Thursday, May 27, 2010

Something about Beauty

I've been reading various things relating to Japanese aesthetics and came across a rather lovely essay by Donald Keene in Japanese Aesthetics and Culture: A Reader in which he discusses four key elements which he believes reflect something of the Japanese sense of beauty.  One of the main sources for Keene's approach is book called Essays in Idleness  by a 14th century Buddhist priest, Kenko.

"In all things, it is the beginnings and ends that are interesting."

"In everything, no matter what it may be, uniformity is undesirable.  Leaving something incomplete makes it interesting, and gives one the feeling that there is room for growth."


The cherry blossom falls from the tree after only three days but this impermanence is part of its aesthetic significance in Japanese culture.

These four elements are not necessarily equally prized in a Western sense of aesthetic taste.  Keene discusses how Irregularity and Perishability in particular are qualities that fly in the face of much of Western art tradition.  Versaille or Ryoan-ji.  Marble or Cherry Blossom.

But how beautiful they are.  For me they sum up that intangible, indescribable thing that I aspire to in my own work and that I am drawn to in the work of others.

Sunday, May 2, 2010

Things that make me a better composer

'Teaching'* other people how to compose
I’ve been back teaching composition since the start of semester and am really enjoying the process.  My classes range from one-on-one composition lessons to group classes focusing on writing cross-media work. 
I love teaching one-on-one; trying to find out what someone is trying to create and helping them clarify their creative intentions and develop the skills to realize their work.  Sometimes there are issues of confidence (lack of) or focus (lack of) that need to be dealt with.  Sometimes my job is to suggest possibilities,  a different way of approaching a compositional problem or just to play some music they might not have heard before.  I love the occasional ‘light bulb’ moments and the enthusiasm that the students have (most of the time) for the process of writing music.  And there are the really interesting conversations about music, different composers, different ideas that make me re-think my own views or re-visit music that I haven’t listened to for a while or discover music that I have never heard before. 
I love working with groups of students because the sum is always greater than the parts.  Sometimes things go off on tangents but the range of ideas that a group can bring to the table is usually surprising.  One of my favourite classes is a group of composers working with a group of choreographers to develop new work.  My job (and that of my choreographer co-teacher) is to bring these two groups of students together, to dissolve some of the cross-media barriers and hopefully encourage a shared creative language.  There have been some very beautiful moments of work to emerge so far, one in particular  that was extremely moving – watching as a group of people from different arts backgrounds, who had only recently met, let go of their reservations and preconceptions and apprehensions and made some work that was neither music nor dance but something else rather lovely.
 My Inner Critic has been quite vocal of late and one of her pet subjects is 'why can’t I find more time to write my own music?'.  Why am I spending valuable child-free time teaching when I should be writing? (never mind the obvious financial reasons).  Then there is the old saying, one of IC’s favourites, which goes something like… “those who can, do; those who can’t, teach".  I think I can now categorically blow this one out of the water.  There are some VERY good reasons for teaching, not just the desperation of failed artists.  There are the obvious altruistic aspects of teaching – fostering and encouraging young creative minds, contributing to the future cultural life of our society etc etc.  And then there are the very clear benefits to ME as a composer (and a human being).  I learn things – about music and about myself.  I find new ways of looking at problems.  I am enriched by the beautiful things that are created.  I feel like I may have done something useful. And I am reminded again and again why what I do (writing music) is important and not to be abandoned the next time the Inner Critic lets fly.
* I’ve never actually thought that anyone can teach anyone else how to ‘write music’ – only to give them some tools to realise and organise their compositional ideas.

A fresh pair of ears
I was inspired by a recent post by Cath in Musings in Mayhem where she mentioned handing her work over to her writers’ group for critical feedback and how useful this was.  I have long thought that composing music can be one of the most isolated and introverted of creative pastimes.  Lots of time alone at a desk, creating a piece of work with very little consultation or ‘testing out’.   Generally speaking, there are no music editors to give constructive criticism and feedback.  Once the work is finished it usually goes to the performers and then there is often little opportunity to tweak or refine or edit anything other than the surface details of the work.  In its written form, it is difficult to really get a sense of what the sounded work will be like unless you have a highly developed inner ear.  I realized that what I need is a writers’ group, of composers.  So I have made a small start and asked two composer friends if we could set up our own ‘composer self help group’ where we can show each other our work for critical feedback as well as support and encouragement. I have happily sent my recent piece to them for a fresh perspective and their comments and encouragement have been invaluable (many thanks to K and L).  I’m looking forward to casting an eye and ear over some of their work and responding in the same generous and constructive way.  On a purely personal level, this process also has a quite significant side effect as it cancels out a very negative tendency I have noticed in myself to be highly competitive with those I consider to be my peers.  So rather than comparing myself  (usually unfavourably) with my peers, it feels much better to open myself up, offer my work for scrutiny and benefit from their feedback and generosity.