There is nothing like drinking from the well of musical inspiration.
It is often empty, but when the well is overflowing, its water can quench the most ravenous thirst. One may lie in wait for days, weeks, months; eager for a single satiating drop. Perhaps a few notes from a favorite musician... an afternoon spent listening to birdsongs... a walk along a gurgling river in a secluded grove... inspiration may come in many forms, and sometimes it graces us when we least expect it. But what if the well is poisoned?
Territoriality, bureaucracy, in-fighting, contrived patriarchal hierarchies, inflated egos... these are but some of the many toxins that can wreak devastating effects on an already scarce supply of inspiration, especially for young artists. How easy is it for the established artist, ideally an individual of great skill and even greater willingness to share their craft, to take the fledgling artist under their wing and foster their talents. Unfortunately, it is easier to be swayed by jealousy and fear; this is how the well is first poisoned.
How is that seemingly self-respecting artists engage in such pettiness, irreparably compromising their integrity (both as artists and human beings) in the eyes of any objective observer? I have been on the receiving end of such nonsense more times than I would care to be, and I have seen it happen to other people. It is never OK and is practically without fail indicative of a deeply-seated personal issue; often, leveled accusations are rooted deep within the accuser's tangled psyche. Worse yet, something else is left untended in the process -- as drama and other schoolyard antics unbefitting of professionals unfold, true art withers away. The result? One of the following: 1) no one chooses to pass the proverbial baton, instead keeping it for themselves even when they can no longer hold it, 2) no one accepts the baton in its current sorry condition, and 3) there isn't and never was a baton at all. Each of these scenarios is uniquely sad, but the circumstances that lead to any of them are equally reprehensible.
Over the past ~5 years, I have been privileged to spend time teaching (and learning from) dozens of guitar aficionados, ranging from beginners to experts. Each experience has been gratifying in its own way, and I could not hope to accurately describe in this one blog post the wide range of personalities I've encountered. I've also been lucky enough to teach a not insignificant number of guitarists who I believe will go on to become the best in Minnesota and perhaps beyond, thanks to their prodigious talent and incredible work ethic. But how swiftly this could fall apart if I spike the drink of inspiration for those whose eyes still twinkle with excitement when they learn a technique, master a new piece, or compose their own music... The power wielded by anyone in the position of an instructor can arguably be used to do more harm than good -- it is for this reason that teachers who do not use their authority with great discretion and only the best of intentions must not be allowed to poison the well.
And if the well is already poisoned, let the rain come and wash away the ill-wishers and the jealous peddlers of mediocrity, making way for positivity, encouragement, and cultivation of art! There can be no room for condescension, animosity, and egoism in a beautiful world fueled by creativity, passion, and inspiration.
Crafting a unique artistic aesthetic -- one's undeniably personal "stamp" -- is perhaps the ultimate goal for any serious musician. The essence of such an aesthetic is something I've thought about for a very long time, as it seems to transcend the quality of one's instrument (ever heard the "s/he would sound like themselves even if they played a cardboard box!" sentiment?) or even one's technique. For musicians, some have described it as a unique "touch"... otherwise call it playing with "soul"... but I think it has more to do with an almost spiritual surrender to music and acceptance of a gift that is as intangible as it is real. What I'm talking about is grace.
After years spent mastering one's instrument and learning the art of other musicians, which involves both mechanistic/repetitive learning and truly listening to the artistry of others, one may in fact begin to develop a sound all their own, an unmistakable sound that can be analyzed cerebrally ad nauseam, which does it an incredible disservice. I could write a PhD dissertation on the unique sounds of Paco de Lucia, Antonio Carlos Jobim, Astor Piazzolla, or any number of timeless musicians, replete with terminology that only makes sense to the most seasoned musicologist... and ultimately fail to capture what can be transmitted by just listening to what these incredible artists had to say. Within seconds, one can hear so many things in the music of the great artists -- a sort of distillation of their life story. And even that does not entirely capture what it means to have a unique artistic aesthetic.
There are many who struggle with this idea because they have seemingly checked all the boxes, such as decades of practice and an encyclopedic knowledge of their art-form, and yet still cannot distinguish their playing from that of others. In the end, grace may never come. However, I'd like to invoke the words of the famous Swiss-German author Hermann Hesse to get at another crucial element of what underlies a unique artistic aesthetic:
"I had to experience despair, I had to sink to the greatest mental depths, to thoughts of suicide, in order to experience grace."
Perhaps then it is not so surprising that we are faced with a generation of artists who seem to revel in vapidity, expressing privilege through the most banal "art". I do not intend to make sweeping generalizations -- but one look at the pop music of today, as compared to that of the generation prior, is enough to make my point. We live in an era of relative privilege, where music is a hobby at best or an extraneous distraction at worst. This conception is far removed from the experiences of musical vassals through the centuries, who suffered for their art and attained musical grace through their struggles. Of course, one does not need to live in poverty or endure cataclysmic trauma to become a good musician. But grace cannot penetrate the musical ivory tower; it demands that its seeker live life: laugh, love, endure heartbreak, make meaningful connections with others, ponder their simultaneous transience and permanence, etc...
In the end, where there isn't grace, there cannot be art. Then, how is grace related to art? Once again, Hesse put it simply and incredibly eloquently.
"Art is contemplation of the world in a state of grace."
May the artists reading this never cease to aspire to contemplate the world in a state of grace.
I recently gave a concert at The Cedar Cultural Center, joined by many great artists. It was a wonderful night and we had a fantastic turnout, especially considering that the show was on Super Bowl Sunday! Below are a few highlights from the show -- a solo to honor the memory of the departed Paco de Lucia, a traditional flamenco duet with the great El Payo Humberto, and a modern flamenco original composition with multi-instrumentalist Adrian Volovets.