The Discipline of Art
Singing the songs for The Music Room was accomplished during
some long days of spring allergy season. This musical phase was part of turning the page (closing the book?) on
these novels and moving onto the next thing(s) in my life. With singing, there is always another
"take" but I often find that the first one (maybe second) is the most
expressive. And so it was with these
I must be very careful not to sing when I have a cold, mucous from allergies, any throat soreness. You can damage the vocal cords singing under such conditions. You can hurt them yelling that way too!
I am a natural singer. As a young child, I learned to sing in church but I was offered voice lessons in school when I was 14. I then underwent further professional training for the next 6 years. The problem for me was that I wanted to develop "my" voice as opposed to what the instructor wanted the voice to be. There was a constant struggle between what the teacher believed I should do and what I felt was right for me and my voice.
Obviously I have a strong personality. When I was told during operatic training that I must submerge my personality so that the personality of the composer would reign supreme through the “pure” expression of his composition –
My immediate, if not vocal, response was: “This is not going to happen.”
There was during those years a constant, finely tuned (ha!) and rather clearly pitched strain between what the instructor believed I should do in the service of the Art -- and what I felt was right for my voice and for the development of my Art.
There was the same tension regarding training my writing, so I basically honed the talent of forging my own path.
I once had a friend in the office world whose mother was British. This older woman took up painting as a hobby. I was in my painting mode in those years and brought a few small canvases into the office for inquiring eyes to see.
My friend asked, "Where did you take painting classes?”
I stated, "I never took any classes in painting."
She concluded, "I wish my mother would stop taking
classes in painting."
This woman truly did not get a chance to express her own style or to even look for it! The teacher was an ego-maniac who wanted it done his way. The natural desire of the student to “perform” her talent was ignored or, if it was even noted, was disregarded. I consider that attitude, or treatment, offensive if not somewhere in the realm of malignant.
The world of fine arts is filled with those mad geniuses, although I often came to question the genius more than the madness!
To shape and mold a young talent, regardless of the arena and mode of expression, requires not only a nurturing touch but also the selfless insight and foresight of a true artistic genius who sees not a reflection of what He or She was (or could have been). The true artistic genius is one who sees with focused light and abundant hope the technical skills and mastery -- The Vision -- of what the raw talent could become. And the raw talent must not only consent to that Vision; the raw talent must design its own vision from the template of The Vision.
No one becomes an artist under the thumb of someone else. The art (or Muse) will instinctively rebel within that person and create all kinds of mayhem, emotional, physical, and mental. The Muse wants its own unique Vision and it will fight for it at the expense of the personal self.
I almost routinely had to wage an artistic war for The Vision from many of my teachers. They were gifted people who, sadly, had not grown as individuals and thus did not grow as artists. Each was stuck somewhere in time, along a path that had somehow become blocked. Perhaps that insight which I took from them (it certainly was not willingly imparted by them to me) was the greatest lesson that I learned from any teacher of professional genius who was a highly limited, even flawed, human being.
It is my belief that the human being must put humanity, and not the art, first. I am sometimes alone in that belief, but being alone in any thought is part of the work of the artist.
Too often I encountered teachers with excellent ideas for technique, composition, and true artistry in various forms, but then I was expected to master way too much too soon, all in the service of making the instructor look good. Other students were willing to play that game but I thought it was a bartering -- even a lowering -- of my talent. God did not give me these gifts so that someone else could bask in their glow!
This sort of dictatorial teaching occurs not only in artistic professions but in scientific ones as well. Any subject that has a theory or a method associated with it will attract its share of rigid, doctrinaire commanders. When it is in the name of art, it’s a travesty. When it’s in the name of science, it’s a near-tragedy.
Life levels off that kind of ego but I've rarely waited around to see the leveling! The ingénue, however, certainly learns more than his or her share of the subject at hand. Those lessons are for life more than for art.
When given the choice between my-way-or-the-highway, I’ve always chosen the highway, even the freeway. The scenery and the smells are much better!
Books, Books, Books
They are not my life, but they take up a large portion of it. I spend much time sorting through books to read for research and resource material, and the time is not always pleasant. You truly cannot tell a book by its cover, or even by the synopsis of it: on the dust jacket, or on a website. It’s a difficult task, figuring out how to sort out the wanna-be histories from the real facts.
