Saturday, April 19, 2008

E2.0: Robert Winter: The Nature of (Musical) Genius

This is the 32nd in a new series of weekend posts taken from the presentations at the Salk Institute’s "Beyond Belief: Enlightenment 2.0.". I have placed an index of essays in this series in an introductory post, Enlightenment 2.0: Introduction.

Robert Winter came to the Enlightenment 2.0 conference to discuss Beethoven. Or, more precisely, he came to discuss Beethoven’s genius. He came to make some comments as to what Beethoven’s genius was and what it was not and to direct the neuroscientists into the audience in what to study.

He looks at three popular myths that have become a part of the understanding of most people we think of as ‘genius’.

One of these theories that Winter dismissed out of hand is that Beethoven was simply ‘taking dictation from God’. God fed the ideas into Beethoven’s brain and Beethoven simply needed to write down the notes. This theory is disputed, in part, because we have Beethoven’s rough drafts – and rough drafts are hardly necessary if one is ‘taking dictation from God’

Another popular way of thinking about Beethoven’s genius is to day that he was crazy in some way. According to Winter, we like to think of geniuses as crazy. However, as a ‘theory of genius’ it does not do us much good. Winter did not speak precisely as to Beethoven’s state of mental health, though his tone did suggest some dislike for the idea. One of the things that can be said against this hypothesis is that ‘crazy’ is not much of an explanation. It does not give us any insight into how Beethoven was able to create the works that he did.

A third theory that Winter looked at was what he called the ‘People Magazine’ account of Beethoven – the idea that he was trying to work out certain aspects of relationships that he had with his father and with an ‘immortal beloved’ that Beethoven never identified by name. Winter dismissed the idea that Beethoven was working out his relationship with his father through his music by simply asserting that Beethoven had no respect for or interest in his father and did not give enough thought to him to have anything to work out.

Besides, as it turns out, we have a great many notes from Beethoven talking about his own works. Beethoven lost his hearing and, as a result, communicated with many people by writing. These ‘conversation notebooks’ contain records of a lot of Beethoven’s conversations. We do not have to guess as to what he was thinking. (Well, we have to guess a little, because Anton Schindler doctored many of the records in order to promote a particular perception of Beethoven.)

Plus, as I mentioned above, we have his drafts.

Winter wants the neuroscientists to look at three qualities that he thinks made Beethoven a genius. One of these three things comes from the drafts of Beethoven’s works – the fact that Beethoven engaged in trial and error.

Winter played some of Beethoven’s drafts, and they truly were horrible. They were laughably bad. But, then, these were the options that Beethoven did not use – the ones we do not hear today because they ended up on the cutting room floor. Beethoven engaged in trial and error. He experimented.

And he kept on experimenting. According to Winter, there are dozens to hundreds of drafts before Beethoven finally settled on a final version. In understanding Beethoven’s genius Winter wants the neuroscientists to take a look at tenacity and find out how it works. Tenacity, and curiosity, which Winter says are, “the two most important components of genius.”

The idea is for neuroscientists to rid the discussion of genius from a bunch of myths and folk-theories that are not making any meaningful contribution. The idea is for neuroscientists to get at what is really going on in a composer’s head while he is composing music. Then, from this, to see if we can discover something scientifically substantive and useful about what it takes to be a musical (or other kind of) genius.

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