[An address delivered at the Senior Recognition Ceremony, Vanderbilt University's Blair School of Music, May 2013]
When I was asked to give this address, I was tempted simply to stand here with you for a few minutes in silence – although an unforgivably cagy thing to do, it seems like that might be one way to taste the immensity of the transformation that you are about to undergo. I also want to be silent because no one in their right mind would offer you advice about what, specifically, to do with the rest of your life from here. Only you can figure that out -- because you are the only one who sees it all. And so I want to be quiet, and give you a head start on the kind of reflection, and wisdom, that comes to us only in silence.
But now I've already talked, and screwed that up.
So I'm going to tell you about this thing I saw on Facebook instead.
Recently, a meme made the rounds on Facebook with a quote by Leonard Bernstein -- "This will be our reply to violence: to make music more intensely, more beautifully, more devotedly than ever before." Now as a musician, I get it -- I know that on one level, those are true and good words -- and yet what do they really mean? For on another level, those words might be poisonously bad advice. We read them, perhaps we see a photograph of that translated prophet -- Bernstein, his silver hair tousled from some climactic podium pounce, and we feel the ready-made emotion swelling in our ribs: yes, this will be our response to violence: to groove even harder on our antiquated art, to hole up and practice more, to put our head in the sand... to make ourselves feel better.
We share the post, we click the ubiquitous "like" button -- and what
have we done? Is making music a good response to the obvious loss and pain
around us? Or worse yet, feeling and philosophizing a certain way about music?
Music mixes its dopamine cocktail in our brain. So what? Does it do
a damn thing beyond that? Is music capable of exerting any force on the world,
a world which has always been insane, and appears to be getting no
better? It is not a bad question as you graduate: have you just taken a
I would say that, yes, it is a famously useless degree. I would say that, rather than avoid the nagging fear of our own uselessness as musicians, we should dive headlong into it. From the ultimate perspective, is not everything useless? Take a supposedly practical profession like medicine or finance. At the last, they don’t work, either – everyone dies, and no one takes anything with them. And besides, is there not a certain panache to musicians’ uselessness? That is the scandal of art. We are the ones who know we're useless. Perhaps we can say with Cyrano de Bergerac, sparring with the trees at twilight, “non, c'est bien plus beau lorsque c’est inutile” – the fight is much more beautiful when it’s hopeless.
I only want to ask you this: what if we didn’t do the hip thing, and make use of standardized test results or neuroscience or anthropology or common sentiment to try to eke out some actual benefit to music, some practical good it offers to offset the obvious bad? What if we read the whole ledger of the world’s joy and suffering, and didn't pretend to tamper with the balance? What if the artists were the ones who faced their own uselessness head-on? What if art has nothing to offer except itself?
I feel almost unqualified to talk about art these days, for as many of you know I am a new dad, and I have spent at least as many hours over the last year Pampering as I have practicing. Thomas is his given name, though he is more commonly known around the house as Meepers -- he is ten months old, and thriving, and, if you will pardon the cliché, he is the best thing that has ever happened to me. And perhaps something that my son once showed me will help explain what it is I mean to say about music.
I had not yet met him at the time – we were at our ultrasound appointment, anxiously scanning the screen for signs of life. When the technician located him, Thomas turned his head and looked, so to speak, towards the camera. At just that moment when he turned to face us, the nurse switched the setting on the sonogram machine to an X-ray view. And there it was – a perfect human skull, its empty eyes staring back at me in the ghostly blue light of the monitor. I stood in silence, stunned – a backwards Hamlet, peering into the future to converse with an intimate friend. Here is a person who could easily die in the 22nd century! And here, amid so much talk of birth -- the memento mori. The realization blindsided me: Of course – the end is here, in the beginning. The two are not separate. This image of a skull was not just the usual symbol of death, reminding me: “hurry up, there’s not much time.” It was a reminder that time simply doesn’t work the way I thought it did. It doesn’t always run in a straight line. My replacement is already here, and even he is temporary. Without an end, there could be no beginning, either.
I don’t mean to imply that the vision disturbed me – on the contrary, it pointed to something tremendously beautiful, something we usually overlook: The whole experience is the whole experience. Or, as Nisargadatta put it: everything that is is the cause of everything that is. Usually, we try to capture pleasure and avoid pain, we try to gain and never lose. But we all secretly know that this attempt to cut life in half drives us a little mad – for the scales are always balancing. When we give up, we finally find the wise silence I’m talking about, and which you know in your gut, even though you have been trained to avoid it. Only when we come into full contact with the temporary nature of every experience do we find the full joy of being alive. Birth and death are indeed opposites – but life is that which contains them both. And I would say that the artist is the one who has the courage to be about life – the whole thing, awake to the full knowledge of the end from the beginning.
As calendar time goes, tomorrow is an important day in your life. It is a
kind of birth, heaving you out, ready-or-not, into the world – yet it is also
the death of every security you have known thus far. You cannot have one
part of that experience without the other. Everything you have ever done
has somehow added up to this, and yet what you will do after tomorrow, no one
really knows -- not even you. These days, a subtle but ceaseless
question rings in your ear: What will your art be? Do you have the
courage to jump all the way into life? Underneath every experience of joy
runs this silent stream of sorrow, the secret knowledge that it is ending. You
cannot have one without the other. What would your art look like if it
were reckless enough to commit to the whole wager, to take account of the loss
as well as the gain? Neither I nor Mom nor Dad nor Leonard Bernstein can
tell you in words what that art will look like. It may or may not come out as
music. It may simply be living every minute as art – treating every last
encounter of your life as real, simply because it is.
With pride as your teacher and fellow alumnus, all I can say in words is this: GO. Do not look back, and do not look ahead. Look to the world in front of you, which needs you right now. Do not merely practice your art, or perform art, or sell art, or teach art. Be art.
Of course, it is a useless endeavor. But it is the only one there is.