When I was in high school, my father took up a new hobby: woodcarving. He was inspired to do so by the work of Spirit Williams, a woodcarver and artist who lived in Columbus, and whose work is, frankly, wonderful, at least in my memory. One of her more fantastic pieces, Kenya Bush, used to hang in the administration building at the Columbus Zoo, in a public area, and I remember it as a mural of African animals, in high relief. I also remember seeing a work in progress, an in-the-round depiction of the Last Supper.
I was surrounded by creative people as a young person, and but my connection with Spirit was mostly secondhand–my father eventually took regular classes with her, but I spent time talking to him about his work, as I was fascinated with the way he learned to take a plain piece of basswood and use simple hand tools and his eyes (and Spirit’s eyes as well) to shape deeply realistic relief carvings. Through my father, I learned three lessons Spirit that have served me well as a composer (and so the implied fourth lesson, that all artists can learn from other artists, no matter what the medium).
The first: treat your materials with respect. In Spirit’s studio, this meant that you could have a glass of water at the workbench, but it had to be a double-walled plastic cup, to avoid condensation that could drip onto the work. In my work, this means writing always with the eventual human performer in mind.
The second: don’t buy a new tool until you’ve done everything you can do with the tools you already have. In woodcarving, this means don’t spend sums of money on specialized knives and gouges that promise to get you out of a jam when, with patience and ingenuity, the tools you already know how to use will serve you better. Tools are not the answer: creativity and patience are. In composition, this means having a “toolkit” of techniques, devices, and methods at the ready, and knowing when and how to apply each one. To my music, it means not going for the flashy, novel, or merely schematic ideas when something more meaningful might be created through means that are more conservative, and, usually, more accessible, and–I’m out on a limb here–likely more durable in the end. I learned this from the experience of a woman who began carving with a kitchen knife on a shelf pilfered from the closet in her bedroom–she discovered that she was able to make art with these sparse tools and materials, and in the end, it is the art that matters, not the medium or the technology that manipulates it.
The third: sometimes you are being creative, and sometimes you are just “moving wood.” Relief carving begins with a flat surface, and the excess material must be moved away. It takes attention and technique at every phase, but clearing the field around the carving proper is one of the “chores” of the process–crucial, yet not as explicitly creative. In composition, this is the endgame of my process, particularly when I’m composing for band or orchestra and switching from a short score to a full score. In some ways, it’s the least frustrating part–predictable, full of skill as much as art, even somewhat capable of being automated by my notation software (ahh… the time saved over manuscript by the computer; in manuscript, it would be drudgery, but in the digital workspace, it is a romp). The beauty of the “moving wood” phase of the work is that it can be done hodge-podge and higgeldy-piggledy–sessions of a half-hour can be productive, unlike the earlier parts of the process, which require either weeks of carrying ideas around in the mind, or uninterrupted hours in which to pound out the first drafts. I currently have two projects in the “moving wood” phase, and being able to see the light at the end of the tunnel on both is encouraging, and gives me a sense that my time is being well-spent.
So, those are three things I learned from my dad’s woodcarving teacher, Spirit Williams, without ever picking up a knife. Hopefully, they will serve others just as well.