Friday, February 10, 2012

Stepping off the page: characters on the muse

Yes it's a little risqué but my protagonist, the young composer Marianne Cotton wasn't content to let her life fold up into the pages of Sleep Before Evening, especially with my new novel Black Cow about to be released. Neither was Alexander Wainwright, the great artist protagonist from my pal Mary Martin's Remembrance Trilogy.  So when our two characters somehow or another met up one fine autumn day and had a chat, Mary and I decided not to fight it.  Here's their interchange.  Who knows, they might just meet up again.

Alexander Wainwright entered Central Park near 66th Street. Ahead of him he could see The Central Park Carousel perfectly still in the late afternoon sun of an autumn weekday.

Seated on a nearby bench was a young girl, music book spread on her knee, staring out into space. Leaning heavily into her book, her concentration seemed solid, a strong contrast to the delicacy of bony shoulders revealed through a filmy top. Thick black hair fell over her face but couldn't conceal the ethereal beauty that held Alexander's gaze.  After a few moments of staring, she looked up and saw him.  
 
Alexander appeared timeless, and his stare natural to Marianne, his artistic appraisal of her and paternal smile reminding her of her now deceased grandfather Erik, a pivotal character in her life. At the very least, she knew this man would be entirely benign. She also sensed he might be wise. Immediately, her thought struck her as odd and yet entirely right. Was it that magical blending of artistic temperament she had always hoped to find in another?

