THOUGHTS ABOUT CREATIVITY
I’m always interested in discussions of the creative process. The book Imagine: How Creativity Works*, by
Jonah Lehrer, begins with notes on brain research, and the attempt to define its processes in scientific terms. Dopamine rewards us, Dissent challenges us, the Right Hemisphere prompts imagining, and Social Networks allow interchange with other minds. Creation is often Recombination, working to make something new out of previously known materials. Daydreaming is an important part of the process, which may be defined as a combination of divergent and convergent thinking. And so on.
I was particularly taken by his ideas about individual versus group creativity: the difference between solitary musing and group interaction. This was an important part of my own experience. During those twenty years that I collaborated with Robert Shaw, I prepared sketches for his comments. Perhaps one of the things I did best was to create a structure for the arrangement: who sang the melody for each verse, and how the verses connected into a viable whole.Then there was the filling in of other voices. Mr. Shaw would question one of my ideas which would lead into an often lengthy discussion about the nature of the song, the text, or the singing voice. His questions opened up my mind to new possibilities, which over the years turned into basic knowledge for my own compositions. I discovered my own voice through working with excellent materials (those old folksongs and hymns), discovering how to respond to their needs without diminishing their own beauty.
I couldn’t have worked this way before I met him: always in composition classes I was told to write my own ‘theme’ (not melody) and work with that. My melodies were of questionable value: writing counter-lines to them was an exercise in frustration. A great melody demands a great counter-line. When the arranger succeeds in writing an ‘answer’ which holds its own next to the original, she has learned a basic truth about that melody. This knowledge can then be used in constructing new tunes.
This fits into Lerner’s theory in ways that I had not previously contemplated. My individual creativity was honed by Shaw’s penetrating comments, his insistence that our work ‘be worthy of his singers’. Our joint creativity enriched the arrangement in ways that would not have been possible to either of us alone. What does that do to our rather Romantic notion of the individual creator in his ivory tower, writing the work of genius? I love the fact that it removes him from his isolation, and puts him in contact with other human minds which can only enlarge his own conception. (Even negative comment is helpful: “I know that’s not right!”)
One of Lehrer’s phrases caught my attention. He defined entropy as ‘disorder’, as in a sidewalk full of busy people demonstrating ‘informational entropy’. I had previously defined it (after Margaret Mead, I think) as the running down of a system, as the end of a political era, or a bouncing ball losing its energy. He lauds the sidewalk as a place where vast amounts of information might be shared, opening doors in individual minds that might be waiting for a chance comment to yield surprising results. He speaks of the limitations of minds that know too much about one subject and are thus closed to new insights. The newcomer to the field may well grasp something that escapes the professional. Lehrer likes the kind of disorder or chaos, which is the opposite of order: It may open the door to creativity.
He also writes at length about ‘grit’, that stick-to-it-iveness that makes you keep going until the project is completed. That is certainly a large part of ‘craft’, the working knowledge gained by experience which allows you to meet a new challenge with perfected skills. He spends considerable time recounting the tales of haunted geniuses who had to suffer for their art in solitary lives and continual artistic frustration. No one ever cites a happy genius – which makes me wonder. Is the suffering necessary?
Can genius be arrived at without hard work? How about the primitive sculptor who carves his gods with a skill unfettered by art classes? Or the young folksinger who opens her mouth with artless ease and astounds the listener with the purity of her song? For that matter, if (as in my case) you are earning your living by doing what you love, it’s never ‘hard work’ to do it. Oh yes, some of the details, like preparing a piano score or editing an orchestral work after the first performance, can be tedious. But so can cleaning up the kitchen after supper.
I think that suffering is an inevitable part of the human experience. When we lose those that we love, we suffer, and thus open our understanding to include others who have suffered. If we are working in music, the language of the emotions, we have a limited palette indeed if we write only ‘happy’ music – or decree that that is what should be heard in our schools and churches. I’m not sure that geniuses suffer more intensely than other human beings, but they certainly have a wonderful capacity to express it through paint or clay or song.
Actually, I’m wary of any generalizations about genius. Is there such a thing? The designation can be made about the accumulated work, but not, I think, about the individual. All of us are created with the senses through which we learn about our world, the mind which may learn to interpret what we learn, and the heart, soul, spirit, through which we can appreciate it. There are certainly rare individuals who seem to be able to put it all together. But I wish we paid more attention to the creators among us who lead ‘normal’ lives: who marry and have children and contribute to their communities. I don’t think we have to connect genius with madness. Artists are individuals who have particularly sensitive ‘senses’, and who have learned a craft. They are as varied as other humans in their life stories – and happiness is not forbidden them. . . (Think about Bach, Haydn, Mendelssohn. Who are their contemporary counterparts?)
Perhaps the greatest insight I gained from these musings was that a chorus is an ideal seed-bed for creativity. We work with a basic idea – the piece we’re learning. Our re-creation of the music demands primary creativity from us: the absorbing of the idea and re-releasing it in our own voices. Maybe this is what makes my SINGS so rewarding. An atmosphere is created where the singer may at the same time revive the melody and add his or her own newly-minted response to it. That is what makes it such FUN. We’re all participating in the world of the Creator, making a new thing where there was nothing before.
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*© 2012, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company