Creativity is messy. Its path is littered with the failures and incoherence of experimentation. Though our creative efforts can lead to something beautiful or useful on occasion, acting on those creative impulses is about the effort more than the result, don’t you think? This particular variation, building on the freneticism of the previous one, has a lot going on. It seems like Bach might be exploring an incoherent stage of his creative process. What will emerge from all this experimentation in the final variation?
A few years ago I saw and wrote about a documentary, “Seymour: An Introduction,” about pianist Seymour Bernstein and directed by actor Ethan Hawke. Bernstein doles out wisdom in heaping spoonfuls in this film, and his wisdom goes from how the two-note slurs in a Beethoven Sonata can be played more beautifully to the purpose of being creative. He talks about learning to integrate his creative self into his daily life, a simple life that is extraordinarily focused on simply being kind and caring enough to want to bring out the best in his music and in people he meets. Music is really only a vehicle for living his creative life. That vehicle could just as easily have been nursing or engineering or parenting.
Bernstein tries to dispel the idea that art only comes from great suffering. He makes the case for practice – the detailed hard work of really focusing, with great care, on the preparation of something – being the thing that informs one’s art. While I do believe something very special can happen “in the moment,” a magical moment doesn’t often happen without preparation. The preparation might be as hard as thousands of hours of practice, or as simple as being open-minded enough to act on a untested idea. In fact, creativity seems to call upon so many of the things I’ve been writing about for the past 30 weeks – persistence, openness, playfulness, listening, curiosity, fearlessness, resiliency, perspective…
Creativity is about more than having imaginative ideas…it’s about the work of bringing those ideas to life in a process that uses both sides of our brain. Our creative impulses originate internally, but with plenty of external help coming from conversations and opportunities of time and place. It requires a level of rebelliousness, but the rebellion born of an appreciation for tradition, and a discipline which emerges from passion.
There’s also the element of chance. The film about Seymour Bernstein came about because the 88 year old pianist happened to get seated next to Ethan Hawke at a dinner party, where the two discussed their fears – Bernstein’s stage fright that had led him to give up concertizing 37 years earlier, and Hawke’s fear that his life as an actor is meaningless. From those fears came a life devoted to teaching and believing in the power of creativity, and this brilliant film.
Thinking of practice as art was a revelation to me. One of the young, extraordinarily talented students in the film talks about learning to really listen to people, because he has learned to listen so carefully to the music he is practicing. We are all creating our lives each day, ideally practicing the details that make us kinder, more compassionate, and ultimately, more whole.
I’ve lived with Bach’s Goldberg Variations for a long time now. More than half my lifetime in fact. I would pull them out periodically, feeling that I was revisiting an old friend, but a friend who always has something new to share. I began thinking about Bach and mindfulness last year in a way that meant something to me. Each variation became linked in my mind with a word and that word became something like the “intention” that yoga students are sometimes asked to set for their practice. A word to mediate on and to help draw more from within. For the next 32 weeks I will post one of the variations and write about the word I associated with the music. Sometimes a connection will seem obvious, but more often it will be unexplainable. It became apparent as I worked on this project that I thought about things which I wanted to cultivate in myself, ways of being in the world that were positive. All of the recordings are to be made in my living room, playing the 9 foot Steinway that was given to me on January 5, 2016.