A couple of months ago I decided to practice in public. I booked a large room at a music studio near where I live, and I gathered two friends, two students, and a friend’s friend whom I hadn’t met before. I played about ten of my compositions, some for solo cello, some for cello and voice.
One of the pieces I played twice, in two diverging interpretations—first showy and full of choreographed movements, then sober and discreet. I played a short piece as if on a loop, repeating it many times and only varying a few details here in there. I gave myself permission to correct notes and phrases, replaying them as if the compositions themselves had been written with reiterations of these phrases. I did an unaccompanied vocal improvisation that I didn’t know I was going to do: I sang a sustained pitch, varying its vowels and dynamics, and I used my hands as megaphones and mutes—that is, I placed my hands in front of my mouth and I shaped and reshaped them, creating fantastical sound effects. I probably entered a trance state after a minute of doing it, and I probably made a fool of myself. I can’t say for sure.
Although I wore a clean white dress shirt and I sat on a stage, and although my audience sat in a semicircle as if at a regular performance, the whole thing was . . . not-a-concert, for the lack of a better name. I simply spun my music materials, and I worked on myself as I made music; and my friends watched, listened, and gave me feedback.
Okay, there actually s a better name to this whole enterprise: it's called work in progress. We sometimes hear of a dance company opening its doors to the public and showing a new, unfinished choreography as work in progress. The term, then, has its uses in the arts and in performance. And we sometimes use the term as if partly joking: “How’s your health faring these days?” “Oh, you know . . . work in progress. A day at a time.”
I’m proposing that we broaden the concept, and that we apply it to everything that we do and to life itself. I’m proposing that we kinda take it seriously, man!
We suppose that certain things are fairly set in stone. We’ll take the Bible as an example. The Bible is the Bible, right? The good book was written long ago. And the Ten Commandments have been there since the first edition! The only thing is, there doesn’t exist a single Bible; rather, there exists a repository of stories told by many people over about a thousand years, and out of this repository varying anthologies have been gathered and continue to be gathered. The Jewish anthology of these stories, for instance, isn’t the same as the Christian anthology; the Catholic anthology differs from the Protestant one; authorities pick fights as to what stories should or should not be called sacred and, therefore, anthologized.
Then there’s the matter of translating the ancient texts into modern languages. Here’s a verse from the Bible, in a handful of translations:
Whoso loveth instruction loveth knowledge: but he that hateth reproof is brutish.
The person who loves correction loves knowledge, but anyone who hates a rebuke is stupid.
He that loves discipline loves knowledge, and he that hates reproof is a fool.
Whoever loves discipline loves to learn, but whoever hates correction is a dumb animal.
Whosoever loves chastening loves knowledge, but he that hates reproof is carnal.
Whosoever loves instruction loves knowledge: but he that hates reproof is senseless.
Brutish, stupid, fool, a dumb animal, carnal, and senseless: Do they really mean the same thing? And how about reproof, rebuke, and correction? After you translate the verse, you need to interpret it. What exactly do these words mean, and how will they affect your behavior? As I see it, the Bible is a work in progress. I probably prefer being corrected to being rebuked, although I like being right most of all!
Objects, too, are in a process of change. The white-marble Roman and Greek sculptures we love so much were painted in garish polychromy back in the days. Creepy!
Houses, buildings, and roads are forever moving, sagging, expanding, contracting, and otherwise transforming themselves. Believe it or not, the Brooklyn Bridge is a work in progress.
The Pritzker Prize honors architects, and is considered as prestigious as the Nobel Prize. This year it was given to Alejandro Arevena, who’s from Chile. His projects take the idea of work in progress seriously, man!
Mr. Arevena’s Santiago-based firm, Elemental, has spearheaded a participatory design-build process it calls “half of a good house,” which allows residents to complete the work themselves later and play an active role in raising their own standard of living. “We transform the lack of resources into a principle of incrementality,” Mr. Aravena said. “Let’s do now what is more difficult. Let families take care of the rest through their own means.”
The house itself is a work in progress; architecture is a work in progress; the architect is a work in progress; the architect’s understanding of the world is a work in progress. The object, the field of knowledge, the person, and the idea are all works in progress.
My compositions are works in progress; my abilities as a player and singer are works in progress; my person, as it were, is a work in progress. When a concert becomes "practicing in public," the work-in-progress principle becomes embodied on stage.
You, too, are a work in progress. Let your doings, sensings, and thinkings change and grow every day. And make sure you're never, ever finished!