Sunday, May 16, 2010

The Children of Orpheus

The Tragic Nature of The Recorded Arts

Rather a weighty title, don't you think? But this is a weighty subject, at least for me. At this point it is very difficult for me to concentrate on the task at hand, as I am beset by many troubles: many of them emotional, if you want the truth, but all more or less concerned with the subject matter of this essay. I have been a practicing and performing musician for a number of years, but a recording or 'releasing' artist (meaning that I actually offer my music for other people to buy and listen to) for only about three years - this may lead some of you, 'practicing' musicians yourselves, to say (or at least think) that my opinions on the subject are rather ill-formed, or...inconclusive, that I don't have a wide enough range of experience to be able to 'judge' the recording industry. Fair enough, and I don't know if I really have the strength to judge anyone who is concerned with the music industry anyway - I don't think it really matters in any case, and I don't know if one more 'judgement', positive or negative, really means anything to anyone. What would such a judgement be but more words to page through, words to let slip down your eyes into forgetfulness? How many words do we encounter everyday, and how many of those words do we remember? In order to survive the modern world, one has to build a 'survival function' whose sole purpose is to enable immediate and irrevocable forgetfulness. Most people have this by the time they are declared legally 'mature' I believe - some have it earlier, some are born with it, some never find it and are reduced to neurotic martyrs (yes, since we are all neurotic, the ones who displays their neuroses openly can only be called 'unfortunate' in that they never learned the necessary skills of subterfuge and self-deception: it is perfectly acceptable to be stark raving mad, you see, just not to let other people see it), and then again some have tried their hardest (usually after reading a Thoreau assignment in college) to try to sink within themselves (something the modern man knows nothing about) and hammer away at these offhand constructions of the superego, with little success other than to loosen their already-slipping inhibitions. This is the 'fuck me' generation after all. And this theme really strikes to the heart of what I wanted to write about here: the complete and utter uselessness of releasing music today, the incapacity of the 'listeners' out there to correctly interpret the emotions supposedly being communicated through that music, the various corrupt reasons musicians even feel justified in selling their art, and the undeniable reality that, as a musician, one is doomed to forcefully forget the two former realizations in a never-ending search for approbation, acceptance, empathy, sympathy, or validation.

I can begin here by legitimately (for once) referencing a mythological precedent: the Orpheus myths, their connecting schema, and their most salient points. While many musicians certainly feel sympathetic when confronted with the Orpheus story, his incredible nature as a force of music/communication personified (he was an abstraction made real, somehow, and even taken historically his character can never be separated from its transcendent qualities), his various and varied abilities to transform, shape, sway, persuade, seduce, his tragic destiny and its existence as a bonafide abstraction of the artist's legacy or the function of the artist in society, etc. - all point to perfect empathy, of course, and of all the heroic figures I feel that Orpheus is probably the most typically Greek in that his story apotheosizes the life of the mind, the ascendency of the spirit, and the transcendence of the passions over fragile flesh or prosaic 'reality'. Because Orpheus was the first true musician, the first transcendent artist in our mythic tradition (excepting the Gods themselves), he is of course prototypical, or to be more exact: he set the standard for the interpretation of artist's characters that holds current and widespread (I won't say 'true') today. Whether this is because he is still valid as an archetype or abstraction, or that what he represents is a changeless part of human nature, I am not sure. History vs. tradition? Nature vs. environment? That boring conundrum.

Orpheus was a son of Apollo and Calliope, and so of course already at least half-divine (the Greeks pragmatically explained the 'transcendent' in human nature by ascribing it to divine seed), whose most famous exploit was probably his journey to the underworld (Erebus, anyone?) in order to reclaim his bride Eurydice. Eurydice, who was bitten by a serpent whose head she tread lightly on with her alabaster feet, was at this point nothing more than a grim shade, something less than a spirit, a soul already half-devoured, when Orpheus finally finds her deep beneath the black earth.

