Stephen Horenstein
Music, Arts and Society

Artists as chroniclers of our times

Out of body (photo by Marilyn Harding; dancer: Athanasius Gadinitus
Out of body (photo by Dan Flynn; dancer: Athanasius Gadinitus: musician: Stephen Horenstein)

Yesterday I sat with a music-loving friend who complained that audiences have dwindled for traditional “jazz”.  “What a pity for the musicians,” he moaned.  I thought to myself “how ironic”, for those musicians are creating from a time-worn tradition that for many audiences has gone “stale”.  We then had a heated discussion about “music on the edge”, and artists whose calling is to create something new every day, as they hear or see it in their inner imagination.  Generally, as the poet Rilke mentioned in Letters to a Young Poet, such creators simply create because they must.  They arise in the morning and create anew.  Still, as much as traditional jazz musicians have it “hard”, how much harder it must be to create from scratch, using an array of familiar colors, sounds and materials in new and intriguing orders.  What possesses a human being to pursue a career of creating when there is a strong likeliness that audiences will never experience their works?

I was lucky enough to study and grow with the “old school”, including several great masters who never compromised, never created for notoriety and whose only wish was to create a definitive body of work.  Yes, if they were appreciated by their colleagues, that was a bonus.  If not, they did not give up.

After a lifetime of creating “on the edge” I too begin to ask the hard questions.  Was it all worth it?  My name has yet to become a household “word”.  Nonetheless, I have created a body of work, hundreds of pieces (many of them yet to be released).  I still listen to those works and always learn from them.  I close my eyes and always find something new.

Today something dawned on me.  I suddenly heard history as I never had before in my creations.  The products of fifty plus years of creating had become a provocative chronicle not only of my life, but of the life around me, the shared events, collective habits, innovations and constant change.  My works spanned the four poles of experience (as articulated by the well-know literary critic Northrop Frye):  Romance, Comedy, Tragedy and Irony…and all that falls “between the cracks”.

The true and honest artist constantly lives in the present.  As Camus so succinctly described in his famous essay Create Dangerously, the contemporary artist exists on a thin wire between two precipices: “solidare” (his/her responsibility to his/her community and the greater good) and “solitaire” (his/her precious solitude that allows him/her to withdraw into himself, to what he/she hears, feels and sees at the cutting edge of the present).  Like the surfer who can only succeed by riding the sharp crest of a large wave, the artist must balance and prevail, while always being in time present.  He must not be tempted to fall into one tempting precipice or the other. That is why new artistic works may not appeal at first to large audiences who often live in memories, time past and history’s delusional comfort of familiarity.  Older art can be analyzed like a “patient etherized on a table” (T. S. Eliot).  New art is fast and transforming.  It requires the listener and viewer to develop the capacity and desire to change, to want to be mesmerized, to want to experience a new kind of catharsis that will jolt him/her from his/her bed of comfort.

At the same time, artists who create from the present often leave their works behind; those souls wait for audiences to “catch up”, but more than often they don’t.  What’s “in vogue”, the “new thing” that is simply regurgitated past, is what will satisfy less adventurous audiences..  But those who want to ride the crest created by the brave “chance-taking” artist will surely have an amazing transformative ride.

My friend still does not understand why I do what I do.  Like a keen photographer, videographer and stenographer I have chosen to chronicle my life and in so doing the world I experience in time present.  Only time will tell if it my work will survive the “test of time”, i.e. whether the sounds will continually succeed in transporting a focused listener into his (and mine) time present.  Meanwhile I, for one, do not pity the artistic traditions that “preserve” their past. Yes, we need great performers to play Bach and Beethoven.  We need songwriters who move us. We need great painters who stubbornly return to the Florence school “basics”, not as training, but the penultimate of expression.  But along side of all those practitioners, solitary innovators continue creating in the unknown present.  They live in a dangerous world clothed in sacrifice, dedication and basic needs.

I hope that we can make our country Israel as innovative in the sphere of artistic creation as it is in the sphere of start-ups and hi-tech.  Of course the margin of profits separating the two spheres is ridiculously enormous.  But as American philosophy John Dewey once articulated in Art as Experience, we do not judge a civilization by its wars, its conquered territory, its riches,etc…but by its art.  It is art that is civilization at its best.  It is present tense constantly re-incarnated.  It’s a poetry of time, endless, limitless and expanding.  There is no better a time than now, on Rosh Hashanah, to begin– to dive into the shofar’s cleansing sound, to hear it with fresh ears and to renew ourselves, ready to ride the limitless crest of life.

“Whoever is endowed with the soul of a creator must create works of imagination and thought.  He cannot confine himself in shallow studies alone. For the flame of the soul rises by itself and one cannot impede it on its course.” Rabbi Abraham Issac Kook, Lights of Holiness                                 (for some sounds, scroll down)

Time present (photo extracted from a video by Yoanna Blikman)

Selected works by the author, spanning decades…



About the Author
Stephen Horenstein is a composer, researcher and educator. His repertoire of musical works has been performed and recorded worldwide. He has been a recipient of the Israel Prime Minister's Prize for Composers and the National Endowment of the Arts (USA) and recently a Mifhal HaPais prize to produce a new album “Sounds of Siday: Side B” (orchestra).. Horenstein's teaching has included Bennington College, Brandeis University, Tel Aviv University, Jerusalem Academy of Music and Dance; residencies at Stanford University, York University, California Institute of the Arts, and others. He is Founder and Director of the Jerusalem Institute of Contemporary Music, established in 1988 to bring the music of our time to a wider audience.
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