Only Human:
Touching the Significance
By Carol Wright

Portions of this phone interview from March of 2001 were originally used for the article "A Simple Thought: Music and Meaning" by Carol Wright, which ran in the July 2001 issue of New Age Retailer. Other musicians interviewed included: Iasos, Constance Demby, vocalist Susan Osborn, soundhealer Tom Kenyon, and Paul Winter -- all New Agers who would tend to equate the meaning of their music with a high degree of spirituality. New Ager Carol and Wendy-the-Humanist had privately, heatedly, e-debated the reality of God and spirit. [NOTE FROM CAROL TO NEW AGERS AND RELIGIOUS TYPES: "Please don't continue the debate with Wendy. Believe me, I've tried EVERY angle and got nowhere. Like Tweetie Bird pushing a sumo wrestler, there was a lot of flap but no movement. Please don't bother her and just enjoy the obvious expression of this grand and gracious 'human' spirit. It's a courageous stand she's taken. I think so, anyway. Try it on for size."] Carol thought it would be intriguing to place Wendy's pithy observations in the middle of the Music and Meaning article. What, Carol wondered, would be the source of Wendy's inspiration, if she didn't believe in a God.
(Note: This interview was inspired and set up by a longer interview on musical and technical topics, conducted several months earlier, which you can READ HERE.)

Art and Human Creation

Carol: Many musicians I talk to say they receive inspiration from angels or spirit. What is your musical inspiration, if not spirit?  How do you give your music a human, gutsy significance--?

Wendy: It doesn't really matter what you think your motive is, as long as you're motivated and you act. Obviously, to me, the motives are going to come from my humanity and nature somewhere. But maybe you prefer to believe it is coming from some invisible pink elephant guardian in your living room. If you think that is what it is, and it inspires you do something good, fine, go with it. No harm done unless you start doing peculiar things in public and the men in the white coats show up. Short of that, I don't really care. It isn't my business, and I respect your innate privacy.

But isn't there a natural human desire to communicate and to explore our inner voices and inner humanity? And I don't mean "voices" like the joke about Joan of Arc wannabes. Even when we've been effectively "brainwashed" in childhood not to be especially creative in our lives, don't we still have some of the "muse" singing inside of us? Why must the motivation I have and feel be metaphored into stock clip-art spiritual icons? Seems both disrespectful and demeaning.

For me the motivation and inspiration to create is a reflection on our humanity, one of the best sides of our humanity. It's a human need to express, for one's own sake, and also so others can recognize the common truths within. We have to discover that what rings particularly true for one of us is probably true for others as well. We try to reach for something lasting within our humanity, since we are aware (being mortal human beings) of our short span of years. Most of us want to touch something of greater significance than just ourselves while we are still capable of doing it. It's a yin/yang with our need to maintain honest, highly ethical standards. Thoughts like that don't require any external spiritual scaffolding. I think they are noble and beautiful -- and quite enough to live for -- all on their own.

And if you have curiosity and are fortunate enough to have some skills and talent, you work hard to develop them, much like an Olympic contender trains hard to develop her/his natural athletic prowess. There is nothing elite in that. It's fine to become an expert from plying your craft, skills, and abilities, becoming better in the specialty than most other people. And, you hope, what you say will be worth saying, worth hearing. You don't know if it is or not, but you say it anyway, an act of Hope. Worth and value are things for other people to judge, or for posterity ultimately to determine. Isn't it worth doing your best? Sometimes the value is swayed by a prevailing style or trendiness; if right now the answer may be "no," perhaps later on someone does "get it" and says "yes."

So that's the way it is to create, methinx. You put your best crafted note in the bottle, set the bottle onto the water, and hope that it will float off to be seen by someone else, to complete the communication. It's what we did so optimistically with the gold LP records on the two Voyager space probes. Pictures and words from Earth. We send the bottle out on the water and maybe somebody eventually finds it and connects with it, even deeply connects. That's what art's about.

