“The resolution of conflict in self is like the making one of opposites in art.” —Eli Siegel
This sentence of Eli Siegel, poet, critic, and founder of the philosophy of Aesthetic Realism is the most hopeful and important statement on the relation of art to life that I have ever read. For years, like most musicians, I was troubled and even tormented by not being able to see that relation clearly: music and the rest of my life seemed two separate things. Eventually I gave up composing entirely, abandoning for three painful years the art I loved and hoped to make my life's work. It was through studying what Aesthetic Realism says about art and about artists’ questions that I have come again to write music; this study brought back to life for me what I thought was irretrievably lost.
Before meeting Aesthetic Realism I just could not make sense of a world which offered beauty in a concert hall, but seemed to deny it in a living room —a world having both Mozart and a war in Asia. I was troubled at how there could sometimes be beauty in my music, but no resolution of conflicts in my life. I felt separated from people. I alternated between enthusiasm and moody silence. And there was a split that seemed to be unresolvable between music and my other interests, both personal and academic. How could I go about music wholeheartedly if I could not relate it to my whole self, to everything in life?
Aesthetic Realism has shown me the method by which both to see these questions accurately and to deal with them accurately. According to Aesthetic Realism: “All beauty is a making one of opposites, and the making one of opposites is what we are going after in ourselves.” This means we care for art because when it is successful it shows us how opposites can work together, the same opposites which when fighting cause the conflicts in our lives. Before giving some instances of how this idea works in action, including excerpts from my actual consultations with teachers of Aesthetic Realism, I would like to quote some lines from Eli Siegel's most important work: The Aesthetic Method in Self-Conflict. This passage, I think, gets to the very heart of Aesthetic Realism, and will help to explain what will follow:
The basic conflict in the human mind (is)…the Self and World conflict. In every person there is a drive towards the caring for and pleasing of self; in every person there is a drive towards other things, a desire to meet and know these. Often this drive towards self as an exclusive thing collides painfully with the drive to widen the self...
These two drives have their likenesses in art; for at a time of aesthetic activity, a person wants to show his own feelings…and he also wants to see objects just as they are without imposing narrow desires of self making for comfort or premature complacency....If it is possible; if, in fact, it is the great purpose of art to be one's self and yet give everything to the object—can we not find here the just purpose in life itself?
I began studying Aesthetic Realism in September 1972 in consultations. During my first consultation I was surprised by the question:“How did I use music in relation to my family?” I answered:
|Green: I think I used music as something that wouldn't be interfered with, something they wouldn't pry into, a place where they would leave me alone.
Later in the consultation, I was asked by one of my consultants, Barbara Allen, who is a flutist:
|Allen: If a person's whole self wants to integrate and yet there's a division in the way he puts together his life and his art, can he feel he's lived up to his art?
Green: No, in terms of his life.
I left this consultation with an entirely new possibility of approaching my musical difficulties! Until that Sunday afternoon I had thought maybe my imagination had dried up, or maybe I was fooling myself all along as to my talent. I had never, never thought that maybe I had stopped composing because I had used music so badly in terms of my entire life that I felt I no longer deserved to write! This was a breathtaking idea, that an attitude I had towards music, in this case related to my family, could affect me technically. What I wanted most in my life was what everyone wants most: to make sense of it, to integrate it, to compose it. I had abandoned composing music, not because my innate abilities had vanished, not because I could no longer integrate melody with accompaniment, but because I had refused to integrate music with my life! I had difficulties because my purposes with music were not as good as my purposes in music. In music I was trying to put opposites together. With music I was trying to keep the various parts of my life apart. How much this relates to the following lines from the essay Art as Life by Eli Siegel: “Integration is the utmost oneness through difference, not against difference. What integration is in life, it is in art.” That, unfortunately, was not my purpose with music. Had it been, there would have been no conflict.
Aesthetic Realism is a philosophy of the opposites in reality, and its central idea is that the world when seen aesthetically can be liked, because it is a structure of opposites and that structure is akin to our own nature and our own hopes. This idea is found most concisely in the statement of Eli Siegel: “The world, art and self explain each other: each is the aesthetic oneness of opposites.”
A crucial pair of opposites present in my first consultation were ‘separation and junction’ related to the basic opposites of ‘difference and sameness.’ Near the end of my second consultation these opposites reappear dramatically:
| Consultants : Do you think in seeing where you and your mother are the same and different you will come out more of an individual or less?
