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.

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