I remember reading an article from 1999 that described John Coolidge Adams’ process when working on his nativity oratorio, El Niño. The writer (whom I don’t remember and I can’t find the article) describes Mr. Adams working at his Finale workstation and playing through the Act II opener, a setting of “Pues mi Dios ha nacido a penar,” up to the point where he hasn’t written anything else and the music cuts off abruptly. Mr. Adams then begins writing there, entering notes and chords one-at-a-time, in the writer’s description, “hammering away at silence.”
In a separate interview regarding preparations for the premiere in Paris, Mr. Adams remarked that, at the initial rehearsal of the same movement, it couldn’t quite come together. There was a part of him that worried about the movement being “a compositional mistake”—problematic for the rest of the act, considering his admittedly “genetic” style of composition wherein the first note and the last note of a piece are linked by progressive evolution.
I often find that in approaching any writing projects, whether musical or whether prosaic, that my task is much like his—akin to a sculptor, hammering away at a block of silence or a block of white screen one character, one word, one phrase at a time. I have to get several thoughts out, I have to step aside, I have to come back and take up the instruments again in order to continue saying what’s down in my bones but I can’t get out. It’s a cycle; moreover I can never feel satisfaction in something I’ve written until it moves beyond me entirely.
Even when I complete a work it’s not done until it’s read; a sermon isn’t “done” being created until the final “amen.” I wonder what this magic is—we could easily say it’s the Holy Spirit, in the case of things ecclesial. And I wonder whether it’s not the same God who prompts sermons who fills in the space when glyphs and notation emerge from the page or the screen and are interpreted in time.
During the final dress rehearsal for El Niño prior to its world premiere, Mr. Adams describes the run-through of “Pues mi dios” as having an “otherworldly scintillation,” if I’m remembering that interview correctly. There’s something beyond him as composer, beyond the notes on the page, beyond the performers, that hangs in the air and makes it electric.
I’m extremely hard on myself regarding my creative work. And yet, even when I know when an essay is a dud or there are twenty glaring improvements I can make to a piece of music or there are ten more points that spark in my intuition as I’m interpreting my manuscript to my congregation, there’s a je ne sais quoi when all is said and done that has bound together writer, interpreter, and audience in a synergistic and synchronistic experience of creation.
Maybe part of our purpose, our telos, as sentient beings is to be able to participate in creation by observing what’s already there and by contributing our own riffs on it. That might be the task of the gathered Church too, and it’s certainly the task of those of us—pastors, rabbis, imams, poets, whoever—who have been called by the stories in our bones to give voice to them, even when the words aren’t there, even when we too are starting down a block of silence or a blank screen. But the words always come, whatever their quality, through faithful hammering.