I can get downright cranky about it. A history about Russians in Hollywood turned out to be a vacuous diatribe about how certain films did not portray reality. The author got very miffed. This reader got even more miffed. His book got tossed into the garbage without a word. I progressed to a wonderful biography about Dimitri Tiomkin. It’s a treasure trove.
This book is a precise and discriminating delineation of the subject matter that matters: the composer, his life, his development as a composer and a conductor, his music, and, what I find truly fascinating, the interplay among life, art, history, and the creative processes of film and music. I do not agree with all of the concepts proffered by this writer, but I admire his point of view and the lustrously informed quality of his writing so much that our differences in the particulars of opinion are trivial.
Dimitri Tiomkin: A Portrait, written by Christopher Palmer, is a portrait in words, worth much more than the asking price. Mr. Palmer was an English composer, arranger and symphonic orchestrator as well as an ardent historian of film music. This author comes with credentials, experience, and immense credibility in his literary works. Those qualifications are vital for any writer, especially a technical writer. Art is, at base, at heart, at its highest expression, technical; so too is the penning of history.
It is necessary for any researcher or reader of historic material to undertake this type of background check of the author. The book with the glossy cover and bells-and-whistles reviews does not impress me. What does open my mind and my wallet to buy any book is the fundamental knowledge that the author possesses of technical arenas and specialized fields.
Film scores and songs of the Golden Age of Hollywood were the speciality of this author. I find extra-ordinary his musical analyses, detailed perspectives on classical and folk music and on the art of composition, and his detached but amused take on this phenomenal composer. And I have found delight, factual and otherwise, in each page of his book.
Mr. Palmer not only offers his own gems to tuck away into a Writer’s Journal; he cites other writers of gifted note. One of them is English musicologist Gerald Abraham, who wrote his magnificent works in the 1950s:
“ . . . the basis of modern musical construction, in Western Europe, the system of logical development of germinal ideas, of which Beethoven was the first really important master, is entirely foreign to the spirit of Russian music. Progressive thinking . . . is not the Russian’s way of going about things; his mental process is more akin to brooding, a continual turning over of ideas in his mind; viewing them from different angles, throwing them against strange and fantastic backgrounds, but never evolving anything from them . . . he makes the most of his subject by showing it passively in fresh circumstances instead of by setting it in active conflict with something else.”
Dimitri Tiomkin, exiled from Russia after the October Revolution, did not overthink it. Instinctive, intuitive, and courageously impulsive, he surrendered to his fate by refusing to allow his exile to destroy his faith in . . . anything. He loved life and he composed from that love of life.
I’d like to think that his forced exit from Communist Russia formed the fount of his inspiration. Dreams of the places we leave behind often become the palettes upon which we draw our works of art, regardless of our métier. The discipline of art demands the brooding moments and hours; the often uncertain but continuous bouncing of ideas and feelings off of the drawing boards of everyday life; and the aversion to over-think anything.
Dimitri Tiomkin stated: “I get results by dint of sweat and toil.”
Burn that midnight oil. It’s part of the art of discipline and the discipline of art. But sleep in the next day — or take a nap!
From Out of the Past
For the past few weeks, I’ve been sorting through my novel research files that date back twenty years or so. The heavy card-stock file folders had been residing in a large plastic Rubbermaid storage box. After the contents of the first dozen or so files were expunged (I saved the high quality folders, however), the remaining files made their way into my now-vintage L.L. Bean waxed canvas bag for transport upstairs to my workroom.
I then proceeded, for three or four hours each day, to plow through those files, happily tearing up the handwritten and typed notes that had been studiously recorded on those sheets of heavy-rag-content papers. I gained contentment from the acknowledgment that those precious bits and pieces of information have been been transposed to the proper digital files. And I truly do miss the quality of those pieces of paper!
There must have been fifty of those file folders at the outset. I didn’t count them; the awareness would have been too fatiguing. My work approximates that of a Percheron, plowing a field for the first time. Slow and steady, head down, moving straight ahead, keep going . . .
Moving straight ahead involves going back into the past. As I near the home-stretch of the files (there are about 20 left on my desk), I am taking yet another operational pause, a necessary break from my organizational and creative labors to rest, relax, recharge my batteries and rejoin the normal routine of my life. For a couple of weeks, je suis en vacance.
The mental work of analyzing factual information to be used for fiction can be exhausting. The little gray cells really get fired up from the decision-making of what scenes the detailed material will be used for and in which of several novels — if the info is used AT ALL. I also assess the quality of and the potential use for passages of dialogue and narration (scribbled down years ago on paper). It’s an intensely logical but also intuitive process for me to sort out, arrange, and select my writing from out of the past. Yes, the cerebral cortex receives quite a work-out.
