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Snapshots of Artistic Experiences

I have both written and spoken here and elsewhere about my concept of the snapshot.

One of the predominant, perhaps incessant matters is the presence of personal snapshots when I turn to this motley mosaic that hopes to become some kind of  memoir. Though this is an idea I have usually explored as a way of thinking about art and aesthetics I can see now that it is foundational to this more personal project. It is as if I have these very exacting pictures in my mind that are like polaroid snapshots or little movies that enter into my stream of consciousness, relatively autonomous and apart from a larger whole or story.

There are so many of these snapshots and the more mischievous parts of my self want to subject these snapshots to an unyielding criteria: is there a story there? Don’t people love and “need” stories? Is it relevant? I am lucky that these ideas are few and rather unobtrusive. Perhaps this last fact is why I am able to write anything at all.

But these latter rhetorical ideas are not worthless at all. Even if what is behind them is quite alien to my ordinary ways of thinking and acting. They invoke and are themselves constituted by centuries long ideas, or better, ideals, about what art is for.

Though I largely reject such ideals I must acknowledge and have partial respect for them - to name but one reason,  some exemplary works of art were created from such ideals. This doesn’t not mean those ideals are necessary though I am aware it can feel that way to so many people.

This of course is the deep pluralist within me wanting to honor something that is actually not me and quite apart from me. (Sometimes I suspect this is the way in which I experience empathy). Yet the truth is that I have to find a form for this memoir that is not wedded to those venerable traditions.

The philosopher GalenStrawson “came out” as an episodic person, rather than a “diachronic” one - in his own formulation. When he did this the responses were close to a dominant consensus and it was at the very least critical and skeptical, not, mind you, of whether there were these types of people in the world but, on the contrary, that there was truth in Strawson’s typology and that we would all be better off to not be that type of person.  It was considered normatively better to be diachronic, or so said the majority of neuroscientists, literary scholars, psychologists and therapists. Who commented on his essay at that time.

To represent the “dominant” point of view on the matter Strawson quotes the character Claire in one of my favorite novels, Douglas Coupland’s Generation X, when she says:

“Claire breaks the silence by saying that its not healthy to live life as a succession of isolated little cool moments. ‘Either our lives become stories or there’s no way to get through them.”

I read Strawson’s Against Narrativity with the greatest interest back in 2004 if only because I felt I had a constitution similar to Strawson. At that time I had these snapshots or episodes borne into my nervous system without any accompanying arc or grand unified theory overseeing it all. The snapshots were most powerful and meaningful - but not as a step towards anything.

I fell in love with the piano as an instrument many years before I ever got to touch one. Indeed I started piano relatively late in life - at around eleven years old - far away in years from the usual ages of five or six for many kids - the competitive and relentless classical piano milieu in which many children appeared to start. I might have loved or love the piano more than many of these children. It was not something I was being forced into because of a parental love for status or ideals of betterment and improvement.

The first piano music that captivated me, which in my case always meant playing the vinyl record repeatedly, was not the piano music that was to form the bulk of my focus as a late teen and adult. It was not, say, Herbie Hancock, always a favorite, or even Oscar Peterson. It was Ramsey Lewis, in particular the album Pot Luck.

I am including below a Ramsey Lewis cut that is accompanied by a transcription. (Transcriptions are ubiquitous today, an interesting development upon which I could expound for days). This is classically 1970s Ramsey Lewis, especially the choice of the electric piano.

Now if you listen to this cut you will hear some of the features that the blues and gospel drenched style of Lewis exhibits: as a child I was most impressed by the illusion Lewis created of bent pitches on what was in reality the fixed pitches of the piano. This can be done through holding down one key adjacent to others moving, in imitation of a human voice, or a stringed or wind instrument with sustain.

Now I want to say that my immersion in this one part of jazz music - equal to and just as involved as my immersion in the rather different styles of Herbie Hancock, in particular on his Avery Fisher Hall concert from 1976 that I also internalized - could be seen as a kind of episode or snapshot. It is for me no different than the memory of time spent with a particular person I had known. Or a movie I have seen in a theatre or at home.

But the power of such episodes comes from the thing itself, much more than the overarching pattern into which the thing fits and creates its “meaning” like reaching someone kind of grand conclusion about what music has meant to me, or even where it fits into my biography and life story.

Later on I did get to meet Ramsey Lewis under unusual circumstances - at Interlochen Arts Academy where he was often a guest with the studio orchestra. Most interestingly, as it was my first year there, I was not in any position of any importance whatsoever. I dearly, deeply wanted to play his kind of music above all else, but seemed to be ensconced in this world of classical piano performance.

(Only a wondrous year later would I find myself  fortunate enough to be the pianist in the big band there - a year that seemed to me to have had the effect of five years in terms of the progression of my  ability on the piano, at least in those  in those kind of styles.)

