Before articulating the ideals and values that guide me as a composer, writer, pianist, and (amateur) illustrator, I want to address the broader question, What is art?—since doing so will provide context for my own statement and locate what I do within the broader scheme of what humans have been doing for many ages.
What is Art?
Art is an ideal vision of the heart, mind, or spirit set in a fixed medium such as paint on canvas, ink on paper, chiseled marble, or any of the various kinds of media used in visual, performing, and literary art.
Art is not art until it is captured in a fixed medium. Mozart’s conceptualization of a symphony, however thoroughly imagined, does not count as art. It becomes art when it is written down. Then performers can engage with the score and parts and actualize his vision. Parallels may be drawn with illustrators, painters, sculptors, architects, choreographers, photographers, filmmakers, poets, novelists, essayists, etc. Their conceptualization is not the work of art; the product they make and present to the world is the work of art.
When art is set in a fixed medium, it exists without anyone having to memorize it. It stands on its own and endures through time. Now independent from the mind of its creator, it has its own agency—the power to affect other minds.
As the artist begins to capture his ideas in the medium, the final form of the work becomes increasingly clear. Perhaps he may be able to envision his work ahead of time in detail; but it is unlikely that even the most gifted genius, such as a Mozart or a Michelangelo, would be able to claim that all aspects of his work were fully known to him in advance, only wanting to be set down on paper or set free with hammer and chisel so that other minds could experience it. Thus, for any artist, the creation of art is a process. As one goes through the process, the work gradually increases in clarity in the artist’s own mind, and when he is finally satisfied, he discloses it to the world.
Art must strain the creator to be created. It is like giving birth. A particular work may not be as difficult to create as babies are to bear, but there must be some element of struggle in its realization if it is to have true dignity as art. This rules out trifles like graffiti tags or experiments like 4’33” from counting as art. How much struggle and strain is necessary for an artist to endure for his work to qualify as art? The artist’s mind must be fully engaged in the process of creation. The investment of mental, and to a lesser degree physical, energy will then be evident in the appearance of the work. It is not to be assumed that the greater the struggle involved in the process of creation, the better the work of art. This may or may not be the case. The skill of the artist, among other factors, affects how much energy is invested in creation. Mozart does not need to stop and decide if the melodic interval he hears in his mind is a major or minor sixth. He has already trained extensively and can work without allowing his flow to be interrupted by rudimentary challenges. Even the simplest Minuet, though it costs him no great effort to write, is the product of years’ worth of devoted study and practice.
Art is an ideal vision—it reflects what the artist sees and wants to see in his imagination. He uses physical materials—clay, paint, stone, ink, physical movements on stage—to give form to what he imagines. Even if he captures the likeness of a model on canvas, his imagination guides the process. What pose should the model assume? Where should she stand or sit? With how much detail will he capture her different features or the backdrop? What elements of light and shade will he emphasize or deemphasize in the composition? The decisions are many, even though it is a definite object—the model in a particular setting—that determines his overall choices of color, line, and shade. The object, in fact, becomes a subject—it is reflected in the artist’s mind and then translated onto the canvas. Through this physical medium, then, the artist invites others into his mental space. He shares his experience of having closely observed and carefully captured the subject. Artists of all kinds do this through their respective media. The viewer or listener then encounters things the artist believes are good. They reflect his ideal—that which he sees as aesthetically pleasing and worthy of contemplation. His art reflects his value judgment and it is impossible for it to do otherwise.
Even when the artist depicts grief or tragedy, he is (or may be) emphasizing something else besides suffering for its own sake—namely a higher awareness of the sufferings of others, the need to express grief, or the ability to comprehend the significance of events that ultimately lead to ruin. Tragedy then becomes an exercise in compassion, self-actualization, or understanding. These are the ideal virtues. Beethoven’s Pathétique sonata or Shakespeare’s Hamlet invite us into a shared mental space where we might “mingle tears with he whom the hand of heaven hath smitten” (in Thomas Jefferson’s phrase)—a man going deaf, a prince in despair, or every person in the world who has similarly tasted the gall of misfortune. The expression of grief and sharing of sympathy are themselves the ideal vision.
A work of art will reflect any of various national, ethnic, or stylistic movements, and these in turn reflect different values and ideals—some agreeing, others disagreeing, and others merely indifferent. Not all these values are moral values. Classical art reflects objectivity, sobriety, intelligibility, coherence, balance, and unity in diversity. Reacting somewhat against these, Romantic art embraces subjective experience, emotional intoxication, natural rather than stilted expression, democratic rather than aristocratic appeal, and personal exigency rather than obedience to authority. Reacting even more violently against Romanticism’s perceived naïveté or sentimentality, Modernism embraces emotional detachment, stoical indifference to beauty, experimentation, the absurd, the macabre, and novelty for its own sake. Meanwhile, in music, the Jazz tradition followed its own lineage and celebrates movement, heat (set to low, medium, or high), spontaneity, wit, confidence, humor, irony, and imaginative variety. All the while, popular art, now the undisputed victor in the global entertainment industry, glorifies physicality, extroversion, immediacy of feeling, freedom from the need to use mental effort, and the impassioned release of universal emotions such as sexual excitement and the joy of socially uninhibited expression. Each of these different styles reflects and promotes different ways of looking at life and the world. Some of them conflict with others; some of them are merely different.
