A Note on Art and Maturity

Mark Strand once said that poets reach maturity when they move from saying private things in a public language to saying public things in a private language.1 I understand this statement to mean that a poet matures into not only a sense of scale wherein his/her work comes to describe more universal things than personal feelings or personal feelings as universal things; but, simultaneously, a style.2

We see this kind of development equally among all artists, I think, and a mark of the maturing, as opposed to fully mature, artist is that his/her work remains a kind of test, a challenge to the audience to decode and interpret his/her effort. Though this might yield some reward for artist and audience, s/he is nearing the state of maturity that will free him/her from the need to obscure his/her subject (frequently with objects) but isn’t quite there. My own maturation as an artist and an audience member has been characterized by impatience with this kind of obscurantism, even when I can parse the clues. One is always hip to some reference or other but it shouldn’t be the full price of the ticket.

For better or worse, I tend to approach most art literally and let it go to work on me from there. My own musical preference for ensemble composing and performing without vocals stems from this condition, as it supports an it-is-what-it-is art, contingent only on what the group plays, not on what the audience might think about what one of us is saying. In this way, my mature practice, such as it is, is marked by collaboration, understanding that what one is trying to get across benefits in every instance from direct involvement with and the ideas of others: the audience collaborates, exhibitors and distributors collaborate, one’s inspiration and aspiration collaborate. One way or another, the art experience is always shared.

That said, art work begins with inspiration and aspiration. One is moved to get something across, an image, a sound, a structure, or whatever else, as Denise Levertov put it, raves to us for release. In my work, what, exactly, do I try to get across? It’s fairly simple: we must be good to each other.

Two examples of the basic philosophy behind this idea take G-d as their object, not their subject. I suspect you’ll catch my drift when you have a look at them.

James Baldwin

The first is from James Baldwin’s The Fire Next Time,

If the concept of God has any validity or any use, it can only be to make us larger, freer, and more loving. If he can no longer do this then it is time we got rid of Him.

The subject of this statement is our inspiration, aspiration, humility, and selflessness. Its object, on the other hand, is G-d, who we are free to embrace or deny according to our need. This sort of statement, a benevolent subject paired with a provocative treatment of an ideal object typifies certain of Mr Baldwin’s statements, especially as he reached his artistic maturity. During his peak, he was a master of this kind of statement.

Nick Cave

Another example is Nick Cave, who in a lecture he delivered on writing love songs said,

Actualising of God through the medium of the love song remains my prime motivation as an artist. The love song is perhaps the truest and most distinctive human gift for recognising God and a gift that God himself needs.

I won’t make any proclamations about Mr Cave’s faith but I will point out that the role he assigns to G-d is similar to Mr Baldwin’s in that they both invoke G-d’s mutual need for us, as conjurers or gift bearers.3 That they speak of G-d only matters here insofar as he represents an ideal, either an ideal inspiration (Baldwin) or aspiration (Cave). Each man’s use of a mutually held ideal — held, that is between the idealizer and idealized — affirms the necessity of striving or longing and a goal. In other words, the gap between the effort and the object is the subject. The effectiveness of the work is defined by the ability of its audience to recognize and identify with the effort, not the object.

This kind of connection speaks to the variety of music, poetry, or other art that initially captivates us: we respond to the uncommon relation of common reactions to common things.The things in question likely appeal to us specifically at a certain point in time, regarding death, injustice or oppression, a favorite location, a favorite car, or an especially difficult break-up, for instance, but the stuff that stays with us does so even after these events have receded into the past. So one might be struck by a poem that speaks to one’s immediate circumstance but what will keep one interested in the poem is what it tries to do, and as we mature, what it continues to do.

A related idea is the preference for genres. If we cling to the event or time during which we were first captivated by a work, we will seek similar-sounding or similar-looking material to repeat or revive both the original experience and the captivation. This is distinct from the relationship described above in that it asks art to seize an experience rather than develop as we ourselves mature.


