The Pastness of the present

You’re unhappy, when you’re not writing, yet you’re writing because of unhappiness. That means when you’re happy, you don’t write and then you’re unhappy.

This both tragicomic and deeply true assertion – which was directed at Dorota Masłowska in one of interviews – became a significant motivation for me to deliberate on my own frustrations with the creative process, frustrations that are commonplace among artists no matter their area of expertise. Unfounded irrational sense of inevitability and pressure to express one’s own spiritual essence are parts of the inner struggle one will have to engage with when attempting to actualize the said essence, to extract it from the kingdom of imagination to the three-dimensional reality.

Among many internal conflicts that engross today’s musicians brought up in the system of academic values, I would like to explore not only the universal and ever-lasting dilemmas concerning the nature of an artist and the ultimate cause of her propensities, but also those that pertain the contemporary pianism. I wish to look from the perspective of a present-day artist on the disharmony between the increasingly transforming scenery of reality and the exemplary model of virtuoso pianist whose conceptual beginnings originate in the 19th century. The jarring discord of disparate yet intertwining narrations of history and contemporaneity – tight embrace of the past and the eternal strife  with expectations of modern music market – constitute everyday hardships of artists that are involved in performing yesterday’s music.

Who is this artist that sets off on the trail of professional development in academia? Is her sensitivity in accord with scholarly enterprise? Can art be contained in the temple of reason, modern laboratory, can it only to be examined with lenses and learning in categories of growth or downfall? What actually is this phenomenon which is completely elusive in its nature? And is it the case that one must precisely define it before she tries to understand it? There certainly are different, even irreconcilable manifestations of art: from art that favours harmony and ideal proportions to modernism of the 20th century contesting the tradition. Would Bach and Rimbaud have anything in common? Is art born in church or in the streets? In symphony halls or at rock concerts? According to the classical antiquity, art was supposed to resemble reality, not as an exact copy, but rather as a more or less accurate phantasm. Plato, having it connected to the triad of truth, good and beauty, brought the ethical dimension to art. For art had to perform its moral duty, develop one’s character, but mostly it had to be useful in development of virtues of which the highest – and so the most beautiful – was, for the ancients, wisdom.

Art which purposefully distorted shapes and shades of reality diverged from the laws of nature and world of forms, and as such was indeed condemned by the latter. It was regarded as deviation, derangement, aberration… since art incites emotions, it may also have depriving and demoralizing influence on civilians’ character. Revolts and thirst for novelty in music were linked with a threat of similar social and political revolutions, that is why Plato saw a dangerous and even harmful potential in art. However, could possibly the discord between rational and sensual perception of reality be placated in art? “Beauty is that, what conforms with reason” – medieval philosophers asserted, developing on the ancient thought, and placed a firm emphasis on the intellectual aspect of art; ingenuity, knowledge, reasoning, harmony and proportion of the visible world are imitated by the arts mimicking the order of the universe and divine reason.

Reason… which means?

Natures of your kind, with strong, delicate senses, the soul-oriented, the dreamers, poets, lovers are almost always superior to us creatures of the mind. You take your being from your mothers. You live fully; you were endowed with the strength of love, the ability to feel. Whereas we creatures of reason, we don’t live fully; we live in an arid land, even though we often seem to guide and rule you. Yours is the plenitude of life, the sap of the fruit, the garden of passion, the beautiful landscape of art. Your home is the earth; ours is the world of ideas. You are in danger of drowning in the world of the senses; ours is the danger of suffocating in an airless void. You are an artist; I am a thinker. You sleep at the mother’s breast; I wake in the desert. For me the sun shines; for you the moon and the stars…” – to Hermann Hesse the tension between reason and sensuality is the axis of his novel: the main character – Goldmund – having discovered his true nature, abandons ascetic life in a cloister and decides to get learn life by means of sensual experience. His master, his friend and kindred spirit at once – Narcissus – stays faithful to his monastical seclusion, devoting himself to studies and contemplation. However, the paths of the philosopher, Narcissus, and the artist, Goldmund, seem to be ending in the same place. Even though one and the other chose extremely different ways of experiencing life, both of them came just as much closer to learning the meaning of existence, the idea of God. The juxtaposition of their natures is a metaphor of the duality of reality which in a glimpse of artistic genius can be overcome, presenting itself at its fullest in a work of art… Thus it is possible to find heaven on earth and to reach the metaphysical beauty through direct relationship with art made by humans… but is it really man-made…?

