music

Creative Mastery

Padmasambhava Statue, Nepal
Creative Commons License photo credit: Wonderlane

Today we’re going to talk about mastery. Thats right, you heard me. Mastery. Not ‘being pretty good at something’ or ‘knowing more or less what you’re doing’ or even ‘being in the zone’ or ‘feeling the flow’. Mastery. Being a master of whatever it is that you do. You in? Good. Buckle up…

So. I have a few piano students these days, and while the lessons are largely focused on practical pianistic things, I try to teach from the same kind of holistic perspective and approach that informs my composition and performance work – and of course, this blog. So from time to time some of the more abstract and philosophical stuff does find its way into the lessons.

Recently I found myself trying to convey something which has become very central to my whole thinking about music and piano-playing, in a kind of subconscious way, and I think it applies to creative work more broadly. It concerns, as you may have guessed already, the concept of mastery.

I suspect that many creative people tend to have a vague idea of mastery as something unattainable, or at least attainable only by an elite and supremely gifted few. Something for the rest of us to strive towards, perhaps, but never attain. And what would it feel like to attain it, anyway, since we never really sit down and define exactly what it means? How would we know that we’ve arrived?

Some of us are even uncomfortable with the whole idea, mistrusting perhaps the elitist overtones… And yet there are masters, undeniably – those whose abilities seem to transcend normal limitations, whose confidence and poise match their technical command, who make it seem easy.

I believe that coming to terms with this word, and what it means to us, can have a profound impact on our approach to creative work. So I’m going to try to get very specific about what it means to me (and as always, you’re heartily invited to join me with your comments at the end!)…

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Authentic Creativity

The Holy Trinity: Onion, Celery, Bell Pepper
Creative Commons License photo credit: shawnzrossi

I did an interview recently, focused on my compositional work and approach (I’ll post a link when it goes live) and, as often happens in these things, once we’d wrapped it up and signed off I found my brain spinning with other ideas. You know, things we didn’t touch on but could have, things I wish I’d said or wish I’d said better. So it goes. I guess I just need to do more interviews…

However, one of these ‘afterthoughts’ has stuck with me, and I’d like to try to expand on it a bit here. It has to do with authenticity. Now, this is a subject I’ve touched on here before, and of course it’s also something of a buzz word in the interwebs generally and the blogosphere more specifically. We need to be more authentic, we’re told; people like authenticity, it’s generally considered to be a Good Thing.

But, ummm, what is it? What does it mean? I suppose standard answer would probably be something like “being true to yourself” – but let’s face it, that’s basically a meaningless cliché and doesn’t tell us much of anything at all. It’s an unexamined platitude.

(Quick aside: I’m generally allergic to unexamined platitudes – ideas or terms that are bantered around without anyone ever seeming to take the time to really question and define them, or find out if in fact there’s any substance to them at all. Or perhaps allergic is not the right word; I’m actually kind of attracted to these linguistic or logical black holes. I’m driven to try to figure out what, if anything, they mean – or at least, what they mean to me.)

Give The People What They Want…

A slightly better / more complete answer, then, for me – and the one I’ve been using for a while now, in various contexts – is this: Always try to be the best, most honest version of yourself, rather than being what you think people want you to be (or saying what they want to hear, and so on). It’s still pretty vague, but at least it’s something. The key here is that in fact we can’t ever know, really, what people want us to be, so it’s best not to spend a lot of time trying to reverse-engineer it.

However, I still think there’s room for improvement. And while I don’t claim to be any kind of ultimate authority on the subject, I do seem to have stumbled on something that is serving me reasonably well – for the moment at least – as a kind of guideline to help me move towards some kind of authenticity in my own life and work.

And it has to do with stew. Or goulash, gumbo, whatever, take your pick…
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Portable Creativity

Old fashioned wheelbarrow
Creative Commons License photo credit: Walt Stoneburner

As mentioned in the previous post, I’m travelling in Canada just now with my family, on our yearly whirlwind visit to see friends and extended family. As I often do, I have a ‘mobile rig’ with me, with a view towards doing some creative work while I’m here, rather than putting everything on hold until I get back to home base in Berlin.

This year I’ve been somewhat more successful at this (so far, at least) than in previous years, partly because I have an ongoing project that lends itself to ‘short-burst’ creativity: the Sound Fascination project. I thought I’d take a moment to look at that and why it’s helping me keep the creative juices flowing a bit more.

I think it’s important to clarify that this is not accidental. It’s kind of built in to the framework of what I’m doing, and that was deliberate. I’m not saying this to blow my own horn and point out how clever I am; it’s taken me a long, long time to arrive at this point and I’ve had to confront a few creative demons along the way. So, in the spirit of learning from my mistakes and sharing the few bits of wisdom I’ve been able to glean in the process… let’s get into it! More

Creative Connections


Creative Commons License photo credit: downhilldom1984

We’re travelling in Canada just now, and we just got back to Montreal (our home base when we’re back here) from a week-and-a-bit in Ontario. One of our stops was with some old friends north of Toronto; since Ed, one of the friends in question, has also been a lifelong musical collaborator, it seemed natural to try to make a little music together to mark the occasion.

This is nothing unusual; despite our lives taking very different directions over the years, we’ve tried to maintain our musical connection with fairly frequent collaborations of one sort or another – I’ve sat in with his band on a few occasions, which is always fun, and played some tracks on a couple of his albums, including the superb new double album ‘Oracles and Ice Cream‘.

