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.