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ESSAYS

ENTERING THE CONDITION OF THEATRE

“My interest in words is not merely philological. I recognize that words are the very instruments of thought and that a large vocabulary permits the making of distinctions”

Igor Stravinsky 1962


“…..glimpses do ye seem to see of that mortally intolerable truth; that all deep, earnest thinking is but the intrepid effort of the soul to keep the independence of her sea; while the wildest winds of heaven and earth conspire to cast her on the treacherous, slavish shore?” 

From Moby Dick p.116 of Signet Classic Paperback edition


Edgar Allan Poe: A study in Genius Joseph Wood Krutch.

“ From his surroundings he could draw nothing not bathed in the full light of the most commonplace day, and yet in the copy which he handed to the printer there was nothing which bore any relation to the life which he lived. His imagination was fed wholly from within, and from the boarding house issued a series of tales which were to furnish Europe with a new thrill.” (p. 64) Chief influence: Byron.


The hoax: to play at being a logical-genious. The “effects” he purported to deliberately choose [in advance, and work towards] were actually choosing him. “In considering this body of doctrine, one cannot but be struck first of all by the remarkable appearance of logical completeness which it presents, for once its premises are granted the conclusions are drawn with the same elaborate clarity which is characteristic of his Ratiocinative tales” (On Philosophy of Composition and Poetic Principles p.230)


Discourse of the Few: The Mighty Handful (Gordon Clark-Stanley Fish-Milan Kundera-Jorge Borges)


Supporting this notion, I teach a large view of western musical tonality. This view is rooted in the post-Gregorian and post-Monteverdian western musical mind. I am not looking for a ”unified theory of all things” whether musical, artistic, philosophical, theological, or otherwise. All that might be said about “everything” is that it’s fragmentary nature and its incompleteness are indisputable.


I deny the existence of the “education expert”. Teaching happens through primary source materials, I take on a “second story” perspective (i.e. an overview not perturbed by the noisy turmoil of “1st Floor” of-the-time/zeitgeist ideas). I lead by example insofar as it is in my ability to do so, I make allowances for everything the student does 70% of the time and I push against them only 30% of the time.


I labor to make my music speak through the actions and behaviors proper to the condition of music itself, like actors on a stage where nothing is being attempted but to enter the conditions of theatre itself. See Northrop Frye on Shakespeare


Art as Mask and Mirror. It is a happy providence to have no personal style of my own. Music as richly personalized as Gershwin’s is a treasure sequestered within a strong fortress which the listener must storm to gain access to. By contrast Stravinsky’s music is not at all personal in this sense. It is approachable through its anonymity since it is “stylized” by something outside of itself. (If John Coltrane is Gershwin, Miles Davis is Stravinsky).


I recreate and refashion my musical past. One might say that my days are measured by the music in my life. My compositions recount those days.


The Mask


Making art about art (not about oneself) I allow music to be music and music alone. That is what Igor meant by “Music means only itself”. My aesthetic allows me to work freely. It is my music that wears the mask not me. The freedom I preach in my teaching (which I discovered in Berlioz) is achievable because I approach composing the way an actor takes on a role. I do not seek to merge with my work. “I” am not my work. I and my work are not one. A work of art is a “Rhetorical Artifact” (Borges)


The Mirror


Thus the listener can enter into the music unobstructed by the interference of the personal. 


All art is a return to the past.

Miles Davis’ credo: (Ian Carr) 

Look back, move forward.


The Empty Stage (P.37)

Peter Brooks (a variant)


A note is written on the empty musical page. It has already a mood and a kind of portent. The situation is laden with possible consequences. The world of “what if” has been set into motion, as if there is a wall behind which something is happening. From then on the author must face at every turn the fundamental problems of musical utterance.


It is the architecture of the music that presents itself to the deep listener. 


My explorations operate on an entirely technical level since the deep things of music are not expressible in words. 


There is a subtle continuity between the 19th and 20th century. The observation of this continuity has been a liberating one for me as I faced the technical problems of music today. The relationship of American Jazz to the course of western music is still not clearly understood. I am personally of the opinion that its influence will both increase and continue to be largely underestimated and misunderstood.


