Saturday, December 22, 2007

trad. Canadian

Today is Christmas dinner. Not the official one, I suppose, but the one I look forward to most, when we get together with our various expat friends and their Finnish spouses (spice?), whoever's in Finland around Christmas, and cook a huge, decadent feast. It's become a tradition in the last few years, and it's our turn to host, which pleases me greatly. There's very little I like so much as making food for sharing with the people I care about. It's a fairly conventional affair, eggnog, turkey and such, with a few adaptations of the old-style dishes. Instead of stuffing, I made a bread pudding, and the usual heavy Christmas pudding, which I gave up on because local ingredients don't adapt well to my recipe, has been replaced with an absolutely heart-stopping steamed toffee pudding. Can't wait for dessert.

Preparing a meal like this, I inevitably find my thoughts drawn back to my family's Christmas table in Canada, and how it reflects my/our interpretation of tradition. Over the years, especially as my siblings and I got older, we developed a routine of two family meals, on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day, with slightly different rules. Christmas dinner itself, which is usually my mother's domain, is everything you'd expect of from a largely Anglo-Saxon family: turkey with all the trimmings, mashed potatoes, gravy and plum pudding, the recipe for which has been in the family for the better part of a century, a sort of poor-man's pudding made of cheap ingredients, concocted during World War I and handed down from my Scottish great-grandmother.

I always enjoy this dinner, with its relative formality and consistent elements, but for my money, the meal most accurately reflecting my family's makeup is on Christmas Eve, when all the quirky bits of our heritage come out. Sitting side-by-side with lasagna (the presence of which is more or less inexplicable, since there's not a drop of Italian blood anywhere in us) and New World desserts like New York-style cheesecakes, you'll find Greek dishes like spanakopita and dolmades, family favorites that come to us from my maternal grandfather's family. Then there are the French Canadian dishes my sister-in-law makes: baked beans, tourtière (meat pie) and occasionally the majestic six-pâtes, a huge, heavy dish made of layers of game meat stews and pastry, baked for hours and fed a steady diet of meat broth for the potatoes to absorb. Heavenly, and deadly. This is serious lumberjack fare from the colonial days.

What I love is the eclectic nature of it all, the fact that all this stuff is brought together on one table for no other reason than that it all tastes good. You don't even have to eat all of it, just take whatever strikes you as appetizing. And this, I think, is the essence of what it means to be of the New World, and from an immigrant family, indeed, nowadays, as an immigrant myself: tradition is no more or less than what you bring with you. There's a pleasing absence of blind obeisance, of doing things a certain way just because that's the way they're done, and have been for centuries. Traditions are patched together from what you know, the parts of your historical makeup that make the most sense to you, with very little reference to consistency or received wisdom.

Not that there's anything wrong with long traditions. They're common in the part of the world where I live, as in many parts of the Americas with long-established communities, and they give people a deeply rooted sense of who they are and what makes them that way, one you mess with at your peril. It's admirable, and it makes me slightly envious, coming as I do from a mixed heritage of cultures, without a long attachment to place or community to provide structures and attitudes. The Scottish and Greek come from my mother; my father is of largely British extraction, but of a family that settled in – wait for it – Turkey in the 18th century, and came to Canada via a detour of some years in what is now Zimbabwe.

Being a first-generation citizen on my dad's side, I spent a lot of time as a kid trying to figure out what, exactly, I was. Living in a small town away from the large immigrant groups, we had no particular attachment to the Greek or Scottish communities, and even English Canada was a little distant from my experience, growing up as I did in the French-speaking community, and perhaps picking up more of their traditions and cultural structures than any others. (I think my fondness for French music is attributable to simply understanding it, the way it speaks, from the start.) Living in the borderlands between many cultures can be unnerving, really having nothing that can be taken for granted as an essential part of your selfhood. Everything must be questioned, its relative value assessed on an individual basis.

Gradually, though, I came to realize that this could be a source of strength, that a lack of received wisdom is liberating, exhilarating, even. Not having a tradition to uphold, you're free to pick and choose what suits you best, what works at a given time, and to discard the structures that don't mean anything to you, or just don't fit the way you think (sonata form, indeed, form as a preset concept, is one of these things for me). It sounds like I'm endorsing some sort of postmodernist pastiche approach to life and art, which isn't really the case. Juxtaposing things only works for so long, eventually becoming self-referential. Rather, the idea is identify those structures which are strongest, figure out what they have in common, and graft them together into something that makes sense to you.

