Sunday, January 28, 2007

The Care & Feeding of the Creative Spirit: Part 1

You may feel “a lot of this has nothing to do with me.”

If you are under-30, chances are you feel things are not going to change that much: “What’s getting older got to do with me?” You look at your parents and cannot understand why they’re different from you, and usually not in a positive way: “I’m not going to let that happen to me!”

Aside from the obvious fact it beats the alternative, we all age – and this is not about getting older but about dealing with changes as we age. If you are over-30, you may feel I’m speaking directly to you, that you’re still trying to figure how that change happened to you. If you are now retired, you may find yourself nodding wistfully and agreeing with me: there may be nothing new here for you, but there may be some ideas you would agree with even if you hadn’t thought of them before – “been there/didn’t do that.”

Basically, my topic is creativity – which is not just being a composer. Or writer, painter, poet or anyone else in the arts. We’re all creative to some degree or another. If it’s not part of our “job,” it’s part of what keeps the “job” interesting. If it’s not, that may be the problem.

While I’m primarily dealing with music here – and largely from my own perspective as a composer (or perhaps “would-be composer”) – in many ways, you can “insert your art” here, or your situation: teacher, business person, perhaps other situations on more everyday, non-artistic levels that still require creativity that may not necessarily result in something others would call “Art” (after all, much of what artists create is often not considered “Art” by a lot of people, anyway) but which engages a sense of creative play. Part of the problem, as people age, is that “sense of creative play” becomes not only more difficult to engage but often loses its sense of play.

In music, performers are generally “re-creative,” not just recreating the music someone else wrote long ago, but in needing to come up with creative solutions to interpretive questions. Sometimes understanding creativity helps to figure out why a composer wrote something this way and not that way.

Teachers had better be creative if you expect to engage your continually changing students and expect to grow along with them.

One of the most important things you need to discover is how to teach yourself when there’s no one there to turn to to ask the questions you used to ask. Once you’ve absorbed everything you’ve been taught, you assimilate it into your own personality and pass it on to the next round: your students, your audience.

Music is not an exact science. In fact, we’re discovering that even science is not an exact science. How could all those amazing discoveries have been made if it weren’t for the unpredictable imagination? True, a lot of that happens “by accident,” but it’s the imagination that allows us to discover that we DID discover something by accident.

To those who consider themselves “non-creative,” the ability to compose music or write a novel is a big mystery. It’s not rational, we can’t explain it – we call it a “God-given Talent.” Frankly, people who understand computer programs or excel in sports are a mystery to me. Whatever it is, if you’re creative, to you this is normal; what somebody else does that you can’t is therefore a mystery.

In the United States today, everything has to be explained. Answers are True/False, Yes/No, Black/White with little tolerance for Gray (I’m speaking metaphorically, here), or at least maybe multiple choice. Everything has to be neatly pigeon-holed.

And succinct. When you fill out your income tax forms, there’s a tiny little space for your occupation – I’m a music director at a public radio station: how do I write all that in something that’s barely an inch long? One time, I just wrote in “radio” but that looked very weird – I’m a radio? There was barely room to write in “Communications” since neither Media or Entertainment seemed any more accurate. I couldn’t put “Composer” because they want to know how I earn my money and everybody knows most people don’t make any money as a composer.

So how does creativity work? Honestly, if I knew the answer to that, I wouldn’t be working at a radio station: I would be making my money as a composer and I’d be one of the most sought-after teachers in the world! The problem for many people is “so what do you do when creativity no longer works?” If it’s a God-Given Talent, then can’t God take it away? We often find ourselves worrying about this: will it be there tomorrow? Next year? I just had a big success – will there be another one? What do I do if I can’t repeat that success? Now I have a reputation: people expect great things from me now. And creativity takes on a whole new dimension.

Nobody can really teach you to be creative. Teachers can give you hints and suggestions along the way, coaching you to develop the talent you may already have, but chances are if you don’t have the talent, they’re not going to turn you into a composer just by sheer force of will. It takes time to develop this talent – and it takes time for the public to accept the fruits of that talent as “Art.” It’s not the same as mastering a skill to perform a job but in the long-range scheme of things, that’s still the basic idea. Kind of.

