MEMETERIA by Thomas May

Music & the Arts

Roald Dahl at Work

From an interview with Todd McCormack in 1988 (two years before his death):

When you’re writing, it’s rather like going on a very long walk, across valley and mountains and things, and you get the first view of what you see and you write it down.

Then you walk a bit further, maybe onto the top of a hill, and you see something else. Then you write that and you go on like that, day after day, getting different views of the same landscape really.

The highest mountain on the walk is obviously the end of the book, because it’s got the be the best view of all, when everything comes together and you can look back and see everything you’ve done all ties up. But it’s a very, very long, slow process.

Filed under: creativity

Mahler Composing

In this excerpt from John Adams’s review of Jens Malte Fischer’s Mahler biography, it’s intriguing to see what one great composer zeroes in on when describing the creative process of another:

When [Mahler] composed he did it in a white heat, sketching the outlines of his large symphonic forms in a hasty shorthand scrawl, going as fast as his quicksilver mental powers allowed him, usually during all-too-brief summer “vacations” in picturesque alpine settings. A symphony might be composed in the course of one or two of these summer retreats.

But the painstakingly detailed writing out and preparation of performance materials would occupy him for another two or more years before the work would be publicly performed. He was in every sense what we’d now call a control freak. He insisted on conducting all first performances, often treating early rehearsals as a further composing phase, trying out this and that effect on often hapless and confused orchestra members.

His printed scores are full of admonitions to the performers. Musical ideas are marked with emphatic underlinings, accents, and notational and verbal reminders that seem to shout at or plead with the performer to do exactly as the composer wanted. Mahler, long used to dealing with careless or indifferent musicians, appears to have had little faith in the ability of future generations to get his music right.

What would Mahler have thought about his interpreters today? Which ones would have pleased him most — or displeased him least?

Filed under: creativity, John Adams, Mahler

The Budding Buddhist


Like modern physicists, practitioners of contemporary literary theory of the post-structuralist persuasion trade in ideas that can seem uncannily reminiscent of the ancient insights of Buddhism: ideas like the slippery elusiveness of language, the self/author as an illusion.

But even without the filter of once-fashionable theory, certain artists themselves trigger comparison with aspects of the Buddhist quest. Beethoven’s final piano sonata, the Opus 111, replaces the conventional design with a two-movement dialectic that is frequently likened to a transition from Samsara (the stormy world of struggle of the C minor first movement) to Nirvana (the serene variations of the Arietta). “The farewell of the sonata form,” as Thomas Mann’s character Kretschmar in Doktor Faustus puts it.

According to the writer Pico Iyer, Marcel Proust is another artist who brings Buddhism to mind. Proust “ventures into the farthest reaches of self-investigation and reflection on subjectivity, but brings his understandings back into language and archetypal episodes that anyone can follow.”

The Buddha, as I understand it, ultimately devoted himself to the simple exercise of sitting still and resolving not to get up until he had looked beyond his many delusions and projections to the truth of what he was (or wasn’t) and how to make his peace with that.

A recreation of Proust's cork-lined bedroom (Musée Carnavalet in Paris)

A recreation of Proust’s cork-lined bedroom (Musée Carnavalet in Paris)

Am I the only one who thinks that this sounds very much like someone in a cork-lined room, almost alone for years on end and turning a fierce and uncompromising light on all his experiences and memories so as to see how much of them might be wishful thinking, and what they owe to illusion and the falsifications of the mind? Marcel Proust never formally meditated, so far as I know, and he never officially quit his gilded palace to wander around the world, practicing extremes of austerity and cross-questioning wise men. But if I want to understand the tricks the mind plays upon itself—the ways we substitute our notions of reality for the way things are and need to dismantle the suffering false thoughts can create—I can’t think of a better guide and friend than the author of “À la recherche.”


