Monday, September 14, 2009

His Wild Changing Ways: Reflections On the Creative Process

I'm currently writing a new piece for male chorus, flute, orchestral bells, and piano accompaniment. It's a piece that I first conceived in 2004, when I was living in the Twin Cities; but then life took me off in various directions, and the past few years have been simultaneously a great giving and a major interruption to my creative process. At the moment, crop-rotated as I am away from poetry and towards music, I find it hard to look at any poems from the past four years with objectivity; I know there's good stuff in there, but even looking at it makes me itch right now. I've known in the past that my innate tendency has been to write more poems mainly when I am musically inactive, for whatever reason. It's always been true that I write more poems when I'm off camping, or traveling, occasions when music isn't so easy to either write or record. My handwritten journal from various roadtrips, and when camping far from electricity, results in both poems and drawings, as well as journal entries. At the moment, I feel that if I look at that stuff too much, right now, more out of habit than out of necessity, it saps energy away from where it needs to be in other fields, as part of the process. If I'm repeating myself about letting the poetry fields lie fallow for now, it's because I feel pushed by habit and expectations to keep picking at that scab, rather than leaving it alone. I've been visible as a writer now for some time, more visible than in any other mode, probably. And that is both welcome and the source of a problem: very few other artists that I know actually shift creative modes the way I seem to do, even though many agree with the idea in principle. Writing is, frankly, a bad habit, for me, when it becomes a default mode; because when it's a default mode, it saps energy away from the other modes. Bear with me here, I'm thinking out loud. I can say I'm not a writer and know it to be a statement of crop rotation rather than a rejection of what I may have accomplished before; similarly, I can say I'm not a writer because, regardless of prior accomplishment, writing isn't my default mode—and I don't want it to be. Because writing is relatively easy for me—compared to what some writers report, and compared to what composing music is for me—it's all too easy to slip into it as a default mode precisely because it's easy and I'm lazy. When I'm lazy, writing music can seem impossibly difficult; at those times I also have the option to record rather than notate, which is easier, but not much so. I worry that the source of music, a continuous dark river of melody that rises up from some darker place within, will get drowned out by the surface-level noise of the world. I've never worried about this before; to be honest, what I'm worried about is my ability to stay focused and undistracted on composing music, when it's so easy to get distracted by both writing and reading. At the moment I watch almost no television, list to almost no music, either on CD or on the radio. I'm listening hard to whatever music wants to rise up and be notated, for this new composition I'm working on. Last night, driving home after a rehearsal, I listened to the radio for awhile, but then I turned it off and drove home silently the rest of the way. Driving home from Madison takes just under an hour, typically, barring major traffic or construction work that slows everyone down. Driving in the dark, last night, the ending of the new piece appeared in my mind, as a single line of climactic melody. By the time I got home, I had worked out what the ending will be almost in its entirety, and when I got home I immediately set down some sketches and notes to myself that will remind me of the gestures and shapes that I had woven while driving. Everyone who knows me well knows that I get a lot of my best ideas while driving, and that I do some of my best thinking on the road. My rosebushes are about to explode with new blooms, after being rather quiet for the past month. I'm watching bees circle this morning, as I write. In the back of my head is an urgent pressure to spend as much of the day composing music today that I can. I worry that even writing here about it is going to dissipate that energy—which accounts for the urgency. I realize what's really going on here, though: The past four or five years have been a major life-changing experience for me; I've said that often enough that no doubt everyone is as bored of hearing it as I am. Yet it remains true: after my parents died, amidst the trauma of grief and urgent Things To Do, and amidst the slow regrowth of my own independent life, I realized, and journalled about, an important realization: You cannot go through a life-changing experience without your art also changing. Not only its contents, but the actual ways and means you use to make art. Part of my doubt about writing is that perhaps it's too easy to do—and it can become a way, because of its easy familiarity, of avoiding engagement with the changing nature of one's own art. In terms of poetry, the changes in my poetic "voice" or style are off the charts; I haven't even tried to keep analyzing or tracking them; but those changes also led to my complete disillusionment with, and disengagement from, all venues of poetry critique and criticism that had previously engaged my interest. And both rejected and rejecting, I struck out on my own. Now, writing, actually notating, writing down, this new piece of music, I am having the same realization about my music, as I did about the poetry: You cannot go through a life-changing experience without your music also changing. The music that is emerging, in this piece for chorus and instruments, is chant-like, rather "simple" in means compared to the more complex music of my previous composed pieces. I realize that the same tools are at hand, and I also realize that the same ability to use the tools in a complex way is available to me. Yet, just as I discovered from recording improvised pieces on my mother's piano, last year, before it was shipped off to Europe, I am drawn towards simpler, yet perhaps more resonant, statements in music. I am finding a wealth of emotion in the simplest of sounds. It's like I'm starting over from scratch. Starting simple, with simple means. Just a mode, not even tonality. Just a few chant-like phrases to build layered structures upon, rather than complex polyphony. The new piece is about weaving words and chants into magic; it's a piece for Yule, the pagan celebration of the Winter Solstice, and it's built upon traditional chants, as well as a new poem-lyric that I wrote a couple of days ago. This new poem-lyric I wrote, by the way, fits perfectly at the end of the piece, into the melodic and structural ideas that came to me while driving last night: it's a perfect match; and so now I know how I'm going to use those new words in the music, and where. This new music that is emerging, in a changed way, is both more chant-like and simple in its means than the last piece I fully notated (jazz/rock melody/chord charts don't count), and also it's a new beginning. A new way of working. I also note that the last piece I fully notated was written while living in Wisconsin; I note that almost all the fully-notated scores I've finished have been done in Michigan or Wisconsin. Maybe there's something inspirational about being here; or maybe it's just coincidence. I do feel like I am finally beginning to regrow my own independent life again, here; and being reconnected with the music scene in Madison is part of that. I've been renewing friendships among the jazz community, recently, in addition to singing with the men's chorus. Perhaps all of this is just me—after everything that happened, after all the distractions and derailings—coming back to creative life. Changed, certainly. But alive. And alive is what matters.

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Blogger John Ettorre said...

I love how you keep reminding me (and of course others) about the crop-rotation metaphor for creative work. It's so very helpful and accurate.

12:51 PM  
Blogger Art Durkee said...

I guess it's mostly because I'm dealing with it, myself. Glad you're along for the ride, regardless.


7:18 PM  

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