Sunflowers, Fastballs, and Rock ‘n Roll

The Art Institute of Chicago once presented an exhibition titled Van Gogh and Gauguin: The Studio of the South (2001-2002) which provided a fascinating look into the lives and paintings of influential artists, Vincent Van Gogh and Paul Gauguin. Van Gogh loved to paint sunflowers, and since we plant sunflowers in our yard every summer—sometimes with help from the squirrels—we were excited for the opportunity to see one of Van Gogh’s most famous works, Vase with Fifteen Sunflowers.

To our surprise there were two versions of Sunflowers on display (Arles, December 1888 and late January 1889). We learned that there are as many as twelve versions of this painting. Van Gogh wrote that he created them all “with the three chrome yellows, yellow ochre and Veronese green and nothing else.” The Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam states that “in this way, he demonstrated that it was possible to create an image with numerous variations of a single colour, without any loss of eloquence.” 

The Studio of the South show resonated with me. Here was a clear example of the importance of repetition (by that I mean practice) in the creation of art. The commonly held notion that creatives are naturally gifted people whose great works are the simple result of a spontaneous release of creative energy, is a myth. While there are the occasional one-hit-wonders and happy accidents, more true art comes from repetition, failure, rejection, study, more repetition, and more failure, than comes from the proverbial bolt of lightning. American painter Jackson Pollock famously said “I don’t use the accident; I deny the accident.” 

“I don’t use the accident; I deny the accident.”
—Jackson Pollock

To me, this was further confirmation of the artistic imperative that drives creatives in every discipline to improve their skills through repetition. Like many artists, Van Gogh was not celebrated during his lifetime, but he still painted every day for the same reason musicians practice, and composers, authors, playwrights, and poets write, because they are driven to do so. 

Art is a lifelong pursuit that offers no guarantees of success, yet creatives continue the chase. One of the most popular music memes that regularly circulates through social media is from renowned Spanish cellist Pablo Casals (1876-1973). There are a number of variations of this quote but essentially Casals is asked why (at his age) a master cellist such as himself continues to practice every day. “Because I think I’m making progress” was his meme-worthy response.

“I think I’m making progress.” —Pablo Casals

Casals used variations of this quote throughout his life, adapting it as he grew older, but there is more to the story. It began in a 1946 New York Times article titled Casals at 70: Great Spanish Cellist Waits for Country’s Liberation. In the article, cellist and Julliard professor, Maurice Eisenberg quoted from a letter Casals had written to him at the end of World War II. 

“Now that the enemy has been forced to leave, I have resumed my practicing and you will be pleased to know that I feel that I am making daily progress.” To Casals, improvement was a daily pursuit that continued throughout his life. It is an important distinction to note that he believed he was making progress rather than trying to achieve perfection or to become famous. He was already famous when he decided to put his career on hold for more than a decade in order to advocate for democracy in his native Spain. To most creatives, attaining perfection or becoming successful is only part of the equation. Success means different things to different people. 

One of the most successful bands in history is The Rolling Stones. But when asked what success meant to him, drummer Charlie Watts—who passed away on August 24, 2021, at the age of 80—said that “success meant being good enough that you would get to play every night.”

“…to me, success meant being good enough that you would get to play every night.” —Charlie Watts

For more than 60 years, Charlie and the Stones did just that. And by that measure alone, The Rolling Stones were successful, yet Watts believed that they were also still improving. He said “I think The Rolling Stones have gotten a lot better. An awful lot better. A lot of people don’t, but I think they have, and to me that’s gratifying.”

And what about achieving perfection? Measurable improvement over time is a healthy and sustainable approach to making art, but true creatives also know that becoming obsessed with perfection can lead to self-doubt and paralyzing fear. If the only measure of success is perfection, then why bother at all if it is unattainable? On the other hand, what would happen if one day an artist does achieve perfection; then what?  

What would a baseball pitcher do after throwing a Perfect Game? In baseball, a perfect game is considered to be a complete game pitched without a runner reaching base. It is one of the rarest feats in baseball and according to Major League Baseball.com there have been only 23 true perfect games since Lee Richmond pitched the first one for the Worcester Ruby Legs on June 12, 1880. 

To celebrate the start of Baseball season, here is a melancholy little re-harm of Take Me Out to the Ballgame which was inspired by a version played by the great pianist Larry Goldings.

For a musician, a perfect performance is even more rare—like Unicorn rare. I don’t think I’ve ever heard a musician (seriously) say that they’ve given a perfect performance. There may have been a few musicians throughout history who have performed flawlessly, but for most, there’s always something that could’ve been played better, performed more expressively, artistically, or effortlessly, and if nothing else, faster!

