Review: The Artist’s Way by Julia Cameron

A few years ago I made an acquaintance who turned out to be an illustrator. While this really isn’t anything like being a musician, the two disciplines do share an artistic and creative mindset. Naturally we got to talking about the frustrations that can happen in our fields, and how the uphill climb can feel interminable. He recommended The Artist’s Way by Julia Cameron, and I immediately put it on my Christmas list.

When it arrived under the tree, I started reading it immediately, resisted half the advice, and gave up after chapter 9. It sat for three years while I told myself I’d do it another time. Then I went through a series of disappointments and disruptions that put my life in chaos.

I fell into a grinding depression. It wasn’t the kind where I was on the floor sad; it was more like exhaustion and a short fuse. Minor annoyances could ruin my day. By late August of this year I’d lost patience with my own behavior. I was living in a fog, too, unsure of the next steps in my life, and lacking the energy to do many of them in any case. So I made a deal with myself: do The Artist’s Way, or therapy. Something needed to give. I chose The Artist’s Way.

Artist's Way

The Artist’s Way by Julia Cameron

Julia Cameron addresses her book to those she calls in “artistic recovery”—artists who’ve been somehow wounded by mistreatment or ill fortune, or paralyzed by fear or doubt. That seems like an extreme diagnosis, but the more of the book I did (you don’t read this book, you do it), the more sense it made to me, and the more it seemed to apply to my own life. There are twelve chapters, each of which is designed to guide a week’s work. Each is addressed to recovering a particular aspect of the artistic life—a sense of safety, a sense of abundance, or a sense of strength, to name a few.

Each week has its own specific exercises geared towards the appropriate goals. Some of them have obvious utility, such as listing those who’ve supported your art, or those who haven’t, but others might seem pointless or hokey. Cameron acknowledges this and cautions that the exercises we most want to dismiss are ones we might well need and should think twice about skipping. I did better with this some weeks but not others. I couldn’t bring myself to collect rocks, write and mail a letter to myself, or make a “God jar,” for instance. But now that I’m done with the book, I’m going to visit some of the exercises I let go the first time. It should be added that for every exercise that I couldn’t stand there was at least one I just didn’t have time for. Many of these exercises have unexpected but highly effective ways of arriving at the truth of a matter, or creating action items. My favorites were usually speed-writing lists. These are particularly good at cutting through the b.s. and getting to the heart of a matter, and it often left me asking myself, “Where did that come from?”

The two main cornerstones of the course, however, are the morning pages and the artist’s date.

The person who told me about this book mentioned the morning pages first and foremost and swore by them. In this activity, which is much like journalling, you write three pages of stream-of-consciousness writing each morning for roughly a half hour. This is followed up with a series of affirmations, such as, “I have the right to be an artist.” Hokey, but it works. Believe me. You can’t write something ten times a day for twelve weeks and not address it.

The artist’s date is time you set aside for yourself to replenish the artistic well—maybe taking a long walk, buying a new record and listening to it, or going to an art gallery. I was better with the morning pages than the artist’s date, but I do see the point of it and am getting better at giving myself the playtime I need to experience rejuvenation and inspiration.

The turning point for me came in a cemetery, of all places—the Woodlands Cemetery in Philadelphia, to be exact. I’d been past it many times and always wanted to check it out. It seemed pretty from the outside, but that’s only the tip of the iceberg. As I got lost in between larger-than-life monuments and under trees turning auburn in late September, I felt like I was in a different world.

Grave of Thomas Eakins. Woodlands Cemetery, Philadelphia

The grave of artist Thomas Eakins. Woodlands Cemetery, Philadelphia.

 

Grave Thomas Eakins

The famous artist Thomas Eakins is buried there, but I didn’t know this until I showed up. His grave is hard to find, and it took me several attempts, “cheating” with my phone. I was about to give up when I caught myself looking past the angel statue that I was using as a landmark to find his stone, which lays flat along the ground and cannot be seen from more that a few feet away. I stood over his grave, and my body felt electrified. I’ve always enjoyed visiting the graves of inspiring famous people. There’s nothing but skin and bones and dust there, but it’s as close as I’ll ever get to them, and that’s exciting for me.

I left the cemetery feeling like a different person. The first time I attempted this book, I never did an artist’s date. Blew them off. Now I was convinced of their indispensability.

As I made my way through this book, I noticed my mood lifting. I was a little less tired, a little less irritable, a little more healthy in my decisions. Then some quiet but important changes started happening. There was even some of what Cameron calls “synergy,” that is, when good things that you’re hoping for just happen for no apparent reason at all. The full-blown version of Finale, the composition program I really needed, went on sale for 75% off. The song cycle that gathered dust for four years got the revision it needed. I started studying to become a personal trainer again after a long period of burnout. My composing and musique concrete mixing took off, but with a gentler undertone to my approach than the spartan isolation I enforced on myself before. I restarted this blog.

