The Investment Risks of Creative Ideas

chansonnier de zeghere van maleby Nathan Cornelius

In my all-time favorite music-nerd novel, Donald Greig’s Time Will Tell, Dr. Andrew Eiger is a young, ambitious, and painfully awkward musicology professor at a generic Midwestern university who dreams of publishing blockbuster research that will catapult him to the big time (in his world, an Ivy League post). He is convinced his breakthrough will come when he can crack the code of an impossibly convoluted Renaissance motet he ran across in an archive in France, in which just three lines of music generate a spectacular 36-voice canon. Of course, figuring out exactly how this happens is a bit of a pickle. But the paranoid Eiger is afraid to consult any other scholars about his work, believing they will steal his thunder—and musicological fame—by going ahead and publishing the piece themselves if they figure it out. When he tries to pitch his idea to Britain’s hottest early-music ensemble, Eiger’s social insensitivity—and inability to hold his liquor—get the better of him, leading to a hilariously unforeseen outcome for his project.

Greig’s novel seems an eerily true-to-life cautionary tale for aspiring scholars on the dangers of keeping your research secret from the academic community. I think creative artists such as composers often sense a similar temptation to safeguard their best work out of distrust for their peers. But in reality, it’s far more productive to collaborate and share ideas with colleagues, even if you may lose a sense of ownership. Yet I wonder how often we composers, even if we avoid this trap, fall into another pitfall and withhold ideas from ourselves by trying to save them up for future use, a sort of artistic tightwaddery. I’ll try to explain how this happens to me.

Sometimes I’m inspired with an idea for a piece of a music which reveals itself to be a Big Idea—one that stirs my heart and soul, demanding I put pencil to paper to capture a glimpse of its majesty. But, I say, a Big Idea deserves a Big Piece to properly work it out, and—alas!—I am not qualified to write a Big Piece at this stage of my career. Only Real Composers are worthy of that lofty calling, and I… I am still squirreling through the confusing educational labyrinth reserved for Student Composers, searching for the noble gate into the court of the Emerging Composers. And I certainly wouldn’t want to let my clumsy Student Composer self spoil the idea now, depriving it of its magic later. After all, you can’t pour new wine into old wineskins. So I stash the idea away in the imaginary storeroom I’ve created to hold all the inspirations I’ll come back to when I’m a Real Composer.

Author Annie Dillard reveals the fallacy in this creative mindset in her exquisite book, The Writing Life: “Do not hoard what seems good for a later place in the book, or for another book; give it, give it all, give it now… Something more will arise for later, something better.” She also draws a parallel between hoarding inspiration for yourself and hiding it from others: “The impulse to keep to yourself what you have learned is not only shameful, it is destructive. Anything you do not give freely and abundantly becomes lost to you. You open your safe and find ashes.”[1]

As Dillard beautifully describes earlier in her book, the process of developing an idea into a finished work can be long and laborious. Naturally, bigger ideas may need more time to ripen and shouldn’t be rushed. But there is no reason to simply sit on them until your craft becomes equal to your inspiration. Not every big idea requires a big piece; it is possible to express a majestic idea eloquently in miniature. Furthermore, there’s no rule against writing multiple pieces on the same subject. Visual artists normally work in series, creating many variations on the same theme rather than shooting for a single masterpiece. As my composition teacher recently advised me, “Think of this piece as the first of a whole series of pieces exploring one idea.”

Withdrawing from the bank of ideas feels risky, like you could be wasting a unique opportunity. But stashing inspiration is guaranteed to waste opportunities, by stopping the flow of ideas and stunting your growth as an artist. Ultimately, you have to trust that your best ideas are yet to come; as your compositional technique becomes richer and deeper, your vision will expand to match it. As Dillard says, “These things fill from behind, from beneath, like well water.” Better ideas come only after you’ve put your creative muscle to work on the materials you have. So I resolve to go ahead and be generous with my ideas, first towards myself, then with others.

