You need a tangible idea to get you going

You can’t just dance or paint or write or sculpt. Those are just verbs. You need a tangible idea to get you going. The idea, however miniscule, is what turns the verb into a noun — paint into a painting, sculpt into sculpture, write into writing, dance into a dance.

Twyla Tharp, The Creative Habit

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John Harbison: “I’m trying to defeat the idea of style”

AG: All of your works are so very different from each other, and there’s a quote from an interview with you from years ago in which you said that your main interest was to make each work different from the others—to reinvent traditions and to create fresh new designs.  Do you approach each new piece in a completely different manner?

JH: I’m trying to.  And I’m trying to defeat the idea of style. I think the composers that I’m interested in also were more interested in finding the character of the piece, or the peculiar circumstances of the piece, and defeating the idea of the style.  Bach does it in a peculiar manner really because he’s someone who developed so many resources for how he could write that in his case, it’s really just a lavish kind of equipment.  If you track him from one week to the next, right in those two years when he’s writing a piece a week, the astonishing thing is that he’s not working off the previous week at all.  You walk away completely thrown by how unreliant he is on where he’s just been, which is staggering to me, particularly because the timeframe is so small.  If you were to say, well, Wagner writes Tristan and then he writes Meistersinger, and his vocabulary is so wildly different. I mean, it’s incredible self-discipline that he makes the sound of those pieces so different, but you’re also talking about six year gulfs there.  For Bach, it’s like six days.  So I think that trying to re-attack is really important.  I try to set up situations where I kind of have to do that.  Like when I wrote this piece for the Vatican, and they looked over a bunch of my motets in this little committee, and they sent me a commentary sheet.  The pieces where I use triads are all identified as something they like.  That’s the way they were in the 14thcentury too, so I thought the premise for the piece then ought to be that there’s nothing in the piece but triads.  That became a really interesting premise because if you then try to write seemingly linear textures, actually they’re up and down.  They’re constantly registering triads. It becomes an interesting set of problems, to not make the listener or even the analyst aware of this, but if you are crazy enough to actually look at it moment to moment, you notice that’s what happening.  That seemed like a great opportunity to clear the air, and to be doing something completely unlike whatever I’ve been doing.  So I look for chances like that.  I did a piece years ago called The Most Often Used Chords, and a couple of my friends in California said, “That didn’t sound like anything you would write.”  I said, “Well, I’m really happy to hear that because given the a priori sort of games that I laid out, movement to movement, there wasn’t much of any way for it to sound like things I’d written before.”  There are a number of peculiar things that go on in that piece, based on not exactly musical principles, like almost statistical; say certain chords will be around a certain percentage of the time.  To me it was what music would be like if a bunch of really goofy theorists thought you should do things according to the way you could actually describe them. I think it’s fun to find places where you have to do it in a way that you don’t really know how to do it.

NewMusicBox Interview with John Harbison, December 1, 2011

The act of a man creating is the act of a whole man

The artist, the writer, and to a new degree the scientist seek an answer in the nature of their acts. They create or they seek to create, and this in itself endows the process with dignity. There is “creative” writing and “pure” science, each justifying the work of its producer in its own right. It is implied, I think, that the act of a man creating is the act of a whole man, that it is this rather than the product that makes it good and worthy.

Jerome S. Bruner, On Knowing (1962, p. 17)

No crooked table legs came out of the carpenter’s shop at Nazareth

Our Saviour Subject to His Parents at Nazareth, by John Rogers Herbert

In nothing has the Church so lost Her hold on reality as in Her failure to understand and respect the secular vocation. She has allowed work and religion to become separate departments, and is astonished to find that, as a result, the secular work of the world is turned to purely selfish and destructive ends, and that the greater part of the world’s intelligent workers have become irreligious, or at least, uninterested in religion.

But is it astonishing? How can anyone remain interested in a religion which seems to have no concern with nine-tenths of his life?  The church’s approach to an intelligent carpenter is usually confined to exhorting him not to be drunk and disorderly in his leisure hours, and to come to church on Sundays. What the church should be telling him is this: that the very first demand that his religion makes upon him is that he should make good tables.

Church by all means, and decent forms of amusement, certainly—but what use is all that if in the very center of his life and occupation he is insulting God with bad carpentry? No crooked table legs or ill-fitting drawers ever, I dare swear, came out of the carpenter’s shop at Nazareth. Nor, if they did, could anyone believe that they were made by the same hand that made Heaven and earth. No piety in the worker will compensate for work that is not true to itself; for any work that is untrue to its own technique is a living lie.

Dorothy L. Sayers, Creed or Chaos?, (New York: Harcourt, Brace, 1949), 56–57.  Quoted by Thomas B. Griffith in “How Do We Practice Our Religion While We Practice?”, Clark Memorandum, Fall, 2004, p. 15.
Image credit: “Our Saviour Subject to His Parents at Nazareth,” by John Rogers Herbert (1810-1890). BYU Museum of Art.

Where there is no gift there is no art

It is the assumption of this book that a work of art is a gift, not a commodity. Or, to state the modern case with more precision, that works of art exist simultaneously in two “economies,” a market economy and a gift economy. Only one of these is essential, however: a work of art can survive without the market, but where there is no gift there is no art.

There are several distinct senses of “gift” that lie behind these ideas, but common to each of them is the notion that a gift is a thing we do not get by our own efforts. We cannot buy it; we cannot acquire it through an act of will. It is bestowed upon us. Thus we rightly speak of “talent” as a “gift,” for although a talent can be perfected through an effort of the will, no effort in the world can cause its initial appearance. Mozart, composing on the harpsichord at the age of four, had a gift.

