Author: Paul Elwood

Creativity in the Age of COVID-19

Work table with books and blank music paper

It’s interesting how priorities change in this time of COVID-19. My petty concerns seem even more, uh, petty. What’s become important to me is to not spend what remains of my life in bitterness over roads not taken or career opportunities that never have arisen—or that I didn’t cause to arise. And let’s face it, in my early 60s, that remaining time may be much less than I might want. What is an effective way to spend one’s time? As musicians, I truly believe that one of the most important things that we can do is to continue to create. And the many musicians that have been posting joint performances online are a testament to this drive.

I believe that one guide for productive survival in these strange times is to maintain a consistency of creative work and to try not and focus on where it may or may not lead. My teacher Charles Wuorinen, who recently passed, taught me to not compromise my creative time. “Do something every day,” he said, “even if it’s just for an hour.” Compose, play, write, paint, every day. That consistency is anchoring for us psychologically and important for establishing a daily mental ordering for other work we may need to do on our homes, with our spouses, pets, and families. In the best of times I feel incomplete if I don’t compose in the morning. In the worst of times, I feel incomplete if I don’t continue the habit—it just seems to signify that things are even worse than I’d imagined. I need the diurnal foundation of the creative act in order to deal with the rest of each day.

Also, I try not connecting to the news every morning because that’s causing me to experience a sense of at least temporary despair. Perhaps one shouldn’t completely ignore the news, but we may quarantine media as well as social media items to a specific time of day, perhaps toward the end of the afternoon. If I look at the news early, then my creative concentration is blasted. If I look at it before bed, then I may have trouble sleeping. One article recommended that you rely on only one or two news services you trust so as to not overload and go down the rabbit hole of Internet links leading to this, that, and the other resulting in increased anxiety. And, let’s face it, while a lot of this may not be sensationalism, some of it is. It’s good to filter what we read and see in order to preserve some positive creative energy.

Better that we connect with one another. I’ve discovered that I have an interesting net of friends with whom I’ve been connecting through phone, Skype, Zoom, or messaging. A number of my friends are performing online. I’m planning long-distance recording collaborations with musicians in a variety of locations. This is an opportunity to connect with one or two musicians with whom I haven’t yet collaborated, and, if my stimulus check comes through, those funds will help support those musicians that record my music.

As an aside, I’ve discovered that happy hours with friends are great stress relievers.

To compose, practice, and play (albeit on the Web) is an act of defiance. It’s saying “to hell with despair” and affirming the prospective and, I believe, bright future of creative offerings, concerts held in communion with others, and the potential for a cache of wonderful works created now while social distancing.

Live and create today for present sanity and for the future. This won’t last forever.


Support for the writing of this article was provided by the ASCAP Foundation Irving Caesar Fund.
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Is Passion a Young Person’s Game?

A desk with scattered papers, compositions, and a computer
Look, you get older. Passion is a young man’s game. Young people can be passionate. Older people gotta be more wise. I mean, you’re around awhile, you leave certain things to the young. Don’t try to act like you’re young. You could really hurt yourself.—Bob Dylan, interview with Robert Love, AARP Magazine, February/March 2015

 

A French artist related that, in his 30s, a gallery owner told him that if he didn’t succeed as an artist by the age of 40 that he wouldn’t make it at all. He responded angrily, saying that age shouldn’t matter. “If the art is good, it’s good . . . [but] I see now that she was right,” he said matter-of-factly over a coffee in Marseille. Now in his 50s, in spite of a great deal of good work behind him, he spends his days playing boule in public lots with retired men while sipping pastis.

In the article “Blocked” by Joan Acocella in The New Yorker (June 14, 2004), Elizabeth Hardwick, a denizen of the writing world in the late 1950s, is quoted as saying: “I don’t think getting older is good for the creative process. Writing is so hard. It’s the only time in your life when you have to think.” Acocella cites author John Updike who speculates on Herman Melville’s diminished output after turning 32: “. . . basically Melville exhausted his artistic capital—his seafaring years—in ‘Typee,’ ‘Omoo,’ and ‘Moby-Dick.’ If, after those books, he wrote a couple of mediocre novels and then gave up the trade, it is no surprise.”

So, as one ages, how does one continue to “follow one’s bliss?” If it’s not passion in the 50+ age category (and, in my mind, that’s debatable) what is it that keeps us going in our work—especially if, like me and countless others, huge success hasn’t come knocking? Some days I feel like the only payoff I’ll ever have is the joy (not spoken ironically) of the daily habit of composing. Really, the important thing seems to be to work constantly and not worry about the end results; it’s best to invest your energy, enthusiasm, and—yes Bob—passion into your work.

