Elegiac Cycle (excerpt)

Vita Brevis Ars Longa

One of the qualities of art that attracted me initially was its seemingly mystical ability to raise up the everyday experience of life and transfigure it, give it beauty. Being exposed to new music, literature, and the like was never a discovery for me. On the contrary, it was always a confirmation of something shared between myself and its creator, an overlap of sentiments, if you will. But a novel, a piece of music, a painting, would go one step further, a crucial step: It would nurture and embrace this sentiment, no matter how unappealing it might be, and give it a facelift or two, using all the trickery and witchcraft of its medium. This process is explained by Thomas Mann's character, Tonio Kröger, who gives us a rather fatalistic dictum: "The artist must be unhuman, extra-human; he must stand in a queer aloof relationship to our humanity; only so is he in a position...to represent it, to present it, to portray it to good effect. The very gift of style, of form and expression is nothing more than this cool and fastidious attitude towards humanity.... For sound natural feeling, say what you like, has no taste."

Art seems to say to its recipient, "This is what you are, I understand." Thus an acknowledgment, and kinship. Because of this commonality, a breaking of bread takes place between artist and beholder - at once a sacrament and a celebration. Again, from a tender age, there was a mystical feeling to all of this for me: I got to partake in a communion with someone who might have been dead for centuries! To use a vague catch-word, art was the first evidence I had of something spiritual, in the sense that its essence is invisible, ungraspable, non-perishable: eternal. Another Thomas, the historian Carlyle, said: "Nothing that was worthy in the past departs; no truth or goodness realized by man ever dies, or can die." Evidence of the indestructible quality of "truth or goodness" in art is more than a matter of posterity. It's a comforting knowledge, one that I carry in a world where nothing around me seems permanent.

Human Condition 101. Perhaps the most commonplace everyday experience of life is: death, in all its manifestations. On a deep, inner level, there is a fear of our own end, that paradoxically drives us to live and create. There are the deaths of loved ones, taken away without our consent. Death is a metaphor - end of a relationship, leaving a city you lived in for years, losing a job, giving a garage sale, throwing away your favorite shoes that have had it. Or, willful deaths - when you've got to part with something you love because it's the very thing that's killing you. Worst of all, maybe, is the death of hope: resignation.

I've always been attracted to elegiac works of art, that mourn so many kinds of loss, from the most profound to the most prosaic death of them all - what the French aptly call "la petite mort." There are concrete examples that clearly mourn the loss of a person or people: Musical compositions like Charles Mingus' "Goodbye Pork Pie Hat," or John Coltrane's "Alabama." But there are so many works that aren't elegies proper, yet are elegiac in character. Much of Brahms' late music, for example. Often, we find an elegiac strain in the late period of any artist's output: the poignancy of Bill Evans' 1977 rendition of "You Must Believe in Spring" or Chet Baker's achingly ironic late take on "Blame It On My Youth." Laments-lamenting the loss of springtime and youth.

In literature as well, an elegiac strain is often apparent, objectified, lamenting the death of a cultural epoch: Thomas Mann's Gustav Aschenbach symbolically mourns the death of romanticism in 'Death In Venice', and in his 'Doctor Faustus', the protagonist/composer Adrian Leverkühn loses his soul to the devil in order to create modern music - a metaphoric elegy on Germany's loss of innocence as a nation after the second World War. In post-war America, writers like Henry Miller, Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg, and William Burroughs discerned that America had sold her soul as well - to a corporate Mephistopheles, ruler of an icy Cold-War hell. And they mourned - at times ecstatically - America's loss of naiveté.

Sick Of Irony
Elegies...Romanticism...bygone days...obsession on the past, throwbackism? If that's the case, I'm not alone. To be sure, I'm a child of my time - us Gen-Xers glom onto the cheddary residue of our recent past with a glee that's more than a little suspect. "Gone but not forgotten," we say with irony (alas, always with irony), "are the days of disco...." Andy Warhol is our Oscar Wilde, our trickster-moralist who told us that it's all about 15 minutes of fame. Did we catch his irony? What arises often is a kind of phony immortality, a parody on the very idea. All well and good as long as we don't miss the joke in all that. Parody, pastiche, self-conscious irony layered on top of irony in a movie that knows it's a movie that knows it's a movie...these are the tools we use to represent the world around us. Often, there's a defeatist ring to all this - "What's left? Why bother? Who cares?" In Mann's Doctor Faustus, with grim humor, the devil gives the composer Leverkühn these words of sarcastic wisdom: "Convince yourself that the tedious has become interesting because the interesting has become tedious." This potentially defeatist outlook on any current creative enterprise is to me nothing more than the legacy of Romanticism. When folks became enlightened, art followed suit. No longer at the service of church or state, Beethoven created Wilde's "Art for Art's Sake." Observing this autonomy, Beethoven's contemporaries Frederich Schlegel and Novalis noted that now art had the ability to comment on itself, and called this phenomenon Romantic Irony. Whatever Postmodernism may be, in artistic matters it seems to be just this: a kind of sickness of our endless commentary within the work, on the work. We've grown weary of our ironies..."Enough!"

