The Mom here. . .
My #4 son Sean, Ian’s younger brother, has worked with me for some years now, collaborating on music projects. He’s the best vocal director I ever worked with (as well as the best actor I know), and he can make almost anyone sing better than they know how. We don’t always agree on everything that happens in the process of creating a project, but one thing we definitely agree on: Our least favorite thing to hear from someone who has hired us “It doesn’t have to be THAT good.”
Often it’s said because making it less than THAT good will save a little money, but even worse, it is sometimes when we are doing recordings or songs or performances for kids. Kids, some people figure, really don’t know the difference, and, well, it just doesn’t have to be THAT good.
Arrrrggghhh. How will kids ever know what is good or challenging or exciting or inspiring or thought provoking if they are constantly fed a diet of artistic fast food? I mean, a Big Mac will make you not hungry any more, but is it a) good for you or b) as tasty as a really well cooked, carefully crafted meal? It’s been my personal credo that any piece of work you create should have the same high standard as any other, and the best you can do given your particular set of gifts. Whether I’m writing a string quartet or a 12-bar song for second graders, I can’t do it unless the point is to make it as fine a piece of work as I can.
Here’s the thing: It really does make a difference whether it’s THAT good or not, even when the only one knowing the difference is you yourself, about your own work. And I have to believe that those who are watching or listening know the difference, too, if they are paying attention at all.
Last night we watched a rerun of The West Wing, one of the terrific Sorkin-era episodes. The layers of drama were balanced and focused, and the dialog crackled with intelligence, wit, and even (considering the chemicals in Sorkin’s body at the time) wisdom. Watching the shows post-Sorkin, I find them acceptable, especially in comparison to most of the dreck on TV, but going back to a Sorkin episode makes me realize that I want the current show to be THAT good. Sorkin is a genius, and the merely talented who have taken his place just don’t get there. Anyway, I’ve been thinking. . .
What makes a great creative artist? What makes that artist’s work leap up past the “bar” that has been set for most of us. I think that beyond the talent, which is a given, it’s caring whether the result is THAT good, no matter what the venue, audience, purpose, or set of tribulations.
The incomparable Judi Dench never utters a line that isn’t so much better than everything around her that I wonder people even want to play a scene with her. She can play James Bond’s boss, a really silly part, and convince you that she is utterly authentic. She can create a comic, tragic, or regal figure with perfect ease, and make the witnessing of it a joy and a revelation. She won an Oscar in a part that gave her almost zero screen time, for heaven’s sake. Awesome.
Or Beethoven. When I pack for the desert Island, the one piece of essential music I would take is the second movement of his seventh symphony (written when the poor devil was deaf as a post). With the simplest of means as a backdrop… a heartbeat rhythm of “long – short short” beats that permeate the piece, he builds a simple melodic/harmonic riff into a rhapsodic, and finally passionate outburst that nearly took my skin off the first time I heard it. And it never grows old. It is not merely inspired, but so carefully, masterfully crafted and shaped and built that it amazes and humbles me every time I hear it. Sublime
Sean writes about Arthur Miller in his blog more capably than I possibly could, so I won’t labor it here. Except to say: if ever a play existed on multiple levels, working perfectly whether you were aware of the other implications or not, consider “The Crucible.” Beyond good, beyond well-crafted, enduring beyond the particular allegory Miller intended. Pure brilliance
And Shakespeare, whose work is still with us after all these centuries. Probably because even with the mysteries surrounding the author and the “authentic” versions of the plays, there is enough stuff that survives to make his work timeless and evergreen. The words, the words… beyond music. And just THAT much more eloquent than mere drama needs to be. Orlando complains to Ganymede that he is dying for the love of Rosalind. Wise Ganymede’s reply is not, “You’ll get over it” or “You’ll live” but “Men have died from time to time, and worms have eaten them….but not for love.” Delicious.
Then there’s Michelangelo. His “old Pieta” in the small museum behind the Duomo in Florence, is not his best known sculpture. But working with a flawed block of marble, that required his re-thinking the group of figures when he was part way finished with it, he created a work of such aching melancholy and devotion that to see it is to understand grief, old age, all-encompassing love, grace, and even agony, again on many levels. Worth looking for next time you are in Florence…
Now, Robert Frost was no Michelangelo or Shakespeare or Beethoven, but his stuff is THAT good. Again, on so many levels. Frost’s poetry is evocative and sylish, but the workmanship is admirable. “Stopping by Woods” is in a folded-into-itself form that is easy to miss, because the imagery is so strong. Enjoying the wintry, bleak images, admiring the word-play, and then finding the “AABA BBCB CCDC DD ad ad” form in that poem taught me more about form, shape, color, and symmetry/asymmetry in composition than years of graduate music theory.
Sorry to wax so pedantic, in a venue where my offspring are so constantly amusing, but well, I’ve been thinkin’….
I’m perfectly aware that I will never match Beethoven or any of those other luminous artists. I will be content to know that even though my music and words and images may never leap that genius bar, I will never stop doing my best to make anything I create THAT good.