Proust’s genius, like that of his compatriot Cartier-Bresson (who called himself “an accidental Buddhist”), is to register every detail of the surface and yet never get caught up in the superficial. Here is the rare master who saw that surface was merely the way depth often expressed itself, the trifle in which truth was hidden thanks to mischievous circumstance (or, others would say, the logic of the universe). It takes stamina, bloody-mindedness, concentration, and a fanatic’s devotion to stare the mind down and see how rarely it sees the present, for all the alternative realities it can conjure out of memory or hope. Proust had the sense to belabor us with little theology, academic philosophy or overt epistemology; yet nearly every sentence in his epic work takes us into the complications, the false fronts, the self-betrayals of the heart and mind and so becomes what could almost be called an anatomy of the soul. I’m not sure sitting under a tree in Asia 2,500 years ago would have produced anything different.

Filed under: aesthetics, Beethoven, Buddhism, creativity, Proust, spirituality

Keep On Keeping On

Beethoven: sketches for Fifth Symphony

Beethoven: sketches for the Fifth Symphony

I think I mentioned elsewhere that I’ve started growing tired of “best-of-the-year” lists. Not that I don’t appreciate taking stock of a certain period — I’m actually kind of obsessive about that — but I’ve lately been finding those lists too arbitrary in the way they try to shoe-horn a whole year of experiences into some sort of hierarchy. Anyway, I always end up discovering that excellent things get left out, while trend-think makes undeserving ones crop up to annoy me.

So I won’t give in to this tiresome ritual, with all its problematic meritocracy.* And as the year ends and a new one approaches with its illusion of offering a blank slate, I prefer to focus not on perfection achieved but on the tortuous route toward it. Here are a couple of inspiring examples of the fight against settling for something that’s good but not good enough. Instead of pristine blank slates, let’s consider the crabbed, crossed-out traces of an inner battle to wrest a chaos of ideas into something that will work. It’s the principle of starting with something that’s maybe even unremarkable and then pressing on against the odds to squeeze some sort of beauty or meaning from it. Over and over, facing constant confusion and frustration.

I suppose Beethoven is the most-obvious example of what I’m referring to. To me what’s especially encouraging about the stories of his compulsion to get things right, working them over and over, is that we can see Beethoven sometimes starting out with some really mundane stuff.

In his study of the Missa solemnis (a current preoccupation), Roger Fiske quotes from Beethoven’s first attempts to work out the theme of the Credo: “No one need be surprised that Beethoven’s sketches for the start of the Credo verge on the inept; his preliminary sketches often do. He seems to have needed to write down something which (to us) looks totally unpromising before he could find what he wanted.”

Leonard Bernstein even used the convoluted sketches for the Fifth Symphony to dramatize his point about Beethoven’s aesthetic struggle to write music that somehow seems “inevitable”:

Beethoven’s manuscript [in contrast to the gorgeous, flowing chirography of Stravinsky’s Symphony in Three Movements] looks kike a bloody record of a tremendous inner battle. Before he began to write this wild-looking score, he had for three years been filling notebooks with sketches….And so he tried a third ending, and this one worked…[H]e had to struggle and agonize before he realized so apparently simple a thing: that the trouble with his first ending was not that it was too short, but that it was not short enough. Thus he arrived at the third ending, which is as right as rain….

Imagine a whole lifetime of this struggle, movement after movement, symphony after symphony, sonata after quartet after concerto. Always probing and rejecting in his dedication to perfection, to the principle of inevitability….

[I]t leaves us at the finish with the feeling that something is right in the world, that something checks throughout, something that follows its own laws consistently, something we can trust, that will never let us down.

And there’s the example of William Butler Yeats, as Curtis Bradford (Yeats at Work) shows in his intriguing study of the poet toiling over drafts in his bound notebooks. The final version of “Sailing to Byzantium” encompasses a very small percentage of the lines Yeats wrote down in his first draft. The amazing (in every sense) opening line of “Leda and the Swan” — “A sudden blow: the great wings beating still” — started as “Now can the swooping Godhead have his will” or “The swooping godhead is half hovering still” (Yeats initially wanted to title it “Annunciation”).

