Are Musical Geniuses Intrinsically Bullies?

Are Musical Geniuses Intrinsically Bullies?

Russell Steinberg

September 25, 2014

With terse painful poignancy, Glenn Berger details in Esquire Magazine his memory of musicians being brutally humiliated by Bob Dylan forty years ago at the New York recording sessions for Dylan’s historic album Blood On The Tracks. Berger reports that Dylan called out to the players a song to rehearse, then without warning, switched midstream to a different song. If a musician made mistakes anticipating Dylan’s chords, Dylan waved his hands to silence them, signaling that they were off the album. This process continued until only a bass player remained. Berger writes:


One by one, the musicians were told to stop playing. This hurt. You could see it in the musicians' eyes as they sat silently behind their instruments, forced not to play by the mercurial whim of the guy painting his masterpiece with finger-paints. No one would tell him he couldn't do this. After all, this was Dylan. But this was wrong. You're at least supposed to tell the musicians what song you're doing, let them learn the chords, and come up with an arrangement. The feeling went from tense to grim. It slowly began to dawn on the musicians that the dream of playing on a Dylan record was not going to happen…A lifetime of ideals was washed away in one sentence. What could this possibly mean? He'd murdered his musicians with the aplomb of a psychopath. 

Looking back now 40 years later, Berger (the mixing engineer) rationalizes the wounding he and the musicians experienced: 

I did come to understand that artists are not supposed to be nice. They're on a mission from beyond. They go down, deeper into themselves than any of us dare, go through Hell on the journey, steal the sacred fire, and bring it up to share with the rest of us. Who are we to judge the way they behave when they do that much for us?

Really? Are great artists intrinsically bullies? Do they get a free pass for their behavior? Is an essential part of their success to humiliate other people because “they go down, deeper into themselves than any of us dare”?


Dylan certainly is in plenty of good company. Beethoven’s outrageous tantrums were well documented by his friends and they excused him in much the same language Berger uses to excuse Dylan (artists are not supposed to be nice…). Wagner, Schoenberg, Hindemith, etc.—the list goes on and on with anecdotes of composer geniuses who tormented their students and colleagues. The list of great performer-bullies must be even longer. Arturo Toscanini’s tirades and Fritz Reiner’s cruelties are legends in the orchestral world. I have attended too many master classes where advanced students were brought to tears and advised by a major artist that they had no talent and should quit music. The most important master class of my life was with legendary guitarist Andres Segovia. He eviscerated practically every guitarist that played for him that day.


And yet, if we make the assumption musical geniuses are inherently tyrannical people, how do we explain Franz Joseph Haydn, equal to any musician of any time, who was consistently kind and generous even to his competitors? He is not alone. Anecdotes abound of encouragement and support of other musicians given by geniuses like Schumann, Mendelssohn, or Copland. None of these great artists had the need to humiliate people around them. Their work certainly didn’t suffer because they were kind.


Glenn Berger’s article on Dylan hit home for me especially because of the complex personality of my great mentor Leon Kirchner. In my first year at Harvard, I heard several stories from students traumatized by Kirchner, a larger-than-life composer-genius with a mysterious ethos not that distant from Dylan. One grad student was in therapy trying to work it out. Another was on medication. Still another was actively engaged in a lawsuit against him. Kirchner’s behavior was as powerful as Dylan’s because his musical authority was beyond question, his intellect was a full order beyond anyone else, his talent was almost obscene, and like Dylan, he was a master at manipulating people and crushing them with language. “It’s hopeless” was the phrase you never wanted directed at one of your works. That meant his massive mind and spirit had thoroughly investigated your creative effort, seeing deeper than you could imagine, and had concluded that it was beyond repair. In fairness, this equivalent to Dylan’s “waving his hand” dismissal carried such power because Kirchner also would lift his students to giddy emotional heights with praise and encouragement, making the later criticism all the more devastating.


I know many fine musicians who decades later are still “working out” those encounters with Kirchner, just as Glenn Berger is still trying to make sense of his collision with Bob Dylan. And like Berger, the anger is mingled with genuine awe, respect, and sheer gratitude for having had the experience. The "wounding" was undeniably a transformative experience. Cellist Yo Yo Ma, possibly the most optimistic and generous musician on the planet since Haydn, summed up his experience with Leon Kirchner this way (I slightly paraphrase): “Kirchner was the boulder in my road. I couldn’t go through him, I had to learn to go around him.” But one always wonders, was total humiliation really necessary?