“Even if our efforts of attention seem for years to be producing no result, one day a light that is in exact proportion to them will flood the soul” 

Simone Weil


“My freedom consists in my moving about within the narrow frame that I have assigned myself for each one of my undertakings”.

Igor Stravinsky


“I shall go even farther: my freedom will be so much greater and more meaningful the more narrowly I limit my field of action and the more I surround myself with obstacles. Whatever diminishes constraint; diminishes strength. The more constraints one imposes, the more one frees oneself of the chains that shackle the spirit.”

Igor Stravinsky


At an early age I fixed my sights on the achievements of the greatest heroes I knew, the musicians. And not just any musicians but those who through an extraordinary feat of vision purchased for themselves a world of new sensibilities. Dante, Shakespeare, Beethoven, Liszt, Debussy, Flaubert, Stravinsky, Picasso.


As a student my goal was to try to do as they did. Whether I have succeeded or not is not for me to say. I have been encouraged by those whose opinions I trust to keep going. It seems I am making progress. 


A composer needs to know two things, the difference between a right note and a wrong note and then the difference between a good note and a better note. Often there is more than one “better-note” and in that case, one simply makes a choice and that choice has nothing to do with talent, genius, their gift, their heart, their broken dreams, their losses, their triumphs, their place in history or their influences. It is simply a choice and nothing more. I tell students very little as far as what they must or must not do to nurture their music although they hear many spirited improvised speculations. I do tell them this. Finding true originality can begin with the abandonment of the philosophy of the avant-garde. A perspective that has paralyzed European and American culture since the early 19th century. Do not confuse the experimental musical tradition (which is not political) with the politicized avant-garde. I labor the hardest with my students to de-politicize them as far as art is concerned.


The “avant garde” has always been a political-cultural historical movement. The art it produces is overly-stylized from the moment it is completed. 


Schoenberg remained the quintessential expressionist. His later works just tightened up the nuts and bolts.


The waves and billows of “history”

May overwhelm me at the last, but

If I go down

It is upon the right sea and

To the right graveyard


Debussy. His is a fully furnished secondary world crowded with dreams, magic, dimensions, simultaneities, juxtapositions, adjacencies. He is the model.  


Debussy. It is as if everything is happening in more than one place at the same time. His is a secondary-created reality (the piece of music) fashioned by a superimposition of several systems of meaning occurring in the one space and at the one time. Music as Dramatic Events and Pictures. Sensibilities, terror, distress, longing, sensual delight, the transient moment, fate, the ineffable, silence. Self-referential events. 


Music acting like creatures and machines. Music that takes on the likeness of an “opening” or a ”developing moment” or as if the musical event were an “actor” whose role necessitates being disguised as in the Mozartian Comedy and here Stravinsky is the master. For him the musical forms themselves are the “themes and heroes” of the music. 


Every Debussyan idea unfolds under the power of its own individual and specifically measured portion of tension and energy. Everything is outfitted with carefully measured power and force. Not a note too long or too short. No dynamic too loud or too soft. Nothing out of place.


A Prolegomena


When I was only a very young boy I surprised my parents with two questions, why am I me? And where was I before I was born? As soon as I could form the question I asked also “What is the meaning of all this?” My life began and continued it seems as a search-quest for answers to these questions. There was something profoundly and immediately discomforting about having no satisfactory answers to these questions but I soon found solace and relief in the experience of musical listening where the urgency and the discomfort subsided. I came later to find that music clearly suggested hope that explanations of the “meaning-of all-this” question could one day be discovered. Therefore, my journey and vocation has all along been not artistic primarily, but philosophical. Even in artistic matters the pervasive question was always not only “How is this done” but “how is it THAT this can be done”. I wanted to know not only how to do it but also how it is that such a thing as this can be done.


In order to understand the “masterwork” I had to be able to fashion the likeness of one myself.


