenties, iconic jazz guitarist Pat Martino relearned to play after a brain aneurysm at the age of 35, and New Orleans keyboard legend Dr. John switched from guitar to piano when he was 21 after an injury, then won the first of his five Grammys at the age of 48. Having no such aspirations of grandeur, Marcus, aged 38 and with a documented lack of rhythm, still found himself desperately longing to learn to play the guitar. As he puts it, “Perhaps few people had less talent for music than I did, but few people wanted more badly to be able to play.” So he confronted the fundamental question:
Could persistence and a lifelong love of music overcome age and a lack of talent? And, for that matter, how did anyone of any age become musical?
Curiously, one of the most influential experiments on critical periods comes from barn owls who, like bats, rely heavily on sound to navigate; but, unlike bats, they see better than bats do, and one of the first things they do after hatching is calibrating their ears with their eyes, attuning what they hear to what they see. But because this navigational mapping of auditory information depends on the exact distance between their eyes and ears, which changes as the owl grows, it can’t be hardwired at birth.
To study how the owls calibrate their visual and auditory worlds, Stanford biologist Eric Knudsen devised a clever experiment, in which he raised owls in a kind of virtual reality world where prisms shifted everything by 23 degrees, forcing the owl to adjust its internal map of the world. Knudsen found that young owls learned to compensate for the distortion easily, and older owls could not — at least not in one go. But as soon as the 23 degrees were broken down in chunks — a few weeks at 6 degrees, another few at 11, and so forth — the adult owls were able to make the adjustment.
Using this insight, Marcus turned to David Mead’s Crash Course: Acoustic Guitar, which broke guitar playing into the kind of bite-sized morsels fit for the human equivalent of adult owls. It gave Marcus the basics, and thus the first step in rewiring his own brain.
This book is about how I began to distinguish my musical derriere from my musical elbow, but it’s not just about me: it’s also about the psychology and brain science of how anybody, of any age — toddler, teenager, or adult — can learn something as complicated as a musical instrument.
Along the way, Marcus explores the basic elements of music and how it evolved culturally and biologically. He dives deep into the popular “ten thousand hours” theory of mastery, developed by cognitive psychologist Anders Ericsson, “the world’s leading expert on expertise,” and examines Ericsson’s second, lesser-known prerequisite for expertise — the notion of “deliberate practice,” which describes the constant sense of self-evaluation and a consistent focus on one’s weaknesses rather than playing on one’s strengths. In fact, the practice of targeting specific weaknesses is known as the “zone of proximal development” and offers a framework for everything from education to videogames:
[The ‘zone of proximal development’ is] the idea that learning works best when the student tackles something that is just beyond his or her current reach, neither too hard nor too easy. In classroom situations, for example, one team of researchers estimated that its’ best to arrange things so that children succeed roughly 80 percent of the time; more than that, and kids tend to get bored; less, and they tend to get frustrated. The same is surely true of adults, too, which is why video game manufacturers have been known to invest millions in play testing to make sure that the level of challenge always lies in that sweet spot of neither too easy nor too hard.
But what makes Guitar Zero exceptional isn’t simply that it simultaneously calls into question the myth of the music instinct and confronts the idea that talent is merely a myth — at its heart is a much bigger question about the boundaries of our capacity for transformation and, ultimately, the mechanics of fulfillment and purpose.
“Good music can act as a guide to good living,”John Cage famously said. But what, exactly, is good music, or good living, or, for that matter, goodness itself?
In Where the Heart Beats: John Cage, Zen Buddhism, and the Inner Life of Artists (UK; public library), also one of the best psychology and philosophy books of 2012, longtime art critic and practicing Buddhist Kay Larson constructs a remarkable intellectual, creative, and spiritual biography of Cage — one of the most influential composers in modern history, whose impact reaches beyond the realm of music and into art, literature, cinema, and just about every other aesthetic and conceptual expression of curiosity about the world, yet also one of history’s most misunderstood artists. Fifteen years in the making, it is without a doubt the richest, most stimulating,most absorbing book I’ve read in ages — superbly researched, exquisitely written, weaving together a great many threads of cultural history into a holistic understanding of both Cage as an artist and Zen as a lens on existence.
From his early life in California, defined by his investigations into the joy of sound, to his pivotal introduction to Zen Buddhism in Japanese Zen master D. T. Suzuki’s Columbia University class, to his blossoming into a force of the mid-century avant-garde, Larson traces Cage’s own journey as an artist and a soul, as well as his intermeshing with the journeys of other celebrated artists, including Marcel Duchamp, Jasper Johns, Yoko Ono, Robert Rauschenberg, Jackson Pollock, and, most importantly, Merce Cunningham.