Has music "suffered"? By my definition, music itself can't "suffer"; that's a false personification of something which is truly immortal. But our perception of it has perhaps been blurred by all the commodities at our disposal. We've seen the advent of sampling: Take a funky beat from a '70s LP, blow some licks over it, and you've got Acid Jazz. Why bother to get a real drummer who can lay down a groove? Every groove is at our disposal already.... The problem with all these hybrids is that they're so impermanent: Like the technology that spawns them, they're gone with the blink of an eye. We always return to the original. It didn't take long to figure out that Acid Jazz was just bad Funk. The ever shorter and shorter life span of each trend perpetuates a sentiment that's characteristic of some of our jazz critics these days: a fetishistic obsession with "Masters." To be a Master you must do one or more of the following: A.) Imply, with the help of Yes-Men, that you are nothing short of a Messiah; B.) Rise from prolonged, unexplainable obscurity; C.) Have a good portion of your work recorded before 1965; D.) Die.

To speak of creating anything "timeless" today has a whiff of ludicrous naiveté. Bad faith like that is easy to understand. The phony immortality that the media presents us with is impermanent in the worst sense. It hard-sells us a bill of goods and cynically pre-writes our emotional response, giving an illusory sense of closure. This dupes us into buying the next flavor of the week. A typically frightening example of this kind of tyranny is soundtrack music on real-world news events being reported. Used for the hard sell like this, Romantic Irony becomes a twisted off-spring of itself. It says, "We'll do the commenting for you, just stay nice and dumbed-down." And the comment is interchangeable whether it's Desert Storm or flavored coffee. When our experiences become commodified, in a profound sense we're no longer experiencing anything at all. "Experience" implies that the event will stay in our memory, and the sum of these events will shape our understanding of the world. But this is all about forgetting, denying. So count me out of "The Information Age." To deify information is to pray to a legless stump - fetishism, nothing more.

The media has manufactured a demented cult of youth, staging festivals of bad faith that culminate in sacrificial killings. It clings to an image of the young while at the same time leaving a trap-door close by. Everything has an expiration date and the spin doctors have us channel-surfing in a bleary haze of memory loss. All this can have a sad, tragic effect: It distracts us from our mortality.

Alas - life is short, art is long. Great music packs a primordial punch. And when the wind is knocked out of you, something great takes place: You get to feel your own mortality. The role of time is crucial. Music doesn't just represent time, it moves through time, and the listener experiences that passing. What's the feeling? That tingling in your stomach, that sweet ache in your gut, that tickly weakness that creeps over the body when you're pulled into the music? It's a kind of death-feeling, in a place where ecstasy and mortality-fear overlap. Rilke told us in one of his elegies that our perception of beauty is just the beginning of terror.... The process of improvisation is a kind of affirmation of mortality: Even in the moment you're creating something, it's already gone forever, and that's precisely its strength. Improvisation would seem to solve the problem of death by constantly dying as it's being born. It scoffs at loss, and revels in its own transience.

Whether music is improvised or written, it has the ability, in its time-bound fashion, to play on our memory. In matters of form, the closest models for my elegiac effort are the memory-music of late Beethoven and Schumann, works that are cyclical. A theme that appears in the beginning is referred to and developed through time, until it comes back to us, transfigured. What we gain is two-fold: the experience that time grants us, and the comfort of something ineluctable that always returns despite our own transience. Amidst all its fractured ironies, art can still mirror the part of life that's about hope, faith. It says: Whatever feeling you may have that something's ending forever is illusory. Everything cycles around again and again - within a single day, within a cultural epoch, within a millennium. And what we gain each time through propels us towards the Manifestation of God.

Dying, being remembered, music sings an elegy to itself, beautifying the "everyday" loss around us, showing us how intimate we can be with death. So an elegy can have this purpose: To celebrate those very things that make us mortal.

– Brad Mehldau, 1999