I wrestled with Kirchner and his head games for many years. The stress that went with it was more than offset by the most satisfying and elevated musical conversations of my life. The trick with the great masters seems to be how to learn from them without being destroyed. I remain convinced that brutal criticisms and humiliations are not intrinsic to genius. Rather, they are the product of similar behaviors picked up from one's own teachers and models. In Kirchner's case, the personalities of musical titans like composer Arnold Schoenberg and pianist Artur Schnabel seemed to inform his own approach. Stories he would tell of his student days tended to confirm it. Certainly Kirchner suffered his own tremendous insecurities and rash of fears, no different than the way Glenn Berger relates Bob Dylan’s insecurity of his own work, when days after arrogantly dismissing most of his session band, Dylan phoned producer Phil Ramone worried that his material wasn't that good after all. Perhaps for Dylan or Kirchner, asserting power and authority by humiliating people around them was a coping mechanism for these fears—not an intrinsic part of their genius. 



To Berger’s example of Dylan, I would counter with two Dylan contemporaries, of at least equal genius, who are overwhelmingly regarded by students and people who have worked with them as even-tempered, kind, and generous: film composer John Williams and concert composer George Crumb. John Williams is the undisputed master of film music, with scores as well known around the world as Dylan's songs. Pulitzer Prize-winning composer George Crumb is an American master of concert music whose innovations in musical color and incorporation of world music provide the blueprint for most composer today. Not having a need to humiliate other musicians hasn’t seemed to downgrade the quality of either of these composers art or mystique.  


What do you think? Are musical geniuses necessarily bullies?



Elizabeth Erenberg October 09, 2014 @12:07 pm

Just thought this would go nicely with the discussion.

Ofer Ben-Amots October 08, 2014 @04:46 pm

Russell, I am glad you mentioned Geroge Crumb as one of the nicest composers who is as far from being a "bully" as one can get. However, he also had some great moments of witty criticism. Here is an anecdote I remember from my Penn days. We used to have 3-4 concerts a year of the Penn Composers' Guild (the doctoral class of music at U. of Penn.) One day, one of the students presented a piece for a "speaking pianist" which can best described as slam poetry while slamming and banging on the piano. After the concert, the student went to George and asked: "So, how did you like my music?" George, responded with his unhurried West-Virginian accent: "Ummm... this was ... ummm... very original..." The young composer moved on to fish for more compliments. He was extremely happy with George's remark. At this moment George turned to me as whispered snidely: "It was so original, I wonder if one could call it 'music' at all..." A semester or two later the said student changed from music composition track to cognitive music theory. Needless to say, I was delighted to see this side of George, which had not been known to me until that day.

