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Composition and Ego: Why the hell are artists so sensitive?

Hello everyone. For my first post, I'd like to offer a little psychology on creative acts, particularly composition. I apologize if it's long, complicated, and refuses to end. My music seems to suffer the same fate.

Any creative act is an expression of identity; the artist's interpretation, reaction, and reflection on life. For this reason, they are intricately connected to ego and sense of self. In my opinion, the most honest thing a person can do is to create art. There is no deeper search for truth than to face the blank page and attempt to bring it to life with colors, pictures, words, or in our case - with music marks. What you put on the page is a reflection of yourself. After all, there is no sharper lens into who you are than the fruit of your mind and heart. Perhaps I'm biased not having children myself, but I believe that artworks are a clearer and more lasting gift to the world of who you are than even your own children who will inevitably go their own way - your art is unchanging and intrinsically "you".

The mind wants to protect the integrity of its sense of identity for obvious reasons. Therefore, it puts up it's best Star Wars force field around the ego to shield it from alien attacks. This naturally extends to any creative works produced by the freewheeling, free-thinking, loose cannon that most artists are by nature. These works are a potential threat to the ego and so it regards any criticism on the work as a criticism on the identity and as a matter of course, it's first reaction is rejection and denial. This is why it's so difficult to argue with someone on their tastes in art. You are trying to tell them that not only do their tastes in art suck, but that there is something "wrong" about them as a person as well.

If you accept my premise, I think you will also agree that presenting your art to the world for acceptance and critical review is akin to putting your ego's head on the chopping block to be summarily removed by an indiscriminate executioner; i.e. the public and your peers.

Granted, there are many degrees of sensitivity and some artists seem almost immune to negative reaction to criticism but they are a minority to be sure. I would venture that most of them have this nonchalance because of carefully constructed defenses such as acceptance of one's own limitations and mediocrity, which reduces the importance of the artist's work. However, that is not really a good thing for confidence and I would wager that if you are one of those people who are self-effacing about your compositions, in the back of your mind, from time to time, you probably think, "To hell with that. I'm the next Beethoven baby." At least I do... but then I listen to Beethoven and I'm rudely awakened to reality. Ah well... perhaps if medical science advances enough, I can live to be 150 and my music will evolve? One can always hope.

Jeff

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Everyone is different, but I'm no longer attached to my own music or anyone else's opinion about it.  I just love superb music and I don't care who writes it, as long as it is being written.  Newly composed music is an energy force that helps the world keep turning.  It would be wonderful if the music came without so much ego attachment, but we're all doing the best we can.

A few years ago I realized that my music is very good, but not nearly as good as Bartok or Stravinsky or Berg or a bunch of other folks.  That is neither false modesty nor self-deprecation, it's just the truth.  I don't wish I could write like Bela or Igor or Alban - I'm just thrilled that they wrote like themselves and that I have recordings of their sublime writing!!!   I'd so much rather be listening to or sharing the world's best music than to be writing anything mediocre or even pretty good.  It's not about me, it's about the music, which nurtures and feeds me.

I used to compose because I needed to feel that I was a great composer.  Those days are past, thank heavens!!  Now when I write something, it's because someone has asked for or commissioned a particular piece in a genre or subject that I'm drawn to, or I have the opportunity to work with a world-class performer or collaborator, or I want to learn a new technique or tool, explore some aspect of music I haven't explored before, or simply because that particular piece doesn't exist and I'd like to hear it and share it.  Right now I really didn't want to be composing, for example, because I'm giving two huge concerts within six weeks of each other, but there's a sonority I've imagined and I long for it to fill my home.  Although I've looked and looked for it elsewhere it doesn't seem to exist, so I'm writing it ... in my spare time. 

It honestly doesn't matter to me if folks love my music, hate it, or are totally indifferent to it.  I long for constructive criticism from intelligent, articulate people who can be specific about what works or doesn't work for them and why.  When someone says "I love your music", I feel very empty - there was little or no communication there and nothing I can learn from that.   Once someone said "My father died ten years ago, and I was never able to cry until I heard your piece tonight".   Now that meant something to me.  She didn't say she "liked" the piece.  It never occurred to me to wonder if she liked it or not - that wasn't the question.  This perfect stranger and I cried on each other's shoulders because of a piece of music, and the energy of the world deepened just a tad that night.

I have always longed for that constructive criticism I described earlier, but rarely if ever have I found it, even at the universities and studying privately with Pulitzer Prize winning composers.  Criticism is an art, and one that is only mastered by those who have left their own ego behind and can look at the music from a larger perspective.   I find that ability to be very rare ....

