Most of us have experienced it. I am experiencing it now in both my music composition and in trying to come up with a topic to write about for this week’s writing group. I experience it every time I sit down to write a new composition. With over three hundred and fifty compositions to my credit, I wonder how I am ever going to write something new.
New! That seems to be the key word. Here is a definition I found at dictionary.com regarding creativity:
Creativity is the ability to transcend traditional ideas, rules, patterns, relationships, or the like, and to create meaningful new ideas, forms, methods, interpretations, etc.; originality, progressiveness, or imagination.
How does a creative artist constantly transcend traditional ideas, rules, patterns, relationships, or the like, and create meaningful new ideas, forms, methods, interpretations, etc.? It seems like an impossible task.
I think that “new” is overrated. All the arts went through a period during the second half of the twentieth century where newness was exalted just because it was new, rather than for a work of art’s quality. As Robert Ehle states in his article From Sound To Silence: The Classical Tradition and the Avant-Garde published in the March 1979 Music Educators Journal, “the quest for new ideas without old associations has led to the abandonment of music as sound and the emphasis on music as pure idea.”
An example of music as pure idea would be John Cage’s “4:33” where a pianist comes on stage and sits at a piano for four minutes and thirty-three seconds and does nothing. The idea of the composition is that the sounds in the room are the music.
In the world of theatre, consider Samuel Beckett’s play Breath. Breath is an unusually terse work. Its length can be estimated from Beckett's detailed instructions in the script to be about 25 seconds. It consists of the sound of “an instant of recorded vagitus” (a birth-cry), followed by an amplified recording of somebody slowly inhaling and exhaling accompanied by an increase and decrease in the intensity of the light. There is then a second identical cry, and the piece ends. No people are seen on stage, but Beckett states that it should be "littered with miscellaneous rubbish." He did specify however that there were to be “no verticals”, the rubbish was to be “all scattered and lying.”
The visual arts were not exempt for the newness craze. There are many examples of abstract art that consists of a line or two on a white canvas. I think I’ll create a painting with nothing but a white canvas and call it a painting of a polar bear sitting on an iceberg during a blizzard.
So what is it that creative artists really do? Many years ago, I attended a lecture on jazz trombone playing at the Eastern Trombone Conference. The lecturer described trombone styles as falling into three categories, preservers, innovators, and refiners.
Preservers are those people who create by copying and already existing style. For example, if I wrote a composition of my own using the tonal language and contrapuntal techniques that Bach used in the early eighteenth century, I would be considered a preserver of a bygone era.
Innovators are those people that try to do something that was never done before. I believe that innovators are very necessary, otherwise we would never move in a forward direction. However, not all innovation is good and only time will be able to separate the good from the bad.
Refiners are my favorite creative people. Refiners take what has come before them and what is new and put those two together in a manner that incorporates the artist’s own personal vision. They take what has stood the test of time, combine it with fresh ideas, and come up with a personal statement that is modern. They do not reward newness just because it is new. Rather, they discriminately filter the new to see if it has practical applications.
With my musical compositions, I feel that I am a refiner. So when I sit down to compose, I’m using my favorite techniques and sounds that have stood the test of time and try to put them together in a new and fresh way. Sometimes I consciously use music I have written before and give it a new setting; new instrumentation, add a section and/or take away a section. Sometimes I borrow from myself without even knowing it.
For example, I am currently writing a composition for tenor saxophone and piano. After working on a part of it, my wife said to me, what are you doing with “Pinocchio”, a composition that I wrote in 2001 and that will be choreographed and performed at the Festival at Sandpoint in Idaho in August. I replied, “That is my tenor saxophone composition, not Pinocchio.” But there is a section in the saxophone piece that sounds like a section of Pinocchio! I must have had Pinocchio on my mind and borrowed subconsciously from myself.
In conclusion, I believe that to be creative doesn’t mean that one always needs to do something totally new, something that has never been done before. Creativity means taking one's craft and putting things together in a manner that is unique to the artist. Many different things can inspire the artist to create, but if one sets out each time to create something totally new in the artist’s field, one can easily experience a block. I guess I solved my “writer’s block” for this week’s writing group as I wrote this essay. I hope that this creativity will carry over into my musical compositions.