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”

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