"WHAT ON EARTH are we going to tell them?" I ask Russell Oberlin, the famed countertenor, as we gather with colleagues at one of those benighted roundtables. Tonight's subject, to abet young hopefuls in the hall who will model themselves on us, is: "To What Do You Owe Your Success?"
"God knows," said Russell. "I've always had it easy - but we're not supposed to tell them that. From the instant I began as a choirboy everyone knew I was good. I've never had to pull strings. But have I been successful? Does anyone think of himself as that?"
It's been sort of the same with me. Had I not been encouraged from the start (encouraged not with love but with performances, commission, reviews) I could never have persevered. Even today, if a month passes with no evidence that I am admired, I want to throw in the sponge.
Beginners do like recipes. But with so-called creators, by definition (or nondefinition), each case provides its own recipe. What worked for us might not work for you. All one can suggest is: Move to New York, know the right people, and your talent, if you have any, just may help you.
My musical background is one of inversion, the earliest exposure having been, by some happy error, to the sounds of my time. In early adolescence I owned complete catalogues of Griffes and Harris and Carpenter and Copland (not to mention Ravel and Stravinsky), yet knew no note of Beethoven nor even Tchiakovsky. I had to accustom myself - indeed, brace myself - to classics, as others, from duty, attend to what they call "moderns." Since in matters artistic the rugged American grain still runs toward the European past rather than the local present, my stance was quite unpatriotic. Yet in all centuries but ours musical standards were everywhere based on the contemporary. Which is as it should be. Music most comprehensible to people of today is music of today because it is penetrated by today, and literally no one can fail to perceive this on some level. Today's music may feel hard because it lives, and life is hard. But the hardness speaks, even when we don't like what it says, while the classcis drift forward with the pacifying mutism of cadavers. We can only know the past through current interpretations which change each day.The static known is judged by the fluid unknown.
My greatest thrills were my youngest thrills: seeing Mary Wigman dance when I was 10, discovering Le Sacre at 11, reading Gide at 12, falling in love for the first time at 13, dying of a broken heart at 14. I have never been more ready. Life ever after has been spent in trying to reanimate, and to skewer with a five-pronged staff, whose moments that made my hear stand on end.
Do not judge others by yourself.
Then by whom shall I judge them?
Don't judge at all.
Right. I'll condemn.
How would you introduce a novice to modern music?
By playing it.
What pieces would you have him listen to?
Those to which his curiosity draws him. If the lust isn't there, chuck the whole matter. Who says we must all love music, or presumes with biased conjecture that the unmusical are missing something? James and Kafka and Picasso despaired of music, yet were not slouches any more than the entire surrealist party which categorically banned the sonic art.
How should children learn about music?
By being taught to compose in the nursery. If infants were given the basics of musical notation, along with shaping mud pies and rhyming cat with rat, their parents would stop asking the composer (on those mythic occasions when they meet face to face) how he hears all those notes in his head. They don't ask the painter where he finds an image, or an author where he finds a plot - because they too have their images and plots.
ON BEING READY
Rehearsing with Donald Gramm for our Texas recital I'm dismayed at how much worse I play than during our concerts two years ago, even then I played less well than for our recording 15 years ago. Yet the repertory is the same. Of course, you must run ever faster to stay in place, and I do practice less. Still, not only my brain but my hands now forget how to hit the right note with the right tone at the right time.
Practice may make perfect (oh dull perfection!), but overpractice makes stale. Interpretation does not with the years automatically improve, grow more right, more "telling." Rudolf Serkin's recital last night was a freak show of swollen detail, of fragment construed as monument, each purling droplet so lovingly traumatized that no further flow was permissible. Serkin has the Midas touch, alas. Age, with a healthily advancing artist, simplifies complexity.
Teachers so often admonish: Don't touch this until you're ready. (When are you ready? Suppose you die first?) Students, who technically play rings around their teacher, concur: The notes aren't touch, but oh, those profundities! We dare not tackle this. (The "this" is inevitably Beethoven, never Poulenc.) Awe of the deep past knows no bounds.
Now, maturity does not come with maturity. Maturity is here, you have it or don't. Unready at 20 means unready too at 50. Progress in itself is not always positive.Diease progresses.
"How," loadedly asks Rudolf Serkin of the young planist, "is your Waldstein coming?"
"I think I've finally got it under control."
"Really, I've been playing it all my life and still don't have it under control."