However, this time we flipped things around a little – I invited him to contribute to an installment of my ongoing ambient/electronic project, Sound Fascination. I really had no idea how this would turn out – we’ve never worked in that style together, and we weren’t even playing together per se, I was simply trusting him to jump in and find something cool and interesting to play over a ‘bed of sound’ I’d prepared. Which, of course, is exactly what happened.

Connect the dots

When I posted this track (called ‘Melancthon‘ after the township Ed lives in), I included the following in the description:

“It’s always amazing to me how after so many years we can still find the connection point so easily and organically…”

… and this got me thinking about creative ‘connection’ and what that might mean, and how one might go about fostering such a thing. I’ve written here before about collaboration and what an important role I think it plays in creative life and development, but I’m talking here about that natural, effortless mutual understanding that sometimes ‘just happens’ with someone – and makes collaboration that much easier, deeper, more efficient and satisfying.

While it’s not so surprising that I should have an easy and ‘organic’ musical connection with someone I’ve known all my life and indeed, with whom I learned much of what I know about music (at least, much of what I think is really important), this kind of connection is something I’ve felt with people I’ve just met, and people who work in completely different creative arenas.

So I’ve been thinking about what might lie behind this. How is it that sometimes we just ‘connect’ with other people and sometimes we don’t? Is it a matter of some literal or figurative ‘chemistry’ we cannot hope to understand intellectually? (I’m talking about creative connections here, primarily, but of course people ‘connect’ with each other, or fail to, in all sorts of ways). Is there some common factor in all these different kinds of connection? More

On Commitment, part 4: Why aren’t you out mowing the lawn?

Backyard Hair Cut

Creative Commons License photo credit: seantoyer

In the last post here, I mentioned an interview by a producer/engineer named Scott Solter, and while I was looking it over again, checking it to make sure I had the ideas right, something else caught my eye and subsequently became lodged in my mind. I’ve been thinking about it ever since, probably because it relates directly to both the creative project I’m immersed in right now, and also to a theme I’ve touched on in these pages before: namely, the idea of commitment.

It turns out that this notion is also rather important for Mr. Solter, and in the interview (it’s really more of an introduction to his work and the ideas that inform it, in sixteen short and somewhat oblique chapters) he describes what it means for him. I no longer have the article at hand, being on the road just now – I’m writing this on a train from Berlin to Amsterdam – but here’s what I can recall, and a few things it’s led me to think about…

The interviewer is inquiring about his (Scott’s) recording methodology, on a practical level, whether he prefers to use tape or computers, that sort of thing. With most people working in the audio field, that kind of question will usually lead to discussions of the merits of analog frequency response versus those of rapid, non-linear editing, or the positive effects of tube or tape saturation versus the amazing creative potential of digital signal processing, or the warmth and dimension of analog summing versus the flexibility and accuracy of mixing in-the-box.

If you choose not to decide…

Not so with Mr. Solter (although I imagine he has opinions on all the above, or at least is not unfamiliar with the arguments). For him, the central issue is one of commitment. The problem with working in the all-digital, non-destructive, we-can-always-change-this-plugin-later mode so common in audio production at this point (hint: it’s very much the mode I tend to work in) is that it’s all too easy to defer decisions, to end up not making real creative choices in the moment when we’re creating, which is probably when we should be making them.

To put this in more concrete terms, he illustrates the point with the example of recording a bass part for a track: “If you don’t know what the bass is supposed to sound like, why are you tracking the bass right now? Why aren’t you outside mowing the lawn?”

Being in an audio-industry magazine, the interview was intended for an audience that is more familiar with the technical background, so I’ll embellish a little with my own interpretation and response to this simple but, to me, deceptively powerful idea… More

Lego Spaceships

(or, the importance of having the wrong tools for the job…)

Tree Ark
Creative Commons License photo credit: pasukaru76 (move prep)

“To speed up the terraforming process in the Eridanus sector, giant pine trees were grown. Riding massive ion beams, each tree would carry billions of micro-organisms to a target planet, and there serve as an initial beachhead to kick-start the conversion process.” *

I used to build a lot of lego spaceships. First as an eager student with my older brothers, and later on, with my kid sister, as a wise and experienced teacher (though of course she’s taught me a lot along the way as well)… it was the late 70’s and early 80’s, the first trio of Star Wars movies were all the rage, and spaceships were pretty much the only thing we wanted to build.

However, we didn’t have a lot of special spaceship-lego, it was mostly simple old blocky stuff, and certainly if there were any official spaceship kits in the collection, they were dispersed and the instructions were lost and to be honest, we never had that much interest in building them in the first place. The real fun was in making new, innovative, original spacecraft out of whatever pieces we had at hand.

Intrepid readers may already have guessed where I’m going with this… especially since I’ve already written about observing the innate creativity of my young son, about the pour-the-blocks-out-and-get-into-it spirit of creative adventure that permeates everything he does. If you’ve read any of my previous posts (and of course, if you’re new here, I eagerly invite you to do so!)  you’ll know that most of what I know about creativity does not come from reading lots of books on the subject, but from observing myself and other creative people and thinking about what seems to work and why it might be that way…

(Mind you, I also have a shelf full of books on creativity, but by and large they mostly give me other perspectives and ways of thinking about things I’ve already observed; hopefully, the things I write about here can do that for you, too!) More