Friday, April 8, 2011

Dynamics in Art and in Life

Hi, all. It has been one heck of a week, so, for the first time, I am posting an article I wrote for the online journal When Falls the Coliseum. It is "thicker" than my usual posts on here, but the spirit is the same, with an idea I come back to a lot: art as teacher for life. Hope you like it!

I had been looking forward to seeing David Russell in concert for a long time. In my opinion, he is the finest living classical guitarist. He was to perform at the First Unitarian Church in Philadelphia. It's a pretty big room. It seats about five-hundred and there were people standing in the back, too. People suck up sound, you know. I leaned over to a fellow guitarist and said, "Do you see any microphones?" He furrowed his brow and shook his head. We were worried. We were halfway back in the crowd. This was terrible. Then, David Russell trotted out pleasantly to lively applause and took his seat. He checked his tuning, but the turning of the buttons had the secondary effect of serving as a volume dial for his audience: the crowd slowly went as silent as a snowy pine-forest.

He played. Cripes, did he play. As the notes fell away from his guitar, the crowd leaned forward -- everyone, just a little, almost imperceptibly, both with their bodies and with their hearts. It was extraordinary.

You could hear him fine. You could hear him for real -- no amplification; no enhancements but the warmth of the dark wood reflecting the sound from the wall behind. The music didn't push us back with volume; it drew us gently in. It didn't drown us in sonic waves; it cooled us like waterfall mist. (Maybe that is why Segovia used to offer to play more quietly when people complained that they couldn't hear him in concert halls. Before this experience, I had thought Segovia was just being a jerk -- which, legend has it, he could do quite well.)

It occurred to me, that night, that maybe we are too wrapped up in "amping things up" in art, and in life, both literally and figuratively. I certainly can be.

Bear in mind, that my "Mr. Hyde" side is the drums and that I am not what you would call a timid player; I play loud, amplified rock. As a kid, I cut my "chops" on the music of progressive bands like Rush, Yes and early Genesis. So, I like loud, too.  Sometimes, I have a hard time maintaining balance between loud and soft in life, if not in music. Many of us lean too much toward the loud, the bright, the elaborate and the powerful. We need to remember dynamics. The fireworks are so damned tempting, though.

The modern novelists and poets, for instance, eschewed gods throwing thunderbolts, magic and miracles. Writers like Hemingway (and who wasn't like Hemingway for years after his emergence?) chose to write about an old man's bare feet on the cold floor, not ghostly dads and revenge plot switcheroos. The heroic escapades of Achilles and his ilk were and always will be great, but there were more subtle truths of humanity to uncover in the eyes of America's home-grown writers. (I know that same Heminwayesque old man was heroic, but his heroic "catch," alas, was only an internal victory, in the end -- no accolades or laurels for him; no great feast but that of the sharks who stole his trophy. A solo cello played his fanfare, not a line of trumpets.)

Writers like Hemingway, Steinbeck and Carson McCullers (a much underrated American novelist) proved to the -- at first -- reluctant reading public that everyday life was profound, too -- that pyrotechnics did not make good prose; precision, clarity and sensitive insight did. Cold reality did. In short, they knew the value of dynamics in words. They could scream into a microphone, when necessary, or whisper in a field; they could yell across that field or whisper into the microphone. They showed that the world is made of both jagged, iron-dark mountains and of single blades of grass, yellowing on the ends, flecked with brown.

In visual art, there is nothing like feasting on breathtaking, sweeping, brightly-colored visual excitement, but it is amazing how satisfying to the artistic appetite a simple, muted picture of a girl reading by lamplight can be.
In the "real" world, a dazzling, sun-shocked Hawaiian landscape, riddled with vibrant color, can move the heaviest of stone hearts, but the profound visual simplicity and mental relief of a snowy white-out can lift us even higher, at times.

I'm not trying to identify a trend or to make expert commentary about arts I don't practice. I'm just trying to remind artists and everyone else -- maybe my greedy self, most of all -- to embrace the explosive sound that rattles the chest as well as the tiny, distant melody that feels more like a memory than a happening.
Les Paul:
Inventor of the Electric Guitar
Why was I so worried by the lack of microphones at David Russell's concert? The tendency to prefer big over small; more over less; loud over quiet; grand over quaint is part of us. In art and in life, if it is always about "rocking out," there is no balance.

Sure -- pounding the drums to an ecstatic, dancing crowd is fulfilling, but lying on the couch with my six-year-old son and reading Curious George aloud is a warm, profound, quiet experience that shouldn't be wrecked by wishing I were somewhere bigger and more exciting or reading something more meaningful: "Sometimes, little monkeys forget." Indeed they do. So do big ones.

Pat Covici once told Steinbeck, after John had written a small book, that he was ready for the author to put down the oboe and pick up the baton. Fact is, a lonely oboe can break your heart from a different angle than a resounding fourth symphonic movement, but it can still break your heart.

We should be sure to make time for a lonely voice singing an Irish ballad, and time for the Foo Fighters' "Let it Die" as well as time for a Mozart horn concerto; time for the Sistine Chapel and a time for pencil sketches on napkins; time for lyrics and time for epics. I love The Odyssey, but I love this wonderful little Frost poem just as much:
The dog barks backward without getting up.
I can remember when he was a pup.
Inside, we are all great pipe organs waiting for the right wind to bring us alive. But it seems to me that, often, the delicate pipes go unused until they rust and fall in to disrepair. Long live the gentle strain! Long live the fortissimo wall of brass!


  1. David Russell is a fine guitarist, but "finest living guitarist?" I think not. I can think of perhaps a half dozen guitarists more deserving of the title. Why do folks subconsciously translate "my favorite" into "the greatest in the universe?" Is it too much affection for one's own opinion?

    1. Anonymous - there is a big difference between "In my opinion, he is the finest living classical guitarist," which I said above and "he's the greatest in the universe because he's my favorite." I have to wonder why your opinion of half a dozen guitarists who are better than Russell doesn't qualify you as someone who has too much affection for his own opinion. And why is it that, if you stated who you think is the greatest living guitarist, I would react by showing interest in your opinion (I could have blocked this comment) as opposed to not-so-subtly implying that you are a narcissist for having one? Congratulations for contributing the first snarky (and, as is usual with these, anonymous) commment on my blog in two years. Opinions are not self-absorbtion for everyone but you. Ever hear the old cliche about the pot calling the kettle "black"?

      It's also funny that, with all the ideas thrown around in this piece, that you latched onto that.