Stephen Horenstein
Music, Arts and Society

Past, Present, Future

In front of my eyes is an erasable green Pilot FriXion pen whose personality is somewhat between a masochist and egocentric genius.  As a composer, I find such a pen useful as I can write spontaneously, in the moment, but also with the opportunity to correct.  If I were a Japanese rice painter this would be a “cop-out”, for only one swift gesture, the sum of the painter’s life, merits his identity as a painter.

So now there is a question: as we are in the West, where we have been taught to reflect and examine, do we write in the moment, flowing endlessly without eraser, or meticulously write and re-write every detail and smudge? Do we live in the moment, or dwell  in the past or future? How much does this brilliant pen know about my dreams that come and go in the deep night?  Or my fantasies? If the pen is used without an eraser it will be true to expressing my dreams; even one erased change may lead to others and ultimately deny the truth of the first spontaneous dream memories. Furthermore, can such a pen help us erase trauma from our psyche? I think not.  Such traumas, I have heard, are deeply embedded in our bodies. Extracting them requires the “wisdom of Job and strength of Prometheus” (quote, composer Bill Dixon)

So this brings us to our collective memories and trauma.  How can we as a people extricate ourselves from memories that paralyze us into inaction or loops of habitual actions? Let’s say we buy all buy bottles of milk from the local market and they turn out to be sour. Does that mean that we all should boycott the place forever?  Does that mean that we never buy milk again?  How will we as a people ever recover from the actions of peoples who once despised us?  Can hatred be so permanent? In this hate-filled Middle East, if there were (heaven forbid) a gigantic earthquake in Israel, Syria, Lebanon and Jordan would our collective humanities allow us to take pause and simply help each other?

Let’s revisit that erasable pen with an identity crisis. Something is truly creepy about a pen that pretends to be a pen, i.e. permanent, but at the flick of the wrist, can  annihilate it’s own creation. Isn’t that sort of lying, or at the very least pretending? Isn’t it like the young ambitious stock broker of Wall Street who buys a new Maserati sports car on credit and then drives around posing as a millionaire in order to attract other millionaires (i.e. investors) or other “attractive” cohorts?  Is that person able to live with him/herself?  Is he/she a walking “lie”, sort of like my green erasable pen?

Fact (or legend): Mozart never erased his music.  Bach never had the time for erasing.  A young brilliant French composer Benoit Menut recently confessed to me that he never erases his music en masse.  And writers?  I can’t imagine that Joyce had the time to erase the more spontaneous parts in Ulysses, i.e.agonizing over every line he wrote!  Likewise with the great spontaneous music creators like Miles Davis and John Coltrane, whose art is and was similar to Japanese rice painting:  the execution of definitive spontaneous gestures built from years of practice and planning.  No “eraser on their pens”!

In his now classic book Blink, Malcom Gladwell urged us to trust our intuition, especially for important decisions. In creative playing, the masters like Bill Dixon and Cecil Taylor urged young players NOT to “think”, just to “PLAY”.  When one is learning to drive, the best instructors advise NOT to think about each individual limb and gesture, but to drive with a sense of unified natural flow.  The very word (“flow”) was explored in depth by  Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi in Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience, where he concluded that if we live in time present, through “optimal experience” we can conquer depression, sadness and loneliness.  In Eckhart Tolle’s The Power of Now, living in the absolute present moment is considered THE ideal prescription for human happiness, i.e. life without an eraser.  (*So if we are living such lives, realistically how much can we “react” spontaneously and through intuition.  Is this how we are supposed to vote in the next elections? Are we supposed to intuit a leader’s character, rather than meticulously weighing the issues? Were the founders of democracy building on people’s innate rationality and/or their intuitive ability to access quality?)

Legend has it that Vincent Van Gogh’s paintings are still wet.  Apparently, he put the wrong varnish on and it dried faster than the paint.  If you take a toothpick and stick it into his painting, the paint will come out wet.  I believe that THIS is one of the reasons that Van Gogh’s paintings seem so alive and dynamic, i.e. because they are still “living” (i.e. wet) .  In Van Gogh’s case, we have time past, present and future all summed up into one!

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Likewise with our lives.  We blink and we are 20, then 40, then 60, and then if we are lucky they call us “wise”.  But in our hearts, we simultaneously go backwards, finding our youthful way of looking at the world, for in older age we may rid ourselves of  the burden of knowing too much.  We know what we can do and what we cannot do.  We know what change we are able to create, and what we cannot.  We are like a Van Gogh painting, classic in our presence, but light-hearted and fragile on the inside and in our daily living, if only because we realize that each and every moment is so precious.




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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