On Creativity and Originality: Brad Mehldau’s Beethoven

I was researching Brad Mehldau shows on bradmehldau.com and discovered the jazz pianist’s writings on Beethoven and Coltrane.  How fascinating!  In his first installment, Mehldau mentions that scholars categorize an artist’s corpus into periods of artistic development: early, middle, late.  This analytical procedure has advantages and disadvantages, but one problem concerns the evaluative criteria by which periods become discrete contexts–parts separate from the whole–because individual units disrupt an overview of totality.  As a result, we often neglect to figure the continuity of an artist’s development while apprehending continguous parcels of ideas.  Temporal frameworks differentiate periods of creativity.  The late style of Beethoven.  The late Wittgenstein. The later Yeats.  More mature, evenly-tempered, substantial.  Less youthful, inchoate, rebellious.   Typically, the later work flows, evolves, progresses, and breaks free from earlier ways of thinking. Later periods advance or revise–construct or deconstruct–earlier productivity.  In many respects, the critical manipulation of creative work into periods is underhanded violence.

But really, are the early and late periods in Wittgenstein’s life so very different?  How does the late Wittgenstein loop back to concerns in the early works?  Perhaps the “looping back” is a necesary recursive aspect of the creative process–writing, rewriting, re-envisioning.

In commenting on Beethoven’s “looping back,” Mehldau says:

To the extent that we are telling a story about creativity, one great recurring theme will be mortality. Every time that a musician can create, he escapes, momentarily, his mortality. The much-feared drying up of creative juices is a metaphor for one’s demise. The passage of time is central to the narrative here because creativity is not endlessly doled out from above; on the contrary, it is often cruelly finite. Musicians, artists and the like are given gifts along the way – most commonly earlier in their output – but as time passes, the gods are more fickle. Something truly creative must increasingly be coaxed out; it does not flow freely.

The narrative of Beethoven’s creative output, with its exalted third period, has an Odyssean hue. Through ruthless cunning and sheer will, Odysseus vanquishes his foes, and survives to return home as victor. He has completed his circular journey and is once again home, but now he possesses a great amount of knowledge and wisdom that he gained during his adventures.

The ideas no longer flow like they used to.  The artist returns to former themes, searching for new motifs, new twists and turns, and new tonal expressions.  Part of the creative enterprise is a boldness borne of earlier attempts–former failures and successes–and a willingness to take risks. This is the challenge.  It’s hard to risk one’s neck in the process of sticking it out.  Perhaps one is less willing to do it early on in his career.

Tentatively, we can say that looping back to take risks with previous material is the “unoriginal genius,” borrowing Marjorie Perloff’s phrase, of the composing process.  We loop back not to destroy but to rebuild by redoing.  As Mehldau says,

The music is deconstructive, not destructive – he is not doing away with the rules of tonality or turning them outright upside down; he is asking us to look at something that we always see in a different way.

Maybe that’s the pith and pull of categorizing an artist’s works into periods.  In so doing, we participate in the revision process–“always seeing in a different way”–but not necesarily envisioning work that is new and improved.



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