Paradise Lost & Paradise Regained
An existential look at the loss of purpose – and the potential for its recovery.
For most of my life, I didn't know what I want. Or rather: I didn't know why I want. There were, of course, generally a few things my desire could pinpoint at different times: a fortepiano; a glass of wine; the affections of someone I admired; to visit museums, nature and specific historical sites, for reasons often nebulous even to myself; a cashmere pullover; Vienna whenever I was separated from it; and of course, composing music. Save for the latter, I pursued these eclectic desires with varying vigour. Some things remained ever elusive; others were easily or strugglingly conquered. Regardless of the outcome, I firmly remained one thing and one thing only: perpetually unhappy. For a good three decades, I had thought the root of my misery to be a kind of existential loneliness, exacerbated not only by membership in the most socially fragmented generation to date, but also by a rather unfortunate combination of individual biographical predicaments which cut me off from the mundane joys and woes of family from an early age, and thus from society at large. In addition, my plight was compounded by the rather precarious financial circumstances which prevailed over me until my late 20's; but when I eventually arrived at comfortable lower-middle class conditions, I found that the material requirements of this particular existence pulled me even further away from the inner, sacred calling I had felt since childhood. It was no longer enough to compose a string quartet or a symphony for its own sake: I now needed an external reason to justify my choice of their inception over a musical work that I could market, or better yet, sell. It didn't help that, in the years before, I had foolishly surrounded myself with peers who generally lacked taste, inspiration, or worse yet, goodwill; people who were either envious, at times to the point of vitriol, or simply hoping to fare-dodge their way into the modest professional stations I had already traversed, without paying the usual price of study and skill. Unwittingly, I had become enmeshed in a constrained state dictated by mercantile endeavours and furtive adversaries, effectively stifling that which I loved most, desired most, needed most from music and in consequence, from life. To my great distress, however, I didn't know what that was; I only knew that something was sorely and profoundly missing. In the meantime, the work which I had cherished since childhood turned into a thankless slog. I had abandoned an opera, two symphonies, and an uncountable number of chamber music sketches while manoeuvring myself into this dire strait; and now, faced with an overwhelming inappetence towards creation, sought refuge in ever smaller and less significant occupations. Professionally, this meant relegating myself from symphonies to chamber music, from quintets to quartets to trios to duos, then to still-complex piano sonatas, then to simplistic piano sonatas, then to a string of bagatellas, then to improvisations, and eventually to the mere fragments of such. This path of least resistance struck me as wrong, yet I didn't resist; only when my phony surroundings lauded these childish pieces, something within me bristled impetuously. I was falling short of my calling, and I jolly well knew it. – Perhaps unsurprisingly, my private affairs mirrored this inadequacy: in order to recover this mysterious Thing I Had Lost, I busied myself with a seemingly random potpourri of activities: writing long essays about nothing in particular, composing poetry, painting in water colours and drawing; as mental capacities atrophied, decluttering and fixing up my dwellings; then merely tidying and cleaning; and finally barely getting through the day. I was now uncharacteristically scared of reading challenging works, scared of listening to complex music, scared of comparing myself to the my historical predecessors, and most of all, scared of facing the challenge of finding out just what The Thing I Had Lost truly was, and how I could retrieve it; and with every day that passed, it slipped further from my grasp, and along with it my happiness and justification for existence. To leaven this trivial, sorry state of being, I resorted to the commonly prescribed placebos of youth: material distractions, light entertainment and romantic entanglements. Needless to say, none of them soothed my inner longing, nor did they provide the answers I was looking for; instead, they only served to aggravate my anguish in all but the shortest run, and cemented my erroneous belief that the root of my unhappiness was a seemingly irrevocable anchorage in social isolation. Over the course of a few years, however, question marks emerged. The most puzzling was 2020's spring lockdown, which many people in the civilised world experienced as a disturbing upheaval. For me, it was the opposite: a welcome caesura, a true instance of deus ex machina. I only left the house for long walks in the Vienna woods, read Hölderlin on meadows surrounded by an orchestra of birdsong, wind-swept grass and rustling leaves, and lectured remotely for a few hours in the late afternoon from the confines of my then shamefully modest home. Save for one affluent client who lived in my neighbourhood, I saw and spoke to no-one face to face for a good two or three months. For some