Young players, learn this: If you're the real thing, you're real now. You'll spend the next six decades treading water in the fountain of youth. Are there any first-rate 80-year-olds who weren't first-rate at 20? And how many virtuoso augment their repertory after they've made it big? Master everything today, think it out tomorrow.
October 1952. Hugues Cuenod and I have a date to record some songs of mine, which he's never seen, at Vose Greenough's studio. "Let's sight-read the first take," suggests Hugues, "and see what happens." The ensuing performance turns out better than all further takes. Nervous tension, intelligence, metier, seizing the nature of the moment, these cut through detailed years of study like the sword of Perseus.
Practice makes imperfect.
Until a hundred years ago the composed was mostly his own performer. Today not only do creator and interpreter face opposite horizons, they seldom meet - mainly because the interpreter is busy interpreting performers of a hundred years ago.
One summer I was Token Composer at Marlboro, that Edenic site in the heart of Waspland staked out by Rudolf Serkin and some four-score nonpaying guests, successful heterosexual Jewish instrumentalists under 30 practicing on 19th-century German scores. At a public recital a token piece of mine was played. Later at The Party young Peter Serkin, whom I'd never met, failed to react either to my music or to my person. Since he's more than a merely adroit executant, though not quite dripping with whimsy, I tried all sorts of chitchat but got no rise. Desperate, I resorted to crossing the crowded room by walking on my hands, the one thing I can do that nobody else can . He melted.
Voici les moeurs du meilleur monde.
Ou se trouvent les toilettes? These are the first words the infallible John Simon spoke to me, after introducing himself in the waiting room at La Guardia where we were both to catch the same plane. Now toilette, of course, means attire; what Simon meant was lavobos. Such are the false friends grammars speak of. Words resembling English are always weaker in their French context. Malicieux means sly, sinister means dreary, formidable means swell, as does chic which never means chic.
We were seeking the adjectival equivalent for "evil" in French, and concluded it doesn't exist. Mauvais and mechant may refer to a rotten fruit or a masty kid, but not, theologically, to wickedness. To declare someone evil one must use the noun. Il est le mal. Francine wondered if there were any one person about whom we might say that. I thought for awhile, then brought out: Boulez c'est le mal. Through charm and guile and force and intellect Pierre Boulez has brainwashed two generations, setting back, not forth, the state of music.
American premiere of Pli selon pli. During the entr'acte there again rose up that sacred buzz which has continued for days in some circles, though not in mine, to the effect that we were present at the biggest event since Le Sacre. Actually Boulez's "plea" now sounds like what it precisely is: smallish, easy on the ears, the sole example of what has emerged in an unbroken stream from so-called Franch Impressionism. The highlighting and lowlighting of color, yes color, is not, as with Stravinsky, a mere offshoot of Debussy but a continuation of Debussy.
For three decades I've thought of Boulez as my contrary in that he was order-and-ice while I was heat-and-folly. But the contrariness is contrary to that. Ironically, he is the sensual one, though never never sad. I could not, for example, given in to paraphernal exotica, wind chimes and kotos and bells and Chinese cymbals and that whole family of hammered keybords like marimbas and vibraharps and such, which Boulez seems partial to. Being the dance, I dread being known for the dancer. He speaks a lush tongue for the serene statement; my language is pared, the result opulent.
Language is a system of symbols about specifics. Whether "tree" or "last" or "when" conjure up the same images for all, we all agree on how to use them. Music would seem to fit that definition, except music's symbols are not of specifics; indeed, they represent nothing - they themselves are the end sought. Music is said to conjure up images different to us all.
Because writing is something everyone learns, many an amateur effort is as historically secure as the professional - Madame de Sevigne, Emily Dickinson, letters and poems of prisoners and children. Musical composition is not something we all learn. There has never been an amateur composer of any interest. The prose of composers ranks high: Wagner, Debussy, Virgil Thomson, Paul Bowles. The composition of nonspecialists falls flat: Lionel Barrymore, Benjamin Franklin, Ezra Pound, Adolf Hittler.
When Francine called Jane Bowles a minor writer, she seemed surprised when I said that, by and large, I prefer minor art to major art - that I have more need for, say, Faure than for Schumann, while admitting that Schumann dug deeper. It seemed never to have occurred to Francine (any more than to up-and-coming freshmen) that so-called secondary artists could be more satisfying than those making the Big Statement. Of course, my examples were frail; how can one argue two composers of such different time and place? And maybe I am missing something. But don't we all miss something by not being each other? Still, in art the Big Statement is oftimes a political blinder.
