Sunday, February 27, 2011

Obsessing Over Originality

It is hard to imagine Mozart, looking at the flow of harmonies in a piece he has just completed and saying, Crap, that sounds just like Haydn!  Or Beethoven writing a major scale in the middle of a piece and thinking, I can't do that; it's been done before!  Looking back, we know that every Western composer writing during the same era as Mozart and Haydn had the same harmonic aesthetic, and it even persists today in a ton of music.  The same goes for major scales, and yet it isn't inaccurate to say that Mozart and Beethoven were both innovative composers in their own ways.

George Crumb's Makrokosmos II, Mvt. 12

Originality seems to have a high place of honor in our thinking (mine at least), and yet our society doesn't respond with much enthusiasm for completely original thoughts.  Off-the-wall solutions that no one else has conceived are often met with ridicule and judgment.  One has to think almost like everyone else with just enough originality to captivate and inspire.  Too much innovation and people's minds rebel.

So why, when I am composing a piece of music, do I have this running criteria that it must be "original," that is must have completely new ideas that no other musician has ever considered?  Some composers manage to do that some of the time.  A century ago, the Impressionist movement (the most prominent figures of which were Debussy, Ravel, and Respighi) turned traditional harmony on its head.  Debussy took it a step further and slipped out of traditional musical forms as well.  But this didn't revolutionize the way people listened to music.  We still hear the traditional harmonies and forms every time we turn on the radio.  The influence of that innovation from a hundred years ago may be threaded into our 21st century musical expectations, but it didn't completely override the previous 200 years of musical development.

Harry Partch's quadrangularis reversum
Other composers have done very innovative things as well, and many of these people are the composers I most admire.  Yet even they used musical elements in common with other composers.  My mental criteria that what I write must be completely unique is not only unreasonable, but literally impossible.  It focuses my attention away from the actual music I am composing and onto some strange value for originality that doesn't even play out in practical reality.  Even the most compelling piece of music I can write will have some common elements with other music, and I would go so far as to say that the common ground is what makes new music accessible to people's ears.

So, I am releasing myself from the requirement that I must be an innovator.  At the same time, I recognize that if I am simply true to my own creativity, the music I compose will convey my unique voice.  Which is to say that I don't have to evaluate the originality of each discrete element in a piece in order to look at the completed product and see something of value.  Perhaps this idea extends beyond the realm of composing as well.  Perhaps there will be a time when we all set aside the obsession with originality and evaluate each idea on its own merit.

Sunday, February 20, 2011

A Real Job

When I was on the threshold of adulthood (on which I sometimes feel like I'm yet lingering), my stepfather asked one evening, "When are you going to stop this music crap and get a real job?"  Or something to that effect.  My mind may not accurately recall his exact words, but I do remember him suggesting that I could be a dishwasher for a local restaurant if that's what it took.  Although at the time my reaction was fueled by teenage rebelliousness, there are still moments when I struggle with that question.  I have nothing against dishwashers, but after earning a doctorate degree, teaching at colleges, and directing a multi-disciplinary, inter-generational arts program, expecting to thrive on creating music sometimes seems like cheating somehow.

My stepfather's question made perfect sense to him at the time.  He chose a profession that reflects his strong work ethic, the kind of blue-collar career in which you know that you've been working at the end of the day.  He respects people that stand on their own two feet, people who are responsible for themselves.  A music career equated with a pipe dream of fame and fortune, slightly more respectable than winning the lottery, but less likely to happen.  Especially in the small town where we lived.  It has its own share of culture, but it simply lacks the critical mass of population to attract much attention.  No wonder he would suggest a more realistic course than being a musician.


Even then, I didn't see a music career quite the same way as he.  I simply wanted to get paid for creating music, in whatever forms that would take.  It wasn't as though I wanted to be handed something for nothing, I just wanted to make money doing what I loved to do.  Recently, I have made decisions as if I needed to earn money somehow so I could indulge in creating music.  I could see music as a luxurious destination, but not the path.  Somewhere along the way, I became unconvinced of the feasibility of just creating music and getting paid enough as a result.  Even though that had been the reality previously in my life.  Bizarre.

