It is seldom that we witness such brute force as a raw winter storm. The motion of the trees with their bizarre dance is more than curtsy, it is a far flung testimony to the power of wind and rain, churned to its maximum. Today I feel like Mark Rothko, who explained his own personal visionary experience. He was in Seattle standing on a cliff at early morning’s light and looked down into the deep valley, seeing a very minuscule figure of a shepherd below. All around, the thick fog gave the scene a mystic quality. Rothko recalls his epiphany on that day; he felt so small and insignificant, so humbled by the breathless view. The fog, the tiny figure, and the huge expansiveness all combined to create a sublime moment where time stood still. Later Rothko iterated that it was this one singular experience that gave way to his definitive painting style of color and spirit, a style that most of us know and recognize to this day.
I watch the winter scene outside my Jerusalem window, and shudder. The strength of forces within the driving rain, as well as the expansive grace of the bending trees, leave me breathless. When I sit down to compose, THIS scene often permeates and inspires my work. I have no rhyme or reason why, for it is not up to me to ask. The music that I hear in my inner ear rises and falls in deep-toned textures, often mirroring the trees and winds. This is not a meditative music, but a violent unpredictable churning and awakening. “Arise!”
An old friend of mine, Dr. Daniel Marom, once shared an observation with me. He said (and I paraphrase): “If you are living in a place like New York City, you crave calming in the midst of the cacophony; you crave meditative experiences. However, if you are living in Kansas, where your surroundings are more or less unchangeable, and your life is steady and predictable, you crave sudden rapid change! You crave awakening, even “shock”; you crave adventure.” The musicologist and art historian Curt Sachs defined it in a different way. He recognized two main “streams” or “poles” of stylistic ideal in art/music works: “Ethos” and “Pathos”. Ethos, as the ideal of ancient Greece, idolized balance and restraint. We also hear this in the classic period works of Mozart (but not necessarily his later works) and Haydn. Pathos, on the other had, was celebrated throughout the ages by people who desired sudden change and surprise, such as music of the Romantics (late Beethoven, Mahler, Brahms, and the Russian national composers). They thrived on contrast and change.
In my teaching I always used the examples of Hawaii and Winnipeg. In Hawaii, the climate stays pretty much the same throughout the year. An occasional shower at 4pm (with rainbow) and otherwise clear/partly cloudy skies and comfortable weather all keep people happy. Residents live a more or less predictable life, and relish the weather. They NEED the weather (as it is), certainly a far cry of the ravishing winter and fall storms New Englanders’ experience! However, in Winnipeg, the breed of people who live there, MUST crave rapid and extreme change; the weather is changing, often unpredictable. The cold is intense and forces one to retreat into private spaces for calming. My big question to my students was, how many of you would prefer Hawaii and how many Winnipeg? (Duh?) Unfortunately it was most often a “no-brainer”. Hawaii’s mystique always won out.
Yet, when I asked the following question: “You are traveling to India for the first time. Except for purchasing your airfare, would you prefer to plan your itinerary (cities and landmarks to visit, hotels to stay in, restaurants to eat in, etc.) ahead of time OR would you simply choose to LAND, and take your changes, “come what may”…to “go with the flow’, i.e. to travel, making instant decisions along the way, opening the door to being constantly surprised. To my amazement, almost every time I asked this question, the class would divide pretty much half and half/ 50-50; those who chose “planning ahead” clearly need clarity and balance; others craved surprise and unpredictability, even if there were elements of danger involved. They preferred living “on the edge”.
Luckily we are all quite different. Thank G-d. In the age of Palestrina, when the church dictated the “ideal music”, not too high, not too low, not to fast, not to slow, not to loud, not to soft, etc…they wanted to promote calm among the worshipers. Certainly, no composer could or would “rock the boat” (though I am sure there were hidden attempts). This was the church’s ideal of what music (and life) needed to be. One hears it in Palestrina’s music: beautiful, haunting but strangely predictable. At that time composers did not dare to depart from the norm.
Likewise in many ethnic cultures. A musicologist at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, once related that they discovered a remote tribe in the Republic of Congo where a certain brilliant “artist” created sculptures very different from the accepted folk art in the community. He was allowed to create to his heart’s content. Everyone praised him, and admired his stunning works of art. However, when the artist DIED, the village leaders burnt EVERYTHING, as they recognized that the passing on of the local traditional art was essential to the community’s survival. The community bestowed artistic freedom while the artist was alive (they could tolerate THAT amount of “change”), but when he died, that was the limit. I always found this story wrenching, and so different from our 21c Western ideals when it comes to art. On the other hand, one cannot deny that so-called primitive community’s ingenuity in finding a way to preserve the artist’s integrity while insuring continuity of time-honored artistic traditions.
So I “travel” back home, to the scene out my window. Like blaring horns, monstrous gong rolls, deep tom toms, and churning strings (both plucked and bowed), the orchestra of OUR past ages still sounds, loud and clear. Yes, it awakes especially during the winter months. And if we listen carefully, we hear it. We are blessed from this sudden departure of the summer’s warm complacency, and we are called up to witness wonder of the most raw and unfathomable kind. We are swept away by its force; we are humbled by it.
Like Mark Rothko, standing above the deep precipice, I too, look into the infinite churning, feeling at once elated, and also deeply humbled. Good to be protected and not to step outside and be devoured by the elements. Good to witness, absorb, and ride the storm, in all its magnificent glory. Good to be alive!
The Cave (excerpt) by S. Horenstein (with Jefferey Kowalsky percussion, Avi Yishai, drums, Shai Behar, piano/keyboards) from Between The Silences, JICM Recordings, ASCAP/ACUM
Additional Listening: Ethos/Pathos