When Art Becomes...

Every once in a while, I am reminded of a lesson I learned in graduate school. Not from a professor or guest lecturer, and certainly not from my own work, but from my randomly chosen roommate that I continued to room with for the entire three years of grad school.

My roommate Susan was getting her graduate degree in tuba performance. She was a bit taller than me, and skinny, so definitely not your typical tuba playing type. Susan was a fantastic musician, and knew very early on in her performance career that she didn't want to be a sellout. In fact, she never wanted anyone to pay her for her music - she just wanted to make music because she believed in the art behind in.

During her last semester, Susan did the usual juried music performance - some kind of duet with a piano that was part of her graduation requirements. A few nights later, she did a very different kind of performance that became one of the turning points in how I understand the concept of creation deep within my soul. All year, Susan had been working on making recordings and editing tracks for this project. She wouldn't actually play during the show, only a recording of what she had edited together would be playing. We had talked a little bit about the concept and the general theme she was trying to create, and I knew she was working with some of the dance theater technicians and had hired a dancer to help visualize and bring to life this totally new piece of music that she was creating.

The night of the performance, we walked into the theater, and instead of sitting in the seats, we were directed to a circle of chairs on the stage. Not many, maybe as few as 30 chairs were available. Each chair was just far enough away from the chair next to it that you felt quite alone and isolated sitting in your chair in this group of people. The house lights dimmed, and we sat in darkness for a few minutes. More minutes than most of us are used to sitting still in the dark, waiting for something to happen. Then, without really realizing that anything was happening, there were the sounds of wind, and perhaps a chime every now and then. Next, your eyes could start to make out a form on the floor in the center of the circle - not moving, barely breathing. The dancer, over the course of about twenty minutes, stood up from her mostly prone position, and maybe went back down to the floor, but she was moving every second of that time. So very very slowly, that it almost didn't register, until you realized "Oh, her foot wasn't there before!". The recording that Susan had edited together was composed of sounds only created in our apartment - she made the wind noises blowing across the tops of empty beer bottles, used the chimes we hung on the front door as distant musical tones, and recorded long, low notes from her tuba. Nothing recorded was particularly remarkable on its own, but in combination, and with the careful considerations of the slow movement, the distance in between the audience members, and the intensity with which the entire project came together - I was absolutely blown away.

The entire experience for me was very defining - we had discussed that the idea of the project was that it was the way that art worked. It begins as an idea in one person's head - you think about it and muse on it, and one day, you essentially birth the idea of what was in your head and somehow create this thing. And then - then you share it with other people. Maybe you share it with them in a presentational way, or maybe this is just the beginning of a collaboration, but either way, as soon as the idea, the concept or image is out of you, it has taken on a different form. In one sense, it is the idea you created, but just by being viewed or heard by someone else the art becomes something else entirely. It's no longer your art - it's our art. It belongs to all of us. And then if you're lucky, it comes back to you. Different. Changed. Yours. And ours.

Susan's showing struck all of these notes so strongly because not only was it a perfect embodiment of her concept, it also absolutely was the concept. The recording that she made will never go back to just being something that belongs to her. Now it belongs to me, and the other 29 people in that room, and now it belongs to you as well. You may have had nothing to do with the project; you probably even think that I'm full of it for thinking that this amateur experience was enlightening, but either way, it's a part of you, too.

Sometimes, when we give our art away, it comes back and isn't what we hoped it would be. We see or hear or feel choices that we made in the past that we wouldn't make now, and will make different choices in the future. Every time we create something, if we've done it well, we give it a little piece of our love. When that bit comes back and we find it ugly and strange, it's hard to accept it again. But what choice do we have? There is always more to learn and create, whether it's smart or it's crap. And you'll never know the difference if you don't share those little bits of love with the rest of the world.