[1] Annie Dillard, The Writing Life (New York: HarperCollins, 1989), 78-79.

Sylvano Bussotti, Fragmentations for harpist


Fragmentations 7-9

by Nathan Cornelius

On the surface, Sylvano Bussotti’s Fragmentations for harpist seems to be a sort of Rube Goldberg machine of modern music, a perversely complex contraption weaving a thick mesh of notes and strings. Bussotti applies a frightening amount of ink to the page, writing dense textures on non-aligning staves of various sizes, saturated with expressive markings. Even the margins are occupied with constructivist doodles in multicolored ink, which turn out to be miniature graphic scores whose shapes provide a jumping-off point for improvisatory sections. Bussotti eschews the conventional-sounding title Fragmentations for harp because, in fact, there are two harps played by one harpist. Moreover, the second instrument is tuned to incorporate quarter-tones, prepared with elastic woven through the strings, and supplied with at least four different kinds of percussive implements.

Fragmentations 4-2bOnce the shock of the initial encounter with the music dissipates, however, Fragmentations raises some fascinating issues for musicians to consider. First, Bussotti’s graphic score notation engages the performer’s creativity in an intuitive way, rather than a merely deductive one. Rather than simply giving the performer the information necessary to execute the piece and expecting him or her to follow it, Bussotti’s graphic score invites collaboration and vision as the performer seeks to realize the character of the notation in a compelling manner.

Second, this unconventional notation allows Bussotti to notate unusual harp timbres in a surprisingly precise and specific way. He uses different colors for different registers of the instrument to guide not only the contour of pitched gestures but also the quality of unpitched sounds through their placement on the body of the harp. By combining this with an inventive array of symbols, Bussotti subverts the privileging of pitch over timbre in traditional notation, notating both in equal detail.

Third, in keeping with Bussotti’s concern for the physical, corporeal side of music, he affirms the score as a physical object, not just a symbolic stand-in for sound. The score consists of a “cutaway” of fragmentary staves arrayed across three large sheets of paper. Bussotti specifies that these can be read left to right as three separate sheets, left to right across all three sheets as a unit, or in still another order indicated by numbers on each fragment. Furthermore, the ordering of the graphic interpolations within the piece, while generally tracing the path of the numbered staves across the page, is left to the performer’s discretion. Thus, the score gains some of its meaning from its physical dimensions and layout, becoming more than a mere medium to transmit information.

Finally, Fragmentations truly is a piece for a harpist, and a heroic harpist at that. Aside from the headache of deciphering the notation, the harpist has to figure out how to manage two full-size instruments at once (Bussotti does not specify exactly how this works, but recommends using a “revolving stool”). The piece has a certain theatrical quality to it, full of dramatic musical and physical gestures, with the harpist calculating moves like an artist composing a drawing. In effect, Bussotti’s genius is to make a piece of music be more than a noumenal entity existing in a realm of ideals. Not only the composer, but also the performer, the instrument, and even the score itself, participate in the creation of the work through the physicality of their gestures.

Memorizing with the Inner Ear

DSC_0023 (2)by Nathan Cornelius

In my ever-evolving journey towards becoming a professional musician, my current “day job” is working on ear-training skills with conservatory students. To succeed in ear-training class, students have to be able to write down a tune or some snippet of music they’ve never heard before, only by listening to it (a task formidable enough to inspire the half-joking moniker “fear-training”). I’ve noticed recently that remembering what the tune was often presents just as much difficulty for students as writing it down. For most musicians, memorization only follows a long period of working on the music, not only hearing it many times but also reading it many times, until it imprints itself on the brain as if by osmosis. Thus, I often find myself spending just as much time working with students on strategies for efficient memorization as on converting sound into notation.

