28 September 2008

Risk = Individualism Squared

NPR this morning reported on an event that took place in 1971 in honor of the dedication of the Kennedy Center in Washington DC. The always controversial and extraordinary Leonard Bernstein was commissioned to create an original work for the opening ceremony. Bernstein, as you likely know, was a force for contemporary music and a devout non-conformist. He created a work in honor of JFK that included unique pairings of instruments, dissonant rhythms sometimes reminiscent of West Side Story and shades of Bach. Known only as “Mass” the performance was not well received critically at the time, but continues to be played by symphony orchestras throughout the world and is viewed now as a masterpiece.*
At its conclusion, the audience neither moved nor responded for three minutes. Deafening silence. Three minutes may not seem like much in the general scheme of time, but three minutes of stillness is surreal. According to the report, the silence was followed by applause and cheers from a standing audience for roughly half an hour. Ten times as long the jubilance as the silence.
Here’s what struck me on this story: who was the first person to clap? Surely one person broke the silence and initiated the thunder. What precipitated that sudden alteration? What is it that makes one member of a crowd break out? Surely it’s never easy to decide to be the one to stand apart from the pack, risking ostentation or scorn. Was it some sort of intuition that suggested the pack needed only one to lead? Or was it one individualist determined to answer the stunning absence of response?
I have always favored individualists and admired, even envied, those who listen only to their inner voice. Joni Mitchell is an idol of mine, not only for her exorbitant talent, but her steadfast determination to play her music her way and continually explore alternate genres. No surprise that Joni was also a painter, what she called her true talent, a woman with a devout sense of independence, what some have accused as selfish to the core, but perhaps only those who stay resolute to their vision retain true creative integrity. Other names come to mind, we all know who they are, and we know because the dared to be different.
Inner directness has been often maligned, but one can and should stay true to oneself, as Polonius directed Hamlet, while exhibiting consideration for others. The truth lies in one’s willingness to take risk. And what is risk after all but an acceptance that we cannot lose what we never had. That was a favorite saying of my father, a man who struggled his entire life with the balance between creating some sort of security for his family while living a larger opportunistic and frequently manic life. He was a gambler and as such recognized that easy come will easy go, and then hopefully come again. Something my financial advisor-friend keeps repeating as mantra, especially these days, related to the cycles of the economy.
So while I sit here in my little idle by the sea, having made this marginally bold mid-life move across country, I find myself fascinated with that one person who brought hands together to honor risk and in so doing took what in that theater in that moment must have felt a Herculean risk, only to discover that in the bold move he/she moved the mass. What can each of us do to lead such a charge and reap the rewards? Or, do we sit on our hands and wait for someone else to take the lead and, if no one emerges, do we take the greatest risk of all, that of complacence. What might also be known as inertia, that place we stay when we are too frightened to take that first step towards something if not bigger perhaps better and, if not better, certainly challenging. If we do not challenge ourselves, and others, we might find ourselves immersed within a metaphorical life of profound stillness. A collective flat affect reflecting off the walls of silence. I shudder at the thought.

*Though 37 years have passed since its debut, the spiritual and political messages of Bernstein's Mass are still as relevant as ever. Mass mixes classical music with a wide range of musical idioms: Broadway, opera, blues, rock, even a marching band! Commissioned for the opening of The Kennedy Center in 1971, Mass candidly explorers what Bernstein called "the crisis of faith" in our time.

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