Monday, January 14, 2008

Someone else's career

A friend just emailed with this observation:

Deej, know, you'd have had an entirely different career if belief in your work had been the operating principle rather than doubt...

While I have to agree that doubt -- or at least a good, steady dose of self criticism -- is operative for me, I don't think that the notion of belief, or in this case, an absence of belief, is meaningfully opposed to doubt. Doubt, for me, is the recognition of opportunity to do something else, or to find an alternative approach, and to be open to the possibility of failure. David Feldman (another good friend) has talked about this aspect as having a tragic aspect, in that the methods I use may create music that almost replicates some familiar music, but ultimately falls short. I find that rather interesting, and sometimes even comic rather than tragic, and if there is a tragic element, it is in the simple fact that "familiar music" has become rather strange. We cannot satisfactorily recover the context in which it was made and understood. I have a tremendous attachment, for example, to repertoires of music in which a body of conventions of figure and affect were understood and in play, but my personal attachment is not the same as and not a substitute for being a part of the communities in which those conventions were functional and meaningful. The same goes for my accidentally ex-pat status in Europe: I'm here, but I'll never be from here, and the best I can do is approach the musical culture here with the distance of an ethnomusicologist rather than that of another Yanqui composer on the make.

What then, about belief? There are communities of believers, and they often share repertoires of music, believing in the conventional and habitual as well as the special elements in those repertoires. Although I've been tempted, I don't happen to identify with any such community. And, although a "new music" necessarily implies a positive or negative challenge to an existing repertoire, there are individual composers who are able to assert their musical choices with all of the authority that comes with belief in one's own work. Although I've been impressed by the examples of some of my composing colleagues who have such belief in their own work, I can't really follow their examples, and I am, in many cases, left with considerable doubt. (Stockhausen is the canonical example -- either he believed what he claimed to believe or he didn't believe it and it was all an elaborate marketing scheme; neither possibility strikes me as particularly attractive.)

Karl Rove, the political advisor to the current Bush told the journalist Christopher Hitchens that
"I’m not fortunate enough to be a person of faith", a sentiment that I find impossible to follow. If one identifies having faith as fortunate, then one seems to be, however indirectly, asserting a form of faith. I suspect Rove, however, was simply admitting to a cynical, Straussian, use of believers for his politically ends, which is even worse. If I have any fortune at all as a composer, I suspect it is the fortune of being a person of doubt.

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