The Anthropoid’s Dilemma

What makes life meaningful?

Broadly speaking, I think there are two answers to that question: The things we do, and other people.

Because we’re anthropoid apes, we’re social creatures. We evolved in small social groups, so we’re keenly attuned to the attitudes, needs, and affections of those around us. Not only as infants, which is where those bonds develop, but throughout our lives.

Some of us find great meaning in solitary pursuits — trekking alone across the Alaskan wilderness, or writing poems and tucking them away in a shoebox. I’ve never understood people like that. For me, trekking alone across my back yard is kind of pointless.

I love creating things, mostly music and writing, but I was spoiled at an early age. In my early 20s I was playing a lot of gigs in a band. Not high-profile glamor gigs, to be sure — clubs and weddings and even frat parties. Nonetheless, I was playing music for other people, and they showed their appreciation by paying me. Later I spent 25 years on the editorial staff of a magazine, where every month the things I wrote were read by, on average, about 20,000 people. I think I probably needed that amount of involvement with a community of readers in order to survive emotionally. Not having been gifted with the ability to form a close relationship with a significant other, I needed a substitute. I still do.

Recording music to my hard drive is not a satisfying, meaningful activity, however much I may enjoy the process. For it to be a meaningful activity, the music has to be shared with other people. And uploading mp3 files to the Internet doesn’t count. Even if a few people do listen to the music, I get no feedback. In an emotional sense, the Internet is just a gigantic hard drive off in space somewhere.

Sometimes I play cello in our local community orchestra. The orchestra is not very good. Even if it were terrific, as a string player you’re not doing anything even remotely creative. Somebody puts a page full of dots in front of you, and your job is to wiggle your fingers in an expert manner so as to turn the dots into sound waves. You never get to improvise a solo. You don’t get to pick the pieces that will be on the concert. You don’t even get to say, “I can’t play those dots at that insane tempo — can we slow it down a little?”

The sad thing is, I’m tempted to keep doing the community orchestra thing, not because it’s musically rewarding but strictly because it involves me with other people. There are concerts. There’s applause.

If I lived in a major metropolitan center — or even a smaller city graced with a major university — it might be practical to put together a performing group to play my synthesizer music. It would be difficult, but there would be a community of active musicians to draw from, some few of whom might have compatible tastes and aspirations. But the town I live in is a cultural backwater. If anybody else in town even knows what a software synthesizer or a MIDI keyboard is — and there may be three or four people who do — where would they hang out and meet one another? How likely is it that they’ll want to play charts that require precise finger work in 7/4 or 11/8 time? When there’s no money in it?

I have no solutions. I’m just observing the problem.

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7 Responses to The Anthropoid’s Dilemma

  1. Kav says:

    “Recording music to my hard drive is not a satisfying, meaningful activity, however much I may enjoy the process.”

    Manos Hatzidakis (
    has said that art ends with the process, that’s the important part.
    I think the problem lies in that you use creativity with the main purpose of communication.
    But creativity and communication are not the same thing. Creativity is about expression not communication. The “creative person-artist” should be able to find happiness in just expressing himself even if there’s none to hear him.

    • midiguru says:

      I’m a bit leery of anyone making statements about how an artist SHOULD be able to find happiness. I don’t think you get to dictate that to anybody else. Hatzidakis is entitled to tell us how he himself found happiness, but he’s not entitled to make sweeping assertions about what other artists ought to be able to do.

      • Kav says:

        The point here is the difference between expression and communication.
        Trying to communicate by being an artist, is like trying to find sexual happiness by being a stripper.
        Just my two cents.

      • midiguru says:

        That’s an interesting topic. I’m remembering about 33 years ago, when Chick Corea was writing a column for Keyboard (and I was editing it), he made a big deal out of how music should communicate with listeners. I felt much like what you’re saying here. I felt Chick had sold out, in fact, because the music he was making in the late ’70s was so much more commercial than what he had been making six or seven years before. I blamed Scientology for that, but that’s a separate topic.

        Today, being a great deal older, though not necessarily wiser, I think I’m more inclined to agree with Chick. I’m pretty sure the reason the human species has an instinct to make art is because we crave the acknowledgment — the appreciation. And I’m not sure that fact poses a philosophical problem for the artist. Yes, a work of art should be an honest expression. It should not be shaped simply to communicate! But on the other hand, if it fails to communicate, what’s the point? Why not just do jigsaw puzzles, or shoot pool?

  2. I agree, what is expression good for if it is not communicated?
    Is it even expression to howl at the moon when no other wolf is in earshot?
    I think not.

    Even when it is only to communicate with oneself, to bring it from subconsciousness to consciousness, or vice-versa, expression is communication.

    Again, share it online. This blog is a great place to start doing that. All you need is another category called “My Music”, or some such.
    There are social sites that would help, I’m sure, but you could use this site to bring them all together on one page with you & and your play.

    If there are any issues that would make it more effective to do this from your own WordPress (.org) site, that I could help with, a lot.

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