Being neither entirely of the New World or the Old, ultimately, I don't feel a responsibility to either uphold or reject any particular aspect of my heritage, only, I think, to try to sort it all out coherently and present it to the world and hope somebody finds value therein. I've long since left Christianity behind, but Christmas dinner remains, this relic of my upbringing, a paradoxical reminder both of how far I've moved away from my roots and how close I still am to them and, more than anything else, a symbol of tradition and its endless ability to adapt, incorporate new elements, and take on new and ever more valuable meanings.

Thursday, December 20, 2007

Horning In (with apologies to David Rakowski)

With my semester finally over – not that it's been an unusually heavy one, but still – and the Christmas choral season more or less put to bed, I'm free to put down a few ideas over the next couple of weeks. It's a nice feeling to know that, despite the fact that this blog is still mainly a way of avoiding any real academic writing, I don't have too many other pressing things that I really should be doing.

Browsing the NY Times, as I do on daily basis, I was bemused by a review of a chamber concert by Allan Kozinn. I don't usually read too many reviews unless they have to do with new music, but the mention of "horn" in the title caught my former brass-jock eye. After distancing myself from my ex-instrument for about ten years, I've suddenly found myself writing for it a lot lately, with a recent trio with violin and piano, a fanfare for three horns, and an upcoming concerto. There truly is no escape.

Anyway, Kozinn writes of the concert:

"The first oddity, Schumann’s Adagio and Allegro in A flat (Op. 70), is a rarity for the soundest of reasons: It is scored for French horn and piano, and horn writing as expansive and exposed as this is too perilous to attract many takers. David Jolley is as good a hornist as you’ll find in New York’s chamber music world, but the Adagio largely defeated his efforts to stay firmly on pitch and avoid cracked notes."

I was uncharacteristically quick to overcome my initial, deeply ingrained bristle at the description of one of the central works of the horn repertoire – if not the Everest, than at least Anapurna or K2 – as an "oddity", one that, I might add, is regularly pilfered by many other instruments ranging from the violin, viola and cello to [shudder] the oboe. I was mostly amused by his noting that David Jolley had trouble with the Adagio movement, to which my only reaction is that nobody has an easy time with this piece, ever. Even if they do it perfectly, they nearly had a heart attack trying. I still have nightmares about the woefully exposed high C in the Adagio, and get cold sweats about running out of "face" at the end.

My friend Tommi, the most simultaneously Zen and kamikaze horn player I know, performed it last year on one of his doctoral recitals, and I nearly passed out. Literally. Listening to it, I found myself uncomfortable, tense, short of breath. Absently noticing my spasmodically clenching and unclenching left hand, I realized I was fingering the damn thing right along with him, fearing the worst as high notes approached, knowing all the spots in the Allegro where a tiny, desperate breath can be caught before diving headlong back into the fray. It really is that hard. So I tip my hat to anyone with the guts to go out and play it, legend or not. A few slips on the final ridge still gets you to the peak, right?

The other quote that caught my attention concerned the Brahms trio:

"The balance problems born of putting a horn in a small ensemble were evident as ever (here’s a piece that works better on recording), but Mr. Fleisher and Mr. Laredo were able to wrest the spotlight more often than not, and in the two fast movements, their energetic, mercurial playing was offset by Mr. Jolley’s evocation of a hunting horn, which gave the performance an agreeably earthy quality."

This is an important observation: balancing this ensemble is almost impossible. When I wrote my trio last year, it started out being a compact, nicely behaved little piece, with the horn safely in its corner, but I still ended up calibrating the whole thing in one way or another to the horn's overpowering personality. No matter how careful you are, there are always spots where the horn just buries the other two instruments, and of course, you don't get to find this out until you hear the piece. It's especially perilous in the Brahms, where the horn part is an integral part of the contrapuntal texture, every bit as important to the piece as a cello would be in one of his piano trios. This is the miracle of this work, in fact, that Brahms refused to condescend to the instrument, relegating it to a few hunting horn riffs while the violin hogs the spotlight.

