Where do musicians find creativity in what they do? In improvised music it’s simple, all of the music is creative because they are spontaneously creating it. But in classical music, which is largely written out with little improvisatory aspects, how do people satisfy their need to be creative? This is a different question for everyone. Some people find playing in orchestra to be a wholly satisfying experience. Some find orchestra restricting and dislike the lack of artistic control and prefer to work in chamber and solo settings. Others find playing in orchestra and “old” music to be a chore and only play new works and improvise to develop their artistic voice. I’ve found that I fall mostly into the last category, though I by no means dislike performing all “old” music. Most musicians I know do a combination of these three things, sometimes playing in a traditional orchestra, often playing in chamber orchestras or ensembles, and playing newly composed pieces by young composers.
So. How do all these musicians find the creative outlet they need in what they do? My answer is that not everything I play is artistically satisfying. With some “old” works, especially Romantic era (1820-1910ish), I feel simply as if I’m regurgitating something that is set in stone. Yes, there are decisions I have to make, but these pieces have been played for so long they often have a long list of options that are “right” and anything else is generally considered “wrong”. This is a narrow view, but this music defines itself, by the melodies and harmonic structure where the phrases are, and where it’s appropriate to take time. To me, it’s too simple and it feels as if I’m merely stepping into suit. All the information is there and I’m simply reading it out. Played with emotion and feeling, but not my emotions, or my feelings. I also never really developed a love of the lush Romantic works, not growing up with them as a child, (I was raised on Neil Young and the Who), but also because I didn’t play them until college, because as a flute player, we just don’t have many good pieces in this style. It is a very difficult thing to take something that’s been done thousands of times before and make it your own while still keeping it recognizable and I have little desire to do that full-time. Once in a while, great, but not all the time.
New music and Contemporary music, has been where my passion is for the past several years. New music means several different things, but for my purposes, I define it to be anything written in the past 10 years or anything currently happening. Contemporary music is a musical period, ranging from roughly the 1940s through the early 1990s. Contemporary music’s signature feature is a rejection of tradition and exploring new ways to organize sounds. While these styles are also fully composed, they require more creative thought to get to a meaningful performance. Contemporary and new music pieces often don’t have an inherent feeling or story that becomes obvious as you learn a piece. The phrases don’t make sense in the classical sense, they aren’t melodic and it takes time to learn how to play and hear this type of music. In this music, just like in Romantic, the music defines what is acceptable and possible to do outside of the notation, and in some ways can hold you more closely to the manuscript than a classical or romantic work. Even if it’s the most over-notated picky work, (think Boulez), it will completely fall flat in performance if the performer doesn’t give the audience something to hold on to, in the form of a story, or a mood. The audience won’t know what the performer’s thinking, but if she’s thinking “random notes and dynamics that I have to play” they’ll generally dislike the piece, calling it boring, mechanically and that it didn’t make sense. If the performer is watching a movie in her head of what the music means to her, then the audience will pick that up. They won’t know what’s in the performer’s movie, but they’ll start to figure out their own movie.
The ultimate musical creative outlet is creating your own music, either through improvisation or composing. Improvisation has for the past 150 years or so been a lost skill. Classical musicians lost the ability to improvise in the mid 1800s when amateurs started having more access to musical instruments and began playing classical music. In this time, cadenzas were improvised, all the articulation and dynamics were left to the performer and people generally improvised more. To do this required an innate knowledge of the musical style in which they were playing, which most amateurs lacked. As a result, the court musicians and composers discouraged improvisation and started more explicitly notating their music. Eventually the skill was lost as musicians were no longer required to improvise as a part of the work they were playing. Which is an awful shame, because improvising gives you a unique perspective on the compositional process and really makes you think to the composers intent behind that crescendo. Is that really difficult passage meant to be 100percent clear or did he just want the woosh of sound? Improv lets us develop these insights, as well as figuring out our musical voice. One hundred years later, give or take a few, composers are collaborating with musicians and wondering how to hand over some the creative control to the performer. One method was graphic notation in it’s various forms. These types of scores however, seem to have a brief life, not ever really catching on outside of their small artistic sphere. Improvisation now is usually the domain of jazz musicians, is making a bit of a resurgence in classical music through audio scores and a bit with graphic notation. Free improvisation is still rare, because it is a hard skill to master. It’s also a bit odd to us, “you’re gonna play a concert with no written out music? Not even to plan a structure?” It’s very difficult and often falls flat unless the performer is a master of the art. But despite that, I believe everyone should strive for it, at least privately if they don’t want to perform an improv concert, because it is hard if for no other reason. Nothing worth doing is easy.
So musicians and non-musicians, how do you find your creative outlet in the music you play?