reason, I lived through this time with the persistent feeling that I had rarely been so fully, deeply, abundantly happy. I was completely alone and yet I wanted for nothing. It was inexplicable. A set of records painstakingly kept over several years yielded the same result: However much I believed it to be, it wasn't company that consoled me and restored my music, not even romance (which generally ended up doing the very opposite). The source of my inner content was still composing, despite the sullen toil into which I had unintentionally turned it; then writing, reading, visiting museums, lambent discussions with people of competence, tidying, walks in nature, beholding pocket watches and traditional architecture. And still I didn't see the common denominator in these endeavours; nor did I see it in the sources of my unhappiness. Very little put me in a worse mood than urban public transport, my ugly, noisy rehearsal room in a degenerating part of town, and the replacement of coffeehouses and Biedermeier houses with corporate chain stores and soulless new buildings. Nor did I perceive the root of my deficit in my vices, frantically wrestling to create physical and emotional order, and pursuing visually winsome lovers regardless of their mental or moral capabilities (in which they were generally almost as deficient as I was in sound judgment). And thus, I had spent the largest part of my youth completely at sea. When the answer finally came to me, the consummate explanation for this wild-goose chase didn't dazzlingly appear like a sudden stroke of lightning; it crept up on me laggardly like a Tuscan summer's day. Somewhere between wondering how my 20-year-old self had managed to fill entire journals with grandiose plans for future compositions and where I had lost that zeal, rummaging through hundreds of pages of old poems and essays in which I had carefully delineated my conception of good and true art, accidentally ending up in more agreeable surroundings, and exploring the works of Roger Scruton, whose kindred spirit serendipitously appeared in my orbit like Rückert's guter Geist, it dawned on me. The root of all my enterprises, however productive or misguided, was but one thing: Beauty. My sole What, my great Why. With this term, all my aspirations in music and in life had been exhaustively explained. Put into a single word, it seemed a humiliating banality, one which I could scarcely believe had taken me more than three decades to pin down and name. Of course I had always liked beautiful things – after all, who doesn't? – and being familiar with various German philosophers' views on the subject of Aesthetics, I'd had all the elements; but indeed, very little conjunction. In 2011, when I founded the Neue Wiener Klassik movement, an initiative to breathe aesthetic urgency back into modern composition, I published an essay titled Kunst muß wieder schön sein dürfen – Let Art Be Beautiful Again – for which I was nearly laughed out of the Austrian Composers' Association at the time. And justly so: For all my conviction, my understanding of beauty was still youthfully narrow. This, in essence, was also the common criticism by virtually every composer in the ACA (though generally not worded as eloquently or benevolently). My atonal contemporaries were right in one regard: My grasp of beauty then was feeble, perhaps in some ways even philistine. But they gravely erred about the remedy, which wasn't (and still isn't) atonality, unrestrained chaos and the presentation of ugliness, as they suggested. The miraculous potion was not less beauty, but more: by understanding it better, more profoundly, all-encompassingly; not as a set of rules, but as a transcendent experience. In hindsight, it's embarrassingly clear on a cognitive level that there is a profound existential sameness to the most heterogenous of phenomena when it comes to beauty. A thunderstorm; an undisturbed pastoral scene; Beethoven's Kreutzer sonata; a naked shoulder; Palladian architecture; Jakob Alt's Blick aus dem Atelier; the melodic sing-song cadenza of elder dames speaking in old Viennese dialect, now almost extinct; Thorvaldsen's Hebe; the scent of snow; Hummel's Quintet op. 87; curly hair; Goethe's Wilhelm Meister; a tidy drawer; Schopenhauer's Fourfold Root; Zen Buddhism; Grillparzer's yearning poems; neatly folded, fragrant clothes; the telltale flustered abashment of a prospective lover: these things aren't only cognate, they share an inherent quality which renders them congruent, and entirely harmonious with one another even though they may markedly diverge in terms of depth, impact or continuity. The Acropolis, a well-proportioned human hand, a kestrel and Schubert's late piano sonatas seem to have nothing in common at first glance, but they do: they inspire, fuel and inculcate a sense of sanctity, freely and generously, without the demands and doctrines of religion; and afford a glimpse of the eternal, consoling the receptive beholder with the assurance that beyond our dismal, short and fragile human existence, there rests a principle greater than ourselves in which we can find meaning, and which, at its core, is inextinguishable. This, I am sure, is the spirit in which music should be composed. And though my colleagues in the Composers' Association might still disagree, for me this is also how life should be lived. If there's one path I'd rather not lose again, it is this.