Oh I forgot to mention ... I am over 150 years old.   Chuckle.   But seriously, becoming older and wiser really does help ...

Hah. Understandable. Just trying to follow the advice given about contributing before asking people to take their time listening to my music. I'll try to put something up tomorrow. 

Raymond Kemp said:

Personally, I'll be more interested in considering your words following listening to your deeds.
How about sharing some of your own work, art, whatever?

Haha yes, I read them Bob. I'm happy to have found this place and just wanted to make sure I started off on the right foot.

Hmm... you have revealed a bias of mine it seems. You are correct. Some people cannot create art and have no ability or even any interest. I am not saying they are less honest, but perhaps they don't experience the same search for personal expression as artists do. However, it doesn't make them inferior.

Sure. Perception is not set in stone. I may react differently to a piece of music today than I did yesterday. However, the music has not changed; just my perception. Sadly, I can't comment on watching my own child growing up.

Criticism is useful as a learning tool, but I find that artists can be petty creatures full of insecurities and ready to pounce on somebody else's work with an attack rather than offer constructive observations. Perhaps criticism should be left to people who don't produce art, but rather find meaning in analyzing it. Put simply (and I can't believe I'm saying this!); perhaps criticism should be left to critics.     . 

Bob Porter said:

Jeff,

You actually read the rules of engagement.

"In my opinion, the most honest thing a person can do is to create art." What about all the people with no interest or ability in art or music. I know I'm over simplifying your statement a bit.

I do have children, and I think that art is pretty much like children. They grow and change( hopefully for the better). No matter how much your kids may try to distance themselves from you, they are still a reflection of you somehow. Your art may not change physically, but how it is perceived can change a lot. Your music changes every time a different group plays it.

" freewheeling, free-thinking, loose cannon that most artists are by nature." ?? Many that I know are about as tightly wound as you can get.

I hate negative criticism. The only reason I post things here is that I'm trying to get over it. I care very much what others think of my work. I am trying to learn from what others say. I'm not interested in changing something I've written. It's done. But I an interested in doing a better job next time.

 

Thanks Fredrick. That's an interesting point. Seeking validation of identity through validation of the "correctness" of our art was my issue in this post and notation, instrumentation, and other technical skills can be correct or incorrect and it's useful to receive criticism on these points.

However, expression is neither correct nor incorrect. It simply "is." All that can be done with it is to evaluate it based on our own aesthetics, which are highly subjective and contain no absolute truths and say we "like it" or we "don't like it" or we can react to it from our personal experiences and feelings and perhaps find some meaning through empathy.

Fredrick zinos said:

In a sense this topic is related to the notation topic.

Music which the composer loves because he/she wrote it and which therefore has meaing for him/her but which is objectively incoherent and conveyd via incoherent scores with fatal flaws of notation that invariably create performance problems on one hand,  and a speech giver standing in front of audience whose oration is "ya know what I mean" repeated 3 or 4 dozen times, on the other hand, are really the same thing.

No, we don't know what you mean.You have to use real and valid musical technique and terminology or face not having your music performed or understood either poorly or not at all by those who hear it.

Good reply Saul. I think I was not clear. Yes, the essence of music is not truth or reason but music does not belong solely to the heart either. Music (and all art) is a partnership of reason and emotion. Pure emotion with no reason will lack any structure, harmony, melody, or any of the basics of composition and pure reason will produce music with little to no feeling, which I think is how you see atonal music. I tend to agree with you. Personally, I think emotion should dominate and be tempered by reason not the other way around. I do think music is a search for truth though; perhaps the highest search for truth. This is not an original idea either,

"Music is a higher revelation than all wisdom and philosophy." - Beethoven

Saul Dzorelashvili said:

Jeff wrote :

"For this reason, they are intricately connected to ego and sense of self. In my opinion, the most honest thing a person can do is to create art. There is no deeper search for truth than to face the blank page and attempt to bring it to life with colors, pictures, words, or in our case - with music marks"

Well I think that this is just deeply exaggerated. The essence of music is not reason, or truth, for reason and truth belong to the mind, but music belongs to feeling which is in the heart. This is the reason why there can only exist one Truth, and many lies. On the other hand, since music has nothing to do with truth and is not absolute, it can be created by many different musicians, writing completely different works.

Hello Jeff,

 

I think you have made some good points here (but I would not like to dismiss atonal music, although I must admit that, until now, it has not been my piece of cake).

