On Making Statements when you Play
Thoughts on the creative process.
A few years ago I visited the Museum of Modern Art in New York City and saw Pablo Picasso’s Les Desmoiselle d’Avignon in person for the first time. It is one thing to look at it in a book. To stand in front of it is a completely different experience.
It is massive in size, about 8 feet tall by 7 feet wide. When reproduced in smaller dimensions – in books and reprints – its power is somewhat diminished. Only by standing in front of the original can its full impact really be felt.
The difference is much like listening to a recording of an orchestral or chamber group as opposed to hearing them live. Even the most highly advanced stereo system cannot replicate the experience of a live concert.
Some things are just too big in scale and do not translate completely into another medium.
Picasso went through a long process of fine tuning Les Desmoiselle d’Avignon. It is well documented in hundreds and hundreds of preparatory studies. Yet, his basic concept remained unchanged; it was as if he knew from the beginning that his idea was revolutionary and would have a tremendous impact.
Picasso claimed that he never searched for ideas and inspiration, but rather sought only to find the right setting for them. “In my opinion, to search means nothing in painting. To find is the thing,” Picasso is quoted as saying.
For the composer Mozart, it was a similar thing. He heard entire compositions in his head before committing pen to paper:
Nor do I hear in my imagination the parts successively, I hear them all at once. What a delight this is! All this inventing, this producing, takes place in a pleasing, lively dream.
In my lessons with Chicago Symphony Principal Hornist Dale Clevenger I was often encouraged to play more boldly when performing. “Don’t ask questions,” he would say, “make statements.”
In performance and in auditions, this is certainly good advice.
That being said, Clevenger also advised flexibility – “like spring steel and not like cast iron.” Spring steel bends when flexed whereas cast iron is more brittle and can snap into pieces.
Using a variation of this line, I ask the school kids I teach on occasion to be flexible in adapting to my different way of doing things. I accentuate this talk with my flexible, fiberglass conducting baton, bending it into a curved arch.
This always makes an impression – the kids expect the baton to snap in two.
For other artists, creation is a drawn-out process; it is one of discovery and not one of bold epiphanies. The “play’s the thing,” and the artistic process is more like a search to uncover the idea. It is shaped and molded it as it emerges.
In sharp contrast to Picasso is the post-impressionist painter Paul Cézanne. He was a late bloomer and this is perhaps suggestive of his artistic process.
“I seek in painting,” he said.
Another example of this “seeking” method may be observed in Claude Monet‘s extensive haystack series. He was obviously looking for something – variances in color and light over time rendered on a lone haystack – and kept trying at it, over and over again.
For the composer Ludwig van Beethoven it was similar process. He worked his scores over and over again. Composing was a long and laborious process:
Tones sound, and roar and storm about me until I have set them down in notes.
Like a fine wine
For most people the creative process is more like that of fermentation. It begins with a small kernel of truth and the picture only reveals itself over time and with considerable effort.
For myself it is something like this – a journey of effort and discovery.
In performance and in teaching I am always trying to make an immediate statement, but I am also always asking questions before and after – how it could be done differently or more effectively?
In creating web sites and writing blogs too, I start with a general idea but there is always a process of work and discovery to uncover the final thing.
For most people, good work is the product of good effort.
Unless you are an acclaimed prodigy or a genius (like Mozart or Picasso), acting on principles unilaterally – the “my way or the highway” method – can have its limits. Expecting immediate results and concrete answers at the onset of any creative process can fall short of (or even mask) the truth.
Besides, many times it is the questions that are more interesting than the answers.