Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Mark Baxter Makes Me Cry; Gustave Flaubert Does Not

I often being my work day, while Microsoft Outlook loads its bucket of e-expectations of me from the outside world, by checking composer John Adams's blog, "Hell Mouth." I read it, not only to prepare myself for the possibility of red exclamation point (!) e-mails from around the industry in cases where he has expressed an opinion, but also because he is one of the few writers of music who also writes a window into his creative process. It's fascinating.

So this morning, I logged on to see a post that begins with a question: "How to write a masterpiece?" He does not presume to know the answer. This is possibly what I find most fascinating about the creative process; it remains a mystery even to those who experience it regularly. It does not matter if you've written giants of repertoire or hit tunes, when it comes to writing your next piece you will always be a beginner. John Adams delves into a lengthy exploration of Gustave Flaubert's writing process, the excruciating and isolating obsession with le mot juste, genius, the necessarily slow gestation period of composition. Toward the end of the post is a caution for young composers, "There’s little to be gained by having a big audience of unsophisticated listeners. The tradeoff entails writing to the lowered expectations of your audience."

Well, I think that depends on what you're hoping to gain.

If you've been hanging around my blog for the past month or so (thank you!), you'll know the impetus behind all of this is to develop my own musical voice. Part of this process has been searching for a vocal coach, and I'm happy to say that I had my first lesson with Mark Baxter this past Sunday. I chose him because, in our very first e-mail interaction, he made me cry.

A timely collision of perspectives and values, this is. With his permission, I'm excerpting his response to my initial inquiry:

What you are seeking to do will not be easy - but not because of some standard applied from a discerning public. It is because you used the word 'audacity' to describe the notion that a stranger would find your thoughts and feelings worthy of attention. All your training suggests you've had it drilled into you that beauty is cultivated. That is true for the fine arts but not for popular culture.

Those who would listen to your songs simply want to know if you feel and think like them. They are unable to articulate their condition so they are attracted to songs, books, movies and plays that best represent their lives. Like you and me, these people are not perfect - so they do not relate to perfection in the arts other than to appreciate the dedication to the work involved. What they want most of all is to know they're not alone in their fears, loves, joys and sorrows.

If you're brave enough to share your stories and observations in a manner that's authentic for you - it would amount to an act of kindness. There's a world full of hungry souls out there unable to make sense of things. If a song of yours touched just one person it would be worth the effort. ... Write those songs.

So in popular culture, does that mean le mot juste is simply le mot authentique? Processes, values, and intentions may vary but in the end I'd say I write what I write because I am what I am and I have to.

Don't we all? Perhaps that's the common ground—the search for authenticity? The mystery?


  1. Wow. What a response.

    As one of said hungry souls ... write, Sarah, write.

  2. Mark's message is meaningful and troubling in its insight.

    I can only echo Moon -- write, Sarah, write.