Creator, or crafter?
Originator, or shaper?
Produced, or received?
Mortals cannot create life. It’s outside our means. But we can nurture what's already living.
We cannot conjure absolute nothingness into something-ness and make it alive.
But, we can compose and temper what already is living. That is, to cultivate and shape what exists.
While we can't produce the means, we are given providence to the mold.
Life derives from life; living things derive from living seed, and it’s all given outside of ourselves. It’s a gift.
Likewise, we’re not moved or impacted by dead art, but by art that possesses life. Thus, true art is not brought to life by an artist, but an artist forms art from what already has life. It’s given, a gift outside of us.
A seed that we didn’t create but were given, which already possesses life, is placed into fertile soil, of which we also did not create. These given, living items anticipate cultivation and nurture. A variety of gardeners can govern this life in a variety of ways and each can cultivate something uniquely beautiful.
Conception, from living seed created outside our doing, grows into a life that can receive the same kind of cultivation and nurturing. A variety of parents can then influence that life in a variety of ways and cultivate someone uniquely amazing. They can "compose" that child’s life.
Our first parents cultivated Eden’s garden filled with living things. Their commission did not include granting any of it life, but rather to tend to and nurture what was already living, made that way outside of themselves. Their lot was to compose what was already created. From this we gain an original perspective of the role of man, and his creative input.
Music, too, is a living phenomenon. Like any living thing, it moves and grows and adapts, it breathes and responds to stimuli, and has its own form and purpose. And this life is given outside of ourselves - we didn’t create it. It’s a gift, like a plant, or a child. The privilege to influence that life, to compose and shape it, is entrusted to us with great responsibility, which is also a gift.
Who then are actual creators, that is, those who bring into existence something alive out of nothing?
What mortal ushers music "into being” from nothing?
We are no more "creators" of music than we are creators of life itself.
We do not create music, we hone it. We cultivate it. We shape its life and compose it. That’s our mortal commission as artisans.
The gardener shapes and prunes the bonsai tree, which she didn’t give life to, but influences and alters its life as she likes. If left uncultivated, it would grow wild and untempered, and lack composition. An untrained gardener may ultimately fail to release the tree from its natural obscurity by not setting latticework or guides in place to support and direct its growth. A perimeter, a framework, that helps realize its potential.
Like living seed, the living forces of music naturally sprout and thrive, subject to a masters' manipulation. Left uncultivated, it too will be wild and untempered, lacking composition and substance. An inexperienced composer may mishandle the natural shaping forces, and like the untrained gardener, fail to implement a framework that strengthens and guides the musical organism's natural inclination to move and grow and realize its potential.
Composers, who cannot not create these forces, are tasked with learning how to work with them, and work in them. Artists bring composition to hidden raw potential currently lacking clarity and definition. They grow and cultivate, wielding what's already filled with life. The Painter's raw potential is the spectrum of paints, colors, textures, tools, and a blank canvas to support and project what's inspired. If only dumped onto the canvas, the pigments' hidden potential is not realized until the painter intervenes and yields definition. The Potter's raw potential is the clay that begs to be defined and shaped, and not left hidden and uncultivated. And so, the musical composer's unrefined material is melody and harmony, sound, textures, and rhythm, all holding great promise if only an artist would unhide and clarify their meaning, and bring composition to the raw potential.
Artists did not invent or create color, earth, or sound, but can only shape and compose these forces that exist outside of the artist's capacity. The artist is therefore subject to them.
Michelangelo didn’t see a large stone slab, but rather the intended "life" within it, shrouded and entrapped. His directive was not to create anew, but to liberate what already exists in obscurity and realize its definition and breath. He acknowledged that there was inner viability and potential in existence outside of himself. He sought to peel back the distraction which didn’t belong, revealing the forces hid inside, of which he did not lay claim to as creator.
To Michelangelo, it was all about the "hidden image", and his role as prospector and cultivator.
His ability to see inside the stone was by inspiration; the muse - that is, a gift given outside of himself. Life was therefore already imparted within the dead rock, who’s chiseled shape would merely be lifeless if not for the inspired image it hosts. This hidden life, which Michelangelo professed, was an inspired vision he learned to detect, and worked to compose the dead stone in accordance to that held inspiration. Therefore, it is the inspiration which is alive, not the stone. What a marvelous way to consider and represent the idea of composition.
