Even when the art we make is sacred, we artists are still just regular people. And we have been for generations.

In anticipation of our concert at the Rubin Museum on January 17th, I took a guided tour of its collection last September. I was struck by the beauty and the significance of this painting.

Padmasambhava, Tibet, 1800 - 1899, Ground Mineral Pigment on Cotton, Courtesy of the Rubin Museum of Art
Padmasambhava, Tibet, 1800 – 1899, Ground Mineral Pigment on Cotton, Courtesy of the Rubin Museum of Art

But, what really made it stick in my memory was the unfinished image on the reverse side. No matter how bright the colors or intricate the forms — and believe me, they are bright and intricate even after more than a hundred years — the back of the painting reminds me of the indispensable humanity of the artist who created it.

The reverse side of the Padmasambhava painting.
The reverse side of the Padmasambhava painting.

The museum’s curators had a great idea when they decided to show this piece in a case with both sides visible, not just the ornate front side, in their exhibition “Flip Side: The Unseen in Tibetan Art.” On the front is “Padmasambhava,” the venerated teacher who brought Buddhism to Tibet from India, but on the back is an unrelated image of the “Shakyamuni Buddha,” the Buddha in a seated pose with one hand touching the ground, a representation of his enlightenment. My guide told me that the backs of paintings like this often had similar drawings, but they are more often a rough copy of the figures on the front with associated descriptions and prayers. These paintings were meant to be taken off the wall and used, for teaching or for one’s personal practice. But in the case of this particular textile, the artists may have simply wanted to reuse this piece of cotton after a false start.

The textile is beautiful, but the unintentional evidence of the artist who made it is what makes me feel personally connected to this work. This artist was subject to the same logistical concerns as anyone else then or now — maybe a patron asked for a painting of the figure on the back, then changed his mind, or perhaps the drawing on the back was a practice image, and with cotton not nearly as easy to come by then as it is today, they chose to reuse it. Just like the painter of this piece, our artistic ambitions today are bound by the cost of materials and the infrastructure of opportunity. How we choose to address these challenges is what gives everyone’s work its own unique perspective. I’m fascinated by the ways that how we make art and music in our cultures have changed, but I’m even more fascinated by how they have stayed the same over hundreds of years.

If you came to my “studio” — the corner in the living room of the apartment in the Bronx where I did most of the writing of The Bright and Rushing World — it would be easy to find the trail of crumbs that leads to the gingerbread house of the finished piece of music. The piles of scribbled drawings, sketches on manuscript paper that were started and abandoned, and the many edits and revisions that were made after the piece was notated on my computer. You might find some coffee stains on my notebooks, too. No, you would definitely find coffee stains on my notebooks.

For anyone working today, there are likely to be far more “artifacts” than ever before. Most every artist has a website and blog these days, just like this one. The artist’s blog is meant to take some of the mystery out of how the art is made, and I think that on the whole, this is a great thing. But, when we look hundreds of years into the past and find real clues that reveal to us the people who made a piece of art is breathtaking.

For The Bright and Rushing World, I’d rather tell you about the clues inside the music itself than the scribbled sketches in my notebook. I wrote the piece using a single musical theme, a collection of just five notes that shaped nearly every element of the piece. As I worked on the piece over about nine months, I spent many hours looking for a way to continue finding new life in those same notes. You can hear where I decided to move in a new direction, where I went back to an idea that worked, or where I decided to try something only tangentially related to the original theme. I would do this sometimes out of frustration, or even boredom, and sometimes I’d manage to salvage an otherwise unproductive day. But, most importantly, you can hear not just the finished piece, but the scaffolding as well — my thought process, such as it is, is plainly evident when you hear the piece from beginning to end.

The key to following the thought process in a work, and finding the clues in a work that point to the artist when he or she is long gone, is attention. In this brave new world where we constantly fill up our minds with work and play via digital devices, our attention — to ourselves, to each other, to anything really — is truly a thing of great value. The Buddhist practice of meditation deals directly with attention by forcing us to focus on nothing but the workings of our own breath. I’ve had some experience with this practice, and it has always been satisfying to me. I relish the chance to just breathe. Its a relief — to meditate, you just do it. You don’t have to be good at it.

In our concert at the Rubin Museum on January 17th, we’ll ask for your undivided attention. We do this with great respect, understanding that it is one of the hardest things to ask for. But, we offer something in return — a composition that is built of nine months worth of concentration from me, the composer, and the attention of all five of us performers, bringing the piece to life with finely developed focus and skill. I can guarantee that we will be putting every last bit of our minds and bodies into this performance, and that will be worth everything it took to make this concert happen. The trail leads there, find us.