Whittling it down, there are two approaches to Art – you can learn the craft, learning how to put it together by rules and logic, more abstract skills that you develop before you really begin creating; or you do it “naturally” and by repetition figure out what works, replacing craft with intuition.

It amuses me, wandering through those summer “Arts & Craft” shows, looking at some of the booths to see who’s an artist and who’s a craftsman. Here’s a pot – it does everything a pot needs to do to be a pot. There are those who make very practical pots and there are those who make pots that are very appealing to the eye. One may not be very pretty, the other may not be very useful. Perhaps they’re there for different purposes. Perhaps the one potter doesn’t have the imagination to create the beautiful pot; perhaps the other one doesn’t want to make just practical pots because other potters can do that. One isn’t better than the other though we can all be snobs about pots, if we wanted to, since we can be snobs about anything else.

When I was in graduate school, earning two degrees in composition, I didn’t learn a lot of craft, turning out exercises in counterpoint, for example, which might be to music what cross-word puzzles are to novels. I had some kind of “innate” talent that worked on a mostly intuitive level: I wrote what I felt like. My teacher, Sam Adler, didn’t try to force me into the Craft Corner – probably because he knew I’d rebel – though he’d give me some assignment that was meant to solve some kind of creative issue. We’d go through the piece I brought in for my lesson and he’d say “that note – it should be an F-sharp” (it always seemed to be an F-sharp) and I would play it with the F-sharp and, yeah, it sounded better. Why does it sound better? He’d just shrug his shoulders. I would continue composing, trying to find “the right note” by “what sounded right.”

There’s a lot of discussion in the past decade or so about the Two Personality Types – are you Type A or Type B? Scientists also talk about Right Brain and Left Brain – not just as sides of the brain and how they function but how these functions reflect the personality of the... uhm, Brain-Holder. (Let’s not get into the No-Brainer.)

This is not entirely a recent discovery: through the history of Art, we have classified the style of the era as either Classical or Romantic – in music, the second half of the 18th Century is the Classical Era and the 19th Century is the Romantic Era. Basically that means “classical” is dominated by concepts of form and craft but “romantic” is ruled by emotions.

These two seemingly opposite poles have been described in terms of Greek stereotypes, which may have been the way the Greeks explained the difference between certain kinds of people (since a culture creates a mythology in order to explain itself and make sense of the world around it). Among the many facets of his job description, in addition to being in charge of the sun, Apollo was the god of order. Dionysos (or Dionysus in the Latinized form), also known as Bacchus, gave us wine and may not be as impressive as Apollo on the deity scale, but wine, an important feature of everyday life, was a means to achieving freedom from the rigidity of order.

On Apollo’s side, there is order, design, form – logic. Things can be analyzed rationally, objectively. You can look at different parts to come up with the whole. Ritual in the sense of a routine exists to inspire order. You respond to it intellectually.

On Dionysos’ side, by comparison, there is – well, chaos. Thing are random, non-sequential, intuitive and subjective. You usually respond to the whole experience before looking at its components. Ritual is something that inspires you, opens you to the choice of possibilities. You respond to it emotionally.

Apollo is your Left Brain and Dionysos is your Right Brain. Curiously we each have a brain that is divided into a right hemisphere and a left hemisphere, each one in control of certain functions that make us humans (or, in another sense, human). Some people may be dominated by the Right Brain more than the Left; others, by the Left Brain more than the Right – some, more of a mix dominated by one or the other. So curiously, with all this talk of gray matter, it’s not entirely black or white after all.

Greeks worshiped in temples of Apollonian symmetry (the most famous example being the Parthenon). Greek dramas, a mix of poetry and drama as well as choral singing and dancing, grew out of religious festivals dedicated to Dionysos.

