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Charge!

Thea Musgrave
Thea Musgrave (Bryan Sheffield)

On the homepage today, I have a piece about Thea Musgrave, the Scottish-American composer who recently turned 90. Delightful woman, fabulous interviewee. Something she said reminded me of Paul Johnson — but first, the something she said.

I asked her about ideas: Did they ever dry up, as they did for Copland and, even more dramatically, for Sibelius? (Speaking of “dry,” alcohol almost certainly played a role in the creative infertility of Sibelius.) Musgrave said it had happened to her once in Paris, when she was studying with Nadia Boulanger.

“I said to Boulanger, ‘You know, I haven’t done much this week. It has been very difficult. I seem to have this block.’ She said, ‘Here’s what you do: You go home, and, every single day, you write a complete piece, however short. And here’s the important bit: It does not matter how bad it is.’ And I thought, ‘That’s what’s causing the block.’ You see, you have this critic sitting on your shoulder, and you get an idea and the critic says, ‘Oh, that’s a stupid idea!’ You must show him the door. Lock him out. And get on with your work.”

Do you know about Paul Johnson and the Rhino Principle? I will quote from one of his Forbes-magazine columns, published in 2006:

There’s a certain rule in life that I’ve found worth considering. It particularly applies if you’re confronted by a crisis. I call it the Rhino Principle.

Now, the rhino is not a particularly subtle or clever animal. It’s the last of the antediluvian quadrupeds to carry a great weight of body armor. And by all the rules of progressive design and the process of natural selection the rhino ought to have been eliminated. But it hasn’t been. Why not? Because the rhino is single-minded. When it perceives an object, it makes a decision — to charge. And it puts everything it’s got into that charge. When the charge is over, the object is either flattened or has gone a long way into cover, whereupon the rhino instantly resumes browsing.

Few people think of learning from a rhino. But I have. And when I hear of an author who cannot finish or get started on a book, I send him (or her) a rhino card. I paint a watercolor of a rhinoceros on the front of a postcard — something I do well, as I’ve practiced it a great many times. And in the space next to the address I write: “Stop fussing about that book. Just charge it. Keep on charging it until it is finished. That’s what the rhino does. Put this card over your desk and remember the Rhino Principle.”

Sending a rhino card usually works. Now, the Rhino Principle may not produce the perfect book, but it does produce a book. And once a book is drafted, it can be improved, polished and made satisfactory. But if the Rhino Principle is ignored, there is no book at all.

In the column I have quoted, Johnson spoke of statesmen ancient and modern: men and women who had charged like a rhino at critical moments. “Is President George W. Bush cast from the same mold?” he asked. “I rather think so. I certainly hope so.” If I remember correctly, Bush sent Johnson a note, with a hand-drawn picture of a rhino, saying, “From one rhino to another.”

I’d like to share something else said by Thea Musgrave. First, a little background. In 1958, High Fidelity magazine published a piece by the composer Milton Babbitt under the title “Who Cares If You Listen?” He objected to the title — but it became one of the most famous titles of the 20th century, where the arts are concerned. So, I asked Musgrave, “Do you care if they listen?” I admired her answer. She said, “You write for yourself, and you never know who will be in your audience or what they might desire. You hope that what you feel very strongly about will find someone’s ears. You hope that some people will understand what you’re doing and what you’re after.”

That is true of writers as well, I find, and maybe of people in general. You can’t please everyone (unless you are someone very special indeed). You can’t be approved by everyone. You hope that there are people who are roughly on your same wavelength.

That’s what the late critic Clive Barnes recommended to readers: Find a critic — of art, music, movies, ballet, or whatever — whose wavelength you are on and stick with him.

One more thing, having to do with longevity: Thea Musgrave has just turned 90. Elliott Carter (another Boulanger student) lived to 103. He was a few weeks shy of 104. On the occasion of his hundredth birthday, in 2008, I interviewed him. Leo Ornstein, another American composer, lived to 106 — from 1895 to 2002. David Dubal, the Juilliard scholar, once told me that Ornstein is likely the only human being to have composed music in three different centuries. He must have had musical ideas as a tot. And at the end.

Think of that.

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