It's all the more remarkable that Brahms actually specified that a natural horn (i.e. valveless) be used. The composer had a well-documented preference for the timbre of the unadorned instrument, I'm guessing because early horn valves were leaky, marring the tone, and the mechanism was noisy. However, the natural horn is a bit of a specialty these days, and the players who have truly mastered it sadly don't get heard in a high-profile settings much of the time. So hearing the Brahms trio on a modern instrument is par for the course, with all the inherent balance problems.

And yet, one has to wonder if there has indeed always been a balance issue with this piece, if it was problematic in Brahms' day as well. It turns out, I discovered fairly recently, that the answer is an emphatic "No". On another of his epic concerts this fall, Tommi performed the trio on natural horn, and decided to make it a period affair, with the violinist playing on gut strings, and an 1893 Érard piano, a rare instrument owned by the Sibelius Academy that was reconditioned for the occasion. (I have a sentimental attachment to this instrument, being the same type of piano Debussy owned, and whose veiled sound is the archetype for his late piano works.) With this ensemble, the Brahms trio sounded much gentler than one would expect. Because modifying the pitch on the natural horn requires a multitude of different hand positions in the bell, some more muffling than others, the overall tone has to be softer in order to avoid having random notes jump out of a melodic line.

The misty sound of the Érard, combined with the gut strings and the oddly distant-sounding horn, made the piece feel much more intimate, less extrovert, even in more dramatic passages, as if the music were enveloped in a warm, sepia glow. It was like hearing an old phonograph recording, a relic of another time, when instruments weren't so loud, and one occasionally had to lean in to catch all the details. It was magical, hearing it played as Brahms might have , indeed, how he probably wanted to hear it.

The point remains: horn, violin and piano is an extremely tricky beast to write for, and composers who take it on do so at their peril. Those who have navigated it successfully often come up with original ways of working the horn into the group, like Ligeti's trio, where for much of the piece the horn inhabits its own world, or a more recent work by Marc-André Dalbavie, in which the horn is only introduced about four minutes in, a novel idea with the effect of making one initially forget that the horn was supposed to be there at all. But hearing the Brahms trio as nature intended was significant proof that the mere fact of adding a horn to an ensemble doesn't require clearing the furniture, or at least it didn't always.

Friday, December 14, 2007

Soul food

In the spirit of the season, which is to say, excess, I offer one of my favorite comfort food recipes, for when the richness of holiday cooking gets to be too much. (Apologies for the mixed measures.)

Matt's Penne with Chèvre, Sundried Tomatoes and Basil

2-3 tbsp olive oil
4-5 cloves garlic, minced
1-2 pinches chili flakes, to taste
1 cup sundried tomatoes, chopped
2 14-oz. cans Italian tomatoes, chopped
2-3 tbsp tomato paste
150 g. (6 oz.) chèvre (soft goat cheese), room temperature
1 large bunch basil leaves, chiffonaded
3 chicken breasts (optional)
500 g. (1 lb) tricolor penne
salt and fresh ground black pepper

Season, grill or sauté chicken breasts, if using, slice thinly and reserve. Heat olive oil in medium-sized saucepan over medium heat. Add garlic and chili flakes and fry until garlic is soft but not browned, 1-2 min. Add sundried tomatoes and continue to cook, stirring, for another minute. Add canned tomatoes, tomato paste and black pepper to taste. Reduce heat to low, cover and simmer for 20 min. Bring a large pot of salted water to the boil, add pasta and cook to al dente. Drain and return to pot. Season sauce with salt to taste and gently reheat chicken. Pour hot sauce over pasta, add chicken and chèvre, and stir to melt the cheese and thoroughly coat the pasta. Stir in the basil chiffonade at the last second to keep from wilting too much, and share out among 4 plates. Garnish each serving with cracked black pepper and a basil top.

Serves 4

This can also work as a baked dish. Undercook the pasta a little, mix with sauce, cheese and basil, spread into a baking dish and add extra dollops of chèvre on top. Bake until cheese is melted and the pasta is cooked through.

Monday, December 10, 2007

And this is a problem because...?

