Creativity’s Worst Enemy

If you haven’t yet read Byron Janis’s recent article in the Wall Street Journal, go here.

I am at my happiest when sight-reading music, but never really bothered to articulate why.  I suspected that it had a good deal to do with being too lazy to practice.  So I felt completely understood (and vindicated!) when I read this paragraph:

Thinking is creativity’s worst enemy. When I first sight-read a score, everything seems so right, so natural. The notes seem to be playing themselves and the music flows. Why? Because I am not thinking. Inspiration has been my guide—the adventure of a first time. Then comes familiarization, the learning process where, until the piece is well in hand, thinking is allowed. After that, interpretation—choices must be made, but you are finally free to feel and use your creative instincts. And, at last, creation—how do I make the music sound as it did when I didn’t know it? The great poet Yeats spoke of this dilemma so beautifully in his poem “Adam’s Curse”:
Yet if it does not seem a moment’s thought,
Our stitching and unstitching has been naught.
Before the heart can remember, the mind must forget. And, when I least expect to, I will suddenly start playing that piece, again without thinking, as I did in the beginning when I first sight-read it. That is when it happens—I have finally discovered my “moment’s thought.”

 Actually, we are thinking when we are in this particular frame of mind.  But it has so little to do with the way our minds usually churn that we don’t recognize it.

What Mr. Janis has to say about the unscientific nature of tempi reminded me how much I adored fellow pianist Jeremy Denk’s recent blog entry: Whose Brahms?  (This link is longer and of a very different nature, but is particularly rewarding for the data geeks among us.)

He says that “tempo is more dangerous than an illusion, it is a kind of myth promulgated by all sorts of fascist types in order to destroy the natural and beautiful cycles of PDT [Perceived Desired Tempo] that are native to the human freedom instinct. The next time a conductor asks me “why are you moving so much faster here?,” referring to some passage X of a concerto, I will simply say “natural variability of sunspots,” and when the conductor says “that’s ridiculous,” I will say “you can’t prove to me it’s NOT sunspots.” I’m sure this will go over very well.”

Tempo is so intertwined with heartbeat and breathing that to will it to be scientific is not only delusional, it’s cruel.  The tension between the hard cold data of music (frequency, amplitude, waveform) and how it emerges from our bodies and our minds is the essence of why we care about art at all.

Heading to North Carolina in the morning to judge Metropolitan Opera National Council auditions.  Have a great weekend!

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