Shalev October 08, 2014 @03:22 pm

I think you're right that there is a basic human psychological need for dominance that explains the bullying behavior. What I found interesting about your blog question as the notion that there is a necessary way that this this behavior manifests itself in the genius. In a big way, in my response I was trying to articulate a romantic notion of this behavior to correspond with the romantic notion of genius. To echo Nietzsche, innovation is the metaphysical parallel of brute physical domination. The truth is that all humans innovate to some extent by virtue exerting their basic drive to dominate within the domain of culture and institutions (cf. Nietzsche's "will-to-power"). I'm writing this at work while not on a recognized break. In doing so I'm asserting control of my environment. This assertion of dominance is not a physical act; I'm still sitting at my desk, typing away at my computer. The environment I'm actually exerting control over is an environment of ideas, specifically the institution of work culture, and more specifically the expectations of work at my office. So, in a way I'm not doing anything different Schoenberg who not only successfully exerted his control on physical variances that our brains convert into sound, but also on the institution-environment of Music. Both our activity can be explained by theory that there is an innate drive to assert dominance viz control of the environment. But the theory does not explain why Schoenberg is a genius and am not. My theory was that if there is an essential feature of genius, it might be the drive to dominate in overdrive. Romantically, I dubbed this "body dysmorphia" to invoke an unnaturally forceful drive for dominance that in tandem with naturally bestowed talents and practice, propels/allows the genius to view what most of us would conceive as culturally hardened forms as malleable matter. Under this view, the genius is a type of flagellating ascetic who sees the world as an extension of her body. The assertion of control over the environment is a violent act. I am reminded of Phillip Roth's line from The Human Stain: "The fight for definition is the fight for life itself." Art is is the front-line of this ontological warfare. At the very least, the idea of the aesthetic ascetic makes for a nice tongue twister. Maybe it wasn't that Leon Kirchner couldn't shift between your world but rather that he couldn't differentiate between his world and the world of his students. His body dysmorphia was not contained to his physical body or the immediate extension of his physical form into his psychological corpus. Perhaps for the non-genius (to dichotomize what surely exists on a spectrum), the drive to dominate is checked by another basic human psychological need to appeal to authority. It is the mark of the genius to innovate and subvert authority. Indeed, as I mentioned in my post, genius etymologically is associated with divine creation--creation by the highest authority. The ability of the genius to impose novel form on her environment is coupled with a gross ineptitude to recognize demarcated boundaries. Perhaps then the genius are not so genius after all but really talented individual who are unable to relegate their talents to a culturally defined space for them to exercise their talents. It may not be the case that, as you put it, "we are frustrated at not being able to artfully control or manipulate our material to the shape we desire, we naturally turn outward to 'less-resistant matter-the pliant ego of session musicians, the nonage of students, the appetites of the physical bodies;" but rather, perhaps there is no turn outwards but a body dysmorphia that simultaneously occurs in both realms because the genius is not equipped with the authoritarian instinct compelling her to heed or even notice the cultural demarcation between the "proper" matter of art and people's feelings. People's feelings may not be targeted because they are low-hanging fruit or forbidden fruit but just because they are fruit and the genius' drive to devour (i.e. dominate) overpowers their drive to take interest in Yahweh's prohibitions. Also, “Things outside you are projections of what's inside you, and what's inside you is a projection of what's outside. So when you step into the labyrinth outside you, at the same time you're stepping into the labyrinth inside.” ― Haruki Murakami, Kafka on the Shore Shalev

Javier October 08, 2014 @11:34 am

Toscanini was the toughest of all. I think was put on such a high pedestal. This is a very important subject that someone should take I have thought about it a great deal. Once, I was at a rehearsal when Joshua Bell was going to perform the Sibelius violin concerto and Esa-Pekka Salonen was the conductor. First, Joshua Bell wanted to share his ideas with Esa-Pekka Salonen. But Salonen told Bell to shut up and just play the violin. He rehearsal went on for 4 hours. Salonen kept saying that he couldn't hear Sibelius. Then, Joshua Bell told me he never worked with Esa-Pekka Salonen ever again. I feel that Bell's impression of Salonen was he was a real asshole (Although, he didn't say that ) he just said he wouldn't work with Salomen again. I am not passing on gossip, but I really think that it is important to talk about things, because this reveals the psychology of music. I tell you this, I have tried to talk to many musicians at the LA Phil and they always say complimentary things about Salonen. I have concluded that there is a great pressure to be liked by the conductor. Esa-Pekka Salonen is the kind go guy that can either make or break your career. So, the only conclusion I can draw from this all musician want to be liked by Salonen and very few people in that circle will dare to say anything negative about Salonen. However, Joshua Bell probably doesn't care at this point in his career. I know Esa-Pekka Salonen from the distance and I felt that towards the end of his tenure as the artistic director of the LA Phil my impression is that he was getting a bit controlling. However, something happened to him when all the people around him keep telling him how great he was.... Anyway, now he has changed and he is a lot more easy going in LA. It is nice that you are looking at this aspect of music. I am from Chile. The thing I hate the most is that a lot of the people from there always say good things about Pinochet. I think he was a bully!

