"The activity of art is based on the fact that a man, receiving through his sense of hearing or sight another man's expression of feeling, is capable of experiencing the emotion which moved the man who expressed it...Art begins when one person, with the object of joining another or others to himself in one and the same feeling, expresses that feeling by certain external indications." - Leo Tolstoy, What is Art?
We today have so many things being created and presented as art, so much music being recorded and produced, that it is often hard to figure out what is good art and bad art, and what is simply a difference in taste. There is such a vast difference between one person to the next with respect to what is appreciated and enjoyed in music, visual art or literature, that it would potentially be useless for me to speculate on what bad art is. Instead, I will make a suggestion for how to discern between the good and the bad, between what is truly creative and what is merely pretending.
In the above quote by Tolstoy, he offers an opinion that I think is a worthwhile guideline for discerning between good and bad art. Does a painting move you? Does a piece of music bring you to another place emotionally or mentally? Is your thinking impacted by the novel or poem you read? Those are good starting points for deciding if something is good art. If what you experienced was also the intended consequence of its creator, then it would likely fall into the category of good art.
But what if none of those things happen? What if you hear a symphony, read a book, or watch a movie, and you feel nothing, or think nothing? Is it necessarily bad art? Not always, particularly if a work has stood the test of time, and is widely considered to be good art. Case in point: in What is Art?, Tolstoy spends a great deal of time complaining about Wagner's operas, and about how terrible and unartistic they are. Today Wagner's Ring Cycle is widely acknowledged to be a great work of art. I myself read Moby Dick, generally considered a great American novel, and was bored out of my mind. Does this lack of a connection with a work mean they are not good art? Probably not. These examples are more likely just matters of taste, of what one person likes or dislikes. Tolstoy apparently had a very strong dislike of Wagner's operas, so he allowed that to affect his judgment as to what was good and what was not; I found Melville's story overly-detailed about things seemingly unnecessary to the story, though I admit I did not understand what he was trying to communicate going into the story.
Lack of understanding of a work does not mean something is bad though. I still felt some of the monotony of being on a ship, the excitement when a whale was seen, and I can now skin and de-blubber a whale on a moments notice. But lack of understanding of a work of art, or even an entire art form, necessitates learning about the piece or style before making a judgment, not forming an opinion before understanding. Something that applies not only to art, but to people as well. If we make a judgment about a person before actually understanding them or getting to know them, we will have our view of them colored by our opinion of the person, whether or not it is a right view of who they are.
A great example of a work of art that delves into the depths of a person's thinking, into their soul, is Fyodor Dostoyevsky's Crime and Punishment. Last night, after reading through the first quarter of the book – a book about a man who commits a double-murder, and how he deals with the guilt associated with the crime – I finished reading and for a few minutes I felt dirty, like I was a terrible person for killing those two women, as though Dostoyevsky had written about things I had actually done. I knew, of course, that I have never killed anyone, but that I felt the guilt and sickness of this man created by the author speaks to the incredible work of art he created. That I was transported to 19th century Russia and experienced the horror of the murder of two innocent people and the after-effects on the killer tells of the value of the art. This is what good art should do. It should immerse you in it, take you to a place away from where you are, or challenge your perceptions; art should make you feel something new, and better you as a person.
This is perhaps not a definitive definition of good art, but it is, I believe, an important quality that art should have: it should communicate and transfer some sort of change to the audience. Whether a vague emotion is expressed, such as joy or sorrow, or more specific, as the guilt of a murderer immediately after the crime or the excitement of a whaler having spotted a whale, good art, art that expresses to the observer what is intended by the creator, is worth consuming and exploring. It brings to us entire new worlds filled with wonder to be explored, whether the novels of Russian authors, the music of free jazz innovators, or the art of impressionist painters; all of it has value. All of it can present a glimpse into the creator, a reflection of that which is greater than itself, and bring greater understanding of the world around us.