Then I did the unthinkable for anyone of my ilk: I scheduled two mini-vacations. These are not day trips. One is halfway across the country; the other is on the west coast. I have almost never allowed myself such outings.

Maybe all of this is a coincidence, but I doubt it. It seems so illogical and in many ways needlessly circuitous, but it works.

I will admit, however, that I deliberately ignored one piece of Cameron’s advice: fasting from reading. Her point in prescribing this is that many blocked creatives use reading as a distraction. But for me, I use it for ideas and inspiration. I left it aside, and I make no apologies for it. I believe the week I was supposed to avoid reading I was making my way through Pierre Schaeffer’s journals on musique concrete. I made a lot of progress in my work because of that book. That’s a subject for another post some day.

Other exercises Cameron assigns include not only digging up monsters from the past (the teacher that told you not to quit your day job, etc.) or our own limiting beliefs (I’ve never drawn before, how can I start now?), but also doing good things for yourself—activities as simple as enjoying the texture of a favorite fabric, lighting scented candles, or throwing out old, ratty clothes. Caution, though: some of the digging could drudge up some very powerful demons. I think it’s important to learn from these exercises but not indulge the hurt in a counterproductive way. If you need an inoculation against jerks, I recommend the Stoic philosophers.

Cameron has a semi-religious outlook that may be annoying to many, but the book is still profitable if this concept is somehow modified or even shelved, since the focus is on change from the inside out. The type-A reader (of which I am one) may sometimes feel coddled, but patience with the author is the best approach. She’s been teaching this course for years and knows exactly what she’s doing.

This isn’t a book everyone will like but it is a book almost everyone would benefit from. I suspect Cameron would agree, since she repeats several times that everyone is creative and simply needs to learn to tap into that potential. For now, I need to keep it handy on my desk as a continuing guide and reference. I feel ten times better than I did three months ago, but, like I felt when I first talked to my acquaintance about this book, I still have a long way to climb. The difference is that I’m now more likely to enjoy the trip.

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Willie Nelson, Master Cover Artist

Singing other people’s songs is a sensitive art form. I’ve found that the covers I like are the ones that either do a great job of capturing the true spirit of a song, or do the daring thing of making the song something completely different than it was before—arguably a new song. If this second approach is taken, the cover needs to be amazing or it’s a failure, in my opinion.

Willie Nelson recently won a Grammy for his album of George Gershwin songs. I confess it’s the first time in years that I’ve enjoyed listening to Gershwin. But these aren’t the only, and probably not the most popular, covers that Nelson has done. I’ve discovered that he’s able to penetrate to the essence of a song and make its basic point even better than the original writer did. This is no matter of controversy to me. The French organist Olivier Latry plays Messiaen’s music better than Messiaen did, and countless DJ’s have remixed great sound tracks and made them even better.

Two of Willie Nelson’s efforts stand out to me—his covers of Marie by Townes Van Zandt, and Desperadoes Waiting for a Train by Guy Clark. Van Zandt and Clark were close friends, moving into the Nashville area, incidentally, just as Nelson was moving back to Austin in the mid 1970’s. But they all knew each other’s work. Nelson and Merle Haggard made Townes Van Zandt’s Pancho and Lefty famous in 1983 with their cover of it on the record by the same title.

It may seem unusual that Willie would do a Townes song better than Townes did, given the latter’s guitar picking capabilities, but Willie can hold his own, and if Townes’ picking is better than Willie’s, the latter’s singing is certainly stronger. To me, the ingredient that makes Willie’s version of Marie better is his more accurate execution of the mood of the music. The song is about a jobless hobo, who narrates the song, entangled in bureaucracy at the unemployment office who becomes homeless when he meets a girl named Marie and has to move out of the mission where he’s staying to live under a bridge with this new girl. Marie develops the suspicion that she’s pregnant and thinks it’s a little boy. “I hope he don’t end up like me,” the narrator laments. But shortly after that, she dies in her sleep, and the protagonist hops on a train and heads south.

Townes was a master songwriter and an amazing performer when he was on, but sometimes his performances could be languid, as is the case with Marie. His tempo lags, and his delivery is almost as overwrought as an opera singer’s. His mood is all sadness, void of the indignation the narrator of this story undoubtedly feels.

Willie’s version, on the other hand, conveys the angst proper to this tale. Even his guitar snarls angrily in the background. He picks up the tempo, and his delivery has a matter-of-factness that sears the soul. One thing that helps is sheer genetics: Townes has a mellifluous baritone voice, but Willie’s is dry and reedy. It reminds me of a bassoon, or, more accurately, its predecessor, the Renaissance instrument known as a dulzian. It fits the mood of this song perfectly.

