7 Attributes of a Complete Contemporary Musician- Part 6

Attribute #6: In previous blogs, we have discussed the following points regarding the complete contemporary musician. 

He will have a meaningful purpose for his work (Attribute #1).  He is open to cultural influences, learning from those who have come before him (Attribute #2).  He is willing to embrace the creativity of other contemporary artists (Attribute #3), and he is able to both improvise as well as read music (Attribute #4).  He is willing to study and participate in new innovation (Attribute #5). 

In this blog, we will explore the need for the complete contemporary musician to be proficient in both practices of composition and performance.

The subjects are mutually beneficial to each other.  Without one, the other does not exist.  They blend together almost like the covenant of marriage.  The inter-relationship between the two subjects, at times, becomes so saturated that it is difficult to always tell when composition isn’t performance, and when performance isn’t composition.

In Attribute #4, we discussed the subject of improvisation.  This is one way the two worlds can simultaneously coexist.  Another example might be when a performer adds his ‘interpretation’ to the work, making it uniquely an expression of his own artistry.  Many who compose music will attest to the fact that at certain moments in the creative process, one feels as though he is performing while he is at work, even when he is the only one in the room.

There are times when the composer, with all of the specific instruction he can muster, must step aside to allow the performer ‘room’ to express the work in a way which sometimes even goes beyond the composer’s own original imagination.  It is futile for the composer to exert his authority over every tiny detail of performance, ultimately stifling the creativity that emanates from a mutual relationship with the performer.

I believe that the complete contemporary musician must be able to function both as a composer as well as a performer because, without the knowledge and experience gained on either side of the equation, he will be severely lacking in his ability to make meaningful music in either discipline.

For example, if a performer has no understanding of composition, or the process of creativity, his performances will tend towards a mechanical approach, simply robotically moving through a sequence of notes and pretending emotion.  However, when he sees himself as a composer, he will be more willing to take risks with the material, gaining insights into the mind of the composer himself, catching the ‘spirit’ of the material, and not the ‘letter’ of every ‘crossing of the t’ and ‘dotting of the i’.   I am not insinuating that the performer should become slack in his approach and respect for the creator’s original work, but rather encouraging a comprehensive approach to his interfacing with what the composer has given.  I would go so far as to say that the performer’s own unique ideas actually complete the process of creativity.

Many times, as a composer, I am elated to hear a performer bring my composition to life in an unusual and unexpected interpretation.  I believe many composers feel the same way.

Composers, on the other hand, if lacking in performance experience, tend to become cold, distant and irrelevant to their audience, hiding away in some castle of ideology and technical matrix they have created.  When a composer is also a performer, he intuitively knows what will work for a particular audience, and imagines that audience’s response while he is working.

Not every work is for every audience.  In a perfect world, it would be wonderful to believe it was true, but the world of performance simply isn’t perfect.  And that’s the beauty of it!  The composer needs to ‘get his hands soiled’ in the imperfect dirt of audience interaction.  When he is keenly aware of who he is writing for, he will know the boundaries he can push and those he must never cross.  The process of composition is simply about making good musical judgments along the creative path, judgments that work both for the audience as well as the performer.  I am not insisting that the composer must relinquish his idealism altogether, but rather that he ‘tailor’ the ideas to fit the needs of his audience.  According to Stravinsky, in his “Poetics of Music”, the narrower the boundaries, the greater the creativity.

The intermingling of these two disciplines, I believe, will yield the most successful results for both areas distinctly.  I am not advocating that an artist should relinquish his particular ‘bent’, his ‘gifting’, as some people have more creative leanings, while others have greater success in the art of performance; however, I want to encourage ‘both sides of the coin’ to expand their capacity to embrace the other side.  Doing so will ultimately create the best results for both worlds.

(For more on this subject, see “Opposing Paradigms”)

The Three Uses of Music and Arts

Music is useful in our society in many ways, but I believe that there are three main functions of music and the arts in our lives: 1) Performance, 2) Worship, and 3) Prophetic.

The most common use of music and the arts in our lives is that of performance, in which the artist gives his art to another person or group of people.  This is certainly beneficial in many ways, especially when the artist and his audience have commonality in their likes, interests and goals.  Much of this kind of artistic endeavor centers around Man: what man can accomplish in skill, what styles man likes to hear or see, how popular the artist becomes, etc.   In essence, it's all about man’s performance and social acceptance.

A higher level of music and artistic involvement is that of worship.  Music and the arts do a wonderful job of ‘pointing’ the audience to a target.  The ‘pointing’ can draw an arrow to the Artist himself, or to a cause (like ‘saving the planet’), or to a consumer product (like Coca-Cola).  Whatever music and the arts point to will be ‘exalted’.  Another way of saying it is: whatever the ‘arrow’ is pointing to is lifted up and amplified, even worshiped.

There are many examples throughout history of how music has been used to ‘exalt’ that which it points towards.  Take for example the biblical story in the Book of Daniel. 

“Nebuchadnezzer the king made an image of gold, the height of which was sixty cubits and its width six cubits; he set it up on the plain of Dura in the province of Babylon.  (Dan. 3:1)  Then the herald loudly proclaimed: “To you the command is given, O peoples, nations and men of every language, that at the moment you hear the sound of the horn, flute, lyre, trigon, psaltery, bagpipe, and all kinds of music, you are to fall down and worship the golden image that Nebuchadnezzar the king has set up.  But whoever does not fall down and worship shall immediately be cast into the midst of a furnace of blazing fire.”  Therefore at that time, when all the peoples heard the sound of the horn, flute, lyre, trigon, psaltery, bagpipe, and all kinds of music, all the peoples, nations and men of every language fell down and worshiped the golden image that Nebuchadnezzar the king had set up.” (Dan. 3:4-7)

Throughout the ages, all cultures and religions have used music in some form or fashion to convey their worship.  The Bible is replete with the subject of musical expressions of worship in Judaism and Christianity.  As the God of the Bible is a creative God, Who made man in His image, it stands to reason that He put within man the ability to create in like manner.  Part of the response from those who worship God is, of necessity, a creative one.

Music and art that are brought to God in worship exist for a higher purpose than the pleasure of man.  This kind of activity seeks to ‘point the arrow’ towards the Creator of all things, amplifying Who He is, inspired and empowered by His worth.

There is actually a third, and even loftier functioning of music and the arts in which few people are ever involved, and that is the expression of the prophetic. 

This is where the purpose of the creativity is not for man’s pleasure, and not even to exalt God, but rather, it is when God Himself speaks through what is created.  This phenomenon is not initiated by man himself.  To do so would be ‘false-prophesy’.  That doesn’t mean that man is a ‘puppet’, however.  Man cooperates, in this instance, with God-breathed inspiration in the creative process.  Man, by supernatural inspiration, brings form to what is being spiritually conveyed by God Himself.

The message that results may or may not bring pleasure to those who hear it.  It may even run diametrically opposed to the culture’s desires.  But one thing is sure: it will always cut deeper into the audience’s conscience than anything produced for performance or worship.  It is a message that demands a response of action by those who hear it.  It can elicit dramatic cultural change and has the power to move history substantially down a new and different pathway.

Elements of prophetic music and art can be intertwined with performance and worship, but when those moments happen, it is in stark contrast to elements that are not prophetically motivated.  The artist is definitively aware of when ‘God steps into the picture’.  All who have tasted of this creative inspiration are forever marked.  Nothing less will ever suffice.