There has never been this much talent. It has never mattered less.
What's the point of anything, really?
I was talking with my friend the other night and we discussed, among other topics, just how many terrific musicians there are in the classical music world today. He himself is one of them, a tremendously gifted trumpet player with a sound that has a sweetness to it that I’ve never heard anywhere else. He’s been a professional for nearly two decades now, playing all over the northwest. His career is an unqualified success, and yet he dwells in total obscurity, not simply because he plays classical music for a living, but because the talent pool is so overloaded that even a field as culturally irrelevant as this is lousy with phenomenal musicians all the way through the ranks.
Another friend of mine shared with me a recording of Ein Heldenleben performed last March by the Madison Symphony Orchestra in Wisconsin. I fully expected a valiant attempt sabotaged by shoddy horn playing, intonation issues in the woodwinds, ragged string playing, the typical trappings of a perfectly acceptable orchestra punching above its repertoire weight with courage and a talent deficiency. What I heard instead was a compelling performance, full of ideas, cohesive, dynamic, and energetic. If the e-mail accompanying the sound file had said he found this old recording online of the Staatskapelle Berlin circa 1976, I’d have absolutely believed it. Setting aside my own ignorance of the quality of the Madison Symphony Orchestra (and presumably the School of Music at the University of Wisconsin), it is nevertheless astonishing to consider that this is the quality of musicianship found at this level of the orchestra pyramid.
The theme of our time in history is competition. More and more people are fighting for less and less stuff while Jeff Bezos builds a yacht that requires a “motorized support yacht” because the massive sails on the main yacht don’t allow for a helipad, an arch villain move that Ian Fleming wouldn’t have dreamed up in a thousand lifetimes. Here in America we seem hell bent on our own destruction through financial manipulation, political corruption, and a media ecosystem increasingly committed to mere propaganda, all while inequality gets worse and worse. It’s a damned shame. In spite of all the well worn cliches about how decadent and rife with spectacle our culture is, and it is, it’s also true that there is a shocking abundance of talent in the world destined for the proverbial dustbin of history. The combination of more people having ever-expanding technological improvements at their disposal is turning us into a super race capable of the most astonishing displays of creativity, skill, and humanity. At the same time, as these technological improvements connect us in unprecedented ways, we are inundated with information and saturated with spectacle such that truly amazing feats of human endeavor pass by with almost no acclaim at all. We humans can truly turn anything into a paradox.
Something about that conversation and that recording really got me in an existentialist mood. How do we face the reality that what we do doesn’t register at all in the cosmic sense and, even if it is done with passion and enthusiasm, barely registers in the living and breathing passage of time we call life? The list of great intellectuals who don’t have a truly satisfying answer to this question is a long one and I’m sad to report that the list of regular people like myself who don’t have an answer is naturally even longer.
The most satisfying answer I can think of is the hardest one to achieve: you do it because you want to and you don’t concern yourself with external rewards.
I encounter this feeling in my day job all the time. I can spend dozens of hours researching country conditions, conducting background checks, seeking information from external sources, going into people’s homes, poring over financial records, interviewing witnesses, and writing organized and persuasive reports that are ultimately dismissed with the digital equivalent of a wave of the hand by people who 1) MAY NOT be as smart as I am and 2) ABSOLUTELY DO NOT know the case as well as I do. Depending on the circumstances of the case, it can be legitimately devastating to the psyche. The only thing that prevents the quality of my work from deteriorating into the product of complete apathy is personal pride, not institutional pressure.
As we’ve already discussed here, classical music isn’t exactly a lifestyle brimming with friendship and connection, to say absolutely zero about money or cultural significance. For instance, the best case scenario for this blog is that I do it for enough years to develop something resembling a following at which point I attempt to transition to a site where I charge $25/year in an attempt to make writing my full time job, eventually branching out into other areas of interest and finally publishing a scathing critique of the United States government as seen from the inside. The most likely scenario for this blog is that it just carries on as it is for as long as I can keep waking up at 5:00 A.M. to write. “Do what you want” is not exactly a revelatory life lesson, and it can descend easily into hedonism in the wrong minds, but it is also about the only thing that makes logical sense as an ethos.
I’ve decided to go through a Russian phase for a few months. I bought copies of War and Peace, The Brothers Karamazov, and The Master and Margarita yesterday for reading, I’ll listen to a bunch of Shostakovich and Prokofiev and Tchaikovsky and whatnot, and I’ll probably watch some Tarkovsky films or something. It will be enriching, no doubt. At the end of the day, however, what it really means is nothing beyond having read, listened to, or watched something good. That’s the reward.
What is my point with all this?
As a generally cynical person, I don’t take naturally to Thich Nhat Hanh or the Dalai Lama or whichever other person is quoted on an Instagram influencer’s post of themselves in yoga pants with the sun rising in the background, but I’ll be damned if those two and their ilk aren’t right about gratitude. It really is important to be grateful for all the wonderful stuff we encounter in our lives, including our own creativity, because there really isn’t any other point to anything beyond its very existence. Some people lead remarkable lives, but it doesn’t change the fact that the sun will consume the Earth. In a few billion years no one will know about Tolstoy (or Kevin Hart), so we’ve got to remind ourselves that we’re lucky to be alive at a time when we can know Anna Karenina (or the “say it with your chest!” bit), difficult as it may be.
I’m grateful to the fine musicians of the Madison Symphony Orchestra for the time and toil they put in as individuals to achieve sufficient mastery of their respective instruments such that they could perform a creditable and worthy Ein Heldenleben in obscurity. I wish there was more for them to receive for their efforts, but there isn’t. I hope that someday some of them will think back to it and say “damned if we didn’t play the hell out of that thing.”
Oh God…do they make yoga pants in my size?