Let’s Grow Art Organically in Small Batches
As a composer of contemporary concert music, I feel out of touch with that core, person-to-person interaction. I write to fulfill commissions, but often I am still not quite sure who exactly, which specific human beings, I am writing for.
“On Friday, March 2, 1714, His Serene Highness the Reigning Duke most graciously conferred upon the quondam Court Organist Bach, at his most humble request, the title of Concertmaster” with the duty to “perform new works monthly.” Thus, the Weimar court capelle hired J.S. Bach to compose and present a substantial new church piece every four weeks. For his first piece written on the job, Bach played lead violin.
For years I’ve had the thought, “It would be so cool to have a job like Bach’s.” I have always allowed this notion to remain vague in my mind — a rose-tinted ideal in which I would belong to some lovely community, whose purpose was larger than music itself, that would pay me a full-time salary to write music on a weekly or monthly basis. I know, Bach was constantly frustrated with his various employers, and he wasn’t always paid to write music specifically. At Weimar it only happened because he asked for that duty to be included in his contract. So it’s an idealized notion. But there’s something about its essentials, its bare bones, that appeals to me.
I recently sat down to define Bach’s job as precisely as I could, as a thought experiment: Does such a job exist today in some form? Could it, perhaps in some different context? Where do I apply?
Here’s my abstracted definition of Bach’s job at Weimar:
- an institution/community whose primary purpose is something other than the production or presentation of artistic works, yet devotes a significant portion of its operating budget to pay a permanent full-time salary to an artist;
- part of this artist’s job is to provide largish-scale creations on a regular and frequent basis as a *service* to the institution;
- the service is *secondary* to the main purpose of the institution, but important enough to justify the large expense of a full-time salary;
- the main purpose of this service is to express the communal values of the institution for the benefit and instruction of its members, *internally* (and secondarily for the institution’s reputation within the larger society);
- Serene Highness not required, but large budget helpful.
Can you think of a job like this, in recent times? I can’t, not in the domains I know. Mainline churches? Organists often create service music, either as written compositions or as improvisations, but the creation of original music itself is not usually a contracted job requirement as far as I know. Maybe some very big churches outside the mainline denominations have salaried positions like this? Non-profit arts sector, or entertainment industry? Nope, per first line of the definition. Internal PR people in large corporate HR departments? Do advertising creatives fit parts of this definition? Possibly higher education, sort of, back in its glory days, if you focus on the non-teaching duties? There’s the U.S. Poet Laureate, but the salary seems like more of an honorarium. The UK has the Master of the Queen’s Music, one solitary composer at a time. Otherwise I’m drawing a blank.
I asked friends and colleagues about this, and the consensus seems to be that while there are many kinds of creative work that share aspects of my definition, there is no job quite like it — particularly the specific requirement to create new art regularly. A friend suggested the most surprising example, and perhaps the closest to my definition of Bach’s job. It’s this guy, the DJ for the Denver Broncos and Nuggets.
Even if you can’t think of a job exactly like this, what comes close? Does such a thing appeal to you — in most or all of those particulars — or is it just me? Please use the comments liberally. I can’t wait to hear what you think.
I Made This. For You.
I made this bread.
I made this music.
A single simple interaction, a direct gift from one human to another. To me that is the creation of music, and many other things, at its best. As a composer of contemporary concert music, I feel out of touch with that core, person-to-person interaction. I write to fulfill commissions, but often I am still not quite sure who exactly, which specific human beings, I am writing for. As that realization has grown, I feel more and more pain.
I am on a mission to recapture that core interaction, that directness. I want to find the specific people I should be writing for, and to listen to them deeply. I want to write for them, to tune my music to their desires and needs and hopes, as specifically as possible.
The Artist in Community: Vignettes to Capture a Notion
In this post I will explore the notion of Bach’s job further. What is it that makes me want a job like that? For now I will set aside the question of drawing a regular salary for creative work, although that is very important. The aspect of the job that draws me most powerfully is my longing to serve as an artist within a cohesive community, writing music for a purpose larger than the music itself. To get at that quality, here are two additional vignettes or visions that capture a kind of community where I believe art-making can flourish in beautiful ways. I invite you to read each vignette for its own sake but none of the three, including the Bach example, is a complete model on its own. Between them they capture something of the quality of interaction between artist and community that I seek.
Reckoning Desire (a short story)
There’s a short story I adore: Dalet the Thief, from The Book of the Unknown by Jonathon Keats, twelve fables of reimagined Kabbalistic saints ($5 on Kindle).
The story is about a village that has become so rich that no one bothers to practice their trades anymore. Avram the baker, Dov the shoemaker… everyone spends their time showing off expensive trinkets to each other. Dalet the town thief (his job considered vital to the functioning of the village) could be rich too, but he lacks ambition. He doesn’t steal the things people actually want. Gradually, Dalet learns to see the true desires that burn in everything, and then begins to share his newfound knowledge with others.
