Wednesday, October 01, 2008

Could I have become a composer or pianist? More retrospect


On January 21 2008 (this year) I recapitulated my own efforts in music composition and my nine years of piano lessons, from the third grade to my senior year in high school. Today, I add to the retrospect. (Remember, there is a minor-key intermezzo in Johannes Brahms's last piano Sonata, just before the Finale, called "Retrospect".)

I still wonder, in view of some rather personal philosophical postings I’ve made recently, about willingness to accept “uncertainty” to have a free and expressive life (see Sept. 29 on my main “Bill” blog), about the historical fact that I did not make music my life’s work.

I remember my first piano teacher, who died in 1958 of colon cancer at 57 when I was in ninth grade, had said that the most important thing besides music was “that I be a normal boy, like other boys.” She also left a dangling phrase, “If you don’t make music your life’s work….”

Why didn’t I? On the surface, I had other interests. I was a member of the Science Honor Society as a senior at Washington-Lee high school, and a Memorial Day, 1961 weekend trip to Mt. Washington, New Hampshire became the psychological equivalent to a senior prom. In April 1961, in fact, I had won a chemistry scholarship at William and Mary. We know from my other postings what happened with that (go to my main blog, Nov. 28, 2006, for the account of 11/21/61 which is my personal 9/11).

I already had a sense that the “brains v. brawn” debate (stirred by the 1920’s story Richard Connell “The Most Dangerous Game”) could give someone like me the opportunity to live a “different” life. Because of the Cold War concerns and unique dangers it posed (almost unprecedented in nature), someone like me was “needed” despite my competitive failures in the normal sense of what was expected of males in that era. During that time, the military draft was a given, but not considered an immediate peril to life (as it had been during Korea) because the Berlin Crisis had not fully evolved yet, let alone Vietnam. Nevertheless, Kennedy was already making a spectacle of it, with suggestions as to what people owed their country and who might be deferred from the draft. For a while there were deferments for fathers or married men, and these expired, but student deferments, for those who stayed in the sciences, would continue well into the Vietnam war, until the lottery of 1969.

As a result, I did go down a different path. I sometimes regret it. I do think I was capable of working hard enough to become competitive in the music field. (I once had a tryout piano lesson in Washington with Dr. Hughes – I think at Catholic University – at about the age of 14). But there was too much social pressure against it. I caved in to the pressures of the times, even my own father.

Relevant to all this is that I finally did "get drafted" in 1968, after graduate school in mathematics, was sheltered somewhat, but lost some hearing my right ear because of its exposure on the rifle range in Basic Training while I was coming down with a barracks influenza. That was a required "sacrifice", for nothing other that "paying my dues."

There is a certain dichotomy or paradox in an artistic temperament. Your art is broadcast (perhaps in a blog today) to everyone. Some people respond, and you select the people you want in your life. Is that moral? Is it fair? That seems to come from the foundations of modern classical liberal thought about individual rights, the capability of choosing one’s significant others, even attracting them in a manner of one’s choosing. But, of course, that whole mechanism assumes a global technological and economic infrastructure to make delivery of your work possible. To some extend, that was true even several centuries ago. Classical music, starting late in the 18th century perhaps, was one of the first art forms that depended on the idea that eventual worldwide performance and audience would transform how people perceived things – even more than literature itself. Romanticism, as it came in with Beethoven and Schubert (a bit with Mozart, actually) was actually a global technological innovation.

I come back to the music teacher’s reinforcement of the idea of being “normal”. (Hello, in Smallville, young Clark Kent yearns to be normal – and then he relishes his powers and becoming “special” (he just says “different”) again. In “Supernatural” the character Sam goes through the same personality evolution.) Perhaps one can’t count on a world technological or economic infrastructure to broadcast oneself. (Isn’t that what the “Bailout” and economic credit crisis today is about? Isn’t that what 9/11 was about?)

Yeah, I was the last picked for the team when I was in grade school. I thought a technological, interconnected world would redeem me, and give me a place. It did, perhaps in urban exile for three decades, but now the world calls me back and expecte me to get real. That’s partly because things are so very public in this broadband, Internet age. So things get fragile.

Your left with the idea that, whatever your faith, your life needs to start on a sound basis. There’s nothing better than, when still a teen or a young adult, being the guy that others came count on to lead them out of any adaptive challenge. If you’re good at everything, there’s nothing to worry about. But the problem is, most of us aren’t.

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