This work got me thinking about the role of memory in composition. Psychologists believe that our capacity to imagine nonexistent objects and situations is fueled by our ability to recall, deconstruct, and recombine experiences we’ve already had, mixing and matching elements of real situations to create plausible non-real ones. I suspect many composers work by an analogous process, consciously or unconsciously  constructing their music out of musical objects they remember from elsewhere. Most musicians have some experience with memorizing what they play and (if they survived ear-training class) with memorizing what they hear as well. However, I’ve become convinced that another step beyond this is necessary to become a truly adept composer: While a good musician is able efficiently to memorize music they have heard, a good composer is able efficiently to memorize music they have not yet heard.

I believe creativity flows most naturally when the artist is playing, in the full sense of that word, whether improvising at your instrument, doodling on paper, or responding intuitively to another artist. When you stumble across something you like, you write it down, and the piece takes off from there. The more proficient you are as an improviser, the more well-defined, and far-reaching this process can be as a first stage of composition. This is one reason more composers have played the piano than any other instrument, as it can realize the greatest range of musical textures of any single instrument.

However, most composers will eventually desire to write music beyond the scope of their main instrument. Even on an instrument as versatile as the piano, there are many aspects of ensemble timbre, texture, and harmony that cannot be reduced enough to be played at all, let alone improvised, by one person. Thus, many composers’ creative process changes dramatically when they write for large ensemble. Instead of starting from spontaneous gestures, they begin to work much more carefully and systematically, pen on paper, making it difficult to keep the same freedom and fluidity as before. The music easily becomes a bit stale.

The solution, I think, is for the composer to keep improvising, not with their hands or their breath, but in their mind. If I try to freely imagine music for any instrument or ensemble purely by hearing it in my inner ear, I’m often surprised at the vitality and freshness of what I can come up with. The problem is, when I try to replay it so I can write it down, the whole thing falls apart in my mind. It seems that I am not able to capture the musical information I imagine with my unconscious mind clearly enough for my conscious mind to be able to retain or inspect it.  While this is frustrating, I’m convinced that the only way forward is simply to develop my faculties of imagination at a higher level so that I can both mentally “play” and “transcribe” my creations, first simple ones, then more complex.

But how can a composer go about acquiring this skill? It’s a complicated activity that can be approached from several angles. First of all, try to visualize the music you actually do hear. This means going beyond your required ear-training classes to apply these same skills to every piece you hear, from Beethoven symphonies to microtonal pieces, trying to identify what you’re listening to as specifically as possible and imagining what the score might look like. Second, you can “auralize” the music you actually can see, with the score (but no instrument!) in hand, imagining what it will sound like before you play it. I’ve found this process can be a very beneficial way of practicing repertoire, but it can also be extended to works for instruments you don’t play, then chamber pieces, and eventually, larger scores. Finally, when you are ready to try to imagine music you can’t physically hear or see, start with small, manageable tasks. Ask yourself to invent a phrase of melody without making any actual sound and then write it down immediately. Try to imagine a harmonic progression that modulates and then retrace your path from one tonality to another. Or try to picture a dense texture in your mind and then figure out what instruments it could consist of. Once you succeed at these little challenges, gradually put them together into more complex ones.

If this seems all but impossible at first, don’t give up. This skill does not come easily (and I’m far from attaining it myself). But when you think about it, neither does learning an instrument, singing in a choir, mastering solfege, or (of course!) composing. We pursue them as musicians not because they’re easy but because they’re worth it to be able to achieve our artistic goals. With enough determination and desire to succeed and a clear roadmap for the practice needed to get you there, I firmly believe this level of creative ability is within reach for anyone.

Athletes and Artists Revisited: Practice Principles from the Pros

Athletes and Artists 2

by Nathan Cornelius

A year ago, I wrote about the similarities between athletes and artists, exploring the interactions between those who create the designs and those who execute them, whether onstage or on the field. This year, living on the East Coast made it harder to watch my beloved Green Bay Packers on TV, and I found myself watching hours of players’ and coaches’ interviews and press conferences online instead. Maybe I’m just trying to justify the amount of time I spent doing that instead of practicing, but I absorbed some important lessons from the preparation of professional athletes that I’m applying to my preparation as an aspiring professional musician. I’ll even tell you what I learned from the play in the picture—after I spent a couple hours trying to calm down from watching it, that is.