The artwork

A model of the known world

By virtue of its incompleteness 

(a good starting place)

The Artwork 

(Like the known world)

A hint of a world-beyond


The Truth Quest 


Music revealed for me an invisible world, the fantastic aspect of reality. It was a “living theatre of the mind” and my quest and vision began in earnest there. Bible theology suggests that God created as He pleased for the purpose of creating a manifestation of Himself as Mr. Deasey tells Stephen Daedalus in Ulysees (who rejects it), all history moves to the point of God’s manifestation of Himself. The world we see around us is exactly as God intends it to be. It is orderly, oh yes! But! Oh my! Floating Axheads? Talking Donkeys?


The quest for truth was my set of mind. More the philosopher than the artist, art was the starting point for the answers I was obsessed to find. The Cognitive-Scientific-Rational Model for ultimate truth is a failure. The “Fantastic” is a far more likely starting place.


Harold Bloom: Foreword to the 2000 edition of Northrop Frye’s Anatomy of Criticism.


“He had formulated a Myth of Concern, his version of Shelley’s notion that imaginative literature was one vast poem with many authors, and so the matter was settled. Borges, going beyond Shelley suggested that all authors were one anyway, and all named….Shakespeare.”


Reading Northrop Frye in 1980 I had my first encounter with an argument against the chronological fetish of historical necessity. This spatial concept (all literature, one author) suggested the idea of simultaneity-of-events that Jorge Borges found so useful for his own work.


I identified closely with this from Edgar Poe’s Marginalia “It is the curse of a certain order of mind, that it can never rest satisfied with the consciousness of its ability to do a thing. Still less is it content with doing it. It must know and show how it is done”.


Borges and Kundera: The Fantastic


In my youth I expected to claim glory and fame through my labors in art but when I saw that this required participation in a real-life battle for which I felt ill equipped, I quickly withdrew from the field of action lest (as I saw so clearly) my vision would surely, in the process, perish, and me with it. I withdrew to protect that pursuit. 


The Fantastic-in-Art adequately reflects the drama of God as Creator. He, as Author, Casting Director, jumps in to make Personal Appearances. Art (especially music) is a parallel configuration of space and time adjacent to the everyday configurations of the known world. 


The condition of incompleteness suggests the hope of completion. 


It would seem that the effort to attain knowledge and understanding is best conducted in the arena of the imagination rather than (as has been for so long presumed) along the lines of deductive-cognitive science, better the aesthetic-model as the governing dynamic, not the engineer-model.


The concept of incompleteness is itself a key to knowledge and understanding. 


A Reprisal


What is the nature of the “masterwork of art”? The answer to this question seemed to require learning the “how” part of the masterwork’s making.


 I compared and correlated biographical and analytical information about how others found their way to the knowledge of this “master piece building” activity. 


Underlying all this (I was to discover) was an unsolvable problem (more incompleteness!).


 I was working with a concept of the masterwork for which I could ultimately formulate no definition. A problem demonstrated by the breviary of Inconsistencies that follows. 


Fragments and Unexpected Protocols are metaphors for that which is discovered through the “discipline of the imagination” (Debussy).


Both Art (a space time configuration phenomenon) and Everyday Reality (another space time configuration phenomenon) are what I call The Music of What Is, a lovely phrase from Seamus Haney’s poem Song. In the known world everything is partial and incomplete. I wish to create art that reflects the “space time configuration” of everyday reality in the known world. 


The Known world and the Art world are both Fragmentary and Incomplete.


The problem of translation also is a picture of the general problem of making art. Art is translation from the imaginative world (by way of the known world) back to the actual world (in the form of the art-work itself). Of necessity, it is incomplete and inadequate, a kind of forgery,an ancient ruin, a quickly fading photographic image of an imagined antiquity.


Translation from one language to another always results in an approximation. Similarly, to capture in music something of the known world (through the discipline of the imagination) is also an approximation. The world around us is in motion. It is unsettled and volatile. Similarly, the art work. Unsettled, volatile, incomplete, and hopelessly imperfect. But (like the known world from which it comes) extraordinary and beautiful. 


Apparition, epiphany, apotheosis……….


  • Ron Thomas
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  • Coatesville, PA  19320
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