The book itself has a beautiful compositional structure, conceived as a conversation with Cage and modeled after Cage’s imagined conversations with Erik Satie, one of his mentors, long after Satie’s death. Interspersed in Larson’s immersive narrative are italicized excerpts of Cage’s own writing, in his own voice.
Where to begin? Perhaps at the core — the core of what Cage has come to be known for, that expansive negative space isn’t nihilistic, isn’t an absence, but, rather, it’s life-affirming, a presence. Cage himself reflects:
Our intention is to affirm this life, not to bring order out of chaos, nor to suggest improvements in creation, but simply to wake up to the very life we’re living, which is so excellent once one gets one’s mind and desires out of its way and lets it act of its own accord.
In his early life, however, Cage was rather unable to get his “mind and desires out of the way,” leading himself into a spiral of inner turmoil. While engaged in a relationship with a man named Don Sample, he met artist Xenia Kashevaroff, the Alaskan-born daughter of a Russian priest, and quickly fell in love. The two got married and, for a while, Cage was able to appease his dissonance about his affair with Sample. But rather than gaining deeper self-knowledge, he seemed to steer further away from himself. Perhaps that’s what prompted him, sixty years later, to admonish:
I’m entirely opposed to emotions….I really am. I think of love as an opportunity to become blind and blind in a bad way….I think that seeing and hearing are extremely important; in my view they are what life is; love makes us blind to seeing and hearing.
By the 1940s, Cage’s relationship with Xenia had begun to unravel. When the two eventually divorced in 1945, Cage’s identity was thrown into turbulence. His work followed faithfully, as he set out to compose Ophelia (1946), a “two-tone poem to madness” based on Shakespeare. Larson writes:
Margaret Leng Tan asked Cage why his portrait of Ophelia is so much harsher than Shakespeare’s. She recorded his reply that ‘all madness is inherently violent, even when it is not directed towards others, for it invariably ravages the sufferer internally.’
Soon, Cage began the decades-long romance with the love of his life, dancer and choreographer Merce Cunningham, which would last until the end of Cage’s life and bequeath some of the most magical collaborations in the history of 20th-century art. Around the same time, Cage began the other essential relationship of his life — that with Zen Buddhism.
Hardly anywhere does Larson’s gift for prose and grasp of the human condition shine more beautifully than in this passage articulating the profound, uncomfortable transformation that love sets in motion:
Caught in the roar of his emotions, Cage was forced to confront a question totally new to him: What is the ‘self’ that is being expressed? The self that hurts so badly it nearly kills you? The self that isn’t seen until it aches?
When Cage and Cunningham met, perhaps they felt a tremor of gravitational shift. It might have been small at first, or the shiver might have been so insistent it rattled them. Whatever the case, something evidently stirred between the two men before they came to New York. But maybe nothing was spoken.
So it is with the places preparing to teach us. It’s only when the heart begins to beat wildly and without pattern — when it begins to realize its boundlessness — that its newly adamant pulse bangs on the walls of its cage and is bruised by its enclosure.
To feel the heart pound is only the beginning. Next is to feel the hurt — the tearing of the psyche — the prelude of entry into the place one has always feared. One fears that place because of being drawn to it, loving it, and wanting to be taught by it. Without the need to be taught, who would feel the psyche rip?…. Without the bruise, who would know where the walls are?
Tying it back to Cage himself, Larson writes:
Bruised and bloodied by throwing himself against the four walls of his enclosure, and deeply shaken by his shrieking emotions, Cage stopped pacing his confinement and realized that his container had no roof. Looking up, he could see the sky. Fascinated, he set out to explore this new dimension.
What he found was a language of silence and immanence.
What can be analyzed in my work, or criticized, are the questions.
One remarkable aspect of Cage’s music, derived from his close study of Indian traditions, was the notion of “disinterestedness” — which is not to be confused with “indifference.” Larson distinguishes:
From the standpoint of spiritual practice, the two words have nothing in common. Indifference borders on nihilism. It has a quality of ‘not caring.’ It is ‘apathetic.’ It expresses corrosive cynicism. Ultimately, it is poisonous, both to the practitioner and to the culture as a whole.