In order to make his way through the underworld, Orpheus has to resort to his one true talent, the lyre (an instrument that was specially designed for accompanying vocal 'lyrics'), to charm the beasts of the dead, most famously the multicephalic hell hound Cerberus, and to sway the implacable dark host Hades and his beautiful bride Persephone, the Queen of the Dead. When the original Trinity of gods were choosing claims to see who would rule the Earth, Hades was given the worst of the lot as he lost out to his brothers Zeus and Poseidon (who claimed the land and sea, respectively) and had to take what was left: the dead, the damned, the souls filled with nothingness, the malignant, ugly (there were few things as offensive to the Greeks as 'ugliness' - it was placed by them very close to 'evil'), the cast-off region of the exiles from light and life: Erebus, Hades, Hell, The Afterlife, The Underworld. Because Hades (his kingdom shares his name) was filled with eternal anger and resentment after being given this land to rule over, he naturally hated anything that reminded him of the light above - his worst enemy, of course, could only be Apollo, the very God of Light (as Phoebus), and here was his son, a beautiful (Orpheus's beauty is also an important part of his legend) child of Light and Life who sang like a Divine Siren and whose voice could change the paths of streams, make trees walk, boulders dance, and beasts of the field follow him. Even in the face of this opposition Orpheus was able to sing a lament (a song that I am convinced, if it could only be summoned from the mists of time and myth by magical means, would make the doom metal bands of today weep in admiration/frustration) that brought Hades and his dark beloved Persephone to tears - so moved them, in fact, that they let Orpheus take Eurydice back with him to the light above. There was one condition (there are always conditions in Greek myths, that's where the tragic nature of personal choice comes in): Eurydice had to walk behind Orpheus all the way back to the Overworld (the wife always walk behind the husband in a number of Eastern cultures), and he could not look back at her until they had breached the gate that separated life from the afterlife. Agreeing to this one condition happily, Orpheus and Eurydice set out on the weary climb and struggle back to the world of reality, which is represented in a number of excellent treatments of this myth as a long lightless tunnel of volcanic rock - a concrete realization of that 'climb' from the unconscious that we all make every day on awakening from sleep and dreams, and for those of you who have had 'out-of-body experiences', you should instantly recognize the imagery used here. For what may be the first time in his life, Orpheus becomes truly human in that he begins to experience a gnawing doubt of his situation - a drifting anxiety and sense of displacement that grows stronger as he climbs ever onward. 'Is Eurydice truly behind me?', he wonders. 'Could it just be a trick? Are Hades and Persephone laughing at me? Can there truly be barriers beyond which I can not cross - hearts that I can not heat and seduce? Is there a limit to my talent, my abilities, my character, my power?' Filled with dismay and tragic doubt, he turns at the very edge of the gates to the underworld in order to gain the knowledge he seeks, and can only gape in horror as his wife Eurydice, only steps away from making the leap forward into life, is pulled back screaming into the Abyss, into Nothingness, into the coldness of death. In some treatments of the myth she is represented as fading away before his eyes, screaming soundlessly - an excellent representation of his powerlessness to help her, as when he turns she is already placed out of his reach in another reality, another realm from which there can be no reprieve.

This is only the most famous story concerning Orpheus, and as an archetype he of course was borrowed by many other traditions: in time he gained or lost traits, has different myths appended to his, or is placed in a number of different situations. The Eurydice story is easily the most powerful, however, and I think there are many easily discernable reasons why.

The horror of death, the frustrations that accompany even the most facetious or 'shallow' thoughts on the subject, the inability of the human mind to dive to its depths, the endless fascination that death and our own mortality have for us: these are at the center of the Orpheus myth, and of all the central Greek characters of heroic action (and correspondingly: tragedy), I think his legends come closest to the dark heart of the nexus where our obsessions with death, love, the impermanence and fragility of human life, and the notions of 'transcendence', art, immortality, fame, and glory intersect and cross-pollinate each other in the collective unconscious (or, taken together collectively, all our individual unconscious capacities or 'dream lives'). Death is a vital part of the Orpheus stories, it runs like a scarlet thread through almost all of the legends centered around him, and he is constantly coming into contact with the very limits of life: his final judgement and massacre at the hands of Maenads (insane female servants of the new Priapic fertility god Dionysus - Lord of Wine and Divine Madness), where he is torn limb from limb, butchered, slaughtered, eviscerated piece by twitching piece, his body desecrated, his head thrown into a only the most extreme example.