Composer Kevin Volans, in his oft-quoted and discussed address “If You Need An Audience, We Don’t Need You,” [The Contemporary Music Centre, Ireland, June 15, 2016] states:

At least 95% of all composers get better with age. A very small minority get worse, but this is usually because of illness: . . . Yet there is more and more emphasis on and support for so-called ‘emerging composers’ —most of whom, I am sad to say, are left on the scrap heap when they turn 40. . . . I have had desperate letters from composers just over 40, who have won international competitions, and whose careers have suddenly come to a halt. Because they are no longer emerging, they are of no interest. The composers are bewildered and bereft. I think this is morally wrong. . . . Emerging, who cares? Publicists.

Daniel Grant relates the story of a gallery owner who shared that “age tends to be an issue for certain kinds of collectors and, as such, is an issue for dealers.” [The Huffington Post: “Is There an Age Limit for ‘Emerging Artists’?” August 25, 2010, updated May 25, 2011], He noted that he sees “collectors’ body language shift when they learn that [an] artist is older. . . . Certainly, one might make the argument that lengthy experience deepens one’s technical and conceptual abilities.”

Our craft takes time to mature and develop. It’s true that some great art comes out of younger artists, but sometimes it needs time. One need go no further than Stravinsky to make a case in point. His early ballet music is some of my favorite—and he was finished with those works by the age of 32. Still, I’ve always admired the fact that, as he grew older, he continued to experiment and transform as a composer. A more extreme example of the brilliance of the young is W.A. Mozart, who never did grow old (at least speaking in terms relative to our era). But, for many of us growing older, a continued concentration on craft places Malcolm Gladwell’s following statement within the realm of possibility: “. . . sometimes genius is anything but rarefied; sometimes it’s just the thing that emerges after twenty years of working at your kitchen table” [October 13, 2008, “Late Bloomers,” The New Yorker].

Looking at an older generation of living composers as I write this, Alvin Lucier in his late 80s is still composing excellent and beautiful music. I was privileged to play one of three banjos (with ebows) on the premiere of his composition Hannover, with the Callithumpian Consort of the New England Conservatory four years ago. This year I released the premiere recording of a piece for solo banjo that I commissioned from Christian Wolff who is also in his 80s (Innova 005). John Zorn, in his 60s, still exhibits an originality and energy that I’ve always admired; the same holds true for Kaija Saariaho. And Augusta Read Thomas, now in her 50s, is still composing great and colorful music that’s as enthusiastically received as the music that brought her wide acclaim decades prior. But what about composers who were sensations in their 20s but then somehow disappeared from public discussion, even as their work continued. Was it a case of getting too old to be of interest to a youth-focused culture? Was a shift in body language detected in concert programmers when a name and age were mentioned?

But there are also composers in the aging category who don’t hold the legendary status of some of the above-mentioned composers who are finally finding well-deserved success combined with a craft that continues to develop. My Tennessee composer friend Jonathan McNair, who just turned 60, has been writing excellent music for years. His music is infused with wonderful musicianship honed with passion and heart. Some of his music is expressive of a large social consciousness. For years, he kept writing and teaching and now a number of musicians have discovered his music and are programming it. “I think I wrote more music in the 11-month period from May 2018-April 2019 than ever before in my life,” he wrote me. And he is confident and happy with the direction that his new compositions are going,

As a composer in his 60s, am I supposed to give up because the zeitgeist seems to favor younger composers and artists? Chances are great that many of us composers over 50 aren’t through yet. “We’re living longer than ever before,” writes Amy Gutman [“Aging is not death. Stop conflating the two,” The Washington Post, May 17, 2015.]. “In the 20th century, Americans gained a staggering 30 years of life expectancy, thanks to advances in nutrition, public health and medicine. A century ago, just 3 percent of our population was 65 or older. Today, that number is 13 percent and expected to rise to 20 percent in the next 15 years. In other words, by 2030, an estimated 1 in 5 of us will be 65 or older.”