Willie’s other master cover is of Guy Clark’s song Desperadoes Waiting for a Train. Guy Clark, like Townes, has unmistakeable characteristics and an instantly identifiable half-spoken, half-sung delivery, and there’s no mimicking him. Any attempt to do so would fall short, much as many such attempts to emulate Lou Reed have been wanting. So Willie didn’t try to emulate him in this cover, which is part of the Guy Clark tribute album This One’s for Him, produced by his biographer Tamara Saviano.

The song is about Clark’s step-grandfather, Jack Prigg, an oil-driller who’d lived and worked all over the world, and, by the time Clark knew him, lived in his grandmother’s hotel in West Texas. The song describes Prigg’s mentorship of Clark, giving him money for the girls, teaching how to drive when Prigg was too drunk to get home, taking him around to see his friends. The song goes on to describe Prigg’s old age and death, and Clark’s visit to him the day before he died. As Prigg is about to die, Clark sings, “Come on, Jack, that son of a bitch is comin’.” This is beautiful. It reminds me of a friend of mine who was a train enthusiast who’s wife told him on his deathbed that the next time he hears a train he should feel free to get on it and take it for a ride, and shortly thereafter, he died. It’s this moment in Willie’s cover that’s exciting and makes his thicker instrumentation advantageous. Just as the train is coming, the whole band cranks it, and gives the song a climax that Clark’s version does not have.

I wouldn’t go so far as to say that Nelson’s version is better than Clark’s, but it gives a whole new appeal to the song, and that is a display of his mastery. Of course, there’s a thrill in hearing the story first hand from Clark, and his quirky delivery gives the song a flair that no one else will ever be able to give it. But Willie’s version gives the song a better sense of direction and climax, and it’s so much more powerful that way. Ironically enough, although Willie’s instrumentation seems thicker, his track seems less produced than Clark’s whose version on his first album, Old No. 1, borders on the overproduced sound that a lot of Nashville-produced records are known for. I prefer listening to Clark’s version on the live record from Austin, in which he performed with fiddler Stuart Duncan and bassist Edgar Meyer.

Finally the story that proves my point: his cover of Gravedigger by Dave Matthews, of all people.

Matthews is an admirer of Nelson’s and was totally stoked to find out that he was going to cover his song. Since then they’ve even performed it together.

He has even changed his own rendition of it in places to emulate Nelson’s version, as he explained in Rolling Stone. What higher praise could there be? The writer of a song makes changes because he thought someone else interpreted it better. This is evidence that Willie Nelson knows how to tackle a song from the inside out and sing it according to what it is. This takes not only genius but also humility, and I’m pretty sure he has both.

This is nowhere near a complete list of the covers Willie Nelson has done. He’s covered Coldplay, Pearl Jam, Bob Dylan, among others. Maybe at work today I’ll get to put my earbuds in and explore some of those too.

Calvin Hampton: An American Genius

Originally published in the Broad St. Review on November 4, 2014.

 

I was improvising at the organ a few weeks ago when I realized I was emulating Calvin Hampton, specifically his composition In Paradisum, which employs an eerie polytonality. This isn’t unusual. I’ve been accused of composing like Hampton before.

“I went to school with Calvin. He was a genius,” one of my teachers told me. “We didn’t even bother to be jealous of him, since he was head and shoulders above everyone else.”

Combining the incompatible

Hampton dared to take musical chances. While the results are uneven, his better compositions deserve a place in the repertoire. One of his greater successes was the establishment of a Fridays at Midnight organ recital series at his church in Gramercy Park during the ’70s and ’80s. His rock band, Sevenfold Gift, gave the earliest of these concerts. Adding to the unconventional approach, he’d use flashing lights with the music and invited audiences to lie down while they listened.

He was not afraid to combine two seemingly incompatible things. Apparently even his concert programming demonstrated this, with stylistic “right turns” that dashed many listeners’ expectations for a chronological program order. Instead of going from Baroque to Classical to Romantic, he paired pieces from disparate styles, using Bach as the centerpiece rather than the opener. In a sense, he was the inventor of the iPod shuffle manner of listening to music.

More than this, Hampton played organ transcriptions and advocated symphonic style organs at a time when such endeavors were considered passé. The mid-20th century saw the rebirth of the putative classical organ and historical performance practice, which are more suited to early music, but he wasn’t afraid to buck this trend. “He could just sit down and play a symphony from the full score. He had that kind of talent,” one friend of mine reports.

Saying what he had to

He was not merely a shock artist, though. Calvin Hampton broke molds because they couldn’t help him say what he had to say. His unique sense of melody, rhythm, and tonality, albeit not as distinct as Messiaen’s, makes his music instantly identifiable as his. Angular, disjunct melodies, sometimes playful, sometimes sweet, were one of his favorite toys, along with offbeat rhythms that grew out of “added” eighth notes — a device that many modern ears, accustomed to monotonous pop music, find annoying. Yet if there were an organist on Earth you’d see playing pop music, it would probably have been Calvin Hampton.

