Creating the appropriate distance

Watercolor landscape painting

I’ve been reading Philip Glass’s Music Without Words over the past month or two and it’s very good. As a very casual classical music fan, it’s very enlightening to learn more about the music composition side of the art, with plenty of that aspect of the book going over my head, but still interesting to glimpse that world nonetheless.

Regardless, there are A LOT of insights into the creative process that are very interesting to think about, and that, along with stories from a life filled with memorable experiences, work, and friendships, make for a good read.

Here is one such insight I recently read, as Glass was describing how he composed music for film:

When I work with Godfrey, I don’t spend a lot of time looking at the image. I look at it once. Maybe twice, but not more than twice. Then I depend on the inaccuracy of my memory to create the appropriate distance between the music and the image. I knew right away that the image and the music could not be on top of each other, because then there would be no room for the spectators to invent a place for themselves.

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A painting I did outside, not looking much and just playing with color.

Depending on the inaccuracy of memory and creating something based on that memory and feeling is essential when making most art I think. You aren’t trying to copy something exactly but communicate a feeling or idea. The following night I was doing a painting outside and noticed that I wasn’t looking too much at the landscape I was painting, just a glance here and then to get a reference. I actually prefer to not look too much and labor over the details unless I’m trying to “practice” my technical skills in, say, figure drawing (where I undoubtedly have a long way to go).

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A drawing done intentionally to practice technical skills. Lots of looking, erasing, looking, erasing, etc.

Here is another excerpt that struck me as strangely complimentary to the necessity of creating distance. Specifically, the importance of being somewhere in-person and experiencing a place and the intangible extra bit that this adds to what might be created after, be it music or painting.

Later, when I was actually making the film score, I added the voices of a children’s choir to the brass and percussion already there, in order to capture the childlike energy and enthusiasm of the miners. To me, they were children, and I wanted to evoke that feeling with the children’s choir in the score. That became a memorable musical moment. Godfrey and I went to all the venues together, whether they were in South America, Africa, or somewhere else. I went because he wanted me to be a part of the work and he urged me to come with him. The reason the music came out the way it did was that I had been there. I could have made it up, but I would have definitely missed something. If I hadn’t seen what it was like, not just on film but actually seen it for myself, I wouldn’t have known to put the children in. I was trying to make a sound track that lived in the muscle and blood of the people who were there.

The best art I do (which isn’t saying much) is when I don’t think about it too much. I would sum up the ideas of both needing to experience a place and then creating necessary distance as good ways to get out out of the way and just let the creating happen.

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