Russell October 06, 2014 @10:44 pm

Shalev, Thanks for your deeply probing comment. Also your humor—the unparallel comparison between Dylan's treatment of his musicians with Clinton's infidelities is very cute, though I suspect most conservatives would disagree and firmly point to a strong correlation! But your idea of an extension of "body dysmorphia" is original to me and quite fascinating. So you are saying that perhaps when we are frustrated at not being able to artfully control or manipulate our material to the shape we desire, we naturally turn outward to "less-resistant matter-the pliant ego of session musicians, the nonage of students, the appetites of the physical bodies." I think you've hit on a strong idea. I also resonate to your "Daedalus" notion, that of the genius trying to escape his own labyrinth. Bob Dylan is certainly a master escape artist, a "Houdini" at remaining elusive to critics and fans alike. When I've seen him perform live, I'm struck by both his insistence on unrehearsed spontaneity, and a fugal (fleeing) approach to both his band and audience. He races away mumbling lyrics before anyone can catch up, then suddenly slows down to witness everyone crashing around him. I've always thought it a combination of avoiding the boredom of doing the same song sets repeatedly, plus avoiding the attention that he's not so competent technically on instruments other than the harmonica. Of course why should that matter—but maybe it does to him, playing with musicians who are technically so much more advanced. But in the end, all of this may simply the basic psychological need for dominance, to assert control of the environment and the people around us. I'll give an example again with my mentor, Leon Kirchner. He always controlled the conversation. I used to play a game in my head about how I would steer him immediately to a topic I needed to discuss. It never worked. No matter how I began a conversation, he immediately shifted it to his own world, his own interests, his own needs. Invariably, I would convince myself that my topics were insignificant compared to the issues he was confronting and needed to discuss. I would just get sucked up into his maelstrom. It was so powerful and impossible to resist. So Glenn Berger's story about Dylan's insistence on full dominance sounded hauntingly familiar to me! --Russell

Shalev October 06, 2014 @04:49 pm

The coping mechanism analysis seems right to me. I imagine there was some correlation between Beethoven's deteriorating hearing and his tantrums. We have Glenn Berger's word on Dylan's insecurities. There is also, as you point out, solid counter-factual evidence of the "nice" geniuses that would seem to undermine the theory that genius must necessarily be bullies. However, the counter-factual evidence is not strong enough to do away with the correlation all together. Bob Dylan’s treatment of his musicians seems inextricably linked with his practice of art in a way that, for instance, Bill Clinton’s infidelities during the practice of his presidency does not. So it is more than correlation. Bob Dylan’s genius and his meanness are connected in a more causal way than his genius and his love for Swiss cheese. Thus, I think the coping mechanism theory is at least prima facie plausible. My thought is then that there may then be a more fundamental question of whether genius are necessarily insecure and only accidentally bullies. If Bob Dylan, et al., were only mean to cope with their insecurities, maybe said insecurities manifested as meanness are not the explanans but the explanandum. Perhaps it is insecurity that is essential to genius. Perhaps composers like George Crumb and John Williams also struggled with their insecurities but evolved different coping mechanisms. I’d wager that at least some of the nice guys were also quiet alcoholics, drug abusers, body dysmorphics. The thought now occurs to me that maybe the essential quality of the genius can be reduced to a species of body dysmorphia that spawns the urge for the genius to manipulate a piece of resisting, suffering matter. In healthy coping the music is entirely the matter. In situations where, for whatever reason, the genius feels she can’t exert her authorship (i.e. authority) viz the construct of form unto resisting matter, she will find less-resistant matter–the pliant ego of session musicians, the nonage of students, the appetites of the physical bodies. And perhaps it was a healthy transference of body dysmorphia that compelled the likes of Schoenberg, Cage, and Crumb (sounds like a folk trio) to refashion the resistant matter of the centuries hardened form of western music. We may not all agree that Bob Dylan is genius but I think most would agree that in a general sense the qualities we associate with genius merit not only talent but also innovation. Etymologically, “genius” characterized generative power and begetting nothing from something. In essence, the novel creation of form. In the modern sense, genius could even be elegantly defined as a talent for innovation. What is innovation if not the reshaping of old form into the new? Certainly ever genius must be genius by virtue of the labyrinth by which we measure her excellence. (Form:matter::exit/solution:labyrinth.) We don’t consider Bob Dylan, et al.’s meanness as being part of their art. But why not? It sounds like these mean geniuses were each brilliant genius in imposing their will on the spirits of their musicians/servants/students to impose the forms fear and trepidation in the matter of their minds. So there is another question about why we culturally limit the labyrinth–why we differentiate between the matters that collectively constitute the realm of art and all things that collectively constitute the competing realm of non-art (including things like the feelings of session musicians, the feelings of students, the hunger of dogs, and world- trade centers). Perhaps the reason is that we think of art of as a sort of spectacle by which we get to watch the artist struggle to impose his will via form on the resisting species of matter that constructs a given artistic medium. Art, as it where, is a cultural artifact and can only exist in an open space. The space of feelings is radically closed and private in our culture. So we resist extending the reach of Bob Dylan’s genius to his effect on the feelings of his session musicians. And why should a genius care about that? Cultural demarcations of boundaries of medium–the stipulation of form unto matter–constitute the ultimate labyrinth. It’s the not the meanness though that is essential to Bob Dylan but the Daedalus in Bob Dylan trying to escape the labyrinth of Bob Dylan.

