Departure and Discovery: New Directions at the Apex of Creativity

Top L to R: Jane Golden (mural arts); Rev. Dr. Wilson Goode (former Mayor of Philadelphia); Cecil Baker (architect) Bottom L to R: Milton Glaser (graphic designer); Elizabeth Streb (choreographer); Larry Gold (music producer/arranger)
“In the first [stage of life] you find, or pose for yourself, a great question. In the second you labour away at answering it. And then, if you live long enough, you come to a third stage, when the aforesaid great question begins to bore you, and you need to look elsewhere.” (John Maxwell Coetzee).

What do composers create after they have nothing left to prove? What happens when they have long-since arrived at fame, achieved a level of mastery that subsumes the past and the present, and produced that which secures their place as a household name? Exploring this last period of creative output typically reveals a departure from everything previous. Beethoven is the archetype of this deviation with his farewell to conventional genres and the harmonic boundaries of his day. We can appreciate these late works but what was the impetus for his “late style” and toward what end did he pursue?

Regardless of the form or era, composers often chose new directions when their accumulated knowledge and experience intersected with their own life maturity and mortality. This pivot point propelled them into an “alternate universe” of sorts, where, as Edward Rothstein writes, “something is actually being understood about our world: some things are rejected, some are accepted, some are greeted with horror, some with resignation. Beethoven’s late music, for example, embraces incongruities because — we are convinced — that is precisely what it means to see the world whole.”

Top L to R: Bruce Metcalf (jeweler); Robin Black (author); Terell Stafford (jazz musician/educator); Bottom L to R: Christoph Wolff (musicologist); Tom McCarthy (actor); Malcom Wright (ceramic artist)

But are composers and musicians the only ones that experience this phenomenon of “late style”?

Having set out to study the late style of composers through a series of concerts and lectures with the eminent pianist, Jonathan Biss, we wondered what this looks like in other fields. Is the occurrence of new directions a common experience and what characteristics manifest themselves in other disciplines? Our interviews covered a wide spectrum including a sculptor, author, choreographer, doctor, musician, actor, graphic designer, counselor, painter and an architect. We also spoke with one of the founders of NPR, a former mayor of Philadelphia and the director of the Mural Arts Program, among many others.

The directions these people have taken vary greatly, making it difficult to construct a consistent model that covers the unique characteristics of each evolution into new forms of expression. Some became more expansive while others went deeper in pursuit of greater clarity and economy. Some exhibit synthesis and culmination while others explore difficulty and unresolved contradiction. Still others typify a sense of urgency, a racing against the clock when time is no longer an inexhaustible commodity or a refusal to be hemmed in by the capabilities of their medium. Late style is also found in those that pursue the innovation and fresh thinking necessary to lead forward.

Through all these profiles, it is apparent that “late style is in, but oddly apart from the present” (Michael Wood).

The characteristics of late style are shaped by the waning past and the unmeasurable future. The conditions of having accumulated a wealth of knowledge and experience (combined at times with one’s realization that there is more life behind you than in front of you) seem to ripen in the final life phase and drive them into new frontiers. No matter what embodies a particular late style, these departures and discoveries are always a catalyst for creative transcendence.

Over the next few months, we will be featuring weekly stories that explore a whole range of perspectives on late style. While these profiles highlight people who have “mastered” their craft in different ways, we hope that you, our reader, will find points of connection within their stories and this altogether universal human experience.


The Profiles of Late Style blog series is part of the Departure and Discovery Project led by the Philadelphia Chamber Music Society which is supported by The Pew Center for Arts & Heritage. Over the next few months, we will be featuring weekly stories that explore a whole range of perspectives on late style and its impact as an altogether universal human experience.

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