Brain Pickings

Posts Tagged ‘music’

09 SEPTEMBER, 2014

Legendary Composer Aaron Copland on the Conditions of Creativity, Emotion vs. Intellect, and the Trap of Public Opinion

By:

“The main thing is to be satisfied with your work yourself. It’s useless to have an audience happy if you are not happy.”

In 1970, long before our present barrage of books on creativity, even before Vera John-Steiner’s pioneering investigation of the creative mind and the influential tome The Creativity Question, psychologists Lawrence E. Abt and Stanley Rosner set out to tackle the question of what makes creators create by bridging the sociological and the psychological approach, which previous frameworks of studying creativity had kept separate. With the help of former Life magazine science editor Albert Rosenfeld and noted art critic Clement Greenberg, they identified 23 celebrated figures in the arts and sciences — from choreographer Merce Cunningham to cognitive scientist and linguist Noam Chomsky to astronomer Harlow Shapley — and conducted extensive interviews with them to discern the conditions, motives, and personality traits most conducive to the creative experience. The result was The Creative Experience: Why and How Do We Create? (public library) — an ambitious effort not only to understand the creative mind, but also to expose the false divide between intuition and intellect and to debunk the then-dominant, still-toxic notion that creativity in the arts is the product of hot emotion, while creativity in the sciences that of cool intelligence.

Rosenfeld captures the book’s ethos of integration beautifully:

There do not exist two distinct and separate types of mind, one for the arts and humanities, the other for the sciences… You must possess both intuition and imagination to be creative in the sciences as well as the arts… There is science in all good poetry and vice versa.

Among the most eloquent and interesting interviewees is the influential composer (and the one-time object of Leonard Bernstein’s infatuation) Aaron Copland, recipient of the prestigious Presidential Medal of Freedom, the National Medal of Arts, and the Pulitzer Prize in composition.

Copland begins by considering the nature of creativity:

It is very difficult to describe the creative experience in such a way that it would cover all cases. One of the essentials is the variety with which one approaches any kind of artistic creation. It doesn’t start in any one particular way and it is not always easy to say what gets you going.

I’ve sometimes made the analogy with eating. Why do you eat? You’re hungry. You are sort of in the mood to eat, and if you are in the mood to eat, the food tastes better; you’re more interested in what you’re eating. The whole experience is more “creative.” It’s the hunger that stimulates you to eat. It’s the same thing in art; except that, in art, the hunger is the need for self-expression.

How does it come about that you feel hungry? You don’t know, you just feel hungry. The juices are working, and suddenly you are aware of the fact that you want a piece of bread and butter. It’s about the same in art. If you pass your life in creating works of art in one field or another, you recognize the “hunger” signs and you are quick to take advantage of them, if they’re accompanied by ideas. Sometimes, you have the hunger and you don’t have any ideas; there’s no bread in the house. It’s as simple as that.

Illustration from 'Inside the Rainbow: Russian Children's Literature 1920–35.' Click image for more.

Copland’s concept of creativity is similar to the notion of chance-opportunism common to great scientific minds — the art of being prepared not only to capture great ideas when they occur but to also direct attention to them and shepherd them into a fruitful direction. Copland points to the importance of cultivating the right parameters for this process — something psychologists have since confirmed in examining the ideal environment for creativity — and outlines the conditions most conducive to productivity:

If you were to set up the ideal situation, I’d have to be in my studio, where conditions are conducive to work and where I don’t have any distractions. It’s difficult to write music on the subway train; it can be done, but it’s not usual. If I feel in the mood to write, something starts me off. I might feel sad. I might feel lonely. I might feel elated. I might have gotten a good letter from somebody. Something starts me off.

