Black Swan’s composition lesson Part 2

To recap Part 1 of my reac­tions to the film Black Swan, I posed the ques­tion of:

…how to rec­tify our train­ing with our wild-card pen­chant for cre­ativ­ity? Artists any­where will instantly rec­og­nize the theme of craft rest­ing on the precipice of aban­don, of the intel­lect ver­sus emotion.

A cen­tral prob­lem here is that our edu­ca­tion tends to be built upon teach­ing the craft and the skill. This sug­gests that artistry itself is not teach­able — oth­er­wise, why wouldn’t we just be taught the “art” side of things? Instead, musi­cians are taught their scales, dic­ta­tion the­ory, etc.

That next leap to artistry is a chal­lenge to teach, and this is an inter­est­ing ele­ment of Black Swan. Natalie Portman’s char­ac­ter is repeat­edly admon­ished to let her­self go, to dance with aban­don, to seduce, and to not be so (for lack of a bet­ter word) per­fect. In short, she needs to inject her intel­lec­tual side with some passion.

But what’s so wrong with per­fect? I found myself think­ing of a Beethoven sym­phony — take the slow move­ment of his Sev­enth. There is not a wrong note to be found, it is archi­tec­turally sound, it is superbly crafted from the sim­plest of rhyth­mic motifs. Much the same can be said for almost all of Beethoven’s music. Where exactly is the Dionysian aban­don? If it is there, it’s not some­thing we can exactly pin­point and then teach to another gen­er­a­tion of composers.

So then, what does a teacher say? What does a prac­ti­tioner of art do? Essen­tially, how is this done? Natalie Port­man spends half of the movie flail­ing in an attempt to find an answer and cross that line. We, the audi­ence, watch her crack under this pres­sure. The near­est advice she is given is to go home and touch her­self, a sala­cious sug­ges­tion, but one that has a larger metaphor­i­cal mean­ing, too. Get­ting in touch with your­self is a cru­cial aspect of artistry, and if you think about it, all the very best artists are rep­re­sen­ta­tions of a self-aware indi­vid­ual. It’s per­son­al­ity that is expressed; the craft is only a medium to do so.

But there’s an impor­tant corol­lary. Over the last year I have begun to sense that the very best art is that per­fect blend of intel­lect and emo­tion. The intel­lec­tual struc­ture is needed, or it is all just a mess. But with­out the emo­tional ele­ment, we have only robotic per­fec­tion. There’s a “just-so” bal­ance to be found which touches our hearts and our minds equally.

About Richard D. Russell

This was written by Richard D. Russell, New York City based composer of fine music.