Yesterday's NY Times featured an article by Charles Rosen about his friend Elliott Carter, whose 99th birthday is tomorrow – the same day as my wife's 28th, I'm inexplicably tickled to discover. Rosen writes very sympathetically about Carter's life and music. Although I've never been a big Carterhead, I appreciate some of his early works like the cello and piano sonatas, and find that his music is becoming ever more appealing as he approaches his centenary. However, it's not so much Rosen's tributes to Carter's music that caught my attention as his mild slam of an unnamed piece in a contrasting aesthetic. He relates the story of his first meeting with Carter at an ISCM concert in 1956:

"One generally went to the society’s concerts to see friends; only a small amount of the music played there was attractive, since most contemporary music, like most of the music of any other period of history, is of little interest."

Hmm, whatever. But go on...

"On this occasion, if I remember correctly, one work was a single note on a solo violin to be sustained for 1 hour 20 minutes (but the performance was abbreviated to 40 minutes)."

Ack! Shock!! Horror!!! A piece that only employs a single pitch! For a very long time! What a laughable, ridiculous idea! Seriously, though, how does one write a credible criticism of a piece, even a pithy one, by citing a work's very means of articulation as a pejorative? Rosen's comment proceeds from the offhand, a priori assumption that the very concept of this piece is unworthy of consideration. Nothing else is revealed about it, no other factors taken into account. What was the nameless composer trying to achieve with the piece, and was he/she successful? Was it performed by a sympathetic musician, or did the violinist treat the piece with contempt and play it badly? Was the piece well programmed, or did the other works on the concert not leave it enough space to be received in a favorable light? These and many other questions could be asked before dismissing a piece, but its use a single pitch (a trick that, I might add, is deployed to great effect by Carter himself in Four Études and a Fantasy) and long duration seem to be grounds enough to treat it as inconsequential. If it's not even worth asking these questions, why comment about said piece at all, except to score cheap points for your side of a largely no-longer-relevant aesthetic debate?

This post once again reveals my tendency to blow tiny comments way out of proportion, but I think Rosen's flippant attitude toward this mystery piece is indicative of a larger contempt held by certain proponents of mid-century modernism for any piece that does not aspire to their particular brand of complexity and ambition, and is therefore by its very nature flawed. But to criticize a piece based solely on its means of construction is no criticism at all, really. A similar thing happened to a colleague of mine last spring. She had composed a piece for the Finnish Radio Symphony, a ballsy, uncompromisingly repetitive work that sounded like Morton Feldman's Coptic Light on steroids. It was a very risky thing to do for her first big orchestra commission. I thought it was incredible: beautiful, powerful and stirring. I ended up being one of a tiny minority of people who liked it. It was, as I recall, vocally disliked by many, and even booed by a few. The review that appeared a day or two later, though, based its criticism on the fact that the percussion section carried most of the musical argument in the early stages of the piece, as if writing extensively for percussion in an orchestra piece is in and of itself a bad thing. No further comment necessary.

It's okay to make choices as an artist. I generally think that holding to strong beliefs about the "rightness" of one's aesthetic choices creates art that speaks urgently and convincingly in most cases, and that the idea that everyone should like everything is somewhat naïve. But one can and should remain open to meeting the composer halfway. A good critic, professional or armchair, knows how to check their expectations at the door and be receptive to what an artist is trying to accomplish, and evaluate a work on the success or failure of its particular project. Perhaps the piece Rosen is so dismissive of was indeed a failure. But the way he comments about it implies that such an idea is destined to be a failure from its very inception, and should be given no further consideration. Good criticism – of one's own work and that of others – needs to be based on more than knee-jerk positions, taking into account myriad factors that go into the creation and presentation of an artwork. Simply pushing it aside in this way diminishes the discourse and the critic both.

Friday, December 7, 2007

Cud chewing

One of my upcoming projects is a concerto for horn and strings for my friend Tommi Hyytinen. I'm not planning on starting it until the fall of 2008, but as is my habit with big pieces, I'm preparing for it far in advance, working out ideas, basic sonic concepts, mood, etc. Horn and strings is a very clean, cool soundworld, one I have an abiding fondness for. I played Gordon Jacob's concerto some ten years ago, sadly not with orchestra, and love the bleak melancholy Nordic composers bring to the combination, as in Kurt Atterberg's quirky essay in the medium, which also includes piano and percussion, and Lars-Erik Larsson's brief yet satisfying Concertino. The première of my yet-to-be-written concerto will be given in 2009-10 by the Ostrobothnian Chamber Orchestra, based in Tommi's hometown of Kokkola, on the west coast of Finland. I've been listening to their recordings to get an idea of the group's sound, and I'm struck by the rough-edged, yet highly lyrical approach to everything from Mozart to new music. I'm informed that their playing style is rooted in Ostrobothnian folk music, especially the fiddle tradition, which explains much about their unique sound.

