Mark Clague: The Maverick as Inspiration

Is this post, Professor Mark Clague asks can anyone be a “Maverick”? See Mark Clague in conversation with composers John Adams and Mason Bates (both Mavericks themselves!) this Saturday, March 17 in San Francisco at our free, live event Talking About Creativity. Register today!

Samuel Maverick

Texas rancher and patriot Samuel Maverick (1803–70)—his name was the source of the term “Maverick,” first used in 1867.

Can anyone be a “Maverick”? Can we leverage the example of this American icon to spark creativity? If so, how does our notion of the Maverick need to be adjusted to make such exceptional inspiration open to all?

The San Francisco Symphony’s American Mavericks festival justly celebrates the creativity of musical individualists, yet as a teacher I am interested in the Maverick not as rarefied genius, but as an everyday icon that inspires today’s artists, thinkers, and inventors. That there was a Maverick on the Mayflower (Moses Maverick—an ancestor of Texas rancher Samuel who begat the word) suggests that the Maverick’s risk taking, pioneering roots are deeply embedded in our cultural imagination. That Michael Tilson Thomas and the musicians of the San Francisco Symphony can create a multiple-concert series on the topic is possible only because the Maverick’s uniqueness has become a verified tradition. In American music, Maverick composers range from the 1770s and William Billings to today in the work of new composers such as Mason Bates.

Writers in Newsweek and The Atlantic, among others, have proclaimed a “creativity crisis” in America. My observations as a teacher, however, suggest not a crisis of creative capacity, but at times of creative willpower. There is great creativity in my students. I think there is creativity in all of us. What is lacking is simply the permission to be creative, the absence of fear of failure, the courage to do something new. Enter the Maverick! The notion of the Maverick is a tool that grants permission to act despite fear and doubt—the Maverick tradition is a call to create. The critical question is whether or not this Maverick creativity is broadly available or the realm of a special few.

By limiting our understanding of the Maverick to the isolated individual, we create a barrier to ingenuity—and one that may derails creativity. What history shows us is that the Maverick is never alone. Certainly music takes form in the minds and works of individual creators, but this occurs with the support of colleagues, families, partners, institutions, and other collaborators. Mavericks are not hermits; they remain connected and draw strength from the community. Charles Ives had the support and inspiration of his father George. Cage, Cowell, Copland, Feldman, Varese, Harrison, etc. were each members of supportive musical social circles. Varese, Cowell and Copland founded institutions that supported new music. Whenever Cage won a cash prize, he gave the money to Merce Cunningham to support his dance company. These musical Mavericks thrived together.

The pioneers who opened the American West travelled in groups, in wagon trains for mutual protection and strength. The tradition of American Maverick creativity—at least as exemplified by the composers featured in this series—is similarly the product of community. The Maverick blazes a trail, but galvanized by the collective. The group propels the Maverick—providing assistance and, maybe most importantly, purpose. The group insures the Maverick against failure, offering support when experiments go awry and praise when they succeed. Mavericks are are leaders (not loners); they are charged by society to find solutions to shared problems whether of artistic expression, ideological suffocation, or scientific insight. When they succeed, Mavericks redefine the new as normal; they inspire imitation; they become the norm, they forge tradition.

It is this Maverick spirit—of a creative community—that I hope the San Francisco series and our American Orchestra Forum event on creativity helps to inspire.

We need the Maverick; The Maverick is us; Act Maverick!

—Mark Clague


  1. I applaud the concept of the maverick-collective that support each other in creative and risky ventures. It is a constructive and useful solution for fostering actual creativity. And I think we’re starting to see that in places like NY and L.A. with Alarm Will Sound, Wild Up, Bang on a Can, and elsewhere, etc. However, it needs to be mentioned that the fear element involved of young people to succeed by pleasing their artistically conservative overlords is an essential element of politically savvy artists who hope to make a living and have a career (in arguably the most conservative of all the arts). And there is no place more artistically conservative and resistant to change than the conservatory/higher education music schools. If we want more mavericks, yes, we need to encourage it. And maybe young people need to be more independent, courageous and resourceful in creating collectives to try out their ideas. But music schools unless suddenly motivated by philosophy and conscience will see no reason to reform their insular communities unless leveraged by an outside source.

    • Mark Clague says:

      This issue came up a bit in yesterday’s panel in San Francisco and Ed Sanders replied by saying that mavericks who were being limited by bosses should find another place to work. On one hand, he’s right that companies like Google (where Ed works) provide a different environment; on the other hand, do all our old guard institutions need to die before change is possible. Certainly the conservatory conserves and there’s much about tradition to perpetuate, but music and the orchestra have changed dramatically over the past 100, 50, even 20 years — so it’s not a matter of change but what kind. A key from my perspective from inside the conservatory is that we need to better understand the core values of our traditions, to be able to articulate what’s vital, so that mavericks can experiment while being cognizant of what’s valuable in the system as it is, and not do damage unintentionally. What prevents most change that I see proposed in music schools is simply fear.