Relocation was an opportunity for me to hit the reset button on a few things, though.  I decided to identify myself (to myself and to others) first and foremost as a pianist and composer, and to trust that to be enough.  I don't need to add anything or take anything away from that.  It is an act of faith, and it is an act of authenticity.  At the same time, it is based in reality.  There are certainly people of my skill level and less who are doing just fine in music careers.  Perhaps partly because they believe it's possible to do so, at least most days.


Now I believe that it really boils down to authenticity.  I don't quite believe in "Do what you love and the money will follow."  I do, however, believe in "Do what you love and the satisfaction of doing what you love will follow."  I think that when people are doing something that has personal value, they will do it well enough to be satisfied.  Different people are satisfied by different levels of success, of course.  My stepfather is satisfied, at least in part, by doing something at which he excels, with the confidence that his effort is worth his compensation.  As it turns out, we have that in common.

Sunday, February 13, 2011

Still Reflection on Troubled Waters

An accompanying job in one of my old stomping grounds has stirred up memories of a challenging situation.  While I'm not one to wallow in regret or rehash the past over and over again in my mind, I do occasionally consider what I could have done differently in a given situation, so that I might learn something valuable even if an experience didn't play out the way I would have preferred.  As I played through this particular sequence of events from my past, I came upon a startling realization.  Although I made conscious efforts to "not make the situation worse," there is very little I could have done to change the outcome.  It would have been more authentic, and perhaps had a greater positive impact on some of the people involved, for me to simply speak directly and honestly without going overboard on efforts to be diplomatic or polite.

As concise as I can be while still painting a more or less complete picture, here is the story.  I fired someone.  Actually, I eliminated their position.  I did so as gently as I could, and I offered another possibility for the person to be involved and continue to earn an income.  This individual was essentially getting paid for doing the same thing that several other people did as volunteers.  It was a bit of an ethical disconnect for one person to get paid to do something that other people did for free, and the budget wouldn't allow me to pay everyone I would have liked to pay.  However, I needed someone to do a different task, a more unique task that I could practically and ethically justify paying someone to do.  It seemed like a perfect fit to me.

Not so for the individual in question.  The position for which I wanted to pay someone was not desirable to this person, so when I stopped paying for her participation, she stopped participating.  I found someone else to fill the paid position and went on with my job.  It was, after all, nothing personal.  When I heard about another paying opportunity for which she was quite qualified, I passed it along, but she wasn't interested in that either. Instead, she started a whisper campaign to get me removed from my position.

One person who was sympathetic to her point of view happened to be the board chairperson, and this position held more power than any salaried position in the organization.  The chairperson already had some significant differences of opinion with me about the organizational structure.  I believed that the paid staff had been hired because of our expertise in our areas of focus, and that the volunteer board existed to guide and support the vision of the organization, spearheaded by staff leadership.  The chairperson believed that the staff were hired help who were expected to follow the orders of the board, lack of expertise or leadership notwithstanding.  This distinction was never clearly communicated to me, so I continued to operate under my own perceptions.

I knew that there were communication issues.  I knew that the board was slow to make decisions, and that many of those decisions were based on fear rather than vision.  I knew that there were rumblings going on behind the scenes and in the shadows.  In other words, I knew this organization to be like most other organizations.  So, I offered leadership from my position to support the stated purpose of the organization, not realizing that leadership was not really what was expected of me.

Eventually, ten months after these events began, it was suggested that I resign.  I did so, and they ushered me out as quickly as possible, with a polite reception and a plaque.  I received the plaque graciously and told everyone how wonderful it had been to be a part of their "family" during my time there, and I left it at that.  In the moment, I thought there was no reason to bring up any of the misguided or dysfunctional actions that led to my departure, since really there were only a couple of angry people with personal agendas that created a toxic environment.

Now, looking back at that situation, I realize that nothing I would have said could have made matters worse.  I'm sure there are things that someone could say or do that would have exacerbated things, but there was no reason for me not to be direct and honest with the people involved.  My situation would have been no different, and (although I doubt anything coming from me would have been received) they just might have heard something that no one else was willing to tell them.  Instead, I gave up and let them have their dysfunction, and in the process I didn't trust myself to be able to confront them with loving honesty.

