Prevention is the best medicine. At least, for most of my life, that was my take on any kind of conflict or confrontation, both in music and life in general. In addition to attempting the role as peacemaker, I also wished for a way to make all conflicts cease, confrontations few, and paradoxes eliminated.
Of course, this is impossible. Trying to bypass inner and outer conflict creates its own kind of stress that is, in itself, unnecessary. Recently, Joss Whedon gave a commencement address that explains that our inner contradictions create our individual identities. Parker Palmer speaks of living a divided life, coming together into one’s authentic self in several of his writings, including The Courage to Teach. Palmer takes part of a Rilke poem in an online article to work with those contradictions to come to your own understanding:
Take your practiced powers and stretch them out
until they span the chasm between two
contradictions. . . For the god wants to know
himself in you.
This naturally extends into the practices of music- and art-making, as well. Having a discussion with fellow musicians about tempo or execution of phrasing and style can sometimes resolve into a satisfying result. Differences that arise between teacher and student often create a learning experience for both. And conflict in the composition, performance, and reception of music has the potential to be stirring and thought-provoking. The May 29, 1913 premiere of “The Rite of Spring” by Igor Stravinsky comes to mind; the dissonant and angular music combined with Nijinsky’s shocking choreography brought the audience to a cacophony of hisses and loud comments. What was such a hotly contested piece is still a popular and often-discussed piece within orchestral repertoire.
By accepting and working with such conflicts, as well as working with imperfections in ourselves, we have the capability of creating something splendid for the world to receive. Beethoven is often cited as an example of a composer making the best of his circumstances. Perhaps one of my favorite poems that demonstrates taking one’s adversities and running with it is a poem by Lisel Mueller, called “Monet refuses the operation.”
Doctor, you say there are no halos
around the streetlights in Paris
and what I see is an aberration
caused by old age, an affliction.
I tell you it has taken me all my life
to arrive at the vision of gas lamps as angels,
to soften and blur and finally banish
the edges you regret I don’t see,
to learn that the line I called the horizon
does not exist and sky and water,
so long apart, are the same state of being.
Fifty-four years before I could see
Rouen cathedral is built
of parallel shafts of sun,
and now you want to restore
my youthful errors: fixed
notions of top and bottom,
the illusion of three-dimensional space,
from the bridge it covers.
What can I say to convince you
the Houses of Parliament dissolve
night after night to become
the fluid dream of the Thames?
I will not return to a universe
of objects that don’t know each other,
as if islands were not the lost children
of one great continent. The world
is flux, and light becomes what it touches,
becomes water, lilies on water,
above and below water,
becomes lilac and mauve and yellow
and white and cerulean lamps,
small fists passing sunlight
so quickly to one another
that it would take long, streaming hair
inside my brush to catch it.
To paint the speed of light!
Our weighted shapes, these verticals,
burn to mix with air
and change our bones, skin, clothes
to gases. Doctor,
if only you could see
how heaven pulls earth into its arms
and how infinitely the heart expands
to claim this world, blue vapor without end.
Though Monet ultimately consented to cataract surgery in 1923, Mueller’s imagined monologue shows us how the artist’s talents, skills, obsessions, and challenges came together to make something beautiful.
Take a moment to consider what you could create with your collection of conflicts and contradictions.