31 December 2017

Once a Writer, Twice...??

An older friend who has earned the authority to say so tells me (paraphrasing here) that my writing is tantalizing but unpolished. Given the surfeit of mindless positivity in circulation today, I certainly appreciate the frankness and take no personal offense. I also think it is the proper assessment. In the end, though, I don't anticipate bending towards journalistic accessibility as her critique suggests, or at least not with any particular alacrity.

The task of giving concrete voice to inner thoughts must count as an abiding passion of mine by now, actions speaking loudest of all as the saying would have it. Even so, it is not and never will be an identity; definitely not a personal one, and most likely not a professional one either. For better or worse the tuba seems destined to continue in both roles until further notice. Identity being a far heavier burden than passion, the process of making peace with the externally imposed demands of professional instrumentalism1 has been long, slow, and often tumultuous. Not too much has changed since my mother first diagnosed her 4 year-old only child as "stubborn," and so it is that the intervening three decades of psychosocial development have seen the formation and refinement of many elaborate rationalizations for this trait's oft-neglected social utility (and a few half-hearted efforts at personal reform). Tuba playing has nonetheless been the site of my most extensive and compulsory mediation with a society which lets no good deed goes unpunished; and so, having thus given over one life-consuming endeavor to such protracted mediation in exchange for an identity, the mere thought of giving over other parts of myself to this miasma is a bridge too far. Given both where this society has been it has been and where it is going, any mediation with it is destined to be an ongoing, dialectical process rather than a cleaner teleological one, heroic in a Promethean sense rather than the Spartan one that I, like most other professional brass players, would much prefer to known for. (At least I have that in common with my colleagues in the brass world. This has not always always been obvious.)

I should add that relocating to a place where I can actually make a living playing my horn has allowed me to further compartmentalize this uncompromising streak, which to say also to consolidate it. In hindsight, it's clear enough that in my twenties I was conditioned by failure on this front. The material payoff for compromise was then so meager as to not be worth the trouble, and I became less and less sure that professional instrumentalism suited me at all even as my commitment to instrumentalism more broadly construed never wavered. Nonetheless, as I type this I have turned down a grand total of two paying tuba gigs simply because I didn't want to endure them, and needless to say I've accepted dozens which I would rather not have. I remain weary of those self-styled musicians-in-the-trenches who would make such amenability into the single criterion of a classically capitalist musical meritocracy; and yet in my gut I am indeed strangely proud of my record in this department even as intellectually I will always look at such pride as irredeemably perverse and have no less trouble than ever conjuring some pretty good abstract arguments and real-life anecdotes alike to support that assessment.

As for other accounts, my lifetime earnings as a composer are not enough to buy a tank of gas, and my earnings as a writer of words are literally zero. If either state of affairs bothered me intensely enough, I would have done more about it; I've certainly been party to enough facile huckstering over the years that appropriating a few tactics here and there wouldn't be all that hard. For now I have no such inclinations. I have long suspected and now truly believe that relative to the competition I have much more to offer in these two areas than I do as a tuba player. In college I used to ponder this question as one of choosing the right career; now I'm thankful that I made the "wrong" choice back then. As long as I can survive as a tuba player, I can listen, study, and write strictly on my own terms, and I'll be at peace with this balance in a way that I never could be were the polarity reversed.

Of course in my capacity as uncompromising, rationalistic grown-up-only-child, I'm not content to stop there: I have often been left with the impression that others need me to compromise on their behalf more than they really care about bringing me along for whatever world-conquering careerist ride they have plotted out. It is invariably a ride which requires, let's say, a band of other sentient human beings, each one spontaneously grabbing a paddle and commencing to row in proper synchrony as if by magic. (This will certainly be the narrative spun later, whether or not it is the least bit true.)

Having thus gone "further," there remains the "deeper:" I sensed in the discussion which prompted this post (which was offline and one-to-one) as well as in many prior mediations something akin to so many canonical art-historical polemics: form as against content; art as against entertainment; writing for oneself as against writing for the audience; and not insignificantly, refined as against unrefined modes of expression. To wit, I decided years ago that my posture here and anywhere else I might publish my "writings" is most definitely not as a writer per se but rather as a thinker presenting thoughts via the least wretched of the many wretched avenues one has for doing so.

I'm just seasoned enough to acknowledge the puerile aspects of this sentiment, and likewise to stand by it unapologetically even so. Scholar, critic, theorist, analyst...these are at least fit to be personal identities, if not in every case professional ones. "Writer" is, besides being tainted with the stench of Hollywood pretension, too vague in one sense and too specific in another. "Prophet" meanwhile is a rather absurd and value-laden term which is used and abused in much the same vein as is "genius," but one which is thus applied quite often to people whose writerly (and musical) achievements I most admire. Rather than indicating privileged communion with an all powerful creator, it could simply mean one who speaks The Word of a given discipline from a place of great knowledge; who mediates with a body of knowledge in service of society, as opposed to the messier, joyless task of mediating with society in service of a body of knowledge as so-called professionals do. If we can ever agree upon less loaded terminology to indicate that distinction, I will happily put it into service.

1. Spell-check/autocorrect flags this word, hence it's worth clarifying that I mean it to encompass both performing and teaching. To omit the latter would implicitly deny the role it has played in sustaining me both financially and, for lack of a better word, spiritually.

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