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Ludwig Van
Toronto Montreal

Is disappointment the jet fuel of creativity?

By John Terauds on November 24, 2012

(Ian D. Marsden illustration)

“If I could be on the brink my entire life, that great sense of expectation and excitement without the disappointment, that would be the perfect state.”

John Terauds

John Terauds

John Terauds, Editor-Emeritus of Ludwig van Toronto, is currently a Divinity student at the University of Toronto and a church music director. He joined the Toronto Star in 1988, was the classical music critic from 2005 to 2012, and continues as a freelance critic for the paper. He is the co-author of Roy Thomson Hall: A Portrait, a book written with Toronto Star Colleague, William Littler.
John Terauds

This little bit of interview conversation by Cate Blanchett contains what I think could possibly be the kernel of the whole artistic impulse.

Rather than stay with the literal image of youth vs adulthood, think of the visual artist standing at the blank canvas, ready to bring imagined shapes and colours to life, or of the concert artist striding onstage or into the studio to translate a mental map into a musical narrative.

Nothing beats the mixture of dread and expectation and hope and sweaty-palm excitement to remind the artist of why they are alive.

Afterward comes the post-partem dawning that this or that gesture could have been better or different.

I had a long and wonderful chat this week with an excellent Canadian pianist who I think of as a great life force. He’s a let’s-do-it, isn’t-this-amazing-music, what-the-heck-go-for-it kind of guy. At one point he, like just about every other musician I’ve ever spoken to, said how he doesn’t like listening to his recordings because he hears all the passages he would now play differently.

I stopped him, saying that he has time to review each take and track in the studio before allowing it to go onto the master. He replied that the satisfaction of the recording studio is fleeting.

“I guess you learn to live with perpetual disappointment,” he shrugged.

Fortunately, this is not the sort of disappointment that brings on prescriptions for Prozac. Rather, it is the fuel that propels the artist on to the next project, and illuminates the path toward the next climax of creative anticipation.

It’s strange how artistic endeavor is inextricably bound to the elusiveness of the ideal, of the perfect. This is the creative (and re-creative) person’s equivalent of Zeno’s Paradox (if you cut the distance between point A and point B in half, then halve that, then halve that again, and so on, you never actually reach point B).

No matter how much closer a composer or interpreter gets to the Point B of the ideal, it is never actually within reach.

Conversely, all great artists agree that if one feels that a work or performance is perfect, this is a sure sign that it is time to quit or retire.

Ultimately, the actual impulses to make art are as varied as artists themselves — and many of them are wrapped in some form of compulsion.

I like Leonard Bernstein’s take at an improvised address at the University of Chicago 55 years ago*:

Why does a composer want to say anything anyway? Suppose he does have something to say? Why doesn’t he keep it to himself? That is what is compulsive. This is what makes an artist. I always see an image of an artist with a kind of devil at his back, prodding him with a pitchfork. I very often feel this when I am about to enter the stage to conduct — something pushing you out on the stage, an imp at your back. In fact, it makes you want to go and look at this crazy thing on a podium, and it is a crazy thing. A grown-up man standing on a podium flailing his arms about: nonsense! But something makes me have to do it.

Regrets and all.

+++

Totally unrelated to any of this — except, perhaps as a soundtrack to reading this post — is a wonderful and startling pairing of pieces in a recital given last year by Swiss pianist Cédric Pescia. We hear the 13th Order of harpsichord pieces by François Couperin (all about different colours of dominoes, which is a mystery) followed by Olivier Messiaen’s “Le Courlis cendre” from the seventh collection of his Catalogue d’Oiseaux (Bird Catalogue):

+++

*The Leonard Bernstein passage comes from The Infinite Variety of Music, a collection of his speeches and ruminations.

 John Terauds

 

John Terauds

John Terauds

John Terauds, Editor-Emeritus of Ludwig van Toronto, is currently a Divinity student at the University of Toronto and a church music director. He joined the Toronto Star in 1988, was the classical music critic from 2005 to 2012, and continues as a freelance critic for the paper. He is the co-author of Roy Thomson Hall: A Portrait, a book written with Toronto Star Colleague, William Littler.
John Terauds
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