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Posts from — September 2010

How Art is Like Plumbing

“Art should not be compared with preaching. The best work of art would still be bad preaching…But the best comparison is maybe with the plumbing. While we find it to be totally indispensable in our homes, yet we are rarely aware of it.

Likewise art fulfills an important function in our lives, in creating the atmosphere in which we live, in giving us the words to speak, in offering us the framework in which we can see and grasp things, say a landscape, even without our noticing it…So the mentality that speaks out in art is important. Its greatest influence is perhaps where it is most like plumbing, where we are not aware of it.”

-Hans Rookmaaker, Art Needs No Justification

(Photo: mynameisharsha)

September 26, 2010   No Comments

Happy Birthday, Dmitri Shostakovich

(Above: Shostakovich playing part of his first piano concerto)

“A creative artist works on his next composition because he is not satisfied with his previous one. When he loses a critical attitude toward his own work, he ceases to be an artist.” (Shostakovich quoted in New York Times, October 25, 1959.)

Dmitri Shostakovich, born today in 1904, is a composer whose music provokes extreme reactions from me. Quite honestly, I find his music irritating at times. Some of it reeks of such grating sarcasm I can’t stand to listen to more than a few phrases of it before getting agitated.

But on the flip side, some of my greatest musical memories are connected to his music. Hearing his String Quartet No. 8 live for the first time ranks as the most powerful performance I have experienced. At the end the audience was completely silent, numb from the intense emotion of the past 20 minutes. I think collectively we felt as though we had just lost something great, and somehow — for a brief moment — mourned along with Shostakovich.

“When a man is in despair, it means that he still believes in something.” (From Testimony)

Playing the third movement of his Symphony No. 5 also evoked deep emotion from me — not the despair of the quartet, but a subdued sadness mixed with an awe that I could be a part of re-creating something so moving.

Happy birthday and thank you, Shostakovich.

September 25, 2010   No Comments

Cafe Hopping (9/24)

Weekly roundup of mostly-arts-related chatter around the web:

September 24, 2010   No Comments

Life in the Opera Pit

This week I’m out in Idaho for for Opera Coeur d’Alene’s production of Puccini’s La Boheme. I’m really excited, because not only is Coeur d’Alene a beautiful place to spend a week, but playing in operas is one of my favorite musical experiences: high energy, high concentration, high drama.

And for the musicians, it all takes place in The Pit.

Granted, playing in the pit isn’t what might be termed an “ideal performance situation.”

First, there’s the whole business of actually getting a harp in the pit, which usually involves lots of stairs and tiny doors, and finding a place where it can actually stand upright and be heard.

Then, there’s the funky acoustics. The orchestra is usually out of normal seating order to accommodate big instruments and give cellists enough room to bow. Plus, you’re basically playing in a weirdly shaped box with a partially-open lid.

Added to that, you’re trying to follow a sometimes headless conductor who is continuously looking up and down and making extra-dramatic gestures so that both the singers and orchestra can see him.

It’s also really dark.

Maybe that sounds like a recipe for disaster. But if you’re with a good group of players, playing in the pit is a blast. It just adds more excitement to a high-energy job. Operas are huge, intricate productions, so everyone’s in full concentration mode. Pages are turning wildly. Tempi and mood often fluctuate from bar to bar. Often, even in the best productions, there are a few scary moments. But when everything lines up above and below the stage — it’s extremely thrilling and musically satisfying.

Seriously. Who wouldn’t want to contribute to moments like these?

September 23, 2010   No Comments

The Process of Inspiration, Part 2

Inspiration involves both vision and industry.

(Read The Process of Inspiration, Part 1)

Because I dabble in several artistic fields (with varying degrees of proficiency), I frequently run across articles on how to beat creative block or find inspiration. Although the audiences of these articles vary according to creative medium, the content often overlaps. The tips usually fall into one of two categories: 1) vision (how to see/hear differently) or 2) industry (how to work differently).

Key to overcoming my own struggles with “lack of inspiration” has been figuring out in which of these two categories my particular problem lies. Sometimes I think I need to work harder when in reality, I need to step back and define what I’m working to accomplish (vision problem). Other times, I think I need more ideas when in reality, I need to start working to refine the ones I have (industry problem).

The difference can be explained in terms of trimming a bush. If I trim but never step back to see the overall shape, I’ll likely end up with something grossly misshapen. Alternatively, if I just stand back trying to envision what the bush should look like, the bush will never change. At some point I need to start trimming.

While anyone who has attempted anything artistic grapples with both sides of creative block at some point, I think many of us are prone to one particular side based on personality, education, etc. Knowing our own tendencies is a major step towards overcoming a “lack of inspiration.”

(Photo: williamnyk)

September 21, 2010   No Comments

The Process of Inspiration, Part 1

I spent several hours driving up and across lovely Washington state this past weekend. Unless there’s inclement weather or a traffic jam, driving is typically refreshing for me. Washington’s changing scenery never ceases to amaze me — particularly now, when the leaves are turning color.

I also appreciate the distraction-free time that long drives provide. Though I do enjoy listening to music, podcasts, or books on tape, I try to spend part of each drive in silence to refine the tangled trains of thought typically cluttering my mind. This past weekend, my thoughts centered on maintaining wonder / inspiration as an artist — which I’ll post here over the next few days.

Inspiration is a process, not a single moment in time.

When I think of the word “inspiration,” the first image that springs to mind is a lightbulb coming on over someone’s head. For myself, discouragement from “lack of inspiration” has often stemmed from an over-romanticized view of what inspiration really is. True inspiration doesn’t stop with an idea. It only starts there.