As alluded, inspiration is also a living force. Another gift apart from ourselves. It’s said to be prior to our consciousness and outside of our skill. It becomes an inner voice to what’s right, desired, or intended. As with prayer, we’re now no longer relying on ourselves. We acknowledge there’s power outside of us that instructs, motivates, and enables.
As more of a held observation than a mere theory, ancient Greeks testified to this “muse” as an inspired force that would move and motivate individuals, impassioning them beyond their own capabilities to yield something already "intended". This was embraced as being outside of themselves, in essence, hidden from them. The connotation is that true artistic tasks are not possible without such inspiration.
Another aspect to consider is whether the artistic process involves adding or subtracting. Unlike an “additive” theory which argues that an artist fully creates, or "adds" something out of nothing, the art of sculpture is intrinsically a subtractive process. In Michelangelo's case, his "hidden image" was based on a premise that something of value already exists of which the sculptor sought to free, to allow it to have its shape and definition; its life. The un-carved stone represents excess, raw material he was presented with. With inspired eyes, he skillfully saw through the clutter and subtracted "what wasn't art", as he put it. What remains is the inspired effigy possessing life and breath. Not chiseled stone, but the “image” that is alive.
As with any approach, the subtractive artistic process serves as a means of conveying information. One can communicate using many words, but deep meaning can be equally imparted through what is not said, as well. Often a statement is heightened by omitting words rather than adding them. There is substance in the space and silence, and what is not imposed. Once again is this thought of removing what clutters to reveal a deeper significance.
Like sculpture, the premise of the "hidden score" is also subtractive in nature. A musical composer might begin the writing process by first releasing and unloading their excess imagination; writing down overflowing inspirations or fleshing out a raw framework of ideas on an instrument. What often results is an immense manifestation of possibilities and potential, now birthed. From here the creative journey toward a plan begins by sorting through, organizing, and refining what’s before them. A method I continually rely on to help begin this process is based on visualization. That is, imagining the finished product of my project at hand. I actually hear and experience the finished score in varying degrees of detail, whether whole or in part, which serves as a means to the end. From the dictates of this imaginative exercise a wealth of organic ideas and materials springs forth in an inspired manner, all brimming with life I cannot stake a claim to.
This is in direct contrast to something being contrived, or forced into being as if from only within ourselves. That is, starting with only a means without a perceived end, hoping it will eventually lead somewhere. Rather, with the expanse of raw excess potential before the artist, they seek out the inspired motif or shape, the living organization within the bulk, outside of themselves which desires to be clarified and made known. Their visualization of "what is” and “what should be" is fueled by inspiration, enabling the artist to begin subtracting what doesn’t belong, till what is valid, and living, and intended, remains.
The theory of the subtractive artistic process also thrives on the notion of less-is-more. That is, the less of what is unfit allows for more of what belongs, or is intended, to be appreciated. This is not to be confused with minimalism. A minimalist artist seeks to use what is less to impart more of what can be. The subtractive artist seeks to remove what is less to unveil more of what already is. Ultimately then, great scores are rendered from artistic use of the eraser, not the pen.
While in my undergraduate days, the theory of the "image within" struck a chord. Having always been keenly fascinated by the creative process and seeking to continually improve my own, I began to see how my original premise was in error. I discovered how the creative process was actually less about me and more about what is outside of myself. If I cannot alter or control the outer inspirational forces, I could learn to be more sensitive and yielding to them, and improve instead my abilities to detect, harness, compose, and shape what's already being given. It proved a pivotal point in my development allowing my compositional approach to take on new life, and to grow exponentially since.
This is all but an introduction to a weighty premise regarding the nature of the compositional process, of which this blog is dedicated. It represents the basis of many formative years, fully enabling what I write and teach. I pray these topics serve to inspire others in their quest to unlock their compositional modus operandi, as I endeavor to systematically expound and advance the study, thereof.
Marc J Stasio is an east-coast based composer/arranger, pianist, educator, and author who actively lives out his calling producing scores for hire, serving as jazz faculty, and performing abroad for over 35 years. His work is heard on recordings by today's top artists in jazz and contemporary music. As professor of jazz studies, he specializes in teaching composition and arranging based on “the Hidden Score,” with a blog and upcoming publications under that title. Marc holds a Masters degree in Jazz Studies and is currently pursuing his Doctorate. Visit http://marcstasio.com.
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