After throwing a perfect game, or even a no-hitter (a subset of the perfect game in which a pitcher allows no hits but batters still reach base), every pitcher knows that the next day they might just as easily give up ten homeruns (or more likely get benched after two). Regardless, they return to the ballpark the next day to try to do it again; to see some improvement­­; to paint another sunflower. 

For a true creative, the journey is more important than the destination. Satisfaction is more valued than success, and the ability to stir the emotions of others is far more meaningful than achieving perfection. Such dichotomies make it easy to lose sight of why we make art in the first place. For me, being a musician means making someone’s life a little brighter and their burdens a little lighter with music and laughter. Many artists throughout history have shared that same mission.

After completing perhaps his most significant work, Die Schöpfung (The Creation), Joseph Haydn wrote “[a] secret voice whispered to me: There are in this world so few happy and contented people; sorrow and grief follow them everywhere; perhaps your labor will become a source where the man bowed down by care or burdened by business matters will find peace and rest.”

“Perhaps your labor will become a source where the man bowed down by care or burdened by business matters will find peace and rest.” —Joseph Haydn

So, I continue to practice, compose, and perform daily because, like Casals and Watts, I believe that I’m making progress too. And like Van Gogh and Haydn, I plan to keep painting sunflowers and attempting to lighten the load of others for as long as I can—in hope of somehow lifting up those who are bowed down by care and burden. Of course, pitching a perfect game, like Lee Richmond, would be cool too but I’m not holding my breath.

Listening:

Not painting sunflowers, but playing music about sunflowers with the Britain Moore Duo


Citations:

Contributors. “Sunflowers.” Vangoghmuseum.ni. https://www.vangoghmuseum.nl/en/collection/s0031V1962
(Accessed February 20, 2022)

Art Institute of Chicago, “The Studio of the South: Van Gogh and Gauguin.” Chicago. September 2001-January 2002. https://www.artic.edu/exhibitions/2835/van-gogh-and-gauguin-the-studio-of-the-south

Thanks to the Quote Investigator for providing insight on the Casals quote.
https://quoteinvestigator.com

Eisenberg, Maurice. “Casals at 70: Great Spanish Cellist Waits for Country’s Liberation.” New York Times. Arts and Leisure, Page 45, Column 8, New York. December 29, 1946

Contributors. “Perfect Games in Baseball History.” Major League Baseball. com. https://www.mlb.com/team/photos/perfect-games.
(Accessed February 20, 2022)

Mangum, John. “Joseph Haydn: Die Schöpfung (The Creation).” Los Angeles Philharmonic Program Note, Gustavo Dudamel, conductor, https://www.laphil.com/musicdb/pieces/1543/die-schopfung-the-creation.
(Accessed September 18, 2021)

Come Sunday: Labels, Critics, and Narrow Bandwidths

Edward Kennedy “Duke” Ellington (1899-1974) is one of the best known names in jazz of the 20th Century, but he didn’t particularly like being called a jazz musician. Professor C. Michael Hawn, University Distinguished Professor Emeritus of Church Music of the SMU Perkins School of Theology, writes that Ellington “resisted the designation of ‘jazz’ as too narrow for his compositions and preferred that his works be known just as ‘music.’”

Many musicians take issue with musical categories, particularly those surrounding the word jazz. While speaking to a meeting of  the Society for Neuroscience in a session titled “Dialogues between Neuroscience and Society,” guitarist and master musician Pat Metheny noted that “basically, my job description is professional improvisor, and while the word ‘jazz’ has some utility as a kind of shorthand to invoke a certain broad cultural tradition—within the community of musicians that I am lucky to be a part of, we’re mostly unlikely to use that word as having any singular meaning beyond those cultural connotations.”

But consumers seem to prefer labels; they like to put music into tidy bins that were created years ago at record stores or CD shops, for awards shows, for grant applications, and now on Spotify, YouTube, and other streaming platforms. These categories help consumers quickly locate the music they like and to just as quickly dismiss anything they don’t (or at least think they don’t) want to hear. Heaven-forbid discovering something new by accident. 