Javier Soto October 05, 2014 @01:00 pm

Hi Russel: Although it is hard to think of Mozart as a Bully, there are 3 conductors: Arturo Toscanini, Riccardo Muti at Alla Scala and Charles Dutoit with the Montreal symphony orchestra. You Google and find plenty of evidence. Is there a problem with music? my idea it is not just contained in music when someone has too much power and makes too much money that kind of happens. Arturo Toscanini had a huge salary during the great depression when musicians made very little money. The problem is the abuse of power. I see the same problem in the catholic church but that’s another problem.

Michelle Schumacher October 04, 2014 @08:29 pm

You should see Whiplash (JK Simmons) when it opens. This is exactly the question the film asks. Very intense film!

Gregory Wright October 04, 2014 @04:09 am

Bullying and the habitual foul treatment of others is a character flaw, purely and simply. And when issuing forth from the less-than-awesome Bob Dylan (sorry, that's my opinion -- apparently shared by one Dr. Timothy Leary, for what that's worth), even the towering-genius rationale evaporates. My favorite composer, Tchaikovsky (in musical affect, quality, and quantity, all of it in just 53 years), was noted for being a very kind person. As a young law school student, he gave up his end-of-year earnings to a friend whose wife was ill and children ill-fed -- something few people then or now, there or here do. (Meanwhile, the oft-repeated electromagnetic waveforms of this and some 30 or so other pre-eminent 'classical' music composers disperse and expand into ever-more-distant outer space, becoming the most durable product of the human race, forever.) 

Heidi Lesemann October 03, 2014 @10:45 pm

Oh dear! please read my following two posts in reverse order. I ran out of room on the first post!

Heidi Lesemann October 03, 2014 @09:39 pm

...has ever been less than amazed, grateful, and enthusiastic about their work with him -- much beloved, I believe is the best description. Interesting to me, working there, that although Leonard had a collegial relationship with Kirchner, he never programed his music, though I believe Kirchner may have contributed to the Journal of ASI. Upon Kirchner's retirement, Leonard sent a letter which Kirchner valued and returned to me after Leonard's death, to be place with Leonard's archive at UCLA Special collections. No conclusions drawn here, but only some subtleties from which perhaps one may draw their own conclusions. 

Heidi Lesemann October 03, 2014 @09:32 pm

This is such an interesting question. I used to work at the Arnold Schoenberg Institute when it was in Los Angeles (It has since moved to Vienna.). I worked for 15 years with Leonard Stein, who had a long relationship with Schoenberg as first pupil, then assistant, then editor of a great treatise by Schoenberg, Style and Idea, as well as other writings and some of his songs. My take on his relationship with Schoenberg was that there was deep admiration of Schoenberg by Stein, and a respect for Stein by Schoenberg (Leonard's anecdote: Schoenberg saying to a composition student,"Why don't you just be a good musician like Stein, here.") I hardly think Schoenberg was a warm, generous, encouraging teacher, but Leonard's attitude towards him, whether Schoenberg was difficult or not, was one of the deepest respect and appreciation, combined with a thorough knowledge of Schoenberg's principles. Leonard, on the other hand, brilliant, erudite, knowledgeable, widely read, genius or just brilliant, was a great teacher. No student of his ...

Russell October 03, 2014 @07:00 pm

Doug, I appreciate the testimonial and will call on you if students ever come after me :) Fletcher, I agree with you about the teacher's role to bring out the best in a student. Not all great artists make great teachers. But most of the great artist-teachers I've encountered used a complex mixture of support and humiliation. I also have to add that I—as once your student— find you especially to be a paragon of positive encouragement and bringing out the best in people.

Fletcher Beasley October 03, 2014 @05:52 pm

I think a musical bully is a sign of an insecure artist, genius or not. I believe a teacher's role is to bring out the best in a student without being degrading or humiliating. Most people respond best to positive encouragement. That certainly has been my experience. 

Doug Crowley October 03, 2014 @02:52 pm

Are musical geniuses necessarily bullies? No, Russell. I've never regarded you as a bully!