Sources of My Aesthetics

For twenty years I’ve carried around a quotation from an article in the October 13, 1985 Times Book Review, from an article called “Writers and the Nostalgic Fallacy,” by novelist Marilynne Robinson. It’s an argument that chaotic times do not necessarily call for chaotic art:

The literature of expostulation, of Catastrophe, is taken to be very serious. But among people carried along in a canoe toward a waterfall, the one who stands up and screams is not the one with the keenest sense of the situation. We are in a place so difficult that perhaps alarm is an indulgence, and a harder thing – composure – is required of us.

This connected with a passage I had heard years earlier in a scene from the Louis Malle film My Dinner with André (a film I rewatch at least once a year), in which André says (at 1:14:47 on the DVD):

How does it affect an audience to put on one of these plays in which you show that people are totally isolated now, and they can’t reach each other, and their lives are desperate? Or how does it affect them to see a play that shows that our world is full of nothing but shocking sexual events and terror and violence? Does that help to wake up a sleeping audience? See, I don’t think so. Because I think it’s very likely that the picture of the world that you’re showing them in a play like that is exactly the picture of the world they have already. You know, they know their own lives and relationships are difficult and painful. If they watch the evening news on television, there what they see is a terrifying, chaotic universe full of rapes and murders and hands cut off by subway cars and children pushing their parents out of windows. So the play tells them that their impression of the world is correct and that there’s absolutely no way out; there’s nothing they can do. They end up feeling passive and impotent….

I keep thinking that what we need is a new language – a language of the heart….

These quotations were given depth and political context by John Ralston Saul’s Voltaire’s Bastards (a book that I’ve bought more than two dozen copies of to give to friends). Saul agrees with André that the institutional purpose of showing a world of terror via television is to make people feel impotent and helpless, and to keep them afraid and politically passive. He also argues (similar to Adorno at times) that elitist art, art that is obscure in its methods and difficult to understand, serves the same purpose, of keeping people from believing that there’s a way to change things. “The wordsmiths who serve our imagination,” writes Saul, and you can substitute composers,

are always devoted to communication. Clarity is always their method. Universality is their aim. The wordsmiths [composers] who serve established power, on the other hand, are always devoted to obscurity. They castrate the public imagination by subjecting [musical] language to a complexity which renders it private.

And he quotes Baudelaire: “Any book which does not address itself to the majority… is a stupid book.”

These are the trains of thought that, over the years, led me to expunge anxiety, alarmism, abstract techniques, and complexity from my music, and to seek out music that does not make use of those qualities. The desideratum that art should “reflect the world we live in” is shallow and self-defeating: might as well try to heal or console a wounded man by groaning along with him. I’ve tried to create and encourage, instead, a music of composure, a music that does not “stand up in the boat and scream,” that does not reinforce fear and despair, but empowers people by being clear and accessible and addressed to everyone – a new language of the heart. And this is why, to the discomfort of so many composers, I have taken a dim view of so many, perhaps a vast majority, of the tendencies of late 20th-century classical composition. The impetus is fueled, neither by innate orneriness (though I will occasionally float a controversial argument to learn what people think) nor by ignorance or nonappreciation of advanced compositional techniques, but by a conviction that music should do what it can to help save the human race.