  1. He called it a point of truth, not maturity; I take these terms to be synonymous.

  2. The poet comes to rely on her own vernacular, symbols, etc.; our recognition of her style is a result of her skill and, frequently, vice versa.

  3. Edmond Jabès: “Every god needs a witness.”

A Note on Art and Audience

Because our general understanding of humility is calibrated by its outward expression, it seems arrogant when an artist is sufficiently satisfied with her or his own work to eschew the conventions of approval and praise.

The failure in this understanding is to recognize that humility exists not in the face of praise or recognition for or of one’s work but rather in the respect for the work’s materials, deference to the practice of making art in the first place, the pleasure of the work, the labor, the creation itself.

Which is to say that there are reasons to make art independent of having its final outcome seen or heard by other people.

Recording

My band, BELLS≥, was in the studio for 5 days last November.

In my experience, most recording has been a matter of capturing a given group’s routine at its best, by which I mean the performances we’ve been after were essentially definitive versions of the songs we’d rehearsed or performed prior to the session. Some of this was no doubt financially-driven. Studio time is not cheap and except for the two LPs I recorded when I was in Jawbox, much of my recording has been fugitive, donated, committed on the fly or in off-hours, in friends’ home studios or with portable gear. This mode, given that I’ve almost never been in improvisational groups, generally requires readiness, organization, and rehearsal. 1 At the least, one doesn’t want to prevail over an engineer-friend’s generosity, and besides, the music one writes for such sessions is prepared to be recorded quickly. 2

In any case, two major changes in our band’s life determined the course of this session. First, we lost some of our equipment and our rehearsal space to hurricane flooding. Second, we underwent a lineup change. Each of these circumstances brought its own consequences to bear. In the case of the hurricane, we were shocked when we first saw our space, and later depressed when confronted with what was lost and the prospect of not rehearsing before our session. As for the lineup change, we weren’t shocked by it but we were saddened and at something of a loss as to how exactly we would move forward.

There was nothing to do but accept the storm’s toll, replace or repair what we could. The work and generosity of several friends, some of whom we had not seen or spoken to in several years, closed the gear gap with surprising ease. Similarly, we found that, for the purposes of the session, we were not lacking a bass player after all, and though the tunes would eventually undergo some radical changes in both tone and spirit, we were and are quite happy with the results.3 Each guest player/collaborator who joined us did so with everything he could muster, each of their presences was unique and varied, each profoundly personal, and each dedicated to helping us makes our music the best it could be. We finished 7 songs in all, perhaps fewer than we’d thought we’d have when we booked the studio time last summer but no doubt more than we thought we’d have in early November.

As for the album’s future, its release is still up in the air but we’ll get it out there one way or another. For the time being, it’s mixed and at the mastering studio.


  1. There are three exceptions: The Night Is Now, with whom I played in Minneapolis and who made a single, improvised, as-yet-unfinished recording at a farmhouse in Hanska, MN; my bi- or triannual work with Kevin McKeendree and, sometimes, Steve Mackey (neither the guitar player/composer nor the member of Pulp) as the E Fowlkes Trio or Sextet; and Kill Dalton Ames, with whom I improvised the score to Christopher Ernst’s In Carcosa.

  2. This concept, that music is *designed* with one sort of recording or another in mind is not new, though it usually associates with works created, frequently over weeks or months, in the studio. For most musicians or artists without free access to a studio or large sums of money, this method is prohibitively expensive.

  3. Grateful acknowledgement to Eric Dixon, Keith Larsen, and Darren Zentek for thorough and generous drum support; and to Michaels Honch and Pahn (Argos), J. Robbins, and Gordon Withers for their friend- and musicianship.

Some Thoughts on the State of Things after Re-Reading “Parker’s Back”

A piece on Christianity in contemporary fiction in last week’s New York Times Book Review mentioned Flannery O’Connor’s “Parker’s Back” and subsequently sent me to my bookcase. I pulled Ms O’Connor’s Complete Works from the shelf, checked the index, and marked the story with the book’s ribbon. My apartment is small enough and the books organized well enough that the entire process took less than one minute. To read it took a good deal longer, not least because I have learned to read slowly but mostly because “Parker’s Back” is a frightening story about a man whose apparently misplaced faith yields cyclical resentment and crisis. Mr Parker’s judgment is not what we generally think of as “sound.” It’s an extraordinarily dense work, covers a great deal of time and space in fewer than 20 pages.

