Art & Fear: 2

And artists quit when they lose the destination for their work, for the place their work belongs. [p. 9]

Longtime readers of this blog will remember the creative crisis precipitated by the decision of my friend Stephen Czarkowski’s not to return to GHP in the summer of 2008. He had asked me to try my hand at writing a symphony for the orchestra, and I had reached a point of having finished (i.e., stopped) the third movement and being stuck with the final movement when the news reached me. (The first two movements never got written.)

For most of my creative life, I have been guarded in my output. I am not a fast composer; I have to struggle for everything I write. And so it has almost never made sense for me to attempt to write something that I know will never be performed. A full-scale symphony? Who would play it?

So Stephen’s offer was a gift from the heavens. If I wrote it, they would perform it. I could write without holding back. In fact, having heard Stephen conduct GHP students in playing Strauss’s Death & Transfiguration, I figured there was nothing that came out of my head which would pose any difficulties whatsoever. The news that it would not be performed that summer was like hitting a brick wall. It meant that it would never be performed.

Whoever the new strings person was (and it turned out to be a former GHP student of mine), I would be his boss and not his friend: I could not ask him to devote so much class time to the performance of my piece without a very real appearance of impropriety.

It was more than a year before I wrote another note of music. The 24 Hour Challenge was an effort to move myself out of that dreadful stasis, and I think it succeeded in many ways. For one thing, I was able to take one of the pieces, “Club-Foot Waltz,” and turn it into the “Waltz for Bassoon & String Quartet,” which then became this spring’s “Pieces for Bassoon & String Quartet,” and which I printed out as soon as I got home on Tuesday and mailed to my former GHP student at GHP, since I am not his boss for the summer (and am in fact now his friend) and can ask him to read through a piece just as boldly as any other third-class first-rate composer.

The problem of destination is illustrated in my work by A Visit to William Blake’s Inn. As much trouble as I had finishing that, particularly the epic “Blake Leads a Walk on the Milky Way”, thoroughly documented on this fine blog, I persevered to the astonishing conclusion, because I believed that it would be performed. I believed that it had a destination. If I had known that no one would have the slightest interest in it, I would have shelved it.

Now you would think that I would learn the lesson from these two episodes that Bayles and Orland try to teach in Art & Fear, that you have to aim your work at a destination that may not exist in your current universe, but I have not. Maybe as I progress through the summer and knock out the Ayshire Fiddle Orchestra piece in no time flat, and suddenly have the skills and inspiration to finish the Epic Lichtenbergian Portrait (not to mention the necessary reference photographs (ahem, Mike, Kevin, Matthew, et al.)), then perhaps I will look around me and decide, hey, why not? I can throw myself into projects that don’t have a light at the end of the tunnel: the Symphony in G, the mini-opera Simon’s Dad, and whatever else I can imagine.

But it’s going to take a lot of success with projects that do have a destination before I trust the universe to create things that don’t.

One thought on “Art & Fear: 2

  1. I wonder whether, before completing the Twelve Études, Chopin had lined up Liszt to perform them…
    Just eight days until Dale’s Art Camp begins.

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