Legendary Composer Aaron Copland on the Conditions of Creativity, Emotion vs. Intellect, and the Trap of Public Opinion
“The main thing is to be satisfied with your work yourself. It’s useless to have an audience happy if you are not happy.”
By Maria Popova
In 1970, long before our present barrage of books on creativity, even before Vera John-Steiner’s pioneering investigation of the creative mind and the influential tome The Creativity Question, psychologists Lawrence E. Abt and Stanley Rosner set out to tackle the question of what makes creators create by bridging the sociological and the psychological approach, which previous frameworks of studying creativity had kept separate. With the help of former Life magazine science editor Albert Rosenfeld and noted art critic Clement Greenberg, they identified 23 celebrated figures in the arts and sciences — from choreographer Merce Cunningham to cognitive scientist and linguist Noam Chomsky to astronomer Harlow Shapley — and conducted extensive interviews with them to discern the conditions, motives, and personality traits most conducive to the creative experience. The result was The Creative Experience: Why and How Do We Create? (public library) — an ambitious effort not only to understand the creative mind, but also to expose the false divide between intuition and intellect and to debunk the then-dominant, still-toxic notion that creativity in the arts is the product of hot emotion, while creativity in the sciences that of cool intelligence.
Rosenfeld captures the book’s ethos of integration beautifully:
There do not exist two distinct and separate types of mind, one for the arts and humanities, the other for the sciences… You must possess both intuition and imagination to be creative in the sciences as well as the arts… There is science in all good poetry and vice versa.
Among the most eloquent and interesting interviewees is the influential composer (and the one-time object of Leonard Bernstein’s infatuation) Aaron Copland (November 14, 1900–December 2, 1990), recipient of the prestigious Presidential Medal of Freedom, the National Medal of Arts, and the Pulitzer Prize in composition.
Copland begins by considering the nature of creativity:
It is very difficult to describe the creative experience in such a way that it would cover all cases. One of the essentials is the variety with which one approaches any kind of artistic creation. It doesn’t start in any one particular way and it is not always easy to say what gets you going.
I’ve sometimes made the analogy with eating. Why do you eat? You’re hungry. You are sort of in the mood to eat, and if you are in the mood to eat, the food tastes better; you’re more interested in what you’re eating. The whole experience is more “creative.” It’s the hunger that stimulates you to eat. It’s the same thing in art; except that, in art, the hunger is the need for self-expression.
How does it come about that you feel hungry? You don’t know, you just feel hungry. The juices are working, and suddenly you are aware of the fact that you want a piece of bread and butter. It’s about the same in art. If you pass your life in creating works of art in one field or another, you recognize the “hunger” signs and you are quick to take advantage of them, if they’re accompanied by ideas. Sometimes, you have the hunger and you don’t have any ideas; there’s no bread in the house. It’s as simple as that.
Copland’s concept of creativity is similar to the notion of chance-opportunism common to great scientific minds — the art of being prepared not only to capture great ideas when they occur but to also direct attention to them and shepherd them into a fruitful direction. Copland points to the importance of cultivating the right parameters for this process — something psychologists have since confirmed in examining the ideal environment for creativity — and outlines the conditions most conducive to productivity:
If you were to set up the ideal situation, I’d have to be in my studio, where conditions are conducive to work and where I don’t have any distractions. It’s difficult to write music on the subway train; it can be done, but it’s not usual. If I feel in the mood to write, something starts me off. I might feel sad. I might feel lonely. I might feel elated. I might have gotten a good letter from somebody. Something starts me off.
At first glance, Copland’s experience seems to contradict Tchaikovsky’s famous proclamation that “a self-respecting artist must not fold his hands on the pretext that he is not in the mood.” But the notion of mood, as Copland uses it, seems to be less about awaiting some mythic stroke of inspiration as about being attentive to those essential triggers — the starter-offers — that catalyze the creative process. In fact, he echoes Anaïs Nin’s assertion that emotional excess is the root of creativity, but for him the key to catalyzing the creative process isn’t merely attunement to one’s emotional state — rather, it’s a delicate dialogue between the hotness of emotional excess and the coolness of the intellect:
Whenever you write, you see, nothing will happen unless the creative fantasy is alive. One the other hand, to be alive with creative fantasy suggests, to me, improvising at the piano. But, if you merely improvise, you might never find your improvisation again. And that’s where coolness comes in. You watch yourself being fiery, or sad, or lonely; otherwise you won’t be able to get it down on paper. Writers probably have this same problem of writing fast enough so that they can get it all down while they are under the spell. You can’t be sure how long it will go on. Outside interruption is definitely out. In music, you have to get it down on score paper. Otherwise, you might forget it… If you go on being fiery all the time, by the time you stop being fiery, you will have lost the whole thing.