As I'm trying to explain, I don't think creative inspiration and motivation need overlays of mysticism or any other additional narrative baggage to explain them; it's just not essential. My best guess conclusion. What I've learned during a lifetime of searching and observing, trying not to be too gullible. On the other hand, if mysticism, spirituality or formal religion works for you, smile and go on with your life. Who would be such a cynic to suggest we take away any venerated anecdotes from anyone? If they provide a help, stay happy with them. Life's too short. Don't go poking around the roots of a thriving, living tree.

Carol: So is there any "ism" you DO live by?

Magnetism and optimism aren't bad. I admit, I'm a hardened realist and humanist, more in the mode of Carl Sagan (his final book The Demon Haunted World is a wonderful way to learn about such issues). I'm very much like Ellie Arroway, the protagonist of his novel and the sweet, poetic Zemeckis film, Contact. (Wish the film could have kept the novel's striking ending, though.) As an ex-physicist, physics offers me a way to appreciate the cosmos in ways that don't rest upon lovely old stories of traditional promise and hope. I believe that ultimately these stories can be seen as an interim step, not the equal of the best we know of reality, and continue to learn about this galaxy we happen to inhabit. For most of human history, though, we didn't know anything at all about the science of the cosmos, so we created fanciful narratives to "help explain things." It filled a need, what had been a complete vacuum in our understanding.

It can be dangerous to rely on dogma, you know, an "unquestioning spirituality" to define our world, especially right now with the highly technological, fast changing society we live in. Stubborn ignorance is seldom a wise guiding principle, however comforting it may appear to be. Ignore warning signs and bury your head like an ostrich, and a storm may quickly develop, maim or kill you. A disease that can be intelligently diagnosed and treated is far less likely to pose a threat than one you merely anoint with a magic oil or potion, and mumble some ineffectual words over. So I fear the recent retreat away from knowledge and science, back into the dark ages when we only had mantras and superstitions (what was the average life expectancy in those "good old days," 45 or 50?). Taken as charming tales and metaphors, no harm is done. These traditions inspired great art, too -- look at the masterpieces of the Middle Ages, painting, music, architecture. And all of us have to develop civilized values, compassion, a balanced morality, follow "the golden rule." I don't pretend to have stumbled upon any deep truths, although you could do a lot worse than Sam Jaffe's High Lama's line in Lost Horizon: "be kind." Kind and tolerant of other points of view, differing beliefs.

But as far as giving you a whole mystique as to where my music comes from -- that I'm in communication with a god who (like Rosemary Brown) dictates music through my fingertips -- that's simple hogwash. If somebody happens to believe that stuff, and they also go on to compose great music, I guess the hogwash is benign. Don't kill the goose that lays the golden eggs. Placebo effects are nothing to sneer at. My perceptions on topics like this are shared by a good many other folks, much wiser than me.

But for myself, since you asked me, I appreciate that most of my inspiration comes from vaguely remembered experiences of the past that I can then rechannel in new directions. Seek wisdom, which is really what remains when you've forgotten everything you've ever learned. I think that's the way art works. Perhaps some of my music is vaguely plagiarization, that I don't remember the source and it comes out in my own voice, restructured and rebuilt. Nothing new: Mozart could look back on Bach, Haydn on Mozart, and Beethoven look on both of them, and Brahms look back on Beethoven. It's the way music and all the arts have been continued throughout human history.

Being New and Original

Carol: So do you try to be original?

I'm suspicious about artists who set off only because they think they are going to break ground into an all new path. Those are the ones who usually break off and simply sink. "Tally-ho! Let's swim to that uninhabited island I think I see there!" But it's not even an atoll so kapoosh! Down they go, glub glub. Many artists think they can force originality, make it their goal, and think the major task is to be "new" rather than "good." Let's first strive to be good, and if you just happen to be original (because that's the way you are), great, it'll come out naturally! But if you're not so much new, but you're just good, then at least your work will be good. It seems a healthier way to set out, wanting always to do your best, whatever happens ultimately. So learn your craft, polish your chops, and get out there and come up with something good, don't fuss about the "originality" yatta yatta.