I am of the opinion that good composing is done using a combination of intuition, by studying what has been done before (in the past and the present), talent of course, which includes something which I would describe as musical intelligence, reasoning, analysis and serendipity ( i.e. the sudden discovery of the unpredictable, which can be an enormous moment of excitement!) , in other words, a combination of art and craftsmanship. Throwing up some music in just an impulsive moment, without critical evaluation (and here I mean self-evaluation!) will hardly produce any masterpieces. The tools available to the composer are very important, which includes proper notation, knowing rules for orchestration and other theoretical aspects etc. This greatly facilitates the recognition of flaws and finding appropriate improvements.  Personally, I experience it as a great thrill when I can improve my work by an iterative process, and I regard this to be at least as much “art” as producing an initial sketch. But use of the composer’s tools will not necessarily produce masterpieces. In fact, it may even be counter- productive. But in the hands of really talented people, these tools are extremely valuable and profitable.

I like Julie´s attitude. One should start with the conclusion that we are not playing in the same league as Beethoven or the other Greats! This is a sign of professionalism. Moreover, we should be aware of our limitations. This is not a sign of weakness or insecurity. As long as we also are aware of our potential!

Criticism is always good, as long as it is specific! I agree again with Julie.  Non-specific criticism is pretty meaningless, because you cannot provide any useful arguments around such criticism. “Do you like my piece? Do you think that my piece is good?” Well, fine, but it does not help me at all!  “I think that you should change the last part of this piece”. Well fine, but how and why!  Constructive criticism is meant to be a help in providing concrete suggestions how to improve things. And whether you make use of these suggestions or not, it will get you thinking. 

                     

Jeff Brien said:

Good reply Saul. I think I was not clear. Yes, the essence of music is not truth or reason but music does not belong solely to the heart either. Music (and all art) is a partnership of reason and emotion. Pure emotion with no reason will lack any structure, harmony, melody, or any of the basics of composition and pure reason will produce music with little to no feeling, which I think is how you see atonal music. I tend to agree with you. Personally, I think emotion should dominate and be tempered by reason not the other way around. I do think music is a search for truth though; perhaps the highest search for truth. This is not an original idea either,

"Music is a higher revelation than all wisdom and philosophy." - Beethoven

Saul Dzorelashvili said:

Jeff wrote :

"For this reason, they are intricately connected to ego and sense of self. In my opinion, the most honest thing a person can do is to create art. There is no deeper search for truth than to face the blank page and attempt to bring it to life with colors, pictures, words, or in our case - with music marks"

Well I think that this is just deeply exaggerated. The essence of music is not reason, or truth, for reason and truth belong to the mind, but music belongs to feeling which is in the heart. This is the reason why there can only exist one Truth, and many lies. On the other hand, since music has nothing to do with truth and is not absolute, it can be created by many different musicians, writing completely different works.

Music is such a personal taste, and each of us has a different idea of what is "beautiful".  I'm neither for nor against atonal music - each piece needs to be listened to and enjoyed or discarded on its own merit.   In the hands of a master, however, even serialism can be beautiful. 

Alban Berg's Violin Concerto, "To the Memory of an Angel" is one of the most beautiful pieces I know and one I listen to over and over.   The "angel" of the memory was Manon Gropius, daughter of Alma Mahler and Walter Gropius.  Evidently Manon was one of those rare spirits that fill a room with sunshine.  Her tragic death at the age of 18 shattered the world of the many who loved her.  Berg was also heartbroken, but turned his grief into music, even as he himself was dying ...

Berg combined serialism with Bach in such a gorgeous way ... The Chorale he quotes was unusual for Bach - it started with a whole tone scale, outlining a tritone!   But let's just ignore all the labels and listen to the music .....  

Here's the second half of the second movement.  You can find the entire piece on Youtube if you're interested.  Maybe when we're discussing different genres we could use examples rather than just bad-mouthing?  

Pardon me for not responding earlier Julie.

I find it difficult to believe that you are 100% detached from your music or the reactions of others but then I've always been part of the school of thinking that says, "art is created to be appreciated by others." My ex girlfriend was the complete opposite and could create art that nobody ever saw or appreciated except herself. I don't think that's what you're saying here though. Perhaps you can explain further?   

I agree that new music is essential. However, classical music no longer has its finger on the pulse of society and the vast majority of people who do frequent concerts don't want to hear something new - they want to hear the established masterpieces. New music is performed for small groups of elite listeners and academicians. Compare this to the premiere of a Beethoven symphony in its time. But I digress...

I also agree on the nature of criticism. There are too many amateurs out there shredding pieces apart which they do not really understand and praising pieces that simply validate what they think is "good." To quote Kant, "appreciation of art should be disinterested." This goes double for criticism. Once personal preference takes over, it is no longer criticism but personal opinion. I think it's nice to hear that someone liked your work, but it's also not very useful or deeply satisfying. You mention that the type of reaction you really enjoy is when someone relates on a deep level emotionally. I think this suggests that you are perhaps not attached to other people's opinions, but can be deeply affected by them.

