by Allan Greene
I want to say something about that in which musicians are most expert: time. This is not, however, about tempo, or about rhythm, or about the proper length of a piece of music. This is about time passing, and how everything that passes becomes part of our collective aesthetic. This is about the razor’s edge on which we artists struggle to perch. This is at once sad and happy.
When I was on tour in Japan in 1983, the translator hired for the company, an all-round good guy named Hiro, led a couple dancers and me on a backstreets ramble through Kyoto. After a few temples, a few gardens and several kilometers of shoe-leather, he took us for refreshment into a dessert shop that specialized in kakigōri. Kakigōri is a mound of shaved-ice over which a flavored syrup is poured. The photo here shows how much it looks like volcanic rock, which is a classic motif in Chinese art. Hiro pushed me in the direction of sweet-bean-flavored kakigōri, and urged the others to order the green-tea flavor and the lemon flavor.
The kakigōri were served piled hill-high in stainless-steel dessert dishes, and when they were placed on the table before us, we were all sure there was too much. But, ah, were we wrong.
The first spoonful that penetrated the hill caused it to collapse to half its volume. The spoon filled with the most gossamer of ice-webs, tasting mostly of water with just the slightest tint of flavoring. In the blink of an eye, the dessert was gone, and cold ice-melt was all that swirled in the dish. It was, amazing to me, a dessert of negative space. It was positive expectation and negative fulfillment, a very Eastern essay on want and need.
It’s also the way many of us in the art world live our lives. We spend years in training, more years creating our repertoires, and when we finally put the final punctuation on the process by presenting ourselves to the public, the whole thing evaporates. It lives in the memories of those who were witnesses, but otherwise, sayonara.
What brought all these thoughts on? A week’s vacation with my family, coming home to our beloved Brooklyn, and a letter in the mail informing us that in two days we would be dropped from our health coverage.
We’ve haven’t taken a real vacation, the kind where you take the family several hundred miles away just to go though the ceremonies of coming and going, for five years. This year we managed to get my mom and my two sisters and their families to meet equidistant from our homes during the one week this year we were all available. The beach in Virginia was glorious, quiet and a short barefoot walk from the rental house. There was nothing to do but relax and get back in touch. Life felt understandable, pleasurable like a warm breeze, whole.
And then there was the letter. Back to the underground river of crisis. It rarely floods over, but it just goes and goes, threatening to cave-in everything.
Well, alright, it’s a couple weeks later, I’ve seen and spoken to the necessary bureaucrats, and I think we’re going to resolve the health care situation without going to ground. There’s more here than meets the eye, though. Because this episode captures the roller-coaster working artists ride as an essential occupational condition.
I read a lot of philosophy in college (very nearly majored in it) and spent a good deal of time thinking about what distinguishes art and artists from the rest of humanity, or whether there even is any difference. I loved Kant’s definition of art: “Purposefulness without Purpose”. I toyed with many definitions myself: the arts falling on the liberty end of a liberty-equality spectrum; art is not about communicating something specific, but about the many ways in which things can be more interestingly communicated; music is the most abstract of the arts, literature is the least, and all the others are somewhere on the spectrum between them.
After living in New York for a couple years in the crack-and-greed 80’s, another definition came to me: Artists are different because not only do they experience feelings more intensely but because they have each mastered very personal means of communicating these experiences. This includes deep depression, soaring satisfaction, total amusement, searing disappointment, shame, pride, sexual fulfillment, sexual frustration, being at one with the world, being totally alone in the world. And the reason the rest of the world is drawn to artists and their arts is so the world may experience vicariously this intensity.
Now, back to the deflated expectations about my family’s health coverage and those Japanese desserts.
No matter how many times we’ve been high and low, and no matter how many skills we’ve acquired to fashion work-arounds to deal with them, the intensity of the shock is always the same. This is what the Greeks called the “initial feeling”, the “aesthetic”. With artists, it eventually gets added to the bows in our quivers, or expressed directly as an artwork or piece thereof. It waits silently in our emotional memory until called on to be expressed. That moment of panic wondering where we’re going to get the means to pay for ordinary preventive medicine will find its way into a musical passage somewhere along the line.
But it’s that delightful spoonful of sweet-bean kakigōri, which turns cruelly into a Mephistophelean parody of yumminess, that says it all. It’s about the tough life we in the arts lead. It’s about the rug constantly being pulled from underneath us. It’s about the ineffable beauty that we create to express that.
We create, we perform, over and over again. We hit the mark and leave our marks, over and over again. The work we created disappears, again and again, and again.
As artists, that is our life.
BIO: Contributor Allan Greene has been a dancers’ musician for nearly forty years. He is a composer, pianist, teacher, conductor, music director, father to Oliver, 9, and Ravi, 6, and husband to Juliana Boehm. He has also been an architect, an editor, a writer and a boiler mechanic. He lives and works in New York City. His ballet class music can be found on www.BalletClassTunes.com.