Monday, September 21, 2009

Apollo and Dionysus

Music is the result of an unlikely marriage of opposites: planning and spontaneity, control and surrender, structure and fluidity, order and chaos, crystalline clarity and purple haze. At the songwriting stage, the arrangement and instrumentation stage, the recording stage, the performance stage – every moment in the manifestation of music is guided by a mysterious confluence of paradoxical tendencies – the urge to deliberately create and the urge to effortlessly participate in a creation already taking place. In other words, successful artists learn how to marry their inner creative energies with the creative energies of the universe itself. We can’t, and don’t, do it alone. Nor does music make itself.

For the ancient Greeks, Apollo and Dionysus represented these two essential energies. Apollo was the god of music, prophecy and medicine. He was associated with intellect, deliberation, control, order, reason and clarity. Dionysus was the god of wine. He was associated with chaos, spontaneity, emotions and instinct. On the surface, Apollo seems the most admirable. It is our Apollonian tendencies that enable us to lift form out of formlessness, ordering the infinite possibility of this next moment into a concise, well-crafted stroke. Without discipline, deliberation and lots of sometimes tedious practice our creative juices drain away into shapeless puddles. On the other hand, without our Dionysian tendencies, our well-made structures would stand sterile and lifeless, void of the very essence of all great art – that nameless je ne sais quoi that falls forever beyond the well-creased cuff linked reach of Apollo.

Go into Guitar Center on any Saturday and you’ll see hordes of adolescent wannabe rock stars with ripped jeans, wallet chains and studiously tousled hair test driving Stratocasters through Marshall stacks, buying into the notion that their inner Hendrix is only a Visa swipe away. What most of them don’t realize is that before Jimi lit his guitar on fire at Monterrey, figuratively and literally, he spent ten years in his room practicing nine hours a day. The story goes that Hendrix’s seminal performance of “The Star Spangled Banner” early Monday morning on the last day of Woodstock was completely improvised. He had never performed it before. Jimi’s Dionysian side came out to play with a vengeance, yet never before had his Apollonian mastery been so patently obvious.

Before Eddie Van Halen burst out of the Pasadena house party scene to re-invigorate arena rock in the seventies and turn us all into a generation of tappers, he was just a quiet, studious kid. As a boy he took an old 45 r.p.m. single of Cream’s “Crossroads” and slowed it down to 33 r.p.m. so he could fastidiously learn every single note of Eric Clapton’s masterful performance. Patience, control, discipline, commitment – these are qualities Dionysus knows nothing about.

For the more thoughtful ancient Greeks, Apollo and Dionysus were not really gods living on Mount Olympus. They were merely personifications of energies, organizing principles and modes of consciousness found within the human psyche. Each of us comes bearing the gifts of Apollo and Dionysus. Which one do we call on most often? Which one are we suppressing?

Give in to either completely and watch yourself whither away. If you’re too Apollonian you have no passion. In your obsessive need to control everything you end up utterly disconnected from the meat and marrow of life. You live in your own head. Your disdain for the messiness of other people and for life itself locks you away in a dry, dusty closet of loneliness – a very neat closet, but a closet nonetheless. If you’re too Dionysian you’re just as ineffective, only worse. You hurt other people because you don’t even know they’re there. You worship at the throne of your own moods and feelings, trapped under the powerful sway of often destructive emotions – anger, resentment, envy, fear. You turn to drugs and alcohol, first for the sheer fun of it, then eventually as a daily maintenance program to keep from feeling your feelings. How ironic.

Either tendency, the Apollonian or the Dionysian, if embraced in isolation without its ameliorating opposite, becomes a parody of itself, a prison of its own device. Dionysian spontaneity becomes tired and empty ineffectiveness. Sure you can sing a good tune, but you can’t tune your guitar. On the other hand, Apollonian order and control becomes stiff and lifeless – there’s nothing left to control but the control itself, you’ve choked all the life out of life, like polishing furniture in a home no one lives in.

Legend has it that when David Crosby brought his friend Jerry Garcia of the Grateful Dead into the studio to play pedal steel guitar on “Teach Your Children” during the infamous Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young Déjà Vu sessions, Garcia set up his rig and told the engineer to push “play” so he could hear the song for the first time while he played along to get his bearings. Instead, under Crosby’s direction, the engineer pushed “record”. When the song ended, Garcia said, “O.K., I’m ready. Let’s take one.”

“Got it,” replied Crosby from the control room.

“What?” asked Garcia.

“Yeah,” said Crosby, “we’re done.”

Having never heard the song before in his life, Garcia played one of the greatest pedal steel parts ever recorded on a blind first take. Dionysian, right?

Yes and no. Garcia had spent the previous three years learning the pedal steel with great focus and discipline, sitting in with his friends The New Riders of the Purple Stage on countless nights in clubs all around the bay area. Garcia’s success on “Teach Your Children” was no accident. It was the perfect synthesis of Apollo and Dionysus.

Dig out your copy of Déjà Vu and listen to Garcia’s part on “Teach Your Children”. Ask yourself this: will you be ready when your time comes? Have you done your homework? Do you show up prepared? Have you mastered your craft? And then ask yourself this: are you ready to let go? Are you willing to abandon control and surrender to the moment? Are you ready to trust the sacred energy welling up within you and binding you to all things?

Are you willing to strike the right balance between Apollo and Dionysus?