Saturday, November 23, 2013

An Ineluctable Modality: Chapter 23

An Ineluctable Modality is a novel I wrote for NaNoWriMo's 2013 Challenge where the goal was to write 50,000 words of a novel during the month of November. This year, I wrote a novel-in-blog-posts: you can read the previous chapter, here.

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It is said people, in order to be creative, need to get out of their "comfort-zones," one of those great buzz-words of the recent past (as for that matter is "buzz-word"). That is how we spark our new ideas, by this friction between our everyday lives and stepping beyond the boundaries of the familiar. But most creative people I know – myself included – are not at their best in group situations (the uncomfortable, brainstorming "think tank"), bouncing our contributions off competitive if communal walls to spark the greater effort.

That's not a natural environment for people like me drawn into themselves, the introverts struggling to maintain their integrity in a world run by people who can't shut up. We are ruled by extroverts, the "doers" of the world. But yet it seems to me that without us and the ideas that introverts reveal, the extroverts would have little to go on.

We are part of the team, we are told – that is what extroverts tell us – but the sports metaphor may not be the best description of the "team" we should be. A machine of many component parts where each part has its function and does it well might be too abstract and dehumanizing but yet that is exactly what a human body is. The brain may be the leader, but it cannot function without its component parts doing what each part does best – the heart, lungs, stomach, kidneys and, for the prolongation of the species, the lowly testicles, just to name a few.

If you want an image of a team, why do leaders insist that every member of the team be a microcosm of the whole, that they be in some ways all alike – thinking alike, acting alike, moving as if choreographed by some supreme plan? There is a goal, perhaps, but there are different ways to reach the goal and don't we, like our individually functioning organs, work differently toward that goal? Even if it's like Achilles chasing the tortoise toward an ever-receding horizon?

As a friend of mine at Selwyn-Morgan said, "it's true there's no 'I' in TEAM, but it's also an anagram of MEAT” (and there is 'ME' in MEAT). We are all being subsumed into the corporate entropy.

When did the so-called Human Resources department, an increasingly significant weapon in the arsenal of business morale and maintenance, start treating employees less like personnel and more like any natural resource? Like coal or wood, once consumed and digested, we could now be disposed of, taken out in buckets to be shoveled into the landfill of society.

The idea of "burnout," then, is not so foreign if you're just another source of fuel, sacrificing yourself to the greater corporate good. For me, burnout set in quickly – not the year I was elevated to a full professorship but a few years later when I was given the presumably enviable position of Assistant Chair on the President's Advisory Committee for Academic Policy which, for my liking, took itself entirely too seriously.

Combine that with more responsibilities in the graduate school, I felt less and less like someone teaching students how to write music and more like a pencil-pushing, self-serving bureaucrat whose primary function was to ensure my own existence.

With less time to compose – one of the chief reasons for my own existence – and less time to enjoy the thrill I found in teaching, eventually it seemed I had more meetings on my schedule than classes.

As I spent less time preparing for my students than I did some report for the head of my committee, I began to wonder why people climbing the corporate ladder viewed promotion as an accomplishment.

Within a year of this, I noticed the once occasional gray hair I'd discover had now turned into a well-recruited army. Madeleine was then diagnosed and, in the natural order of expendable fuel, despite the doctor's best intentions, died.

Fortunately, my sabbatical was on the horizon, if I could hold myself together long enough. But to be spending it alone – that was hard. And then it became my turn.

Being a grieving invalid was definitely outside my standard "comfort zone," so why, then, did my interest in composing completely dry up? Shouldn't this ignite some new sense-of-self that would give meaning and renewed productivity to my creative side? Catharsis – suffering.

I had gone from a student composer to an academic one, given a tenure-track position that would give me the necessary day-job to support my art. But my job was to teach, not compose, and eventually the word "composer" disappeared from what I did, who I was. I had become, simply, an academic.

Scurrying like a hermit crab from classroom to meeting, there was no time to mourn the loss of my creativity. At first, I hardly noticed, excusing it merely as a lack of time.

Then I realized it was a lack of concentration that eventually became, as I lie there in the hospital, a lack of interest.

"You've changed," Stephen told me, sitting there beside me. He'd come out – Leo joined us, later – to be there when I came out from surgery, which I thought was a thoroughly touching expression. After all, he had only recently lost his mother who was much dearer to him than I; but still...

