Art as a series of choices

I’ve been writing some friends-only posts recently, but here is one link that shouldn’t have been protected: you NEED to check out this ridiculously awesome clip of the 2003 World Air Guitar Champion. Words cannot describe his awesomeness. I’ve watched that clip like five times today and have yet to grow tired of it.

Anyway, so my question today is about creating art and stems from writing music. If you’re writing a song, unless the entire thing just appeared in your head (which for me is a rare occurrence), you’re really faced with a sequence of choices: which way the melody will turn, what chord will come next, how to structure this section of the song, etc. (I don’t know how real composers write music, but this is what I do.)

The problem is that there are so many choices that every time you make a decision, you are cutting off a gigantic chunk of potentially great-sounding music from your song. And unless you plan on writing many songs, each with the same beginning and differing endings, once you’ve made a choice, you can’t go back: this song will represent, in some sense, your best attempt at plowing through this set of choices given some initial conditions.

That is to say, the song you’re writing is the only song you’ll write that sounds like it. So you better make sure that your decisions are really good, or else you might narrowly miss a great song and end up with something only mediocre.

The problem is that I am not so great at making decisions, and the more complicated and involved a song is, the more decisions I have to make, and the more hesitant I become… which means that my favorite songs are ones that I’ll probably never finish (and you’ll never hear).

Instead, if I start out writing a song with the understanding that it’s going to be blah, and I don’t care how it turns out, I’m able to finish it pretty quickly. Sadly, these are the songs that I end up recording. It’s a bit frustrating.

So my question is this. I don’t have much experience with other forms of art. Is the creation of art (painting, etc.) or prose or poetry subject to similar choices (and thus similar frustration)? Or does an artist, say, really know the whole picture before he touches his brush to the canvas? I imagine that writing is similar to composing, since it is similarly linear…

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9 Responses to Art as a series of choices

  1. ccho says:

    Like writing, art and music are processes — some people are just faster than others.

    A composer writing a piece of music may only start with a single phrase, or he may have the entire piece planned out. I usually start a composition with a phrase or two in mind, and expand it as I go. I suppose this is because I don’t have the mental capacity to write out all the voices in their entirety in my head ;) Luckily, there are norms that you can conform to and use as tools to develop (or extend) your composition. The more closely you listen to music, the more you will start to recognize.

    Sometimes making mistakes produces a result that you may be more pleased with than if you had followed your original plan. On the performance end, if you give the music to someone else, they may produce an unexpected interpretation that you may like better than your own. Classical music performed with modern, rather than “period instruments” is the perfect example.

    If you’re worried about losing a chunk of a composition, just include it in your next composition. Most composers recycle their works imho.

    • aj says:

      Hmm, I think we are talking about slightly different things. I definitely reuse or reorder chunks of music, etc. I’m talking about developing a melody, say — you’ve taken it so far, and there are a number of ways to resolve it (even with the confines of the “norms”)… which one do you pick?

      Another way to look at it is as follows: imagine you’ve worked out the chords to a pop song. There are many possible ways to sing a verse over them, all of which will sound baseline decent. However, some are clearly better than others. Do you pick the one that comes to you first, or do you try out several? How far into the (infinite) search space should you go? It depends on how much you trust your intuition, for starters. But I don’t think anyone could say with confidence that he could pick out the best melody on the first go. So there are necessarily tradeoffs involved.

      I totally agree about mistakes, of course. I rely on screwing up to make things sound good :).

      • ccho says:

        It sounded as though you were worried about not achieving the perfect piece of music because you had a great melody or idea that didn’t quite fit in or made the song too long. Instead of including it, you could save it for another composition. Reusing a melody across multiple compositions is common (Shostakovich is the first example that comes to mind).

        Solving figured bass (which is the term for solving for a fixed bass line), there are many combinations (I guess countably infinite if you apply limitations of performance and the instrument, and then finite for ones that are reasonable to perform and sound ok), but many of them break the norms established by Bach and others. If you follow these norms (which probably sounds natural to your ear) and solve it with paper and pencil, you will probably do a lot of erasing to start, but it will become more natural to you. A large number of musicians can do this on the fly (not me), and I think it is particularly advantageous to be a keyboard performer (because they go through so many repetitions of progressions that follow the rules). But often, breaking or finding exceptions to the rules is what makes writing music interesting.

        However, I have learned fixed bass often leads me to some less interesting compositions, so I am more inclined to build the composition on top of a melodic phrase. Maybe that is why I misunderstood the “choices” that you are constantly tormented by.

        Do I have any unmatched parentheses above? ]

        • aj says:

          Interesting… do you still have the time to write music? Are you still playing the viola? Probably a nice break from work…

          • ccho says:

            I still play viola occasionally. I haven’t done any real composing, just brainless arrangements for event performances. I think I’ve entered a music-listening phase rather than music-playing, or it could be just laziness.

  2. ratatosksv says:

    In my experience, from studying a great deal of literature in undergrad, the experience writing both prose and poetry is similar to what you described for writing music. Just a few examples:

    I studied German expressionist author Gottfried Benn’s “novelas” (which were really more like extremely densely packed free-form poetry) for about half of my senior year in college. I got to see some earlier drafts of some of the works, some translations by other authors, and, of course, the works themselves. Because every single sentence was so saturated with imagery, and by looking at drafts of things, you can see that he had to make more difficult decisions in a single paragraph than most pop-lit books today.

