Photo by Larry Rohter/The New York Times
Last month I had the pleasure of catching Gilberto Gil in concert at Carnegie Hall. Now, Carnegie Hall has 2,804 seats. Gilberto Gil, in the August of his career strolls out to a full house and sits on a diamond shaped, raised platform surrounded by a glass of water, his guitar, and a back up guitar. That’s it: no back up singers, no back up vocalists, no lights, no drama. Him and his guitar.
I felt, as I had felt when catching Lorna Simpson’s retrospective at the Whitney, how wonderful it is to be an artist who can devote their life to speaking in her or his own voice. More than the money or the fame (though I’ll take both in varying degrees), the ability to create, to spend a life creating, and then mount those creations to a public that gets it and appreciates it feels like a luxury to me. It is a luxury I want to experience in this lifetime.
Of course the external view of something is never quite like the internal view of something. Walking around dreaming about the day when you can have the whole floor of a museum to fill with whatever kind of art you want to create brings a veil of consciousness to the creative process that wedges between the artist and the art being created either blocking the art from coming to life or forcing a certain tone/approach to the work.
More than thinking about learning to write better or be a better artist, I’ve been meditating on how to get out of my own way. Just today I found my way to up-and-coming vocalist Alice Smith’s myspace page. She was ruminating on soul music and she said, referring to Björk, “the music there told me wow, that’s really her soul there. I thought about her a lot, about the sound of her music… well it isn’t exactly about the sound…. Her music made me contemplate her soul.”
On the one hand, it is about the sound. You have to figure out how to make sounds and how to put them together and how to record them and distribute them, but on the most profound level it isn’t about the sound; it’s about the soul bleeding through the sounds; it’s about putting the sounds in the service of the soul.
I thought about that when I heard the sounds coming out of Gilberto Gil’s throat. If you’ve ever heard Gil sing, then you know he likes to vocalize—his vocalizations are nothing like scatting, they are more like sighs and cries and bird sounds and creative little twists and turns of the voice that aren’t notes, at least not notes anyone would sit around and think of and write on a piece of paper to represent a certain emotion. At the concert I marveled at the sounds, some of them discordant and odd, and how they were just his special and particular way of expressing himself—it was Gilberto Gil’s soul coming out in sound.
So many of us artists come to the page or the canvas or the clay or the studio or the theater needing the art to be something, to do something for us, to be us, to prove that we are viable, fresh, creative, cutting-edge and sustainable. We need it to earn us money so we can come back to the page or the canvas or the clay the next day and the day after.
And yet, that need can start to define us and define our connection with the work.
Gilberto Gil is a prolific songwriter and poet. He has one song whose lyrics I am fascinated by. It’s a song that I couldn’t necessarily explain in words what it means, but the metaphor speaks volumes to me. The song is about a romantic relationship, but I feel like it’s about me and my relationship to art.
The lyrics work around the metaphor of the seed. He tells the woman he’s singing to: “Drão, our love is like a grain/A seed of illusion/It has to die to sprout. Once planted/Our hard seed resuscitates in the soil.”
I’m like an evangelist singing the gospel to my friends, my brilliant talented and tortured friends who are also not writing their novels or taking their pictures or making their shoes. Kill the romance, kill the ego, kill the high visions about what your particular brand of artistic genius will bring to the world. Kill what you think you’re creating about, and then just create. Let that dead seed of art resuscitate and water what sprouts and let it grow.
I have decided I’ve got to write this novel. And because my life is all about survival, I’ll do it like I’m surviving, not like it’s the above-mentioned luxury. I have taken a vow to work on my novel like I do the dishes; like I wash lettuce; like I feed my daughter; like I play computer games before bed (not like I’m fulfilling my destiny; not like I’m being brilliant; not like I’m solving a problem; not like I’m doing what I should). I’m vowing to write like I breathe.
Again, I turn to Gil’s “Drão,” in which he says, “Don’t think of separation/Don’t trouble your heart/True love is vast, it extends infinitely/It’s an immense monolith, it’s our architecture.” Forget that the lyrics actually say “vain,” that “true love is vain.” I prefer “vast.” And instead of thinking of “true love” as vast, I’m thinking of the vastness of art and my ability to produce it. The great wellspring of creativity that is my very architecture, that I do not have to fear it is not compelling enough or brilliant enough. It is what it is, and I need only plant it someplace and let it grow.
The road is anything but easy. Human beings are just so darn creative at creating difficulties, complications, blocks and obstacles. Part of the story we tell ourselves is that it needs to be brilliant when it comes out of us. In insisting on instant perfection we trample on the process, the flowering of our own art. We reason that we must know the end when we begin. We must see the brilliance, it must dazzle and perform. Forget all that madness, Gil’s lyrics sing to me. No, the road is not easy, but the road need not be easy to be true. “Drão” acknowledges the pain, embraces transformation, praises the process, however hurtful it may be, because as Gilberto Gil figures it, “if love is like a grain, then when it dies it is reborn as wheat and when it lives, it dies as bread.”
Be well. Be love(d).
Kiini Ibura Salaam