Sunday, May 31, 2009

Momentary Perfection

Phil is the best tenor banjo player that I have ever met. I should probably apologize to the rest of the banjo players. Where it might be thought that there are not so many tenor banjo players that would be jealous of this praise, as the golden years of the tenor banjo are quickly approaching the century mark, I actually know a few. Many of them are very good at playing the 20s New Orleans style which the tenor banjo is famous for. Still, Phil is unique. Though he is a close friend of my father, and I, I know little of his non musical past. I do know that he was a very successful academic. Head of the department kind of success, but he never talks about it. Instead he talks music, and translates his ideas, which are beautiful interpretations of standards. He also sings with a floating yet crisp tenor voice; with every syllable clear enough to communicate what would have been long forgotten lyrics. I once asked him if he played the guitar, and his response was surprising. He said “I am still trying to get it right with these four strings.” Though to my ears he played perfectly, he wanted to be better, so wasn’t going to distract himself with other instruments.
I had a friend who was completely the opposite in some ways. This was Waldemar who died several years ago when he was in his 80’s. Waldemar knew everything. When I say this I almost mean it in a literal way. He could recite thousands of poems, he knew every major painting of the last 200 years, he wrote, he played piano, he was a chemist for the Manhattan project. Mostly he lectured about great people of the past and the many historical facts he knew. He was brilliant. Still he was not a master at anything. He spent a lifetime of frustration, relegated to the footnote descriptions on famous biographies, as the intellect that never produced anything original.
I wonder if these two examples are extremes, or really the struggle many of us face every day with our choices. That is whether it is better to become truly great in something, or to comprehend the greatness in others without fully achieving it ourselves. The answer seems so obvious, but is so hard for many of those of us who don’t have the focus required to pursue this kind of perfection all of the time.
I can’t do anything as well as Phil does the banjo. I play several instruments every day, and work on several scientific and business ventures. All of the time I know that I don’t have four strings of life that I have gotten right. Then I thought of this some more, and realized that it is not a choice to be a Phil or a Waldemar, but rather a perspective of what point in life you look at it. It is likely that through the thousands of days in both of these lives, there have been those when an outsider could see various types of successes. When Phil was leading a University department, and publishing as a Ph.D. in Psychology, his skills on the banjo were probably not being judged as important. When Waldemar was lecturing on Chopin, his inadequacies as a poet were not being considered. Perhaps we are all great in our ever changing moments.

Friday, May 1, 2009

Re-consolidated Theatre

When I was 21 years old, and had just come to New York for a summer of acting classes at the Neighborhood Playhouse, I became friends with a young screenwriter, who was already a success by the age of 25. I respected him a great deal, and asked him one day why he wrote for the screen and not for theatre. His answer was that “film lasts longer”. This is certainly true where an individual production comes and goes, while a film is locked, and we can watch it fresh anytime. There was another dimension to his comment which he explained to me later. He felt that while the average movie is terrible, a really great one can change your life, and you remember it forever. It lasts in us, in ways that a good play does not. There have been times when I believed this, and times when I didn’t, but what I liked most about the idea was that it gave me a new way to evaluate good art. How long I kept thinking, and talking about a piece was perhaps a measure of its importance to me. I tried to see if the recollection of a piece succeeds or fails to reanimate emotions in me. I have plays, movies, operas, ballets, jazz concerts, symphonies and paintings that all have done this, so choosing the superior art form is not a valid way to for me to evaluate its worth. Still, I keep this in mind.

This week I went to see the Trisha Brown Dance Company at BAM and one of the “The Norman Conquests” on Broadway. I left the theatre loving both of these, but now two days later I realize that it is the ballet that has the more lasting powerful effect on me. So, I would judge it to be more important. I think that there is something about this power of truly profound art, rather than simpler, but still very good art, which relates to some interesting research in neuro-science regarding a neuro-function called re-consolidation. Though I have no expertise in this, I understand the main point to be, that in creating long term memories, the brain creates a hierarchy of importance, so that the crucial memories remain. This is achieved through the strong neuron to neuron connections called synapses. Long term memories were traditionally thought to be “hard wired”, not being able to be broken, therefore not being able to be forgotten. This makes sense, as we all know older people who have lost short term memory, which can be associated with the lack of ability to create new synapses, while memories from the distant past seem perfectly clear. This is still thought to be true to an extent, however newer research into re-consolidation shows that it is not actually the original memory (or synapse) that we are accessing. Instead, as we recall a consolidated event, (one that is “hard wired”) the connection is broken and replaced by a new connection. It is re-consolidated. This suggests that we are not remembering the event, but instead remembering the last time we remembered the event. So the more we think about something, the more we are potentially moving away from the original event, but the more that memory means to us, as artifacts of the replaced connections still exist. This is being studied now at McGill, and a drug actually in trials, which can neutralize the impact of a memory, by breaking the consolidated connection. This is being proposed, and been shown to work for people with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). After taking the drug they remember the traumatic event, but without the terrible emotional effects of the trauma.

I don’t exactly know why I thought of this research in relation to my earlier comments about the power of art, but for me the very, very mild, but extremely vivid emotional effect that art can have, and can continue to have are memories which are not frozen in time, but recreated, and re-consolidated every time I remember the event. The more times I think about Trisha Brown these next few weeks, the more likely I am to remember it when I am old.

So what about “The Norman Conquests”? It was a terrific play, which was a creative new farce. The reason I went was that friends invited my wife and I after reading the reviews, which were the hands down best reviews of anything currently playing in New York. I understand why, as there is nothing bad to say about it. The writing and directing were perfect. The acting was amazing. Still, I already don’t think about it much. The chances that I will remember this play when I am old are unlikely. This made me think about reviews in general, and I had this desire for critics to write a second review of a play 1 year after seeing it. Of course details would be wrong, but the response, I would guess, would also be very different. What sticks with the critic, and the audience, the night they see theatre is very different from the re-consolidation of it later.