    Another, less-direct example is The Waste Land by T.S. Eliot. It’s iconic. But both Ezra Pound and T.S. Eliot struck huge huge portions from an earlier version of the poem. I don’t remember the exact percentage that was cut, but I saw a copy of a couple of pages of Pound’s edits and, on those pages, 75% of the text had been cut (if memory serves).

    Sometimes authors will simply not make decisions at first, but then have to go back and make all the hard decisions later. I’m sure the process depends on an author’s personal style, but I think every artist can fall into a rut, not wanting to make those hard decisions, and then end up with something difficult to salvage.

    Oh, and read anything about Ulysses or Finnegans Wake and you’ll see just how much work (and I’m sure frustration, because even Joyce is human) went into crafting those stories.

    As for painting and other visual arts, there are plenty of examples of earlier versions of works by various artists that can shed light on the decision making processes. Everyone gets frustrated sometimes.

    That said, there definitely is a romantic notion of the artist in American society. Many people don’t have exposure to creative processes growing up (or even later in life) and always hear about how certain artists are “geniuses.” This creates the perception that they just sit down and viola! symphony! (or viola! poem!, etc.) But this may be something that is difficult to escape – the idea goes as far back as “art” in western culture – just look the Muses in Greek mythology.

    I would love to spend my life studying authorship – after all, it’s the real reason that I’m in love with the idea of copyright, although the Constitutional and high-tech aspects of it are also interesting. I just don’t know how to get started.

    • aj says:

      Wow, thanks for the interesting and thoughtful comment.

      Yeah, intuitively writing seems to be the same way. It’s weird that creativity is more a process of choosing than it is a process of creation. It’s as if we’re *too* good at coming up with stuff. Which is cool, I suppose.

  3. ngj says:

    A writing professor told me about “plodders” and “plungers”–the two extremes of writing. In the “plodder” path, the writer meticulously outlines everything and knows how the beginning, middle and end go, how characters will be introduced and developed, and even how much time to spend on pivotal events. After which, there is only the task of writing it out.

    The “plunger” world is something more like you describe for music, starting somewhere, anywhere, and writing what comes to mind. Don’t look back, don’t pause, but just follow, winding people and plot wherever your whimsy decides.

    Some do write on these extremes(he pointed out examples of such writers), but most do a compromise, where you have a general feel of the beginning and end, and what must happen in between. But to make it organic and contiguous, you’ll dive in as well, following the paths that seem right, modifying the plan as you go. Sometimes(and this is rather insidious) you finish your story, only to find that the characters you brought to life would refuse to perform the ending you preordained. Very frustrating.

    I know nothing about composing music, but I’m curious as to why you say when a path is taken, it is irrevocable. In writing, often times you’ll write a draft, then toss it and rewrite it again, with the knowledge imparted from the previous draft. Or you’ll tweak the middle, or even start in the middle. Of course it feels terrible to simply throw away something you spent a lot of time on, but it’s not wasted. I think I’ve actually started from the same beginning and led to many different endings, but each time it’s never exactly the same beginning.

    Anyway. As an aside, what you mention about decisions sounds like the (and I always extrapolate like this) life-decision sort of thing. “How do I know what I want to do with my life?” Except that choices really are irrevocable, and you can’t start over. I don’t know too much of you outside of LJ, but it seems you have a handle on life-decisions, so maybe you can apply whatever philosophy you have towards composing.

    A last word on the subject–I’m not sure who said this, but to become a good writer, you have to write a lot of garbage. Write through all the possibly-wrong paths, instead of being afraid to take them. And then you’ll know what worked and what didn’t. If writing is analogous to composing, then maybe that carries over as well.

    • aj says:

      Interesting! I imagine I am a bit in the middle — I plunge, then plod (retool the parts I’ve plunged ahead with), then plunge, and so on.

      I meant a path is irrevocable not because once you’ve come up with it you’re committed to it, but rather that once you’ve decided to write a song with it, you can’t write a song with the other, similar, paths.

      That is, imagine you’re writing a book with some cast of characters and some plot. It could end in two different ways. You decide to end it in one way, and then publish the book. Now you can’t write an identical book with the alternate ending. (Who would take you seriously?) You’ve essentially made the choice for good.

      “How do I know what I want to do with my life?” Haha, the big secret is that I don’t. I’ve never had to make any big life decisions (and I’d consider myself very, very lucky to have that luxury) so who knows. Not much I could take away from that. Also, I think there’s a difference between making life decisions (that you can evaluate by a number of criteria that make sense) and making creative decisions — it’s really hard to say whether one melody is better than another, for instance, especially if you’ve come up with both and have lost perspective, as often happens.

      I definitely agree about writing garbage. The reason I’m able to finish songs now, perfectionist that I am, is that I basically consider them garbage, as practice and a means to develop (slowly) a better ability to write songs. This may happen with the lyrics too (which are by far the hardest and worst part for me to write), but I’m not as hopeful. I just don’t understand words as intuitively as I understand music.

      Ultimately, maybe a decade from now, I’ll be able to write good songs for my kids. That’s my modest hope, anyway…