On The Shoulders Of History

I want to share with you some of the thoughts of those I most admire and respect. They are important to me, especially in this phase of my life, when I’m no longer chugging a quick cup of coffee, grabbing my keys and rushing out the door to go to work, a deadline looming in my frontal lobe like an 18-wheeler in the rear view mirror. No, now I sit by the fire with my (leisurely) second cup of coffee and ponder the writings of these brilliant men. What an incredible luxury!

While waking up each morning, I like to cruise the internet for info, memories, pics and wise sayings from brilliant people. And it’s out there, as you well know… loads of it, regardless of your position in life, and your take on it. Like almost everyone, I tend to copy and reflect upon those writings I agree with, at least in principle. So often I find someone’s writing that explains a thing that I’ve tried to write about at one point or another, and often it explains an idea so much better, so much clearer. I always copy those down in hopes of not only understanding what they say better, but also to see how I could have said it better… and why I didn’t.

I, like you, have lots of thoughts during the day, most of them random and probably useless. Usually, however, a few of them stick and beg to be revisited, if only to justify their temporary existence or to be cast off as nothing more than a fleeting flash of awareness that moves nothing positive forward. Sometimes these thoughts stick in my mind like a song that won’t go away until I hum it about a dozen times.

Mike Nichols

Today it’s a paragraph Mike Nichols wrote, that was put on the Follies Of God page of Facebook. It rang my bell right away, really rang it, as I’ve experienced the same things several times, with much the same reaction. For those of you not familiar with Mike Nichols, he was (born Michael Igor Peschkowsky; November 6, 1931 – November 19, 2014) and was an American film and theater director, producer, actor, and comedian. He was noted for his ability to work across a range of genres and for his aptitude for getting the best out of actors regardless of their experience. He is one of 17 people to have won all four of the major American entertainment awards: Emmy, Grammy, Oscar, and Tony (EGOT). His other honors included three BAFTA Awards, the Lincoln Center Gala Tribute in 1999, the National Medal of Arts in 2001, the Kennedy Center Honors in 2003 and the AFI Life Achievement Award in 2010. His films received a total of 42 Academy Award nominations, and 7 wins. You might, might know him from his years in the comedy team of Mike Nichols and Elaine May.

He directed Carnal knowledge and Catch-22, among another dozen or so well-known movies. If none of that rings a bell, then I can’t help you, Matter of fact, whether you know of him or not is somewhat pertinent to what he wrote that I saved. Here it is –

“I gave a speech, as one does, as one ages, to a room of students of the theatre, of film, of the performing arts. They shone with ambition, but I soon found myself annotating virtually every sentence I uttered, and this is not terribly comfortable: It badly alters the flow of things. They looked at me blankly when I mentioned Tennessee [Williams], and I had to throw out the play titles, at which they nodded their heads and murmured the names of Marlon Brando and Elizabeth Taylor. That was their reference to Tennessee Williams. It seemed not to matter that a man, a person, had written the play that became the film that became something they did in a scene in a class. There was no line of succession. They did not know who Julie Harris was or Bette Davis or Harold Clurman or the Group Theatre, and Lee Strasberg was a building where you could take classes. Now it is alarming to be old, and nothing makes a person feel quite so old as to talk of one’s influences and of things that he feels are important and to have several hundred blank faces look at you with bewilderment. I don’t want to annotate everything, and I think there is a serious lack of investment or intention toward this thing, this art, this craft to which you aspire. I think you have to know more than what is current and ‘hot,’ to use a loathsome word. I think you have to be familiar with the foundation of the work and understand it’s what you’re standing on.”                                        — — –Mike Nichols/Interview with James Grissom/

Oh god, how I agree with him, and how I can relate. I taught two classes on land conservation at Emory U. in Atlanta In the mid-nineties. Even then I got blank stares and raised eyebrows, mostly (I found out later) because they were far more interested in industrial pursuits, and didn’t really give a damn about deforestation and the delicate balance of nature. Another time I was asking a piano student who composed the pieces he was working on. He knew a few of the biggies… Beethoven, Bach, Mozart. But that was it. As Mike put it, “there was no line of succession.” Okay, but is that important? Hell yes it’s important! Our history is important! Where we came from is important! How we got here is important! Who wrote the music 300, 200, 100 years ago that evolved and developed into the music for the movies we love so much today… it’s all important!