This also started me on a lifelong love for big band music in general.

Interlochen Big Band

Mitch on the keys with the band

But what I lacked in abilities or opportunity I more than made up for in curiosity and my usual extroversion. I spotted Mr. Lewis in the cafeteria where ww were both having breakfast and I went up to him and asked him one of the corniest questions I think anybody, even a young teen could ask a great performing artist. “Mr Lewis.” I said, “you re one of my favorite pianists of all time. When you have the ability that you have do you not get nervous anymore when you have to perform.”

“Well everybody gets butterflies in the stomach. Is that what you are talking about? I will always get them. The key is to not pay any attention to them when they occur and focus on the music.”

Now I wish I could tell you dear reader that I was a fearful boy who was afraid of performing in public and these words from the maestro helped me overcome something.

But my situation was quite the opposite. I had been performing in public since being a child magician and actor (!) and long before I ever sat with never mind touched  any kind of musical instrument. In addition I have always had exhibitionistic tendencies as one part of my core character. People talked so much about nervousness and stage fright but I never wanted anything to get in the way of getting on stage and entertaining people, something I fell in love with when I played a drunken chef in children’s theatre and, in doing a bit of a broader performance stated to hear loud and raucous guffaws from the audience.

Mitch the performer

In truth I asked Ramsey Lewis about this matter because I wondered if someone could be what I thought was the very best at piano and yet still get nervous. I only would have the tiniest bit of nervousness every time I had to play. But for some reason the music would overtake me. This seems to harmonize with what my idol was saying. It had something to do with getting crap in the head out of the way or ignoring it, presuming he and I were or are correct that it is crap in the head that is the first and initial cause of the physical disturbances in the stomach that he called “butterflies”. (Amazingly this is the first time I heard that almost cliched metaphor.)

Of course hearing Ramsey Lewis play with the very ensemble in which I would finally get the piano chair in my senior year was a joyous, never exhaustive opportunity to hear an improvising artist play version of things had been fixed for me on vinyl records. But there is nothing quite like the snapshots that were his albums, perhaps because these were my first introduction to his music.

Another kind of episode or snapshot in the very same year and at the same school was a field trip my composition class took to hear the Philip Glass Ensemble in Bowling Green, Ohio.

There were a number of qualities and  textures that made this concert as powerful and lasting as it was and is. Firstly, there was the beautiful greenery of this part of Ohio. Secondly there was a glimpse into the kind of bucolic existence that such university or college life in this particular kind of setting entailed: it was in many ways identical to my high school life which I suspect only served to demonstrate how unique was my particular high school experience. I of course explicitly and purposefully turned my back on such a setting by moving to Boston for most of my adult life, in choosing a music school in the heart of a city.

Finally, there was the presentation of the music, in some respects a separable matter from the actual music. That is, even though the context was this very modernist recital or performance hall where I imagine mostly classical or jazz type music was present, the power and the volume felt to me as identical to rock music in a stadium.

The only times I had experienced anything like this were at large venue type concerts I attended: The Jackson Five in 1972, for example, or Weather Report and Led Zeppelin as well as a couple of other fusion oriented ones which had the same level of electronics.

Indeed the Philip Glass performance was so overwhelming that I stepped outside  what I remember as a modest hall into the lobby and listened from there. The composition teacher was a woman named Susan Hurley and much to my delight she met me in the lobby and began going into a long disquisition on minimalist music, its history, what it meant musically and so on and I watched her with absorbed attention.

I was not able to articulate then what I can now of this experience- that  this was ostensibly a classical concert but everything about it had a rock n roll feeling and quality and the contrast or maybe the diversity of two being held together was what I liked about the music the most. I did not know at the time that this single experience would inspire me to call into question ordinary boundaries around artistic styles more generally in the following thirty odd years.

(I did not love Glass’ music at this time. It was not until I saw the Errol Morris movie The Thin Blue Line that I heard a piece of music from Glass that I actually loved.  I unfortunately had not experienced, say, Einstein At The Beach, as a child - possibly because both my parents would have disliked or been indifferent to that kind of thing, even though I know I would have liked that kind of thing.

Here is a work of Glass from the same year in which I saw him perform:

I am certain that had my first exposure to Glass been that opera Einstein On The Beach I would have had a much more enthusiastic initial response to him - a response that did return with his Errol Morris films scoring and with my acclimation to his triadic heavy based style.

Of course the entire question of artistic preferences is a powerful and universal one. My main feeling now is of the greatest gratitude that I was exposed to things like these two very different example of music.

I have little idea how my life would have turned out had I not had such exposure but I do know you would not be reading this post now nor watching any episodes of this podcast.


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