“The same guy every day”

In football, each season begins with players battling to make the team. While there is always a core of established star players whose jobs are secure, rookies and young players are seeking to carve out a niche for themselves. When asked to describe what he was looking for in young players, Packers head coach Mike McCarthy kept using one phrase: “He’s the same guy every day.” I took this to mean that everyone competing for a job has enough talent to play well at least some of the time; otherwise they wouldn’t have made it past the first tryout (or audition). To succeed over time, you don’t have to be spectacular every day, but you do have to be proficient, reliable, and professional every day—in a word, consistent. Performances or games provide additional pressure that isn’t there in practice, and in order to make the play under pressure, you have to have done it right a bunch of times in your everyday workouts.

“We need to be better with our timing”

But the search for consistency isn’t just an individual quest. In both music and sports, a team performance requires the players to each execute their own complicated routines in precise synchronization with each other. A split-second error in timing, even by one person, can doom an otherwise-perfect effort. Midway through the season, the team went through a series of games in which  players were sometimes making their moves slightly late, messing up the design of the play, and sometimes making the entire team look foolish. As fans speculated on what the problem could be, the players gradually grew more frustrated. Being good teammates, they wouldn’t explicitly name who was at fault, but instead simply said, “We need to be better with our timing.”

As a musician, I’ve also experienced the frustration of playing in an ensemble where most of the members are executing their parts but one person just can’t seem to line up his part. No matter how well the rest of us play, one element of the musical design being out of sync makes the whole fabric of the piece sound jumbled and muddled. I’ve concluded that an ensemble, like a sports team, is only as good as its weakest player. Even in football, where different positions are highly specialized, opponents will find a way to exploit any recurring weakness or miscommunication, which can easily snowball into defeat.

“Executing the fundamentals”

Once the season gets underway, both musicians and athletes typically don’t have the option of swapping their teammates for better ones to fix problems such as this. Instead, it’s each person’s responsibility to prepare more thoroughly and get their part in order. Whenever the team played poorly, coach McCarthy would invariably state in his postgame press conference, “We need to do a better job of executing the fundamentals.”

We often think of practicing as rehearsing a precisely scripted routine of movements so the body can execute them exactly the same way every time. But physiologically, our bodies do not reproduce movements the same way every time, as a robot would. Instead, our motor impulses are more dynamically coordinated, with tiny adjustments counteracting tiny variations from one repetition to the next. Athletes never play identically from one repetition to another anyway, since no two opponents will respond identically to the same play, forcing them in turn to vary their reactions each time. Thus, although teams practice many scripted plays, they spend even more time honing basic, fundamental skills that provide the technical foundation necessary for any number of variations of that movement. This is what coach McCarthy saw as the solution to his players’ struggles.

When I started spending an hour or so each day on technical exercises, I found that the ease and security in all aspects of my playing strengthened dramatically. Exercises which isolate and work on skills individually establish the base of fundamentals necessary to master the repertoire. Then, when you practices a piece as a whole, the goal is not to ingrain the routine in a way that precludes all variation, but rather to reach a level of security, precision, and confidence in which you have the tools necessary to execute any skill in any way you desire, at a moment’s notice. Rather than being bound by force of habit, you instead experience a tremendous freedom as a player. For the athlete, this allows them to see the game as if in slow motion and be able to react in real time. For the artist, it leaves room for artistic expression to vary freely from one performance to the next, according one’s mood that night, the characteristics of the space, or even the reaction of one’s fellow performers.

“I saw the same thing”

While this process of preparation is built on fundamentals, it doesn’t stop there. Professional-level practice also involves putting yourself under unusual circumstances so that you are prepared to face any scenario that could arise during a performance. When the Packers traveled to face the Detroit Lions this season, tight end Richard Rodgers, who had only played in the Lions’ stadium once before, noticed he had trouble following the flight of balls thrown high in the air against the domed roof. Quarterback Aaron Rodgers (no relation) offered to start warming up with Richard a few minutes ahead of schedule and throw some high, deep passes so Richard could get used to following their flight. After a brief long-range game of catch, both players started their regular warm-ups and thought nothing of it.

