“You put yourself into some kind of trance to receive certain songs. You know, it’s like setting a trap for a song. It’s like fishing or anything else. You have be real quiet to catch the big ones.” –Tom Waits
Since its inception I have been obsessed with the podcast Meet the Composer on WQXR’s Q2 station. Not just because I love and admire the host Nadia Sirota (our families have been close through multi-generations) and I know some of the show's guests, but mainly because of the way it challenges me. This podcast lays bare the creative process for all to see through the featured composers’ unique eyes and energies, and it entices those of us who are always searching for inspiration.
My MTC obsession makes sense because the older I get the more I crave creative time. To be clear, being creative for me means making stuff. Not just playing, practicing, rehearsing in an artistically satisfying way (although I value that too), but literally making something from scratch. I have never been ok with exclusively following a solid practice routine without other stimulating influences, but these days I can’t function well in the world unless I have time to play and discover inside and outside of my instrumental practice. For me and many other instrumental performers, the act of interpretation and performance preparation can be so all-consuming that we forget to mess around with the materials the composers (and artists of all kinds) are using. We forget that we’re still wide-eyed kids who don’t need permission to make things.
Which is where exploring episodes of Meet the Composer comes in.
Whether introducing us to the deep listening practice of Pauline Oliveros or exploring how Matmos made an entire album using their washing machine, MTC delves into makers’ mindful artistic practices in a way that almost no other resource does. For me, listening to the final installment of MTC’s third season featuring Paul Simon was a particularly enlightening experience. On the one hand, I was eager to hear about Simon’s philosophy: “The more you can remove your ego the more your curiosity can lead you to a place.” On the other, as a life-long fan of Simon’s music I found myself nostalgically noting significant moments of my life punctuated by this or that song (I was first introduced to Simon when my South African cousins brought me a cassette tape of his “Graceland” album on one of their trips to the States in the 80’s). But mostly I was intrigued to hear about how his brain works, about how he is always moving, always making connections and welcoming collaborations. And he, like everyone else, is just a person, but a person who habitually acts upon his curiosity to create art that touches audiences in meaningful ways.
In my own life I’ve been making a practice of following and acting upon what for now I am calling the “tiny voice” (vox minima). This is literally what feels like an early computer graphics-like orb that starts shining as a small point of light and gets more intense as the ideas form alongside it. This gets me out of bed in the morning and catches me off-guard in a conversation. It is bright, constant, and takes my quietly paying attention to activate. Makers of all kinds talk about this inspirational imperative; if they don’t act on it promptly and faithfully, it will go away and find someone else to inhabit. For me it similarly feels like a rare opportunity, a call to action.
In recent months this tiny voice has guided me to have the courage to improvise more often, dream larger in my plans for the future, and follow my maker instincts in general. If I hear a melody or pattern of rhythms, I scribble it down; if a line for a poem comes up, I take notes; if someone else’s work enters my mind, I follow up with an investigation into their output or an email to that person. This is an empowering practice in which every creative impulse turns into purposeful action. (Of course using the word “tiny” to describe creative direction is perhaps a misnomer because creativity is without size and limit. But pinpointing the beginning of the impulse for me is key, and the more I follow my instincts the louder and clearer they become.)
When I hear someone like Paul Simon speak so passionately about collaborating with this or that musician, investigating music and art from all parts of the world, I wonder why we don’t all make time to explore every day. What state of mind do we need to be in to truly listen, to welcome curiosity, to act on our tiny voices? The thrill that comes from discovery not only pushes us into a higher zone of artistry, we also forget that we thought we needed permission to make something new in the first place.
Ready to know
You show me
Where stars are
Your tiny clarion voice