With this in mind, I've been thinking about the overall mood I want to convey with the piece. Pondering on the ideas of folk music, nordicity, and such, I found myself drawn back to a piece I hadn't heard in years: Vaughan Williams' Oboe Concerto in A minor, which uses as lush a string orchestra as you'll hear anywhere. Vaughan Williams, as with many other composers I've blogged about here, was a youthful discovery of mine. One of my early mentors, the Missouri-born Montreal playwright, poet, actor, artist and all-around Renaissance man Fred Ward, was a huge fan of old Ralph, and through him I heard most of RVW's works in my late teens. Although I tend to like most everything of Vaughan Williams', I was particularly attracted to the so-called "pastoral" works like the Oboe Concerto, 3rd Symphony, and the lovely Hymn Tune Preludes – "Eventide" is a particular favorite. I pulled apart a score of the Tallis Fantasia when I was about 19, and later wrote a piece for trumpet, cello and string orchestra that, viewed dispassionately years later, is tinged with a certain English-folk-music-meets-Ives quality. That sound of massed choirs of strings was very seductive, and it left its mark on the way I think of ensemble sound in general.

As with most youthful enthusiasms, Vaughan Williams eventually gave way to the more outwardly sophisticated music of Tippett, and later Britten. Living in Finland, one doesn't get to hear a lot of English music, especially of the cowpat variety, though the Radio Symphony is performing the Tallis Fantasia later this spring, which pleases me greatly. I hadn't heard Vaughan Williams in a good ten years until last year, when my good friend David Searle conducted the 5th Symphony with the Helsinki University Orchestra as part of a program of English music which included another favorite of mine, William Walton's Viola Concerto. I was utterly taken aback at how fresh Vaughan Williams' music sounded, how effortlessly alive and breathing, and reflected on how rare it was these days to hear such honest, unaffected lyricism in a big symphonic work. The slow movement especially touched me deeply, an anthem-like meditation in which you'd swear that identifiable snatches of English hymn tunes surface momentarily before morphing into something else.

Building on that experience, the Oboe Concerto seemed like the right place to start, what with its gentle mood and un-concerto-like lack of obvious virtuosity. So, as an excuse to put my new toy to use, I downloaded a recording, got a score, and am once again quite taken with a piece of rather neglected music, in a where-have-you-been-all-my-life sort of way. The first thing that leaps out at me is how smoothly and effortlessly, not to mention how simply Vaughan Williams sways back and forth between fast music and slow, rhapsody and concision, stasis and motion. It's arresting to hear a headlong forward lunge give way suddenly to slow, polyphonic textures, yet none of the transitions ever seems forced, or any of the individual sections too short. The music progresses so naturally from one idea to the next, it's almost as if a gentle breeze were carrying the piece along on its gusts and lulls.

Another remarkable facet of the piece is how little truly fast music it contains. Though there's no official slow movement – the traditional slow middle movement is replaced with a short, cleverly jaunty minuet rife with hemiola – slowness and stasis dominate the piece, interspersed with faster episodes that provide contrast, yet don't overwhelm the lyricism of the slow music. Vaughan Williams upends the concerto tradition by neither writing anything particularly flashy, nor providing much in the way of virtuosic climaxes. Passagework tends to dissolve into stasis rather than lead to anything conclusive. The solo part is obviously very difficult, if the audible clicking of the oboe's keys is any indication, and one is left with the impression of having heard something exciting, but not of having heard a musician work very hard to achieve that excitement.

One of the most difficult things in contemporary music, in my opinion, is the writing of fast music. I rarely hear fast, non-minimalist, yet still pulse-driven new music that I feel works. Often, it's almost as if you can hear the gears in the composer's head churning as they work out their ideas. Very frequently, you come across music that I like to describe as "new notes over old rhythms", that is, a modern pitch content laid over an 18th- or 19th-century rhythmic framework, which is just awkward-sounding a lot of the time. (How many galumphing, mixed-meter octatonic/12-tone scherzi have you heard in your lifetime? I've written a couple, sad to say.) The default cliché for solo wind instrument and string or small orchestra is the churning motor rhythms and note-spinning melodic writing common in the lesser derivations of neoclassicism. Wanting to avoid that as much as possible, if not entirely, Vaughan Williams' Oboe Concerto is becoming an object lesson for me in how to approach the concerto from a fresh perspective, without a lot of the baggage we've come to expect of the form in terms of showy finger tricks and gallery-playing dramatic highlights. Long may that gentle breeze continue to blow.

