Brain Pickings Icon
Brain Pickings

Page 770

Legendary Composer Leonard Bernstein on the Future of Music, Harvard 1973

“A great new era of eclecticism is at hand.”

In the fall of 1972, legendary composer Leonard Bernstein was appointed the Charles Eliot Norton Professor of Poetry at Harvard, his alma mater — a position originally created in 1925 to bring celebrated poets as campus residents and student advisors and previously occupied by such luminaries as T. S. Eliot, e. e. cummings, and Robert Frost. In 1973, Bernstein delivered his sextet of lucid lectures, aimed at an intelligent listened not musically trained but keenly interested in how music works and how to listen to music.

Titled The Unanswered Question, the lectures — covering Musical Phonology, Musical Syntax, Musical Semantics, The Delights and Dangers of Ambiguity, The Twentieth Century Crisis, and The Poetry of Earth — spanned more than 11 hours, all of which are now available online. In 1976, they were transcribed in the eponymous book The Unanswered Question: Six Talks at Harvard (public library).

Bernstein ends the series with a kind of summation of his credo, one he leaves out — or, rather, modifies and makes less prophetic — in the book:

I believe that a great new era of eclecticism is at hand — eclecticism in the highest sense — and I believe that it has been made possible by the rediscovery, the reacceptance of tonality, that universal earth out of which such diversity can spring. And no matter how serial, or stochastic, or otherwise intellectualized music may be, it can always qualify as poetry, as long as it is rooted in Earth. … I believe that from that Earth emerges a musical poetry, which is by the nature of its sources tonal. I believe that these sources cause to exist a phonology of music, which evolves from the universal known as the harmonic series — and that there is an equally universal musical syntax, which can be codified and structured in terms of symmetry and repetition; and that by metaphorical operation, there can be devised particular musical languages that have surface structures noticeably remote from their basic origins, but which can be strikingly expressive as long as they retain their roots in Earth.

I believe that our deepest affective responses to these languages are innate ones, but do not preclude additional responses, which are conditioned or learned; and that all particular languages bear on one another and combine into always-new idioms perceptible to human beings; and that ultimately these idioms can all merge into a speech universal enough to be accessible to all mankind; and that the expressive distinctions among these idioms depend ultimately on the dignity and passion of the individual creative voice.

And, finally, I believe that all these things are true, and that [the] “unanswered question” has an answer. I’m no longer sure what the question is, but I do know the answer — and the answer is, “Yes.”

Complement The Unanswered Question with Bernstein on motivation and why we create and his the only true antidote to violence, then revisit David Byrne on how music works and this lovely vintage guide to the 7 essential skills of listening.

BP

E.B. White on the Art of the Essay and Why Egotism Is Essential for the Essay Writer

“Only a person who is congenitally self-centered has the effrontery and the stamina to write essays.”

The question of what makes a great essay is an inexhaustible source of fascination, and there is hardly a greater master virtuoso at it than E.B. White (July 11, 1899–October 1, 1985) — champion of literary style, defender of the writer’s responsibility, custodian of the free press, little-known New Yorker cover artist, lover of New York.

In April of 1977, in the foreword to the indispensable anthology Essays of E. B. White (public library), the beloved author examines the very form he had so mesmerizingly mastered, with equal parts irreverence and love.

White writes:

The essayist is a self-liberated man, sustained by the childish belief that everything he thinks about, everything that happens to him, is of general interest. He is a fellow who thoroughly enjoys his work, just as people who take bird walks enjoy theirs. Each new excursion of the essayist, each new “attempt,” differs from the last and takes him into new country. This delights him. Only a person who is congenitally self-centered has the effrontery and the stamina to write essays.

White offers a morphology of essayistic dispositions:

There are as many kinds of essays as there are human attitudes or poses, as many essay flavors as there are Howard Johnson ice creams. The essayist arises in the morning and, if he has work to do, selects his garb from an unusually extensive wardrobe:he can pull on any sort of shirt, be any sort of person, according to his mood or his subject matter — philosopher, scold, jester, raconteur, confidant, pundit, devil’s advocate, enthusiast. I like the essay, have always liked it, and even as a child was at work, attempting to inflict my young thoughts and experiences on others by putting them on paper.

While he professes to “fall back on the essay form” whenever an idea strikes, White, with the characteristic self-consciousness and self-deprecation of a proper essayist, puts the essay in its place on the literary ladder:

I am not fooled about the place of the essay in twentieth-century American letters — it stands a short distance down the line. The essayist, unlike the novelist, the poet, and the playwright, must be content in his self-imposed role of second-class citizen. A writer who has his sights trained on the Nobel Prize or other earthly triumphs had best write a novel, a poem, or a play, and leave the essayist to ramble about, content with living a free life and enjoying the satisfactions of a somewhat undisciplined existence.

Little did White know that a mere year later, he’d be awarded an honorary Pulitzer Prize for the full body of his work, which consisted — per his self-professed preference — largely of essays.