Another option under these circumstances might have been to search Wikipedia for the story, where one would find a synopsis of the work that not long ago would have met the inadequate-for-all-but-testing standards of Cliff’s Notes, and from which one might glean a vague idea about faith and identity, class and fervor, failure and aggression – at least enough to cover oneself at a cocktail party should the conversation veer into The American South.

Choosing the second option, I would experience only the shame or pride of passing muster at a cocktail party, nothing of Ms O’Connor’s work, nothing of the possibilities, depth, or range of human belief and expression. That this second option has become the norm is not an argument between reading or not reading nor exactly an argument between knowing and not knowing.1

I sense that in the last several years, these two phenomena, the concession to brevity and the experience of knowing a subject or object thoroughly, have become, in many instances, practically interchangeable.2We have come to trust the brevity of our exchanges, to assume a glance and a longer look are equivalent, because we are so rarely asked to take the longer look, to digest the experience before reporting on it, to have the courage to form a relationship with a work, our own or someone else’s, without fear of missing out on something else. We spend increasingly more time scanning short, discrete expressions in anticipation of meaning if not relation. I think we suffer for it, too.

My choice, as it happened, will not be unusual to anyone who has in the course of their life assembled a personal library, a large or small collection of books or other analog materials whose presence in one’s home serves both as reference and affirmation of one’s identity and sociability. Unlike the material in the current climate of electronic reading, these collections share our space with us, as do our friends, family, collaborators, guests, and co-workers. Books can be passed around with ease, unbound as they are to any proprietary format or device, and in so doing grant our presence to the receiver’s home or travel or wherever they might take the book in question. I’m open to but not aware of instances where digital media — files, that is — provide the same sense of intimacy. There are, no doubt, exceptions but as I say, they’re not part of my experience.

I should add, for what it’s worth, that I am not a Luddite. I’m typing this on an iPad Mini, a device for which my fondness so far extends beyond its novelty and from which, earlier today, I streamed Tarkovsky’s Nostalghia to my television. I embrace such devices for what they can do but remain skeptical about their ability to replace the tactile relationship I have with my books. I am certain that this skepticism is not unique, nor is it limited to books. I have, for example, a similar relationship with records and CDs.

Perhaps it’s a generation gap but I doubt it. I know younger people, aged 25-30, give or take, who prefer vinyl or CDs to MP3s, theatrical moviegoing or DVDs (or even VHS tapes) to streaming. They’re picking up, I think, on the culture surrounding these activities and formats, which is essentially social and in-hand, and perhaps more importantly, has a history from which they can learn and grow and to which they can contribute.

Additionally, too much convenience and too many choices can be paralyzing. Sometimes the extra effort it takes to find a rare or elusive work in order to share it in person makes the experience more memorable or valuable. This is not to say none of us have benefitted from contemporary electronic correspondence, exchange, or collaboration. It is, however, to suggest that these latter relationships and their outcomes will likely remain fixed on their speed and superficial variety until such time as they resolve in a physical proximity.

In any event, “Parker’s Back” is a wonderful story and worth a read. If you don’t have Ms O’Connor’s stories handy, you can read it at Doral Academy Preparatory High School’s site.


  1. I don’t think there’s any particular harm in not knowing Ms O’Connor’s work nor do I think there’s any particular harm in cocktail parties. I do, however, think there’s a distinction worth making between knowing something because one believes it is worth knowing thoroughly and knowing about something in order to get over in a social situation.

  2. In fact, of course, they are not: the stages of a thoroughgoing learning process could be described as something like introduction, acquaintance, apprehension, understanding, and synthesis. Gleaning, I think, precludes most of these steps.