Stephen Horenstein
Music, Arts and Society

Why Do You Live the Life of a Hermit? (I don’t really)

My Tree House
My Tree House

In his brilliant essay “Create Dangerously” Albert Camus articulates the contemporary artist’s dilemma. How can an artist survive if he/she constantly needs to straddle the abyss between his/her own artist vision of an aesthetically near-perfect world (which some call an “ivory tower”) and the screaming reality before him/her, one filled with suffering and injustice. Camus echos this in his story “The Artist at Work” where a painter is torn between his newfound fame (including being constantly visited by admirers) and his desperate need to paint. Unfortunately Camus’ hero’s bout between solitude and solidarity ( “solitaire” and “solidaire”) results in his unfortunate self-inflicted demise. Years later, in his book To Jerusalem and Back, Saul Bellow quotes A. B. Yehoshua’s similar realization that for an artist to achieve artistic solitude in Israel is a near impossibility, for he/she is “called to solidarity” from newscast to newscast.

Yes, in my TOI biography (see below), I state that I am composer, researcher and “hermit”, because I figured that a public declaration of this might actually help me to achieve something that Yehoshua has deemed nearly impossible, something that I, too, have found illusive. One needs the strength of Prometheus to sustain such a “luxury” in this age of living from “newscast to newscast”. The cacophony is deafening.

So, for anyone who is reading these words, I have a confession. Like many of my generation (I just turned 70), I am a news junkie who reads no less than fourteen separate news outlets every morning. How else may one arrive at a truthful assessment of the world around, a world spinning with uncertainty, frailty, injustice and in this day and age, a pulse of change which is not only nerve-racking but addictive? I seem to need this burst of morning excitement, like three cups of coffee, to get my day going. But then again, from time to time, I turn to early morning meditation, pretending that I am on some exotic green-tiered mountain (I am afraid of heights!), losing myself to the eternal present.

If I am lucky, this constant tension between the onslaught of news AND deep present, allows me to compose, putting myself in a trajectory of a “sacred time dimension” (as one reviewer in France recently described my latest musical composition). Yes, day to day, I find myself living the Camus paradox of standing on the deck of a slave galley, singing to the stars, while down below poor souls are destined to row (while a minute later, I find myself below deck, frantically rowing).

So to all of you who secretly wish to join me in my hermitage, I say to you: “This is not without danger!”. In this day and age, when we are called to solidarity all too often (to again paraphrase A. B. Yehoshua), the task of achieving artistic solitude in our time, is a near impossibility. If you think that I am exaggerating, give it a try! Try ripping yourself away from your screens! Try a few hours of silence. Try ignoring the screaming voices inside of you, voices that only echo that cacophony of suffering souls who are the victims of the cancer of inhumanity, person to person, power-hungry souls who, as in Francisco Goya’s depiction of Saturn Devouring His Son, love to eat their victims.

Finally, I want to apologize to my family and friends. Declaring myself a “hermit” does not mean that I love you any less. Again, it is simply a way to get closer to my inner voice, whether through sounds or words. It is simply a way to hopefully survive this present day onslaught of what each and every one of us must face, every day, day by day, living in what we call the Middle East, or perhaps everywhere, in every nook and cranny of this big, crazy (sometimes beautiful) world.

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). His 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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