This week I read a fantastic story called “Riddles” by the Czech author Michal Ajvaz. (It’s short, so it wouldn’t be a terrible thing if you read it right now and then came back to this post.) In Ajvaz’s tale, the narrator is beset by a feline beast who sporadically materializes to pose strange riddles, and to claw and bite the narrator when he inevitably fails to supply the correct answer. Like a lot of modern fables, it’s hard to pin down, exactly, what it’s really all about, but it immediately struck me as an apt analogy for the self-inflicted angst of the creative process.
The riddles the narrator describes are always rather long-winded and “silly,” like this one:
In the morning it has four legs, at noon two, and in the evening seventeen; it sits on a cold stove in a dark, damp-smelling waiting room at the railway station in Tynec nad Labem, singing in a deep voice a musical setting of Jan Mukarovsky’s article “Aesthetic Function, Norm and Value as Social Facts.”
So too are the constant riddles I encounter in the process of composing. The problems that stand in my way when writing music are impossibly trivial, without exception. They are usually so convoluted, the result of an absurdly circuitous train of thought, that they are completely uninteresting to anyone other than myself. In fact, they’re often uninteresting to me as well, and it’s only the goal behind the riddle that keeps me fixated on such technicalities. And paradoxically, this search for truth and beauty seems to take me further and further away from the true and the beautiful. Like the riddle-solver, in my narrow obsession I’ve missed “the opening up beside me of a voyage to Asia, to golden temples in the jungle…the goblin treasure glittering amidst the moss of night…the Siren’s song, which brought such magnificent shipwreck to others.”
Obsession is also what Ajvaz’s narrator reports: “I can’t help thinking about [the riddles] all the time, even though I know I shall be scratched and bitten.” And yet this meaningless meditation lends him a noble cast: “Everyone I know thinks I’m a great philosopher, as I’m always deep in thought.” This kind of thing occurs to me whenever I’m asked to elucidate my creative process; the vast majority of what I’ve learned is nothing remotely deep or profound, and in many cases it doesn’t even seem applicable to anyone else.
This is the thing that is most terrifying to admit, especially in the current political climate, when the value of music and art seems constantly under threat. Writing music doesn’t really make you smarter, or a better person, or more skilled at anything else. Or as Ajvaz puts it: “If you think these years of unsuccessful riddle solving were at least a kind of training and experience which furnish hope for the future, I am afraid you are quite mistaken.”
To add insult to injury, whenever I attempt to solve a compositional riddle, the solution I eventually arrive at always feels like a compromise, a concession, a rendering of something fine and ethereal and transcendent and ineffable into something base and material and mundane. This is the kicking and the biting of the beast. Why accept this constant punishment? Why continue, why bother at all? I think it is the tantalizing hope that someday I will get it right, as ridiculous as that sounds. It is the irrationally attractive belief that all musical problems are connected in some way, and even connected to urgent societal and existential problems. And like Ajvaz’s protagonist, I have moments when I feel close to solving the riddles, “which is to solve them all at once, and this will likewise be the key to unlock all the future riddles.”