Be it due to the fact that I recently turned 40, or that this month marks two years since I lost my dad, my thoughts have been veering towards aging and the wisdom that comes with it. Undeniably, many other things come with it as well, such as the occasional back pain or an uninvited sciatica. Jokes aside though, aging does give one a new perspective on life. One starts to understand things that one wasn’t able to just a few years before, and that knowledge is not transferable. One can try to give all the advice one can to younger generations, but even when they pay heed to their elders’ advice, there are things that can only be truly understood by experiencing them in the flesh. The passage of time is essential for some things to be fully comprehended.
Growing older also means having more responsibilities under one’s wing. Old age is often associated with wisdom, experience and resilience, and I can already see why. Getting old can be wonderful, but it can also be tough and, at times, cruel. I say cruel because the older we get, we get to experience more loss, more pain, and more rejection, but those things are precisely what make us take a look into ourselves and search for our innermost qualities. Enlightened people of old age are those who despite all their pain and suffering have become, with time, more forgiving instead of rancorous, loving instead of resentful, generous instead of selfish, and spiritual instead of materialistic. These collective qualities, coupled with self-knowledge and awareness, amount to wisdom, and it is not an easily earned virtue.
Love, above all, is the motor of the Universe. It’s an irresistible force of attraction that is constantly being fought by it’s preeminent opposite: hate. Their constant tug of war sets the engines of the world in motion, writing the all-well-known novel that plays out on our everyday lives. Artists play a preeminent role in this eternal dispute, and can consciously or unconsciously choose to side with one or another. Things are not black and white, of course, and there are plenty of nuances in between. Beauty can be found in light and in darkness, but our choices will ultimately reflect our degree of self-awareness and yes, wisdom.
I have experienced many a thing that life has to offer during my 40 years on this planet, but I also know that there is plenty in store for me. I saw my father grow old and ill, wishing he had done some things differently, asking for forgiveness and understanding… but I also saw him being content with a life that, even though it hadn’t fulfilled all his expectations, had made him a proud son, father, and husband. He passed away not achieving his dream of becoming a luminary in the annals of architecture, but he did manage to raise two children who were able to fulfill their academic ambitions to the highest degree. His pain felt to him at first like punishment, but it had the healing effect of uniting us, his family, to a degree that we hadn’t experienced before. From pain came healing; from suffering, deliverance, and from sadness, great joy. Through him and his pain we, his loved ones, had a glimpse into the beauty that awaits us when we surrender to the inevitable. We tend to fight, resist and look away from everything that is too painful to look at directly, but every now and then life has a way to make us confront those issues face to face, leaving us no option but accepting them or rejecting them in denial. Pain is a desperate attempt of our body or soul to focus on whatever needs healing, but instead of facing it, we prefer to numb ourselves, either via physical or spiritual medication, indefinitely postponing our learning and thwarting our path to wisdom.
By now some of you might be asking: what does any of this have to do with art or music, for that matter. The short answer is: Everything. If the music we produce is to be a true representation of who we are, we shouldn’t choose to hide one aspect of ourselves in favor of another. And if we do, we are not embracing ourselves completely and therefore our music will not be totally honest. Most of us don’t hold ourselves in very high regard, so we try to emulate the great masters; the great men and women who have preceded us. But have we asked ourselves what is it that made those people great? Wasn’t it perhaps their uniqueness? Don’t we detect an incredible amount of originality in a Beethoven, for example? Yes we do, but that originality is not only an artistic manifestation of an aesthetic choice, it is also a result of an embrace of personal pain to the point that it was transmuted into grandeur and beauty. Therein lies the true philosopher’s stone: our capacity to churn happiness out of misery and reconciliation out of grudge. We are imperfect beings; oh so imperfect, but it is that constant tug of war between our lazy selves (who want to remain unchanged) and our greater, higher selves in search of enlightenment, what makes possible for art to exist at all.
We make art and we make music because we need to express something that we can’t otherwise express. We know that within us lies a power greater than ourselves that needs to be released, and that only belongs to us partially, because once it is outside of us it spreads its roots into any and all fertile soil it may encounter. We as artists, and specifically as composers, are vessels, carrying a fountain of love, knowledge and beauty that we don’t deserve to keep to ourselves. But we are not empty vessels, we need to perfect ourselves so we can become an even purer, more dynamic and more enlightened channel of communication. Whoever derives arrogance and self-indulgence from this unique position is committing a travesty. It is not our place to feel superior; that would be a sign of ignorance. Instead, whoever recognizes him or herself as a vessel, must do everything in their power to perfect themselves so they can become better vehicles at the service of a greater scheme.
After the loss of my father, my mother has seen a steep decline in her mnemonic abilities. The constant suffering in her soul is making an even greater dent in her mind, serving as a painful reminder that both, soul and intellect, not only reside within us but also depend on each other to function properly. I can’t compose if my emotions are out of balance, and I can’t invest my feelings on something that does not excite my intellect at all. This is where youth and old age collide. While young we think we can attain anything we put our minds on, but then reality kicks in, and we realize that we are simply not always able to achieve everything we want. We think we can conquer the world with our physical, mental, or spiritual prowess, but we hardly recognize that we can only achieve one of them when all the others are in harmony. How many times have we seen young athletes or actors mismanage their careers because they were blinded by their rapid success? How many intellectuals have succumbed to the traps of the mind before realizing that their minds alone cannot lead them to enlightenment? And how many artists have fallen into producing innocuous works of art after failing to realize that they need to further their intellect if they want to produce meaningful and spiritually relevant work? This is why artists like Johann Sebastian Bach and Hermann Hesse have such appeal to me, because they truly represent that communion of all aspects residing within us. We must embrace our own totality even when we are focusing on a very specific aspect of ourselves; hence the myth of the great but immoral artist. Yes, we can separate the work from the man, but we cannot separate a man from his work. But here is where we need to be cautious, because even though we might think that morality is universal, it is more personal and more obscure than we are ready to admit.
Old age is our chance to look back at our lives and bring all the scattered elements together. It is our chance to create a unified self that is a true representation of who we are and who we aspire to become. It is a work in progress, for old age is relative and detached from temporal attachments. Old age is, in sum, the moment we distill our own selves, leave behind all impurities and do justice to the self we deserve to be: our full potential attained, to the best of our abilities. We will always have regrets, no matter how much we try to keep them to a minimum, there will always be things we could have done better, but what matters in the end is that, as humans, and especially as artists, we do not turn a blind eye to any aspect of our selves, and that we embrace and transmute all our imperfections so we can create the least imperfect version of our everlasting selves.
…and now, back to stretching.