Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Maybe That's All She Wrote

Perhaps the worst fear that any creative person has is the fear of repeating herself. Or repeating himself. Perhaps at any given stage of life we all have only so much to say. Or maybe it's just me.

I spent the last ten years in a whirlwind of creative activity. I could barely keep up with myself. All my inspiration seemed to come from inside, and new music poured out of me, regardless of whether anyone was interested in playing it. I got inspiration from everyone and everything, and writing music served, in part, as a way of coping with the isolation that I so often feel as a result of the limited contact I have with what I perceive to be the great musical world at large.

Lately I have come to realize that nobody can really be creative in a vacuum, and there is only a limited amount of self-stimulation that any given person can fabricate. Like any other group of creative people, composers need to know that we are wanted and needed; but I guess for the most part, we are not. There is far more music being written than will ever be played.

I had a brush with the 21st-century commercial musical world last week. I went (as a guest of a friend of a friend) to a huge musical-industrial convention, and I spent an hour or so roaming through the booths of vendors who were displaying their musical wares. I didn't know where to begin, so I simply did not begin. Intimidation set in, and I left the convention with the realization that the 21st-century musical marketplace has very little to do with my musical world.

Heading towards my conventional destination on the train (and I love traveling by train) I read a large chunk of Charles Ives' Memos, which I hadn't previously read. When I was a teenager Charles Ives, along with Brahms and Bach, was my favorite composer. Reading his curmudgeonly (and often blog-like) writings, I once again became excited about the idea of living in a musical world on the outside of convention and expectation. But then I realized that one of the major problems composers face in this new century is that the very musical expression that is "outside of convention" has become convention. The act of trying to write something that is even a little bit meaningful so often gets mangled with gimmickry or with "process."

Perhaps this public statement (read perhaps by dozens of people) will help me to get out of my current state of musical funk. Maybe it won't.

I will leave you with an exchange between Charles Ives and Elizabeth Sprague Coolidge, who grew up to be a kind of "godmother" of new music. Harmony Ives, who was married to Charles, was the niece of Elizabeth Sprague Coolidge's father, which would make her Elizabeth Sprague Coolidge's first cousin.
Either in he summer of 1913 or 1914, Mr. Sprague (Harmony's Uncle Albert) and Mrs. Sprague, with the daughter, Mrs. Coolidge, stopped to see us at Redding on their way to Pittsfield. After dinner (before going) daughter says to writer, "Are you still keeping up your music?" Writer says, "Well, yes." So former asks writer to play some of it, and came to the little room with the piano, behind the dining room. I happened to have on the piano the score or the sketch of the Black March (The St. Gaudens). I started to play a little of this--daughter's face grew sour. "Do you like those awful sounds?" she said. So I stopped and played something that I thought might be a little less rough on her, which was the first part of Washington's Birthday. That made her walk out of the room. In getting into the car, headed toward Pittsfield, she said, "Well, I must say your music makes no sense to me. It is not, to my mind, music. How is that--studying as you have with Parker--that you ever came to write like that? You ought to know the music of Daniel Gregory Mason, who is living near us in Pittsfield--he has a real message. Good-bye!"
And to think that she grew up to become the most powerful force in the course of 20th-century music! (You can read about her accomplishments as a patron here (on this blog) and here.)


j said...

Hope you are feeling better, Elaine.

I find it hard to believe that somebody with your creative ability will not be creative again. For what it's worth... doesn't seem to be the way things work.

Elaine Fine said...

Thanks J.

I am feeling better, thank goodness. And I have been writing. Here's a link to where a piece I just write for the New Year should appear in the next day or two. (You'll need to scroll to the bottom of the page.)