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Build Workshops, Not Laboratories
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Thursday, September 19, 2019


Build Workshops, Not Laboratories 

Mozart pisses me off…
—Billy Joel

Innovating Innovation Chapter 3One of the late twentieth century’s greatest musical performers, composers, and songwriters admits openly that his own creativity came earlier in life and flowed forth in fits and starts, with titanic phases of prolific originality and, since his 1993 release of his last album, River of Dreams, far less frequent bursts of new songs.

Born on May 9, 1949, and raised in blue-collar Hicksville, Long Island, Billy Joel began taking piano lessons at the age of four. Soon, he became less interested in reading other people’s musical notes or even in learning how to read music at all. He would become a six-time Grammy Award winner, a member of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, and a 2013 Kennedy Center Honoree. He would sell more than 150 million records worldwide. And he began by improvising minor changes in works by the likes of Schubert and Brahms, workshopping his own versions of such masters.

“I found reading to be intrusive to the musical process,” Joel recalls.

This outside-the-music-box creative process still holds, as Joel prepares for his record fiftieth sold-out monthly concert at New York’s Madison Square Garden: “I write backward—I write the music first and then I write the words. Most people write the words first and then they write the music.29

“Everybody is different,” he continues. “Some writers can write reams of great books and then J. D. Salinger wrote just a few. Beethoven wrote nine symphonies. They were all phenomenal. Mozart wrote some forty symphonies, and they were all phenomenal. That doesn’t mean Beethoven was a lesser writer, it’s just some guys are capable of more productivity, some guys take more time. Mozart pisses me off because he’s like a naturally gifted athlete, you listen to Mozart and you go: ‘Of course. It all came easy to him.’ Beethoven, you hear the struggle in it. Look at his manuscripts, and there’s reams of scratched-out music that he hated. He stops and he starts. I love that about Beethoven, his humanity shows in his music. Mozart was almost inhuman, unhuman.”

Joel has not released any new music since 1993—but today, he is playing before bigger sold-out crowds every year (including monthly runs at Madison Square Garden in New York City) since returning to the road in 2013 to continue a fifty-year performing career.

Make no mistake. This does not mean the creativity and workshopping stops: “I’m still composing music, which is my first love anyway,” Joel confesses in a June 17, 2017 Rolling Stone interview. “I never stopped writing music. I just stopped writing songs….”

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