Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Archive for September 26th, 2017

The monotonous periodicity of genius

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Yesterday, I read a passage from the book Music and Life by the critic and poet W.J. Turner that has been on my mind ever since. He begins with a sentence from the historian Charles Sanford Terry, who says of Bach’s cantatas: “There are few phenomena in the record of art more extraordinary than this unflagging cataract of inspiration in which masterpiece followed masterpiece with the monotonous periodicity of a Sunday sermon.” Turner objects to this:

In my enthusiasm for Bach I swallowed this statement when I first met it, but if Dr. Terry will excuse the expression, it is arrant nonsense. Creative genius does not work in this way. Masterpieces are not produced with the monotonous periodicity of a Sunday sermon. In fact, if we stop to think we shall understand that this “monotonous periodicity ” was exactly what was wrong with a great deal of Bach’s music. Bach, through a combination of natural ability and quite unparalleled concentration on his art, had arrived at the point of being able to sit down at any minute of any day and compose what had all the superficial appearance of being a masterpiece. It is possible that even Bach himself did not know which was a masterpiece and which was not, and it is abundantly clear to me that in all his large-sized works there are huge chunks of stuff to which inspiration is the last word that one could apply.

All too often, Turner implies, Bach leaned on his technical facility when inspiration failed or he simply felt indifferent to the material: “The music shows no sign of Bach’s imagination having been fired at all; the old Leipzig Cantor simply took up his pen and reeled off this chorus as any master craftsman might polish off a ticklish job in the course of a day’s work.”

I first encountered the Turner quotation in The New Listener’s Companion and Record Guide by B.H. Haggin, who cites his fellow critic approvingly and adds: “This seems to me an excellent description of the essential fact about Bach—that one hears always the operation of prodigious powers of invention and construction, but frequently an operation that is not as expressive as it is accomplished.” Haggin continues:

Listening to the six sonatas or partitas for unaccompanied violin, the six sonatas or suites for unaccompanied piano, one is aware of Bach’s success with the difficult problem he set himself, of contriving for the instrument a melody that would imply its underlying harmonic progressions between the occasional chords. But one is aware also that solving this problem was not equivalent to writing great or even enjoyable music…I hear only Bach’s craftsmanship going through the motions of creation and producing the external appearances of expressiveness. And I suspect that it is the name of Bach that awes listeners into accepting the appearance as reality, into hearing an expressive content which isn’t there, and into believing that if the content is difficult to hear, this is only because it is especially profound—because it is “the passionate, yet untroubled meditation of a great mind” that lies beyond “the composition’s formidable technical frontiers.”

Haggins confesses that he regards many pieces in The Goldberg Variations or The Well-Tempered Clavier as “examples of competent construction that are, for me, not interesting pieces of music.” And he sums up: “Bach’s way of exercising the spirit was to exercise his craftsmanship; and some of the results offer more to delight an interest in the skillful use of technique than to delight the spirit.”

As I read this, I was inevitably reminded of Christopher Orr’s recent article in The Atlantic, “The Remarkable Laziness of Woody Allen,” which I discussed here last week. Part of Orr’s case against Allen involves “his frenetic pace of one feature film a year,” which can only be described as monotonous periodicity. This isn’t laziness, of course—it’s the opposite—but Orr implies that the director’s obsession with productivity has led him to cut corners in the films themselves: “Ambition simply isn’t on the agenda.” Yet the funny thing is that this approach to making art, while extreme, is perfectly rational. Allen writes, directs, and releases three movies in the time it would take most directors to finish one, and when you look at his box office and awards history, you see that about one in three breaks through to become a financial success, an Oscar winner, or both. And Orr’s criticism of this process, like Turner’s, could only have been made by a professional critic. If you’re obliged to see every Woody Allen movie or have an opinion on every Bach cantata, it’s easy to feel annoyed by the lesser efforts, and you might even wish that that the artist had only released the works in which his inspiration was at its height. For the rest of us, though, this really isn’t an issue. We get to skip Whatever Works or Irrational Man in favor of the occasional Match Point or Midnight in Paris, and most of us are happy if we can even recognize the cantata that has “Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring.” If you’re a fan, but not a completist, a skilled craftsman who produces a lot of technically proficient work in hopes that some of it will stick is following a reasonable strategy. As Malcolm Gladwell writes of Bach:

The difference between Bach and his forgotten peers isn’t necessarily that he had a better ratio of hits to misses. The difference is that the mediocre might have a dozen ideas, while Bach, in his lifetime, created more than a thousand full-fledged musical compositions. A genius is a genius, [Dean] Simonton maintains, because he can put together such a staggering number of insights, ideas, theories, random observations, and unexpected connections that he almost inevitably ends up with something great.

As Simonton puts it: “Quality is a probabilistic function of quantity.” But if there’s a risk involved, it’s that an artist will become so used to producing technically proficient material on a regular basis that he or she will fall short when the circumstances demand it. Which brings us back to Bach. Turner’s remarks appear in a chapter on the Mass in B minor, which was hardly a throwaway—it’s generally considered to be one of Bach’s major works. For Turner, however, the virtuosity expressed in the cantatas allowed Bach to take refuge in cleverness even when there was more at stake: “I say that the pretty trumpet work in the four-part chorus of the Gloria, for example, is a proof that Bach was being consciously clever and brightening up his stuff, and that he was not at that moment writing with the spontaneity of those really creative moments which are popularly called inspired.” And he writes of the Kyrie, which he calls “monotonous”:

It is still impressive, and no doubt to an academic musician, with the score in his hands and his soul long ago defunct, this charge of monotony would appear incredible, but then his interest is almost entirely if not absolutely technical. It is a source of everlasting amazement to him to contemplate Bach’s prodigious skill and fertility of invention. But what do I care for Bach’s prodigious skill? Even such virtuosity as Bach’s is valueless unless it expresses some ulterior beauty or, to put it more succinctly, unless it is as expressive as it is accomplished.

And I’m not sure that he’s even wrong. It might seem remarkable to make this accusation of Bach, who is our culture’s embodiment of technical skill as an embodiment of spiritual expression, but if the charge is going to have any weight at all, it has to hold at the highest level. William Blake once wrote: “Mechanical excellence is the only vehicle of genius.” He was right. But it can also be a vehicle, by definition, for literally everything else. And sometimes the real genius lies in being able to tell the difference.

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Written by nevalalee

September 26, 2017 at 7:30 am

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