(Did Schumann dig deeper?)
What's missing from his pictures? I ask as we leave X's vernissage. Without missing a beat JH answers Charm. Well yes, I gues so, though Beethoven made it big without charm. Ah, but Beethoven did have charm, rustic and pompous though he sometimes seemed.
Charm alone cannot a masterpiece make, as witness 19th-century French music. Yet to a very real extent there exists no big work that lacks charm. That is precisely why Kafka is great where Borges is not, Mahler is great where Bruckner is not, Manet is great where Courbet is not. (Find you own examples. Mine may weaken the argument for you - you who find Borges charming.)
A commissioner, to whom I send a progress report describing the piece as a divertissement, replies: "Divertissement seems to indicate somethink fortes" (the work is a double concerto for cello and piano, to be played by him and his wife) "are poetry, elegance, liquidity, nuance, color, insight and dramatic power. I am serious, emotionally profound - although, alas, not sufficiently profound intellectually - and I am most comfortable with material of substance. Do we have a problem here?"
JH advises me simply to change the title to Concerto Profundo, since the commissioner and I, though perhaps musically sympathetic, don't speak the same English, and since music (which is never too vague for words, but always too precise) only "means" whatever the composer tells you, in words, that it means. Meanwhile, what's wrong with froth, light, charm? Emotional profundity is for sophomore bull sessions. Since everyone imagines himself to be imotionally profound, conscious frivolity, i.e., comedy (which, at its most "profound," comes only through, and thus comprises, tragedy), is what must be cultivated. Depth is there, or it isn't, but it can't be bought.
Make an essay on the virtues of superficiality, on whether art cannot be snared and frozen in a sad clean ray of red light or in a tight flock of feathers as well as in a Greco crucifixion or in a Bach mass. No one's glibber than he who sees forever deep. Tragedy examines two sides of one mask, but comedy examines three.
Re. frivolity. This moment - the value of it - can never come again, whether it be savoring a lime sherbet in Piazza Navona at sundown as we gaze into each other's features, or learning the horrors steaming on Three Mile Island. The star of an Antonioni movie is not the groaning heroine but the waving trees.
Ever so rarely performers turn around to face composers, seeking advice from the horse's mouth. What to answer them? It's all there on the staff. Teachers know, composers know how. But if composers could explicate their music they'd be authors, not musicians,.
Good performers don't need coaching. When they're bad no coaching helps. Good ones have shown me a thing or two about points I've missed. Bad ones forever miss the point. Good ones can't "save" bad music, they bring out the badness in gold relief. Bad ones make even good music sound bad, but the badness is blamed on the composer.
Once in my mervousness, like many an oaf, I started clapping before the piece was over - and the piece was my own.
The composer-as-teacher runs a danger. Teachers repeat themselves. After the first year they not only believe what they say, they believe in what they say, so they say forever the same times. Nice for a syllabus, not for a sonata. And the compulsory magnanimity, dealing with other people's music, encoraches on the composer's solitude - his leisure to work. The composer-as-teacher is only effective when being just a composer, an example, leading his life, erring, involuntarily emitting an education in the guise of a healthy infection. The horse's mouth spits. To teach is to lead other horses to water and to make them drink.
Art is clarity;. The most complicated statement, if it is art, is the simplest form for that statement. That one statement is all there is. Another statement, if it is art, is independent of the first, and indeed of all other statements.
Eggs make chicks make eggs make.... So turns the tedious wheel. Humans too, spawning themselves, clone eternally. Only works of art, even bad ones, grow from a kernel toward a unique bloom signaled by a singular Stop.
Given this conclusion one can say: Le Sacre du Printemps or the Quartetto in Modo Lidico reflect the essence of economy, while your average pop song is more lavish than its content. The process of distillation - that's all any artist can learn from any other. So far as the process can be imparted through demonstration rather than through imitation, only a Nadia Boulanger turns pedagogy into art. And Boulanger very early forsook all notion of herself as a composer.
