Category Archives: book learnin’

The War of Art – Yes, Again

I’m going to come clean and admit that I have a horrible case of Seasonal Affective Disorder. I’ve fallen victim to it since my relocation from more civilized latitudes to the harsh climate of Texas. One of the compromises that we made when I moved here was that I would get to complain about the heat from May through September. And all kidding aside, it’s pretty brutal. In Houston we’ve had serious drought and 20+ days of temperatures over 100F. Seriously. It’s painful.

In these dog days of summer, I find that my creative output drops significantly. I can’t bring myself to read anything worthwhile. My attention is captured by the Internet, video games, and watching beads of condensation run down my ever full glass of ice water. I complain about not getting anything done and my wife, patient as ever, reminds me that what usually works is re-reading The War of Art by Steven Pressfield. And she’s right.

I’ve given away several copies of the book and have turned on at least a dozen people to it. Some of them clicked with it the way that I did and others got a weird taste from it. All agreed that it was good stuff, but the presentation worked for some and not others. I feel good for getting other eyes on the book, but the eyes that really need to be on it are mine because the book Just Works™ for me.

I don’t know if it’s the simple structure – generally one page per idea – or the voice of the author that makes it hit home for me the way that it does. Honestly, like most of the things surrounding my creative process, I don’t question it much because it works. And when something works, I don’t really want to mess with it. What Pressfield does, better than anyone else I’ve read, is remind me of why it is I do what I do. I do it because I have to. And like everything else that I really, really have to do, I feel really, really bad when I don’t do it. Much like eating, drinking, and sleeping, creative work is something that I do because it is necessary. And like those other things, I can only go so long without it before negative effects set in.

I’ve been in a rut for the past 3 or 4 weeks. Finally, Sunday morning, I sat down and started to go through The War of Art again. Again I found it instantly inspiring and I’m ready to get my ass back in the seat and get back to work. Yes, my wife is right again. And yes, you should read or re-read Pressfield’s genius right now. No matter what you’re doing, it will help.

history

The information age has brought so much to the average person with access to the Internet that it’s hard to disparage it in any serious way. The benefits of the shared knowledge and easy access outweigh any serious concerns to the point where it’s almost silly to talk about the negative effects. Doing so seems precious and falls into the realm of navel-gazers. After all, at no other time could a person of any social standing come into contact with so much information on any and all subjects. With that said, there are days where I wish I knew less.

In high school I played in a band. Our singer didn’t have any training on stringed instruments, but he could pick up a bass guitar and do some stuff that sounded really great. Why did it sound so good? Because he had no pretense. He didn’t know his scales or arpeggios and thus had nothing to prove. The faces of Jaco Pastorius and Stanley Clarke meant nothing to him. He was just having a good time. As a result of this lack of instruction (note I didn’t say talent or ability) he was able to take something that would have been deemed too simple for the almost-journeyman musician and make it convincing. There was no attempt to impress anyone technically, it was all about sounding good.

A lot of artists get lost when the art produced is for an audience of peers, living or dead, and I find myself in that boat from time to time. It’s given that at a certain point in the development of one’s voice it is critical to be reviewed by masters and peers. It’s very important to have that audience of others who are learning and growing. Much benefit can be derived from hearing a fellow composer discuss a more difficult passage and offer suggestions from a similar level of experience. When both members of the conversation are at the same point in the path up the mountain, there’s a lot of good information that can be shared and the passage can be more easily navigated by each. At the same time, when one composes only for one’s masters and peers the reason for starting the work can be lost to a desire for recognition and praise from “those who know.”

diagonal

It’s also difficult when framed with the historical precendents and their ready availability. I remember like it was yesterday (because it was) thinking back through pieces that I have heard or played and searching for permission to do something. Thinking that if Roger Sessions or Edgard Varese did something like what I was trying that I can do it too. Or in moments of despair defaulting to Cage and getting my pat on the head that anything with a start point and an end point is in bounds.