"Of course I've changed," I said, sounding more resentful than I had intended. "I'm an old man, now: it's official." Indeed – looking in the mirror after a few days, my head had turned completely gray.

The hydra-like university pulled itself behind me in support, allowing me the rest of the semester to recuperate: one of the new Assistant Professors would take over my classes (his role would now be danced by an understudy, one of the recently minted Associate Professors and so on down the chorus line).

This way I could make it to the start of my sabbatical which now took on a clearly different focus, all plans for the research trip to London – exploring the "younger" composers there growing up in the wake of Britten and Tippett – needing to be changed, officially, to something that involved composing rather than researching other composers.

But this had not been approved by my doctor who saw such efforts dangerous to my recuperation. It was an expenditure considered unwise which I should only venture into carefully, gradually.

"Remember," I told myself, "Britten writing Phaedra after his surgery, or Prokofiev sneaking away from his dratted doctor long enough to compose War and Peace."

What form would my swan song take?

One of my students, Ferdinand – not one of the best but possibly one with more curiosity which might in the long run go a lot further than the others' easily expressed talents – stayed with me once Stephen and Leo returned to California. During the summer, he lived with me as a combination assistant and houseboy which made me uncomfortable, especially when it would come time to evaluate him once I returned officially to being his professor. But in the meantime, almost everything we talked about focused around the periphery of his education.

It helped me, talking to him, rather than sitting there alone, dwelling on the past and worrying about the future. It's quite possible he kept me alive because without him, I could see myself spinning into the vortex of self-destruction.

We talked about composers' lives, their works, how things that happened in their lives might or might not affect their music. It was all part of the "Creative What-If Game," taking a famous composer and not just wondering what might have happened, say, if Bach had stayed in L├╝beck to marry Buxtehude's daughter. Would anything have changed if Tchaikovsky hadn't gotten married, then tried to commit suicide as a result?

"How do you think your music will change," he asked. I appreciated he recognized something that, history-making or not, had been an experience he had witnessed, as much as I appreciated his implication I would continue – resume – composing.

"I don't know, yet," I responded after a bit of overly prolonged consideration, perhaps more for dramatic effect. "That's what the future is for, to find out."

He asked me questions about the composers I loved when I was growing up – composers like Britten or Copland – and how I thought they had influenced me. Then I asked him the same, and we talked about the rock music that infused his love of, of all things, Rachmaninoff when he was 12.

"Listen to those changes," he would say in wonder, playing slowly through one of Rachmaninoff's preludes. "Aren't they incredible?" I would never have thought of them the way a jazz player would imagine something as basic as a chord progression, hearing them again for the first time.

Schubert as a young man was unable to prove his future financial worth to his girlfriend's father (required by law in those days) so his losing a teaching job he didn't want sealed his wedding's fate. He determined, then, as he told friends, he must focus more on becoming a composer. It is from this time he began all those unfinished works – symphonies, a quartet, several operas as well.

But if he had married the merchant's daughter, would he have become the great composer we think of him today? Perhaps he wouldn't have contracted the syphilis that killed him at 31 and he might have lived into a ripe old age. But would he have been as good a composer for having only lived a longer, happier life?

"Ah, so the trick to creativity is how to suffer, then, isn't it? But what about Mendelssohn?" If nothing else, the happy Felix always served as the antidote to the suffering artist struggling with poverty and indifference.

"It would depend on their comfort level," I imagined, "and what we read into it. There is a great deal we don't know about these artists with only their finished (or unfinished) works to see them through."

Every artist is different and sees "the work" differently: Copland wrote that a composer sees (or hears) a new work all in a flash and then works out the details. But Britten was a very methodical composer, carefully crafted.

Having begun as someone spontaneous, starting at the beginning and working my way to the end, not knowing where it might go in between, I became, with training, a more meticulous planner, working out an architectural span.

At this point, I couldn't imagine going back to the free-for-all, whatever-happens-happens school of composing. I had gone over completely to the left side of my brain.

So it was curious, thinking back to that on-line test I took the other day, why my right side scored so highly. Something life-changing had happened, somewhere, and I'd missed it completely!

* * ** *** ***** ******** ***** *** ** * * be continued...

Dick Strawser

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