Disinterestedness, on the contrary, ‘is unbiased by personal interest or advantage; not influenced by selfish motives,’ according to the Random House Dictionary (1971). Disinterestedness is the natural outcome of meditation on the self and recognition of its lack of substance — then what can trouble you? freeing one’s mind from the grip of the self leads to spiritual ease — being at home in your own skin, free of self-attachment, cured of likes and dislikes, afloat in rasa. It’s how you open your ears to the music of the world.
Cage defined disinterestedness and equated it with ‘love’ in 1948:
‘If one makes music, as the Orient would say, disinterestedly, that is, without concern for money or fame but simply for the love of making it, it is an integrating activity and one will find moments in his life that an complete and fulfilled.’
Look at everything. Don’t close your eyes to the world around you. Look and become curious and interested in what there is to see.
Larson concludes with a beautiful metaphor for both Zen Buddhism and Cage’s legacy, reflecting on artist Bruce Nauman’s show Mapping the Studio I (Fat Chance John Cage), which was spurred by Nauman’s discovery that he had mice in his studio:
In the studio, things happen by chance. A mouse runs by. A moth flitters through space. These ‘chance events’ are random and filled with non-intention — the buzz of small creatures, caught on film, in the midst of their busy eventful lives. As far as a mouse is concerned, its life is the center of the universe. By watching through the neutral eye of the camera, we are able to see what we might not glimpse otherwise: that a ‘silent’ space is an invisible game of billiards played by beings, each at its own center, each responding to all other beings. The mice, dashing here and there, are playing out their expectations about the cat. Life fills the gaps.
There are absolutely no metaphors, just observations.
The artist maps reality. That’s the cat-and-mouse game between the artist and the world. And it’s not just the artist who plays it. Each of us is in a cat-and-mouse game with our perceptual life. Do we really see ourselves? Or do we see only what obtrudes in daylight? Do we crash through our nightlife, scattering the subtle things that abide there? Or do we simply watch without judgment, in the expectation of learning something?
The Carter Family: Don’t Forget This Song (UK; public library) by writer Frank Young and illustrator David Lasky, also among the best graphic nonfiction of 2012, tells the colorful story of the first true country music superband, among whose hundreds of recordings were such classics as “Will the Circle Be Unbroken” and “Wildwood Flower.” More than a mere chronicle of the family’s rise to success, this beautifully illustrated graphic and tenderly told story explores everything from the nature of creativity to civil rights to the frictions between poverty and wealth — and, above all, the boundless power of love, music, and the love of music. The book comes with a CD of original Carter Family music.
BONUS: Complement with this fantastic Carter Family tribute album, featuring such icons as Johnny Cash, Emmylou Harris, Sheryl Crow, and Willie Nelson.
In the 1930s, as recorded sound was beginning to replace live musicians who played sheet music in movie theaters to score films, the American Federation of Musicians formed an organization called the Music Defense League and proceeded to take out a series of newspaper ads admonishing against “making musical mince meat” and the “menace” of recorded sound. But in the eight decades since, besides the loss of sound quality with digitization and the demise of music notation as art, could we have lost something else, some part of the romance of music? That’s arguably what Beck has set out to capture, on the heels of reimagining Philip Glass’s lifetime of music, in Song Reader (UK; public library) — a remarkable sort-of-album containing 26 never-before-released or recorded songs that only exist as pieces of sheet music. The songs come with original full-color illustrations by celebrated contemporary artists, illustrators and designers like Jessica Hische and The Rumpus’s Ian Huebert, inspired by the aesthetic of the golden age of home-play.
Beck writes in the preface:
After releasing an album in the mid-1990s, I was sent a copy of the sheet-music version by a publisher who had commissioned piano transcriptions and guitar-chord charts of everything on the original recording. Seeing the record’s sonic ideas distilled down to notation made it obvious that most of the songs weren’t intended to work that way. Reversing the process and putting together a collection of songs in book form seemed more natural — it would be an album that could only be heard by playing the songs.
A few years later, I came across a story about a song called ‘Sweet Leilani,’ which Bing Crosby had released in 1937. Apparently, it was so popular that, by some estimates, the sheet music sold fifty-four million copies. Home-played music had been so widespread that nearly half the country had bought the sheet music for a single song, and had presumably gone through the trouble of learning to play it. It was one of those statistics that offers a clue to something fundamental about our past.