Why do we, as musicians, feel the need to spread our message - our pain, our personal suffering, our hopes, our most private beliefs - through our art? Is this a condition of that artistic 'temperament', just another characteristic of the artist 'type', or, reversing this, is it because we feel this way that we are artists? Is this a desire that artists share with other human beings - is it only more 'concentrated' in us? Is it a social role that we are shuttled into based on events in our personal history? I feel nauseated writing this from my own perspective here, so allow me to shift the role and come at it under the investigation of 'generalities', as if I was impartial. Why do artists seek out an audience? Is an artist only 'legitimate' when he/she finds an accepting audience and somehow meets their needs (and oh, their needs are legion) or expectations? What is the true nature of this relationship between art, artist, and audience?

Looking around me, I can see very clearly that, for the most part, the musicians that I encounter use their talents in order to satisfy a wide range of appetites, and that they turn their talent or skills towards fulfillment without a basic understanding of what motivates their creativity. The idea that artists create 'only for themselves' is, of course, a cliche - but that doesn't take away from its profundity, when you look at it in certain light. Yes, artists create only for themselves, but in most cases, I believe, it is not to satisfy some sense of aesthetic need or fill their hunger for 'beauty': rather it is to create situations that are conducive to emotional satisfaction: that is, events, minute happenings, that serve to satisfy urges or desires that can be completely divorced from the artistic instinct. The hunger and need for 'glory' is very strong in musicians, as is the desire for fame, for attention, for 'respect', fear, sexual attractiveness, and admiration. These are common desires, and it would be facetious, once again, to think that artists are somehow immune from their influence. Most people find a number of methods for satisfying these selfish desires - their personal skills, employment, status symbols, physicality, etc. but I think musicians (or 'popular' artists - those who openly sell their work to a number of people, a ready audience) are unique in that they press a transcendent path towards meaning to serve ends that are, in the end, completely personal, prosaic, and ultimately mundane. It is because I recognize this in myself that I am even able to say this.

Now I have written a great deal on the 'tragic nature of communication' - enough to where a constant reader of this magazine would probably know right now where I am going with these thoughts. Through my own experience, and going from what I have been told from people that have listened to my music, for example, I know that all 'interpretations' of a musician's intentions in writing a certain piece are doomed to be mistaken, erroneous, and completely misunderstood. Fine, I accept that. I also accept that a listener will never hear the same thing that I write - because music is an intensely personal series of impressions, and there is really no true way to communicate through abstractions. For every single note that a musicians brings into being, spawned from emotions that are in themselves a world away from the abilities of person-to-person communication (that's why they are played and not spoken of), their exists a corresponding personal impression and interpretation on the part of the listener, based on the listener's own psychology, history, thoughts, feelings, and moods. Between the musician and the listener there exists a void, an impassable gulf, the Abyss of Art and Abstractions. While this gives music, for example, its amazing ability to 'communicate' several different things to several different people, or evoke a million emotions in as many listeners, it also means that there can never be any true, concrete, absolutely real communication between the artist and a single person. In writing in music, the language of abstractions, impermanent ideas, the musician can only treat humanity in the abstract, writing for all or none. The Orpheus in all of us is essentially powerless - able to make mountains dance but forever incapacitated when it comes to saving one single Eurydice.

This is the center of the tragic irony (and if you take the view of the gods, that is to say: of History, there are few tragic moments not filled with irony) at the heart of the artist's pursuit. While writing for everyone, he communicates to none. While striving for glory, he soils his character, integrity, and his own sense of value - indeed his talent itself is corrupted, and he murders it with his own hands while chasing after the ghost of immortality. In seeking that immortality, his love for art deserts him, and his work dies with his death - indeed it often hastens his demise. And despite all of this, the artist must still pursue his dream. How many corpses of ambitious artists are there cast on the shores of fame and fortune? The towering palaces and colosseums of our Roman ancestors, built to lay as a mute testament to the 'glory' of that civilization's power, now serve only as symbols of their utter corruption - they decay through eternity. All the emotions of the artist - his passions, his most earnest desires and beliefs, his bright loves and dark hates - once brought into the light of reality, cast into stone, made concrete and seemingly permanent, now fall prey to time's ceaseless, remorseless tread. The people that listen to your music: they will die. Their children will die. Their loves, their hopes, the light that they cast into this world, all of it will die. Only one thing is certain: forgetfulness, dust.

U. Amtey
28-29 July 2000