Different attitudes to the artist’s mental processes

27th November 2017 | Concerts, Daily Life, Musings | 4 comments

Today I was at a major exhibition, ‘Ages of Wonder – Scottish Art from 1540 to now‘ at the Royal Scottish Academy of Art in Edinburgh (it’s free, and very enjoyable).

As I went round, reading the plaques which explained the artworks, I was struck by how often they referred to ‘the artist’s practice’ and what fed into it … what working methods, new technology, which journeys, what personal travails had influenced particular works.

Taking this theme further, they had re-created an artist’s working studio, brought print-making equipment into the gallery, and shown us a life drawing class with unfinished pictures waiting on easels to be continued (I missed the hours when the artists were actually there). There was a historic video of Joseph Beuys taking a road trip across Scotland, the wobbly view from the car window evidently being considered worthy of record because of what it might reveal about the sights and sounds which impacted on his artistic imagination.

I tried to think whether there was anything quite comparable in my field, but couldn’t. This must be partly because many classical musicians don’t originate the music we play, so our relationship to ‘the work’ is less direct. Nevertheless we do tangle with the pieces we play for long periods before we perform them in public. We are, after all, bringing the music to life. But has anyone shown an interest in what I might have been reading or thinking about when learning this or that piece? Have they wanted to video my practice sessions so that they could produce a time-lapse collage of ‘developing ideas’? Wanted to re-create my practice room with exactly the right volumes of music piled up on the piano, to show what else I was working on at the time, and what brand of coffee was in that mug on the mantelpiece? Alas, no.

It often seems quite random how artforms have such different preoccupations. In the visual arts the artist’s mental processes are of deep significance. In the world of classical music, by contrast, we are taught to shut the door firmly on the studio and ensure that all our preparatory work is swept up and disposed of. Why so different, I wonder?


  1. Rikky Rooksby

    Hello Susan, your comments reminded me of the frustration it is easy to feel if one works in music when one looks at the coverage and presentation lavished on the visual arts and fiction (for the latter, see the author interviews broadcast on Radio on Saturday mornings). The visual arts have the advantage of dealing in material objects and material processes unencumbered by time constraints. People can walk through an art gallery and spend a minute or so taking in the objects / art-works; you can’t do the same thing with a string quartet or a symphony. Harder too, to engage with the traces of musical composition / practice, even if a suitable way can be found to make it tangible.

  2. Mary Cohen

    This is slightly cheating I know! But as a musician who is also a composer and teacher, I do spend part of my working life taking pupils and commissioners on journeys through the process of creating new music.There are trails of ‘versions’ of pieces everywhere – including vast quantities in pupils’ bags. So my working practice is very obvious to everyone whose life it touches in some way. Currently I’m preparing for a concert where we will be performing the piece I wrote to commission several years ago, followed by a new extended version;the commissioner has added some text between movements, which I have set as recitatives. Always the music I write is tailored to fit the players as well as the commission – so that ‘fitting’ is also part of the process.

  3. James

    I was just reading something similar in Edward Lockspeiser’s excellent biography of Debussy where he quoted a similar idea in the form of a letter from Mussorgsky to a correspondent: “Tell me why, when I listen to the conversation of young artists, painters or sculptors, I can follow their thoughts and understand their opinions and aims, and I seldom hear them mention technique, save in certain cases of absolute necessity? On the other hand, when I find myself among musicians I really hear them utter a living idea; one would think they are still at school; they know nothing of anything but technique and shop-talk. Is the art of music so young that it has to be studied in this puerile way?” Maybe we are just different but I also think that it’s deeper than that.

  4. peter

    Your post reminded me of the research James Pritchett undertook before writing his fine book about the music of John Cage: he tried to read every book that Cage had read, in the same order Cage had read them.


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