At first glance, Copland’s experience seems to contradict Tchaikovsky’s famous proclamation that “a self-respecting artist must not fold his hands on the pretext that he is not in the mood.” But the notion of mood, as Copland uses it, seems to be less about awaiting some mythic stroke of inspiration as about being attentive to those essential triggers — the starter-offers — that catalyze the creative process. In fact, he echoes Anaïs Nin’s assertion that emotional excess is the root of creativity, but for him the key to catalyzing the creative process isn’t merely attunement to one’s emotional state — rather, it’s a delicate dialogue between the hotness of emotional excess and the coolness of the intellect:

Whenever you write, you see, nothing will happen unless the creative fantasy is alive. One the other hand, to be alive with creative fantasy suggests, to me, improvising at the piano. But, if you merely improvise, you might never find your improvisation again. And that’s where coolness comes in. You watch yourself being fiery, or sad, or lonely; otherwise you won’t be able to get it down on paper. Writers probably have this same problem of writing fast enough so that they can get it all down while they are under the spell. You can’t be sure how long it will go on. Outside interruption is definitely out. In music, you have to get it down on score paper. Otherwise, you might forget it… If you go on being fiery all the time, by the time you stop being fiery, you will have lost the whole thing.

Copland reflects on his daily routine:

I happen to be a night worker… I don’t know why. Once I read a statement made by Thomas Hardy, in which he said, “Seven-eighths of the intimate letters that are written are written after 10:00 in the evening.” I connected that statement with writing music and working at night, because composing is a kind of intimate letter writing. You are expressing your inward feelings in musical terms.

In a sentiment that legendary songwriter Carole King would come to echo two decades later in her insightful meditation on the interplay between inspiration and perspiration in creative work, Copland returns to this notion of mood:

Musical composition works best when you are in the mood. You can coldly sit down and write anything, but the results will often not be satisfactory either to yourself or to the people who hear it. Nevertheless, it can be induced to a certain extent.

Still, Copland considers emotion not only a far more powerful creative agent than thought but also the primary gateway to self-awareness — an idea quite radical in rationalism’s shadow, which has conditioned us to believe that we think our way into our experience rather than feeling our way into it. Copland writes:

In music, it’s more likely to be an emotion rather than a specific idea or thought that leads to a composition. It’s comparable to a person who starts to sing to himself, though he is not even aware he’s begun to sing. Then, if he suddenly begins to become aware that he’s been singing something with a sad sound to it, he wonders what he’s feeling so sad about.

[…]

Music is a language of the emotions. You can practice it either on a very plain and elementary basis, or you can practice it on a highly complex one. But, it generally gives off some sort of generalized emotional feeling…

Staying with the question of feelings, Copland makes a curious remark about the role of depression in creative work — one that resonates with what psychologists have since confirmed about the relationship between creativity and mental illness and one that counters the “tortured genius” myth:

Too much depression will not result in a work of art because a work of art is an affirmative gesture. To compose, you have to feel that you are accomplishing something. If you feel you are accomplishing something, you won’t feel so depressed. You may feel depressed, but it can’t be so depressing that you can’t move. No, I would say that people create in moments when they are elated about expressing their depression!

Creative work, Copland argues, is invariably a self-portrait of the creator’s unique inner life. His description almost exudes an element of fatedness in the relationship between an artist and his or her art:

The kind of emotion that some of my music expresses would be a reflection of the kind of person I am, because I couldn’t have written that kind of music unless I was that kind of person. The fact that I don’t write other kinds of music means that I am not that other kind of person.

Illustration from 'Herman and Rosie' by Gus Gordon. Click image for more.

More than the mere exorcism of emotion, Copland argues that the magic of music lies in its ability to translate our concrete thoughts and feelings into an enchanting abstract experience, and the degree of fluency in such abstraction is what sets great musical talent apart:

Everyone is supposed to like music, but people who are really musically gifted don’t seem to have the need for having music’s significance made specific. They can think about music and enthuse about it, and that’s all that’s necessary.

[…]

One of the reasons why cultivated music is one of the glories of mankind, one of the real achievements of mankind, is that we are dealing in amorphous, highly abstract material without any specific thought content.