From my favorite scene, in which Dalet negotiates a deal with the town baker:
Avram added another gulden, and then several more. At last he emptied his purse. But it was like casting stars into sunlight. Poor Avram, his reckoning was all wrong: In matters of desire, no quantity is greater than one.
Soon, taught by Dalet to respond to desire, Avram finds himself baking again. For the first time in years, the scent of fresh-baked bread fills the village, and a long line of neighbors and friends winds to his door.
I re-read this story recently after almost ten years. At the moment when Avram begins to bake, I suddenly broke down in tears. It took me a while to figure out what had prompted those tears: I think it was a longing to connect, as deeply and directly as Avram does, with my own village, with my own small community of people who truly desire what I make. I feel like a wandering minstrel, with no village of that kind to call my own. I don’t think I will find my village until I too, like Dalet and Avram, learn to see the desires burning in those around me — and to respond.
If you read the story, I’d love to know what you think of it.
A New Playground in Central Park
Our favorite playground was closed all winter for a major renovation. It’s open again now, and it’s glorious. Where we once struggled with clanky structures too high for little kids, we now lounge on rubberized hills you can’t fall off of, and the old embattled hippos look refreshed and ready for action.
The day it reopened, they were still putting on the finishing touches. Two Central Park Conservancy officials were walking around inspecting every detail, directing their crew in the placement of each final shrub, with a care and specificity that made me suspect they had a creative stake in it. They told me they’re landscape architects and that they had co-designed the new playground. It’s their brainchild, their work of art.
My toddler and I were there again later the same day (yep that’s the drill). I recognized one of the landscape architects I’d met earlier, now there in civilian clothes with her own kids. She said she had sat on a bench for a while just watching all the children as they discovered her creation, as they found marvelous ways to enjoy it, some she had planned and some she hadn’t foreseen.
What a lovely moment for an artist, to sit quietly by while one’s newest work brings joy to the humans it was made for.
The Bach example and these two additional examples emphasize a distinction I believe is vital—that the art-making not exist separately, but within a sense of motivation and meaning that holds the community together and that transcends the art itself. As my friend Ishmael Wallace put it, this involves not only artist and audience but a third presence: their union itself.
Professional sharing within a given domain, such as new music, is vital; without the support and companionship of fellow composers and performers, I could not have become the composer I now am. But for me, if the art I create stays too much within that circle of fellow creators, the well of joy and motivation too easily dries up.
If I ruled the world, I’d put every kind of art — cooking, gardening, painting, talking, singing, and so on — into contexts where it naturally serves something beyond itself. I believe we should find ways for artists and their audiences, two complimentary energies and interests, to interact closely with each other for mutual expansion and learning.
Likewise in every domain, from science to health to economics: not only experts talking to other experts in secret languages, as sustaining and necessary as that is, but also experts talking to lay people, translating and transferring their knowledge constantly and clearly. That helps us all to understand the complex and subtle things of life as far as we’re able, and to make better decisions as a society.
I think the relationship of expert to layperson, artist to audience, works well when the expert or artist acts, somewhat like Bach, in the role of servant to the served. In that context the art or subject matter naturally takes on and communicates things of emotional and personal meaning, naturally connects directly with regular, everyday people who themselves do not want to make that thing. While I also believe that everyone who wants to should have the opportunity to make art in the domains that inspire them, this does not mean everyone needs to or wants to become a professional in a given domain. I cannot bake an incredible loaf of bread, and it’s not something I feel a passion to learn. But I am grateful to enjoy one made for me by a skilled expert. The more I can connect with other people with a complimentary energy to my own in a given domain — to be the audience to an expert, or to serve as an expert and artist to an audience — the better.
I am excited to find more ways to grow art this way: organically, in small gardens, perhaps without the fertilizers of commissions, fundraising, patronage, or crowdfunding.
In all three examples I love how closely the art and its communities are woven around and within each other, the intense bonds between creators and appreciators (and those who are both). I long for that kind of community, that kind of integration, where art is not separate.
Let’s Grow Art Online
Where can we find fertile soil to grow art in this way? I think the internet is a good place. If we’re using the internet in the right ways, we can be intimate with each other about things like politics and art. We can learn from those far away and those different from ourselves. We can build friendships with people we would never encounter otherwise. And we can do all this without the often-unseen biases and limitations of access that are imposed by physical place (over half the globe now has regular internet access… not nearly enough but growing quickly). I believe this must happen entirely away from ad-based social media: Facebook, Instagram, Twitter. I suspect it works best in online spaces we make and control ourselves, at small scale, using simple tools.
In my upcoming posts I’ll talk about how I believe this can work well, and I’ll present two current projects in which I am beginning to build the kind of online community I have in mind.