This was an insightful reply and shows your 150 years of wisdom! Just kidding! Thanks for the thoughts and good luck with your current project. I do enjoy new sonorities. 

Julie Harris said:

Everyone is different, but I'm no longer attached to my own music or anyone else's opinion about it.  I just love superb music and I don't care who writes it, as long as it is being written.  Newly composed music is an energy force that helps the world keep turning.  It would be wonderful if the music came without so much ego attachment, but we're all doing the best we can.

A few years ago I realized that my music is very good, but not nearly as good as Bartok or Stravinsky or Berg or a bunch of other folks.  That is neither false modesty nor self-deprecation, it's just the truth.  I don't wish I could write like Bela or Igor or Alban - I'm just thrilled that they wrote like themselves and that I have recordings of their sublime writing!!!   I'd so much rather be listening to or sharing the world's best music than to be writing anything mediocre or even pretty good.  It's not about me, it's about the music, which nurtures and feeds me.

I used to compose because I needed to feel that I was a great composer.  Those days are past, thank heavens!!  Now when I write something, it's because someone has asked for or commissioned a particular piece in a genre or subject that I'm drawn to, or I have the opportunity to work with a world-class performer or collaborator, or I want to learn a new technique or tool, explore some aspect of music I haven't explored before, or simply because that particular piece doesn't exist and I'd like to hear it and share it.  Right now I really didn't want to be composing, for example, because I'm giving two huge concerts within six weeks of each other, but there's a sonority I've imagined and I long for it to fill my home.  Although I've looked and looked for it elsewhere it doesn't seem to exist, so I'm writing it ... in my spare time. 

It honestly doesn't matter to me if folks love my music, hate it, or are totally indifferent to it.  I long for constructive criticism from intelligent, articulate people who can be specific about what works or doesn't work for them and why.  When someone says "I love your music", I feel very empty - there was little or no communication there and nothing I can learn from that.   Once someone said "My father died ten years ago, and I was never able to cry until I heard your piece tonight".   Now that meant something to me.  She didn't say she "liked" the piece.  It never occurred to me to wonder if she liked it or not - that wasn't the question.  This perfect stranger and I cried on each other's shoulders because of a piece of music, and the energy of the world deepened just a tad that night.

I have always longed for that constructive criticism I described earlier, but rarely if ever have I found it, even at the universities and studying privately with Pulitzer Prize winning composers.  Criticism is an art, and one that is only mastered by those who have left their own ego behind and can look at the music from a larger perspective.   I find that ability to be very rare ....

Oh I forgot to mention ... I am over 150 years old.   Chuckle.   But seriously, becoming older and wiser really does help ...

Hello Bob,

I hope that you have (or have had) a nice lunch. I am about to have my dinner with a very nice bottle of Bordeaux ( which means that I will be composing tonight like a waterfall). But I don´t think that you should say that we will fail. Let´s put it this way. To explore one´s  capabilities, and try to improve is really the exciting issue. Once you are at the end of the road, and you cannot do any better ( and this is something which you will know yourself, because you may try to fool other people, but you cannot fool yourself) it may become boring.hen I would start doing something else.

 

Regards

Johan

 Bob Porter said:

Johan.

Good poinnts.

Of course we are not in the same league as the Famous Ones. But, in my view, we have to aim as high as we can. Why bother otherwise. Yes, we will fail. At least I will. But it is the quest, the challange, the struggle, the ups, and the downs that drive those who must compose music. For me it is not a question of will I write something today, but rather why wouldn't I write something today.

Yet, I feel the same way about lunch.

Julie, another great reply. Let´s listen to music!  The Alban Berg´s is quite impressive. But it´s not really atonal I think. Nevertheless, regardless of how we categorize things, I want to listen to it a number of times to get it " under my skin" 
 
Julie Harris said:

Music is such a personal taste, and each of us has a different idea of what is "beautiful".  I'm neither for nor against atonal music - each piece needs to be listened to and enjoyed or discarded on its own merit.   In the hands of a master, however, even serialism can be beautiful. 

Alban Berg's Violin Concerto, "To the Memory of an Angel" is one of the most beautiful pieces I know and one I listen to over and over.   The "angel" of the memory was Manon Gropius, daughter of Alma Mahler and Walter Gropius.  Evidently Manon was one of those rare spirits that fill a room with sunshine.  Her tragic death at the age of 18 shattered the world of the many who loved her.  Berg was also heartbroken, but turned his grief into music, even as he himself was dying ...

