Saturday, July 21, 2012

Over the Hill

Rock music has been primarily the province of the young. When I was active as a rock musician, I was in my early thirties and even then I felt old for the task on numerous occasions. I've blogged about Van der Graaf Generator before here and here, and I don't have a great deal to add to those postings. But I recently saw/heard them live at the show of which poster is pictured above, and a few new thoughts have floated in. I don't really intend to write a "review" of that concert, though. What is more presently on my mind is what their continued presence means to me today.

Many bands have come and gone in the years since I first heard VdGG. And when most groups of their era reform, it's primarily to perform as a "nostalgia" act, recreating the sounds that beguiled the fans all those years ago. Lots of bands do this. Typically, they play primarily (if not exclusively) older material. There's nothing particularly wrong with this, but VdGG have chosen a different path.

When I heard them in Arlington, MA (accompanied by my 24-year-old daughter, who knew barely a note of their music), I was struck by their refusal to succumb to the temptations of nostalgia. This is not to say that they played none of their older repertoire; they did. The material presented spanned at least 40 years. But easily half the show was given over to music that had been written since their reformation in 2005. And the centerpiece of the concert was Flight, a twenty-three minute suite that was composed in 1980, and which had only been performed by Peter Hammill with post-VdGG configurations. When I first heard the piece all those years ago, on Hammill's A Black Box album, my first thought was, "This should have been a Van der Graaf song..." Never in a million years did I ever think I would hear it in that context. It's an extended meditation on human existence, using images of flight as extended metaphor, somewhat in the metaphysical fashion of George Herbert or John Donne. As a text, you could easily pull several PhD theses out of it, it's that dense and intricately written. Plus, the lyrics are deployed over some of Hammill's most complex music, odd time signatures everywhere. To perform it live from memory struck me as both reckless and heroic. And they did, and it was all of that and more...

One of the hallmarks of VdGG's approach to performance has been to embrace the element of danger, the willingness to risk failure, disaster, embarrassment. And the reason why they remain for me a vital force is because they've not abandoned that core value. Their show was a powerful experience for me for another reason. I'm presently headed well into my sixth decade and VdGG's performance provided an ideal to strive towards. I'm still trying to find a full-time job in the field I love. I try to bring new music into a world that that the world neither encourages nor welcomes. I carry onwards, but there's plenty of days when i wonder why I bother.

VdGG's show was a lesson in persistence and fortitude. Peter Hammill struck me as frail and uncertain at moments during the show, yet his dignity and humor in the face of aging, while in pursuit of a young man's vocation was inspiring. Hugh Banton, the band's organist, was a study in concentration and understated, astonishing musicianship. Never has a musician been so motionless and accomplished so much. And Guy Evans, their drummer, played with the intensity of someone a third his age. If they can summon this energy, I thought, I should strive to do the same. The title of this blog posting was meant to be ironic; these musicians are anything but "over the hill." Yet they seemed to be keenly aware that their time is limited and every moment counts. And so it does, as was further driven home to me upon the news of the passing of a young fellow composer this week. The closing words from Flight speak to that: "No looking back from tomorrow, no, there'll be no looking back on today; better be looking on to tomorrow... better think on today."

And from the penultimate song of their set, which IS entitled Over the Hill:

If we're living our lives as though God's at our shoulders,

if we're giving of our best, by an effort of will,

then we'll be up for the test,

we'll never know when we're over the hill.

So. Onwards. Towards, and over the hill.

Friday, July 13, 2012

Jean Sibelius Saved My Life

This man composed a symphony in 1915 and sent it far into the future to save my life. Without a TARDIS.

In the spring of 1996 a major relationship in my life was falling apart and I didn't know what to do about it. So, I let it continue to erode. Eventually the woman decided that moving back to her home state 1500 miles away seemed like a smart thing to do, rather than continue to endure our joint financial instability and my own Hamlet-like internal conflicts. Intellectually, I was able to convince myself that this was the right and proper thing to unfold, and so it came to pass. I told myself it would be better for both of us. I even believed that.