The Greeks had muses – one for each of what they considered the arts (and some of that seems open to interpretation these days) – divine spirits (daughters of Zeus and Mnemosyne or Memory) who would come down from Olympus (or the Heavens) to inspire the artist. If the artist wasn’t feeling particularly inspired, there was a ritual to encourage a visit from your particular muse: libations and prayers.

In today’s scientific world, this may seem silly, though dozens of the “self-help” books on creativity issues that I’ve read or paged through contain, in one way or another, prayers directly to God and think nothing of it. (We think nothing of children putting out milk and cookies for Santa Claus either, for that matter...)

Many of these books also suggest certain kinds of rituals, preparing your mind for creativity by first of all removing anything too mundane that distracts or ruins your focus. If you’ve set aside a private space and time in your schedule so you can write that novel, even if it’s only an hour a day, you’re not going to be receptive to fresh ideas if you’re still concentrating on what you have to make for dinner, how you’re going to present that business contract to the boss or how terrible the news is from the Middle East. You need to cleanse the mind (or the soul), and these rituals help sweep away the surface level intrusions so you can function better at a deeper level of consciousness (or allow the subconscious to percolate to the surface).

Igor Stravinsky is a good example of a Left Brain Apollo (he even composed a ballet about Apollo and the Muses) – at least from the 1920s on. In the middle of his career, after changing creative gears following “The Rite of Spring” which is almost pure Dionysos, he went back to earlier eras, finding models in the 18th Century that inspired him with their clean lines, neat textures and if not exactly unemotional, less messy emotions. When Stravinsky would sit down at his desk to compose, he would carefully sharpen his pencils, put all his pens in another place, lined up according to colors (late in life, he tended to use colored pens to write), clean paper handy – a well-ordered space that wasn’t ready for him to compose until it was all in order.

Toru Takemitsu may not be the best example of a Right-Brain Dionysian composer – his music is inspired by a Japanese sense of order and design, after all – but his ritual was to sit down at the piano and play through Bach’s St. Matthew Passion. When he was done, THEN he would begin work on a new piece. He was responding emotionally to a piece of music totally foreign in outward style and concept to the music he would be composing himself as well as to his own national culture, cleansing the mind with spiritual and timeless beauty before his spirit, like a slate swept clean, was ready to compose something new.

Artists sitting around waiting for inspiration might be “musing.”

And muse is also the root word for Music, even though all nine muses covered a variety of often overlapping art forms that would be less specific pigeon-holes than we might think useful today.

May Sarton, poet, novelist and a writer of deeply insightful journals, wrote how she might begin her day listening to music, finding Mozart’s Clarinet Quintet a particularly inspiring piece. I wonder if she would have written something different if she would have preferred Berlioz’ Symphonie fantastique?

I’ve heard from several listeners who tell me they were painting or writing poetry while listening to something I was playing on the radio that night, and how it inspired them to some creative solution they may not have been thinking of when they sat down to create (not so much “to work” but “to play”).

The word “muse” is often transferred to a person, usually someone the artist is in love with but who may be unobtainable, who becomes either a direct inspiration or someone to whom only the best creative efforts would be worthy of their dedications.

An Apollonian composer might be inspired by a form – whether it’s Haydn returning to the symphonic form to write 104 of them or Brahms writing “only” four, finding different solution for each one of them. A Dionysian composer with inspiration generating from an emotional response might be inspired by an event – like Shostakovich writing his 10th Symphony following the death of Stalin.

But what causes Creativity to change? What do you do when you find yourself abandoned by your muse?

– To Be Continued...

Picture credit: Baldassare Peruzzi’s “Muses Dancing with Apollo”

Saturday, January 20, 2007


Did you ever have one of those assignments – mine was in a junior high school health class, I think – where you were supposed to pick a handicap and act out for a day what it would be like dealing with that in your daily life? As I recall, the teacher jokingly expressed it as “pick your favorite handicap” or at least that’s what it seemed like to me.

