All artists are chasing after perfection, in whatever medium their version of perfection exists. Be it the visual artist, the novelist or poet, or the musician, in the back of their mind they’re hoping that their next creation will be the clear, unobstructed expression of the artistic vision they hold locked deep in their Heart of Hearts. It’s not easy to come by. Somehow, it always seems one more step removed from what you’ve accomplished. We come close, sometimes close enough to experience some of the ecstasy of true perfection; it is this experience that drives us to try harder, spending long lonely hours honing our craft that we may become the vehicle: the open conduit through which our Muse may speak. Perfection, however, is a concept. When you get down to it, although it may start with an idea, in the end art is really about doing (this is something I brought up in the post on improvisation and composition). It is experiential; consequently, conceptual hang-ups only get in the way of the creative process. Strange as it may seem, it has been my experience that only by forgetting about perfection do I come closer to attaining it. Indeed, this is truly art: the intuitive application of craft. Intuition is pure experience. Conception plays only a small part in it; one doesn’t think about what one is going to do intuitively. One just does it. The conduit is open. The vision is clear.
Agnes Martin had some interesting ideas about art and perfection. In Writings/Schriften (Hatje Cantz, 2005), she writes that art is not perfection, it is about perfection. Art is the product of Humanity and, as such, can only be as perfect as people are perfect. She also says that, if you’re serious about making art, you’d better be prepared to spend a lot of time alone working at it. This brings us back to the old Francesco da Milano story about the nature of musical performance, in which he states that there are three things essential to its make up: first, you study technique and learn to play you instrument; second, you practice, refining your technique until you are able to say something with your music. The third is something beyond your control. He called it the “Gift”. It is what separates great art from all the rest. All you can do is work on the first two aspects to the best of your ability, in the hope that you will leave yourself open to receiving the third, the Gift. This brings us back to doing it; art is all about doing it. It takes a lot of doing. The last I heard, Yo Yo Ma still practices six hours a day. I would suspect that, at his level, he’s given up hoping for perfection; he is what he is (which seems to be perfect enough on listening to him). One last eloquent musical voice: Pat Metheny. In his most recent Downbeat interview (Dec.2013) he said he wishes he could play better, write better and be a better musician. This is Pat Metheny we’re talking about: twenty-time Grammy winner, Downbeat Hall of Famer, has made more recordings than any one person could remember, let alone name. What’s implicit in his statement is that he doesn’t say that he wants to be the “best” of these things; he is just working to improve them. Being the best would imply perfection and Mr. Metheny knows better than that. He’s still on the journey. Though he still feels he has a way to go he feels blessed just to be able to travel that road; that he has never reached a stage of “Perfection” and that he never will. And (the best part) wanting to say you have reached it is irrelevant.
While the popular idea of the performance of composed music as an expression of perfection is elusive at best, the concept of the perfect in improvised music is even more ephemeral. It is a constant seeking, testing and exploring; it is a quest for that perfect phrase that is, most amazingly, spontaneously expressed and a pure product of intuitive direction. It is the ultimate expression of Milano’s principles. The improvised performance is probably the most thrilling way of seeking the unattainably perfect in music. Conceptual thought operates on the sidelines while the bulk of the expressive work is accomplished simply in the doing. The very spontaneity of the act raises the level of excitement to ecstatic heights, and it seems that the closer one gets to perfection, the greater the ecstasy. Each new phrase comes as a surprise and serves as an instant jumping off place for the next line. Indeed, while mistakes in performance are perceived as compromising the perfection of a composed work, mistakes in improvised performance can push the music in a new direction and actually contribute to the perfection of the whole. As such they take on new meaning and aren’t necessarily viewed as mistakes, they are considered more like opportunities when approached properly. The proper attitude and reaction are of the utmost importance when responding to a mistake, and will determine what direction an improvisation will take and the degree of success one will have traveling that new road. Considering this, I find a “mistake” may be more constructively viewed, within the context of improvised performance, as a “surprise”. Ultimately, the performer is, in effect, manipulating the concept of what perfection is and spontaneously giving it a new definition to fit the circumstance. He or she may even be manipulating circumstance. It all blends together to produce the ecstasy of the quest; and in the final analysis, though actual perfection may never be attained, the perfect pursuit of perfection may actually be its closest manifestation…which, really, is just plain wonderful.