Green: At this time I would say less. I think I would really feel like a satellite.
Consultants: That means you're seeing yourself as too much the same or too different. There has to be an accurate relation between the two.
Green: I don't want accuracy there—I just want distance.
Consultants: And what do you want as a musician? You have to ask—is it the same as what you deeply want in life?
Did my desire for distance, a disproportionate desire for separateness, get in the way of what I wanted as a musician? Can a desire to keep things too separate in life get in the way of the necessity in music to bring sounds together, relate them, compose them? I have seen that the answer is resoundingly Yes and I think the following excerpts from a consultation I had on February 11, 1973 will make this clearer.
The discussion focuses on the nature of silence. For a silence, or a pause, to work in music, clearly the relation of separation and junction has to be accurate. Did my attitude towards these opposites, as shown in the excerpts from my earlier consultations, have an inevitable technical consequence?Green: I played a solo cello piece am writing for Sally (my girl friend) and she felt that the silences were too long, too intense, too painful. I studied Bach to see why his silences work and the question came up; what is the relationship between silence and continuity? Why are my silences painful?
|Consultants: What do you think of silence as such?
Green: I see it as an intense thing.
Consultants: What is silence? How do you see it and how do you want to see it? How was silence used at your home?
Green: It's used badly all around. I used it to hide what I felt, to be separate. What remains unsaid during those silences, the silent criticism is torture ...but some of the most entrancing moments in music are silence. In Beethoven it happens often…sometimes he takes the physical beat away, but the silence comes crashing down, and gives a strong accent anyway.
At this point my consultants suggested that I read an essay by Martha Baird, secretary of the Society for Aesthetic Realism, on Separation and Junction in Music. This essay, published in Allegro, the newspaper of local 802 in New York, includes an important discussion of the first movement of Beethoven's “Eroica” and very much deals with the nature of silence in music.
The discussion continued:
|Consultants: I felt in Beethoven’s Fifth that the silence came in at an angle, but that Beethoven used the silences to show himself, not to be hidden. Relate silence and the music to your family. Do you like the way your father talks?
Green: He's extremely silent, I’ve thought the only way to deal with it was to be silent myself…He's angry, but he bears his anger in silence.
Consultants: You have said that you care for Dante. There is a passage in Inferno where the wrathful are punished by being submerged in muck and blood; the most wrathful are entirely submerged. What they say, their angry curses, can't be heard, they come out like sighs. Have you seen silence and sighs as coming from a buried anger?
This indivisible mingling of music technically with the depths of self and with the breadth of the world was something I had never met before. Yes! Beethoven's purpose with silence was to make clearer the relations between things, it was an aesthetic purpose—he separates in order to join more thoroughly, more dramatically. Do we separate for the same purpose, or is our purpose more like revenge—a desire to be separate and angry at all costs? And if we have this purpose, this anti-art purpose, will it have an effect? Aesthetic Realism says—it must.
It is this sort of thought, which never loses sight of either the technical or the personal, but is always relating them, which was missing in my education, and has been missing in education in general. It can’t be said that I took to this without opposition. Like many people, I had used music as an escape from a world I didn’t see is exciting or comforting enough. So when I was asked to relate my family to music—and I had so far tried my best to use music to get away from my family—well, I certainly had much work to do to see where that attitude of separation really hurt me.
It is true that historically artists have been troubled by not being able to relate art to life, but, they have also used this split to feel sadly superior and to say that the only thing interfering with their art, besmudging its purity, was the outside world. Artists, like all people, have seen it as easier to blame other things rather than criticize themselves. This, I think, can be seen in a famous letter of Tchaikovsky to Mme. von Meck, July 6, 1878:
In a word, an artist lives a double life: an everyday human life and an artistic life, and the two do not always go hand in hand. In any case, it is absolutely necessary for a composer to shake off all the cares of daily existence…and give himself up entirely to his art-life…There is something somnambulistic about this condition. Everything that flows from one’s pen…under these circumstances will be invariably good, and if no external obstacle comes...the result will be an artist’s best and most perfect work. Unfortunately, such external hindrances are inevitable....This is the reason why there exist so few compositions which are of equal quality throughout. Hence the joins, patches, inequalities and discrepancies.