I refused. I didn’t want to “pretend” I was blind or deaf or crippled (someone in the class threw out “or retarded” as another option – everyone laughed). I didn’t want to play-act to experience what it might be like, living that way, whether it was because I felt it was making fun of those who already were or simply out of fear: what do mothers around the world say when kids make faces, “keep doing that and your face will stay that way”? Someone later would put it as “Don’t tempt God.”

Noise has always been a particular problem for me. When I was a kid, someone at a family reunion set off a firecracker under my seat because I was just sitting there reading and not having any fun. They thought it just scared me, but my heart was pounding and I could barely catch my breath for what seemed like hours. In college, I was walking along the street when a car backfired (it sounded like a gunshot to me) and I kind of passed out, going into a state of semi-conscious shock that lasted for several hours. It was later discovered I had a slight heart murmur which might explain those reactions, but I don't ever remember being treated for it.

I have never been comfortable around factory and machine noise: it’s physically painful to me. It is not the volume – I can enjoy listening to Mahler full-blast, let’s say, and not have a problem – but the steady exposure. While Mahler might be beautiful and exciting, there is nothing aesthetically redeeming about listening to the constant shriek of a vacuum cleaner.

This past couple of months, things suddenly have been changing and I’ve become terrified of damaging my hearing. As a would-be musician and composer, losing my hearing is my biggest fear. Not that the problems indicate “sudden deafness,” more like “continued exposure to annoying noises may result in hearing damage,” and in the past month or so, I’ve become more conscious of background noises and noticing that foreground sounds are “compromised.” I now suddenly find myself having to turn the radio or stereo up more than before. I get frequent headaches after a few hours’ exposure to the steady hum of the “noise-masking system” at work and in fact find it becoming painful even after a few minutes (they’ve toned it down a bit, I’m told, but it’s still annoying: I can rarely go five or ten minutes before needing to put in ear-plugs). It’s like listening to someone vacuuming in the next cubicle only they’re there for hours at a time, not even moving, the machine just running (“you’ll get used to it”). This past week, there were industrial strength fans roaring in the atrium, drying out the carpeting after a sprinkler malfunctioned over the weekend: walking past them was like having someone holding a high-speed drill to my head.

I’ve always been aware I had a “keen” sense of hearing – it comes in handy for a musician. For me, this is what normal is. But I’d never really been aware how “sensitive” it was. However, it had been 20 years since I last had a hearing examination, so I made an appointment with a hearing specialist – for this past Thursday.

Not that I expected them to find anything because they had nothing to compare their results to. According to the examination and the tests, my hearing is “perfect.” If anything, I have an increased level of hearing and there seemed to be some wonder why I would even be concerned about that. I couldn’t seem to impress on the doctor that it was at the expense of other, more important sounds. Music, for example. Yes, I could still hear an audiologist saying certain words against the pumped-in backdrop of a steady hum of noise, but it may have been easier to do that a few months ago, before these problems manifested themselves. That’s not a very productive way to listen to and appreciate music if there’s the steady hum of a vacuum cleaner, say, in the midst of the cello section.

So now I wait until April to return for a comparison follow-up.

The question, then, is do I spend the next three months not trying to protect my hearing just to see if it WILL do any damage or do I continue wearing my “ear-protectors”? That’s an earphone-looking thing that blocks out loud frequencies but still lets me know someone is talking to me (or trying to). It turns the roar of the noise-masking noise into a bearable drone.

Working in a radio station, most of my co-workers assume I’m wearing some cool radio receiver unit. “What are you listening to,” one of them asked me yesterday.

“Silence!” I said.

So if I don’t wear it (them?), I wonder am I possibly allowing my hearing to be damaged just to prove a point? If I do wear them, there’s almost no point in going back for the follow-up because I would expect if it’s working, protecting my hearing from potential harm, the test results should still indicate my hearing is “perfect” – or perhaps “good enough” by other people’s normal standards.

Meanwhile, I sit down at my writing table by the piano, look at the music I’m trying to compose and wonder: Can I continue being a composer? Why am I a composer? Why bother trying to compose? What’s the point? Who am I if I can’t compose, even if nobody else hears my music?