While Hampton was still alive, Erik Routley called him “the greatest living composer of hymn tunes,” and his biographer, Jonathan B. Hall, notes the rock influence on his hymn melodies de Tar and St. Helena. Not everyone loves his music, though. I once attended a concert at which There’s a Wideness in God’s Mercy, using the tune St. Helena, was sung. Although the building was filled with the musically inclined, the audience stumbled through the hymn, to many grumbles. But original minds like Hampton’s are not meant for ordinary audiences, and full acceptance often doesn’t come until the artist is safely dead.

Unfortunately, Calvin Hampton’s demise came all too quickly. He died 30 years ago, an early victim of the AIDS epidemic. In spite of his short life, he left a treasure of music behind him that goes far beyond the confines of organ and church music, one that can truly be called American.

I’m not at all ashamed to be accused of trying to imitate him.

 

Jeffrey Tucker: The Day That O Sacrum is Published

This article originally ran on the New Liturgical Movement on February 14, 2008, and concerns the publication of my motet O Sacrum Convivium by CanticaNova.

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I’ve waited for this day for two years, and every day that has passed, I’ve regretted that the piece about which I’m writing couldn’t be sung and heard in every parish in this country (or world for that matter).

And here it is St. Valentine’s Day. And at last–thank you, blessed forward motion of time–the day has arrived when a wonderful choral work, accessible to all and as gorgeous as the great works of the Renaissance, is finally available to all: O Sacrum Convivium, by Michael Lawrence.

Yes, that Michael Lawrence who writes for the NLM. He is more than an author, organist, choir master, and theologian. He a marvelous and truly gifted composer as well, and this piece is his a prime example. It is modern, ancient, and timeless all at once, and bears all the marks of music that is truly sacred (beautiful, holy, universal). For all the genius of the composer that it bears, it is also an archetype of what new sacred music can be, and increasingly is, thanks to the independent publishers who are working to restore ideals in Catholic liturgy.

Our schola has been so fortunate to have a draft copy of this for two years. It might surprise people who know us but the truth is that out of all the music we sing–and our repertoire is vast–members would choose this piece as their favorite. Of all things, it is new piece.

I’ve wondered why, precisely, it works so well. It is not long, it has a orderly shape, its dynamics are inevitable, and it sets a text that remains somewhat familiar to Catholics. A reason that our schola loves it is that it flatters the ensemble. The voicing is about as perfect as one can imagine. Nothing is strained or awkward. When you sing it you feel like you are part of something rich and beautiful, and every singer feels good about that. There are no moments in the piece that almost fall apart. The piece always works to create a sound that is simple but always pointing heavenward.

I’m also drawn to how this piece demands a kind of timelessness when conducting. Essentially you can take it as slow as you want to. You don’t have to force it this way or that way. You just breath deep, start it, and it moves as if by a hidden hand. I must say, too, that my own ear is drawn to the way he handles the relationship between chords and text: clarity without triviality, innovation without experiment, and always deferential to the highest purpose of art, which is not to please us but to worship God.

Recently we conducted a workshop in another town and we took this piece with us, and tried out it on singers with far less experience. And this is true story: we sight read it before Mass and sang it for communion. Can you imagine? This is with a very inexperienced choir. It was just marvelous. After Mass, everyone wanted to know about this piece, where it came from, how they can hear it again. Though I have no interest in joining the copyright police squads, I didn’t photocopy ours because I knew that CanticaNova was coming out with this soon.

Now, that it is here, I am thrilled to be able to recommend it to all scholas everywhere. It might be that very piece you have been looking for, something that can be sung at nearly all Masses outside of Lent, and something you can put in even at the last minute. So many times we have found ourselves without a piece of music following communion, because the lines were longer than we expected, and we look around at each other wondering what to do. Then the whispers are next: “O Sacrum, O Sacrum,” and the pages of our schola books turn right to Mr. Lawrence’s piece.

It is written in D major for SATB, and the entire motet lasts only a few minutes. It can be sung by the most beginning choir or the most advanced. It is also a great way of showing that sacred music doesn’t have to be 500 years old. Great sacred music is being written today, and Canticanova is a excellent publisher. While you are there, look at other high quality work by Richard Rice and the many other composers who are writing today.

Finally a special congratulations to our dear friend Michael. We look forward to many more such compositions by you, ideally an entire collection for the whole of the liturgical year. In this work you are doing, as a composer of music, you are a servant of the faith. We thank you for helping all of us contribute to beautiful sounds on earth so that our minds and hearts can be drawn to eternity and the true source of all that is beautiful.

Coda: here is page 1 of Michael’s original manuscript, suitable for framing.