Monday, August 25, 2008

Thoughts on "Co-creation"

From an early age, my sisters and I were creative; I thought up my first song on the occasion of my sister Valerie's birth, when I was five. I could still sing it for you, but it is no Mozartian production, so I won't. In any case, without thinking much of it, in my family, we made up songs, games, wrote short stories and such throughout childhood. We would not necessarily have appeared to be artsy family or an American Von Trappe imitation. It has been something of a surprise, as I've aged, to discover that few children have this type of experience. We rarely watched television. At Grandma's house, entertainment seemed to spontaneously erupt after a few post-dinner Manhattans: the accordion, clarinet, and trumpet would appear from nowhere, someone would sit at the piano, and everyone who could would perform German polkas and waltzes. I participated in these 'jam sessions' several times, even though no one ever taught me any of the songs; you just listened hard and figured out what to play as you went along. I fear that I may be the only cousin of my generation to have learned any of these pieces, and here I am in a monastery.

I continued to write music, eventually making a profession of it briefly before my entrance into monastic life. In college, I came under the spell of the Second Viennese School. I can't say exactly what drew me to it, except that the music of Schoenberg, and especially Webern, struck me as something totally new, whereas I had adopted what I now believe to be a naive stance vis a vis 'classical' music, that it doesn't have much variety, and (importantly) that this apparent quality is a bad thing. (My later study of late Beethoven and the Renaissance music of Josquin changed my mind on this point)

I began composing music 'that had never been heard before'. In fact, much of the music I produced at the time (I was about 21-22) is music that I am quite proud of in a good way. Some of it became simply unplayable. Little of it was ever performed, since performance requires other persons to learn the music and an audience willing to listen. This alignment was rare enough that what came of this period of creativity is limited to a few recordings, mostly 'scratch' recordings, meant to be works in progress.

Later, I encountered many others who wished to create music that 'had never been heard before'. I came to recognize this as a kind of temptation. Often times, we can imagine sounds in our heads that in fact correspond to nothing concrete in the world, and therefore this music cannot be heard literally. Often what is meant is that a person has a feeling that he or she wants to evoke with music, but does not know how to do it, and imagines that no music has ever been written to evoke this feeling. This corresponds to the serious difficulty in modern community life of individuals imagining themselves with totally unique feelings and experiences, assuming that others cannot understand them and therefore completely at sea when it comes to making decisions.

As I suggested above, these, I have come to believe, are temptations of the Deceiver, who wishes to divide person from person. This is not to say that musicians should not try to be original. In my better moments as a composer, I recognized that I could not really help but be original; we really are unique persons. But if I wished to communicate with others, I had to use reference points that others could understand. The idea then is to take the materials already provided and arrange them in a new way. The effect might not be totally new, but why shouldn't that be alright?

Creativity in the human person is fascinating to me. Of course, our creativity is always limited by the Creator, Who set the parameters for making new artifacts with created things. The longing to make something 'that no one has ever heard' can be interpreted as a longing to usurp the Creator's rightful place, rather than at least working with Him.

These are preliminary thoughts on a topic that is not yet well formed in my understanding. I hope that it is interesting for anyone reading!


Suzanne said...


Edith OSB said...

A core element of your posting is the desire that others somehow share the same experience or emotion or idea that was in your mind when you created the sound. For this to occur, there has to be a shared system of symbols or at least neural responses, and the created sound has to correspond to that reality - else the hearer will not receive what you intended to send.

We've been reading about the importance and working of this underlying correspondence between God's created reality - and specifically what He created us to be and how - in Is It Possible to Live This Way?: An Unusual Approach to Christian Existence: Faith. The idea that one could create something that is outside of this correspondence is, indeed, an idea of the Deceiver.

Maria from Elmhurst said...

You have done a great job here discussing our isolated islands of mind in which we sometimes believe. These islands are untruth. Does each human have to believe that life restarts again with her? Can the Deceiver just get out of the way and let us see the Light? Why is that so difficult? I have to be so vigilant. If I keep my identity as belonging to God in the front of my mind, I get off that island and see how we are all the same, because our differences are like a flourish on a deeper truth.

Bob said...

A thought that has always struck me about creativity came from (for me) Esther de Waal in Seeking God when she posited that creativity can only occur within limitation (i.e. enclosure).

The limitations of a musical instrument, a players ability, the range of tones discernible by the human ear--these are the limitations placed on music. Outside of these, the music ceases to be exist. Creativity stops.

God, who is limitless, can only be discerned within the context of creation--thus, to be known He has to create. To be intimately known, He had to become Incarnate.

Pure, (truly) limitless, creativity is a misnomer. That being the case, to think that we can create something "new" is hubris. The best we can do in our creativity is to remind others of something long forgotten.


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