Interpretation vs invention
In classical music there are, generally speaking, artists who solely interpret the works of great musicians of the past and artists who write new, contemporary classical music. The former’s creativity is revealed through the interpretation of existing work, while the latter’s creativity is revealed through the invention of something new.
When we interpret, we limit the elements we have to invent so we can focus our energy on the “quality of its expression”¹. We work with existing building blocks so we can focus on configuring them in a new, exciting way.
When we invent, we are focusing our energy on creating a new set of building blocks altogether. In doing so, we need to make choices on the blocks’ material, color, texture, shape in hopes these new blocks will fit together in a way that makes sense.
We can look at the work we do through these two lenses, and in doing so, we can hopefully avoid the frustrations that come from a) believing one mode is better than the other and b) mistaking the one mode for the other.
Let me explain how this applies to those of us involved in creative output.
Client work is interpretation.
Let’s stick with our music analogy a little longer.
When we work on client projects, the clients supply the score and they hire us to play it through. Clients with bigger budgets and more of a stomach for risk will allow for more novel interpretations of their score, while more conventional clients calls for close fidelity to the notations on the page. All clients, however, provide us with scores and expect us to follow them.
It’s common for creatives to get frustrated because clients do not want our more ‘original’ contributions. We feel jaded because the new, cooler styles we propose get passed over for ‘safer’ options that have been done to death before. We start to feel that our creative potential is being overlooked.
But if we see client work as interpretation, it makes sense that our more novel proposals are not chosen. This is akin to being hired to play some Bach on a fancy evening and then suggesting we add in a few notes of our own invention, if that’s okay. We might be fully convinced that those additions would make the piece way cooler (and we might be right), but it makes more sense for a client to say, Thanks, but stick to the sheet music, than it is for them to say yes. After all, they paid us to play the piece through, not to make new music.
On the other hand—
Personal work is invention.
When we create work for ourselves, to excite our own sensibilities, to feel around the textures of our own imagination, we are writing music. We are writing a new score into existence. We get to set the tempo and make up the notes. We are, in a word, inventing.
Instead of being restricted to working within the structure of somebody else’s score, we are not limited by structures at all and can have free reign over the time we spend, the tools we use and the ideas we express. Whereas creativity in interpretation comes from making moves within an existing structure (“I’ve never seen it done like that before”), creativity in invention comes from reaching into the unknown outside that structure (“I’ve never seen that before”).
Neither mode is better.
A musician who interprets great composers of the past is no lesser a talent than one who only composes their own music. Their challenges are different, but it is no less difficult in either case to bring forth something fresh, coherent and exciting. Most renditions of Für Elise are just ok. Most original music compositions are just bad.
Swivelling back to the client work/personal work dichotomy, we can say that working on a client project and interpreting it well is no less valuable than working on a personal piece of our own invention. In fact, the two modes can nourish one another when we allow them to co-exist: “We look at other composers’ notes on the page in a different way when we have struggled to write our own.”²
I suspect we all lean one way or the other—preferring to interpret or preferring to invent—and I don’t think there’s anything wrong with either preference. The problems only start when we want one mode to provide the freedoms of the opposing mode.
Confusing the two modes.
When we play basketball, we are interpreting. When we make up a new game, we are inventing. When we play basketball, we don’t have the freedom to make up new rules or ignore existing ones. When we invent new games, we do have the freedom to make up new rules and ignore existing ones. If we start to expect the game of basketball to change according to new rules we’ve cooked up, we’re going to be disappointed. If we start to expect others will automatically be gung-ho about playing our newly invented game, we’re also going to be disappointed.
The benefit of client work is that we get to work in a visual language everyone already understands, so we can focus on the nuances of expressing the story; the limitation is that clients are not very open to our novel ideas—we cannot just propose a new letter for the alphabet and expect others to be happy about it.
On the other hand, the benefit of personal work is that we get to invent new languages altogether; the limitation is that very few people, especially at first, are going to see it or understand it.
Expecting client work to be the sandbox within which we can invent our new languages is a mistake, and the more we appreciate the differences of these two modes, the less likely we are to expect the interpretive mode of client work to fulfill the freedoms that are only possible in the mode of invention.
Looking at client work and personal work through these two lenses can help us calibrate the expectations we set for ourselves and our clients. If we’re feeling limited in our client work it’s because we are—we’re interpreters and we are, in a sense, trapped between the lines and spaces of existing scores. Knowing that, we can drop fantasies of clients realizing our creative, inventive, moody genius and instead feel out new ways we can arrange our music to bring out new colors and tones.
We can save our invention for personal work, where we can fully feel out the creative terror of committing our own scores with no sense if what we’re scribbling makes sense or is nonsense, guided only by our sense of whether there is, by luck, cohering on the page an inner circulation that might allow the thing to spring to, and live, its own life. Here there are no echoes—no one has stepped this way before.
By appreciating the differences between the two modes, we can loosen our demands, especially on client work, to satiate us creatively. We needn’t be dismayed when clients reject our ‘better’ ideas, because we recognize that this might not be the realm where such ideas thrive. We can shift our attention to delivering the best interpretation using the material and ideas the client supplies us, finding and creating new moments within a pre-existing structure.
Working like this, working with what is in front of us and not demanding one mode subsume the other in our creative endeavors, we’ll get to a point where we glimpse that both modes are really two sides of the same coin—the best interpreters are, of course, inventors, and the best inventors have interpreted all that has come before and transcended it.
But it starts with appreciating the difference.
1. Leys, S. (2013). The Hall of Uselessness: Collected Essays. NYRB Classics. pp. 348.
2. Hough, S. (2020). Rough Ideas: Reflections on Music and More. Farrar, Straus and Giroux. pp.21.