So when Beck met with McSweeney’s founder Dave Eggers in 2004 to discuss a songbook project based on music notation, they quickly became obsessed with the broader world of old songs and began collecting vintage sheet music, artwork, ads, and other ephemera that went along with the art of sound. Beck writes:
I wondered if there was a way to explore that world that would be more than an exercise in nostalgia—a way to represent how people felt about music back then, and to speak to what was left, in our nature, of that instinct to play popular music ourselves.
In a meditation on the humanity of sheet music and why the project is more than a gimmick, Beck reflects my own concerns about the presentism bias of the digital age and observes poignantly:
I thought a lot about the risks of the inherent old-timeyness of a songbook. I know I have friends who will dismiss it as a stylistic indulgence, a gimmick. There’s a way of miniaturizing and neutralizing the past, encasing it in a quaint, retro irrelevancy and designating it as something only fit for curiosity-seekers or revivalists. But although the present moment can exclude the past from relevance, it can’t erase its influence entirely. Each era finds something new to return to; things that seemed out of date have a way of coming back in new forms, and revealing aspects of themselves we might not have noticed before.
In the introduction, Jody Rosen calls the project “a trip back to pop’s primordial past” and offers a primer on the visual legacy of sheet music, tracing how — just like the evolution of natural history — the aesthetic of sheet music was shaped by the concurrent evolution of imaging technology:
Song sheets are strange, seductive art objects. In the first half of the nineteenth century, sheet music art was mostly text-based: titles splashed across covers in ornate fonts. After the Civil War, advances in lithography brought alluring black-and-white illustrations to sheet music. By the turn of the century, new photographic printing techniques and the development of offset presses made color illustration ubiquitous. Songs arrived on store shelves in a riot of colors and graphics — graceful art nouveau design motifs, proto-Deco typefaces, illustrations that ranged from cartoonish to classicist to sleekly moderne.
Fifty-four million homes singing ‘Sweet Leilani’ in 1937 would have felt like some weird convergence. That time is long gone, but the idea of it makes one wonder where that impulse went. As for these songs, they’re here to be brought to life—or at least to remind us that, not so long ago, a song was only a piece of paper until it was played by someone. Anyone. Even you.
Here are just a few of the wonderful performances based on the sheet music in Song Reader already out there, by both “professional” musicians like Steve Mason and Leila Moss, and “amateurs” (where’s the line anymore?):
Music has a powerful grip on our emotional brain. It can breathe new life into seemingly lifeless minds. But if there is indeed no music instinct, music — not just its creation, but also its consumption — must be an acquired skill. How, then, do we “learn” music beyond merely understanding how it works? How do we “learn” to “listen” to music, something that seems so fundamental we take it for granted?
Though published exactly thirty years ago, Music: Ways of Listening by composer Elliott Schwartz was one of my favorite vintage discoveries this year. Schwartz outlines the seven essential skills of perceptive listening, arguing that they’ve been “dulled by our built-in twentieth-century habit of tuning out” and thus need to be actively developed. Perhaps most interestingly, you can substitute “reading” for “listening” and “writing” for “music,” and the list would be just as valuable and insightful, and just as needed an antidote to the dulling of our modern modes of information consumption.
Develop your sensitivity to music. Try to respond esthetically to all sounds, from the hum of the refrigerator motor or the paddling of oars on a lake, to the tones of a cello or muted trumpet. When we really hear sounds, we may find them all quite expressive, magical and even ‘beautiful.’ On a more complex level, try to relate sounds to each other in patterns: the successive notes in a melody, or the interrelationships between an ice cream truck jingle and nearby children’s games.
Time is a crucial component of the musical experience. Develop a sense of time as it passes: duration, motion, and the placement of events within a time frame. How long is thirty seconds, for example? A given duration of clock-time will feel very different if contexts of activity and motion are changed.
Develop a musical memory. While listening to a piece, try to recall familiar patterns, relating new events to past ones and placing them all within a durational frame. This facility may take a while to grow, but it eventually will. And once you discover that you can use your memory in this way, just as people discover that they really can swim or ski or ride a bicycle, life will never be the same.
If we want to read, write or talk about music, we must acquire a working vocabulary. Music is basically a nonverbal art, and its unique events and effects are often too elusive for everyday words; we need special words to describe them, however inadequately.
Try to develop musical concentration, especially when listening to lengthy pieces. Composers and performers learn how to fill different time-frames in appropriate ways, using certain gestures and patterns for long works and others for brief ones. The listener must also learn to adjust to varying durations. It may be easy to concentrate on a selection lasting a few minutes, but virtually impossible to maintain attention when confronted with a half-hour Beethoven symphony or a three-hour Verdi opera.