I’ve never been bored by the subject of music; it’s been an endless pipeline of exciting ideas and discoveries. I learn a lot from looking at works by Beethoven that I don’t know. I hear for the first time events in works by Debussy or Ravel that I may have heard a thousand times, but never before noticed. That’s an advantage for me in aging—I’m a more intelligent listener; my ears are better and keep improving. And I try to stay abreast of works by younger composers. I don’t want to send my own writing in their stylistic directions, but I am interested in the transformation of our art form. As an older composer, I am set on my own path, but I want to maintain an awareness, if not open-mindedness, of what is going on around me. At least I can point my students toward composers closer to their peer group to keep an eye on.

I don’t believe that I’ll run out of material or passion if I can at least maintain my health and attitude. I’m happy to have a catalog of works good and bad that developed over several decades. For the most part I believe that I’ve gotten better as one should with practice. The daily habit is what sustains me psychologically—anything beyond that in terms of performances or royalties may just be icing on the cake.

The musician/polymath Nicholas Slonimsky interviewed by NPR on the occasion of his 90th birthday was asked what he intended to do next. He listed numerous activities including composing and writing an autobiography, eventually titled Perfect Pitch, and published in 1988 when he was 94. He, in fact, lived to be 101. Elliott Carter kept writing music up until the year he died at the age of 103.

Is passion really a young person’s game? I find myself drawn to certain quotidian habits born of a passion fostered in my 20s: composing (esp. when I don’t feel like it), practicing, and teaching. I think back to images of the young Bob Dylan in the D.A. Pennebaker film Don’t Look Back. While on tour, during the day, Dylan and his entourage are killing time in a hotel room; it’s an energetic scene: Joan Baez plays and sings in the corner, the manager Albert Grossman simply sits or fields calls, and Dylan is slamming out some sort of (I imagine) stream of conscious narrative on his typewriter. At this time, he was indefatigable and passionate with his writing and composing; performing constantly until his motorcycle accident in 1966.

I think that viability as a creative artist is self-defined regardless of age. We can’t believe an art dealer or concert promoter if they tell us we are washed up at 40. Some of us dive in early in our careers with that youthful passion that causes us to work every day. Dylan, now 77, never seems to have wavered in passion and song production over the past 60 years. And if it’s not passion, then it must be habit born of passion that continues his productivity. And as for me, I see no reason to quit stumbling to the drafting table every day; I still have ideas, and a desire to improve my work. It’s not the posterity of a large body of work that I’m trying to create, but the continued self-defined worth of an artist who still wants to compose and collaborate with excellent musicians. Thankfully, it seems that there are more of those now than ever before. Do I stop composing because the LA Phil hasn’t contacted me for a commission? Hell, no.

Determining a Different Outcome

It’s easy to give ourselves a hard time about not being more successful as composers, musicians, writers, and artists. And this perception is often rooted in our self-regard and not in reality as others may see us. That is, we may have scored many successes but not perceive them as such. I used to become jealous, mildly enraged, or depressed by the success of others, and also engaged in petty schadenfreude when someone was perceived to have failed. I figure that’s why many “news” items detail the slips, failures, and inevitable aging of public figures; it enables us to compare ourselves to those once considered successful in a favorable light.

I’ve known some artists who were continually angry or at least frustrated by the cards they were dealt; one was a visual artist who had actually had a full show at the Whitney, a Guggenheim Fellowship, photos published in national magazines, and a monograph written by a highly respected art historian. Another was a composer who has had performances by a number of major orchestras. I told the artist that he wouldn’t be content until he had a Pulitzer, and the other confided in me that the day that they announced the Pulitzer each year wasn’t a very good day for him.

Somewhere along the line I decided that I was going to strive to avoid bitterness about my own career and (at least try) to appreciate what I have. Not all artists start with the same paint box of abilities, family support, timely teachers, and inspiring surroundings. But those of us who are composing and creating actively have at least found the success of drive, desire, and an inner strength to persist, no matter what our background is.

Recently, when they announced that the Nobel Prize in Chemistry was going to Frances Arnold, she was interviewed on NPR about receiving the life-changing phone call early one morning. I found myself envious of that experience, until I rationalized that her success is actually my success and a success for all of us. Her advances in her field are our advances. I never felt jealous of Neil Armstrong’s walk on the moon. It was in fact embraced as a success for the entire world, and it still is (at least if we don’t deny that it happened).

“The best way to predict the future is to create it.”

We are the ones who individually determine the course of our lives. As the adage from Abraham Lincoln goes (and which was later appropriated by Silicon Valley): “The best way to predict the future is to create it.” No one else is going to do it.

