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Ambiguity in Art

David Berger



This morning I read an obit of the artist and teacher John Baldessari in the New York Times. The final sentence quotes him as saying, “Great art is clear thinking about mixed feelings.” Since I’m always trying to define what makes some art great, I have to give this some thought.


When I was young, I pretty much saw things as either black or white. The messy middle ground brought up too many problems and required a maturity I lacked. Let’s face it; life with clear boundaries is much easier to navigate than the thorny world of distinctions. In my twenties I embarked on a road to self-discovery. I became a voracious reader of novels and spent two hours a week lying on a couch in therapy.


I began to see that the simplistic view of life that my parents taught me wasn’t serving me well. Their good/bad, right/wrong rules proved insufficient to understanding what was going on around me and inside me. The music I played and wrote attempted to explore the grey areas I was avoiding in the rest of my life, but little by little, those grey areas were confronting me and making me deal with them. The more I could see and address ambiguity and ambivalence, the better my music would become and the healthier I would become as a person.


As a child, I hid my emotions because I felt ashamed of them. This came to a head in my early twenties. I was depressed and sought the help of a therapist, starting a gradual process of learning to recognize and express my feelings. I started to overcome my fear of not being in control of others and myself. This has been a never-ending process for me.


My instantaneous love of jazz at the age of 12 was my soul telling me all this stuff I was resisting. As a jazz player, you don’t really know what you are going to play until you put your fingers down and the notes come out. This goes on moment to moment. If you are any good at it, you feel like the music is passing through you—you don’t control it; it has a mind of its own. Giving up control is liberating, pleasurable and life-affirming. All the while, the other members of the group are responding to you, and you are responding to them. It’s as if we are all in free fall. We are living in the moment and not worrying about where this is going. We’ll deal with that when we get there.


As a jazz composer and arranger, the primary focus is how to incorporate improvisation into a pre-planned structure without losing the illusion that everyone is making up all the notes as they go along. Art Baron once told me that one thing he loved about Duke Ellington’s music was that as complicated and intellectual as it is, it always feels like a head chart.


This relationship between simplicity and complexity has always fascinated me, but more than that, Ellington had the courage to let go and trust musicians with his music. As he said, his function was to inspire musicians to be great. It didn’t matter if they played any of his notes, as long as they were great.


Britt Woodman told me that when Ellington or his copyist, Tom Whaley, handed out the parts to a new composition, it became the musicians’ property to interpret. Duke loved to hear what they brought to the music. He would only interfere as a referee when necessary. When I was in the band, there was a saying, “The music seeks its own level.” Now, that’s a high degree of trust.


Letting go of control can permit us to look at the contradictory emotions we encounter in life. When they come up for me, I recognize that old feeling of anxiety. It’s uncomfortable. It keeps me from my normal everyday routines. It can be paralyzing. Sometimes I don’t have words for it. I can’t tell you what it’s about. Sometimes I can put it on hold by talking with other people, but then it returns. The only cure I know is to work it out musically.


I sit at the piano and miraculously one note follows another. Then I pick up a pencil and start scribbling on music paper. I lose my connection with the world, and go into a semi-meditative state, where the ego is disengaged and I gradually create a piece of music that I would like to hear. I imagine all the musicians (and singers) breathing life into my notes and give them the free rein to take the music where it wants to go. While I am writing, I forget the pressures and responsibilities that weigh upon me in my daily existence.


A story unfolds. Contradictory, complex relationships present themselves and are reconciled through the development of the plot and characters. Conflict ultimately becomes resolution, and at the end, I feel a release.  In that moment I feel a connection to the world as it is and to the continuum of the music of the past and future.


I feel good. It’s not exactly pride. It’s more like when you are walking down the street and you see a beautiful flower. You didn’t create the flower, but the act of noticing it makes you feel one with that beauty that is outside yourself.


A few days ago I watched As Good As It Gets. Jack Nicholson tells the waitress that he is pursuing that he has a compliment for her: when he sees her serving other patrons, he wonders how come they don’t know that she is the most wonderful woman on earth. The fact that he knows this makes him feel good about himself.


I think as artists, we feel good when we make order out of chaos, and maybe on a more intimate scale, when we confront the ambiguities and contrary feelings and resolve them symbolically in our art. Sharing our creations with others can help to raise their consciousness or at least lighten their load. Isn’t that what gives us joy when we are on stage and feel the audience with us? I didn’t go to medical school. I can’t fix your body, but if I can give you even momentary joy that uplifts you and makes the world a kinder safer place for you, then that makes me feel good about myself because we are simultaneously confirming the oneness and twoness of the universe, and that just might be the greatest feeling a person can have.

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  • Bill Kirchner on

    One of the most talked-about books of 2018 was “The Coddling of the American Mind,” by Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt. It discusses several of the issues you’ve addressed above. From their website:

    “First Amendment expert Greg Lukianoff and social psychologist Jonathan Haidt show how the new problems on campus have their origins in three terrible ideas that have become increasingly woven into American childhood and education: What doesn’t kill you makes you weaker; always trust your feelings; and life is a battle between good people and evil people. These three Great Untruths contradict basic psychological principles about well-being and ancient wisdom from many cultures. Embracing these untruths—and the resulting culture of safetyism—interferes with young people’s social, emotional, and intellectual development. It makes it harder for them to become autonomous adults who are able to navigate the bumpy road of life.”

  • GInny on

    Really interesting, David. Opened the window a bit more to who you really are. Thanks for sharing this intimate piece.

  • Terry THompson on

    Very well written as are all of your communications I receive. Your charts and live performances are just as excellent. You are such a purist and a terrific arranger!!
    Terry Thompson

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