Alexander sat on the bench next to her, though not so close as to cause her discomfort. He saw that she had been composing a symphony of some sort. The notations in her book marched across the page with  authority, although he could see at a glance that she was stuck for inspiration for the next lines. Immediately, he sensed she was intensely dedicated to her art.   
            “You’re a musician?”
            Nodding her head, Marianne leaned towards him, conspiratorially, as if she were confessing something dark. “Of sorts. I'm studying composition at Julliard. And you? You're an artist right?”
            Alexander smiled, “Yes, you recognise me?”
            Laughing and pushing some of her voluminous hair out of her eyes, Marianne said, “No, I'm afraid not. It's the cerulean blue on your fingers.”
            Alexander glanced down at his hands and then smiled slowly at her. “So it is. You know color well. Do you paint as well as compose?” He knew she didn't, even as he asked it. Those long clean fingers didn't belong to a painter, though the artistic touch was evident to him.
            “My mother is a painter. I grew up with paint everywhere. I'd go to take a plate out and there would be paint on it. I'd get a sheet of paper to write on and there'd be a big magenta thumbprint on it. Paint was everywhere.” She laughed. “Painters always leave evidence.”
            “Ah, well I'm Alexander. It's good to meet someone so immersed in the art world – music or painting – there's a similar impetus, don't you think?”
            “Marianne.” She put out a hand and shook his, deliberately aiming for the one with the blue smudge on it. “You're probably right, Alexander. It's all about meaning making of one form or another, I suppose.”
            “The whole notion of the source of creativity; the muse if you will, is one that interests me. I think I’ve spent most of my life searching for her,” he said wistfully.
            She saw that his eyes contained that yearning she thought must be common to all artists of all kinds. Immediately she felt safe in his presence.
“Tell me more about your mother and her artwork. Has she been a big influence on your work?”
            “Yes and no. To a certain extent I deliberately chose not to allow her work to influence me. I moved away from the abstract and visual towards a more analytical and linear medium. Music for me is a little like mathematics – a subject I've always been drawn to. Yes, the outcome is fluid and intuitive, but at its base I feel I'm working with code – though I can hear it; transpose it as I'm working, for me the auditory is a more natural medium than the visual. But that said, she and I, and I suppose this surprised me when I realised it, have been working in parallel striving to say and reach a similar outcome. There's always a struggle though I think, for me and her as well.  The difficult front end of trying to say something you haven't said, that hasn't been said. I'm struggling now with my piece.  It's always at that point that you wonder whether the capability will be able to match the desire.  Do you experience that Alexander?  When did you really accept yourself as an artist? Were you always sure?”
            With  a wry smile, he said, “No, it took a long time and much work. I went to the Slade School of Art in London. I think the life of any artist is extremely challenging. We stumble around in the dark most of the time and, if we’re lucky, we occasionally find something .”
            Marianne nodded her head appreciatively.
            “They can teach you much about technique, but I don’t think they can teach you creativity. That comes from within yourself…nobody else can give it or teach it to you. In fact, most good painters spend their lives chasing after their muse. My whole life I've wondered where inspiration comes from and how to court the muse. Much of the time she can be quite faithless!”
            “Do you listen much to music?”
            “Yes I do— a lot. As you astutely mentioned, all art is expression of what lies inside the creator. My friend Peter Cummings, a very good writer, has often said that he wishes he could structure a novel like a symphony…developing various themes… the rise and fall of passion. Do you think it’s so very different?  Maybe it’s just another language?” Alexander was entranced. He loved to speak with youth. They were so open to ideas and feelings. Not like some artists he knew who were stuck in ruts they had spent their lives digging. Any new thought was seen as a challenge to their hard won authority.
            “No, not really. Not in a formal conscious sense. But something will strike me. It might just be an emotion – a sensation I hold onto for longer than is required in the situation I feel it in. Something that hurts, or excites me, or it might be a sound – a repeated birdsong, a honking car, another song or composition, or even one of my mother's pieces, which goes back to your other question about her influence on me. We sometimes visit galleries together when she comes to see me here – she lives on Long Island where I grew up.”
Marianne winked at him. Surprised, Alexander frowned for just a moment. But he continued to be drawn by the deep intelligence in her voice and luminosity in her face, which he thought he might like to paint one day. 
“How does your music come to you. Do you hear just little bits first. Do you know where it comes from?”
            “These things can often spark something in me, and then I'll start to play with it until something takes form.  But for me, a lot of art comes from some place dark, a point of pain or confusion out of which light can grow.  Do you find that with you work?” 
            Alexander smiled sadly. “Yes…sometimes it’s that way more than others. I think that my images come from a place, I don’t know very much about.” He sighed deeply. “My art comes from deep within. Some places are comfortable, familiar rooms, which I have often visited in dreams and reveries. Others are wonderfully fanciful and enchanting lands. And still others contain the terrifying stuff of nightmares. But all those places have their treasures and must be explored and intimately known if one is to create. Some quality, an essence, within the muse is like a candle flickering in the dark, illuminating everything in those rooms.
            Throughout, Marianne had remained silent, transfixed by the passion with which he delivered his words. When he was done, he suddenly gave an embarrassed shrug.
He asked, “What about you? Do you sometimes forget yourself when you’re creating….go somewhere different?”
            “Yes, not too much at the beginning when it's all work and form and mathematics. But later, when I'm in the 'flow' I will lose myself, and find that I'm gone for a bit.”
            “I’ve heard some musicians say that music is just “in the air” which makes a lot of sense to me You know like the music of the spheres. In my art, I don’t really “hear” it but I do see it as light.”
            “So your work is also motivated by music, just as mine is by art? Or do you think that we pick up on some pre-existing music, art, words, that are already there? And it's our ability to listen and perceive that sets us apart, rather than our ability to create?” 
            Alex drew back from her in surprise. His eyes widened and Marianne could see her grandfather Erik again in the artist.
            “You have the makings of a very fine artist, Marianne. I marvel at such wisdom at your age. But I don’t think it’s just the ability to listen or hear. When an artist goes to his source, wherever it may be, he must do something or make something with the raw materials he or she finds there. That, my dear, is true creativity. At least in my experience.”
            “But Alex, what if you make something from those raw materials and you bring it back to the world…like a gift. And, the world doesn’t want it?”
            Alexander smiled sadly. “My dear, all true artists must deal with that. Just by asking the question, you have proved yourself as a real artist. You see, suppose you create your symphony or a painting and the critics turn up their noses or worse still…tear it to shreds. What do you do then?”
            Lost in thought, Marianne did not answer.
            “You can toss up your hands and say the hell with them and go back to your studio and get to work making what you think they want to see or hear. Then you spend all your time trying to figure out what popular taste happens to be. Why not? Who doesn’t want to be appreciated? But what real artist ever does that? That’s what a hack does. If you’re not true to your muse, she’ll never pay you another visit. Of that you can be sure!”
Marianne sat for long moments considering what Alex had said. At last she said slowly, “I never thought of it quite that way. You mean, a real artist must always follow his own heart…her own muse.”
            Alex nodded enthusiastically. “I think that is true. At least it has been for me.”
Suddenly, Marianne checked her watch. “Oh god, I've got a class in 10 minutes for which I'll be late.
Alex smiled. “You may find your muse in that very class, Marianne.”
Marianne grinned at him. “I did enjoy talking to you very much Mr. Wainwright.”
She winked again, and Alex, smiling, realised that she knew exactly who he was, and had done so all along. This was definitely someone he would be looking to talk to again.
            “Marianne, I’ve have really enjoyed our conversation. Someday, I will be in a concert hall listening to your music. I will be listening to your muse.”
            She smiled a radiant smile as she collected her books and bag. Then she was off to the street past the merry-go-round. She pointed up at the horses frozen in motion. “Someone once called that a Miracle Round. Maybe that’s one place inspiration lies.”
            He waved at her as he watched her hurry from the park. Those, he thought, who did not listen to the wisdom of youth were bound to shrivel up and lose any hope of finding the muse.   

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