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The composer's offensively subjective musings.
  • Writer's pictureFurano

"No man is an island"? A biographical sketch.

It's safe to say that most people prefer being in company to being alone; our entire civilisation is founded on this principle, and for good reasons. Loneliness is universally pitied, decried as an undesirable state and stigmatised as if it were contagious; and the conscious choice of solitude over company naturally rouses suspicion. It's somewhat more tolerated in men, partially romanticised in the lone wolf stereotype; but there's no similarly flattering template for women. If you look half decent and have your life in order, yet remain solitary, people tend to assume that something hidden must be wrong with you. (Hardly anybody ever assumes that there is something wrong with the world; but more on that later.)

But some people are inherently predestined to solitude, either by nature or by nurture, and sometimes by both; and some simply have nowhere to go.

I've always been sensitive to sound, and thus fond of the restorative comforts of silence. My grandfather, born in 1918, and my mother, born in 1950, were still habitually living the slow-paced, mid-century existence of the Viennese bourgeoisie by the time the garish 1990's rolled around. The peace in our apartment was rarely disturbed by anything other than the rustle of book pages being turned, the scent of tobacco from my grandfather's pipe, or his occasional playing of the violin. It was a formal but loving household, and the perfect environment for a naturally sensitive child who needed structure, peace and warmth. My childhood thus was a happy one; it just ended up being very short.

By 1996, both my grandfather and mother had passed away. I was removed from Vienna and sent to foster parents abroad who couldn't have been more contrary to my previous surroundings. They burnt through my family's fortune within two or three years, and I largely avoided their cognac-fuelled antics by locking myself into the seclusion of my attic room, silently witnessing my happier days disappear one painting, one musical instrument, one piece of furniture at a time. For the next eleven years, I was handed around homes, none of them suitable for a child, and by merit of a checkered academic career (I skipped three school years and repeated one), I eventually ended up at a private boarding school on a musical scholarship, which at least took me out of the immediate line of fire. Unsurprisingly, I was soon singled out as the pariah among my far more affluent peers, a position which I didn't mind; compared to what I had seen, this was literal child's play. Besides, being a social outcast held several invaluable benefits: You were free to form and openly hold any opinion you thought logical and just; and you were able to live your life the way you saw fit, unconcerned by the generally foolish, often even detrimental notions and actions of others. People also had the tendency to dramatise and catastrophise everything, and looking at my own miserable life, I simply couldn't afford to.

Instead, I composed and read; and when I was fifteen, I read Sartre. L'existence précède l'essence, he had argued, and L’homme est condamné à être libre.

An immense weight was lifted from my shoulders. According to Sartre, a botched upbringing meant nothing, had no bearing on your future; apart from its immediate sorrows, it was inconsequential. Other people, their perceptions and actions didn't define you, couldn't define you. You were always what you chose to be. You couldn't always evade calamity; but you were free to decide how you would regard it, whether you would perceive it as something that destroyed you or as something you tenaciously overcame.

This recognition of agency was my salvation.

It also happened to be an outrageously unpopular opinion. During philosophy lessons, my insistence on these maxims incited flaming rage from my classmates. And even the world outside was filled with adults tortured by regret, which they almost exclusively blamed on other people: their parents hadn't treated them right, their husband didn't appreciate them enough, their wife was crazy, their boss unreasonable... Exchanging complaints appeared to be a vital social glue, and blame-shifting a necessary prerequisite of fitting into almost any society, a society made up of individuals whose gregariousness was rooted not in communication, let alone philanthropic benevolence, but in intrigue and the greatest possible amassment of petty individual gain. It was a universe in which everyone seemed to interact with one another only to obtain something for themselves, and where nobody was willing to take responsibility for their own role in the drama.

I wanted nothing to do with that.

At 17 I finished school and escaped to London in order to study composition. At night, I made a living waiting tables, working as a hotel receptionist and playing the piano in bars, ever divorced from the world around me as if through a glass screen. In the morning I studied; in the afternoons, I slept. London was damp, cold and depressing, and I ended up without a roof over my head on more than one occasion. An extroverted study colleague took me in and out and about, but I remained a stranger wherever I went and knew I couldn't impose on her charity forever; and before the first year was out, I found myself roaming through Europe, always alone save for music and books, returning to London only for exams. Apart from my university's insistence on teaching historical techniques of composition (in my opinion the only point of the subject, yet completely abandoned by conservatoires on the continent), I didn't like studying; I had little patience for the intrigues and social politics of university life, everyone's senseless grasping for recognition and fame often regardless of actual merit, and most professors' thinly-veiled intent of turning their students into musical and social clones of themselves, moving their favourites around like pieces on a chess board. I just wanted to learn the craft and apply it, but short of the library, wisdom was more commonly found outside the unversity walls than inside them. —

There is a common misconception that living on your own automatically condemns you to a life of misery. Nothing could be further from the truth. Indeed, few things are worse than being trapped in bad company; it is that and that alone that ruins lives. Nobody ever died of solitude, but many of loneliness; and the depths of despair are exclusively caused by fraught relations with other people. What's more, alone-ness does not mean isolation and imprisonment in the confines of atomised individuality. People falsely assume that you have to join a social group to experience the feeling of being part of something greater than yourself; but just because social activities are the common way to experience this doesn't mean that there aren't others. Most musicians reading this will recognise the profound sense of connection to something great and eternal in moments of deep enjoyment of music, even (or especially) as a passive listener; anyone with a sense of beauty will recognise a similar sentiment in the appreciation of art, and those more cerebrally inclined will find it in pursuits from literature to the elegance of a perfect mathematical solution. When religious people speak of their encounters with God, I believe they hint at something very similar, though subscribers to the Abrahamic religions seldom seem to be able to sustain this connectedness for long.