Recently I’ve had what I consider to be successful renderings of a couple of works for mezzo-soprano that were composed for the singer Alice Simmons, whom my wife and I met after a performance at the Tate Modern Museum in London. We became friends and eventually I wrote her a song cycle based on James Joyce’s Finnegans Wake that she premiered in the UK. Recently, she premiered an evening-length, multimedia event for me in Kansas. In her late 40s, Alice is reinventing her life as a performer. It’s something that she avoided for many years due to her lack of confidence. But she’s now putting herself out there and is constantly busy. She is reinventing her future and creating a different outcome, on a path that embraces the challenge of performing.

She doesn’t view herself as a success, but I see that her success lies in reinvention. And her reinvention contributes to my success in collaboration, which has resulted in a couple of lovely performances.

“Am I successful?” We determine what is successful. I’ve known musicians and composers who had a very limited definition of success, which was to write a hit song and live on the royalties or to end up getting a gig with the New York Phil. That was it. And when one person I know didn’t achieve the latter, this person drifted away from music completely—and he had a genuine shot at world-class gigs like the Phil, even if they weren’t specifically with that particular band.

So, where can your definition of success go but down if you don’t achieve one specific goal? I’ve known one person to have that sort of success and who seemed to appreciate it: banjoist, fiddler, singer, guitarist, and songwriter John Hartford. In the 1960s, he penned “Gentle on My Mind” in half an hour and, when his record was released, Glen Campbell picked up the tune and made it a very large hit—when I knew Hartford, it was the 17th most-recorded tune in history. Elvis, Sinatra, and a host of others did their own interpretations. While Hartford lived on those royalties for the rest of his life, he didn’t rest on his laurels. He composed many more songs (never again to achieve the popular success of “Gentle on My Mind”), and he toured all over performing many concerts—sometimes clog dancing, playing the fiddle, and singing simultaneously. Even when cancer ravaged his body, he kept performing and writing; I saw his penultimate performance in Asheville, North Carolina, which to me was the ultimate in success as he was still persisting in doing what he loved. By this time, he was only able to play the occasional single tone on the banjo and sing his songs fronting a backup band. Yet, to me, each note expressed a lifetime of incredible music making. He was actively involved and never failed, even if he never had another hit.

I complimented him once for not trying to reproduce the success of “Gentle on My Mind.” “Oh, but I did,” he replied. He spent three weeks composing a follow-up titled “A Simple Thing as Love,” intended to be as successful at the previous one. I love that tune, but it never caught on in the manner he’d envisioned. In spite of not duplicating his first success, he carried on practicing, writing, and giving concerts.

Our successes are self-defined and they can’t be narrowly conceived. I’ve lived out my life with a list of three goals that I made as a 19-year old when I desperately needed direction in life. I decided that my career in music would consist of teaching, composing, and performing, not necessarily in that order. I believed then and still do that a successful day was being engaged in all three of those activities. Forty years later, I’m still doing it. I consider that to be a successful career in spite of never winning (or being nominated for) a Pulitzer, never placing in the Walnut Valley National Banjo Competition, and never being named teacher of the year (or some such crap).

It doesn’t matter. At the age of 60, I’m happy in a weird sort of way. I still have moments where I envy the success of others and wish, say, I’d been endowed with a different background that would have led to a Santa Fe Opera premiere or performances with major orchestras worldwide. But then I wouldn’t have the life I have now. And who knows if I would have been happy with that other life anyway? It’s easy to confound and twist success in our minds into a perception of failure. But I’m composing every day, teaching, playing gigs, and staging concerts. I get to work with many different people, musicians and artists. And I’m left with a wide variety of stories.

It really doesn’t get much better than this. But, like servicing an old car, I know that I’m going to have to maintain and continue to develop that attitude. The specter of dissatisfaction can take over at any time. But it doesn’t have to.

Show Up, Stay Awake, and Tell the Truth

A printed score manuscript, headphones, and a coffee mug.

I’ve long cultivated the habit of showing up at the drafting table every morning to compose. Since, I’ve reasoned, I wasn’t endowed with a particular ability to write fabulous music spontaneously, I needed to work (and work and work) on the details in order to produce something that I could be happy with.

Nothing happens if I don’t show up. No music gets written and no ideas emerge.

But nothing happens if I don’t show up. No music gets written and no ideas emerge. Our lives are composites of what we turn our concentration to, and if I’m turning my concentration to things other than composing, then those things become my focus and, in essence, my life. I think at the drafting table.