I've been remiss in the "doing" parts myself, lately. I haven't been very productive with new material in the past few years. I've allowed myself to become tied down with remastering the reissues and other distracting things. And it's begun to make me a little crazy right now. I've got to get back to it, I need it. Creative work of any kind keeps us sane, keeps us centered. It's just a good thing to do by a human being. I wish everyone could spend at least a little bit of time each week on creative bits of any kind, to balance the rest of the life they lead. It can be only for yourself, family and friends.

Yes, I have a very non-mythological approach to the creative process. I think it's simply healthy and natural, and it's something that should be democratically available, one of those inalienable rights. And those of us who happen to train more, who have chosen to dedicate our entire lives to one niche, we can demonstrate better what it's about, the goals. We have gone at it sincerely, and we have given far more of our lives to it. If that sounds elitist in any way, consider a runner who ran the hundred meter dash faster than anyone else alive. Is this just a showoffy elitist stunt? Don't be ridiculous. It's something to emulate and applaud, isn't it? I think I'm very good at creating new music; I'm a pretty decent second rate composer. And I should get back to it, not shoot my mouth off here too much longer.

At the same time, these are worthwhile topics, ideas we should think about now and then. Thank you for getting us on such substantive issues when we speak. But, Carol, do you know how seldom you get to talk about any of this stuff?

Carol: Yes, not often enough. The issue of "music and meaning" (more precisely how the culture seems to be destroying music's meaning) has been haunting me.

You're right, me, too. These are things should be thought about and perceived by everyone -- I don't want to set myself up as any "Maven on the Mountain." But on music I do have some observations and conclusions from many years, and some of my opinions might be worth printing. I sure don't take them as being sacred in any way. What the joke about kissing someone's hand? "It ain't a holy relic"? That's the way I feel about these thoughts, but let's toss them out there to discuss, fodder for a deeper thoughtful session. How much do you agree with? How much is accurate? What misses the point? What related points haven't we covered?

The Curious Composer

Carol: So where does your inspiration come from?

Much of it is a serendipitous gift, you don't really know from within where the fires that burn within come from. At the same time, since we're speaking about inspiration, I'd like to throw in a good word for plain, old curiosity. If you are curious person, you will probably have a lot that you want to know more about. What would it sound like if? I ask "if" myself all the time, for example, when trying alternative tunings and new timbres and synthesized hybrid instruments. Artists often ask such questions of themselves. Gee, I wonder if I could write an entire symphonic movement which repeated the same underlying 16 bar harmonic progression, just as Brahms did in the last movement of his Symphony #4? It was an amazing passacaglia, a form long thought to be obsolete, yet he pulled it off beautifully.

Challenges like that are often a part of the creative motivation and inspiration. We often want to know what something would be like "if," so we do it for curiosity's sake. That's our inspiration, the curiosity. We try to swim, or at least float. And the parts that remain afloat are often the more interesting things that come along in art. Perhaps a masterpiece can come just from asking the right insouciant question or two. But where are the curious? Don't you notice that people just seem to wallow in what they already know? Jeepers!

Instead say to yourself: "okay, it's usually done that way, but what if I try it this way instead?" It's a nuts and bolts inspiration, but it's a very real one for people like me. It is very often the underlying motivation when slogging through the real work and tedium that art requires. There are so many inglorious days and weeks when you are just forcing to get it done. And what can keep you going in times like that is curiosity. "Yeah, but what if it works out? Gee, this is bad right here, but that part worked fine and if I could only get -- maybe if I made that jump here -- and...!" You begin thinking in those terms.

There is another side, outside of the humanity, human nature, and need to communicate, in which you really do things because you want to find an answer to a question that your particular curious mind comes up with. Thus originality comes about. You probably can't ask a major question that hasn't been answered in music already. But there still are sure a lot of minor ones still out there waiting!