Zen Buddhism and Stoicism seem more tenacious. Both advocate self-reliance, appreciation of beauty and goodness however fleeting, and adhering to a personal morality regardless of outer (meaningless) circumstances. It made sense to me. After I finished my studies, I went to Berlin, lived like a monk in an unheated one-bedroom apartment crammed with thrifted books and revelled in simple, unwavering pleasures: the crunch of autumn leaves under my shoe, the study of musical scores, listening to CDs borrowed from the local library, the smell of snow,the sight of a fox appearing under my window at night, the enveloping warmth of my deserted, dimly-lit practice room (a few re-purposed chambers in a defunct cinema building). While I often longed for a companion, there was no trace of existential malaise. It was a quiet, unexciting happiness. But it was happiness still.

Eventually I returned to Vienna, which then still retained the comforting familiarity of my childhood, peered here and there for a breadcrumb of love, and slowly managed to carve out a living with music. Even now, cushioned by middle-class economic conditions and the handful of routine commitments that come with it, solitude still clings to me like a shadow. Vienna's Bohème is split around 80-20 into two camps: those of the political Left and those of the political Right. Both of them demand faithful (and immaculate) adherence to an ever-changing, collectivist order of current beliefs, many of which contradict themselves, and I can't bring myself to subscribe to any of the two completely with the reckless abandon of logic, feeling and good judgment I think that would require. Where to, then? There simply is nowhere to go.

While I do have a handful of friends nowadays (all of them equipped with a similar sense of agency and rage de vivre despite their disillusionment with the world), I still don't like the vast majority of people. The importance many put on little daily play-acts and dramas are beyond my grasp; I don't understand their life-usurping drive to look good in the eyes of others, and I don't think I ever will. (This is one of the reasons why I have little desire to play concerts.) So it seems that this is forever my fate – to be in this world, but not of this world, a spectator and observer, but generally not a participant. I am not tortured or troubled by this; it is what it is. Other people marry, celebrate commercial holidays, climb the corporate ladder, have children, pay off their cars and their 30-year mortgages. None of these things are meant for me; my world is built on the inside. On the outside, I only compose, regardless of season, read, find my sense of connection in music. I cook dinners for myself and eat them in silence with a cloth napkin on my lap, drink wine, go for solitary walks and pause for the sight of an unusually coloured sky or a handsome face or a pleasant scent in the air. Occasionally, I sit on a bench and smoke a single cigarette, savouring the sharp pang of tar in my lungs and the wisps of blue smoke wafting about. Every now and again, a trusted friend joins my sphere like a visitor arriving on an island, happy to be on holiday. And about once every few years, a lover suddenly appears, shaking up the otherwise imperturbable construct of my existence. That's the only thing I find bloody annoying: Love is the one habit I just cannot quit.

There is a poignantly beautiful 1960's French film by Jean-Pierre Melville, titled Le Samouraï: A picture of grey metropolitan skies, perpetual rain, and an anti-hero who moves around in a world to which he doesn't belong, tempted by a blink-and-you-miss-it flicker of sensuality which sticks with him and gradually unravels the sullen content of his structured existence. A large part of the film is spent in silence, dotted only by the plaintive call of the protagonist's only companion, a lone bullfinch. Disregarding the fact that there is a definite moralistic undertone to Melville's depiction (the protagonist is a criminal, and possibly slightly mad): It is one of the most existentially consoling things (not only films) I have ever seen, and I was taken aback to read reviews indignantly badmouthing the grisly atmosphere, the futility of existence, the desolation of a pointless life. All these reviewers mistook the ordinary discomforts of rainy weather, spartan living quarters and the mundane impracticality of solitude for the essence of the matter; none of them saw the self-reliant life lived unwaveringly faithful to an innate moral code, its equilibrium rendered fragile only by the addition of other people, and the unassuming speck of nobility inherent in this kind of existence, an existence which inevitably, hopefully, is bound to end up self-less, not self-centered.

To each his own kind of majesty, Gracián wrote.

Perhaps this is mine.

  • Writer's pictureFurano

A 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 fluctuating 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 like over most young musicians 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 calling I had felt since childhood. 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. To leaven this trivial, sorry state of being, I resorted to the commonly prescribed placebos of youth: material distractions, light entertainment and romantic entanglements. None of them soothed my inner longing, nor did they provide the answers I was looking for; instead, they only aggravated my anguish in all but the shortest run, and cemented my erroneous belief that the root of my misery was an irrevocable anchorage in loneliness. In time, however, question marks emerged. The most puzzling was 2020's spring lockdown, which many people 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, tiny and rundown apartment. Save for one long-term client and friend 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. Clearly 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; perhaps also writing, reading, visiting museums, discussions with people of competence, tidying, walks in nature, and admiring 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, constantly wrestling to create order in my surroundings, and entertaining visually winning lovers regardless of their mental or moral capabilities (in which they were generally as deficient as I was in sound judgment). Thus, despite having grown with an inner calling, I had spent a large part of my youth completely at sea. The answer eventually 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 and Why. With this term, all my aspirations in music and in life had been exhaustively explained. Put into a single word, it sounded 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 an Austrian Composers' Association assembly at the time. And justly so: For all my conviction, my understanding of beauty was still shamefully 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 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.

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