Wednesday, December 18, 2013

Stripping Away the Extraneous

The composer Arnold Schoenberg once said, “A composer’s most important tool is an eraser. ” I imagine this is true of all art forms. First splash everything out you can imagine and then start to trim and weed, to cut and erase, to strip away every extraneous part that distracts from the essence of the piece, that leads to a side street interesting in itself, but irrelevant to the forward motion of the story or trajectory. It’s sometimes hard to take away what you created so painstakingly, but if everything else you created is clouded with too much or thrown off course or bogged down, then what’s the point? I think Schoenberg was rightly suggesting that the heart of artistry is feeling your way through what’s essential and what’s dispensable, figuring out what notes not to play, what words not to say.

Some people have an innate gift for the well-placed word, the well-timed comment, the perfectly chosen note, the just-right seasoning, but for the rest of us folks, we begin by trying to say everything and if we are lucky, start to trim it down. It’s a typical mistake of the young, flashy jazz player, trying to fill the canvas with every note imaginable while the old ones listen carefully for what notes needs to be played next. Some of it is temperament and some even technique— how could Art Tatum resist his flashy runs and maybe Count Basie’s technique was limited but put to good use?

This is on my mind the night before our 3rd-4th-5th grade play of the epic story The Odyssey. An epic story that doesn’t exactly work as an epic children’s play. And so all our tools were out full force—erasers, delete buttons, scissors, whatever we needed to cut this down to a palatable size. Without taking away too much from the work the kids already put into it. Of course, if they delivered their lines with the full force of their stage voice in an articulated tempo with grand gesture and facial expression like we tell them to, none of this would be a problem. In our regular classes, their oversized voices interrupt our lessons and need to be taken down three notches. When they get on stage and have the opportunity to announce themselves to the world, why, that’s when they choose to whisper. Of course. And so the little darlings deserve the cuts they get!

But honestly, we— my colleagues James, Sofia and I—wrote the scripts and have to take some responsibility for our grand sweeping visions and large appetites. Each of us worked alone with one of the respective grades and thus, each scene in itself seemed like it would be great. It’s when we put them all together that we looked at each other in horror. Two hours and 18 hard-to-hear scenes? And the show is tomorrow? We better get out the eraser big time.

As with art, so with life. And here I speak directly to myself: “Curb your appetite. Choose one, two or three essential things and do them well. Maybe just two. Heck, maybe just one! Tune your ear to the main theme and eliminate the dross. Write shorter blogs. And so…

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