Composing Myself: Part 1

Violin, Lamp, and Bible

A moment in time cannot be captured but it can be remembered. I believe that to create art is (in part) to marvel at the infinite depth of a moment. Each moment of our lives is too large to be captured and caged. Image, word, music, and movement are just some of the ways we try to get at a moment’s meaning.

I have been processing my IPIAT performance (held this past February) for some time now. Below is the first of two posts exploring some of what I learned through the process.

First, context matters. Music is meant to be shared and becomes meaningful in relation to particular people and places. If I could rewind and choose to do one thing differently for this composition project it would be to find my ensemble first then write music with them specifically in mind. As it was, I wrote most of the music on my own and then looked for musicians to fill predetermined roles. No approach is inherently superior to the other but it was when particular music parts were attached to particular people that I was most energized creatively.

Second, endurance cultivates creativity. I often became discouraged while writing or studying Scripture because the songs did not come readily at first. It often took days (or weeks) of mulling over a Bible verse, theme, or melody line before music began to emerge, and then large parts of a song would usually come together in a short time. This ebb and flow was mostly unpredictable but I did discover that frequency of contact with the material was often more important than the actual time spent writing. Meditating on a passage from John was often more important than mastering the art of poetry. Endurance and scheduled reflection time were absolutely essential to my creative process.

Third, if writing is the goal there is no substitute for writing. If I was unable to write something thought-provoking or beautiful I resolved to write something clichéd or awkward. This was difficult at first but became easier when I remembered that neither God nor my advisors required me to write my magnum opus the first time around (which reminded me of another creative axiom, which is that the only good writing is rewriting). My IPIAT was first and foremost an offering of worship to God, then an exercise in spiritual formation, then an offering of thanks to the various communities of which I am a part, then a component in the completion of my degree. I had to remind myself regularly that musical perfection was not embedded within any of these priorities. Over time the discipline of writing a little bit every day paid dividends.

Fourth, art is sacrificial in nature. Given the narcissism of Western culture many view art as the epitome of self-indulgence, yet I experienced art as something very different through this process. The completion of my IPIAT required self-sacrifice for everyone involved. After a long day of work the last thing I wanted to do was research, write, or rehearse. My inner grumbling was usually about a lack of energy and a desire to zone out and watch television. Yet I knew the time I had been given was not my own. It belonged first to God but also to those who were in some way participating in the project. This music was not for me, it was for us. Nine musicians sacrificed many evenings to collaborate and rehearse. They gave of their time and of themselves (their voices, their instruments, their unique perspectives and histories, etc.). Those who attended the IPIAT performance were not static recipients of a commodity or service either. They shaped the context and direction of the event just by being there, and all the more so by actively listening and asking questions. It was sacrifice that enabled people to move toward each another in mutual love and respect to create something of meaning. This sacrificial impulse began to make sense when I saw it in light of God’s Triune nature. This beautiful Communion of self-giving love demonstrated between the Father, Son, and Spirit is also represented in how God chose to relate to us, most profoundly through the death and resurrection of Jesus.

Photo courtesy of Peter Caulfield

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