Improvisation has always been the beginning of composing for me, and when I allow myself to write truly intuitively, often I get my best music. Not always. But often.
Nonetheless, when I'm writing intuitively and improvisationally, Truman Capote's famous quip about Jack Kerouac always rings in my ears: "That isn't writing at all; it's typing."
I was thinking a bit about Kerouac's work a year ago, around the time I wrote Outer Channel.
While composing I was inspired by Kerouac's Belief and Technique for Modern Prose, a list of thirty characteristically oblique writing tips. ("Believe in the holy contour of life"; "Like Proust be an old teahead of time"; "Something that you feel will find its own form"; "Work from pithy middle eye out, swimming in language sea.") Outer Channel is somewhat improvisational, at least at first; it flows easily between ideas. That said, I did apply some focus, and I didn't write it from top to bottom. I recorded myself improvising some music, transcribed some of it, picked some of that out, placed it next to other music, moved it around, took out some notes and added some others (a process often referred to as "editing"). The piece is named for a lovely passage in The Dharma Bums.
Kerouac was not an editor, and I've loved him for that. I think he's somewhat out of style these days, or at least it seems I haven't met many Serious Writers working today who admit his influence. I suppose a lot of them/us see him as a teenage inspiration subsequently outgrown. I too read him in high school, but I had my perfect On the Road experience at age 24, during a solo Colorado mountain-climbing road trip, listening to the book on CD. (It's worth pondering whether such writing naturally works better aurally than it does on the page--conveyed in sound waves it is more kinetic, not such a static object easily encumbered by pretensions toward perfection.)
That same year I named a song after Desolation Angels, but I didn't actually read the book. I started it and pretty hastily quit. So that one is still waiting for me. Along with Big Sur and Visions of Cody and a bunch more.
(This week I learned that a German college student worked through On the Road and converted it, drolly, into a 45-page set of Google Maps driving directions. The document is more richly, ambiguously thought-provoking than one would expect.)
So then just this last fall, something belated happened: I discovered Henry Miller. Someone mentioned Big Sur and the Oranges of Hieronymus Bosch, which I thought was such a fantastically wonderful title that I simply had to buy the book. Now I'm into his classic Tropic of Cancer. Miller is often cited as an influence for Kerouac and the Beat Generation writers. His prose offers a similar exuberance, and a similar eye shines on his personal life as an inspiration. And he gets gonzo, Miller, but he writes with a certain precision. He likes a sentence in a few specific ways. He paints with sticks, but he also gets the chisel out, sometimes.
In the opening section of Tropic of Cancer, he writes the following:
"I have made a silent compact with myself not to change a line of what I write. I am not interested in perfecting my thoughts, nor my actions. Beside the perfection of Turgenev I put the perfection of Dostoevski. (Is there anything more perfect than The Eternal Husband?) Here, then, in one and the same medium, we have two kinds of perfection. But in Van Gogh's letters there is a perfection beyond either of these. It is the triumph of the individual over art."
(It should be said that, in spite of the compact, he did rewrite Tropic of Cancer several times before publishing it. I read in an interview that he did edit, but not at once, and not in every case.)
So: what sort of perfection are we looking for, as artists? And maybe more crucially, are the sorts mutually exclusive? I've framed this question before in the terms of Heisenberg's Uncertainty Principle. Is a work of art like an electron? When we take the time to precisely measure its position, do we lose all knowledge of its momentum? Does our first effort to measure a piece of music somehow irrevocably change it?
We all must answer these questions for ourselves. I suppose I have to answer them every time I sit down to write a new piece. But at least we can recognize that two perfections exist, that beside the tidy, traditionally recognized one of exactitude and rigor there sits another, shaggier perfection of inspiration and kinetic force. Beside the perfection of Ravel I put the perfection of Ives; next to the perfection of Miles Davis I place that of Han Bennink.
Or maybe, following Heisenberg, we should admit that perfection does not exist, that we simply, mathematically, cannot know everything about life or about art. That might be much more liberating. To admit that perfection is only a theoretical construct, not something that physically exists in nature, and to continue to do our best work anyway; that might be the triumph of the individual over art.
Interesting! I'm thinking about this a lot now, as I've been spending the last few days moving around deck chairs on a particularly stubborn passage. Sometimes I think the answer to how much I pick at something is dependent on my idea of the piece itself. There are pieces where I have such a clear and specific concept about the piece that the details become less important. In that case I've used long chunks of largely improvised, unedited, material and it seems to be perfect and I rarely feel the need to intervene. And then, of course, there is the reverse: material where it's hours and hours moving around eighth note rests, adding or subtracting beats, notes, etc. etc. In the former case, by concept, I don't mean a specifically musical idea, I mean an idea about what the piece will be. In that case the 'big idea' in a sense renders the details if not irrelevant, than certainly less important, because I know there is some larger game afoot. In the latter case, there really isn't a 'concept' and it seems to be just about abstract musical connections. Not passing a value judgement on either approach, because I definitely use both. Merely observing that for me this is usually where the hammer of obsessive editing versus perfect imperfection falls.
2/12/2014 10:18:27 am
That's a great point! I can agree that in the cases where I had that emergent, large-scale sense for the kind of piece I was making, I was able to improvise and paint freely a lot more. It's those times where I'm really figuring out the piece as I go along that I end up editing and re-editing. Then the fascinating question becomes, what constitutes that vague big-picture piece idea? Sometimes you have it, sometimes you don't, and I also agree that it isn't necessarily "better" either way. They've both resulted in good pieces I was satisfied with.
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