For the one who creates it, the value of composition, as well as the established style of the musician, is to operate with a degree of certainty and finality in the world, to say precisely what you mean to say, and to have your name on something that you have chosen to represent you to others. What you create will not be confused with something else; you yourself will not be confused with someone else. “The new,” modernity, art, and the individual self are inconceivable without the conception that underlies composition. For the individual it is the very difference between being known and being unknown; the unknown might be creative but they have created nothing. All that can be said about them is in the negative, for they are nonbeing in a world of being. They are homeless and propertyless in a world in which everything is owned by someone, and those with the most property of one kind or another have the most being. That some compositions and personalities have more being than others, that all are ranked in a complex order, is an obvious corollary. Because any unknown person is assumed to have the capacity to create a self or body of work aimed at becoming “known,” the judgment of non-being is said to be fully justified, a cause of itself.

Composition begins with the blank page, with as infinite a pool of options as possible, and it is the receptive, wide-ranging free imagination that operates here. I have a file of ideas for essays and I select one to work on and publish; the rest remain in the file, perhaps forever. There is no artwork without narrowing down the options to a precise “one,” editing, improving, and eliminating what doesn’t “work.” You come to a point where you feel certain and complete after a struggle that can be even decades long, as in writing a book. You can always return to the pool when you come to a cul de sac, constantly testing against your satisfaction level, as if the process could halt right at that point. In composition there can be no testing and no imaginative work without a conclusion strong enough to resist modification.

The same is true of the artist-musician, who in studying and listening may be inspired by styles representing others but ultimately forges a style, a “way of being” that is unique. It could reasonably take the player years to complete, and once there and available in public will be the means by which one is valued or disvalued as a musician. As with a composition there will be a before and after, the after will appear as an accomplishment and provide the grounds for assessment by others of one’s work and worth in comparison to others. This is what one’s name will conjure in the minds of others, and the more it is willed by its possessor the more it will attract others to it. It will feel completely natural to the player, but will not be made available to others unless s/he has decided to be judged for being that particular musical personality.

Just as the child is expected to become an adult responsible for his/her actions, so the musician has become the adult who stands or falls on the basis of created acts. For both there is a before and after, a dividing moment when they will be taken seriously. The self-representation of the musician, presented in the words of one’s bio and discography, resists modification as surely as if it were a composition. It can be modified, as a score will be interpreted, but must be fundamentally consistent in reproducing its owner’s identity. Recordings considered significant (a common interview question: “which of your recordings do you like the most?”) would also be included in this category once selected out of the pile of hours of documented playing. To be able to select carefully and presciently, that is, to reject the bulk of one’s playing as unworthy, is the mark of a good musician.

All these are works, and stand as contradictions to the pool of options, for although they can still be tested it will be by others, and the player, composer, person, will defend them against all testing. The painter’s oeuvre, the musician’s style, the individual’s persona are the most fundamental belief of people who depend on them to get through life. Here I stand; however you might judge me, I can do no other.

Art itself is the before and after of composition, the process and the result taken together, inseparable. This conception of art is so indisputable that to think of it differently, as lacking either creative process or result, would be to identify art as something that is not art at all. Especially in the postwar period people shifted the stress from “the work,” seen then as the traditional view of art, to process, believing that spontaneity and “creativity” are liberating, indeed the ground of liberal society. Yet if there were no result to be judged and valued there would be no art, any more than if one were to consider a stone to be an artwork, with no human act that perceived it as interesting to the senses. Duchamps “readymade” playfully twisted and modernized the process/result duality but in no way contradicted it.

By these terms actual improvising is childish play and not art, not to be taken seriously, for it is not on the same plane as one would consider art. It is not process since process implies result: it would make equal sense to consider it nothing but process or nothing but result. One can spend decades at it and never think, this is the best, or, I can do better. Without standards of judgment and a thing to judge there is no art. The before and after of the composition is lacking, for although one practices and experiments before a performance, that performance is merely a continuation of experimentation. It is a testing with no results other than what happens.

A composition, a musical personality, a significant recording, an impressive bio: these are attempts to deal with the problem of death. It is the way of civilization, as satirized in Shelley’s famous poem: “My name is Ozymandius, King of Kings, Look on my Works, ye Mighty, and despair!” Here is something with my name on it, something I’ve bought and paid for with my life of struggle against all odds, how I want to be remembered. It is of greater reality than my naked existence, greater than what I entered the world with, than the innocence of my childhood. However miniscule this accomplishment, this property, this abstraction, it will survive my physical death. Here is the shred of the infinite still available to secular society without betraying itself.

Playing freely however has nothing to say to death. One cannot escape finitude through playing this most concrete, finite, ephemeral music. It especially attracts players who do not care to have a self that will go out into the world and do the battle of survival for them. When the playing ends it is only for those particular players and for that moment. The playing goes on whether one is present or not, and those who play, to the extent they do not create a musical personality and body of work to represent them, die without a trace. And there is no sadness to this, none whatsoever, for one has lost nothing, and neither has the world.

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