Saturday, April 11, 2009

On Crucibles & "Outer" Forces

Last night I had the pleasure of seeing Mozart's Requiem performed in St. George's Church near Toronto. Mozart's is not only my favourite Requiem, but one of my favourite pieces of music. Full stop.

As the orchestra swelled, a choir of some thirty or forty singers sent the sombre words "Requiem aeternam dona eis" soaring up to the stone building's Gothic arches. The last vestiges of daylight were leaking through the regal purples and submarine greens of the stained glass. A lone red lamp glowed above the performers. All of these elements coalesced, cementing the performance, which, in many ways, enabled me to experience this music for the first time.

It also got me thinking about just how many variables go into the experience of art. I am not speaking of the creation of art per se (although there are obviously innumerable factors involved in creating as well). I am thinking more of the way art can impact us. Surely we've all had experiences where we seemed to have discovered a work of art at precisely the right phase of our lives. The work, regardless of when it was created, speaks to us right then and there. It becomes a direct communication; not between artist and audience, but between audience and the source or essence of that art. All the variables --- our age, the atmosphere around us, our mood, our life experiences up to that point --- are all sewn together; and the work of art is the golden thread that binds them.

In those moments we undergo James Joyce's specific take on the term "epiphany." "Epiphany" in the general sense refers to a sudden feeling of comprehension or understanding, but Joyce narrowed the term to refer to a special artistic experience. In Joyce's usage, an epiphany occurs when the transcendental source of a work of art is successfully channeled from creator to audience. It is when the work's meaning expands past the words on the page or the colours on the canvas. The work becomes a "spiritual" manifestation, a "living" embodiment of that which it represents. Joyce believed (and I think rightly) that it was the responsibility of the artist to meticulously create the vessel for epiphanies. For writers, their words on the page should form a crucible so that the essence of the work can be conveyed.

Unfortunately, there are so many outside elements --- elements that are beyond a creator's control --- that figure into this equation that the best an artist can do is strive to create their work as clearly and as "purely" as possible and then hope for the best.

Last night I did have something of an epiphany when I realized "So *this* is what Mozart was trying to convey when he composed this on his deathbed two-hundred years ago." It wasn't until I experienced the Requiem in its proper setting, with human beings producing the notes before my eyes, in a solemn, almost gloomy atmosphere that I grasped the work's essence. Would I have experienced this if I'd just had a recording playing in the background while I washed the dinner dishes, or heard a thirty-second snippet of it used in a car commercial? Likely not.

This was how Mozart intended his swan song to be heard, but as we all know, artists lose control of their work upon it going public. These "outer forces" are all but impossible to control. Maybe that is why those moments of artistic epiphany are so precious: They come along just often enough to remind us of what art can achieve, but not so often that they become mundane.