This, Copland argues, is largely a matter of education — an education the general public simply does not have, which renders many people incapable of appreciating truly great and visionary music. Perhaps his most poignant point, indeed, has to do with the problem of public opinion and the artist’s eternal struggle not to confuse external approval with self-esteem and not to succumb to the trap of people-pleasing. Copland writes:

Composers, unfortunately, have a serious problem with the present-day public. It’s as if you’re talking a language to them which they don’t fully understand… There is some discouragement in writing in a language that you know in advance can’t be fully understood except by people who have bothered with the language sufficiently to feel at home with it.

But the main thing is to be satisfied with your work yourself. It’s useless to have an audience happy if you are not happy.

Even more than self-gratification, Copland argues, artists’ highest responsibility is to capture the cultural backdrop of their time:

[Today’s artists] are the only ones who can express the spirit of what it means to be alive today.

That’s what makes the creation of art seem important. You’re not just expressing your own individuality. You, as a person, are an exemplar; you are one of the people living now who can put this thing down. In another twenty years … the world experience will be different, so the need becomes very pressing. You have a sense of urgency, of being occupied with something essential and unique. To leave our mark of the present on the future — what could be more natural?

He parlays this into a final meditation on the creative impulse as our most potent ally in our incurable longing for immortality, as well as a central component in art’s therapeutic potentiality:

The arts in general, I think, help to give significance to life. That’s one of their very basic and important functions. The arts soften man’s mortality and make more acceptable the whole life experience. It isn’t that you think your music will last forever, because nobody knows what’s going to last forever. But, you do know, in the history of the arts, that there have been certain works which have symbolized whole periods and the deepest feelings of mankind, and it’s that aspect of artistic creation which draws one on always, and makes it seem so very significant. i don’t think about this when I write my music, of course, but I think about it after the act, and believe it to be the moving force behind the need to be creative in the arts.

The Creative Experience is a wonderfully stimulating read in its entirety. Complement it with another seminal treatise on creativity from the same era, The Act of Creation by Arthur Koestler — who happens to be one of Abt and Rosner’s 23 subjects — and with one of the twentieth century’s first systematic explorations of the creative mind, the 1942 lost gem An Anatomy of Inspiration by Rosamund Harding.

Donating = Loving

Bringing you (ad-free) Brain Pickings takes hundreds of hours each month. If you find any joy and stimulation here, please consider becoming a Supporting Member with a recurring monthly donation of your choosing, between a cup of tea and a good dinner:





You can also become a one-time patron with a single donation in any amount:





Brain Pickings has a free weekly newsletter. It comes out on Sundays and offers the week’s best articles. Here’s what to expect. Like? Sign up.

28 AUGUST, 2014

Leonard Bernstein’s Moving Letter of Gratitude to His Mentor and a Prescient 1943 Manifesto for Crowdfunding the Arts

By:

Decades before Kickstarter, a vision for how micro-patronage can help creators “ascend to new heights” and “gain in confidence, in self-esteem and in fortitude.”

As a great proponent of the mutual gift of gratitude to those who touch our lives in a meaningful way and a joyful practitioner of sending regular notes of appreciation to these generous people in my own life, I was extraordinarily moved by a letter of gratitude that legendary composer Leonard Bernstein sent to one of his big heroes and mentors, the Russian-born conductor, composer, and Boston Symphony Orchestra music director Serge Koussevitzky. Found in The Leonard Bernstein Letters (public library | IndieBound) — the same volume that cracked open Bernstein’s dreams — the missive is second only to Bukowski’s letter of gratitude to his first patron.

Shortly after taking Koussevitzky’s conducting classes at the Boston Symphony Orchestra’s Tanglewood summer institute in 1940, Bernstein writes:

Dear Dr. Koussevitzky,

Words are a remote enough medium of expression for any musician, but it is especially difficult for me to find words for this letter. Let it be brief.