Monday, December 3, 2007

My thing

This past weekend, I went to the Helsinki Chamber Choir's second concert of the season. They were performing Britten's A Boy Was Born, so I wasn't about to miss it. Also on the program was Thomas Weelkes' When David Heard, which sounded surprisingly contemporary for a 17th-century piece, very much like Gesualdo is its quirky harmonic turns, as well as the Finnish première of Jonathan Harvey's How could the soul not take flight?, a setting of Rumi for double choir that ends in a clangorous unison F, with added Thai gongs and tubular bells to boot. Insanely effective, and refreshing to hear such minimal use of instruments in choral music. (One of my choral conductor friends was once heard to utter, "I'll take my choir straight up, thanks. Hold the piano.") In fact, those gongs just might end up in my new choir piece. The concept already includes simple parts for bass drum and tuned glasses, but may be open to other additions.

The crux of this post came about in a conversation with some friends afterward. I was describing the concept for the new piece, and mentioned that the choir had requested something calm, ceremonial and meditative (in French), and that the more I thought about it, the less I felt like writing another calm, spacious piece – this despite the fact that it's more or less ready to go in terms of its formal layout. One friend then asked, "Well, isn't calm and meditative your thing?" It was kindly meant, coming from someone who knows me and my music very well, but it brings up a significant problem with contemporary music.

It often seems like the world tries to impose categories on composers for its own convenience. Consistency is one of the hallmarks of Western music, and people frequently expect you to display a sort of Brahmsian approach to composing, working within well-defined areas that are identifiable from piece to piece. Do what you do well, stick to it, don't stray off the path. The twentieth century encouraged these perceptions, with its steady stream of "isms" and proprietary musical languages. More often than not, when people talk about a composer's "voice", this consistency is what they mean. Some composers do it extremely well, like Magnus Lindberg, whose music is instantly recognizable as his and nobody else's, and depressingly good pretty much all the time. Reich, Feldman and Takemitsu also come to mind as examples. Others, though, aren't so lucky as to have found such a rewarding sound world, or aren't as comfortable staying in one place, so some other aspect of their music becomes their "thing". It's one of the stamps that allows the rest of the world to identify you, to know what to expect from you. It sure makes it easier to brand and market your music. (Arvo Pärt, anyone?)

For me, apparently, it's "slow and meditative", and not without reason. I've been doing a lot of that lately. Having trained under a series of teachers who liked to see fast music and harmonic variety, when I moved to Finland and became a little more independent creatively, I started indulging my fascination with long, slow harmonies, static clusters and deep breaths to its fullest. I freely admit it's a corner I've painted myself into, and happily so. But I don't consider it my area to the exclusion of all else. I very frequently change focus from piece to piece. Last year, after completing a 30-minute essay in stasis for choir and tape, I let loose with a big, loud, fast, colorful concert opener for orchestra, and it felt great.

Part of it is not wanting to get bored. I have a short attention span when it comes to my musical interests, and work in accordance with that, because it keeps me at my best. Another part of it is a death fear of repeating myself, which may appear to the outside world as an inability to commit to anything – and was reviewed as such by one critic after a concert last spring. But again, it's not uncommon, even among the composers thought of as the most consistent. Beethoven wrote his 5th and 6th symphonies concurrently, which puts the lie to the "fate knocking at the door vs. redemption" story, and shows that even composers with burning, irrepressible things to say like variety in their working lives.

None of this is a complaint, mind you. I'm happy to write within certain specifications, and as far as limitations go, these aren't onerous at all. In fact, they're geared toward my compositional comfort zone. The choir was entirely reasonable in expecting such a piece from me, and I'm fairly confident that I'll find a way to keep it fresh, for myself and for the performers. But I'm afraid, as are many other creative artists, I think, that at some point I'll start constantly falling back on an established set of tricks and, worse still, won't be able to tell the difference between having found "my thing" and just being in a creative rut. And everyone knows that's no place to be.