To prepare for the Great Green Mountain Bob Dylan Wannabe Contest that I agreed to judge tomorrow, I spent some time yesterday listening to Bob Dylan who, I have to say, doesn’t do much for me as a songwriter or performer. I recognize the fact of his significance, and I can wail along on the choruses of his songs with the best of them, but his music is just not that meaningful for me.
Artists and musicians tend to have strong opinions. Why? John MacMurray would suggest that it has something to do with love and fear – and hate.
My teacher Spencer Huffman thought it was important to know what music to hate. Now, to be fair, he never expressed this thought directly to me; this dark thought was passed along to me by my mentor Theo Morrison, who was also student of Huffman’s. Theo worked with Huffman for longer, and at a higher level, than me.
Spencer Huffman was during the time that I knew him in the 1970s and early 1980s a dark and bitter man. The cleaned up version of Huffman’s contentious personality can be gleaned from the website that was created after his death in 2005: “With vehemently-held opinions about the state of contemporary serious music, his knowledge of the great musical literature of the 18th and 19th centuries was legendary… Once hailed as a promising young American composer, Huffman chose a life of relative obscurity, later composing in a style that incorporated the organizational influence of Mozart with the harmonic beauty of Brahms.”
In Huffman’s own words, “The music of Spencer Huffman is not similar to any other contemporary music. It is a reaction against the complication, impracticality, incoherence and cultism that typify the present scene. It is a positive force for simplicity, practicality, coherency and the use of a basic musical language that is easily understood by all.”
“…He believes the creative process that produces lasting work is built on organization and simple beauty rather than experimentation. Only a reconnection with the traditions of the great and lasting literature will make our contemporary music once again a living thing – a part of the lives of the people. ”
This rings basically true to me: empirically true about music (though I disagree with Huffman about the role of experimentation), and true as a statement of Huffman’s loves and fears concerning music.
But to my ear, Huffman’s music was a failure. Deeply respectful of “the traditions of the great and lasting literature” and eschewing experimentation at all costs, Huffman’s music is unremarkable. In his principled stance against ugliness in music he employed craft without inspiration, and was rejected.
Huffman was so smart, knew so much, and cared so deeply about beauty in music, that it pains me to think of him as having his values dismissed by wider society (including me, to some extent). He wore his heart on his sleeve – could we not see that? Could we not see the relationship of what he hated to what he loved?
John MacMurray has an interesting take on the origin of hate. For MacMurray, all action is a manifestation of self as understood though relationship with others. An infant’s “direct and personal” reliance on those that care for him or her is transferred into an adult’s “indirect and impersonal” reliance on society. The infant’s “helpless total dependence on the Other” becomes the adult’s “mutual interdependence of equals.”
MacMurray held that dependence (and interdependence) are animated by the dynamic polarity of love and fear. Love is the expression for the Other, fear is the expression for the safety and security for oneself. Both are necessary for action. MacMurray also believed that activity generated by the forces of love and fear “is incomplete until it meets with a response.”
Hate, according to MacMurray, “originates in the frustration of love by fear.” Esther McIntosh, author of John MacMurray’s Religious Philosophy: What it means to be a person elaborates: “… love issues in heterocentric action; this positive motive is thwarted, therefore, when it is not reciprocated. Further, since the person is constituted in relation to another person, in the absence of a response from the other, the negative motive of fear for the self and of the other becomes dominant. If the continuation of the relationship between rejected and rejecter is inescapable, then bitterness and eventually hatred ensues.”
Is hate, then, simply the absence of relationship with the Other? Or, to put a Carl Sagan-like spin on it, “a relationship of absence?” When an artist or musician feels rejected and “accepts” that they must pursue their art in obscurity, is hatred typically lurking beneath the surface? Is hate purely a destructive force, or do some artists and musicians capture it and use it as a generating, creative force?
That’s enough moral philosophy for a Thursday.
And for the record, I don’t hate Bob Dylan, but give me Joni Mitchell any day!