This summer to me was beauty — beauty in work, and strength of purpose, and cooperation. I am full of humility and gratitude for having shared so richly in it. These last six weeks have been the happiest and most productive of my life. I have been able, for the first time, to concentrate completely on my main purpose, with a glorious freedom from personal problems.

It was a renaissance for me — a rehabilitation of the twisted and undefined Weltanschauung [worldview] with which I came to you.

For your creative energy, your instinct for truth, your incredible incorporation of teacher and artist, I give humble thanks. Seeing in you my own concepts matured is a challenge to me which I hope to fulfill in your great spirit.

[…]

In devotion, and in gratitude,

Leonard Bernstein

The first page of Bernstein's letter to Koussevitzky (Library of Congress)

Bernstein eventually became Koussevitzky’s conducting assistant, later dedicating the 1948 Symphony No. 2 The Age of Anxiety to his beloved mentor.

But gratitude alone doesn’t keep a roof over one’s head. In addition to his creative influence, Koussevitzky would also come to impact Bernstein with his convictions about the more tangible ways in which culture at large shows its appreciation to musicians. On May 29, 1943, Bernstein writes in another letter to Koussevitzky:

Reading your letter to the Times … I became inspired all over again; and I was very happy to find that the general reaction to your idea is so favorable and understanding. But who can resist an idea at once so bold and so simple?

The idea he is referring to had appeared in The New York Times thirteen days earlier, in an open letter by Koussevitzky titled “Justice to Composers” — a passionate plea to support creative musicians. Koussevitzky writes:

It is hardly necessary to stress the preeminent place that music holds in our world today — not alone in the world of culture, not alone in the art history of mankind, but also in the daily life of the average man.

[…]

What is being done for the composer of our day?

[…]

With the turn of centuries, how much has been done for the creative artist to whom millions of past and present musicians owe their true place in life, their happiness and their welfare? Very little — by far not enough. If the present-day composer is not dying of heartbreak and hunger, he has, nevertheless, to struggle along and to earn his living through other ways and sources than his God-given gift: as a composer he cannot make a living. He is forced to go out and teach, lecture, and crowd his days with trifling obligations which kill his time, his energies, his creative art. If his present-day life is less tragic, it is none the less hard, unfair and maladjusted.

[…]

Therefore I say the time is ripe to act.

It is no surprise that the plea stirred Bernstein, for he was living the very predicament his mentor had described: Bernstein, who had given up his apartment and was residing at the Chelsea Hotel at the time, confessed in his letter to Koussevitzky:

I go on doing my horrible chores for Warner Brothers in order to live. It is dull beyond belief, and takes much too much time; but I feel that somehow better things must be coming for me.

Leonard Bernstein conducting the New York City Symphony in 1945

In fact, Koussevitzky was vehemently opposed to the notion of talented, “serious” composers compromising their creative integrity by doing commercial work catering to popular taste. He actively discouraged Bernstein’s activities as a Broadway composer — indeed, after his 1945 musical On the Town, Bernstein wrote no more Broadway shows until after Koussevitzky’s death.

But what is most extraordinary about Koussevitzky’s letter is that several decades before Kickstarter, Patreon, and other micro-patronage platforms that formalized the art of asking to help support independent creators — the very concept that helps me keep Brain Pickings going — he advocated a crowdfunding solution to the predicament, calling not only on music-lovers but on the community of musicians themselves to chip in:

The appeal for the composer must embrace the whole musical world, reach the musician in every field, the music lover and sponsor, far and wide. It will be a timely and major step forward.

[…]

In this great country alone there are many thousands of performing musicians. A small annual donation of $1 each will bring in a substantial permanent income and, with the joint co-operation and contributions of other groups and organizations, will go a long way toward establishing a composers’ fund… Whatever action we take now will lay the groundwork for the impelling and just cause of the composer. Embracing that cause, we shall ascend to new heights, we shall gain in confidence, in self-esteem and in fortitude.

