‘A mode of composition that does not assign itself limits becomes pure fantasy.’
This pearl of wisdom comes from Stavinsky’s Poetics of Music in the Form of Six Lessons — of which more may be read here — a publication collated from a series of lectures he gave at Harvard in 1939–40.
His sentiment — that creative freedom requires limits to be productive — seems counter-intuitive at first glance. Fortunately he goes on to explain himself…
And yet which of us has ever heard talk of art as other than a realm of freedom? This sort of heresy is uniformally widespread because it is imagined that art is outside the bounds of ordinary activity. Well, in art as in everything else, one can build only upon a resisting foundation: whatever constantly gives way to pressure, constantly renders movement impossible.
My freedom thus consists in my moving about within the narrow frame that I have assigned to myself for each one of my undertakings.
I shall go even further: my freedom will be so much the greater and more meaningful the more narrowly I limit my field of action and the more I surround myself with obstacles. Whatever diminishes constraint diminishes strength. The more constraints one imposes, the more one frees oneself of the claims that shackle the spirit.