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Friday, April 8, 2016

The Creative Closet

Creativity. Big subject. Lots of articles and books and studies (I was recently a subject in one.) I've written that those who try to explain creativity certainly are missing the point.  Oops. Oh well, this is my stab at blogging on Creativity and Imagination!

Creativity hides itself away from time to time. Certainly everybody has heard of "writer's block", though they may not have experienced it. I prefer to think of it less as a "block" and more as a dark room or big closet, that I sometimes can't find or access. Like in the Harry Potter novels. You know, the "room of requirement" that appears whenever Harry needs a place to hide something, or a group of students. Creativity, if thusly personified, knows I need it from time to time, but it sequesters itself in a room and, sadly, doesn't tell me where the fuck it went.

Then all of a sudden, I'm walking along a hallway in my mind and a door presents itself. I open it and walk in. Creativity smiles again, announcing its presence!

Creativity, as defined by Wikipedia (our go to source for all information nowadays it seems) sounds as if it is flourishing everywhere:

"Creativity is a phenomenon whereby something new and somehow valuable is formed, such as an idea, a scientific theory, an invention, a literary work, a painting, a musical composition, a joke, etc."

Forming new and valuable things is quite common, though. It happens all the time; as defined above, creativity is as prevalent in the world as the common cold, ants, sand on the beach, nitrogen, or sunlight.

But we all know it isn't that common. In fact, creativity could be in danger of being lost along with its companion and partner in crime, imagination. The reason I think it is in danger lives beneath and beyond my fingers as I type this blog: computerization, the internet, social media, digital media, yada, yada, yada. Maybe, maybe not. That is, I venture to guess, a different blog.

For now, I'd like to write about creating creativity in our everyday lives as well as writing a bit about creativity in singers, as well as in the pianists who play for singers.

I'll start with the latter.

It is not enough to sing or play what is on the page. If this is a point of contention with you, or if you are creating music with someone - either a collaborator or a mentor or a coach - and their dictum is "just do what's on the page" then y'all are just missing the point and there's nothing much I can write, say, or do that might change your mind. Be content that your artistic masturbation will be seen and heard by some as "profound" or "deep" but in fact you've chosen the artistic coward's route and what you're really presenting to the public is not just fraud, but a sad and ultimately boring performance.

Harsh words, perhaps. However even in contemporary music where a composer has put as much as possible onto the page in order for their music to be correctly presented, there still is room - LOTS OF ROOM - for a creative approach to the text and music. The reverse is true of music where there's not a lot put onto the page beyond text and music (like so much of the 18th and 19th century repertoire.)

Creativity starts with questioning every note, every measure, every bit of text; EVERYTHING.

For both singers and pianists, a creative approach to any score begins with thinking about the relationship between text and music. Why do you think the composer wrote those notes on those syllables? Why do you think the markings - dynamics and expressive - were put in certain places but not others? Would you write it differently? Are there markings that might be missing? If you had the composer in the room with you, what questions would be the first ones you'd ask about the piece?

Then you move on to think about the composer's life right when the piece was written. Why did they write this piece? Who was it written for? When and where was it first performed? What have the performance practices evolved into since the first performance? And, most importantly, what does your imagination have to say about the piece? I'm not talking emotional response, I'm talking about your intuitive imagination - that piece of you that can see elephants in clouds, that can ascertain if someone doesn't like you shoes, that can hear donkeys braying in a Puccini orchestration, that can feel a phrase should speed up just because it feels right.

Imagination is key. Playing outdoors with little kids instantly tells you if you have lost your ability to access it or not. I don't know how anyone can sing a recital, rehearse an opera, or perform for the public without spending time at play with little kids. Go out and find them. Your nieces, your friends' kids, they're everywhere. Offer to babysit, for free, and sit down in their rooms with their toys and go to town. Freely accessing your imagination with an Imagination Black Belt Master next to you (the Master is the kid, fyi) is a better use of your time than surfing Youtube for Auger performances of the Schubert song you are trying to get under your belt.

Kids are open and creative, naturally. Until someone tells them to colour within the lines or that the box is not a space ship, they live in a world that artists get to live in and touch throughout our performing and rehearsing lives (at least, hopefully live there from time to time!)

Creativity starts in that same child-like open space, mentally and emotionally. I find the most open spaces I end up seeking have everything to do with water: Long steamy showers. Walks in nature, preferably near streams or lakes. Floating in the ocean. Swimming in a pool doing laps. Driving in the rain, or watching a thunderstorm from the safety of a living room window. This past winter I found open space in front of our fire place (something I hadn't been able to experience since leaving Ithaca, New York over a decade ago.)

Water and Fire. Nature. Earth. I think creativity is linked to an elemental force in humans.

At some point in our collective history, we didn't communicate via email. We didn't have language. But I think (yet certainly can't prove) that before language, we had imagination that brought forth language.

What was causing the world to tremble? What caused the water to freeze or disappear? Why could fire burst from the sky in a rainstorm but be lost by the rain itself?

I believe that accessing your imagination reconnects you to a more primitive self. Most of us know that music hits people on a variety of levels: emotional, intellectual, physical, spiritual. All of us musicians know that, for reasons too difficult to explain, music can move humans in an elemental, primitive way.

Music itself springs from imagination. Singing does as well. How does one phonate? You imagine a tone, a pitch and a vowel and then out comes a vocal line.

I've been asked many times about where my "creative ideas" come from. I've been told that my playing is extremely "musical". I've received comments that my ideas and way of working with others are "inspirational". I think creative ideas, musicality, and being inspiring all flow from an open space, a natural space, where Imagination lives.

Living within an imaginative state is dangerous, exciting, and can lead you to insights completely unlooked for or unknown. But you have to give up a few things to do it.

The first is correctness. Trying to be correct and at the same time trying to be a creative artist is just not something that is easily doable, if at all possible. Give it up. Stop trying to please others. Stop thinking that if there aren't any markings on the page, then one can not make any choices. Start thinking that even if there are markings on the page saying "slow down" you don't have to slow down!

The second is understanding that you are not borrowing the music and the text. You are not renting it. You own it. You must own it for it to be yours. Yes, I know, I know, it's actually Schumann's. But is it? Really? He, like almost every other composer, wrote for the world, for others, not for themselves. Most living composers will say the same thing when confronted with a live singer and it usually goes along these lines "well, if that works better for you, then please go ahead." They want to collaborate. And through our imaginations, we can collaborate with Rossini, with Mozart, with Brahms, with Stravinsky. They can live again in our imaginations and then we can express the results of our imagined dialogues with our audiences. Thus making the piece, or the opera role, OURS.

Once you own a piece or a role, then you have something to say to others. That's how that works. When you are simply renting or dabbling or putting your toe in the water to see how hot or cold the bath might be, then you really are doing a disservice to the composer and the poet. They lived their lives creating and they want the fruits of their labours to live via performances that access truth through imagination. I feel this strongly. When a performance doesn't work, one of the reasons is because the humans performing it simply forgot to access and celebrate their humanity.

Humans are amazing. They intuit so much without sometimes knowing how or why. They can see colours in music. They can hear truth (or lying) in a singer's voice. They can see shapes, actions and/or metaphors in a blue-lit curtain cascading down onto a staircase. All music is impressionistic on some level and most, if not all, representations onstage in opera are impressionistic. None of it is "real". The minute the music is over, it is gone. The score closes and gets put back onto the shelf. Does it still sing to itself when you leave and the lights are turned off in the studio? After the set is struck, does the death scene play itself out in some way, vibrations of violence or love illuminated by the lonely onstage ghost light?

I think so.
I hope so.
Actually, I know so.
And so do you.