As if the sense of fear about my hearing weren’t enough, now I’m sent into a creative tailspin by the “inner critic” who has turned these fears into a panic. I know Beethoven managed to compose despite his deafness. I know Smetana did not. I also know I am no Beethoven, nor even a Smetana.

No one will notice if I stop composing. (Actually, probably very few people would notice if 90% of our composers today would stop composing, but that’s another issue.) It’s not like I have a “reputation” to maintain: I’d spent maybe 15 miserable years not composing before. I have no career as a composer. But it IS how I identify my self and it’s important to me, despite other people saying things that are the equivalent of “deal with it.”

Because I know I have to but I don’t know if I can accept that loss of identity again. I am learning to accept the pain in my back (yeah, that’s another issue: also awaiting test results to see if it’s anything more than “just” arthritis) and taking measures to compensate for it (like not sitting in chairs that feel uncomfortable no matter how ergonomically perfect they’re supposed to be). But my hearing is different, a more vital part of me – and it’s not like I have a choice, or at least an easy one.

Monday, January 01, 2007

New Years Resolutions

Happy New Year to everybody with best wishes for a healthy, happy, prosperous and hopefully sane year in 2007. It's a time for making New Year's Resolutions, something I don't often do, but this year was different and I thought I'd share some of them with you.

If you've ever studied music, you know that a scale - let's use the white-rat garden-variety key of C Major - is a collection of available pitches out of which you can construct a melody (the linear element of music) or chords (the vertical element of music.) Putting chords together creates harmony, which is mostly about how chords move from one to another. A cadence is a series of chords that act as punctuation for a musical phrase.

As an example, here's a C Major scale and the different chords you can create out of that scale:

Now, if I take a different collection of pitches – a group of six notes – I can create a “set of available pitches” that can act basically the same way. Theorist Allen Forte labels this particular set or “hexachord” 6-30. If you take the other six notes of the 12 available pitches, its mirror, you come up with its complement, a hexachord that is, in this case, the inversion of 6-30 which I write as 6-30'.
Like a C Major scale, I could use these pitches in any order I want to create a melody and I can create different kinds of chords from them, too. If I take the first three notes and turn it into a chord (I don’t want to call it a “triad” because that implies it’s built on thirds rather than is a chord consisting of three notes, so we tend to call it a “trichord”), then the second three notes and so on, I get this progression of chords built on major and minor seconds.
So now I have four chords created out of all 12 pitches of the chromatic scale. It’s also not terribly interesting because everything is moving in parallel directions, sort of like playing those major and minor triads from a C Major scale exactly as I wrote them in my little example above.

If you notice that the first two chords consist of a major 7th with a major 2nd above the lower note and that the second two chords consist of a major 7th with a major 2nd below the top note, you could also switch around some of the pitches to create chords that would have a minor 3rd above or below the outer notes.
The all-parallel motion is still pretty boring, basically just a “succession” of chords. But if you start changing the direction of some of these voices within the chords, you could get something like this:
An “open” chord moving to a chord in a tighter or “close” position now gives you a sense of a chord progression – there’s a feeling of increased tension and, by reversing that order for the end of these four chords, of the release of that tension. This basically creates a kind of cadence, one that may be open-ended or one that may sound more-or-less resolved.
These two are really my first two resolutions. Ex.5 may sound more open-ended, like the tension still needs to resolve, because of the compact nature of the final dissonance with its Major and Minor 2nds. To listeners used to chords built on Major and Minor 3rds – a C Major or D minor triad, say – a chord like any of these will sound “dissonant,” but dissonance only means there’s unresolved tension. In a collection of non-traditional non-tonal chords, dissonance becomes fairly relative.

But looking at the set of notes in 6-30, you can also group them to create chords built on 3rds that have a look of familiarity about them. If I spelled the F-sharp as a G-flat, that would legally be a C Diminished triad, but I wanted to get the idea of the upward half-step motion to the G-natural in the next chord. It resolves to what would function in the key of D Major as Dominant 7th Chord and because of our familiarity with that sound we sense the way it could (or maybe “ought to”) resolve.

