Michael Mauldin

Distinctive Tonal Music Inspired by Magical Places
 
 
 
17 August 2016

THE FINE LINE: Thoughts and Music of a Contemporary American Composer at Forty.

Thirty years ago, approaching age forty, I thought I was wise enough to write a book. Whether I was or not, I wasn’t disciplined enough. I finished only this INTRODUCTION and some autobiography. But “the kid” did pretty well. So I share his intro here.

INTRODUCTION

I’m not “special”--at least no more “special” than you are. If there’s anything unusual about me, it’s my undying belief that we’re all born “special.” The products of our lives may or may not be outstanding, but we never lose the opportunity (unless we give it up voluntarily or unkowingly from lack of use) to see and celebrate (share) the “specialness” of life itself--a fine balance between novelty and predictability, order and chaos. Why is it then that we often find the seeing and celebrating too “special,” and hard to do?

Perhaps it’s because we tire of maintaining the balance, of walking the fine line between order and chaos, boredom and surprise, known and unknown. Life periodically shakes the container of oil-and-water to keep the unknown suspended through the known. We vacillate between wanting (or needing) one or the other. We wish we could predict and control life’s “ups” and “downs.” The “lows” we would like to avoid; the “highs” we would like to set apart, ritualize, reach at regular intervals. Or at will.

That may be one reason--not the best--why we have such things as organized religion and “high” art. There is virtue in setting apart. It protects and preserves something of value. But it can also make something so “special” as to seem meaningless to one’s everyday life, so “high” as to make one feel not special at all.

Believe me, I’m not saying that we shouldn’t revere a Beethoven symphony as great art that can elevate its listeners to a oneness with the “specialness” of life. But to say that that music, or classical music, or any other is the only music with which one can celebrate that specialness, is like saying that Christianity is the only true religion. By setting apart great art, do we put all art too far away from life itself, its original source?

As a composer, this concerns me, because it makes for a polarity among my potential audience between elitism on one hand and apathy on the other. As a teacher, it concerns me even more, because I see a generation of musicians who have “bought” the myth that composers were “gods” who lived centuries ago, and that present-day mortals--certainly young ones--have no business trying to add anything to music. That is, anything significant, important, “special.”

If you think we have a way of setting apart classical music, look at what we do to “new” music--the tip-of-the-tip of the iceberg. Each premiere of a “modern” piece is viewed as either a challenge to the benchmarks of the past, a poor copy, or too weird to be taken seriously.

So why write? Interviewers ask me that. Perhaps as a child I was attracted by the idea that I would be regarded as an “important” person, someone who had something special to contribute. But it doesn’t take long in contemporary American society (particularly where I grew up) for the would-be composer to find that he’s regarded more often as a dreamer who doesn’t “pull his own weight,” doesn’t appear to be contributing even the minimum required to earn his membership in society. So the young composer either quits composing or keeps writing. He may retreat to elitism to protect himself from feelings of rejection. He may go “pop” to make a lot of money, a mark of “importance” in our society. Or he may find a balance between what he wants to write and what seems to speak meaningfully to other people.

That balance is what this is about. The thesis is not that we must never stray either side of the fine line, just that we should have some sense of where it is, and that we must not be afraid to cross it numerous times (as did Stravinsky) to suit our own changing needs and those of different listeners.

Balance is not the middle-of-the-road timidity for which it’s often mistaken. It’s a dynamic, exciting process, which is too easily discarded for extremes when we’re tired of juggling the constant oil-and-water mixture we face in life. But the agonizing decision of what to do next, whether to rely on old but successful formulas or to strike out in new directions (even ones that are old to others but new to us), is part of the tension out of which grows creativity.
 
When interviewers ask “why write?” I think, “why do you eat or sleep or talk?” But the answer I give is, “I must.” Creating is our way of searching through and enjoying the knowns and the unknowns--the novelties and the cliches--celebrating them, within ourselves and with other people. If the creation is special, it’s because life itself is special. If it’s mundane or predictable, it’s because life is like that some of the time. 

 

 

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