Books for Everyone!

The Discipline of Art

Winter 2014

Singing the songs for The Music Room was accomplished during some long days of spring allergy season. This musical phase was part of turning the page (closing the book?) on these novels and moving onto the next thing(s) in my life. With singing, there is always another "take" but I often find that the first one (maybe second) is the most expressive. And so it was with these small performances.

I must be very careful not to sing when I have a cold, mucous from allergies, any throat soreness. You can damage the vocal cords singing under such conditions. You can hurt them yelling that way too!

I am a natural singer. As a young child, I learned to sing in church but I was offered voice lessons in school when I was 14. I then underwent further professional training for the next 6 years. The problem for me was that I wanted to develop "my" voice as opposed to what the instructor wanted the voice to be. There was a constant struggle between what the teacher believed I should do and what I felt was right for me and my voice.

Obviously I have a strong personality. When I was told during operatic training that I must submerge my personality so that the personality of the composer would reign supreme through the “pure” expression of his composition –

My immediate, if not vocal, response was: “This is not going to happen.”

There was during those years a constant, finely tuned (ha!) and rather clearly pitched strain between what the instructor believed I should do in the service of the Art -- and what I felt was right for my voice and for the development of my Art.

There was the same tension regarding training my writing, so I basically honed the talent of forging my own path.

I once had a friend in the office world whose mother was British. This older woman took up painting as a hobby. I was in my painting mode in those years and brought a few small canvases into the office for inquiring eyes to see.

My friend asked, "Where did you take painting classes?”

I stated, "I never took any classes in painting."

She concluded, "I wish my mother would stop taking classes in painting."

This woman truly did not get a chance to express her own style or to even look for it! The teacher was an ego-maniac who wanted it done his way. The natural desire of the student to “perform” her talent was ignored or, if it was even noted, was disregarded. I consider that attitude, or treatment, offensive if not somewhere in the realm of malignant.

The world of fine arts is filled with those mad geniuses, although I often came to question the genius more than the madness!

To shape and mold a young talent, regardless of the arena and mode of expression, requires not only a nurturing touch but also the selfless insight and foresight of a true artistic genius who sees not a reflection of what He or She was (or could have been). The true artistic genius is one who sees with focused light and abundant hope the technical skills and mastery -- The Vision -- of what the raw talent could become. And the raw talent must not only consent to that Vision; the raw talent must design its own vision from the template of The Vision.

No one becomes an artist under the thumb of someone else. The art (or Muse) will instinctively rebel within that person and create all kinds of mayhem, emotional, physical, and mental. The Muse wants its own unique Vision and it will fight for it at the expense of the personal self.

I almost routinely had to wage an artistic war for The Vision from many of my teachers. They were gifted people who, sadly, had not grown as individuals and thus did not grow as artists. Each was stuck somewhere in time, along a path that had somehow become blocked. Perhaps that insight which I took from them (it certainly was not willingly imparted by them to me) was the greatest lesson that I learned from any teacher of professional genius who was a highly limited, even flawed, human being.

It is my belief that the human being must put humanity, and not the art, first. I am sometimes alone in that belief, but being alone in any thought is part of the work of the artist.

Too often I encountered teachers with excellent ideas for technique, composition, and true artistry in various forms, but then I was expected to master way too much too soon, all in the service of making the instructor look good. Other students were willing to play that game but I thought it was a bartering -- even a lowering -- of my talent. God did not give me these gifts so that someone else could bask in their glow!

This sort of dictatorial teaching occurs not only in artistic professions but in scientific ones as well. Any subject that has a theory or a method associated with it will attract its share of rigid, doctrinaire commanders. When it is in the name of art, it’s a travesty. When it’s in the name of science, it’s a near-tragedy.

Life levels off that kind of ego but I've rarely waited around to see the leveling! The ingénue, however, certainly learns more than his or her share of the subject at hand. Those lessons are for life more than for art.

When given the choice between my-way-or-the-highway, I’ve always chosen the highway, even the freeway. The scenery and the smells are much better!

Autumn 2017

Books, Books, Books

They are not my life, but they take up a large portion of it. I spend much time sorting through books to read for research and resource material, and the time is not always pleasant. You truly cannot tell a book by its cover, or even by the synopsis of it: on the dust jacket, or on a website. It’s a difficult task, figuring out how to sort out the wanna-be histories from the real facts.

I can get downright cranky about it. A history about Russians in Hollywood turned out to be a vacuous diatribe about how certain films did not portray reality. The author got very miffed. This reader got even more miffed. His book got tossed into the garbage without a word. I progressed to a wonderful biography about Dimitri Tiomkin. It’s a treasure trove.

This book is a precise and discriminating delineation of the subject matter that matters: the composer, his life, his development as a composer and a conductor, his music, and, what I find truly fascinating, the interplay among life, art, history, and the creative processes of film and music. I do not agree with all of the concepts proffered by this writer, but I admire his point of view and the lustrously informed quality of his writing so much that our differences in the particulars of opinion are trivial.

Dimitri Tiomkin: A Portrait, written by Christopher Palmer, is a portrait in words, worth much more than the asking price. Mr. Palmer was an English composer, arranger and symphonic orchestrator as well as an ardent historian of film music. This author comes with credentials, experience, and immense credibility in his literary works. Those qualifications are vital for any writer, especially a technical writer. Art is, at base, at heart, at its highest expression, technical; so too is the penning of history.

It is necessary for any researcher or reader of historic material to undertake this type of background check of the author. The book with the glossy cover and bells-and-whistles reviews does not impress me. What does open my mind and my wallet to buy any book is the fundamental knowledge that the author possesses of technical arenas and specialized fields.

Film scores and songs of the Golden Age of Hollywood were the speciality of this author. I find extra-ordinary his musical analyses, detailed perspectives on classical and folk music and on the art of composition, and his detached but amused take on this phenomenal composer. And I have found delight, factual and otherwise, in each page of his book.

Mr. Palmer not only offers his own gems to tuck away into a Writer’s Journal; he cites other writers of gifted note. One of them is English musicologist Gerald Abraham, who wrote his magnificent works in the 1950s:

“ . . . the basis of modern musical construction, in Western Europe, the system of logical development of germinal ideas, of which Beethoven was the first really important master, is entirely foreign to the spirit of Russian music. Progressive thinking . . . is not the Russian’s way of going about things; his mental process is more akin to brooding, a continual turning over of ideas in his mind; viewing them from different angles, throwing them against strange and fantastic backgrounds, but never evolving anything from them . . . he makes the most of his subject by showing it passively in fresh circumstances instead of by setting it in active conflict with something else.”

Dimitri Tiomkin, exiled from Russia after the October Revolution, did not overthink it. Instinctive, intuitive, and courageously impulsive, he surrendered to his fate by refusing to allow his exile to destroy his faith in . . . anything. He loved life and he composed from that love of life.

I’d like to think that his forced exit from Communist Russia formed the fount of his inspiration. Dreams of the places we leave behind often become the palettes upon which we draw our works of art, regardless of our métier. The discipline of art demands the brooding moments and hours; the often uncertain but continuous bouncing of ideas and feelings off of the drawing boards of everyday life; and the aversion to over-think anything.

Dimitri Tiomkin stated: “I get results by dint of sweat and toil.”

Burn that midnight oil. It’s part of the art of discipline and the discipline of art. But sleep in the next day — or take a nap!