Wednesday, 10 February 2016

Paperweight: Virgil Thomson on Creativity

This morning I used A Virgil Thomson Reader as a paperweight to keep another book open as I took notes. I chose it for another reader, too: so I could mine it for blog-friendly insights on creativity.

Through a sizable portion of the 20th century, Virgil Thomson (1896-1989) promoted modernism through his activities as  composer, critic, writer, and all-around impresario. I first came across him in a course about Gertrude Stein. After that course, I kept running into his name in all kinds of contexts, to the point that I stopped being surprised when I ran into him, including, for example, during my search through the Banff Centre library bookstack for a suitable paperweight. Here are three excerpts, which I picked for their interest, not because I agree with them necessarily, from my gleaning:

"Every profession is a secret society. The musical profession is more secret that most, on account of the nature of music itself. No other field of human activity is quite so hermetic, so isolated. Literature is made out of words, which are ethnic values and which everybody in a given ethnic group understands. Painting and sculpture deal with recognizable images that all who have eyes can see. Architecture makes perfectly good sense to anybody who has ever built a chicken coop or lived in a house. Scholarship, science, and philosophy, which are all verbalizations of general ideas, are practiced humbly by all, the highest achievements of these being for the most part verifiable objectively by anyone with access to facts. As for politics, religion, government, and sexuality, every loafer in a pub or club has his opinions, his passions, his inalienable orientation about them. Even the classical ballet is not very different from any other stylized muscular spectacle, be that diving or tennis or bullfighting or horseracing or simply a military parade.

"Among the great techniques, music is all by itself, an auditory thing, the only purely auditory thing there is.  It is comprehensible only to persons who can remember sounds. Trained or untrained in the practice of the art, these persons are correctly called 'musical.' And their common faculty gives them access to a secret civilization completely impenetrable by outsiders." (from "Our Island Home, or What It Feels Like to Be A Musician")

"My literary method, then as now, was to seek out the precise adjective. Nouns are names and can be libellous; the verbs, though sometimes picturesque, are few in number and tend toward alleging motivations. It is the specific adjectives that really describe and that do so neither in sorrow nor in anger." (from "The Paper" [the New York Herald Tribune]

"Laymen are likely to think that the poets are just being fanciful when they talk about magic and sorcery. This is not so. They are talking very good sense indeed, though their terminology may be antiquated. As a matter of fact, they are the only group of men in the world that has any profound prescience about the unchaining of the dark forces that has taken place in our century. Their chief utility to us all is that they help us to fight those dark forces by the only effective means there is or ever has been. I mean the light of reason, the repetition of sage precept, and the continual application to all the dilemmas of human life of the ancient and unalterable principles of disinterested thought." (from "Survivals of an Earlier Civilization, or Shades of Poets Dead and Gone")

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