What a beautiful and prescient testament to the idea that “donating = loving.”

Complement the immeasurably absorbing The Leonard Bernstein Letters with Bernstein on motivation and why we create, then revisit Amanda Palmer’s eloquent modern-day counterpart to Koussevitzky’s plea.

Donating = Loving

Bringing you (ad-free) Brain Pickings takes hundreds of hours each month. If you find any joy and stimulation here, please consider becoming a Supporting Member with a recurring monthly donation of your choosing, between a cup of tea and a good dinner:





You can also become a one-time patron with a single donation in any amount:





Brain Pickings has a free weekly newsletter. It comes out on Sundays and offers the week’s best articles. Here’s what to expect. Like? Sign up.

18 JULY, 2014

July 18, 1992: The First Photo Uploaded to the Web, of CERN’s All-Girl Science Rock Band

By:

Love and science set to song, from quarks to colliders.

In 1990, shortly before a CERN physicist subverted gender and science stereotypes by adapting Alice in Wonderland as an allegory in quantum mechanics, a different type of delightful subversion was afoot at the famed European Organization for Nuclear Research, now home to the Large Hadron Collider: Michele Muller, a former British model and actor working as a 3D graphic designer for a virtual reality project at CERN, was dating CERN computer scientist Silvano de Gennaro and found herself frustrated with her boyfriend’s seemingly unending shifts. Rather than fight over it, the two decided to have some fun with the relationship sticking point — Michele set her frustrations to song, asking Silvano to write some music that she would perform at the CERN Hardronic Festival. The song “Collider” was born — a humorous homage to the lonely nights and perpetual perils of a scientist’s lover that went a little something like, “I gave you a golden ring to show you my love / You went to stick it in a printed circuit / To fix a voltage leak in your collector / You plug my feelings into your detector.” The song was a hit, which led Muller to recruit a couple of her girlfriends and form Les Horribles Cernettes — a parody doo-wop band that dubbed itself “the one and only High Energy Rock Band” and sang love songs about colliders, quarks, liquid nitrogen, microwaves, and antimatter in ’60s-inspired outfits.

Sir Tim Berners-Lee, founding father of the World Wide Web, was working at CERN at the time and had taken a liking to Les Horribles Cernettes’ irreverent odes to science. According to De Genarro, Berners-Lee asked him for a few scanned photos of the band to put on “some sort of information system he had just invented, called the ‘World Wide Web.'”

On July 18, 1992, this photograph of the band — comprised, at that point, of Michele Muller, Colette Marx-Nielsen, Angela Higney, and Lynn Veronneau — became the very first image uploaded to the web.

Oh, and they were actually very, very good. After a dogged dig through various corners of CERN’s web archives, which seem charmingly unchanged since the ’90s, I excavated a few of Les Horribles Cernettes’ songs — please enjoy:

COLLIDER

You say you love me but you never beep me
You always promise but you never date me
I try to fax but it’s busy, always
I try the network but you crash the gateways
You never spend your nights with me
You don’t go out with other girls either
You only love your collider

I fill your screen with hearts and roses
I fill your mail file with lovely phrases
They all come back: “invalid user”
You never let me into your computer
You never spend your nights with me
You don’t go out with other girls either
You prefer your collider

I gave you a golden ring to show you my love
You went to stick it in a printed circuit
To fix a voltage leak in your collector
You plug my feelings into your detector
You never spend your nights with me
You don’t go out with other girls either
You prefer your collider
You only love your collider
Your collider

STRONG INTERACTION

You quark me up
You quark me down
You quark me top
You quark me bottom

You quark me up (yeah yeah, I feel your charm)
You quark me down (tau tau, I feel so strange)
You quark me top (go go on hypercharge)
You quark me bottom (shoot shoot on isospin)

You spin me ’round ’round ’round ’round yeah
You spin me ’round ’round ’round ’round yeah
You spin me ’round ’round ’round ’round yeah
You spin me ’round ’round ’round ’round yeah
I feel your attraction
It’s a strong interaction