The sculptor Auguste Rodin told poet Rainer Maria Rilke, Il faut Travailler, toujours travailler [It’s necessary to work, always work]. And, when one does this, the work becomes the focus. It’s true that in the act of composing (painting, writing, etc.) friends and family may be sidelined. Often, time devoted to work is a trade-off. There is a Faustian price to be paid, but it comes more under the category of “things left undone,” rather than a Stones-like deal with the devil. Papers sit ungraded (if, like me, you’ve selected the academic route), meetings are left unattended (or at least not acted on), and class prep is circumvented.

Outside of the studio, you may show up and meet people who will change your life in positive and artistic ways. Late one Sunday night, I went to a club to hear a jazz guitarist I’d heard of around town and, there being no one else there, he talked to me at length during the break. It turns out that we shared many common interests in jazz and new music. Based on that conversation alone I ended up playing percussion with his band for the next three years—the meeting led to an economically cheerful situation and was musically enriching in the long run.

I was a guest on a radio show to promote a festival on which I was playing in Marseille, France. Seven festival performers were crowded around a mic. I ended up next to a saxophonist I’d never met before and, there on the radio, we improvised together for the first time. Afterwards he graciously invited me to his house and we ended up playing many gigs in the south of France for the next seven years. What if I’d demurred when asked to be on the radio because my French abilities were atrocious?

Other connections have led to performances, sudden improvisations, friendships, and projects. But such things don’t happen if we don’t show up. It’s hard sometimes to make an appearance. There are mornings when I don’t want to compose, evenings I don’t want to go out. At heart, I’m a hermetic sort of person who appreciates staying home to read Finnegans Wake aloud in my best Lucky Charms brogue while sipping Jameson. That desire keeps me home and makes showing up for the next morning’s writing session difficult from an excess of whiskey.

But, composing is habitual. At fifteen, I was obsessive about practicing the banjo. Did I say “practicing”? Playing is more accurate. I worked out enough technique to sit in my room and play (and play and play). One evening my father came up to call me to dinner. He stopped in the doorway and said, “You know, if you want to become a professional musician, you’re going to have to practice even when you don’t want to.” My dad perceived that I was playing and not practicing. I don’t know if he realized that he’d just told me something that would change my life, but that is advice I’ve embraced and remember even now on those mornings when I don’t feel like working.

The difficult thing about staying awake is tamping down my own inner desire to expound on my own ideas, thoughts, and problems. That approach teaches me nothing.

Showing up brackets other components. One is to stay awake to the surrounding environment, i.e., listening: listen to the music, listen to random sounds, listen to what is being said. The difficult thing about staying awake is tamping down my own inner desire to expound on my own ideas, thoughts, problems, etc., ad nauseum. That approach teaches me nothing, shuts out others, and is ultimately (sometimes suddenly) alienating. It’s better, I’ve discovered, to listen. We’re musicians; it shouldn’t be so hard. But shutting up and staying awake can be difficult. I’ve missed things in classes, seminars, workshops, and potentially interesting conversations by, most literally, sleeping, or by just not paying attention.

Another element of showing up is telling the truth. If I’m going to show up, I need to present myself as the person—the composer—I am truly. I won’t fool anyone anyway by trying to be something I’m not. One must compose what they want. After studying serial music for a number of years, I didn’t want to compose in that manner anymore. I started integrating folk melodies into my work and my music became more tonal sounding.

When I first heard John Adams’s Harmonium, I hated it. Couldn’t understand why a composer in this day and age would compose like that after all of the “ground-breaking innovations” of the past century. But I kept listening and, soon thereafter, when I was commissioned to write a short composition for orchestra, I found myself gravitating very much toward his tonal and orchestrational vocabulary.

Anytime I’ve tried to compose for an audience, I’ve failed. I’ve ended up writing music that no one, myself included, seemed terribly enthusiastic about.

My short composition for orchestra was eventually selected for a festival. At the wrap party, a selection-panel member hauled me aside and told me that he had strongly advocated for “that type of a piece” to be represented in their programming. Apparently, he had to really argue for its inclusion. One must be true to oneself in composing. Don’t worry about the audience (and especially don’t worry about what other composers think). If you’re being honest, the audience and critics will respond honestly. Anytime I’ve tried to compose for an audience, I’ve failed. I’ve ended up writing music that no one, myself included, seemed terribly enthusiastic about.