More so than any other writing form, White argues, the essay requires a unique commitment to truth and discipline:

There is one thing that the essayist cannot do, though — he cannot indulge himself in deceit or in concealment, for he will be found out in no time. Desmond MacCarthy, in his introductory remarks to the 1928 E. P. Dutton & Company edition of Montaigne, observes that Montaigne “had the gift of natural candour. . . .” It is the basic ingredient. And even the essayist’s escape from discipline is only a partial escape: the essay, although a relaxed form, imposes its own disciplines, raises is own problems, and these disciplines and problems soon become apparent and (we all home) act as a deterrent to anyone wielding a pen merely because he entertains random thoughts or is in a happy or wandering mood.

Echoing Joan Didion’s conception of writing as access to one’s self and George Orwell’s contention that the first universal motive for writing is “sheer egotism,” White returns to the solipsism of the essayist:

I think some people find the essay the last resort of the egotist, a much too self-conscious and self-serving form for their taste; they feel that it is presumptuous of a writer to assume that his little excursions or his small observations will interest the reader. There is some justice in their complaint. I have always been aware that I am by nature self-absorbed and egoistical; to write of myself to the extent I have done indicates a too great attention to my own life, not enough to the lives of others. I have worn many shirts, and not all of them have been a good fit. But when I am discouraged or downcast I need only fling open the door of my closet, and there, hidden behind everything else, hangs the mantle of Michel de Montaigne, smelling slightly of camphor.

White goes on to discuss his choice of essays for the anthology and their order, noting of his most famous masterpiece — the exquisite Here Is New York:

Some, like “Here Is New York,” have been seriously affected by the passage of time and now stand as period pieces. I wrote about new York in the summer of 1948, during a hot spell. The city I described has disappeared, and another city has emerged in its place — one that I’ not familiar with. … The last time I visited New York, it seemed to have suffered a personality change, as though it had a brain tumor as yet undetected.

Place has played an important role in White’s relationship with the written word, as becomes evident in the selected essays. He notes:

I spent a large part of the first half of my life as a city dweller, a large part of the second half as a countryman. In between, there were periods when nobody, including myself, quite knew (or cared) where I was: I thrashed back and forth between Maine and New York for reasons that seemed compelling at the time. Money entered into it, affection for The New Yorker entered in. And affection for the city.

I have finally come to rest.

White spent the remaining years of his life at his home in North Brooklin, Maine.

Essays of E. B. White is required reading, a pinnacle of the form from one of its greatest masters. Complement it with White on the role and responsibility of the writer and why brevity isn’t the gold standard for style.

BP

The First Book of Space Travel: How a Female Author & Illustrator Got Kids Into Science in 1953

“If I were a fairy godmother, my gift to every child would be curiosity.”

Vintage science illustrations hold a special charm, and illustrated children’s science books by women are a (heartening) rarity even today, so a woman who got kids excited about science half a century ago is nothing short of a cultural hero. Such is the case of Jeanne Bendick, who authored and illustrated more than one hundred mid-century children’s books about science and technology. An advocate of questions over answers as the key to the scientific mind and a champion of combinatorial creativity who recognized that all ideas build on those that came before, she articulated her ethos with inspiring eloquence:

One part of the job I set for myself is to make those young readers see that everything is connected to everything — that science isn’t something apart. It’s a part of everyday life. It has been that way since the beginning. The things the earliest scientists learned were the building blocks for those who came after. Sometimes they accepted earlier ideas. Sometimes they questioned them and challenged them. I want to involve readers directly in the text so they will ask themselves questions and try to answer them. If they can’t answer, that’s not really important… Questions are more important than answers… If I were a fairy godmother, my gift to every child would be curiosity.

In 1953, half a decade before the dawn of the Space Race and cosmic optimism, sixteen years before the first human on the moon, and more than half a century before space exploration took a tragic nosedive to the bottom of government priorities, Bendick penned and illustrated The First Book of Space Travel (public library) — a whimsical and illuminating primer on astro-exploration and the known universe. From the physics of how rockets work to the scale of the solar system to the essentials of astronaut lingo, her charming illustrations and rigorously researched yet clear text live at the intersection of curiosity and wonder.

Decades before Sally Ride, the first American woman in space and the youngest astronaut to ever launch into the cosmos, shared her first-hand account of what it’s like to launch on a space shuttle, Bendick illustrated the experience:

A quarter century before Carl Sagan, Arthur C. Clarke and Ray Bradbury pondered the possibility of life on Mars, Bendick envisioned extraterrestrial life:

And because every budding astronaut should know how to space-talk, she broke down the essentials:

Fifteen years before the birth of the revolutionary Apollo space suit, Bendick presented a surprisingly accurate design anatomy:

The First Book of Space Travel is sadly long out of print, but used copies are not yet impossible to find. Complement it with this wonderful modern-day, vintage-inspired illustrated chronicle of the Space Race and Diane Ackerman’s vintage verses for the planets.

BP

View Full Site

Brain Pickings participates in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for sites to earn commissions by linking to Amazon. In more human terms, this means that whenever you buy a book on Amazon from a link on here, I get a small percentage of its price. That helps support Brain Pickings by offsetting a fraction of what it takes to maintain the site, and is very much appreciated