Copland reflects on his daily routine:
I happen to be a night worker… I don’t know why. Once I read a statement made by Thomas Hardy, in which he said, “Seven-eighths of the intimate letters that are written are written after 10:00 in the evening.” I connected that statement with writing music and working at night, because composing is a kind of intimate letter writing. You are expressing your inward feelings in musical terms.
In a sentiment that legendary songwriter Carole King would come to echo two decades later in her insightful meditation on the interplay between inspiration and perspiration in creative work, Copland returns to this notion of mood:
Musical composition works best when you are in the mood. You can coldly sit down and write anything, but the results will often not be satisfactory either to yourself or to the people who hear it. Nevertheless, it can be induced to a certain extent.
Still, Copland considers emotion not only a far more powerful creative agent than thought but also the primary gateway to self-awareness — an idea quite radical in rationalism’s shadow, which has conditioned us to believe that we think our way into our experience rather than feeling our way into it. Copland writes:
In music, it’s more likely to be an emotion rather than a specific idea or thought that leads to a composition. It’s comparable to a person who starts to sing to himself, though he is not even aware he’s begun to sing. Then, if he suddenly begins to become aware that he’s been singing something with a sad sound to it, he wonders what he’s feeling so sad about.
Music is a language of the emotions. You can practice it either on a very plain and elementary basis, or you can practice it on a highly complex one. But, it generally gives off some sort of generalized emotional feeling.
Staying with the question of feelings, Copland makes a curious remark about the role of depression in creative work — one that resonates with what psychologists have since confirmed about the relationship between creativity and mental illness and one that counters the “tortured genius” myth:
Too much depression will not result in a work of art because a work of art is an affirmative gesture. To compose, you have to feel that you are accomplishing something. If you feel you are accomplishing something, you won’t feel so depressed. You may feel depressed, but it can’t be so depressing that you can’t move. No, I would say that people create in moments when they are elated about expressing their depression!
Creative work, Copland argues, is invariably a self-portrait of the creator’s unique inner life. His description almost exudes an element of fatedness in the relationship between an artist and his or her art:
The kind of emotion that some of my music expresses would be a reflection of the kind of person I am, because I couldn’t have written that kind of music unless I was that kind of person. The fact that I don’t write other kinds of music means that I am not that other kind of person.
More than the mere exorcism of emotion, Copland argues that the magic of music lies in its ability to translate our concrete thoughts and feelings into an enchanting abstract experience, and the degree of fluency in such abstraction is what sets great musical talent apart:
Everyone is supposed to like music, but people who are really musically gifted don’t seem to have the need for having music’s significance made specific. They can think about music and enthuse about it, and that’s all that’s necessary.
One of the reasons why cultivated music is one of the glories of mankind, one of the real achievements of mankind, is that we are dealing in amorphous, highly abstract material without any specific thought content.
This, Copland argues, is largely a matter of education — an education the general public simply does not have, which renders many people incapable of appreciating truly great and visionary music. Perhaps his most poignant point, indeed, has to do with the problem of public opinion and the artist’s eternal struggle not to confuse external approval with self-esteem and not to succumb to the trap of people-pleasing. Copland writes:
Composers, unfortunately, have a serious problem with the present-day public. It’s as if you’re talking a language to them which they don’t fully understand… There is some discouragement in writing in a language that you know in advance can’t be fully understood except by people who have bothered with the language sufficiently to feel at home with it.
But the main thing is to be satisfied with your work yourself. It’s useless to have an audience happy if you are not happy.
Even more than self-gratification, Copland argues, artists’ highest responsibility is to capture the cultural backdrop of their time:
[Today’s artists] are the only ones who can express the spirit of what it means to be alive today.
That’s what makes the creation of art seem important. You’re not just expressing your own individuality. You, as a person, are an exemplar; you are one of the people living now who can put this thing down. In another twenty years … the world experience will be different, so the need becomes very pressing. You have a sense of urgency, of being occupied with something essential and unique. To leave our mark of the present on the future — what could be more natural?
He parlays this into a final meditation on the creative impulse as our most potent ally in our incurable longing for immortality, as well as a central component in art’s therapeutic potentiality:
The arts in general, I think, help to give significance to life. That’s one of their very basic and important functions. The arts soften man’s mortality and make more acceptable the whole life experience. It isn’t that you think your music will last forever, because nobody knows what’s going to last forever. But, you do know, in the history of the arts, that there have been certain works which have symbolized whole periods and the deepest feelings of mankind, and it’s that aspect of artistic creation which draws one on always, and makes it seem so very significant. i don’t think about this when I write my music, of course, but I think about it after the act, and believe it to be the moving force behind the need to be creative in the arts.
The Creative Experience is a wonderfully stimulating read in its entirety. Complement it with another seminal treatise on creativity from the same era, The Act of Creation by Arthur Koestler — who happens to be one of Abt and Rosner’s 23 subjects — and with one of the twentieth century’s first systematic explorations of the creative mind, the 1942 lost gem An Anatomy of Inspiration by Rosamund Harding.
Published September 9, 2014