Nothing, that is, until the final play of the game. With Lions leading 23-21, a controversial penalty call gave the Packers one last chance to score. The only problem was they were more than 60 yards away from the end zone. Escaping with the football from the Lions defenders, Aaron Rodgers wound up and launched it on an impossibly high trajectory, nearly scraping the rafters beneath the stadium roof. 50 yards downfield, Richard Rodgers looked up and saw the ball sailing toward him, just as he had watched it before. He later said, “I think the practice before the game helped. I kind of saw the same thing.”

Richard turned and jogged a few steps further, crossing the goal line with the last stride. Looking back up into the roof, he located the ball again, now falling steeply downward, just as it had in warm-ups. He jumped in front of the stunned Lions defenders (they later admitted they didn’t believe it was possible to throw a football that far), and made the catch for the touchdown. Incredibly, the crazy technique the two Rodgers had worked on before the game had turned out to be exactly what was required to win it in the final seconds.

As I’ve prepared for auditions, recitals, competitions, and other pressure-packed situations, I’ve found it helpful to intentionally throw a wrench in my practice. Too often I get comfortable in my practice-room routine, only to find myself thrown for a loop when the environment on the big day is totally different. To combat this, I’ve tried playing outdoors in cold weather, in rooms with odd acoustics, in the dark, or even with my back turned to my ensemble partners. Once you’ve been in weird situations like these, being onstage under the bright lights doesn’t feel nearly so unfamiliar.

 “We hit our targets”

Another buzzword football players love to use is, “It’s a long season” (particularly helpful because it can be used to shrug off both good and bad performances). While it’s a bit of a platitude, it speaks to the difficulty of maintaining the focus necessary to perform at a high level, game after game, for months on end. Similarly, musicians (especially solo performers) often spend months preparing the same repertoire for a concert or competition, and it can be difficult to measure your progress when the goal is so big and far away.

To combat this problem, I took inspiration from another phrase the coach liked to use after training-camp practice sessions. He would sum up a successful day of work by simply stating, “We hit our targets today.” This suggests that he has a specific outline of what plays the team needs to master each week in order to be fully prepared for the season.  Rather than expect players to learn the whole playbook at once, he assigns it to them in manageable segments and then evaluates their progress after each session. Thus, to achieve a big musical goal, like performing a massive concerto, I break it down in a series of steps (such as score study, technical work, memorization, simulated performance, and so forth, for each movement or section) and plan out about how long each should take. As long as I hit my target each week, I can be confident I am staying on track to achieve my goal. If I fail to reach a target, I have time to adjust my plan, rather than reaching the week of the concert and realizing I’m not fully prepared.

“Love the process, not the prize”

To help focus players’ preparation even further, coach McCarthy presents a theme for each week of practice during the season. One of his themes this year was, “Love the process, not the prize.” I think this perfectly sums up the work of the successful musician. Learning a piece of music is a long and often arduous process with a short but sweet reward (the performance) at the end. While setting targets can help you manage the process more efficiently, the results you get from your practice ultimately come down to your level of motivation. No matter how much you want to achieve the prize, you’re not going to do the work necessary to achieve it if you don’t also love the work in itself. I would encourage any musician to find sources of pleasure in the daily grind of practice in order to sustain their progress over the long haul. As my teacher once told me, there’s a reason we call it “play” instead of “work.”

So to recap, strive to be the same guy (or girl) every day. Make your timing so perfect your teammates can count on it. Work on the fundamentals constantly. Practice so many crazy situations you can always say you’ve seen the same thing before. Set your targets and then hit them. And remember to love the process, not the prize. And if you’re looking for me this weekend, I’ll probably be practicing… at least until the football game comes on.