I think of myself as an artist. Primarily a musician and specifically a guitarist, but an appreciator and occassional dabbler in other expressions as well. In a sense, the label “artist” is exactly like that of “carpenter” or “engineer” or “pilot”. It suggests some specific skills and an intention or an area of focus for those skills to the attainment of some end. An artist is someone who creates art, just like a farmer farms, a trucker trucks, and an athlete performs athletic feats. The label points towards a product or a result.
I used to be a composer. I’ve written and recorded quite a lot of original music, but not very much in recent years. I still write occasionally, but would very much like to be more of a composer than I am. For me, this requires a particular discipline and a generous inventory of creative tools to do so effectively. To write the music I really want to make these days will take some time and effort. I will need to rebuild the studio, which is to the composer what the dungeon-laboratory is to the alchemist.
In recent years most of my artistic product is, well, vaporous, really. I mostly play other people’s songs, sometimes in new interpretive ways, other times not so much. This is not a bad thing at all, and can be very satisfying. It is richly rewarding to play every week in a worship ensemble at church, helping to lead a congregation into the Lord’s presence. It is a privilege that I deeply appreciate. But it is a specific kind of satisfaction. Being an artist-player is different than being a composer. A note is played, it sings, does what it is supposed to do and then it is gone…in very short order, the best song is a memory at best, fading fast. On a good day the residue that is left behind is a deep and warm satisfaction, a sense of fulfillment, peace, purpose, and often joy. Sometimes transcendental things happen and I see things and hear things in new, fresh ways. My soul can feed off of a good session for several days.
It is not always like that, though. Sometimes it is a struggle, a knotty problem to be solved, an experience to be endured, joyless and draining. Sometimes music is not art at all, it's beauty sabotaged and mocked as it is reduced to something functional and banal. It is a wasting of the gift. But even those sessions where there is no inspiration, when I feel like nothing I play has merit, it is still better than not playing at all. A bad day playing guitar is still better than a good day doing almost anything else.
When I was in college, my roommate, Mark Hansen and I had a simple motivational credo that kept our heads, hearts, and hands where they needed to be. We used to say that there are only three states of being for a musician…one was practicing, on the way to practicing, or taking a short break from practicing. No other state made any sense at all. That credo acknowledges the truth that art is a journey, not a destination. For it is through the practicing that we find ourselves. And the works of art that we create are landmarks and stepping-stones, trophies perhaps, but most importantly, they are signposts pointing us onward to the next level, the next plateau.
I’d like to find my way back to all of that somehow.