Sometimes I get very brief, vivid pictures in my mind of my emotional and mental state. Due to my recent workload, I have felt stretched thin often times. This past Tuesday, while listening to Maria Schneider’s Sky Blue album, I had one of these moments of introspection, seeing my soul as a solid wall or rock, though which many small cracks were running vertically. Seeping through the cracks from the top down was a golden light – the music I was listening to – seeming to adhere everything together, bringing stability where there was formerly only space.
Music is an incredible gift, a gift that far too often is used solely as a source of light entertainment – or worse, mostly as background noise. While these can be legitimate uses for music, they should be exceptions to how music is used normally, not normal in and of themselves. Where music as light entertainment can be a useful diversion, it should not be the essence of one’s musical consumption. While it is possible to go through life in a musical wading pool, never learning to swim, it is a waste of the wonderful gifts God has given us in music to delight only in that which is shallow and willingly ignore that which has depth beyond our immediate understanding.
A music listening experience can be so much more than a simple diversion or entertainment source; music has power to move the listener deeply on an emotional level, even to heal the soul in a way that little else can. I have recently been considering I Samuel 16:23 in the Bible: “So it came about that whenever the evil spirit from God came to Saul, David would take the harp and play it with his hand; and Saul would be refreshed and be well, and the evil spirit would depart from him.” Regardless of your beliefs as to the historicity of this story, the ancient Hebrew author here acknowledged the power that music can have on a person. It has the power to refresh, to cleanse a person’s spirit.
As someone who creates music, it is also of immense importance to keep in mind that my music is often a vessel to communicate my thoughts and/or emotions to an audience. It is my desire as a composer to touch the audience’s emotions, to cause them to think on something differently than they had thought of it before. I will not always be successful in these efforts, but to work at something and fail is better than to try nothing and succeed. I want to create music that has depth, music that means something, and even music that can change lives.
Let us consider this incredible gift we have been given, and let us put it to good use. May we be mindful of how we both listen to and create music, that we may move beyond consuming milk to consuming meat. May we not simply enjoy the moon – a source of light, but only a glimpse of something much greater – but may we enjoy even more the light of the sun – the golden light that can refresh and soothe our souls.
“The creative process seems indelibly linked to struggle and strife. The world believes artists by nature are meant to suffer.” Rick Rotante
“A great artist... must be shaken by the naked truths that will not be comforted. This divine discontent, this disequilibrium, this state of inner tension is the source of artistic energy.” Johann Wolfgang von Goethe
There is a saying that goes something like this: “All great art comes from suffering.” This is something that I have thought about a great deal in my work, as suffering, whether directly affecting me or not, has largely driven my artistic creations - whether music composition or writing poetry. Both of my completed jazz orchestra pieces have been responses to suffering - the first being a response to the death of an uncle, while the second was a response to senseless violence. Most of the other music I have written has been in a minor key, either just sounding sad, angry, or otherwise written out of pain, or actually being so. My poetry is almost exclusively that way, and what is not that way is not very good, even in comparison to the rest of my poetry. I have composed music and poetry so often in this way that I almost forgot to make art that was created out of joy, art that was a response to beauty and goodness. After a year and a half spent composing a response to violence, I had subconsciously accepted the idea that great art is created from pain, suffering, and discord.
However, recently, while viewing some paintings and drawings done by an acquaintance, this idea was brought to the forefront of my mind. While I thought the art I was looking at was nice, my first reaction was that there was a simplicity about the art subject material that was a drawback to how I viewed the art. The more I thought about it though, the more I realized it was not the art that was at issue, but what my view of art was that was the problem. I had for so long been dwelling with a piece of music that was emotionally dark – and it was that way for good reason! – that I did not appreciate the joy that was in this art. There was a cheerfulness that I realized has been lacking in my own art, and even in the art I have appreciated recently.
