Inspiration vs. Influence

April 1st, 2009 Uncategorized

To further my attempt at discussing inspiration (blog entry August 1, 2008), I quote Peter Malone, who writes that “influence and inspiration make an uneasy pair.  Inspiration is the recognition of something perhaps already present in the deepest self, and in any case only knowable intimately.”  By contrast, “influence is a force that may spring from any point in the surrounding cultural environment.  The difference between them is that an artist can choose to respond to influence, while inspiration is felt on too deep a level for discourse.  An artist’s ability to accept or reject influence is often taken as a sign of growth and maturity.  But inspiration is not even perceptible until its transfer is complete.  Inspiration is private, idiosyncratic and easily relates to intuition, sensibility, and those properties we associate with feeling.  Influence on the other hand is public.  It transpires in a shared environment.  It can be located, mapped, imitated, absorbed or discarded.”  Malone sees power in inspiration, weakness in influence.  “Unlike influence, the purely instinctive nature of an artist’s inspiration is often difficult to convey in words.”  He quotes Arthur Koestler: “true creativity often starts where language ends.”

The complexity and mystery of the inward process by which inspiration ultimately manifests itself in a finished externalized work are difficult to unravel. A case in point for Malone is Barnett Newman, who “wrote eloquently of an inspirational visit to ancient Native American burial mounds; yet “finding a visual correlation to burial mounds in Newman’s work is at best a challenge.” (from Inspiration, Influence and Choice: The Education of Ying Li, exhibition brochure March 2009, KCC Gallery/Bklyn/CUNY) 

Sylvano Arieti spoke of true creativity as a “magic synthesis,” an interconnected process involving disciplined and directed thought, deceptively “inactive” outward behaviors, dreams and visions, and sudden illumination.  He noted that the mind itself, once supplied with the crucial stimuli, seemed to work things out on its own.  James Gleich remarked also about the gestation phase of the process as often giving a mistaken impression of indolence or lack of industry.  Stravinsky was concerned about what a composer does in his non-composing time, hoping that it lend itself to the unconscious working out of creative problems, rather than constrict the flow toward solutions (for instance, by having to correct counterpoint assignments!).  Apropos of all this is a passage from a study on sleep apnea, published a while back in Harvard Magazine.  The researcher used as a simile that process which allows the pianist, who finds one day a figure almost impossible to get into the fingers no matter how long he practices it, but after a restorative night’s sleep, wakes up the next day suddenly able to play it with ease.

In Malone’s essay on Ying Li, one discovers that the experience of an almost insignificant image can trigger a dynamic response on canvas and even point the direction for a painter’s stylistic evolution.  The Diabelli Variations are attracting much attention these days as a result of the new Kaufman play.  Over the course of 33 variations,  Diabelli’s trivial waltz theme is ultimately transformed by Beethoven into a monument that rivals Bach’s Goldberg Variations.  (I say ‘ultimately’ because at the outset, Beethoven’s strategy is to summarily obliterate Diabelli’s waltz by making his first variation an aggressive march.  Violent!  Hilarious!  Necessary.  ‘Must reduce example into heap of its parts, then rake through wreckage for salient materials overlooked by author…’ What did Beethoven think of the theme – it was a “cobbler’s patch”?  Further hilarity in the choice of metaphor – an old shoe heel or snippet of sole that finally fell off after dancing too many bad waltzes!  It is only after the vehement repudiation of the ¾ theme accomplished by the march that we are permitted again to utilize triple meter – immediately after the march, we have 7 variations in a row in three; eventually 21 of the variations will assume either simple or compound triple meter.) 

What is it about the theme that offers genuine catalyst?  Maybe the use of the raised tonic pitch in the pickup to bar 5 (Beethoven loves this coloration).  Possibly the melodic motif in the sequential phrase that starts with the pickup to bar 9 (compare this to the opening theme of the last movement of Op. 10, No. 3).  Perhaps the B-flat to A and C to B-natural component of the bass line at that point, not so much as a “B-A-C-H” quotation, but for the chromatic potency it holds for Beethoven.  It becomes the countersubject of the Var. XXXII fugue in a slightly re-ordered – actually retrograde — form (E to F and D to E-flat). And with the transposition, we realize that it is that same four note nugget that the composer develops in the Eroica Symphony and the Eroica Variations, having formulated it in the incidental music for Prometheus from an otherwise negligible contradance he had written even earlier on (so plain is the contradance version that the octave leap in the bass has not yet been made – the B-flats of m. 2 & 3 of the theme remain in the same register). The absence of the pitch E-flat in Diabelli’s theme might also have intrigued Beethoven.  What a miracle that from these minute elements such a complex organism has arisen.  It’s tantamount to creating human beings from clumps of raw earth.  Of course the old proverb reminds us that “great oaks from little acorns grow.” 

How does the inspiration/influence distinction obtain in this Beethoven example?  The ingredients that I identified, which fascinated Beethoven in various contexts, are the acorns, the inspiration.  Among the external forces that fuel or “influence” the project complementary to inspiration are the inferiority of the variation theme and its originator (Diabelli), and the indisputably superior standard set by Bach in his Goldberg Variations. The first impetus arouses dynamic self-assertion, the second invites emulation and offers challenge.

One might suggest that complementarity is required for the creative process to be complete, that successful artistic outcomes depend upon both internal motivators (inspiration) and external motivators (influence), and that both must be present in some combination.  An example of an external motivating factor that in my own mature experience has always served constructively the externalization of inspired forms: the deadline.  Can seem ominous and fateful at first, but almost always turns out to be a blessing…