Composers are well aware of this problem. They provide so many musical landmarks and guidelines during the course of a long piece that, even if listening ‘focus’ wanders, you can tell where you are.
Try to listen objectively and dispassionately. Concentrate upon ‘what’s there,’ and not what you hope or wish would be there. At the early stages of directed listening, when a working vocabulary for music is being introduced, it is important that you respond using that vocabulary as often as possible. In this way you can relate and compare pieces that present different styles, cultures and centuries. Try to focus upon ‘what’s there,’ in an objective sense, and don’t be dismayed if a limited vocabulary restricts your earliest responses.
Bring experience and knowledge to the listening situation. That includes not only your concentration and growing vocabulary, but information about the music itself: its composer, history and social context. Such knowledge makes the experience of listening that much more enjoyable.
There may appear to be a conflict between this suggestion and the previous one, in which listeners were urged to focus just on ‘what’s there.’ Ideally, it would be fascinating to hear a new piece of music with fresh expectations and truly innocent ears, as though we were Martians. But such objectivity doesn’t exist. All listeners approach a new piece with ears that have been ‘trained’ by prejudices, personal experiences and memories. Some of these may get in the way of listening to music. Try to replace these with other items that might help focus upon the work, rather than individual feelings. Of course, the ‘work’ is much more than the sounds heard at any one sitting in a concert hall; it also consists of previous performances, recorded performances, the written notes on manuscript paper, and all the memories, reviews and critiques of these written notes and performances, ad infinitum. In acquiring information about any of these factors, we are simply broadening our total awareness of the work itself.
Music: Ways of Listening is to listening what Mortimer Adler’s How to Read a Book is to reading — a timeless, yet remarkably timely meditation of a skill-intensive art we all too frequently mistake for a talent or, worse yet, a static pre-wired capacity.
“His voice seemed to say like the river, ‘Why hurry? Eternity is long; the ocean can wait.'”
By Maria Popova
Given my Circles of Influence collaboration and my fascination with first-hand accounts of famousencounters, it’s of little surprise I find myself mesmerized by Hello Goodbye Hello: A Circle of 101 Remarkable Meetings (public library) — an enchanting daisy chain of true encounters spanning more than a century of cultural heroes (and some villains) — from Freud to Tchaikovsky to Hitchcock to Hitchens — spanning science, literature, art, music, film, politics, and more, culled by British writer Craig Brown from diaries, personal correspondence, and various other historical ephemera. Martha Graham strikes fear and awe in a young Madonna. Marilyn Monroe asks Frank Lloyd Wright to design “an elaborate house with which to impress the world.” Walt Disney edits Igor Stravinsky and sparks his creative indignation.
But my favorite intersections revolve around the inimitable Mark Twain.
In 1889, a 23-year-old Rudyard Kipling sets out to meet and interview his hero, Mark Twain. Determined, he dashes from Buffalo to Toronto to Boston on a wild-goose chase that eventually takes him Elmira, where he is told by a local policeman that Twain or “someone who looks like him” (a surprisingly unhelpful description at the time) lives nearby, at East Hill. Brown writes of the encounter:
He is led into a big, dark drawing room. There, in a huge chair, he finds the fifty-three-year-old author of Tom Sawyer with ’a mane of grizzled hair, a brown mustache covering a mouth as delicate as a woman’s, a strong, square hand shaking mine and the slowest, calmest, levellest voice in all the world … I was shaking his hand. I was smoking his cigar, and I was hearing him talk — this man I had learned to love and admire 14,000 miles away.’
Kipling is transfixed. ’That was a moment to be remembered; the landing of a twelve-pound salmon was nothing to it. I had hooked Mark Twain, and he was treating me as though under certain circumstances I might be an equal.’
The two men discuss the difficulties of copyright before moving on to Twain’s work. ’Growing bold, and feeling that I had a few hundred thousand folk at my back, I demanded whether Tom Sawyer married Judge Thatcher’s daughter and whether we were ever going to hear of Tom Sawyer as a man.’
Twain gets up, fills his pipe, and paces the room in his bedroom slippers. ’I haven’t decided. I have a notion of writing the sequel to Tom Sawyer in two ways. In one I would make him rise to great honor and go to Congress, and in the other I should hang him. Then the friends and enemies of the book could take their choice.’
Kipling raises a voice of protest: to him, Tom Sawyer is real.
