Stream of Consciousness: Music and Meaning

I was once specifically asked to write a stream of consciousness on my ideas on what my compositions mean to the artistic director of a large institution. Despite the fact that some of my views have evolved in significant ways since writing this, I’d hope that for musicians reading, one can gain insight into what I see the meaning of art as. For non-musicians, this can hopefully give insight into some of the challenges of balancing the musical and non-musical aspects of life in a way that can be meaningful. Some of the sentence structures are clunky, and there are a few grammatical errors, but I’ve left my “stream of consciousness” totally unedited minus a few names, places, and times I’ve redacted for privacy reasons.

Here it is:

As promised, here is an unedited, stream of consciousness text on what on what the music I propose to compose as part of this grant would be based on.

Music composition to me is not just self-expression, but some sort of exploration or meditation.  If I find my imagination captured by an idea that cannot be expressed in purely rational terms, I will compose.  Though the act of composing, editing, rehearsing, and then performing a work, my emotions and thoughts evolve on whatever it is I sat down to write about.  In other words, I am not merely trying to convey an idea, but go on an exploration of that idea.  This goes back to what we were talking about what the point of a live performance is.  Our performances will have an element of exploration happening at the particular event.

Over the past few years I have been trying to figure out what it means to live a meaningful and productive life.  I noticed a few of my favorite musicians entered or headed towards middle age who had focused entirely on music.  Their success in music was not always enough to imbue their lives with a deep sense of meaning to counterbalance a tilt towards nihilism when they hit a few bumps in the road (musically or otherwise).  I have obsessed over the study of music and built my entire life around it.  Moving from TX to NJ, NY, Baltimore, and finally Philadelphia happened for PURELY musical reasons.  I could go into detail on my rationale behind each move, but I don’t want to lose my train of thought here.

I’ve been very lucky to get to perform music at a higher level than I imagined when I made the decision to spend my life doing this.  However, I have a distinct memory of eating breakfast early one Sunday morning roughly a year and a half ago after a particularly fulfilling performance thinking something like “well that’s over and here I am.”  The performance was amazing and was beyond my expectations.  What I realized that next morning is that I am also human and must exist off the stage.

I know this sounds incredibly broad, but I’m trying to organize and narrow my thoughts as much as  I can since our talk today.  Of course I always knew consciously or subconsciously that there was more to life than music.  Since that time though, I have realized that if I do not invest time and resources into my life outside of music, no amount of success in my career would just magically bring this into being.

There are two main ideas I am still working through.  The first is how to perceive the world in terms of what to value (there is simply too much happening to pay attention to everything, so some ideas or facts must be given less attention than others).  I meet people of varying backgrounds and moral systems.  Different people from different backgrounds can interpret the same set of events in different ways.   For example, the patterns of action and hierarchy of values I see from people in my Polish neighborhood are worlds apart from what I see at a jazz club.  It’s not clear to me that either one is necessarily wrong or right — in fact either way seems to be able to work for the people who adhere to those patterns.  I need a system of values that works for me, yet that has to be based on something — otherwise I’m a leaf in the wind too easily swayed by others’ thoughts.  Opposite of that I see people who only surround themselves with like-minded people.  I don’t think that is a solution.  

The second idea I’m working through determining exactly how important social connections are.  Getting into this thinking about life outside music was catalyzed by seeing older musicians who were quick to jettison inconvenient social ties and were left sometimes lonely, or at other times isolated.  This is not always in a quantifiable way, but sometimes something as subtle as psychological intimacy you wouldn’t even notice in someone you didn’t know that well.  At the same time, all social connections are imperfect as all individuals are flawed.  This combination of imperfection in social connections, and limited time make it tricky to determine the best path of action — especially as a relatively recent transplant, social ties can either seem evanescent or purely transactional.  One human interaction at a time, I’m working through how to even think about these connections, but it seems self evident that they are important.

To tie this back into the project, If I had to put on a bumper sticker what this project is about, it’s finding meaning in life outside of music that can coexist with a musician’s lifestyle that also works for me (with all my idiosyncrasies) in [place] in [time].  These ideas transcend rationality and therefore are best explored through music.  These ideas are archetypal and will resonate in one way or another with an audience regardless of musical experience or tastes.  They’re also specific to me, and my thoughts are my own, so these compositions will be unique.  You don’t need a music degree to hear the difference between consonance and dissonance, loud and soft, etc.  Just like these ideas are challenging to me, they may challenge the listener’s temperament.  Like a good drama has tension and release that may keep a viewer engaged, so will this music.  It won’t just be a toe-tapping good time for everybody.

As a footnote regarding my collaborators, maybe I should have added this earlier, but their unique musical skillset I laid out in the initial grant proposal is mirrored in their personalities, lifestyles, and life experience.  I have been influenced in my thinking on what I just wrote about in addition to music by each of these guys, and I could go into detail, especially about [name] and [name].