Good Intentions

Several disparate statements have got me thinking about intention and how important it is for creative artists. In the middle of an interview this week with a Chicago-based composer, we found ourselves discussing the occasional pigeon-holing that had occurred in their career with others’ expectations or interpretations based on this artist’s heritage/ethnicity; this had caused the composer to often avoid musical ideas that could be construed as belonging to the region where they had been raised. John Adams’s address to the graduates from Julliard this year presses them to not only instill a sense of surprise in their art, but to enhance the surprise through expectation, stating:

The quality of the surprise—what Melville called the “shock of recognition”—depends on how carefully, how knowingly these expectations have been set up

Finally, Dan Visconti brings up a wonderfully insightful question when he queries: “Is ‘talent’ just a misleading term for the results of where we choose to invest our time?”

With the mystery that is attributed to the creative arts by others and encouraged by many practitioners, it is easy to forget how much control we have over our art and careers. Over the past year the 35 composers I’ve interviewed so far have been, to a person, extremely deliberate in what they do and how they do it. Over time, they have discovered where in their creative processes they require planning and where they need to “let go of the reins” and allow things to happen organically; once these discoveries are realized, they tend to be followed religiously as each composer’s recipe for success. This goes not only for the compositional process but also for how each composer carves out their own career, with most composers ending up with an intense structured-improvisatory mindset whereby not everything is planned ahead of time, but the basic tenets of each career path has been carefully thought out and executed ultimately by the individual.

These concepts are important for several reasons. The extent to which each individual artist relies on intention has much to do with the eventual character and scope of their output and their careers. As Adams discusses brilliantly, the directed planning out of expectation and surprise is necessary for richness and depth both within a specific work and throughout one’s life. Even more important, however, is how we are seen and understood by those who do not create art as a profession. Visconti’s discussion with a health-care consultant was indicative of many prevalent assumptions of what we do—that while we do spend much time studying our art, in the end it is all up to the “talent” with which we started. These assumptions can lead to professions in the arts not being taken seriously by those who feel that we’re only “playing” and not “working”, by those who have a hard time equating the worth of a career in the arts with a career in the sciences or business, or by those who are driven by the growing populistic notions that emphasize being “discovered” as a diamond-in-the-rough (see Idol, American) as opposed to achieving success through single-minded determination and careful, intentional forethought.

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