On the Nature of Musical Genius

Disclaimer: The substance of this article comes from my research into the most recent literature in psychology and my long acquaintance with major minds like Claudio Arrau, John Cage, Aaron Copland, Edgard Varèse, and many visionary scientists. These individuals were very special to me and seemed to be possessed of genius. I make no claims for my own abilities, other than my ability to report what I have observed.

In an age in which all parents think that their children are above average and gifted with extraordinary abilities, there is a certain abhorrance of the term, genius. We have no problem extolling the remarkable talents of a Michael Jordan or a Baryshnikov and reward them handsomely, but when it comes to intellectual stars, we blanche. If we accept most recent research into the nature of the mind, there appears to be at least seven kinds of intellect: abstract thought and musical ability are the ones that concern us here. Musical geniuses are not just very smart or very musical: they way that they process abstract or musical information is different. There is a famous story about the composer, Paul Hindemith rehearsing a new symphony. He did not have time to make a score; so, he copied all the parts out of his head and conducted the piece. This kind of horsepower demonstrates the qualitative difference I hope to elucidate. There is almost an idiot savant aspect to the abilities; more importantly, there is a synthesis of the powers of intuition and reason that allow the musical genius to take short cuts to the normal logical process.

If we accept the fact the the mind does not operate in a linear manner, rather it selects gestalts or specific groupings that are significant (ala Arnheim in Visual Thinking) so that, unlike a computer which must turn over every scrap of data, the human mind intuitiviely selects that which is relevant. Geniuses do this in spades. Imagine just copying the score of Wagner's Tristan and Isolde: it would take years. Now think about all the complex decisions involved with putting down the notes, articulations, tempos, dramatic and literary associations: there woud not be enough time to reason out all thoses decisions, let alone even come up with the basic musical ideas. If a component of genius is the capacity to hone intuition, then there must be other intellectual properties to complete the task of making an artwork. First, the work is visualized as a complete, palpable entity (much like a solid object or sculpture), even if that work is a 1000 page novel. Second the genius creates a web of global structure upon which to hang all the myriad details. Third the process of the work must be the fruit of continual invention: too pat and it is predictable and boring; too improvisatory and the thread of logic is lost.

The artistic genius has an additional problem in that somehow the artwork must relate to human scale. In architecture this is simpler,because humans actually live in the artwork, but in music, literature, painting, et al., the modulus of human experience can be stretched and intensified. It is the reason that we often feel that the characters in novels and plays are more real than real life persons and the emotions felt in reaction to a piece of music are more intense than in reaction to real human situations. A great work of art is poised on a delicate balance of all these elements, and that delicate balance cannot be achieved without the application of genius.

So, why are we so reluctant to identify living individuals as geniuses? what is the difference between extolling the genius of a Michael Jordan and the same level of achievement in a film director or composer? The answer hinges on two very different perceptions of the nature of extraordinary human achievement: if an astronaut lands on the moon and millions witness that achievement, there is no question of its significance. If Joe Blow writes a great contemporary novel, it may be rare that there would be universal approbation. Luckily, the permanence of artworks allows them to be appreciated with the luxury of historical distance. Also, the artist is no longer a threat by virtue of his/her genius, which leads me to the second point: All contemporary geniuses are a threat to the complaceny of the mediocre mean. By definition they are outcasts, don't fit in, move at a different pace, and probably have contempt for the elephantine mental processes of the average person. We can easily accept not being able to play basketball like Michael Jordan or dance like Barishnykov, but it is hard to accept intellectual inferiority to anyone, least of all some quirky square peg in the round hole of society.

Turning more specifically to musical geniuses, there is a confluence of two different kinds of power: the ability to organize or produce (as in the case of a performer) sound and the ability to collate the polydimensional world of musical space. It is probably impossible to be a great composer without having extraordinary performing ability, simply because the palpable experience of performance tests the reality of the abstract concept. Brahms was a great pianist for much of his life; later he stopped practicing, but retained the memory of the earlier experience. Copland came to conducting and wound up actually producing quasi definitive interpretations of his works. In the area of the organization of musical space there is another complex variable: the control of time. It is here that the real power of the musical genius comes into play. The conversion of real time into relative time, the measure of our emotional response to a piece of music, must be the primary goal. For example, if we listen to the Finale of Mozart's Jupiter Symphony, we become totally absorbed in the internal drama so that we are not even aware of time passing, or even of how much time. Try it: you not be able to guess how long the movement takes to play. It is roughly six or so minutes in real time: in musical time it is eons. The difference between the workmanlike and shoddy efforts of well trained technicians and the elegant products of genius is revealed in just this feature.

Wait a minute! All composers are not as great as Mozart: how is that? Obviously, musical genius is a qualitative attribute. the quantitative aspect can probably be measured in the sheer amount of great musical ideas and solutions. After recently receiving the thematic catalog of the work of Brahms, I was struck by the tremendous number of fabulous pieces that were bunched together from a certain point in his life. It was as though he suddenly went into high gear. But what about an Alban Berg or Carl Ruggles? Surely they are geniuses: witness the opening of Sun Treader or the animal trainer sequence from Lulu. These powerful excerpts are the product of composers whose output is meager compared with a Brahms or Haydn. At this point it is necessary to invoke cultural factors to complete the equation: Leonardo completed seven paintings of a total of fifteen, because he was hired by the Sforzas to build war machines. All of his designs for other remarkable devices remained in his sketchbooks ("tell me if anything got built" were his last words). If an artist's work is ignored, or if the tradition for that work disappears, then we humans become heirs to a meagre harvest. In an ideal climate like Vienna in 1870 or the Court of Estherhazy the garden of creativity flourishes.

OK! Andy Warhol is not Rembrandt and Steve Reich is not Aaron Copland; but do the former artists posses any genius? In their work may contain the seeds of real vision so that some major genius will nurture them to fruition. These experimenters are essential to the larger processes of art. There would be no Haydn without Anton Filtz and dozens of other minor figures. The greatest danger today is that in a desperate attempt to create major figures in the art world, we elevate the Reichs and Worhols to Picasso status, thereby lowering the general level of all art and allowing even more mediocre imitators to persist. Lastly, institutions, like many museums and all universities keep half-dead fakers on the cultural respirator, rather than letting them die a natural death. It may be a perverted outgrowth of democracy, misplaced kindness, or merely bad taste.
The natural attrition of mediocre artists should occur, just like the natural attrition of basketball players. We will still get an enormous variety of talent (Dennis Rodman could not be more different from Michael Jordan, yet both share the same genius).
Paul Reale, December 3, 1996, revised April 2004.