Theme and variations


Dear Artist,

Around 1723, Johann Sebastian Bach composed his Two-and-Three-Part Inventions, the keyboard exercises he wrote for his students and his growing brood of kids. Bach described these call-and-answer, contrapuntal inventions as a means of obtaining and carrying out good ideas by learning to play clearly separate voices. Wanting to give his students a taste of how to build compositions, Bach arranged the Inventions in progression, ascending in major and minor keys. The result is a structure that serves as a backbone for understanding the melodic variation possible while hinged on one musical theme.

Hollywood Africans (1983) Acrylic and oil stick on canvas 84 1/16 x 84 inches by Jean-Michel Basquiat (1960-1988)

Hollywood Africans (1983)
Acrylic and oil stick on canvas
84 1/16 x 84 inches
by Jean-Michel Basquiat (1960-1988)

Around 2003, 17-year-old future composer and bandleader Jon Batiste left his musical family and band in Kenner, Louisiana to study piano at the Juilliard School in New York City. Wanting to develop uniquely from the New Orleans influences and styles of his upbringing, Jon searched for something he had not quite identified, he admits, knowing only that he wanted to “go out and risk failure apart from the community that knew me.” One evening at a jam, Jon heard a composition by Thelonious Monk, performed by a band in the vibe and flavour Jon knew he’d been searching for in his own playing. Full of dissonance, question-and-answer, articulation and pathos, the composition struck Jon with the realization that here was an artist who “had cultivated a sound that I was intuitively reaching for, 50 years before I existed — I didn’t even know that what I was reaching for had already been developed.” And there began the evolution of Jon’s own sound and style, with Monk at the centre as forefather.

Here are a few ideas for finding your own “sound,” whether at the piano, the easel or somewhere else inventive:

King Zulu (1986) Acrylic, wax and felt tip pen on canvas 79 3/4 x 100 inches by Jean-Michel Basquiat

King Zulu (1986)
Acrylic, wax and felt tip pen on canvas
79 3/4 x 100 inches
by Jean-Michel Basquiat

Make phrases that ask questions. Then try to answer them.

Leave space, let things ring out and become filled with new implications.

Find artists you can return to for inspiration, while developing your own contemporary tone and articulation.

Think of a place and put yourself in the story. Be authentic when conveying an emotion and vibe.

Set the scene and feel the urgency of what’s going on and what’s going to happen.

Keep nostalgia subtle, so that it can give you excitement without being overwhelming. Avoid hysterics, opting instead for what Jon calls “an intelligent excitement.”

Be conscious, then unconscious, about your reference and explorations.

A Panel of Experts (1982) Acrylic and oil paintstick and paper collage on canvas with exposed wood supports and twine 60 × 60 inches by Jean-Michel Basquiat

A Panel of Experts (1982)
Acrylic and oil stick and paper collage on canvas with exposed wood supports and twine
60 × 60 inches
by Jean-Michel Basquiat



PS: “You can only be what you are.” (Jon Batiste)

Esoterica: “There’s so much there,” says Jon, when describing Bach’s sound. “Bach is the mysticism of music, the spirituality of music.” According to Jon, Bach was able to be so systematic, logical and symmetrical because of a kind of musical game he played that harboured a depth of human feeling and a range of human emotions. He believes Bach was asking questions in his music about the afterlife. “It makes you realize what’s possible,” says Jon. “He’s arguably the best at a thing that anyone’s ever been in the history of doing a thing.”

Jon Batiste’s 2018 album Hollywood Africans, named after the painting by Jean-Michel Basquiat is available on Amazon, here.

J.S. Bach’s Two-and-Three-Part Inventions is available on Amazon, here and here.

Terry Gross’ 2018, at-the-piano interview with Jon Batiste on NPR is here.

Jean-Michel Basquiat, 1987, in his New York studio (all portraits in the story are previously unpublished).CreditTseng Kwong Chi © Muna Tseng Dance Projects, Inc., New York“Question, answer and all of a sudden moving, just two melodies playing, a conversation, call and response, harmony and dissonance. That’s life, that’s our journey; exemplified in a single piece that he wrote for his kids.” (Jon Batiste, describing Bach’s Two-and-Three-Part Inventions.)




  1. Jennifer Kane on

    Wonderful letter. Deeply inspiring. I love making order in my art, and don’t encounter kindred spirits often enough!

  2. Nancy Willson Edgar on

    Thank you, Sara. I’m not an artist, just a longtime Genn reader. This letter is so stimulating, its ideas can be taken up and applied obliquely to a much wider range of action and interraction. It’s wide-awake time!

  3. This was wonderful, thank you so very much. I need to listen carefully, start asking and answering questions and keep on keeping on. Great inspiration here!

  4. I read this post last evening and have been thinking about it since….so I wrote a little haiku as catharsis….

    Juvenile Doodles
    Have supplanted real talent
    Pyrrhic Victory

    NYC has given us as much trash as treasure. Too bad we find it so difficult to determine difference. On a positive note….even the most marginal have a chance at the golden ring if they can convince the right people to invest in them. It’s all a matter of perception….

  5. Sara, I love your letters and Robert’s letters. But sometimes I have absolutely no idea what the letter is about. This is one of those times. I hope that is okay.



  6. Wonderful, words, music, images. Thank you, Sara… I am mid-stream attempting to modernize my paintings,,, it’s a big gap from Bach to Batiste… !
    The melody is hidden in all sound… the design in all nature and things….You encourage me to keep digging for gold in my own mine (mind). So timely, so thought provoking right now….

  7. Kathryn Taylor on

    Hi Sara. I like this letter, titled,”Themes and Variations.” I think it describes the way artists (Painters, Writers, Musicians) think. Or, even as helpful guidance in creating. From Bach to Batiste to Basquiat …. interesting and inspiring. Thank you!

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