Berg combined serialism with Bach in such a gorgeous way ... The Chorale he quotes was unusual for Bach - it started with a whole tone scale, outlining a tritone!   But let's just ignore all the labels and listen to the music .....  

Here's the second half of the second movement.  You can find the entire piece on Youtube if you're interested.  Maybe when we're discussing different genres we could use examples rather than just bad-mouthing?  

Hey Johan-   To get the full effect of the Berg, listen to the entire concerto.  The first movement starts with an elaborate tone row and all the tools of serialism.  My favorite recording is Mutter/Levine - the entire piece is on YouTube, divided into three files.  The other sections of the piece are much more atonal than this ending, which has transcended the difficulties of Manon's illness, her death, the grief and suffering, and offers us hope for something beyond death which is unknown but full of radiance.  Perhaps there is a Bach after death?  or better yet, there is Bach after a tone row??  ;-)

Hi Jeff - I wouldn't have believed my own reply of being 100% detached from what others think of my music if I hadn't lived through it myself!   I don't hide any of my music away, or like a friend of mine, pretend that it came "from above".  I wrote it without divine intervention or even Bordeaux (!!), with much working and reworking and some walking the floor and sleepless nights.  But when it's finished, if someone hates it or loves it, it doesn't change my relationship to what I wrote, or my feelings about myself.  If I offer a friend or stranger some delicious cauliflower and they recoil in horror and reach for the hamburger and fries, I don't take that as a personal insult.  What's scrumptious to me might not appeal to someone else and vice versa. 

I don't think my self-worth is related to my music - or really to any external thing.  I love writing music, I try to make each note perfect, I continue to study and learn every day.  Some of my pieces sound as good to me as some of my favorites from The Greats  and some don't.  I haven't stopped eating cauliflower nor writing music because of other's reactions.  I do listen very carefully to what others say and pay attention to their reactions - it tells me more about them than about my music sometimes, but it's important to know what the world appreciates. I especially value feedback from those whose music I respect and admire, and often find our differences exciting and instructive!  

As one of my teachers once said, you have to decide for every piece if you're writing for yourself, for the world at large, for a small group of like-minded souls, for god, or perhaps for your cat Lyra.  If I've been commissioned to write a piece, I'm going to pay much more attention to what I know that person likes than if I'm writing to satisfy something within myself. If their preferences differ too greatly from mine, I'd respectfully decline the commission, as I have done many times.   But no matter who is the intended audience, I do love sharing new music.  And yes, you said it very well - other people's opinions don't hurt me or fill me with pride, but when music allows sharing at a deeper level, I'm profoundly affected by that.  That deep sharing could theoretically come just as much from criticism as from praise.

I don't think it's quite true that audiences just want to hear the old.  It's up to us as composers to build bridges between what the general public knows (and therefore loves) and what they don't know.   Michael Tilson Thomas, for example, brings everything to life with his passionate and well-informed talks.  I myself give three concerts a year of newly composed music - ranging from the most avant garde to the sweetest lullabyes - and the audiences go mad for it!  We talk about everything, explain the themes or structures or sonorities or help them learn what to listen for ... We relate new concepts to older pieces they know and love so they can feel the logical progression and open their minds and ears just a bit.  Some of the wildest and strangest pieces get played on consecutive concerts, brought back by popular demand.  I find that the general public is hungry for sincerity, exuberance, a passion for the new combined with a respect for the old, and they love to be included in the creative process (give 'em something to shake or a note to hum and they love it!).  We have the chance to help open minds!  And of course the general public hated Beethoven's Ninth when it was premiered ... he got a worse reception than Rite of Spring ...  It takes time ...

Yikes -  I'm too long-winded!   Sorry.   Bye.

Fredrick, you are absolutely right. To believe that the great composers just wrote down their music in a moment of inspiration is a fallacy. Beethove for example made numerous scetches and alterations, and it could take him several months or longer before he was satisfied. He made many "last minute" changes.  Maybe there have been some  exceptions ( like  Mozart), but my guess is that he made his corrections in his mind, since he had an unbelievable musical memory ( and of course an incredible skill) 
 
Fredrick zinos said:

Erika, I agree in part and disagree in part. I think one of the characteristics of well crafted music is a fierce dedication to objectivity, to take yesterday's inspiration that seemed at the time like burnished gold and put it in the trash today when it is seen as garbage or even if it is seen as "good" but not related to the composition one is working on at the time, I keep going back to Brahms statement; "The hardest part of composing is knowing what to throw under the table " (discard).

 

Fierce dedicaion to an inept musical or creative idea carries with it the possiblity of not wanting to alter or throw away work that doesn't measure up.  

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