I’m up early. I managed to wake up before the tiny baby. You remember, the small earthling that has taken over my home and all the waking hours in it! My unusual alert state has provided me with a rare moment to pause and reflect. Coffee in hand, laptop at the ready, I’m thinking about the process that an artist goes through in order to create their work. This is on my mind at the moment as these days I’ve been listening to a lot of podcasts. Little handsfree miracles of information, entertainment and insight mean that I can still do something while I push my sleeping child’s stroller up and down a series of hills (that’s a story for another time). Podcasts have given me the opportunity to hear some fantastic interviews from a number of artists on how they approach their work and this has inspired me!
Listening to these artists’ stories, I quickly noticed the circuitous path that each travels while developing their craft. Interestingly, the starting point often has little to do with where they find themselves later on in their artistic life. Funny how it works that way…
It is an interesting proposition for someone like me. I generally play other people’s music, whether it is created for me or initially for someone else. So when I approach the creative process I am thinking about crafting a convincing interpretation, taking something and making it “my own,” and that is in itself no small endeavor. The notes of a given piece are the same for me as they are for you, or any other artist. The challenge that presents itself is choosing which elements of the work to bring out or emphasize. How will I keep the audience engaged but also support the goals and vision of the composer? All the while, I need to maintain that all-important connection to the piece itself; if I lose interest how can I expect the listeners to stay with me on the journey?
As a young guitar student, the goal was to get the pieces I was studying to sound as close to those of the guitarists I had on recordings. After all “Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery” and imitate I did…well, as best I could. It’s the starting point for so many guitarists, and instrumentalists in general, copying something that inspires you or excites you is the push to get better and stretch yourself as a beginner. After years of “trying to sound good like—(fill in the blank),” I began to develop my own opinions about how a work should be approached and performed—freedom, baby! A big part of this shift occurred, in part, through my own research about the composers I was performing. It was pointed out to me, by someone far wiser than I, that “if you’re going to spend all this time playing these works, why don’t take some time and get to know more about the people who created them?” Good point. Who were they? What interested them? What were their struggles? What did their other pieces sound like? Did they rely heavily on coffee like me? I needed more information! In its earliest stages, solving this question was accomplished simply by reading books, articles, and journals about the composers I was studying on the guitar. Mainly the old dead dudes: Bach, Scarlatti, etc. As I continued to broaden my listening and playing, I discovered new composers—living composers! They walk! They talk! You could actually ask them questions and they would give you an answer—Boom! (Mind. Blown.) This really and truly crystallized for me in the summer of 2000 when I attended a week of master classes with Cuban guitarist/composer Leo Brouwer.
For (classical) guitarists, Brouwer is one of our towering new music figures and his works have impacted countless players of the late 20th and early 21st century. By the time I met him, I had played all his etudes and so many of his pieces for guitar that I had lost count. He is still, importantly, one of my favorite guitar dudes! You can even see me play his 3rd guitar concerto here or listen to my recording of his Sonata for solo guitar here. So, meeting the guy who wrote all of this music that I’d spent a pretty sizeable chunk of my life studying/performing had a significant impact on me. In the days that followed, amongst a sea of guitarists, that were all trapped in Canada, I was able to get answers to questions I had about his music from the source. It was both incredibly inspiring and exciting. All the guitarists I met during that week, myself included, walked away with a stronger understanding of Brouwer’s music. We became new advocates for his art.
Perhaps what’s most interesting to me is how something as simple as meeting another artist can impact your musical development in such a profound manner. After that summer, it became an integral part of my work to get to know the composers I was performing. The creative process shifted from simply working up a piece, to understanding it and its creator. It became a 2-part process:
1. Studying the work itself
2. Getting to know the composer
This last bit is especially important as the composer holds all the cards, so to speak, regarding how the piece came into existence, what sparked the direction of the work, and important details that often times can’t be communicated (or get left out) on the written page.
Getting to know a composer, by meeting them in person or through research (in the case of the old dead dudes), becomes an essential part in understanding their style. For the guitar players: you probably want to listen to as much of their music that’s not written for the guitar as possible. Open those ears! Once, I had to perform a work by a living composer and had nothing to go on. Even the ubiquitous Google search yielded nothing. It was me and the guitar sidling up to the practice chair, mano a mano, for hours going: “I guess this is what the composer wants…” or as I call it—flying blind. All this to say: playing music whether solo or with others is a collaborative effort. The performer(s) needs the composer just as much as the composer needs musicians to realize their work.
But don’t take my word for it, go and ask a composer! Don’t know one? I’ll do one better—I’ll bring one to you in my next blog post. I’m going sit down and chat with the amazing David Revill about his work as a composer, recording engineer, writer, percussionist, and general creator of awesome things, and you’re invited! Also, we are going to discuss the painful process he’s been going through working with me as he creates his new work for solo guitar and electronics Tiahuanaco!
I’ll close with this thought by Tom Waits, as it pretty much nails the creative process for any artist: “For a songwriter, you don’t really go to songwriting school; you learn by listening to tunes. And you try to understand them and take them apart and see what they’re made of, and wonder if you can make one, too.”
