Limitation! A worrisome word. We live in a world of limitations. Which of us has enough time? Enough money? Enough work? Enough leisure? (Enough love? Enough talent?) Limitation seems to hit us at every turn.
Creative people—especially those of us who work in commercial media—are constantly facing limits. Being told what, when and how to create is part of the job. Writers of words and music are up against deadlines, demands, market forces, budgets, bullies, you name it. I began to wonder if there might be anything good to say about this dilemma. Can limitation ever be a positive force? A blessing in disguise?
The truth is, art often thrives on limitation. All creative artists must begin by setting some kind of limits for themselves. Having too many choices and endless possibilities can actually inhibit the creative process. Songwriters, painters, authors, choreographers, begin by choosing a theme, a subject, a pallet of colors, the size of a canvas, a set of materials or movements. All these are essential limitations. A painting doesn't utilize all the colors in the spectrum. A great chef doesn't throw in all the spices on the rack. Ballets are fashioned from a limited number of steps and gestures. The most beautiful buildings are made from very few materials and shapes. The artist's first and fundamental task is to set some limits, eliminating everything but the essentials.
In music, we composers begin with a conspicuous limitation. There are only seven notes in a scale. (Okay, twelve, if you throw in the skinny black ones). Microtonalists can squeeze in a few more tones, but that's it. Chords are similarly finite in our tonal system. And yet, what a marvel of invention has resulted from this limited language. Our rich heritage of classical and popular music is testimony. The Baroque and Classical composers have showered us with masterpieces wrought form a truly modest vocabulary. The harmonic and contrapuntal rules that J. S. Bach imposed on his own music came to be studied as part of "the common practice," and are still taught as the fundamentals of music today. On the folksier side, look at the Blues. Three chords and a hand full of notes, but no one seems to get tired of this music.
In movie music we have even more limitations to put up with. Aside from all the traditional musical constraints, a score is further bound by the restrictions imposed by the film itself. Film music can't just wander off and fulfill it's own agenda. There are timings to be met, precise transitions to be made, moods to be shifted, portentous happenings to be foretold. There are matters of concept, style, tone and period to be considered. On top of this, we have the taste of the director, producer and studio to contend with. A newer limitation derives from the temp track, which often restricts the nature and structure of a score before a composer is even hired. With all this, how does a film composer manage to be so consistently creative? This is truly the miracle of film scoring.
So many limitations, yet so much creativity. Is this a paradox? Could there be a link between limitation and liberation? Can freedom spring form restriction? Can exuberance derive from discipline? Consider the wild soprano sax solos of John Coltraine or the unbridled splatters of Jackson Pollock's paintings. Both of these American geniuses created works known for their freedom and abandon. Yet a closer look reveals something interesting. John Coltraine took a highly disciplined approach to his music. Far from being arbitrary in his choice of notes, Coltraine meticulously perfected his scale and modal passages, practicing day in and day out. His flights of fancy, screams of agony, swirls of chaotic bliss were carefully crafted and limited to fit his aesthetic framework. Similarly, the seemingly chaotic splashes of Jackson Pollock resulted from a highly conscious way of applying paint. His unrefined, random looking results were born of a tight control of colors, patterning and concept that preceded the pouring of the paint.
It seems clear that limitation can be a good thing, especially if it is the artist who sets the limits. Restrictions imposed by an employer, a client or by the state is quite another matter. French philosopher, Albert Camus once said that, "art lives only on the restraint it imposes on itself, and dies of all others." That seems a bit harsh. (Hopefully, this sounds less pessimistic in French). The great Russian composer, Dimitri Shostokovitch was subjected to state imposed limitations throughout his long career under the Soviet system. Yet, even with Stalin as a repressive and often terrorizing force, Shostokovitch managed to be brilliant, powerful, and even original. His late works, like the 14th Symphony, show just how much more original he might have become if left to set his own limitations. Departures from socialist realism were, sadly, chastised and punished in his world.
While considering limitation, what about our own God-given limits? (Me? Limited?) Let's admit that all of us have personal limitations as composers. We know, or should know, what these limitations are. (And we often take great care that others shouldn't find out). For example, some composers flourish with high technology, while others can't read a computer manual without twitching. One composer can write fugues in her sleep but can't improvise to save her live, while another can orchestrate like an alchemist, but can't write a melodic line worth remembering. Some pop/jazz composers feel limited in the classics, and some classical composers wish they had a better sense of chord extension and groove. Some orchestral composers can write wonderful songs, and others can't. Some great songwriters can write wonderful orchestral compositions, and others can't. (Anyone who says they are without personal limitations must have a limited view of themselves!) What we do with our personal limitations is crucial. It can spell the difference between ease and distress in our daily lives.
Lessons on creativity and limitation can be found in many places, especially in ancient texts. The Book of Genesis reveals creation to be a divine act of will, which involves dividing, organizing, defining and somehow limiting the limitless. In Genesis, the dividing of things into opposites would seem to be part of the creative process. This theme is echoed by the early Taoists. Lao Tsu wrote that "opposites give rise to each other. Without 'beautiful,' we wouldn't know what 'ugly' was. We can't define 'good' without knowing 'evil.'" By the same token, creative freedom may only grow out of our grappling with its opposite, limitations. The most liberated and liberating sounds in all of music, whether from Bach, Beethoven, Coltraine, Ravi Shankar, or Bessie Smith, are somehow deeply rooted in their opposites—limitation, restriction and discipline. This can be a heartening thought for all of us, especially when the many limitations of our profession threaten our sanity.
Since limitation is always with us, perhaps the best we can do is learn to live with it. Even better, maybe we can come to embrace limits as blessings. The words of Beethoven's contemporary, Goethe, might bring some comfort when constraints pile up. (What seemed true in 1802 holds up pretty well today).
"In limitations he first shows himself the master. And the law can only bring us freedom." —Johann Wolfgang von Goethe
© Charles Bernstein, 1998 & 2005