The piece that specifically caught my eye and especially drew out my soul from the cynicism it had been drifting toward was an illustration called Sky Turtle, depicting a sea turtle flying through the sky, with a small castle and village on its back. Upon first seeing it, I thought, “That’s nice, but nothing I would hang on my wall.” After a day or two though, I had been unable to shake the picture from my mind – one that had changed from a simplistic piece of art, to one deep in joy, beauty, and whimsy. It was one of imagination, created entirely in the artist’s mind. It was this that inspired me to compose a tune inspired by Sky Turtle, musically depicting the turtle as described above – using my imagination to depict something, instead of simply responding to it. That initial tune then was turned into my second trombone quartet piece, and will likely become the theme of a piece for jazz orchestra.
During this time, I have been reminded of the above quote about suffering and art, but also that, as a Christian, I believe that God created a universe that was good and beautiful and joyful. So too then, I should create things that are good, beautiful, and joyful. I realized that, contrary to the belief that great art only, or mainly, comes from pain, beauty and joy can also inspire great art that encourages and uplifts, art that moves people on at least an equal scale to what pain and suffering can do, but in a positive way. I want to create art that is rich in joy and deep in creativity; I want to create art that encourages others; I want to create not from a spirit of suffering and cynicism, but of joy and of love.
“I know that I want to produce beautiful music, music that does things to people that they need. Music that will uplift, and make them happy—those are the qualities I’d like to produce.” John Coltrane
When I was younger, I made a lot of jigsaw puzzles, and I still enjoy the occasional diversion once or twice a year. My first memory of making a puzzle was a 100-piece puzzle I used to make all the time as a little kid (probably 4-5 years old). Over time the puzzles grew more complex, and I eventually worked my way up to finishing 1,000-piece puzzles in a week or less. I made puzzles hardcore. I still consider looking at the picture on the box to be cheating after the puzzle has been started.
Most of the puzzles I made were pretty basic, with the only issue in putting it together being the occasional missing piece. They are not very memorable. Other puzzles, especially later on, were not typical puzzles, including puzzles where each piece had at least one straight edge; puzzles with pieces inside other pieces; a double sided puzzle with the same picture on each side, rotated 90°; and one that was likely my family's attempt to prevent me from ever again only asking for puzzles for my birthday or Christmas: a 750-piece puzzle with no edges, 5 extra pieces, and a picture (not even as shown on the box) that was entirely golf balls, golf tees, and grass. That took me at least 1-1/2 years to finish, and, though it did have the effect of greatly lessening my desire to make puzzles, it was far more satisfying to finish than most puzzles are. It is also never coming apart, beyond the four pieces it is in to fit back in the box.
Composing can be a lot like making a puzzle. On rare occasions you are able to see what the puzzle is supposed to look like as you work; this is generally more true of transcribing and arranging. Other times, you get a brief glimpse of the picture before you start, but your idea of what it was changes as you are putting it together. Most often, you are building a puzzle without having seen the picture on the front of the box. There are often, in composing, missing pieces that need to be created to connect two sections together, pieces that don't fit quite right and need to be shaped for a perfect fit, small pieces that need to be inserted in to larger pieces of the puzzle, and extra pieces that do not actually fit anywhere and should be removed.
Some compositions are like basic puzzles. These can include things like lead sheets (typically melody and chords, with lyrics if applicable) and many typical pop songs. They are usually quickly created, but only partially satisfying. While they can be enjoyable for a composer, performer, and audience, they can often be either easily remade in a better form or forgotten entirely without much sense of loss for the first composition of the piece. Then there are compositions that are more like a complex puzzle. These can include things like orchestral or chamber ensemble pieces, among other things. They are usually time-consuming to compose, and are very satisfying to finish. Once completed, there is generally no need to change anything beyond perhaps minor editing, so the work is left as is, and any future arrangements of it are generally lesser versions.
Some puzzles look pretty, but there is little to challenge the builder with, while others obviously had a great amount of thought put into both appearance and construction. The same goes for music: some music sounds great, but is fairly simple in it's composition (which can be perfectly fine); other music is both pleasing to listen to and has a great amount of depth put into it by the composer.
Composing is the ultimate jigsaw puzzle.