Why this deferrence to history, peers, and masters? I honestly don’t know. This hang up only comes to me when I compose. My painting could not possibly care less about the Canon of Western Art™. When I build an instrument, I’m not looking to the makers of old for anything more than solid construction techniques or jigs. I don’t need for Dave Grisman to approve of my mandolin picking or Henry Miller to agree with my writing. I simply do them.

I noted this search for permission that occasionally leads to writer’s block and the derailing of projects when I started college and have made great headway in ignoring it by working with people who are not trained, talking with artists who work from the gut, and trusting the judgement of those who are the goal: normal listeners. My wife can’t write a four voice chorale in the style of J.S. Bach but she can always give a thumbs up or down to a piece of music.

Part of moving toward mastery is scrutinizing the craft. Studying its history and understanding how it all fits together is to be expected. But the untaught lesson of when to use this knowledge and when to put it aside is something that has to be learned alone in the studio. It’s one of the seldom mentioned battles that is fought by anyone who studies and creates. In the end, the desire to know less is really the desire to understand more exposed.

they were broken when i started

It turns out that I can’t leave the idea of limits alone for very long. The world is conspiring to put it squarely in the center of my attention. A podcast from Poetry Magazine played a bit of Charles Bernstein reciting F.T. Marinetti’s Futurist Manifesto. They talked a bit about the influence of futurism on several composers whom I enjoy greatly. One of them was Igor Stravinsky (namesake of my long defunct and badly mistreated iguana, may he rest in peace). I have read so much about his life and work over the years that when his name comes up my modest body of knowledge bubbles and I get excited. Alone in the car isn’t a great place for a conversation so the thoughts traveled inward. And that’s where I get back to limits.

Stravinsky believed that music was not a language in the sense that it cannot communicate fully on its own. In other words, meaning can be attached to music but the meaning is not present in the music itself. A simplistic reading of his work would lead one to believe that music exists for its own sake and nothing more. This eschews the romantic notion of the composer as a soul in the darkness, desperate for contact. Now no one who has been to a U2 concert will believe that music exists solely for itself, but I have seen King Crimson shows that support the thesis. As a young composer, I took the simplified version of Stravinsky’s words and followed this line of reasoning for, well, almost two decades. But this morning, something turned.

fields

The assumption that music is not a language and cannot communicate both imposes and removes limitations. If we say that I can’t communicate using music, I don’t have to try. This also erects a wall. What if I really want to communicate? What if I see the simplest dances for the lute as communicating a cultural ritual and assume that this is good enough to pass for communication? What if I compose a piece with the intention of making someone cry? It looks silly in retrospect, but I never thought about it. And I never thought about it because by the time I started composing, all of the rules had already been broken or nullified.

I’ve never been one to have a school. That is to say, I’m not into pigeon holes or styles or -isms. I have always said that I want to make cool noises. Implicit in that statement is the assumption of sound for the sake of sound. There’s nothing wrong with that at all, but it’s interesting to note how willingly I took on so many limitations all the while thinking that I was freeing myself.

It should be noted that limitations or constraints are not bad or good, but they are necessary to make any kind of art. It is easy to argue that an artist is more fully defined by the boundaries he sets up than those he knocks down. Slowly it is dawning on me that the generation of artists to which I belong (the post-20th century whatever we are) will have to define ourselves by the mindful development of boundaries. What walls will we put up so that we may push off from them? How will we fence ourselves in? Criticism seems to be if not dead then severely wounded and down for the count. In a world of twitter and constant polling of opinion via news outlets that never sleep, there is no time to build a body of work in a given style because nothing has a change to establish iteself and grow. Anything and everything goes. But by saying we can do anything we’re also saying that we will probably do nothing. Make no mark. Push nothing forward. Stagnate.

That’s a lot more depressing and underdeveloped than I had thought it would be. But it won’t leave me alone so I’ll keep hacking at it.