We also rightly speak of intuition or inspiration as a gift. As the artist works, some portion of his creation is bestowed upon him. An idea pops into his head, a tune begins to play, a phrase comes to mind, a color falls in place on the canvas. Usually, in fact, the artist does not find himself engaged or exhilarated by the work, nor does it seem authentic, until this gratuitous element has appeared, so that along with any true creation comes the uncanny sense that “I,” the artist, did not make the work. “Not I, not I, but the wind that blows through me,” says D. H. Lawrence. Not all artists emphasize the “gift” phase of their creation to the degree that Lawrence does, but all artists feel it.

These two senses of gift refer only to the creation of the work – what we might call the inner life of art; but it is my assumption that we should extend this way of speaking to its outer life as well, to the work after it has left its maker’s hands. That art that matters to us – which moves the heart, or revives the soul, or delights the senses, or offers courage for living, however we choose to describe the experience – that work is received by us as a gift is received. Even if we have paid a fee at the door of the museum or concert hall, when we are touched by a work of art something comes to us which has nothing to do with the price. I went to see a landscape painter’s works, and that evening, walking among pine trees near my home, I could see the shapes and colors I had not seen the day before. The spirit of an artist’s gifts can wake our own. The work appeals, as Joseph Conrad says, to a part of our being which is itself a gift and not an acquisition. Our sense of harmony can hear the harmonies that Mozart heard. We may not have the power to profess our gifts as the artist does, and yet we come to recognize, and in a sense to receive, the endowments of our being through the agency of his creation. We feel fortunate, even redeemed. The daily commerce of our lives – “sugar for sugar and salt for salt,” as the blues singers say – proceeds at its own constant level, but a gift revives the soul. When we are moved by art we are grateful that the artist lived, grateful that he labored in the service of his gifts.

If a work of art is the emanation of its maker’s gift and if it is received by its audience as a gift, then is it, too, a gift? I have framed the question to imply an affirmative answer, but I doubt we can be so categorical. Any object, any item of commerce, becomes one kind of property or another depending on how we use it. Even if a work of art contains the spirit of the artist’s gift, it does not follow that the work itself is a gift. It is what we make of it.

And yet, that said, it must be added that the way we treat a thing can sometimes change its nature, For example, religions often prohibit the sale of sacred objects, the implication being that their sanctity is lost if they are bought and sold. A work of art seems to be a hardier breed; it can be sold in the market and still emerge a work of art. But if it is true that in the essential commerce of art a gift is carried by the work from the artist to his audience, if I am right to say that where there is not gift there is not art, then it may be possible to destroy a work of art by converting it into a pure commodity. Such, at any rate, is my position. I do not maintain that art cannot be bought and sold; I do maintain that the gift portion of the work places a constraint upon our merchandising.

The particular form that my elaboration of these ides has taken may best be introduced through a description of how I came to my topic in the first place. For some years now I myself have tried to make my way as a poet, a translator, and a sort of “scholar without institution.” Inevitably the money question comes up; labors such as mine are notoriously non-remunerative, and the landlord is not interested in your book of translations the day the rent falls due. A necessary corollary seems to follow the proposition that a work of art is a gift: there is nothing in the labor of art itself that will automatically make it pay. Quite the opposite, in fact. I develop this point at some length in the chapters that follow, so I shall not elaborate upon it here except to say that every modern artist who has chosen to labor with a gift must sooner or later wonder how he or she is to survive in a society dominated by market exchange. And if the fruits of a gift are gifts themselves, how is the artist to nourish himself, spiritually as well as materially, in an age whose values are market values and whose commerce consists almost exclusively in the purchase and sale of commodities?

Every culture offers its citizens an image of what it is to be a man or woman of substance. There have been times and places in which a person came into his or her social being through the dispersal of his gifts, the “big man” or “big woman” being that one through whom the most gifts flowed. The mythology of a market society reverses the picture: getting rather than giving is the mark of a substantial person, and the hero is “self-possessed,” “self-made.” So long as these assumptions rule, a disquieting sense of triviality, or worthlessness even, will nag the man or woman who labors in the service of a gift and whose products are not adequately described as commodities. Where we reckon our substance by our acquisition, the gifts of the gifted man are powerless to make him substantial.

Moreover, as I shall argue in my opening chapters, a gift that cannot be given away ceases to be a gift. The spirit of a gift is kept alive by its constant donation. If this is the case, then the gifts of the inner world must be accepted as gifts in the outer world if they are to retain their vitality. Where gifts have no public currency, therefore, where the gift as a form of property is neither recognized nor honored, our inner gifts will find themselves excluded from the very commerce which is their nourishment. Or, to say the same thing from a different angle, where commerce is exclusively a traffic in merchandise, the gifted cannot enter into the give-and-take that ensures the livelihood of their spirit.

The Gift: Creativity and the Artist in the Modern World, By Lewis Hyde, Vintage Books, pp. xvi-xix.

You have to compose constantly

Tchaikovsky and Rimsky-Korsakov didn’t like each other and agreed on very few things, but they were of one opinion on this: you had to write constantly. If you can’t write a major work, write minor trifles. If you can’t write at all, orchestrate something.
Dimitri Shostakovich

Volkov, Solomon, tr. Antonina W. Bouis, Testimony: The memoirs of Dmitri Shostakovich (New York: Harper & Row, 1979), p. 218