Draft of a page from Yeats's "Sailing to Byzantium"

Draft of a page from Yeats’s “Sailing to Byzantium”

“The Choice” (1932)

The intellect of man is forced to choose
perfection of the life, or of the work,
And if it take the second must refuse
A heavenly mansion, raging in the dark.
When all that story’s finished, what’s the news?
In luck or out the toil has left its mark:
That old perplexity an empty purse,
Or the day’s vanity, the night’s remorse.

–William Butler Yeats

Thanks to all for visiting my blog. I wish you all a happy and productive new year and hope you’ll continue to visit and share your thoughts.

*OK, now I’m going to go ahead and cheat and slip in a reference to these as absolutely unforgettable experiences I was privileged to enjoy in 2013: the Adams/Sellars Gospel According to the Other Mary in LA; Lucerne Festival AND Seattle Opera Rings; Morlot conducting Messiaen’s Turangalîla; Diaghilev and the Ballets Russes at the National Gallery; Mark Rylance and the RSC’s Richard III and Twelfth Night; the Richard Diebenkorn retrospective at the de Young Museum; SF Symphony concert of Tom Adès, Mendelssohn, Stravinsky, with Pablo Heras-Casado; Azeotrope Theatre’s Gruesome Playground Injuries (Seattle); Gregory Maqoma’s Exit/Exist; the Met’s Dialogues, Giulio Cesare, The Nose, and Frau; and The Good Person of Szechuan at the Public.

Filed under: Beethoven, creativity, poetry, Yeats

How Do They Do It?

Charles Dickens, by a Boston Daily Advertiser cartoonist (March 1868)

Charles Dickens, by a Boston Daily Advertiser cartoonist (March 1868)

So is genius really “1% inspiration, 99% perspiration,” as Thomas Edison declared (his variation on the “there are no accidents” meme, you might say)?

Mason Currey’s new book, Daily Rituals: How Great Minds Make Time, Find Inspiration, and Get to Work, looks at the varied routines some of the great artists and thinkers have devised to make the most of their moments with the Muses.

Reviewer Christopher Hart points out that the book offers fascinating examples of the many ways creative types “discover for themselves Flaubert’s famous advice that one should live like a bourgeois and put one’s bohemianism into one’s work.”

Thomas Mann evidently loved his kip, rising at 8am, enjoying a good hour’s nap in the afternoon and going to bed around midnight, in a separate bedroom from his wife. Richard Strauss appears to have slept a good ten hours a night. The results of all this bourgeois self-discipline and these early nights are plain: many of those who followed such a regimen were hugely prolific as well as great, from Bach to Balzac to Dickens. F Scott Fitzgerald, I was astonished to learn, sometimes wrote up to eight thousand words a day. This is approaching Barbara Cartland levels, but it didn’t seem to do his prose much harm.

But don’t forget the importance of exercise:

The best inspiration often came while walking. Beethoven always took a pencil and paper with him in the Vienna Woods, and Kierkegaard often came home and started scribbling again still in his hat and coat. Some always wrote standing up – Hemingway and, I think, Virginia Woolf (who is not covered here). Nabokov started standing up, then progressed to sitting and finally lying down. Few seem to have practised any more violent exercise than walking, apart from Byron with his boxing and riding and, rather surprisingly, Joan Miró. The dreamy surrealist was an ardent practitioner of boxing, running and ‘Mediterranean yoga’. He detested going to parties, telling an American journalist, ‘They get on my tits.’

Rosemarie Bodenheimer paints a detailed portrait of Charles Dickens as relentless walker:

Walking was essential, to bring his books into being, and to calm the effects of his intense engagement with his characters. Repeatedly his letters mention extended periods of walking as he worked toward a new project. The activity of walking allowed him to think his way into new fictional worlds, while allaying the increased restlessness that came upon him when he was still in a state of uncertainty.

And pretty soon it will be time again for those New Year’s resolutions…..

Filed under: book recs, creativity, writers

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