My leisure time, away from my writing, used to include visiting the Mall (which has died), and perusing various online clothes, shoes, purses, and makeup, mostly for aesthetic pleasure. That divertissement has now ceased. It’s not a sight for sore eyes, the online retail world. In fact, it can be downright depressing!
I’ve also tried going out to the stores, seeing IRL (in real life) what is hanging on the hangers; but I discovered that I merely transferred my sense of bleak disappointment, that downward spiral of downheartedness, that sinking feeling of abject alienation from the world of manufactured clothing — to the brick-and-mortar store, even though there is no brick or mortar to be found anywhere in those pre-fab-structures.
What a drag it is going shopping!
There is only 1 Human Wardrobe, mass-produced by global blobs, to clothe One World, so we can all look the same, wearing the ghastly non-designs that flatter no one, male or female.
I’ve written in my essays on this website about the plague of polyester upon the planet, in the name of the Planet; and the near-extinction of boutiques and shops, natural fibers and singular styles. You might wonder what that dismal state of retail affairs has to do with my creative process or the discipline of art. I answer thusly:
From out of the past, we make the future. From out of the past, we move toward tomorrow with ideas and dreams that were born long ago. Fashion design and the images of ourselves are uniquely and intimately associated with our identities. The adornments on our bodies reflect the adornments of our souls. At present, they are a sloppy mess. No wonder people feel depressed!
A few days ago I stumbled online into videos of buildings in a replicated old West Town in Colorado. The dozen or so businesses, each with a definite function in the town, were a treasure trove of details and what is known as “local color”. The colors of the era were most vivid! The old coot who served as the guide for the tourists offered up quite a heaping helping about the late 1800s in the western region of Colorado. I was overjoyed at my discovery!
I could not help, however, but notice the difference in fashion between this elderly man, dressed in Western sartorial designs that were old as heck but of fine quality; and the tourists who wore ath-leisure outfits courtesy of the One-World manufacturers of spandex-rayon-polyester-lyoell. The crusty sourdough looked better dressed than the younger tourists.
In the Dry Goods Store, this old West tour guide explained to the small group of onlookers the exact date of the shift in the appearance of women in America, away from the feminine styles of the 1880s: the 1920s. He went on at length about the Flapper and her clothes and her hairstyles, many of which are still in style.
Costume design and fashion are two areas of research that I not only conduct as part of the discipline of art; I enjoy the topics immensely. I already knew this information about the radical transformation of women’s clothing during the 1920s, and I understood its subsequent effects, positive and negative, on the “fairer” sex. I did not fully comprehend until quite recently the strong identities that the women of the 1880s possessed, firmly, and how rare it is for a woman today to lay claim to that steady sense of self.
From out of the past, we build ourselves. And from out of the past, we create anew the visions that our ancestors were only dimly able to see. What they saw, however, was a life bold and wild, risks worth taking, risks that got many of them killed, and risks that forged the nation called America.
They didn’t have much in the way of medicine or machinery or means of communication, but they had belief in their way of life, and they lived with that belief in ways that we seem to have lost, at least here in America, and for sure here in the once-wild West.
One thing is certain: destroying the past is no path to the future. No matter how awful, how ugly, how painful, and how wicked the past might have been, it is still the past. And it is to be honored even if it might be abhorred.
I was told once by a codger: “Too much good does harm and out of every little bit of harm comes good.”
The discipline of my art deals with those contradictions and paradoxes. And it deals with vintage card-stock files that no longer hold papers. They have yielded digital words and paragraphs that will, in turn, yield future novels. From out of the past arises abundant creativity. Those file folders may even one day hold new sheets of paper, ones worth writing on!
And what of retail recreation?
I still await with anticipation the re-emergence of brick-and-mortar shops and boutiques for my viewing and occasional purchasing pleasure. Maybe there will even be an eatery that is not a vulgar carbon-footprint copy of all of the other gluten-free-cookie-cutter-cafés replicated in every corporate strip mall across the U.S.A. The sterile sameness of the shopping landscape is a yawning, boring insult to my sense of individuality.
Disappearing faces can always reappear, and emerge with wider smiles than ever before. I feel inspired by this quote that I found in one file. It’s a gem from out of the past by the Scottish Bard Robert Burns:
Hope springs exulting on triumphant wing.