With discouragement I reflect, after coming home from bouts at colleges around the land, on how despite the richness of the ivied halls the poorness of instruction runs rife. If I'm the guest of one member of the department, other members testily arrange to grade papers in their offices during my public talks and tunes. Now, supposing it is not intramural rivalry but scorn of myself that's behind the boycott. Shouldn't they still attend me in order the better to scorn me?I may never come again, yet their poor papers are always with them.
Seemingly complex questions generally have plain answers. The riskiest advice is also the only advice.
How, asks a student, do you compose a piece? Answer: By making it up as you go along, how did you think? Carrissimi and Chopin, no less than John Cage or Judy Collins, proceeded by putting one foot before the other. Not that they stumbled through a maze of Self Expression. Merely to express yourself is to betray what you have to say. We are all self expressive but our Self Expression is not our identity. Identity is manner - hearty hewn manner - of delivery for Self Expression. To feel deeply is not necessarily to articulate with the economic urgency of art. To discourage Self Expression is the teacher's chief task.
How, continues the student, once you've channeled Self Expression, do you compose a perfect piece? Answer: By imitation - using a model you love. If, as Radiguet contended, a true artist cannot copy, he has only to copy to prove he's a true artist. (Radiguet produced two flawless novels, then died at 20. Ironic America, land of youth, never produced a Raidguet. Of course, music is finer than prose, and Mozarts zre rarer than Radiguets. Yet Russia, not America, produced a Shostakovich whose first symphony, written at 19, is a masterpiece.) Now a perfect piece, which any well-schooled hack can learn to make, cannot be guaranteed to bleed and breathe, and even God just hopes for the best.
After two minutes in the new Saratoga Bookstore I had to leave. The place was well stocked and with pleasant ambience (a fire blazed, a woman with braids sat reading Kafka), but the radio blaring country music was too intrusive for concentrated browsing. In New York too I've noticed this: hangouts like health stores and head shops you'd think would be opposed to such digestive hindrance to hearing yourself at any price.
I don't know why, but young people today who read their Kafka (as well as Shakespeare) and who look at De Kooning (as well as Raphael), do not listen to the "equivalent" music. Never in a bookstore or art gallery do we hear Monteverdi or Machaut or Webern or Weber. Ideally, of course, one would prefer silence in these locations, and I'm opposed to Rizzoli's policy of "good music" as background for buying.
O the dithyrambs I confected around the Beatles years ago! Today I'm more than indifferent, I'm hostile. Pop is inherently wrong by being preemptive. Each summer the Schaeffer Festival in Central Park not only drowns the contigual opera concerts in another part of the forest (like a great sow who, obligious to her runts, smothers them), but 40,000 West Side families become captive audience to the din. This is no comment on the quality of the music, although overstatement is always suspect.
ON BEING ARTISTIC
"I used to give my heart and soul to my dancing
To keep the wolf from the door,
But now I'm a lady,
Ain't got to dance anymore."
Thus crooned Mae West, as I, a child, thrilled to her success, never thinking that that to which one gives one'd heart is perforce more than a makeshift trade, or that if dancing is but a means to a financial end, why give it your soul? But if I ignored the meaning of art in America, neither did I know what a lady was, though I was glad Mae had become one.
And I thrilled too at the unexplained contradiction of the Saint Louis Woman who, despite "all her diamond rings/Pulls that man around by her apron strings." When Mae West got diamonds, surely the aprons (if there ever were any) got thrown away.
Yet again am I invited by "a practicing psychologist" to participate in a panel about "Psychology and the Creative Process," and yet again, with a sign, I try to explain: "Creativity is not a work in my vocabulary. If it were, I would apply it solely to productive (as opposed to interpretive) artists, of whom I know a goodly number. Not one of them has ever expressed interest in what you can "the psychology of creation." Indeed, the meaning of art seems of more concern to outsiders than to artists. Any why should a composer like myself wish to tell you in words precisely what he exemplifies in music? If he could tell you, he wouldn't need to be a composer.... The only absolute rule about "creative people" is that they are more practical-minded than is generally believed. Surely I am not the first to ask what the fee will be for participation on your panel."
The psychologist: "I wasn't asking you to tell me in words what you exemplify in music. I was inviting you to join in an exploration of the creative process in yourself and others. I would be surprised if you were not interested in the manner in which you come upon your own creations. Other creative artists are. You are the first to ask what the fee would be for participation on my panel."
How can one win when the other makes the rules? He invites me, presumably because I am a "creative artist," but when I can't concur with his definition I err. Now, if by the nature of things I am the one to define the process, he paradoxically rejects my opinion even as he solicits it.