Sometimes, being adept at self-deception leads us to the illusion that we are also effectively deceiving everyone around us.  I want to be the kind of person who will tell someone, "What you are doing doesn't line up with what you claim to believe."  Not out of spitefulness or malice, but simply because there is really nothing to be lost on my end and everything to be gained on the other end.  If I could go back and observe, "It must be frustrating to constantly be at the center of upheaval and turmoil," I wouldn't have been telling the chairperson anything astounding, but it would have conveyed that I saw the pattern of his involvement in one organization after another. 

Of course, I cannot go back and have any impact on that organization.  That time has passed, and I have moved on to other endeavors.  But I will continue to interact with people for the rest of my life, and I want to take as much as I can from my life's experiences, the ones I absolutely love as well as the ones that are frustrating as hell.  From that chapter, I can glean (among other things) that there isn't that much to be gained by me trying to "not make a situation worse."  I can trust my own authentic baseline of tactful diplomacy, honest care, and incisive discernment without adding anything to it.  It may not change the outcome in the least, but it will change how I am with myself, and that is ultimately worth more than anything.

Monday, February 7, 2011

Braving the Ice

When I initially made plans to drive back to Fort Worth after a couple of days of rehearsals back in Houston, last week's storm wasn't even on the radar.  As my travel day dawned, however, it became apparent that the trip would be a little more challenging than usual.  Most of the drive was just very windy, but as I drew nearer to Fort Worth, icy roads presented a challenge to which most Texas drivers are not accustomed.  As one might expect, the transformed roads led to transformed behavior for some people.

Normally, busy roads around here are an "every man for himself" affair, but the icy conditions made it impossible for people to go speeding along in an imitation of the Autobahn.  For a long stretch of the treacherous road, our cars were in a slow, single-file caravan, etching a cautious path through the ice.  Instead of driving in the midst of the typical road rally, I was a part of a united effort to navigate the roads safely.  Cars would exit or merge gradually into the determined stream of drivers, relying on one another's judgment and courtesy in a most unusual way.

We seemed to be crawling along, but the conditions demanded it.  At one point, a little red pickup wasn't satisfied with the pace, and attempted to go a little faster than the long line of cars.  The passing lane, being less traveled, had a much thicker layer of ice with no ruts from a caravan of cautious drivers.  When the little red pickup hit a patch of ice and went spinning off the road, it was confirmation that we were doing something right by taking things slowly and carefully.  I might have stopped or called for assistance for that driver if my entire focus hadn't been on my own safety.

Once I got into Fort Worth, the icy roads were still a hazard, but drivers were no longer banding together.  There were fewer cars on the road than usual, but each driver was going it alone.  The road conditions hadn't changed, but without the solidarity of a string of other drivers the experience was a bit more harrowing.  Still, slow and cautious got me home.  It was a great comfort to have that experience of safety in numbers, even though the last portion of the trip was on my own.  And really, it had to be.  None of the other drivers were actually going to my specific destination, so I couldn't possibly follow a caravan all the way to my doorstep.

Which is the blessing and the challenge of solidarity.  When that long stretch of vehicles slowly arced onto an exit ramp going to some other nearby community, it was a bit tempting to go along with them just for the perceived safety.  Maybe they know something I don't.  Maybe the way ahead isn't safe.  Or (more likely) they had a different destination than I, even though we shared the road for a portion of the dangerous trip.  How tempting it is to go along with the group, just for safety's sake, or even for comfort's sake.  It can seem disproportionately threatening to follow what one knows to be right when a group of people head in a different direction.

The group has its value, but those benefits must be balanced with trust for one's self.  If I didn't trust myself to handle the road conditions, I never would have made it home that night.  Sometimes trust is misplaced, and we hopefully learn to fine tune our perceptions.  The group experience can help to strengthen our discernment, so we don't go spinning off the road entirely, and a trustworthy group can help to keep us focused on the path we've chosen.  No group can replace self-knowledge, though.  When conflict arises, I believe it's important to remember what matters most and follow that compass.