We now know that Tom Sawyer was real, in the most literal sense, but Twain’s response bespeaks, metaphorically, the magic of suspending disbelief:
’Oh, he is real. He’s all the boys that I have known or recollect; but that would be a good way of ending the book, because, when you come to think of it, neither religion, training, nor education avails anything against the force of circumstances that drive a man. Suppose we took the next four and twenty years of Tom Sawyer’s life, and gave a little joggle to the circumstances that controlled him. He would, logically and according to the joggle, turn out a rip or an angel.’
’Do you believe that, then?’
’I think so; isn’t it what you call kismet?’
’Yes; but don’t give him two joggles and show the result, because he isn’t your property any more. He belongs to us.’
And yet, Twain shares his own fascination with fact over fiction:
Twain talks of the books he likes to read. ’I never cared for fiction or story-books. What I like to read about are facts and statistics of any kind. If they are only facts about the raising of radishes, they interest me. Just now for instance, before you came in, I was reading an article about mathematics. Perfectly pure mathematics. My own knowledge of mathematics stops at “twelve times twelve” but I enjoyed that article immensely. I didn’t understand a word of it; but facts, or what a man believes to be facts, are always delightful.’
After two hours, the interview comes to an end. The great man, who never minds talking, assures his disciple that he has not interrupted him in the least.
But the most magical part of all, as is the case with many of the encounters in the book, is the way in which influence and admiration come full-circle:
Seventeen years on, Rudyard Kipling is world famous. Twain grows nostalgic for the time he spent in his company. ’I believe that he knew more than any person I had met before, and he knew I knew less than any person he had met before … When he was gone, Mr Langdon wanted to know about my visitor. I said, “He is a stranger to me but is a most remarkable man — and I am the other one. Between us, we cover all knowledge; he knows all that can be known, and I know the rest.”’
Twain, now aged seventy, is addicted to Kipling’s works. He rereads Kim every year, ’and in this way I go back to India without fatigue … I am not acquainted with my own books but I know Kipling’s books. They never grow pale to me; they keep their colour; they are always fresh.’
The worshipped has become the worshipper.
A decade later, in 1909, Twain gets a visit from Helen Keller, whom he has befriended fifteen years earlier and with whom he has forged a unique relationship of intellectual and creative camaraderie. Brown writes:
For his part, Twain is in awe. ’She is fellow to Caesar, Alexander, Napoleon, Homer, Shakespeare and the rest of the immortals. She will be as famous a thousand years from now as she is today.’ Shortly after their first meeting, Twain formed a circle to fund her education at Radcliffe College, which led to her publishing an autobiography at the age of twenty-two, which in turn led her to become almost as celebrated as Twain himself.
But the intervening years have struck Twain some heavy blows. One of his daughters has died of meningitis, 7 another of an epileptic fit in a bathtub, and his wife Livy has died of heart disease. Throughout Helen’s stay he acts his familiar bluff, entertaining old self, but she senses the deep sadness within.
’There was about him the air of one who had suffered greatly. Whenever I touched his face, his expression was sad, even when he was telling a funny story. He smiled, not with the mouth but with his mind — a gesture of the soul rather than of the face.’
In a vignette perfectly prototypical of his character, Keller recounts seeing card on the mantelpiece instructing burglars where the valuables of the house were located. There had recently been a burglary and, Twain’s rationale went, the note would prevent future burglars from bothering him once they break in.
Keller, like Kipling, is transfixed by Twain’s billowing voice:
’He seemed to have absorbed all America into himself. The great Mississippi River seemed forever flowing, flowing through his speech, through the shadowless white sands of thought. His voice seemed to say like the river, “Why hurry? Eternity is long; the ocean can wait.”’
The closing scene of that encounter gives you the kind of chills that grip you, often by surprise, frequently throughout the rest of Hello Goodbye Hello:
As she says goodbye, Helen wonders if they will ever meet again. Once more, her intuition proves right. Twain dies the following year. Some time later, Helen returns to where the old house once stood; it has burnt down, with only a charred chimney still standing. She turns her unseeing eyes to the view he once described to her, and at that moment feels someone coming towards her. ’I reached out, and a red geranium blossom met my touch. The leaves of the plant were covered with ashes, and even the sturdy stalk had been partly broken off by a chip of falling plaster. But there was the bright flower smiling at me out of the ashes. I thought it said to me, “Please don’t grieve.”’
She plants the geranium in a sunny corner of her garden. ’It always seems to say the same thing to me, “Please don’t grieve.” But I grieve, nevertheless.’