If the artist wants to articulate the ideals and values that he holds dear, he may imagine that he speaks for himself. Ultimately, however, he will find himself speaking for the larger body to which he belongs—his country, his religion, his political party, his generation, etc. The individuality of the artist is a myth. He is the product of his parents and the group to which they belong. Perhaps, in his growth as an individual, he comes to disassociate himself from the group in which he was raised and then identifies himself with another. Now he is born again—he belongs to a new country, religion, party, social group, etc. Nevertheless, whoever the artist is or has become, he speaks for those to whom he belongs. Perhaps he seeks not to please, but to challenge his audience. Perhaps he forges his own artistic path, breaking new ground with dazzling innovations. Still, he does so as a New Yorker, an atheist, a socialist, a post-modernist, or someone else. The artist may feel autonomous, but he will inevitably identify himself with some group—large or small, near or far, in style or out—and create art as a member of that group.
What then are my own ideals and values as an artist?
What Are My Ideals?
I will start by telling you what country I am from. I am from the United States; but artistically, I identify as closely with my Italian heritage. More importantly than my citizenship or ancestry, however, I am an idealist. Like Abraham, I look for a better country. I want my work to reflect things like peace, justice, beauty, truth, virtue, hope, love, compassion, wisdom, intelligence, imagination, agency, freedom, joy, romance, femininity, masculinity, courage, tenderness, audacity, and humility. Many of these qualities have moral as well as aesthetic value. It is not always obvious how they are reflected in artforms like instrumental music or portraiture; but when I create, I am guided by unconscious processes, just as when I interpret art I try to articulate the unconscious impression I receive from it. Higher levels of consciousness interact with lower ones. In an often-mysterious way, then, art reflects deeply-held values. This is true of the values listed above, and also of the more technical and ethically-neutral ones I hold as an artist. What are these?
A balance between simplicity and complexity—I want my work to be no more complex or challenging than it needs to be, nor any less so. It should require the listener or viewer to be mentally alert, but not baffle the attentive ear or eye, or fail to deliver an aesthetic reward in exchange for the effort of sustained attention. It is my duty as an artist, like a lover, to create pleasure, and I am committed to doing so to the best of my ability.
I value multi-dimensionality and depth. In visual art, the technique of perspective drawing mastered by Leonardo da Vinci and other Renaissance masters was a profound advance over the imprecise attempts that preceded it in the Middle Ages. Centuries later, Modernist art regressed by discarding the third dimension in the canvas. There are parallels in music. Heinrich Schenker analyzes foreground, middleground, and background in the masterworks of tonal music. After World War Two, the avant-garde eschewed formal logic as well as tonality. As an artist, I believe that the depth of multiple layers adds to the beauty and power of a work of art, and its negation subtracts from it.
I value hierarchical significance among the various elements of a composition. Not every stroke of the pen is equally important. Some elements point to others, and some are pointed to. Some sections are elaborations; others contain the material to be elaborated. Ultimately the relationship between all these elements should reflect a coherent whole.
I value unity in variety. Any element in a work that is not necessary should be eliminated. If it is unrelated to all the other elements, it serves no purpose other than to distract. At the same time, I seek to fully develop the central ideas of the work in detail and want all the various elements to come together to form a larger unity.
These are the ideals that guide me as a creator. The technical ones, by themselves, have no direct political implications. The moral ones do. Desiring freedom and justice, for example, means being outraged at the greed of the lobbies opposing regulation on the gun, opiate, or fossil fuel industries. Art can and should capture this outrage, and the artist may thereby join in defying the power-systems in the world that perpetuate human suffering and look with indifference at the destruction of the environment.
For me, this translates into a repudiation of the corporate-driven, technocratic system that prevails in the West and throughout most of the world. As a species, we worship the unfettered pursuit of individual profit or parochial gain and glorify the machines that enable us to achieve it. By sanctioning this attitude through action or inaction, human governments often capitulate to the destructive forces of human vice and egoism. These are the forces that make the world ugly and miserable. These are the forces that ought to be opposed and overthrown wherever possible. The best art helps facilitate such a revolution, either by imagining a world where such forces do not exist, as John Lennon and Louise Armstrong did, or by animating the spirit of resistance embodied by Patrick Henry’s assertion “Give me liberty or give me death.”
Though it is probably clear where my stylistic loyalties lie, I am ultimately not concerned with whether my works end up being classified as Classical, Romantic, Modern, Jazzy, Popular, or otherwise. Artworks representing all these styles may be interpreted as somehow reflecting the values and ideals I have just cited. Nevertheless, my work is usually best described as Classical or Romantic. It is decidedly not popular in style, though I love and respect much popular music including the Beatles, the Lumineers, and films like The Princess Bride and The (original) Lion King. I seldom employ the Jazz idiom in my music, though I relish Thelonius Monk’s standards, and bow the knee at the sound of John Coltrane’s horn. I also cherish several of Modernism’s contributions to the development of musical language in the last century. Nevertheless, I see many of its experiments—such as total serialism, extreme aleatory, and noise-art—as aesthetic failures insofar as they fall short of reflecting in any way the kinds of values and ideals I have just confessed, and in fact reflect their opposites.
I see and want to see a better reality. Perhaps that reality exists in idea only, as Plato described his perfect city. It is no less desirable. It represents what ought to be actualized in the physical world. It is the Kingdom of Heaven, where the will of God is done perfectly, and which I want to see done on earth just as perfectly.
For those interested in a more technical description of my music: I write for all orchestral instruments in various solo and ensemble genres, and my work can be roughly categorized into one of three approaches: the Major-Minor-Modal approach, which emphasizes the diatonic scale and traditional tonality; the Alternative Scale approach, which employs non-diatonic scales and therefore a less traditionally-western sense of tonality; and the Chromatic Scale approach, which, naturally, features the chromatic scale as well as non-triadic harmony, and allows rhythm, parallelism or other organizational elements other than melody and harmony to define form. In all these approaches, formal coherence and all the other ideals cited above remain the criteria by which I evaluate my own work, and hope to see it evaluated by those of my country, or who share the same longing for a better one.