Anyone who approaches the doors of poetic composition without the Muses’ madness, in the conviction that skill alone will make him a competent poet, is cheated of his goal. In his sanity both he and his poetry are eclipsed by poetry composed by men who are mad


It is impossible, I believe, for any poet, while he is writing a poem, to observe with complete accuracy what is going on, to define with any certainty how much of the final result is due to subconscious activity over which he has no control, and how much is due to conscious artifice

W.H. Auden

If I knew where the good songs came from, I’d go there more often

Leonard Cohen

If then you could learn the secret pattern, find the key to the bittersweet state of melancholy, grasp the inner excruciating “unhappiness” which brings out the divine element from the inside of a human being speaking through artists since the days of yore, find a recipe for the masterpiece which emerges from somewhere between the conscious and unconscious… inspiration always comes unexpectedly, as it were deriding the will and mind…

I pluck the strings of harps, but all these melodies sound out-of-tune; in floating gardens people for centuries, trying to soothe old evils, have been inventing new ones…


For the first time in the history of music can we look from afar at the legacy of our ancestors, stand on their shoulders and try to comprehend the multitude of their ideas, grand number of their accomplishments. Nonetheless, at each and every spot we see attempts to put the history of music in any kind of order, in the confinements of definition, and I cannot fail to notice that we have restricted works of art to mere untouchable museum specimens. We do indeed marvel their musical substance and timeless artistic dimensions, but still we do not fully grasp their true essence. In times of today’s cultural crisis, relativization of values, when information is simplified and facts are manipulated, overproduction and dissipation of created goods on the global market, where art becomes just another product meant for hurried consumption – in these times  cultural institutions and artistic schools manifest themselves as modern-day shrines of spirit to those who are tired with the buzz and bustle of everyday life. They appear to us as beacons amidst the dimly lighted mazes of genres, styles, techniques, ideas, traditions and theory – beacons that empower us to identify ourselves with one of the latter, to cling to them even if for a moment, to decide on one thing or another among endless options presented to us by the market.

Exhaustion of tonality has completely changed the run of history. Tonality’s presumed [apparent] triumph in almost all of the popular music genres may be interpreted as a naive attempt to divert attention  from an ongoing dehumanization of the system we are all forced to operate in. We are currently bombarded with tonal music in its most primitive form at every corner. Paradoxically, music itself now serves only a purpose of a mere accessory [supplement]. We – as society – are bound by constant disquiet and meaningless unnerving race.

Oh, how much safer for a today’s artist is to identify herself with the academic tradition that is fostering the intellectual overlook on art, oh, how certain one can feel treading ever the same routes of good old reliable terms, used-up clichés and outdated traditions, cultivating highbrow creations that are completely incomprehensible to the most of the society living outside of the professional artistic bubble… Finally, where does the dissonance between the state of our society and certain creative disposition of musical academia comes from? “Is there any thing whereof it may be said, See, this is new? it hath been already of old time, which was before us” – this universal biblical wisdom seems surprisingly actual today, for we live in times when all is permitted, all the boundaries have been transgressed, every door has been open already, every wall has been torn down, every tenet has been undermined. We stand among ruins of tradition and it should surprise no-one when our society looks back with sentiment at the past, seeking its own lost identity. The agony of “contemporary” music that progresses on a path set by the “early” music is almost a fact in the 21st century. Market forces has driven philosophy of new music into practical non-existence, muting totalitarianism of profit over culture. “Not only are people’s ears so inundated with light music that other music reaches them only as the congealed opposite of the former, as “classical” music, and not only is the capacity to listen so blunted by the omnipresent hit tune that the concentration for serious listening is unattainable and infused with stupid refrains, but also the sacrosanct traditional music has itself been assimilated to commercial mass production” – wrote Theodor Adorno in his Philosophy of New Music, predicting the impending decline and decay of still then existing social order.

The 21st century musical landscape is based solely on “light” music, so vehemently criticized by Adorno, and the aesthetic kitsch that’s flooding the public sphere is beyond one’s perceptive capacities, provided she even reacts to such works at all and hadn’t become completely indifferent to the unbearable chaos and noise of the present day. Reality has shattered into small pieces and in those little shards everyone is looking for their own individuality. Coexistence of communities living in virtually dissimilar aesthetical universes is something ordinary now. Finding one’s own individuality and authenticity in this modern-day Tower of Babel becomes a more and more difficult task.

Is performing early music today only a way of disturbing the dead you really can’t bring back to life? One may think – after Adorno quoted earlier – that listening to one of Beethoven’s symphonies is an “illusion overcasting the essence of things”, but one may also find in this shard of reality a true meaning, a genuine concern for the tradition and for a certain set of values left by our predecessors. One could, through the lenses of history, look at the present day and enrich it with its inner beauty brought out by early music. Look aback, into the past, like Oprheus did. Even though we can’t revert the course of history (as Orpheus did not recover Eurydice), yet we can provide a new meaning to it, going back to values we have left behind – the true humanism. Is it naive? Perhaps…

*Tittle of the article borrowed from Richard Taruskin’s essay: The Pastness of the Present and the Presence of the Past (Authenticity and Early Music, edited by Nicholas Kenyon, Oxford University Press, 1988)

Translation by Jakub Strużyński

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