03 October 2008

Creative Aging

With today being my 26th birthday, this seems as good a time as ever to give some thought to the effects of age, experience, maturity etc. on musical creativity.

Do composers tend to get better with age? Is the opposite true to some extent of performers due to the physical nature of performing? A good many eminent jazz musicians died too young for us to study their examples in these respects, but what about the Dizzy Gillespies, Sonny Rollins, and Herbie Hancocks of the world, who did their best work as relatively young men? What about Joe Henderson and Stan Getz, who sustained an exceptionally high level of performance for decades even as their health declined? John Coltrane's career arc invites comparison with Beethoven's (early, middle and late periods), but how about Charlie Parker's with Schubert's (prolific output before an early death), Duke Ellington's with J.S. Bach's (longevity), or Albert Ayler's with Anton Webern's (small output, enormous influence, premature death)? The musician who makes a single landmark contribution tends to be remembered before the one who sustained a less exalted but perfectly respectable level consistently throughout their career. Still, the legacy of the former can be tainted by the appearance of having peaked too soon, and even more so by the appearance of having "sold out." A few musicians have abandoned creative activities altogether as they grew older, and very few take them up successfully for the first time late in life. Meanwhile, if a prodigy fizzles, is it because their fast progress burned them out faster, or because they were never that great in the first place? People my age will be watching the Eldars and Jay Greenbergs of the world with great curiosity over the coming decades for answers from our own time.

We can learn a little bit from studying past examples, but ultimately, we are all different and probably cannot predict our own trajectories. I often feel as if I would love to regain a certain amount of the naivite of my early creative efforts, if for no other reason than to reintroduce a certain kind of excitement that existed then but often seems to be gone forever now, even when I'm successful. The further one gets from this naivite, the more difficult the task of sustaining and improving one's work becomes; the minefield of both financial and social pressures is not for the faint of heart, and so the music must continue to be its own reward. My suspicion is not that I am becoming more or less creative with age, but that I am learning more as time goes on, which while useful and necessary, always mutes one's initial fascination with the subject matter at hand.

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