Are you going to approach being original by doing something that omits deliberately whatever came before, like using nothing but loud random dissonant triads, no palpable melody or counterpoint, nothing but non metered rhythms? This is all based on "no-no, not-gonna" negativity. That's a nihilistic way to operate, and it's ruined most music and art in the 20th century.

What I'm suggesting, tapping your curiosity, doesn't ruin anything. It's positive, not negative. Tapping curiosity is something good artists have always done, usually without even being aware of it. That and sharing your innermost humanity with other humans ought to take care of any reason to be an artist. Human sharing and curiosity -- isn't that pair good enough?! Plenty of room for seeking a path toward great art, if you have talent and are lucky enough to pull it off. But even if you miss, what you collect together while you search ought be better than all of the forgettable pretentious pap out there, because you'll have two of the best motivations for doing it: your humanity and your curiosity. It's a lovely combination. I'd preach that. That's my sermon. End of soapbox.

Carol: It's a great soapbox to BE on.

I'm old enough now that I can look back on a lot of my years and say, "you know what, most of what went on was bullshit." But this plain combination is not. This remains true. This is real. It's not resting on clouds of air, on PR hyperbole and trendy fashion, this stands on granite. And I will live by this. If something better comes along, I'll change my mind, but for the moment, this sounds like it's near the truth, and as close to a religion as an old agnostic skeptic like me is likely to get.

Carol: People who know you might be disappointed that you haven't gone into a single rant (in fact, you've been quite eloquent!), so let's discuss homeopathy. Just kidding! How about this: What do you think about the state of today's music scene?

Goodness. But we've all finally fallen off the edge, haven't we? The bells and whistles on today's new sequencers can be a smokescreen, produce an illusion that real music is being made. But all you hear is the same old string of tired sounds, monotonic, clip-art driven, painfully self conscious, and much squarer and less "hip" than anything our grandparents listened to (NYC still has a handful of radio programs of older music -- so much vitality and variation, quite shocking to hear, the contrast with the past lame decade).

Music used to be a human endeavor. It pains me that tools and technologies I championed myself eventually were used in the dumbing down of most music. The drum machine pretty well destroyed pop music, establishing a near-fascist rigidity and narrow-mindedness. Classical music was also murdered off last century, so it's rebooted and back at the beginning, painfully learning how to crawl again, drool and crawl. Jazz, about the same situation, perhaps a bit less drool. Welcome to the 21st Century, where no one speaks out for the ART of music, for the values behind it. We have a human need to share with others, and we have our human curiosity. Reach down and embrace those precious instincts within, when you are wondering what to do next.

Truths like that should be taught in classrooms, dammit. What are art, music and creative writing teachers teaching instead? How to best confound the next generation? What's that witty old saying? "If you can't astonish them with your brilliance, baffle them with your bullshit." I heard that when I was 22 or 23, and thought then that it was absolutely apt for the "art" of our times. It still says it like it is. Most of the media, our culture and artpieces have become a sham, driven only by greed and ego. We all get baffled by the BS. Well it's a good way to fake an art, fake a life, but shouldn't life and art be about something a little deeper, something more profound, more meaningful than that? Um. I guess I have become an old curmudgeon, sorry.

Well, you're the best old curmudgeon I know. An A-class, five-star curmudgeon.

Why, thank you, Carol, I think I'll just take that as a compliment!

Carol Wright has written about New Age music for fifteen years. Her articles, interviews, and reviews have appeared in Napra ReView, New Age Voice, New Age Retailer, All Music Guide, and the barnesandnoble.com website. This interview is her third interview with Wendy Carlos. Much of her writing is posted at her website at http://www.rockisland.com/~cwright.
© 2002-2007 Carol Wright & Serendip LLC. No images, text, graphics
or design may be reproduced without permission. All Rights Reserved.
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