I’ve been thinking about brains.
Well, to be honest I’ve done a whole lot of thinking about brains over the years, so this is not exactly a recent development. But brains have been, umm, on my mind, as it were, even more than usual lately.
I think what started it, I mean this latest bout of cerebral preoccupation, was an article about a scientist getting a very large grant from the European Union, like a billion dollars large, to develop a complete virtual model of a human brain.
Now the idea of artificial intelligence is nothing new, of course – we’ve had blockbuster movies about it, after all… And the idea of AI has always been to explore the workings of the human brain by modeling various aspects of it in software, as it were… So the idea of a complete virtualization is not exactly revolutionary. Arguably the concept is foundational, at least since a brilliant young scientist devised a kind of ‘test’ for artificial intelligence that bears his name….
But this is not an article about artificial brains per se, and truth be told it’s real, organic brains that interest me more – and not just brains either… But brains are where we’ll start, for now.
I can’t say I’m the world’s most prolific social media user sometimes, especially when I’m going through a heavy work phase as I have been recently (more on this soon)… but sometimes I have to admit that it facilitates wonderful meetings with people I would very likely never have encountered otherwise.
Recently, after a lively debate on another online-friend’s post, I was contacted by Deryn Collier to see if I was interested in making a contribution to her ongoing series of ‘Soundbites’ - short, provocative question-and-answer format pieces on creative ideas and issues.
The question Deryn gave me was this:
Stacey Cornelius’ post a few weeks ago got us talking about creativity and risk. You have a project underway where you compose a piece in less than an hour and you post it immediately to your website. Most people would call this risky, but you think of it as exploration and play. Is there a difference? What is it? Risk of what? Exploration of what?
And, given the tight 200-word limit, here’s what I came up with:
First I should probably clarify that the ‘under an hour’ thing is more a prescription than a rule, as I don’t like being rigid about these things. However, it’s a helpful framework for actually getting something done… It also minimizes risk, as it’s clear that not every session will produce a masterpiece.
However, I believe creative risk is largely artificial and comes from falling into a trap I like to call the Phony Syndrome – imagining that everything we ‘put out there’ is an opportunity for the world to discover the frightened child hiding behind the confident, competent façade we try so hard to maintain.
But kids don’t actually do this to themselves, at least not until we teach them to. They don’t worry about how their work will be perceived, they just pour the blocks out on the floor and start stacking them up into something. What people will think of it or whether it’s ‘good enough’ are thoughts that don’t enter their minds until later. I think it’s our great mistake to let them in.
So I basically try to channel that approach as much as possible. If people end up liking the results, so much the better!
I have never regretted choosing music as my main creative idiom. There are so many reasons I think it’s the best thing I could have chosen to dedicate my creative life to. I’m not saying it’s ‘better’ than any other art form, but for me personally, I figure it has just about everything.
Music is infinitely deep and vast. It’s always going to be ‘bigger than me’ by orders of magnitude and I will never run out of amazing things to learn and discover about it. It’s the perfect marriage of mathematics and emotion. It combines the joys of physical technique and mastery of tools with those of storytelling, of spinning a narrative in an eloquent non-verbal (and verbal, if you lean that way) language.
Music moves people. I know of no other art form that can get so deep under peoples’ skin and cause them to tap their toes, bob their heads, clap or drum along, play air guitar or dance around the room. We don’t put it in museums and go to look at it while talking in whispers. Even dance, as an art form, does not often make other people want to dance; we tend to sit still and watch other people do it. Music makes us move.
Music is highly portable. You can play or practise all alone, for no-one but yourself, and get endless pleasure from it – or you can use it as a medium for profound connection and/or collaboration. Music connects people like little else. People define their whole identities around music that speaks to them or for them in a powerful way.
Music can express absolutely anything. It can be beautiful, light, airy, dark, angry, sensitive, aggressive, contemplative, meditative, virtuosic, stunningly complex or sublimely simple. And because it can be very simple, it can be made by nearly anyone. It’s this last point that I want to talk about today. More
What makes people different? What makes creative people, create differently?
When we speak of someone having a particular style, or a unique approach to what they do, what does that mean?
In the case of music or art, how can two people who work in the same medium or idiom, play the same instrument, and perhaps even have the same influences, do what they do so differently? Or if the differences are subtle, how can they change the experience for the listener or viewer so profoundly? What is that difference made of?
I’ve been thinking about these questions quite a lot lately, partly because we’ve had some substitutes playing in the band at the show I’ve been working for these past few months.
Now, we maintain a pretty high standard of musicianship – the core players are all very accomplished and versatile players, and when we ‘sub out’ we try to make sure we hire replacements of the same calibre. Luckily Berlin is well-stocked with fantastic musicians, and we’re fairly well connected with the community. So it’s not hard to bring in players that are up to the challenge.
However, it changes the music and the experience dramatically. For us, for our non-musical colleagues in the show, and for the audience, though they may be unaware of it.
I suppose through a certain lens this is all very unsurprising, but I started to ponder it a little and it began to strike me as a deeper and more subtle thing than it might seem at first glance. And, well, I’m all about exploring deep and subtle questions that might otherwise be overlooked… More
I had a good night at work last night. Not a perfect night, mind you, just a good night. And while riding home through quiet streets (I’m a pretty devoted bicycle commuter) I started to think about what made it a good night.
Now regular readers will recall that my current ‘job’ is playing piano and keyboards (and a bit of trumpet) for a crazy circus/cabaret/dinner theatre show called Palazzo. So when I say I had a good night, it means I was happy with my playing, and with how I presented myself and contributed to the music and the show.
So I got to thinking, what goes into that? In a nutshell, I need to feel that I’m basically ‘good enough’ for the job I’m paid to do, or the project I’ve taken on. Maybe a bit more than good enough, but at least that. I am not the kind of person that is able to be happy with myself or my work if I feel like I’m struggling and not really delivering the goods.
Since I grew up around a lot of scientists and generally like to systematize things, let’s break it down. What are the specific requirements of ‘good enough’ – or of ‘feeling successful’, as a wise colleague used to call it?
Well, I’ve come up with four which seem to determine it for me in my current line of work, and as usual I suspect they may apply more broadly…
I enjoy explaining things, which is a good thing, since I have an almost-five-year-old who likes to ask questions. I suppose this is not unusual, but I’ve always viewed it as an interesting challenge to give him answers that are clear but comprehensible. And as time goes by, his questions get more and more interesting and perceptive.
I’ve noticed a trend in our explaining-things conversations: my answers tend to inevitably progress towards more basic underlying concepts, usually with a single fundamental tenet at the end: entropy and the laws of thermal dynamics, basic evolutionary theory and genetics, or often, the idea of energy. (I realize that these are fairly abstract concepts for a small child, but my philosophy is to be honest and clear and try to give examples that relate to familiar things).
‘Energy’ is one of those words with a lot of definitions, like ‘time’ or ‘spring’ or ‘clear‘. It’s a rich and subtle concept and underlies a lot of our relationship with the world. Everything we do, indeed everything in the universe, can be expressed and understood as an exchange or a transformation of energy.
Creativity is, of course, no exception. While creating ‘something out of nothing’ is a nice turn of phrase, under the surface nothing new is ever really created, we just move things around and reorganize them into new patterns. That’s still a lot, and making new patterns is a profound and transformational thing to do! But here’s the thing: it takes energy.
And in my own life, energy has been at something of a premium for the last few months… More