Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Late Bloomers and Slow Burners

Two things coincided today which had me thinking about Yeats’s ferociously powerful late-period poetry, and about one of the greatest fruits of that elderly incandescence, his “Among School Children” with its memorable chestnut tree (not pictured), the great-rooted blossomer which is leaf, blossom and bole at once.

The first was a touching article in the New Yorker which dwells on the work of an economist at the University of Chicago named David Galenson, who has been trying to study whether artistic genius and precocity are really as linked as we think. It turns out, to my great personal relief, that there are artists who try to “find”, and artists who try to “search”, and that the searching kind of art can take decades and decades before coming to fruition. The article’s story about the author Ben Fountain, and the years it took for him to gain success as a writer, and the support he got from his family, actually had me kvelling at work.

The second thing which set me thinking today was my absurdly delayed appreciation of most recent album by my favorite band, Sigur Rós. Without exaggeration, I’d say the first fifteen or twenty times I listened to the album, it left me cold. True, the first time I heard the new album was unfortunately in an airplane, and I missed half of what was going on because of the ambient engine noise, but still, I felt like my favorite group had let me down. It seemed like a barren, repetitive album.

Then, about two weeks ago, something clicked, and I swayed to music with brightening glance. I was listening listlessly to Með suð í eyrum við spilum endalaust or, as I think of it because my bad German is better than my atrocious Icelandic, Mit (einen) Summen in (unsren) Ohren spielen wir endlos on my way to work, and the October sun lined up perfectly with the east-west grid of my neighborhood in Bangkok, and shone pinkly through the mist between the skyscrapers, and the entire world seemed to be singing out to me in joyful harmony through my iPod. I suddenly realized that the album was f*cking brilliant from start to finish, that it was one of the best albums I’d ever heard bar none, and for the third time in my life my daily commute made my day. (The first time involved a hot summer day, Weezer’s Pinkerton, a malfunctioning Honda Accord, and Route 6 in Connecticut, the second time involved Sigur Rós’s “Vaka”, a snowy winter morning, and Munich’s Tram 17.) Here is a picture of me this morning striding sweatfully yet manfully down Soi 51 on my way to work, in silent awe at the musical genius of Iceland’s finest.

I’ve listened to the album almost nonstop, over and over again, every chance I’ve gotten since. And not just certain tracks - I’m talking front to back. But - and here’s the point - it took me at least twenty listens before I had the “damn dawg this is a great album” epiphany. This is my favorite band we’re talking about here, and it still took months for their album to grow on me.

What happened to cause me to suddenly appreciate this music so deeply? Was it because the album is more subtle than their previous work? Is it just something that takes a while to become comfortable with? Or had I changed in the interim? Or was it the setting in which I heard it, riding the BTS above Bangkok at dawn, which caused everything to come together? How can we know, as Yeats asked, the dancer from the dance (or in this case, the music from the listener from the surroundings)?

Whatever happened, I wonder about the other things in life which I’ve been exposed to and been left cold by 19 times... just waiting for that magic number 20 to click. Imagine the authors whose work I would love if I read one or two more books. I can only hope I am lucky enough to have enough time on this planet to appreciate more of the masterpieces which I’ve overlooked in the past.

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