Jesus. Even back in the ’70’s when the first Star Wars movie came out, we were amazed at the beauty and depth of John Williams’ first score for Spielberg… amazed enough to analyze it and find several similarities between his music and the seven-movement orchestral suite called “The Planets” by Gustav Holst, which Holst composed in 1917. At first we thought Williams copied Holst’s style, but later learned that all John Williams did was use one note in some of his chordal structures, which was new and different to us at the time, but a note that Holst had also used in several of his movements. So you know, the note is a #4 or a flat 5, basically replacing the fifth of the chord with a more ‘spacial’ note, not previously known or used in classical or traditional music. I know for a fact that composers all over the country picked up on it, because we began hearing it, in one form or another, in all manner of recorded compositions. Why did that matter to us? Perhaps because most of the known composers in the ’70’s were at least 35 years old. (I was 35 when the first Star Wars came out in 1978) Being 35 or older at the time, I’m guessing that we were mostly ‘old school’ composers who had been taught (at least to a point) to have a clue as to the ‘line of succession.’ What one discovers in studying the line of succession in nearly anything (writing is a great one!) is that there are jewels to be discovered all along the way, jewels of knowledge and creativity that one completely misses if one starts at the last relevant artistic endeavor they’re aware of. Those jewels so often become a major part of the quality and depth of our artistic attempts, even though we usually forget where they came from. Still, they can become part of what makes us unique in a world of sameness.

We had two separate composition teachers at Berklee – John LaPorta, who taught melody construction, and John Bavicchi, who taught the classical rules of composition… figured bass, etc. I remember asking one of them why we had to learn all the strict rules of classical writing, how was it possibly going to help us to write contemporary music? Their answer was, “If you don’t know the rules, (the approved structure) you’ll never know which ones you can successfully break. And yes, there is a wrong way to break the rules…”

Indeed. I was to learn in the succeeding years that the most artistic freedom of creativity comes from working within a structure, regardless of how loose that structure. For most of us, there needs to be a least a hint of form in anything artistic. Ask any painter, writer, sculptor, composer… they’ll tell you.

Line of succession. Every art form I can think of has a pertinent line of succession, that line of succession that would explain and illustrate all the changes and improvements to the art form over the years,.. how and why they happened, and by whom. Am I crazy? Am I the only one who still thinks (along with Mike Nichols) that knowing the line of succession of an art form will help us be better, deeper, more experienced artists ourselves? God, I certainly hope not. For whether we’re aware of it or not, we stand on the shoulders of those who came before us. None of us should think for a moment that we’ve gotten to this point by ourselves.

And so it is that, for me, the Mike Nichols’ thought that “It seemed not to matter that a man, a person, had written the play that became the film that became something they did in a scene in a class. There was no line of succession.” rings and stings. I can only hope our recent generation of artists aren’t becoming totally self-made, ‘temporary’ artists who care nothing for the history of their craft. I fear much would be lost in.the integrity of their volume of work over time, even though their individual artistic endeavors might be seen or heard as contemporary, modern, different, unique, even ground-breaking.

To my mind, much of contemporary music is proving that much has been lost already, with today’s music being shallow, boring, mind-numbing and madly repetitious. And if the musicians of today are striving to give their perceived audience what they want, what does that say about us? You know the saying, that one about how art is simply the reflection of the society and culture it’s serving… yeah, that one. I know it was true from at least the ’20’s through the ’80’s. If it’s still true, my friend, then I hope your safety belt is securely fastened. I know mine is.

Steve Hulse

2 Replies to “On The Shoulders Of History”

  1. Well said. I sometimes fear for the future because we are losing the past. How can we evolved if we don’t know where we’ve been.

  2. This post expresses a heightened passion and purpose. As always, it combines rumination with communication, but this time it transcends your best storytelling! You deserve a much larger audience. Thanks, Pulse

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