Many things in our culture provide space for the celebration of teamwork. Sports allow not only a group of individuals to work together as a team but allow spectators to celebrate that teamwork. Business units rarely excel without some sort of teamwork. A musical ensemble requires any number of individuals to work together to output sounds that are unified in some way. Indeed, humanity would not have become the dominant species on our planet without our ability to participate in social societies, work together, and contemplate the contributions of an individual to a group. It is this evolutionary growth from individual to collective that is mirrored in the growth of artists and their artistic output. This pattern is one reason I argue that the arts are so important to our society – the arts mirror human society at such a deep level that they subconsciously allow us to consider what makes us collectively tick.
As a composer and pianist, I have thought a lot about how an artist’s musical personality fits into the greater world. Unless one is only performing solo, there is always a balance between contributions of the individual and the overall cohesiveness and artistry of a musical group. Even in solo performances, there is an interpretive aspect of bringing a composition to life, a sort of asynchronous conversation with the composer, performer, and community in which the performance or recording exists. Our favorite and most celebrated artists in Western society are those who have in large part been able to speak to the human connection – to the great “we.”
For example, listen to Duke Ellington’s solo piano rendition of Billy Strayhorn’s “Lotus Blossom,” recorded in 1967 just after Billy Strayhorn’s tragic death from cancer. Ellington did not know the engineer was recording – you can even hear the band talking and packing up to leave in the background. Ellington’s poignant playing somehow captures the intimacy of his friendship with Billy Strayhorn while simultaneously capturing the immense sadness any one of us experiences when losing someone to a horrible disease.
Or see how the great Persian poet Rumi uses what American poet Robert Bly calls the “transparent you,” developing what is often an intimate, personal poem into a vehicle for inviting the whole world in. Bly writes, “when I started reading Rumi, all at once I felt at home.” Rumi can be a home for all of humanity, somehow taking the ‘I’ and turning it into the collective ‘we.’ Here is a translation by Robert Bly of a Rumi poem, starting with the important work of joining our fellow humans along the journey. Rumi cleverly takes the “we” back to the individual in Walking with Others:
It’s important to join the crowds of those traveling.
You know, even Mohammed’s horse ascended
In the throngs of meditators.
Such a lifting doesn’t resemble a man rising to the moon,
It’s more like grapes being lifted up into wine.
Mist rises when water boils, but that’s not it. It’s more like
An embryo changing into a person capable of thought.
[from The Winged Energy of Delight: Selected Translations]
Good art has a way of sneaking up on us, showing us through the eyes of the individual artist an entire world of ideas. Good art is like Rumi’s mist, a metaphor for the intangible human activity of abstract thought and collective comprehension. This month, take some time to contemplate the journey of the “me” to the “we” and find some great art to help you understand that journey.