In the second hexachord, these could resolve any number of ways, including chords that sound like they could be “augmented 6th” chords (German 6ths and French 6ths, without getting into a whole raft of discussion from Sophomore Theory class) resolving to Dominant 7th chords. The point is, while they “sound” like those chords, they don’t “act” like those chords, resolving in the same expected ways.
That may be interesting but I find it sounding too close to traditional harmony to be too useful in my own style. It could be used at some half-way point before a full-blown, more final resolution, though, so I’ll keep it in mind as a possibility.

But what is the point of all this? For centuries, composers have built their harmonic structure on a series of chords perceived as “consonant.” Yet a Dominant 7th, a diminished triad or an augmented 6th chord are all dissonant because they imply forward and, as yet, incomplete motion needing resolution. The art of creating a satisfying harmonic progression (or forward motion) is the result of blending the right amount of consonance with the right amount of dissonance.

If it’s all consonant, it will sound very bland (“it doesn’t ‘go’ anywhere”). If it’s all dissonant, it will sound too chaotic and unsettled (“it still doesn’t ‘go’ anywhere, just sits there churning”).

So in a more-or-less dissonant style, you still want to mix in aspects of consonance and dissonance. You can do that by resolving to chords that are “less dissonant” and therefor by comparison “consonant.” Or you can use old-fashioned “consonant” harmonies like C Major or D Minor triads.

In Ex.7, you can see the pitches of 6-30 will create two minor triads – C Minor and F-sharp minor. Its complement, 6-30', will create two major triads – E Major and B-flat Major. But play them together, they don’t sound like a “tonal consonant progression” because they’re a tritone apart, that augmented 4th interval that for centuries was called “the devil in music” because it sounded so unsettling. The more chromatic music became – following the progression from Bach and late-Mozart to Wagner to Schoenberg and so on into the 20th Century – the impact of a tritone has lessened until it’s just another interval.

And with the right kind of intervallic motion in the outer voices, it lessens the tritone’s impact if the bass line, for instance, isn’t jumping a tritone. Ex.7 sounds very smooth, actually. Here’s another example with the same triads but I reverse the order of the last two: in some context, the motion from B-flat to E might sound better than E to B-flat.
Now, if I want to use a “consonant” motion resolving to a “dissonant” motion, I could mix the two by using standard triads in an un-standard way resolving to non-tonal, non-traditional trichords creating a sense of tension that leaves this phrase “open-ended.”
It could be more open-ended if I reversed the last two chords to end on the chord in “close” position. Or I could switch the two hexachords, then opening with dissonant motion resolving to consonant motion (and I’m speaking simplistically, here), cadencing on the F-sharp minor triad.
Or I could use the hexachords in their original order and come up with this possibility:
I find this a very satisfying resolution, personally. I also notice that the top-line of each chord scrambles the letters in the name BACH (using the Old German Notation where B=B-flat and H=B-natural). So if I wanted to, I could "partition" these chords in such a way, I could come up with something slightly different. By taking the two middle chords for my first pair and the two outer chords for my second pair, I now have a different progression of chords, harmonizing Bach's Name!

Each pair of chords now consists of one major triad and a trichord built on seconds. These create a different hexachord, which is the inversion of the hexachord Forte labels as 6-14: the complementary hexachord (its mirror) is just another transposition - a tritone away - of the same set, so both of them are inversions.

However, I didn't care as much for the E-Major cadence, so I thought if I switched out the G-sharp for the last chord with the G-natural in the second, I don't really change the structure of the chords but I get a subtle variation that also gives me a less-final-sounding resolution to E Minor. That could come in handy, perhaps. These chords, then, form the hexachord 6-15 and its complement. And it becomes a way of “modulating” between one hexachord and another.
So, basically, with a mix of consonant and dissonant chords, it all comes back to Bach...