Each of these components—showing up, staying awake, and telling the truth—is hard to accomplish at one time or another. I’m my worst enemy. As already described, I have to fight myself to show up. It’s hard to pay attention, and it’s sometimes hard to be honest in what I say and to write the music that is truly self-expressive without the imagined spectre of critics looking at me askance.

But, showing up, remaining aware, and being truthful to a personal artistic vision and to others seem to be primary keys in making things happen. While it’s not certain that anything will happen by being fully present, aware, and honest, it’s definite that nothing will happen if you’re not.

Channeling the Messengers

It was a lovely June evening in Mesa Verde National Park in southwest Colorado. I was playing banjo with cellist Hank Rober­ts, bassist Robert Black, and Robert Mirabal, who sang and played drums and flutes of the Pueblo tribe. One of Hank’s tunes called for us to make animal sounds. Something about this evening’s performance induced in me the sense that I was channeling those sounds, not just making them. I closed my eyes and don’t even remember what noises came out, but it seemed as if they were not coming from, but through me.

That’s a sensation I occasionally have at the drafting table when composing and, sometimes, when soloing on stage, my focus seems more of a trance than just mere concentration. A lot of times, work I do at the drafting table seems like . . . well, like work. Ideas are hard to come by and I often will end up with 30 to 50 pages of pencil sketches before things begin to flow. Apparently, I have to get every bad idea I’ve ever had out onto paper before something else takes over. I think of this something as the muse.

And yes, I stereotypically think of the muse as a her, a Galadriel-like presence that demands to see a certain amount work and effort put into a project before she will add her thoughts, Elven Waybread, and much better ideas to the project. But she first needs to see obeisance to the work and effort. Otherwise, I fear, she’ll just move on to someone else. Always before this moment, I know exactly where the ideas come from and I’m conscious of a “pre-compositional” plan that I may have created and which I am trying to follow. Pages and pages of scrawls (and doodles, which I believe help me think) collect. But, when the muse kicks in, I get rid of the plan, get out of my own way, toss many of the sketches, and start to play. And I have no idea where the ideas come from.

A number of years ago I attended several workshops led by the iconic experimentalist in photography, Jerry Uelsmann. One time he counseled the students to “work every day. Don’t take any days off. But go into the studio and, instead of working, play.” That’s a lesson I’ve sometimes succeeded in adhering to. His images display a great deal of creative play and, in my mind, a metaphysical tap into a dream-like, surrealist land.

Careful analysis, planning, and past musical studies I believe are a part of the process for a composer and musician. All of the listening, performing, and writing I’ve done before are part of this. Technique is essential before one can make it non-essential. When I taught music theory, I told my students to learn the process of, say, part-writing, so that they could later forget it. The idea is to integrate the concepts of logic and structure that is inherent in creative development into their own work and to eventually bypass the specific rules for a larger concept of discipline and expression.

The fact is, if we’re really doing our jobs as artists, we don’t know what we’re doing.

The fact is, if we’re really doing our jobs as artists, we don’t know what we’re doing. It’s a timeworn argument that upsets a number of artists. (I know, I’ve been on the receiving end of this consternation.) Yes, the work needs to be applied and the technique needs to be in place, but, if we’re truly doing our job, then a certain level of informed ignorance is intrinsic to the process. A foundation of technique needs to be in place before that technique is discarded.

In The Shape of Content, Ben Shahn’s Charles Eliot Norton Lectures in 1957-58, the visual artist writes that “no artist will be at ease with an opinion that holds him to be a mere handy-man of art, the fellow who puts the paint on.” (Harvard University Press, 1985, p. 22). That’s not what I’m saying; if we’re doing our work, that means we’ve done our work, laid a foundation from which to develop our own creative expressions of the reality around us. We then open up to something larger than our individual selves. Shahn counters this later on:

But the subconscious cannot create art. The very act of making a painting is an intending one; thus to intend and at the same time relinquish intention is a hopeless contradiction. . . . But the great failure of all such art, at least in my own view, lies in the fact that man’s most able self is his conscious self—his intending self. (Shahn, p. 44).

All I can counter is that life is full of mysterious contradictions: individual consciousness succeeds nothingness and proceeds eventually to nothingness; and there is no absolute right and wrong in many instances, though we draw battle lines and die for our beliefs (especially in academic settings). Intention is important to hang on to before we then turn that intention over to the muse and let the unconscious take over.

