There were two developments during my own childhood and adolescence that established “who I am”. They seem intrinsic and deep-rooted, and set up a paradox that affects everything else These evolutions deal with music and sexuality.
I started taking piano in third grade, in February 1952, when we got a Kimball console piano. That’s gone, and now replaced by a (much lighter and more portable) 88-key Casio, which hooks to Sibelius (on the MacBook) for composition and really is pretty good as to tone and dynamics and pedal. In fact, I need to up my skills in using these tools to really make my compositions interesting to professionals.
I don’t remember “why” I wanted to take piano. But once I started, it seems to install my identity. I don’t have a specific past-life recollection, but it seemed to make my existence indefinite, preceding my birth and even conception (in 1942).
I started composing around age 12, leaving to a series of works of increasing complexity as I’ve documented on my “media reviews” blog (here). My esthetic relation to music was one of submission to a certain experience of feeling. I progressed quickly up through high school, winning some awards in festival concerts.
I had an old RCA record player in the basement, that tracked heavy (at 10 grams). Slowly I accumulated some mono records of major works. By 10th grade or so, I became conscious of the “chills and fever” effect of the way some romantic works ended, particularly piano concertos and symphonies. The formula for a big cyclic work in a minor key was to end in the Picardy major with a triumphant “big tune”. I think the first work that introduced this experience to me was Rachmaninoff’s Second Piano Concerto, Op. 18, in C Minor. (Today, I like the more subtle Third, Op. 30) better.) I learned a few of the Op. 32 Preludes, including the triumphant D-flat Major prelude that concludes the set. The other work that introduced me to this experience at first was Grieg’s A Minor Piano Concerto.
I remember much better my relation to music as a young adult, starting about the time of the William and Mary Expulsion (well documented in my books) in 1961. I attempted a couple large works, including a Third Sonata which I started over the winter 1961-1962 before reentering college at GWU. I more or less have an “acceptable” manuscript in pieces (a lot of it in Sibelius) today, as I have spent more time on it in the past two years (on the Finale).
During that “terrible” hiatus at home after the Expulsion, I did get a recording of Bruno Walter’s performance of the 3-movement form of Anton Bruckner’s Ninth Symphony. I’ve discussed completion versions, especially Letocart’s, elsewhere, but one interesting detail was that the first side split the Scherzo in the middle of what Letocart calls the “Hallelujah” theme. The record player cartridge and stylus had deteriorated, leading to inner-groove distortion of that theme. I could not earn my own money yet, and my father resisted spending money on music when I couldn’t and needed to pay for college. Nevertheless, it got fixed, and I had a VM stereo in the fall of 1962. Getting used to multiple speakers and then stereo (with all the problems of inferior players and record wear back then) provided a new level or aesthetic “submission”, especially with a few Mahler Symphonies and then Beethoven’s Ninth. Throughout most of my working adult life, I collected records, then cassettes, and then CD’s, and still do buy CD’s of emerging artists. But in recent years, like everyone else, I’ve gotten used to playing classical music on YouTube or from the Cloud. But the conclusion of the Bruckner Ninth would create a personal irony (as demonstrated in a short film that Letocart provides) which I would in outlining the conclusion to my own Sonata.
One aspect of this whole experience was that “aesthetic submission” provided what seemed like access to real feeling, and made relationships (dating, courtship, marriage, parenthood) seem like an afterthought, a totally privatized experience, with “different stroke for different folks”. I can link all this up to the Polarity Theory of Pail Rosenfels and the Ninth Street Center, which, as a “subjective feminine”, I’ve already discussed elsewhere.
But the other big “development” that filled in my identity would be sexuality, particularly homosexuality. I started “noticing” men gradually, but I was quite aware of my sensitivity on these matters of proper male body image probably by age 12 or so. There would be a few small incidents over the years that would reinforce this impression. But at age 18, in August 1961, when I was with a particular companion to whom I felt attracted, I felt extreme arousal. I don’t want to be graphic here (I’ll stay in PG-13 territory) but the event was transformative for me. The other person did not “respond” but I would have gone through with it if he had. I found that experience of “getting excited by …” could happen in certain other situations that ordinarily imply losing or submission Later, as I was in my adult life in the 1973-1975, becoming fully “human” with that “true” first experience became quite a preoccupation but it would happen. I would of course gradually learn about heterosexual passion intellectually, but my father’s prediction that “one day blue eyes will confuse you” seemed irrelevant to defining me, beside the point.
