Attribute #3: The Complete Contemporary Musician, along with having a meaningful purpose for his life and art (Attribute #1), and having a solid understanding of those who came before him, with the ability to perform their works (Attribute #2), must also be familiar with the current styles of the day, not only of his own geographical and philosophical region, but of those regions beyond. He should desire to be relevant to the times in which he lives, yet not at the expense of excellence.
Having a firm grasp of past historically successful artists gives him ‘food for thought’ and creativity, but the modern artist must not be stuck in the past if he intends to successfully connect with a contemporary audience. Being aware of cultural trends, the likes and interests of his current day should be like a whetstone, sharpening his own artistic edge. “Iron sharpens iron, so one man sharpens another.” (Prov. 27:17)
It is important that the artist have a solid understanding of his artistic direction, being firmly established in his own unique giftedness, while looking about the landscape at the works of others. Otherwise, he will be tempted to abandon the inner-plan of his heart to chase after someone else’s success. An artist who has no grounding in his own predetermined pursuits will be invariably “tossed about by every wind of doctrine” he sees coming his way.
There is a successful balance, or ratio, that must be struck between identity and cultural relevance. If an artist becomes so aware of all the cultural swirlings of ideas and ideologies that he loses his sense of personal destiny, then he must back-up and regain his equilibrium of who God has created him to be. “For we are His workmanship (lit. work of art), created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them.” (Eph. 2:10) (for more on this see, “My Vision- the Community- History”)
While firmly grounded, the artist must not be afraid to step beyond the familiar, to see what others are doing. The very nature of artistic endeavors is to focus on creativity and innovation; however, if the artist stays in that state of focus and creativity, he may realize that the world has passed him by if he doesn’t look up (and out) from time to time. Whether we like to admit it or not, we artists are not an island unto ourselves. We are ultimately not independent at all, but are dynamically involved in the flow of history and community, having relationship within our own lives, those around us, and God himself.
Not being aware of the surrounding culture would be like trying to drive a car through the city blind-folded. It doesn’t matter how pretty or powerful your vehicle is, at some point, you’re gonna crash!
The artist should not only be aware of his surrounding culture, but also challenge himself to move beyond his own levels of comfort, into new areas of knowledge and study, not just of past artists (as was discussed in Attribute #2), but of new geographical and philosophical possibilities. For example, one who is familiar with the latest advances in American techno-pop genres could look into what is currently happening in Bali music or tribal rhythms from Africa. It’s about having a curiosity of life and a sincere appreciation for the successful creativity of others.
Technological advances are changing at a fever-pace, and this opens another wide door for new possibilities, challenging our very paradigm of how the creative process functions.
Igor Stravinsky is a great example of navigating change. He went through several stages of artistic development, starting with large orchestral works for the Russian Dance Theater, then developing Neo-Classicism through works of smaller scale. He went through periods of experimentation with jazz and serialism but somehow he always sounded like ‘Stravinsky’. His unique giftedness never swayed as he moved through these vastly divergent musical styles.
He could have easily been so enamored with Gershwin, that he ‘copied’ his style, or so impressed by Schoenberg that he mimicked his every stroke, but rather, he stayed true to his own uniqueness at the expense of ‘caving’ to the pressures of what was ‘hot’ at that particular moment in history. He included the cultural leanings without compromising who he was as an artist. This is what prioritizing excellence above relevance successfully looks like. Success as an artist is the ability to give the world uniquely who you are, while using the current cultural language to do it.
Could there be any greater example than Jesus, who identified with His culture on every level, yet brought a revolutionary message that transcended that culture. He was intrinsically woven within the fabric of the culture’s history, yet He stood out from it, pointing to a new destiny. This is the goal of the successful artist, to touch culture, yet to transcend culture, to excel in the midst of the mortal weaknesses of that culture’s communication tools.
The complete contemporary musician must be willing to ride the edge of these truths, constantly navigating and negotiating: 1) Who God has made him to be, 2) What he can learn from others, and 3) How he can speak truth to an audience that understands his message.
This is the sojourn of the one who hungers and thirsts to fulfill his destiny as a successful artist in both relevance and excellence.