After she moved away, I moved to a new apartment, and pondered things. The dimensions of this loss became more and more clear to me; I was overwhelmed by my foolishness. I also stopped sleeping. At all. I could not sleep; every night was a waking torment from which I could not escape, every day I became that much more unable to manage even the simplest functions. I was wide awake and exhausted to my core. I was also becoming more and more unglued from reason and overwhelmed with despair. I found myself consumed by suicidal thoughts.

Somewhere in the midst of this phase, I found a sheet anchor of sorts, a thing that kept me grounded and prevented me from harming myself, from doing anything foolish or self-destructive. I started listening to Jean Sibelius's Fifth Symphony. Over and over. At some points, I played it around the clock, all through the day and all night long. Over and over, for probably a month or more. Through some inexplicable means, the piece gave me a reassurance that the darkness that I was experiencing would pass, that things would get better, healing was possible. And, eventually, slowly, that did happen.

As this is a music blog, I feel obliged to mention that the performance I listened to repeatedly was that of the Boston Symphony under Colin Davis (Sir Colin Davis, now). It was recorded in the mid-1970s and still sounds pretty fantastic. You can find it for an extremely reasonable sum, coupled with more of this fine composer's work. It might save your life, too.

I write about this for a number of reasons. One is that that experience has had the effect of making my own involvement with composing, recording and teaching just that much more urgent. Sibelius didn't write the piece thinking that it was for the explicit purpose of bringing souls back from the brink of despair, though it had that effect on mine. My impression is that he spent a good portion of his own life on such a brink. Colin Davis didn't harangue the strings into a more perfect blend and intonation during the recording session because, "Hey! C'mon people, we're trying to save a life here!" But that was an eventual outcome.

I cannot tell you why it was THAT particular piece and no other that I needed to hear at that moment in time. It's not even my "favorite" Sibelius symphony. (That would be the Third or the Fourth.) But that doesn't really matter much. It does matter to me that people understand that placing art into our world is not a frivolity, a waste. It's easy to argue otherwise, especially in our current political climate. But it matters. It matters with the urgency of a difference between life and death. Literally, sometimes. The great children's writer Daniel Pinkwater once told about working late night after night on an art project in college, and feeling a complete lack of purpose to it all. It was during the tumult of the Vietnam era and assassinations, with widespread social unrest and uncertainty making him feel that his own artwork was self-indulgent and pointless. Pointless, until another student whose battle with alcohol had led him to the point of suicide confided that it was seeing Pinkwater working far into the night that had kept him going and motivated him to seek help for his addiction. After that, Pinkwater said, it became vital that he keep on working, so as to support his fellow student. He began to realize that his steady modest efforts had unforeseen consequences. He's still hard at work, decades later.

So I plow forward, doing what I can to bring new music into the world and to share it with whomever I can. I teach, compose and produce with the conviction that if Sibelius's Fifth was my lifeline, then I ought to throw as many others out for whomever they are meant to be grasped by. Maybe even decades after I'm gone. I don't kid myself that I'm on any sort of par with Sibelius as a composer, but I know I have a role to play, however modest, and it's important that I do it as well as I know how. HOW that importance will manifest itself is unknown.

And that woman, whose departure caused my world to overturn? Yesterday we celebrated our fifteenth wedding anniversary.

[Update] I'm truly grateful to the overwhelming response to this posting. In response to Robert's comment, I added a link to a superb reading of Sibelius's Third (with Colin Davis leading the New York Phil), brought to my attention by blogger supreme Erik Klackner. You should be reading him instead of this right now. Another friend pointed out that the old Davis/Boston set that I played endlessly isn't that good compared to recent readings. True enough. But irrelevant to my condition back then. Interestingly, I rarely listen to the Fifth any more. But I know it's there if I need it.

Lastly, I would not want to suggest that artists are incapable of selfishness or self-indulgence. We are, yes indeed. But it's an occupational hazard that we all have to negotiate as best we can. And the benefits can be profound and life-changing.