Posted in books, creativity, fiction, music, Shadows and Ghosts, writing

An Imperfect Stitch

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There is an error in Shadows and Ghosts.

During occasional battles with an ongoing obsession over symmetry and accuracy, I’ve considered correcting it…but only momentarily.

~~~

In 1975, Leon Redbone released his album, On the Track, which contains a rendition Of “Ain’t Misbehavin” (lyrics by Andy Razaf and music by Thomas “Fats” Waller and Harry Brooks).

Redbone’s interpretation is slightly off-kilter: the intonation struggles in places, and there are extra beats sprinkled throughout. But I love it. Its off-balance rhythmic irregularities, the nasal grit in Redbone’s voice, the imperfect instrumental tones and pitches feel fresh and authentic.  They transform a great song into a greater one.

~~~

My mother was a perfectionist. Today we would likely say her attention to detail was compulsive. But that compulsiveness got her far, made her successful at everything she did. Although I’ve spent most of life as an unapologetic underachiever, I have no doubt that some of her “perfectionism” rubbed off on me. You can’t spend hours practicing scales and arpeggios, isolated musical passages over and over without being at least a little compulsive. It’s the only way to train the brain, develop fine motor skills, make the muscles remember.

But it’s not always enough.

Along with compulsive tendencies, creation demands an oblique and often fractured perspective, a willingness to look at subject matter, construction, sideways and through a prism.

~~~

When I think of the thousands of books I’ve read, pieces of music I’ve played, I realize most of them contained errors and/or irregularities, some degree of strangeness in small or large ways that established the works as fresh and unique, that transformed and elevated them.

So I keep my error in place, because in important ways, it acts as a type of cipher.  And to reinforce its importance, I put a prism in plain view.

©2018 All Rights Reserved

 

 

 

 

 

 

Posted in art, creativity, film, food, human nature, music, writing

pəʊ-teɪ-təʊ, pəʊ-tɑ-təʊ

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Opinions. We all have them.

In the absence of empirical truth, we generally feel comfortable with our opinions, and feel justified in expressing them.

I’m no exception. I can think of a handful of writers, all of whom are regarded as masters of their craft, whose work leaves me cold. Similarly, there are dozens of musical pieces, all standards in the classical repertoire, which make me want to scream, “Make it stop! Make it stop!” As for film, there are those directors whose aesthetic completely escapes me. I’ve sat through every new, critically acclaimed release of theirs ready to give them a fair viewing, only to come away with exactly the same reaction: “Why?” And do I even need to get into art? Please.

The reality is, some creative work will always resonate, trigger the viscerally positive reaction we crave, often for reasons we might never completely understand, and some will not. We will always love some works, yet not others. In fact, there might be those we will hate….

~~~

Months ago, I happened to mention a book I loved to a fellow bibliophile. He made a face, then proceeded to give it a critical shredding (some of which rested on a distaste for the characters), which left me feeling like a complete imbecile. Correction: an imbecile with no taste.  I shouldn’t have felt insulted, but I did.

Some time before that, I became engaged in a discussion with a young woman about a particular director’s work. Every time I began to explain why I disliked the films, she interrupted, enumerating all the ways my opinion was wrong. As her argument heated, I understood it was more than a defense of the director’s work; it was an attempt to defend herself.

At that point, I stopped her, “Look. I’m not claiming the work has no artistic value, no worth. I’m just telling you it’s not for me.”

“Oh,” she looked at me, a bit startled. “Then it’s just an opinion.”

I said, “Exactly.”

And she smiled, “I guess that’s okay then.”

~~~

I’m always a bit amazed (although I shouldn’t be at my age) by how fragile our egos can be, how heavily invested they are in our critical faculties, and how easily they can be bruised. I suppose the more literate and educated we are, the more we pride ourselves in being able to view creative work objectively, and distinguish what is brilliant from what is commonplace.

But can we truly divorce ourselves from our tastes?

I still recall a conversation with a well-known conductor after another conductor’s performance of a Wagner Prelude. When he asked me what I thought, I said, “Not much.”

He then wanted to know if my opinion of the music was influenced by Wagner’s politics—a natural question, since both of us are Jewish.

I shook my head, saying, “No. It’s his endless sequences. They bore me to tears.”

He nodded, and with a wink said, “I know what you mean. The only way to conduct Wagner is to the end of the piece. You can’t take your time.”

We both laughed, but I couldn’t help but wonder if a better paced interpretation would have made me like the music better. I tend to doubt it.

Sometimes opinions on writing, film, art, and music are not apt to be changed. We often hold fast to our tastes, what pleases, what displeases, and use our training to analyze the reasons for them.

~~~

I was going to say it would be nice if we could view differences in artistic taste with the same detachment as we view differences in culinary taste; but then I’m suddenly reminded of a recent disagreement I had with an acquaintance over oysters.

No detachment there. When I said I couldn’t stand them, she went into a tirade.

That’s when I walked away.

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Posted in human nature, music

In Boxes

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You can’t put Haydn in a box.

You can’t put Bach in a box either, because he’ll find a way to squirm out of it — those endlessly growing and weaving themes, you know, but Haydn is more deceptive.

Because he worked during that eighteenth century movement of reaction and refinement, you might think it would be easy to shove him into a box that would tell you everything about him.

But no. He is too unpredictable, too full of surprises, too quick with sleight of hand. He takes you to unexpected places, makes you wait, teases you with tense dissonances and embellishments. Oh, and those rubatos. Yes, he plays with time, too.

_ _ _

In 2001, I had the privilege of living overseas. When I returned, the first question many friends and acquaintances asked was, “What are the people there like?”

I suppose it was a natural question, particularly from those who’d never lived anywhere but the United States, but it bothered me, even as I was telling them that the people were like people everywhere—some great, some not so great.

We have an unfortunate tendency to categorize, classify, label.

I suppose it simplifies life, tells us the differences between food, animal, vegetable, mineral, and insect. It’s good to know which is which. I wouldn’t want to mistake a tulip bulb for a nut and bite into it, as so many squirrels do. But, even within those classifications, as useful as they are, it’s equally useful to realize there are variants.  Matter is not simple; art is not simple; and people, definitely people, are not simple at all.

I worry about the ease with which we stuff people into boxes and slap labels on them, the ease with which we’re content to keep them there, even when the boxes are the wrong shape and size, the labels inaccurate.

My weeks with Haydn, analyzing, practicing, playing, have given me pause.  There’s so much depth in his masterfully layered notes—so much between the lines, a wealth of human feeling and knowledge and imagination. Oh, what we would miss if we crammed him into a box and were content to leave him there.

The container would be full, but we would be empty.

Recommended listening:  Haydn Piano Sonata in Eb Hob. XVI: 52, Movement II

©2016