There is a curious place in English writer Samuel Johnson’s biography on Jonathan Swift. Therein, he implies a correlation between Swift’s late withdrawal from society and his sanity:
“Having thus excluded conversation, and desisted from study, he had neither business nor amusement…His ideas, therefore, being neither renovated by discourse, nor increased by reading, wore gradually away and left his mind vacant to the vexations of the hour, till at last his anger was heightened into madness”.
From neither reading much nor talking to others, Swift’s mental state was left wanting. The only recourse Johnson could see was insanity.
This is in striking contrast to his early years when, Stephen Miller writes, as “…a young man in London, he was noted for his conversation”. Leaving London was, for Johnson, the moment where it went downhill.
Does that imply that living in a metropolis is the only thing that will bring us artistic solace? That New York and cities of its ilk are the only place where we can thrive as musicians? The implications of Swift’s tale are different.
Take composer Conlon Nancarrow. He has been noted for his time of isolation in Mexico. There, he wrote eccentric compositions for player piano that bear him recognition. As Andrew Durkin notes, Nancarrow was not all alone in his endeavors. He had the friendship and assistance of many who helped with even the machinations of the player piano alone. In one instance that Durkin cites, Nancarrow mourns the loss of one such person:
“People think that if I can write for player piano I must have much mechanical ability. In fact, the one man in Mexico who was really good and kept my pianos in shape died not too long ago. So I don’t know what I’m going to do”.
Nancarrow feels as if he cannot write for player piano without the help of his friend. In some way he is fearing for the reclusion that Swift endured. He was afraid of true isolation. Substitute “mechanical ability” for anything. Any musical endeavor is not a one man machine. We equally take in so much from the people and ideas that surround us.
That idea is not new and has certainly been stressed by countless others more qualified to write about the subject. But lest the message is not clear: a scene is a lifeline. To unplug this chord from any musician is certain catastrophe.
Regardless of qualification, that is something we need to tell ourselves over and over again.