restricted access Preface to the Revised Edition
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Preface to the Revised Edition I Some years ago a young colleague said that when he saw the title of the first edition of these essays he was sure the book was going to be an autobiography. Yet nothing could have been further from my mind. In time I began to think his remark was actually quite perceptive-but in a way I don't believe he ever intended . Even if taken at face value, a book called The Aesthetics ofSurvival could hardly be construed as autobiographical (in the ordinary sense of the word); yet from another point of view it is certainly true that it is saturated with the struggles and problems of becoming a composer in America at the high tide of its ascendancy midway through the twentieth century. The "survival" the title refers to is my own to be sure, but, even more, I mean it to refer to the art of music. Those essays I chose to publish back in 1984 clustered around complexes of ideas constantly haunting and obsessing me that were so central to my sense of what was going on that they gave me no peace. In a larger, more expanded sense of what can be taken as autobiographical, the forms these ideas took, whether overtly technical, critical, philosophical, or poetic in tone or attitude, could be viewed as being intensely personal statements. For in this more elastic stretch of the term"autobiographical," how else to describe these obsessive, haunting concerns that dominated the waking and dreaming hours of someone trying to make art in America in the second half of the twentieth century? I was struggling to clear an inward path for myself through fogs of external confusion and internal uncertainty. By 1939-the time of the Second Great War-the zenith of what could be called the "heroic" phase of modernism in music (and the other arts) had passed. In the time I'm writing about, after the war, things were moving fast and furious. The new generations that carne on the cultural scene in America and Europe shared a common avant-garde aesthetic persuasion: tradition no longer held value or relevance; the new music and the new art owed nothing to the past. Their brash arrogance echoed that of the 1920S Italian Futurists. Strong publicists, their statements rang out, reverberating at high decibel levels in a metallic chamber called "contemporary art." I found myself swimming against the tide, against powerful currents that threatened to sweep away everything Iloved and believed in. I literally felt compelled to "take arms against a sea of troubles." Above all I needed clarity. Despite doubts and deep ambivalences, clarification would corne periodically-and with it the elation of inSights and discoveries that made writing the kind of music I wanted possible. Conversely, Iexperienced darker periods xiv PREFACE TO THE REVISED EDmON when thought and feeling grew remote and obscure and all roads to the light seemed blocked by the almost visible screen made by the noise of the culture around me. II Art for me has always been the work of a state of mind and soul, contra mortem et tempus, against death and time. Perhaps an impossible state, an unresolvable paradox , for how can anything human survive death and time? Yet in that very unresolvable , impossible reality that stares past us with chilling indifference lies the key to understanding why art remains crucial to our sense of ourselves as human and why we insist, against the brute fact of our brief existence, on the survival of our inmost, immaterial essence. Through art we attempt to make claim to an authenticity of existence that extends beyond the merely physical coil that binds us to earth, reaches, in that beyond, to embrace realms unimaginable except through the forms of art. The authentic in art-rare in any time-rises above the topicality of local, historical cultures to create a living continuity visible as a stream of transmission of what is most highly prized in human culture because we consider it most valuable. In short, we need it in order to live. Art is one important way we have of authenticating our life of mind and spirit. To strive for immortality-that was what the ancient Greeks and Romans demanded of themselves. The last great echoes of that kind of striving still sound for us in the poetry of Wordsworth, Coleridge, Shelley, and Keats and the music of Beethoven, Brahms, Schubert, and Mahler because they continue to...