“‘Cherish, conserve, consider, create’: you could do worse than to live your life according to the principles propounded by the composer Lou Harrison,” wrote Alex Ross.
I fell down a rabbit hole yesterday, listening to Harrison’s music and reading about his life. In addition to being a musician, composer, and maker of musical instruments, Harrison was also a poet, a painter, and a calligrapher.
In my quest to find out if he ever actually explained his motto, I came across a scan of his wonderful Music Primer, a 50-page booklet of his ideas about music, full of calligraphy and diagrams. Here’s a sample page:
The primer is full of little nuggets of wisdom, such as:
“The path to silliness nowadays is to allow one’s self to become indebted to a silly society — do not do it. Find out what you yourself can and will afford — do only that.”
“Originality, personality, or style can neither be encouraged nor prevented. Forget the matter.”
“Always compose as though there were plenty of paper.”
Alas, I have yet to find any explanation of Harrison’s motto: “Cherish, conserve, consider, create.” I’m curious as to whether the 4 Cs are linear or non-linear. I have a bad habit, when someone lists principles or elements, to assume they unfold one after the other, chronologically. I’m not sure if Harrison’s motto unfolds in any particular order, but one order the items are listed in is alphabetical: in fact, “conserve” is followed directly by “consider” in my American Heritage Dictionary.
I have my own ideas:
Cherish, hold dear, treat with tenderness and affection.
Conserve, save what’s worth saving, protect it from harm or loss, use it carefully, avoid waste.
Consider, think carefully about it all, form an opinion.
Create, produce, bring new things into being.
Poet Dana Gioia brought up Harrison’s motto when discussing the “conservative” nature of poetry. He says he sees the whole notion of art as one of “conservation,” of “looking at all the achievements of the past and figuring out what it is we save and what it is that we need to add to move forward.” The really great poets, he says, are conserving culture, and you get the sense when “reading these wonderful poems that everything that was worthwhile and usable in the past somehow found a place in these poems.” Like in math or science, Gioia says, the poet shouldn’t just throw everything out, but should “take it and you would build on it to make something that was meaningful for the moment.”
“Conservative” is a word with loaded meaning and heavy connotation, especially in America and in the crews I run with, but one of the reasons I think Steal Like An Artist is so popular is that though its seems completely radical at first, there is a conservative — in the good sense of the word, the sense of saving what’s worth saving — element running through the book: its message, essentially, is to know what came before you so you can turn it into something of your own.
Because, perhaps counterintuitively, one of the beset ways to “make it new,” is to steal from places alien in space or time, often into the deep past. Here, for example, is Gioia’s advice to students:
Pay attention to what interests you, not into this kind of novelty-driven commercial culture we’re in…. Punk yourself out of the daily ephemeral culture and immerse yourself into things that are going to be still there 10 years later or 100 years later. I think the distractions for younger people today are so extreme that they learn very little about the past. Therefore, they learn very little about the present, because you can’t understand anything unless you have a point by which to judge it as a point of perspective.
Or, in other words: “Steal old stuff.”