The first season of the show Portlandia introduced us to two artisans who help spice up the wares of knickknack stores. No matter the product, they are able to improve it, “spruce it up, make it pretty” by following their five-word mantra: “Put a bird on it!” As the bird images proliferate, I feel uplifted. I like birds and am invariably more attracted to decorative objects when they contain avian imagery. However, when overused, even I eventually find that bird silhouettes can lose their charm and fade into the background of over-adorned sameness.
Sometimes as I compose, I find myself turning back to the same creative solutions that worked in the past. No matter how different various projects may be, I can be tempted to impose the artistic tics that have embedded themselves deeply within my subconscious. Whether I’m working on the musical equivalent of a tote bag, a greeting card, or even a bird sculpture, I find myself putting a bird on it. Just like last year at this time, I’ve been working this spring towards seemingly impossible deadlines. (Note to self: don’t accept any projects with due dates next March or April.) As I’ve needed to speed up my work in order to meet the final, double-secret, last-chance due dates, I keep reminding myself not to fall into my usual solutions, to keep working creatively. Since I often utilize birdsong in my compositions, my fear of becoming the Put a Bird on It® composer is both literal and visceral.
Part of the reason why this issue is of special concern to me at this moment, beyond the usual deadline pressure, is related to the nature of the piece that I’m finishing: a concerto for amplified toy piano and chamber orchestra. As part of my work on this piece, I wrote a toy piano solo that began as a study towards the concerto but gradually grew into a major work in its own right. Now that I’m incorporating motives from this study into the main piece, the musical materials feel far too familiar to me. Some of these motivic fragments that began as part of the concerto now feel more attached to the solo and don’t want to become embedded in the new piece. Others slip so easily into the new piece that I’ve become concerned that they have wormed their way into my subconscious and will continue to appear unbidden in composition after composition.
Where should the line be drawn between my personal style and my overused crutches? At what point does a proclivity towards certain sounds pass the tipping point into cliché? I try to reassess my artistic goals periodically in order to ensure that I consider new ways of approaching musical problems. For me, it’s very important to take retreats, because without them I would continue to fall into the same creative traps over and over again. If the only item in my bag of tricks is a pretty bird, then I need to shop for new ones. As nice as bird calls can be, every piece doesn’t need a bird on it.