During the course of my artistic endeavors, I often realize the need to flesh out in writing what I'm trying to do. As I move further down the road in life, I find that it is the "writing about" part that gives distance to my creative activities, whether they include composing, playing, or teaching. Writing often wedges its hands in and parts the veil. Sometimes this act of "writing about" takes the form of drawing graphs and pictures (as any of my composition students will tell you - they have to do that stuff all the time for me. I have a gigantic white-board on my office wall). The point for me has been that in the last 5 or so years, analyzing my own art form from outside the confines of my art form (which is - usually - modern jazz, but also can be classical music) has been immensely productive. It has also given additional depth to my work, something I do not think would otherwise have been there. After all, most people experience jazz, or any kind of art form, from their own prospective: outside of the art form. It's one small way to avoid artistic narcissism.
Writing about what one does is a very old tradition in any culture on this planet that writes things down (not all do, mind you). In some partial sense, it's a literary version of the master-apprentice relationship: the master writes down what (s)he does, and the apprentice reads about it and gains some sort of knowledge or skill. However, writing can also serve to attack a creative problem from a different angle, to work out the cobwebs, or to exercise a [different] creative part of one's brain with which our culture is unfortunately losing touch. Many of literary treasures that are so illuminating to us come in the form of sketches, handwritten manuscripts, outlines, rough drafts, etc. Of course this applies in any art form; composer's sketches, artist's planning drawings, poets' rough drafts; all give us critical insight into why the final work of genius has so much depth and remains vibrant and test-of-time-worthy. Particularly interesting to me, though, are the writings of artists who are not writers; Lutoslawski's essays, Kandinsky's writings, or Robert Bly's prose analyses are treasure-troves of insight, not only into their processes and thoughts, but into my own.
To understand why "writing about" works for me, and why it probably will work for anyone working on anything creative, I think a self-examination of my artistic philosophy is in order. I have found that the act of "writing about" significantly clarifies the artistic goal I have in mind, like using a pair of binoculars to see a distant shore.
In general, I believe that when you first start creating, if you can see the opposite shore of the lake, the lake either isn't big enough to bother with (not enough big, eating fish), or it's not worth going over to the other shore because you can already see everything that's over there. It's the shores that you cannot see clearly or at all that are intriguing to visit. When I was in college, I wrote a composition for string quartet called the Struggle. Although I don't necessarily think that it is a very good composition (the lake was a bit to small, and it wasn't very deep), it was my first attempt at an intellectual/musical fleshing-out of my creative philosophy. Although I composed things starting when I was a younger laddie, once I got into college I definitely thought of composing as a struggle. Part of it was that the intellectual part of my brain was getting in the way of actually creating at a high level. I also was nowhere near to the understanding of an artistic process, and was still at the infant stages of the craft of musical composition. So composing was a struggle. I have since grown to realize that for me, the struggle part is more of an outfitted expedition than a man-meets-nature free climb.
"Writing about" is a resupply mission in the middle of the longer expedition. Sometimes these resupply runs come at planned times, but most often they come out of necessity: composer's (writer's) block. For me, composer's block can come in very small doses or in one gigantic, blank expanse, and every size in between. Sometimes all you need on your road trip is to stop for gas and pick up a candy bar. Other times, you need to pull over, get a good night's sleep, and plan for the next day. Either way you need to get off the highway.
One night about a year ago, speaking with the former Atlanta Symphony bassoonist turned great philosopher Charles Nussbaum, I mentioned that I wanted to begin writing about composing. He replied that it was unusual to find musicians who actually wanted to write about what they do. That's a shame. Hopefully this blog will start to change that.