What such romantic laymen refuse to grasp is that the "creative process" (if that's the term for the action of making so-called art) is no more and no less than hard work. Well, everyone on earth has something to say and everyone knows the feeling of hard work, everyone wishes to communicate and, indeed, many "untalented" people are able to "feel" more deeply than "real artists." The fact that one hard worker produces something expert that catches fire while another produces something equally expert that's stillborn is what makes this one an artist and that one not an artist. No other century than our is further concerned with the question. Artists understand me. Psychologists don't, or won't.
Elsewhere we read of a team of canny psychologists who are "onto" the mystry of "creativity" because they're studying children - all children being, as everybody knows, imaginative and fantastic and uninhibited until the growing-up process puts a damper on their Self Expression. What the canny psychologists won't face is that children are also unself-critical. If it can be argued that a great artist is one who, among his other blessings, has happily retained his childlike knacks, it cannot be argued that a child, by virtue of his knacks, is a great artist.Children may well be "artistic," but art is restraint, not excess. Until a child leans to chisel inspiration into singular inevitable shape he cannot be termed an artist. Nowhere does history give us an example of the child-as-great-artist, although the great-artist-as-child is everywhere. Well, not quite everywhere.
In 1953 in France a 9-year-old girl named Minou Drouet was "caught" writing marvelous poetry.Her fame rose even to the Academie Francaise which, while allowing that her verse rivaled Rimbaud's, suspected that maybe her parents were writing it for her. She was thus put into experimental isolation, but even alone in her cell she wrote great poems. Jean Cocteau, who despised the whole business, declared: "All children have genius - except Minou Drouet."
(14 Sept. 77) Deaths today of Stokowski, of Gustave Reese, and especially of Callas and of Robert Lowell. With all his discontent and sadness Lowell left something, whatever it is, and isn't that the point? Artists' sorrow pays. Can they thus be said to be sorrowful when they are capable simultaneously of noting the sorrow, since the act of notation is, while it lasts, a removal from sorrow - from, that is, active life? And how much of JH's anxiety is not itemized for heaven? He contends that we are all deluded, except the insane. Delusions are a keel. The person who convinces friends of his delusions, functiond. He who convinces strangers of his delusions achieves prosperity, and (if the delusions are couched in notes or paints or verbs) posterity. The public, feels JH, is deluded by the geniuses' delusions. For there is no such thing as Good Art in the absolute.
Melomaniacs sigh in contained exasperation as though I had uttered a pseudo-quip, but I am dead serious: You don't have to love a piece to play it well (some pieces don't concern love); you have to know what it's about. Conversely, to love a piece, even to know what it's about, doesn't mean you'll play it well. The french play their own music less well than outsiders do. Do they not "understand" their own music? (Ravel didn't understand Ravel, judging by how he played himself.) I don't much like Schubert, but I do know how he should "go," and play him well. Probably the rule is that a certain sort of objectivity obtains in all true - not to say great - interpretation. Merely to feel something doesn't mean that the feeling can be transferred to an audience, or that, if it can, that it's the right feeling.
In my diary I don't seem to need to detail important events surrounding my musical works, not even to report on the glamor of their worldly launching. Is this because such works represent my unverbal side? Because such works are disries in themselves?
Nor do I relate reaction to current politics. A Sartre would denounce this as invalid. Can an artist in the glow of Watergate focus only on his navel? Yet is not any diary, by virtue of recording the present, a political document? Avoidance of the specifically political is itself a political stance. (Or is it rather societal, like despair among our Indians? People confuse these notions.) I don't record much about astronomy either, or about high fashion or chicken breeding.
Paul Goodman once reproached certain radicals for spreading their worthy acts too thin. To support blacks this month and abortion next month is to abandon blacks. I state this not to justify but to define my manners. The poor are always with us, but artists' truths are uttered only once.
Such truths as may lurk in the preceding notes seem nonetheless uttered, as I reperuse them, over and over. It is cop-out to justify their fragmented redundancy by stating that unique art, like the drabbest existence, is accomplished, indeed survived, by repeating, in slightly different vocabulary, the same old four or five maxims, day after day after day? CAPTION: Illustration, no caption; BY MICHAEL DAVID BROWN; Picture, NED ROREM; Copyright (c) , JOHN DE CLEF PINEIRO