Wednesday, October 26, 2016

Hahn and Creativity

Anne Midgette, one of the best music critics in the US these days, has a nice piece on Hilary Hahn in the Washington Post: A violinist’s methodical search for creativity:
“Creativity” is one of the most misused terms in the lexicon. We assume that all artists are creative, and we assume that creativity is something wild, unfettered and liberating. But not every classical musician would agree. First, honing an interpretation of someone else’s work is at the very least a different kind of creativity from making something new. Second, every successful artist, in any field, has to put in a lot of knuckle grease; creativity is, in general, the result of methodical hard work.
Exhibit A: Hilary Hahn. Now 36, a star of the violin world, returning to Washington for a concert at the Kennedy Center at the end of this month, Hahn is one of the most creative, illuminating violinists of our time — and one of the most methodical.
Read the whole thing, which is basically a promotion for an upcoming concert in Washington on Oct. 28 in which she will play six solo pieces by the Spanish composer Antón García Abril. She previously recorded a piece by Abril on her encore album In 27 Pieces and I reviewed that album, consisting of commissions of new pieces, in a series of posts starting with this one:

Actually, I ended up writing six posts on the album and one of the composers, Jennifer Higdon, left a comment on one of them answering a couple of questions I had.

But back to that creativity thing, which is mostly just a hook to hang the essay on. Ms Midgette is making a good point: creativity requires a lot of hard work. She wants to counter the common impression that artists just dream up stuff in a "wild, unfettered and liberating" way. If only! You can and probably should spend some time fooling around or, as we musicians like to call it, improvising, but this has to be distilled down into the aesthetic object and that is where a lot of the work comes.

As well-intentioned and well-thought-out as the essay is, it tends to give a bit of an illusory impression. Whenever I see phrases like "musical creative process" or "that whole process of trying to understand how a composer creates" I start to fidget a bit. I'm a composer, what do I know about the "creative process"? Not much that I can relate. How about other composers? What have they had to say about the "process"? Not much that I can recall. As a rule, they pretty much hate to talk about it. Sure, they might say stuff like "my cook knows more about counterpoint than so-and-so" (Handel) or "works of art make rules, rules do not make works of art" (Debussy) but they offer few clues as to what the "process" actually is. Mind you, in recent years a host of monographs have appeared purporting to tell us all about musical creativity:
This chapter presents reflections about an important and much discussed aspect of art-music composers' creative process, namely, the role — if any — that emotions, and specifically acute emotional states induced by life-events, play in that process. In contrast to the emotivist attitude, it argues for the paramount importance of contemplation, analytical and technical skills, problem-solving, and planning — in short, reason — as the key features of art-music composers' daily work, especially when developing large-scale pieces.
But you know, I somehow doubt this will offer much insight to musicians, though non-musicians might find it fascinating.

Here's the thing: there is no process.

There are moments when stuff just occurs to you, there are long stretches when you work and work, trying to find out how to use the stuff that occurred to you. The problem is that while creating music does indeed involve a lot of hard, methodical work, hard, methodical work is no guarantee of anything at all. Malcolm Gladwell's 10,000 hours rule, that with 10,000 hours of "deliberate practice" you can become world-class in any field always was bunk. Yes, Hilary Hahn is a very hard, methodical worker, but so are thousands of other violinists and almost none of them have the sheer musical talent that she has.

As Debussy said, "rules do not make works of art" which means that no, there is no creative process or method or procedure or rule that will lead to a satisfactory result. The essential truth about creativity is that it is impossible to deduct abstract truths about it. Creativity deals with the concrete and the particular, with the specific, not the general. Whatever "process" Beethoven used in writing the Symphony No. 5 would not have served him in writing the Symphony No. 6. Every good composition is a unique solution to a unique set of problems. If not, it is a boring, humdrum piece of music.

The closest I know of to a compositional method is Schoenberg's book Fundamentals of Musical Composition which in large part consists of working through a number of pieces by Beethoven to see how he worked out certain ideas. This will not actually help very much in composing something new or in a different harmonic language. But it will teach you how to work.

Let's listen to some Hilary Hahn. This is Third Sigh, the piece by Antón García Abril on the encore album:


Jives said...

A composer with a detailed, ready answer about "process" is probably too consumed with it. Not fair? Often, I will look back at a composition and wonder how I did it. Some things happen by luck, some by planning. Both composer and performer are drawing on their accumulated experiences in music to create something new. Performers do it on the fly, composers do it in slow motion. Creativity is really about the moment: lived, consolidated, remembered, and then employed according to the judgment of the performer.

Anonymous said...

While you're right the creative process is not some kind of method that can be taught, one can understand the word process differently as "how does one go about composing?" I can see why this would very useful to know for an instrumentalist. Does one start with the melody? Or with a harmonic hook? In what order do we add the voices? Do we compose linearly from start to finish? At what point do we structure the composition, etc?
Bach followed strict rules re. this kind of ordering and structuring.

Jives said...

I think the answers to all those questions would be different for every composer of every era, in every situation. Composition is a cascade of decisions, which can have many starting points. Each composer will gravitate to their own methods according to what they want/need to produce.

Bach was a pragmatic, employed composer and worked in the popular forms of his day. Form is useful, it helps the composition process along, acting as a mold to cast ideas into. With the cantatas, structure was likely the first consideration, as they were to be used at mass.

Bryan Townsend said...

Really interesting observations! Yes, afterwards, it is often hard to know exactly how you did what you did in a composition. Sometimes you just try things and throw away what doesn't work. Also, your "process" is different for each piece. But again, how Bach worked is probably different from how most of us work today. One guy who did tell us all about his "creative process" was John Cage. So just start tossing coins, everybody!