I was sitting backstage in the greenroom of a venue this past Saturday getting ready to walk on stage for the first time in almost a year when the question “Why do we play music?” popped into my head. This wasn’t a moment of crisis, not an “Oh, why, why do I play music?”, but just one of those thoughts that drifts through your head when you are trying to clear your mind. Driving home from the performance, reflecting over the good, the bad, the ugly, and those unexpected moments that reached the audience, I returned to this question. Why, in fact, do we do this music thing? I ask this because doing it well is really, really – oh heck let’s add in another – really challenging.
So, I dug back into my library of books and interviews looking for insights on why we are compelled to plop ourselves on stages, in front of microphones, and cameras to make sounds for a group of people. Here’s my takeaway: Music allows us to connect with people in a meaningful, authentic, and at times, intimate way, often without words. And, whether you are listening to it, writing it or in my case playing it, we all have to get out of our own way to engage with it.
The first part of this is perhaps the most exciting and creative. I get to gather a collection of pieces to share with others, I go into my musical vault of wondrousness and choose what stories I am going to tell, which feelings I am going to explore. The performer becomes a musical curator, the brown coat and cap are optional. Then the work begins where I get to “know” each piece and solidify an approach to each work. I am lucky enough to become a sonic tour guide and advocate for what I choose to play, and if I’ve done my job, the individual spectator forgets where they are for a few moments and they’re connected together into an audience sharing a sonic experience with me and each other. That’s a pretty good day’s work.
The latter part of this takeaway statement, for me, is the biggest challenge. I say that because as I was in the middle of the first half of my program, this past weekend, I heard this little tiny voice offering free commentary on what was happening in real time. Don’t worry I haven’t decided to become Puppet Show and Zane Forshee, me on stage with a wise cracking ventriloquist’s dummy. Actually, the closest thing I can relate this inner monologue to is if you’ve ever tried to meditate and found, once seated, that your mind is bouncing from one thing to the next whilst trying to focus, simply, on breathing. It’s amazing to witness and even more fascinating to experience on stage before an audience. Critics can be tough but that little narrator is brutal. It’s the kind of self-sabotage we need to let go, as Timothy Gallwey and Barry Green discussed in their book The Inner Game of Music. Basically we are all hard on ourselves, but when you’re putting yourself and a composer’s hopes out there it can reach another level.
On my self-imposed literary hike I rediscovered an interview with Evelyn Glennie from the Mastery of Music by Barry Green. Eveyln’s approach really puts things into perspective:
“I have to believe and to be one hundred percent committed to the music—to what I feel at that particular moment. There is no holding back. I have to just do it consistently. It is just a way of life. I cannot let the music overwhelm me. I know this because in recent years I have been learning how to ride a motorbike. At first it was one of the scariest things I had done in ages, and suddenly one day, I just thought, now I’m riding the bike. I’m in control of the bike as opposed to the bike controlling me. It was something that just happened and it wasn’t forced. It needs to become a part of me…It is much better for me to create the sound, rather than stepping back and observing it. It is the control aspect of knowing what I want, and this is what gives me satisfaction.”
Regarding live concerts and audiences she goes on to say:
“I can’t get them to all feel the same way. It’s just like going to a restaurant and everyone ordering the same exact meal. Some may eat more quickly than others, others may mix the vegetables in a different way, and in different combinations. So the meal will not taste the same to everyone. It is the same way in a concert. They come into the hall with all different reasons as to why they are there—some coming from work, some curious, some percussionists, some friends of the composer, some who had a crisis at home—this stuff in life all affects how they digest this music. Even the sound of my drums will not register the same to the people sitting in the balcony as to those sitting close to the stage. All I can do is be honest…and serve the best dish possible.”
Evelyn makes some great points, and offers an honest approach about what a performer can (and should) choose to focus on while in performance.
I couldn’t have revisited these ideas at a better time as I’m setting up to perform a new program of pieces by living composers for the Livewire New Music Festival. I have dodged the laser beams, passed the retinal scan and pushed my palm into the goop that takes finger prints – all to get into my safe of great music which is incidentally located in the musical vault of wondrousness, I could turn all of the anti-theft devices off but I have to get my cardio in somehow. . . With that done I’m preparing a riotous collection of works by Linda Dusman, David Revill, Ingram Marshall, & Ronald Pearl and with any luck I’ll get out of my own way so that the pieces have the opportunity to connect with the people who gather to hear them. For me to perform a piece is to bring it to life, for many composers their work only lives when it is played. The notes cannot just sit on the page, or screen, but need to be heard, whether it is fleetingly in a live concert or repeatedly on a favourite recording. As Glennie says everyone will take something different away from the event and I hope that there is a flavor in there that each and every person in the audience will enjoy. I have to say that I think music just adds something good to the everyday, and being someone who can help deliver it is pretty darn cool.
Perhaps Frank Zappa summed it up best: “Without music to decorate it, time is just a bunch of boring production deadlines or dates by which bills must be paid.”
Yeah, Frank, that’s why we play music. That’s why.