As a student of Charles Wuorinen in the 1990s in Buffalo, I asked him to teach me serial technique, as I had never really studied it in much depth. Over time he showed me how to structure a composition using Milton Babbitt’s time-point techniques. Eventually I told him that I was concerned that this technique would just render my music similar to the music of many other composers at the time. “All creativity comes from a higher power,” he responded, “you just have to trust in that.”

“All creativity comes from a higher power, you just have to trust in that.”

I learned to put my faith in that maxim. I devoted myself to a daily practice of composition as taught by Uelsmann and as demonstrated to me by Wuorinen, Donald Erb, David Felder, Peter Maxwell Davies, and other teachers I encountered—not in order to create a large body of work for posterity, but so that I could keep improving and developing. Stephen Pressfield says in The Artist’s Journey, at the beginning of the chapter titled “The Artist’s Journey is Dangerous,” that “the artist, like the mystic and the renunciant, does her work within an altered sphere of consciousness. Seeking herself, her voice, her source, she enters the dark forest. She is alone. No friend or lover knows where her path has taken her.”

So, I invoke the muse each morning before composing. (Pressfield says that he “prays” to her before beginning work.) And I follow John Cage’s advice to “begin anywhere.” That truly works for me. Instead of staring at the blank page and thinking too much, I just start. And what I write may be crap, but it’s important for me to work, to be in motion. I think at the drafting table. Without Mozart’s precocious ability to compose an entire piece in my own limited brain, I show up at the drafting table and begin to scrawl. George Gershwin once said that “I write 15 songs a day, and that’s just to get the bad ones out of my system.”

Somewhere as a beginning composer, even though I lacked much technique or experience I somehow realized that if I was going to write anything good, I would have to compose “a number of stinkers.” And that was exactly what happened. It’s a diurnal habit and my day feels incomplete if I somehow don’t compose, preferably first thing in the morning.

Octavio Paz says in his epic poem, A Draft of Shadows:

Are there messengers? Yes,
space is a body tattooed with signs, the air
an invisible web of calls and answers
Animals and things make languages,
through us the universe talks to itself.

[ A Draft of Shadows and Other Poems New Directions, 1997, Trans. Eliot Weinberger, p. 147]

This is something I truly believe. As musicians and composers, not only do we need to craft the art of deep listening, as Pauline Oliveros might call it, but to extend that depth to channeling the messengers—ultimately and essentially our own interior voices—that speak to us.

The Autobiographical Impulse in Composition

As a banjo player and percussionist, I’ve long tried to combine the worlds of the contemporary music that I love with my background in bluegrass and Appalachian music. The fact is, I didn’t need to try so hard. No matter what an artist does, the choices are often subconscious, based on personal experience and background. This background dictates where we take our music.

Early on, I planned to be a composer and not a performer; stage fright was my primary affliction. But I realized that many professional composers were also good performers, at least at some point in their careers. So, I decided that, if I was to be any good as a composer, I should strive to be a good performer. I began to practice with intensity on the banjo and, since I truly love the classical canon, orchestral percussion. It became my mission to play in order to feed my composition.

One thing I work to teach student composers is that musicality is learned directly from performing, listening, and immersion in the literature. I’ve learned to work with others to craft a collective sound, to blend with them, and to listen. A performing composer learns how hard it is to perform, and a composer who performs will think of the musicians while composing.

In the act of creation, a personal story will assert itself, often in spite of ourselves. But we can feed that story through the people we meet, the concerts we organize, and the musicians we work with.

While I developed bluegrass chops on the banjo, I was also exploring the experimental aspects of playing the instrument. A banjo can be plucked, bowed, struck, rubbed, scraped, and prepared. I’ve worked in contexts of free improvisation, contemporary ensembles, and electronic music. I once improvised on a belay line on the side of a cliff in Tennessee and, as a student, played under John Cage. Style means very little when it comes to expression on an instrument. I found that the energy of performing bluegrass in a bar in Asheville, North Carolina, carried over to the next morning’s work at the drafting table, even if that work had nothing to do with the music I was playing the night before.

Yet, those Appalachian and folk tunes began to creep into my music. One example of this is a composition of mine titled Stanley Kubrick’s Mountain Home, for soprano, chamber ensemble, and bluegrass band. While writing this piece, I became acquainted with the legendary bluegrass banjo player/fiddler/composer John Hartford, who I’d seen numerous times at festivals and whose recordings influence me as a performer to this day. I asked him to record several Appalachian fiddle tunes that I then transcribed and worked into the composition.

