This article by William Deresiewicz has been going around recently, and as usual with provocative ideas about leadership and creativity I found things that resonated with my experience in musical circles. Revisiting the piece a few months after I read it for the first time, this paragraph jumped off the page:
"We have a crisis of leadership in America because our overwhelming power and wealth, earned under earlier generations of leaders, made us complacent, and for too long we have been training leaders who only know how to keep the routine going. Who can answer questions, but don't know how to ask them. Who can fulfill goals, but don't know how to set them. Who think about how to get things done, but not whether they're worth doing in the first place. What we have now are the greatest technocrats the world has ever seen, people who have been trained to be incredibly good at one specific thing, but who have no interest in anything beyond their area of expertise. What we don't have are leaders."
Cough cough composers. Cough cough.
I've made the claim before that professional self-described composers are not always creative people, and this is exactly what I'm talking about. There are many who know how to make something, but flagrantly ignore all the higher-level questions that arise from the pursuit. They are like Deresiewicz's bureaucrats "who think about how to get things done, but not whether they're worth doing in the first place." They can produce a score, but hearing the music you get the distinct impression that they never grappled with the question of what kind of music they want to be making, what kind of effect they want it to have, who they want it to have that effect on, and why. WHY why why. Undeniably, they are creating something--but they have no idea why they're creating it, so it never begins to matter, and when the piece is played it hits the back wall with a dull thud. It is never even noticed.
With that harshness out of the way I can proceed to admit that I spend way too much time thinking about these meta-compositional questions. You can't write any music if you're always wondering what kind of music to write, and I've fallen prey to that disease from time to time. There's a point at which one must dismiss all questions, have a little trust, and put something out there. Maybe that's what all these people are doing, and what I'm doing too, and maybe we just have to accept that regardless of the level of introspection taking place, some expressions are going to be more successful than others.
Which is perhaps why Deresiewicz points out that solitude does not necessarily mean introspection. Deep, genuine, and original thought comes from long-term consideration of a problem in one's mind, but also in one's actions, or in a long conversation with a friend. I agree that these days we too often have the opportunity of "marinating...in conventional wisdom." We exist in a flood of casually provided information--often a poor substitute for carefully considered ideas--but all it takes to rise above is a bit of that "solitude of concentration."
Because if we're looking for leaders, we must admit that the big questions are going to play a role. And that isn't intellectual waffling: that's real creativity, because a blank page might be scary, but not as scary as asking yourself whether the page itself is what you ought to be writing on. Walking a straight line, that's professionalism; the creative leaders are the ones who don't just walk a curvy arc to try and look different, but who actually suggest the pavement itself is an option to be reconsidered, and that takes courage. Because most people are going to tell you duh, idiot, it's the pavement. You can't do anything with that. But in art, and oftentimes in life, you can.
• Gone Walkabout
• Music as Drama
• Crossroads II
• 10 Best of 2014
• January: Wyoming and the Open
• February: New Mexico and the Holes
• Coming Up
• Notes on The Accounts
• Crossroad Blues