Some tiny creature, mad with wrath,

Is coming nearer on the path.

--Edward Gorey

Location: Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, U.S. Outlying Islands

Writer, lawyer, cyclist, rock climber, wanderer of dark residential streets, friend.

Monday, February 21, 2005

After Zulieka, and "an infinity contained within limits"

In an eloquent passage about the violin, Zulieka writes,

the freedom of your expression increases exponentially by the dictates of specific instructions because each instruction raises the awareness of an infinity contained within limits; an instruction such as "pianissimo" is just a gateway into the infinite variations of pianissimo possible--furtive pianissimos, breathless pianissimos, secretly angry pianissimos biding their time.

This, perhaps more than anything else, flatters my intuition that playing music, especially deliberately scored music, is an art more singular from others than the others are from each other. But the intuition is disquieting, and I resist it. I hate to think of various media as comprising discrete worlds of creation; it seems now more than ever, in installation art, in contemporary painting, in video and performance art, evidence abounds of the disintegration of once hallowed boundaries. (Ironically, this disintegration of boundaries owes a great debt to technological 'progress' that has, ostensibly, reduced the number and strength of many enshrined constraints -- in cinema, for example.)

A writer, a painter, any artist of any sort engaged earnestly with her craft will practice for thousands and thousands of hours. A writer may revise and refashion a particular paragraph a hundred different ways, each sentence revisited a dozen or more times, each such encounter necessitating a reconsideration of every other component of the expression in a regress from which only the constraint of mortality demands her flight by accepting an imperfect surrogate, a permanent placeholder. Furthermore, even in the depths of this process, the writer may know -- often does know -- where the paragraph must begin, what it must accomplish, and how it must end. A painter may paint in meditation a willow tree in his backyard twenty times as it grows imperceptibly, day bay day, each canvas a necessary tread up an invisible stairway. Each brushtroke on each canvas might be the last of twenty, prior efforts covered and scraped and scrubbed away to provide a new surface for the next endeavor, the subtle effects of each attempt a free radical just beneath the surface of its final form, hinting of prior struggle.

But within these confines so much flexibility, the task being to endure both in solitude and in plain sight a gantlet of multifarious constraints each of which conspires to render your task so odious that you will submit and flee rather than finish, and to bear in plain sight evidence of your solitary endurance, until you have nothing left that doesn't belong to someone else. I have never known the dedication of which Zulieka speaks -- her persevering "just because the notion of stopping has been forgotten" -- and if I envy anyone anything, it is just this: the capacity for relentless pursuit of an unattainable ideal, the very essence of art.

Her musing on her innumerable hours of practice (in light of the above thoughts) leads me to wonder whether one can identify one set of constraints as categorically unrelated to another, in their influence on the creative process. Whether each family of constraints has an order of magnitude all its own, somehow discriminating in favor of some over others, or suggesting that one artform is more dispiritingly addled with obstacles and consequently intrinsically more worthy. Most of us, I would imagine, those who have never played music with skill and refinement, would think of the variations in play in a two-measure phrase, to appropriate Zulieka's example, a five-second (or so) passage of music, as more limited in number and more impoverished of breadth, precisely in virtue of the many superficial rigidities governing its expression.

Of course, that is absurd; it calls to mind the various paradoxes engendered by learning to address the infinite in a manner amenable to mathematical inquiry and exploitation. There is infinite variation, as Zulieka suggests, in any two-measure phrase, in any note for that matter, just as there is infinite variation in writing from one point to anoter, or from rendering a single tree each day for an entire summer. Only in the most esoteric redoubts of mathematics do infinities behave as anything but equals. In this way, everything is the same.

The astonishing thought, however, is that it seems I've thought the goal of a classically trained musician in a formal setting is to conform to some perfection embodied in the composer's vision as transcribed, to give as near as possible the life to a musical expression that its composer intended it to have, as embodied in the expression's DNA, the score. I don't know whether to abandon this fundamental, perhaps epistemological faith that has governed ten years' self-education in music. Something has shaken free; I don't know whether to replace it or leave it behind.

There's nothing analogous to a musician's or conductor's score for a painter or a writer, unless the score is the world itself. But then is it not unfair to distinguish in this way, implying that a musical score is somehow diminished? Add the intermediaries: the composition passes through the hands of any number of interpreters, and even if the score itself is preserved precisely as first drafted, and played by an orchestra constituted precisely as the composer intended, the conductor is no friction-free conduit, channeling as he must through his bee dance his reading of that score, which in turn is molded in the hands of each musician in recursive symbiosis with the other performers, all the bees' organic syncopation, their jazz, a conspicuously non-baroque performance. Indeed, the conductor's intermediation complicates things still further: what is the nature of his art? Does it differ, categorically, from the nature of a violinist's art, an oboist's art, a timpanist's art? If the world is the score, and the written word that score's permiere, then the writer is the conductor, the words his orchestra, and god (or something like a god) the composer.

So then for music, too, in the midst of all these variables, the world is the score and the score the world. And my desire to see art as a seamless continuum, rather than a jumble of irregular fiefs, lives on. Even if it hadn't, however, thanks would be due: Zulieka sent me on a marvelous journey.


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