Here, according to Tchaikovsky, if the artist could just be free of the outside world everything would be ‘invariably good.’ That something in Tchaikovsky knew this wasn’t true, and knew perfectly well that an artist can also greatly hinder himself, can be seen in the fact that the very next day he again wrote to Mme. von Meck stating something quite different:
What one has set down in a moment of ardor (i.e. the somnambulistic condition of the first letter) must now be critically examined…Sometimes one must do oneself violence, must sternly and pitilessly take part against oneself, before one can mercilessly erase things thought out with love and enthusiasm…Only after strenuous labor have I at last succeeded in making the form of my compositions correspond…with their contents.
In Aesthetic Realism, I met for the first time a body of knowledge at once broad and precise, which could relate music technically to my own intimate questions as composer and person, and it could do so because, as stated before, it is based on philosophy as to the opposites in all reality. Of course I had met opposites spoken of before. My composition teacher, Meyer Kupferman, used opposites conspicuously both in his work and in his teaching. For example, he once said to me that to have details in a composition rich and various the central idea had to be simple. Bela Bartok, in a 1942 essay, also deals with the opposites of simple and complex. He writes:
|It may sound odd, but I do not hesitate to say that the simpler the melody the more complex and strange may he the harmonization and accompaniment that go well with it.
My teacher also showed me how to achieve a oneness of regularity and irregularity in rhythm by first writing a melody in irregular meter, say 7/8, and then transferring it to 4/4 without shifting the rhythmic values. Both of these ideas were useful.
According to Aesthetic Realism, the reason why these ideas had value is that they honor the opposites which are the very structure of music: music is a matter of making one of opposites. But where these ideas dealt only with the opposites as technically useful, Aesthetic Realism says the opposites are wider: “The world, art and self explain each other: each is the aesthetic oneness of opposites.”
In quoting from my transcripts, I chose to focus on one pair of opposites: separation and junction, and even there I only chose a fraction of what I could have presented. However, studying Aesthetic Realism has helped me both technically and personally with many others, including: quick and slow, heavy and light, energy and the ‘droops’, etc. Just as a bad attitude to the opposites has a technical effect, so, as one’s attitude improves there can be technical improvement. For example, in 1969 I composed a duet for alto-flute and guitar. While writing it, I was aware that in a fashion I was casting the alto-flute in a more feminine role, and the guitar in a more masculine one. Now in 1969 my attitude towards the relation of men and women was far from good. I saw them as two very separate and antagonistic opposites. So it is no surprise that in this duet the two instruments never really ‘get it together.’ They each stick obstinately to their own ideas, call to each other without answer, and in certain sections dance furiously, interfering with each other’s line. The guitar part is too abrupt and jerky, the flute too smooth and aloof. In the coda, where of all places they should be together, I end the piece with the alto-flute playing disparate little figures separated by long silences, followed by a slow, three-note, descending figure much like a sigh. The guitar then, after a long silence, finally chooses to say something—two lonely, muted staccato notes. All is not well with this piece, clearly! In 1973, four years to the month after I wrote that duet, I composed a short film cue, involving a man and a woman, shot separately. In this cue I used essentially the same melody for both the woman, a Spanish gentlewoman, and the man, a bull-fighter. By harmonizing them differently, which shifted the sense of key-center, and by slightly altering the rhythm, I was able to characterize the two sections differently. But it was only because I now see how much more related men and women are than different, that I avoided that half-comic, half-tragic disproportion found in the earlier duet. In the 1969 piece I failed because I wanted to show the opposites as separate only; in the 1973 piece I succeeded because I wanted to show the drama of the difference of the masculine and the feminine through their essential sameness.
Many artists have found in Aesthetic Realism a method by which to usefully and accurately criticize themselves as they are working. In my brief year of study I have found much that I could directly apply to my work and to my talking about music. As an educational method, Aesthetic Realism has proven its validity and importance over the course of thirty years of diverse application. It has been used as a teaching method in places as various as Columbia University, the New Jersey Public Schools and the Riker’s Island Correctional Institute. It has been the basis upon which voice, piano, acting, English literature, anthropology, computer programming, classics, mime, printmaking and photography have been taught. It has been the basis for tens of thousands of individual lessons and consultations. And in every case its basic purpose remains the same: to encourage people through honest study to come to a like of the world by seeing it aesthetically.
Can music help a person like the world? Aesthetic Realism says that if it shows we live in a world whose opposites can go together and be composed into beauty, and that this is a world in which we can learn from art how to achieve what we most want for ourselves, then Yes, music can help us like the world honestly. Would this not be a great and glorious purpose in studying music?