An important evening in my life came in 1978 when I saw New Directions with trumpeter Lester Bowie of the Art Ensemble of Chicago, drummer/pianist Jack DeJohnette, bassist Eddie Gomez, and guitarist John Abercrombie. The ensemble interacted freely around structured tunes. I walked out of that concert wanting to do something like that with a bluegrass band and said so to my brother, who observed: “Well, it wouldn’t be bluegrass then, would it?” No, I guess not.

This concert coincided with improvisation sessions that my composition teacher at Wichita State University organized. Arthur S. Wolff placed a number of musicians in resonant spaces such as stairwells, tunnels, and atriums and recorded everything, often late at night. Many of us who were involved then still cite him as an early influence in our music. I brought this discipline to an experimental bluegrass band that I played with in the 1980s called the Sons of Rayon, and once I was accused of being self-indulgent for doing this on stage. In the ‘90s, I played a number of events with cellist Hank Roberts, known then for his work with the Bill Frisell Quartet. Our performances were structured around tunes that he composed with large sections of improvisation. I believe that I developed interactive skills and musicality through these numerous improv sessions and performances.

In a strange circling around of fate, in May of 2011 I met percussionist Famoudou Don Moye of the Art Ensemble of Chicago in France. I quickly mobilized funds, musicians, and a recording studio and composed a number of tunes. The next month we recorded Nice Folks with some excellent French musicians who rendered lovely improvisations in and between my tunes.

In 2012, I performed on banjo with composer Christian Wolff in Marseille. Wolff has long been a presence in contemporary music. When he was 17, he gave John Cage a book explaining the I-Ching, which became the basis for many of Cage’s chance pieces. He was one of the four New York School composers in the 1950s and 1960s with Cage, Morton Feldman, and Earle Brown, and he was often a lecturer at Darmstadt, which is where I first encountered him. The night I performed with him, I asked Christian to compose a solo banjo piece. The result is Banjo Player. It’s a hard piece and often non-idiomatic for the instrument. Wolff asks the performer to leap from the first to the 13th fret between quickly moving 16th notes; interesting counterpoint is written in widely separated registers, and a scordatura tuning is called for (which caused me to transcribe the entire composition into tablature). The difficulty of this piece may rest in the fact that Christian has composed for many virtuosic performers such as pianist David Tudor. He stretches the instrument without resorting to much in the way of extended techniques, though the piece extended and challenged my technique. There is a section that is very easy and folk-like. This ties in with study he made of early American hymnody at one time, which lead to some interesting monophonic compositions in the 1990s. He seems to have been constructing his music then from simple materials that, perhaps, a number of amateur musicians could play and which reflect his socialist politics.

A work of art is autobiographical. Compositions can and, for me, should evolve directly out of performing experiences, which in turn may relate to travels and happenstance encounters. Our music reflects the artists we meet, the teachers we’ve had, the books we’ve read, the art we’ve looked at, and the music we’ve listened to. I look for compositional structure in abstract art, in a variety of novels and poems, in the music of other cultures, and in film. (Stanley Kubrick’s Mountain Home was initially based on the structure of 2001: A Space Odyssey.)

The music of Claude Vivier expresses his life as an adopted child, studies with Stockhausen, his development in spectral music, his travels in Asia, and his own fascination with sound. A Cage composition is a reflection of the influence of artist Marcel Duchamp, Arnold Schoenberg’s structures, the Zen teachings of Daisetsu Suzuki, and the poverty that he experienced in the 1930s. The sound world of his percussion pieces grew out of not having the funds to buy a lot of equipment, therefore Cage and Lou Harrison raided junk yards for sounds. The driving rhythms, colors, and themes of composer Gabriela Ortiz’s work express her Mexican heritage and her study of contemporary music and electronics. In Caroline Shaw’s compositions I hear wonderful vocal and string experimentation echoing the North Carolina folk music and Shape Note choirs she must have heard growing up.

When I was 19, someone told me that rich experiences won’t come find us, but that we must make them happen. I took this to heart. We are born into situations that both feed and limit individual abilities and it is those limitations based on our past that determine our artistic output. In the act of creation, a personal story will assert itself, often in spite of ourselves. But we can feed that story through the people we meet, the concerts we organize, and the musicians we work with at home or abroad. And we can work very hard to become the artists that we wish to become based on the experiences we’ve been placed within and the situations—the stories—we’ve engineered.