DADDY’S LAB

My daddy has a lab in the Confederation
He told me “come around for your summer vacation”
Now I know lots of guys go there to study matter
I’m gonna find that sweet one
And teach him more
Much more than daddy knows

I’m gonna have some fun (in daddy’s lab)
pushing all the buttons (in daddy’s lab)
I’m gonna be a star (in daddy’s lab)
breaking all the hearts (in daddy’s lab)
I’m gonna go to play at hunting zed-zeros
mess around with the quarks
scatter protons all over
and hide with you behind the racks

Don’t wanna visit Rome, don’t wanna die in Venice
Don’t care for Wimbledon, and all the stars of tennis
I only like those guys who live to study matter
I’m gonna find my sweet one
And teach him more
Much more than daddy knows

I’m gonna have some fun…

LIQUID NITROGEN

You poured liquid nitrogen down my spine
as you told me you didn’t love me anymore
and run off with the girl next door
You poured liquid nitrogen in my heart
and you told me it wouldn’t hurt, what a liar
You promised you’d always be true

You said you’d be mine 12 months a year, 24 hours a day
You said I’d be yours each week my dear, until the end of time
But then you found her and you left me here
To cry and to run of tears
And now here I wait 12 months a year
But I’m hoping one day you’ll come back and stay

You poured…

You said you’d be mine forever and ever, 5040 minutes a week
Except Christmas Day ’cause you go see your mother
(That’s) 2800 less divided by 2
You said I’d be yours 30,240,000 seconds a year
Including leap years, which means 86,400 extra every four

You poured…

You said you’d be mine 3600 seconds an hour every day
Which in milliseconds that’s 43,200 times 10 to the 3rd
You said I’d be yours 24 hours a day,
integrating until the end of time.
Now in nanoseconds that’s just the square root
of 2670 billion times 10 to 90 divided by two

ANTIWORLD

He was sitting there, floating in the air
Alone on a cloud, sparkling all around
He went “pop” when he saw me
With those magnetic eyes
My heart stopped when I saw him
I just couldn’t breathe any more

He stood up and he walked on the air
And sparkling away headed up to me
With a smile on his face he said “come on hon”
Then we jumped in hyperspace
And inversed my polarity

Said I’m an anti-man
Live in an anti-world
I’ve got an anti-dog
Would you be, would you be my anti-girl

He took me back to his anti-car
And drove me home, I mean anti-home
Then he kissed me so sweetly all night long
And he took me completely
To a different world

Then he kissed me so sweetly all night long
And he took me completely
To a different world

He was an anti-man
Lived in an anti-world
He had an anti-dog
Would I be, would I be his anti-girl

I said yes, yes, yes, oh really yes!
Yeah yeah yeah, I mean anti-yes!
Now I walk ever so smoothly
Floating in the air
And I look ever so sparkly
Sitting alone on my cloud

Because I’m an anti-girl
Live in an anti-world
I’ve got an anti-cat
And I love, and I love my anti-man

Oh yes I’m an anti-girl
Live in an anti-world
I’ve got an anti-cat
And I love, and I love my anti-man

’Cause I’m an anti-girl
Live in an anti-world
I love my anti-man
yes I’m an anti-girl
I love my anti-man

And if there were any doubt as to whether this love story was a winner from the get-go, it’s worth noting that Michele Muller is now Michele de Genarro.

Thanks, Paola

Donating = Loving

Bringing you (ad-free) Brain Pickings takes hundreds of hours each month. If you find any joy and stimulation here, please consider becoming a Supporting Member with a recurring monthly donation of your choosing, between a cup of tea and a good dinner:





You can also become a one-time patron with a single donation in any amount:





Brain Pickings has a free weekly newsletter. It comes out on Sundays and offers the week’s best articles. Here’s what to expect. Like? Sign up.