      • I absolutely agree about understanding the core values of the traditions and be able to (honestly) articulate them. So much of what is passed on is a spirit of textual literalism that quite frankly mirrors religious fundamentalism. There is only one answer and if your answer is wrong, you are a heretic. Get out. Perhaps it’s as Taruskin says “hyper-romanticism” or career ego, or whatever, but the fear is both with the students and the faculty. Ironically, this solipsism repeats itself in every generation and we should not be surprised when it does. Which is perhaps the first step to change: a degree of humility and perspective.

  2. I agree: there is a lot of creativity available. But I also see that taking risks is something with which people feel not comfortable with. I see that in a lot of piano students. Trying out a new articulation in a Bach piece is already a problem. The thinking is here for example: if Andras Schiff is doing it this way then I should do it the same way. And by thinking so lot of young pianists block themselves. We became a generation of pianists who is seldomly adventerous. There is a mainstream everybody wants to follow. But that will lead in the last consequnce to an art who just reproduces itself. What I think is the most important point to change that is that professors at universities encourage their students more then ever to try out own solutions and not just follow traditional paths of interpretation.

    • Mark Clague says:

      At the Forum discussion yesterday I think Ed Sanders said something really important: “make things.” The key to innovation today is to take action and follow it through to fruition. Half experiments are not experiments at all. So the Maverick has to be both a pioneer willing to think something new, but also a boring nose-to-the-grindstone workaholic who finds the energy and makes the time to make things…

  3. Sarah Powell says:

    I agree that community and some form of support and acceptance is essential for longevity as a maverick. For our “interview a maverick” project in class, I interviewed a performance art student, who I believe is the sort of everyday maverick that you suggest. She writes her own material that is assuredly nontraditional, which could be seen as maverick, but also the very idea that she is majoring in performance art, a messy hybrid of art and theatre, could be considered maverick. She emphasized that support by her friends and peers keeps her going and assures her that her art is valid. For this everyday sort of maverick, having some sort of community that believes in her is important, knowing that there are at least as many people that don’t understand her choice in taking such an untried major (less even than music, art, or theatre). She creates art to tell her story, that she believes resonates with many others and is important to share, and community strengthens her resolve.

  4. Kaivalya Deshpande says:

    I agree; the question of what drives the maverick is interesting. We read about Cage even, who was intrinsically motivated but would still be discouraged if no one showed up for his talks, or his art. I think thats just how human nature is, maverick or not. We all need some sort of validation or reinforcement, be it positive or negative, its needed to transcend those merely creative thoughts into something maverick. I think its also important to realize this because the notion of maverick always seems something only a “genius” or prodigy-like thinker could achieve. Whereas, even the mavericks that have passed have been part of a normal society (For the most part). It’s reassuring to know that every one of us in this generation has the potential to become maverick, if we so choose.

  5. Rick Robinson says:

    Hi Mark,
    I see there’s a lot of discussion here about the role the music schools play in creating Mavericks. Schools are for the young and the young have a lot to absorb given centuries of music history and playing their instruments to a high degree. To be sure some will absorb faster than others but for MOST of us that absorbtion BEGINS with imitation rather than innovation.
    Furthermore, out-of-the-box perspective often comes from working INSIDE the box for some time. For example the thought occurred to me at CIM that if you added flute to The Soldier’s Tale instrumentation, we could probably perform both Peter and the Wolf and The Comedian’s Suite. But it wasn’t until after a few years in Detroit Symphony that I really felt the NEED to make that happen. I focused on practicing and winning a job.
    Even composing I began by imitating several traditions (without fear) and have arrived at a conclusion that “bucks the trend” for practical and expressive purposes.
    Innovation comes at its own pace. But right now, standing at the crossroads, I think that pace is accelerating.

    • Sarah Voice says:

      I couldn’t agree more! As a current music student, I often feel as if I am merely parroting those who came before me, however, this step is critical to developing thoughtful, informed musicians. I thoroughly enjoy innovation in music if it comes from an informed, educated place, however, innovation for the sake of innovation is meaningless without a historical context. I recently attended a screening of a documentary following Karlheinz Stockhausen during the rehearsals and premiere of the “Helicopter String Quartet”. I was absolutely shocked to hear him proudly proclaim, “I have never in my life composed for a classical ensemble. This is the first time!” I can only hope this was an exaggeration on his part — without first understanding the history of the music that came before you, it is meaningless to rebel against these standards.

  6. Sophie Zhao says:

    I completely agree with the idea that this “creativity crisis” is more a problem of creative willpower. There are so many standards in today’s society that people are trying to please and stand by, subconsciously or not. While people are addressing that these musicians and artists have problems embracing the “maverick” within them, I am not a student in the music or art school, and I’ve realize how even less “maverick-y” students in other concentrations are. As a business student, I am constantly surrounded by people who are far from being mavericks. The idea that mavericks could be limited by bosses in the workplace is definitely an issue. However, I believe that everyone is in some way a maverick and simply needs to understand how to embrace this feature of them to allow them to be the most successful. Some mavericks may need a boss and lack the leadership and structure to fully present their creative thoughts. Others may be most successful working for themselves and not let the ideas of their workplace complicate an individual idea they have in mind. I think it’s important for people to understand themselves, their strengths, and how best they can embrace the maverick within them so that they are working and creating to their full potential.

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