Furthermore, inspiration isn’t recognized unless there is an actual product or result. We don’t speak of someone being inspired unless they have produced something. We call people who have great ideas but no product dreamers.

Of course ideas are necessary. But I think if you were to talk to most successful, productive artists — no matter what their medium — they’d tell you that often their ideas were shaped over time, and that their ideas were clarified — sometimes very slowly — as a result of consistent work. Furthermore, some of the ideas that at first seemed “inspired” turned out to be…well, not quite.

In a nutshell: inspiration isn’t measured by the number of ideas received, but by the quality of the ideas communicated.

(Photo: joiseyshowaa)

September 20, 2010   No Comments

The Effect of Great Art

“A great painting, or symphony, or play, doesn’t diminish us, but enlarges us, and we, too, want to make our own cry of affirmation to the power of creation behind the universe. This surge of creativity has nothing to do with competition, or degree of talent. When I hear a superb pianist, I can’t wait to get to my own piano, and I play about as well now as I did when I was ten. A great novel, rather than discouraging me, simply makes me want to write. This response on the part of any artist is the need to make incarnate the new awareness we have been granted through the genius of someone else.”

-Madeleine L’Engle, A Circle of Quiet

(Photo: Christmas w/a K)

September 18, 2010   No Comments

Cafe Hopping (9/17)

Weekly roundup of mostly-arts-related chatter around the web:

September 17, 2010   2 Comments

Darwin’s Loss of Wonder

Justin Taylor over at Between Two Worlds has a couple recent posts related to maintaining a sense of wonder.

Today he notes how Charles Darwin, according to his autobiography, gradually lost his joy in the beauty of nature and art. An excerpt from Darwin’s autobiography:

“Formerly pictures gave me considerable, and music very great, delight. But now for many years I cannot endure to read a line of poetry: I have tried to read Shakespeare, and found it so intolerably dull that it nauseated me…

My mind seems to have become a kind of machine for grinding general laws out of large collections of facts, but why this should have caused the atrophy of that part of the brain alone, on which the higher tastes depend, I cannot conceive…”

Read the whole post here.
Related: Why Porno Shops Don’t Have Windows

September 15, 2010   No Comments

Tips for Seeing Creation Daily

One roadblock to maintaining a sense of wonder (see yesterday’s post) is that we fail to actively see what’s around us.

I remember the first day I returned back to the Northwest after my first semester of college. I felt as though my eyes had undergone perception corrective surgery. Mountains, trees, and water had never before appeared as beautiful as they did that day. Even the paint colors in my house were more vibrant — white wasn’t just white. It was more custardy in one room, and vanilla in another.

We shouldn’t have to go away for months to recognize the beauty around us. But sadly, as fallen creatures we often tune out the shouts of nature which constantly testify to the ultimate Creator.

Thankfully, with some thought and time, we can train ourselves to see with renewed perspective. In his book When I Don’t Desire God, John Piper includes advice from his former professor Clyde Kilby on how to maintain wonder at God’s creation. I think for most of us, even adding just a few of these to daily life would reap benefits (emphasis added by me):

  1. At least once every day I shall look steadily up at the sky and remember that I, a consciousness with a conscience, am on a planet traveling in space with wonderfully mysterious things above me and about me.
  2. Instead of the accustomed idea of a mindless and endless evolutionary change to which we can neither add nor subtract, I shall suppose the universe guided by an Intelligence which, as Aristotle said of Greek drama, requires a beginning, a middle and an end. I think this will save me from the cynicism expressed by Bertrand Russell before his death, when he said: “There is darkness without and when I die there will be darkness within. There is no splendour, no vastness anywhere, only triviality for a moment, and then nothing.”
  3. I shall not fall into the falsehood that this day, or any day, is merely another ambiguous and plodding twenty-four hours, but rather a unique event filled, if I so wish, with worthy potentialities. I shall not be fool enough to suppose that trouble and pain are wholly evil parentheses in my existence but just as likely ladders to be climbed toward moral and spiritual manhood.
  4. I shall not turn my life into a thin straight line which prefers abstractions to reality. I shall know what I am doing when I abstract, which of course I shall often have to do.
  5. I shall not demean my own uniqueness by envy of others. I shall stop boring into myself to discover what psychological or social categories I might belong to. Mostly I shall simply forget about myself and do my work.
  6. I shall open my eyes and ears. Once every day I shall simply stare at a tree, a flower, a cloud, or a person. I shall not then be concerned at all to ask what they are but simply be glad that they are. I shall joyfully allow them the mystery of what Lewis calls their “divine, magical, terrifying and ecstatic” existence.
  7. I shall sometimes look back at the freshness of vision I had in childhood and try, at least for a little while, to be, in the words of Lewis Carroll, the “child of the pure unclouded brow, and dreaming eyes of wonder.”
  8. I shall follow Darwin’s advice and turn frequently to imaginative things such as good literature and good music, preferably, as Lewis suggests, an old book and timeless music.
  9. I shall not allow the devilish onrush of this century to usurp all my energies but will instead, as Charles Williams suggested, “fulfill the moment as the moment.” I shall try to live well just now because the only time that exists is just now.
  10. If for nothing more than the sake of a change of view, I shall assume my ancestry to be from the heavens rather than from the caves.
  11. Even if I turn out to be wrong, I shall bet my life in the assumption that this world is not idiotic, neither run by an absentee landlord, but that today, this very day, some stroke is being added to the cosmic canvas that in due course I shall understand with joy as a stroke made by the architect who calls Himself Alpha and Omega.

(Photo: gtall1)

September 14, 2010   1 Comment