Metheny adds that “most people have a very limited bandwidth of what they are willing to consume as music listeners.” And that is perhaps the most unfortunate thing about labels. Metheny continues; “It regularly happens that people are brought to my concerts—most of them against their will, and then they come up afterwards and tell me that they had no idea that this music existed.” Sigh…

I too consider myself an improvising musician, but I am happily not attached to any musical genre, which is what makes collaborations with other likewise unaffiliated musicians so much fun. For many years, I have improvised with Swedish mallet artist, Anders Åstrand. We have a special bond because we both trade in classical, contemporary, popular, folk, and jazz influenced currencies, and we enjoy collecting and trading them with each other. When we are improvising, we can be inspired by classical music one minute then channeling jazz the next. Minimal, comical, or just plain kooky—nothing is out of bounds.

Any place, anytime; improvising with Anders at the Percussive Arts Society International Convention.

The problem is that most people conflate the words jazz and improvisation. Think of it like this; while jazz music is often improvised, not all improvised music is jazz. [I’ll wait…]

Nothing was out of bounds for Ellington either, which brings us to the composition Come Sunday. In 1942 Ellington and his orchestra were engaged for a Carnegie Hall concert that his manager had set up only a month prior. This caused Ellington to quip; “I don’t need time—I need a deadline!” Ellington met that deadline with an extensive new composition titled Black, Brown, and Beige. Each color represents a period of black history in America using what Ellington described as “tone parallels” for each period. According to JazzStandards.com, “Come Sunday is what is now known as the 32-bar, AABA-form song (which Ellington wrote for alto saxophonist Johnny Hodges), but originally it was part of a 12-minute portion of the first section, ‘Black.’”

And what did the critics think? Well, they hated it. They thought that Ellington had “deserted” jazz in favor of “serious” (meaning classical) music, and on the other side, classical music critics didn’t think Black, Brown, and Beige rose to the level of good “serious” music. 

K. J. McElrath, musicologist for JazzStandards.com writes: “Caught in the cross-fire, Ellington was clearly upset and soon after began to utilize the term ‘beyond category’ for his music rather than using the word jazz. It’s clear in retrospect that neither critical camp understood what Duke was attempting, and he was so disturbed by the turn of events that it would be several years before he would attempt anything similar.”

Such is the result of labels, critics, and those with narrow bandwidths.  

As a song, Come Sunday has been sung, played, and recorded by many artists. This is partly because it is a great tune with a beautiful message. Professor Hawn writes: “Ellington once said, ‘By and large, jazz has always been like the kind of a man you wouldn’t want your daughter to associate with.’ Yet, this master of jazz has a hymn in the United Methodist Hymnal!” 

Ellington was indeed beyond category. He didn’t like labels—musical or otherwise. He once said, “I don’t believe in categories of any kind, and when you speak of problems between blacks and whites in the U.S.A., you are referring to categories again.’”

Come Sunday has now become a standard in the repertoire that beautifully evokes the Black spiritual on both a musical and emotional level. Mahalia Jackson recorded a version with lyrics, and today both instrumental and vocal versions are still popular among diverse audiences.

The words of Come Sunday also provide a measure of hope and assurance during this time of angst, unrest, and evil in the world. Dr. Hawn writes that “the song is ultimately about the providence of God in all our lives. The refrain addresses God directly, ‘Lord, dear Lord above, God Almighty, God of love,’ and then makes a petition, ‘please look down and see my people through.’ The stanzas point to hope and heaven, concluding that ‘With God’s blessing we can make it through eternity.’”

And as we reach the second anniversary of the beginning of the COVID-19 lockdowns, we would do well to take Mr. Ellington’s words to heart. 

Lord, dear Lord above, God almighty
God of love, please look down and see my people through

Lord, dear Lord above, God almighty
God of love, please look down and see my people through

I believe that God put sun and moon up in the sky
I don’t mind the gray skies
‘cause they’re just clouds passing by

Lord, dear Lord above, God almighty
God of love, please look down and see my people through

References:

Hawn, C. Michael. “Come Sunday” reflects Duke Ellington’s faith & sacred jazz tradition. History of Hymns. (Accessed February 27, 2022)
https://www.umcdiscipleship.org/resources/history-of-hymns-come-sunday-reflects

McElrath, K. J. Come Sunday. JazzStandards.com. (Accessed February 27, 2022) https://www.jazzstandards.com/compositions-1/comesunday.htm

Metheny, Pat. Dialogues between Neuroscience and Society. Society for Neuroscience: Music and the Brain with Pat Metheny, 2018. (Accessed February 27, 2022) https://youtu.be/yhAbNv1gJT8 

Listening:

Dan Moore and Peter Grubisich perform Duke Ellington’s Come Sunday
Dan Moore and Anders Åstrand in Patagonia, Argentina
Ben Webster and Oscar Peterson. One of my favorite versions.