What seems remarkable about the sexuality is that it was stimulated, ironically, by conservative values. I was attracted to young men who “had it all” I saw undisturbed maleness as a “virtue” with almost religious passion. I viewed the prospect of what could happen to young men’s bodies in war, or from disease, or eventual aging, as desecration. I actually viewed with contempt the rare male (in those days who make a spectacle of gender bending or today’s “gender fluidity”. I needed to believe in my idol to be able to experience sexual pleasure at all, even in a fantasy mode. This counteracts the practical need for emotional resilience needed in marriage, where a partner needs to remain intimate even if the other person has a physical calamity, whether from war, terror, crime, disease, or just growing old. This pattern also undermines getting personal satisfaction out of interacting with cognitively distant people in need, as through intense volunteerism.
Therefore, I tended to look at people very critically. An close connection with someone who had “issues” could not be emotionally important to me. This seems to bear on areas that Milo Yiannopoulos, in particular, has taken up in his tirades about, for example. “fat shaming” Complicating the picture is that I grew up in (in practical terms) a racially segregated society. My ideas of “desirability” for erotic “upward affiliation” pertained much more readily to white males than any other (“people of color”).
This has a bearing on any sense of belonging today. It’s much easier to find real meaning in helping others if you “belong” to groups, and it’s easier to “belong” if you go through the socialization of courtship and conventional marriage and becoming a biological parent first. Becoming a parent upends upward affiliation, and makes the experience of having others depend on you real and valuable,, But you have to be open to intimacy (“the family bed”) under mutable circumstances and sometimes externally imposed hardships. I was not. It sounds a little cowardly of me. One eternal consequence is that I have no lineage, and, as an only child, neither do my parents; it dead-ends with me.
There were other factors that indeed rounded out my sense of identity. I had a certain fascination with “abstract geography” and a sense of elevation and place (as when I took up hiking later in my teen years) as a grounding in science. I also relished the mathematical abstractions of competitive chess, as if that were an oxymoron; chess games seemed to map to “real” team sports. (The map is probably cleaner to American football than to baseball or even European soccer, because in NFL football, the defense can score points.) That led me to one experience of group affiliation, rooting for a baseball team, who were the various incarnations of the Washington Senators (Twins, Rangers, Expos, Nats), with that horrible 18-game losing streak in the summer of 1959 (and that blown 7-run lead in the bottom of the ninth in Boston in `1961, right after high school graduation). I would skip out on Tribunals but “take one for the team” a little bit when I was finally drafted, after graduate school, in 1968. I would make a sacrifice, incurring slight hearing loss and tinnitus in the right ear from my experience on the rifle range at Fort Jackson. Even today, as shown on a recent Sinclair News Channel 8 discussion (“Government Matters”) it’s not clear that the “need” for conscription (probably gender neutral) can’t come back (and in my mind this always had a bearing on “don’t ask don’t tell”).
The whole conscription and student deferment issue was the moral issue of my own coming of age. In my own mind, it connected to the idea of “station in life” (as intrinsic and not necessarily equal to everyone else’s) and “right-sizing”. Grades were my currency during my youth, which was actually an eventful, rich time. But I had to succeed in school to have a legitimate and honorable place in the world and not simply become a fungible sacrifice for someone else’s tribal agenda.
Alyssa Rosenberg today, in the Washington Post, relates how overt “submission” to art and sexual imagery attracts terrorists as “idol worship” and apostasy, in her column “Why terrorists attack concert halls” concerning the Manchester attack on May 22 (and earlier attacks, especially Paris). Ii think you could add comments about alienation of certain young men who feel wired into brotherhood and tribal behavior. Along these lines, look at a recent column by David Brooks on how democratic capitalism (so good for me) has failed “them” and made me seem like an enemy to them.
On Vox, Sean Illing takes up these issues with an interview with Stanford professor Robert Sapolsky, “Behave: The Biology of Humans at our Worst and Best”.
(Posted: Wednesday, May 24, 2017 at 2:30 PM EDT)