Just a Touch of Grey
It is a general consensus that things in life aren’t black and white. No- we instead often refer to the grey area, that area in the middle, to explain things. We like to say things like “The truth often lies somewhere inbetween” or “There is a happy medium” or “Let’s split the difference”. I understand that to a degree. I suppose in a way we live in a grey world. Calling it grey takes into account all the many variables. I suppose it also gives us breathing room to explain what is often hard to explain or define. So I guess I’m fine with it.
But maybe the truth is a lot like an old joke about the newspaper. Things aren’t black or white. Things are black AND white. And grey all over. Let me explain.
I think the truth is that we live in a world entrenched in dichotomy. In politics for example we claim beliefs as sometimes being ‘left of center’ or ‘right of center’. But ultimately we vote for one party or one candidate. We believe in the interpretation of the law but ultimately we decide whether someone is guilty or innocent. We recognize that the art in front of us has different meanings and evokes a range of responses- but we are clear about what music we think is good and what we think is bad. I don’t think any of this is a bad thing. From infrared to ultraviolet, we feel compelled to see and understand the full spectrum. We need to be able to define it and then choose based on how we have defined it- our progress depends on it.
But let’s be clear then- much of the world is indeed black and white.
One of my two favorite chapters in the book Life of Pi (the other being the one on ‘Fear’) talks about the two personalities of the sea. It acknowledges the great many skies, clouds, and waters that the main character, Pi, sees. But at one point, it talks about the sea as a world of opposites- of things coming down to black and white. Pi says, “Otherwise, to be a castaway is to be caught up in grim and exhausting opposites. When it is light, the openness of the sea is blinding and frightening. When it is dark, the darkness is claustrophobic. When it is day, you are hot and wish to be cool and dream of ice cream and pour sea water on yourself. When it is night, you are cold and wish to be warm and dream of hot curries and wrap yourself in blankets. When it is hot, you are parched and wish to be wet. When it rains, you are nearly drowned and wish to be dry….” And so on.
Sometimes waking up everyday is a little like being caught up in grim and exhausting opposites. Im good at my job. Im terrible at my job. Im in great shape. Im feeling unhealthy. I have the power to realize my dreams. I can’t even even seem to do the dishes properly today. Im so happy. Im so unhappy.
It is our minds that constantly urge us to focus on one or the other. And when it is further convenient, we swim in ambiguity. But why not we contend with the idea that both are true? And that neither are false? Is that fuzzy logic? It just depends how we look at it.
So in life. So in music.
I am reminded of an email exchange I had with Devin a few years back (2004). I was living in Johannesburg, SA at the time and he back in Toronto. He had sent me some comments he had on a piece he read about the Apollonian versus the Dionysian approach to art (based on the characteristics of the Greek gods Apollo and Dionysus from Greek Mythology).
Below is the transcript of the full email exchange:
What are your thoughts of the following excerpt (taken from http://www.historyguide.org/europe/dio_apollo.html), in regards to being a musician/songwriter (i.e. agree or disagree?):
Apollonian and Dionysian are terms used by Nietzsche in The Birth of Tragedy to designate the two central principles in Greek culture. The Apollonian, which corresponds to Schopenhauer’s principium individuationis (“principle of individuation”), is the basis of all analytic distinctions. Everything that is part of the unique individuality of man or thing is Apollonian in character; all types of form or structure are Apollonian, since form serves to define or individualize that which is formed; thus, sculpture is the most Apollonian of the arts, since it relies entirely on form for its effect. Rational thought is also Apollonian since it is structured and makes distinctions.
The Dionysian, which corresponds roughly to Schopenhauer’s conception of Will, is directly opposed to the Apollonian. Drunkenness and madness are Dionysian because they break down a man’s individual character; all forms of enthusiasm and ecstasy are Dionysian, for in such states man gives up his individuality and submerges himself in a greater whole: music is the most Dionysian of the arts, since it appeals directly to man’s instinctive, chaotic emotions and not to his formally reasoning mind.
Nietzsche believed that both forces were present in Greek tragedy, and that the true tragedy could only be produced by the tension between them. He used the names Apollonian and Dionysian for the two forces because Apollo, as the sun-god, represents light, clarity, and form, whereas Dionysus, as the wine-god, represents drunkenness and ecstasy.
Devin Hannan, B.A.Sc.
Wed, Oct 13, 2004 at 7:14 PM
to Devin Hannan
great art and great music work best with different approaches…I think the result is somewhere
inbetween…you have a strong commitment to form but are not afraid to
venture to experimental places…i have a fascination with the
intangible/inexplicable/indescribable, but i am willing to go to the
middle-ground to articulate it…a very interesting article…i like
On Wed, 13 Oct 2004 10:52:34 -0400, Hannan, Devin
In the context of songwriting in general, I do not entirely agree with
the author’s comment that music “appeals directly to man’s instinctive,
chaotic emotions and not to his formally reasoning mind.” While this is
true to some extent, the way the author has stated it makes it sound too
definitive. The history of music demonstrates that music itself is of a
highly mathematical nature and logically structured. Indeed, I’m sure
the most accomplished of musicians will admit to systematically and
rationally writing many of their songs, as opposed to letting instinct
and chaos put notes on the page.
On the subject of live musical performance, however, or the act of
listening to live music, this can often reach a Dionysian experience. In
fact, I am at my most Dionysian when on stage playing a jam.
Thus, a theory to ponder:
Studio = Apollonian
Stage = Dionysian
No, I think at the proper times, they’re both extremely important in any
I found it more than just interesting re-reading this exchange. Apollonian and Dionysian approaches aside, there is power in straying from the ‘grey’. Grey is full of nothingness. It is neither here nor there. It is a cop-out. Embracing both black and white…it makes you think about the edges, the boundaries. To be blunt, being at the stage we are at in the studio right now, one is very much drawn to ideas that will help explain and understand what the hell we’re actually doing. Sometimes you are hanging off some kind of edge. Some days you wake up and you feel like you are there- like you’ve finally said what you’ve wanted to say. Other days you wake up and wonder how it is possible that you can be so far away from your goal. You are always looking for some kind of validation, some kind of understanding. So you need to know what the edges, the limits, and the boundaries are. Just in case you can find a way to push them a little bit. The world most definitely is black AND white.
And that’s why we musn’t be overcome by the grey. Every day presents a new opportunity. We can live within the limits and still stretch the boundaries. We must take what the day brings and then give back to say thanks.
Let’s wake up confident and go to bed humble.