It’s been a while. Nearly 4 years, in fact, judging by the date on the next-newest post to this one. Lots has happened! I wasn’t sure if I would ever get back to this blog. I mean, I never intended to stop, but life kind of got busy for a while there and it fell by the wayside in kind of a big way.
But today I have a reason to fire it up again. And that reason is the subject of this post. Warning: this post – and likely those that follow, at least for a while – will be predominantly personal in focus; however, it (and they) will touch on themes that I think most creative people can relate to, no matter how fearless…
Busy busy busy
A little backstory: I’ve written before about my performance work, which mostly consists of playing piano and keyboards – and increasingly, various other instruments including accordion, trumpet, french horn, and flute – for circus-tinged stage shows here in Germany. That work kind of took over the bulk of my life for a few years – over 200 shows a year for a few years, and these are typically long, intense shows.
I finished a run of such shows, at Palazzo Berlin, in March of this year, and found myself without any performance work on the horizon for 7 months, an unusual situation and while problematic on an income level, not an unwelcome one: I was pretty burnt out, needed a rest, and figured I could tie up a few loose ends and then dive into one or another of my various dormant personal creative projects.
But the weeks went by, and then months, and I realized I wasn’t doing that. The minutiae of daily life – parenting, taxes, home maintenance, computer maintenance, changing phone contracts – was like a gas that expanded to fill its container, and its container was my life.
And so I found myself with a creeping sense of anxiety. I have long defined myself in terms of the creative work that I do, and a lot of my sense of self-worth is tied up with that, for better or for worse. It’s one thing to be too busy performing, playing with other great musicians and crazy talented performers, digging deep and delivering in a professional show night after night and not really feeling like I have the time or energy to dive into a personal passion project. It’s quite another to have, in theory at least, all the time in the world and still be unable to get anything started. More
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.
There’s a unique feeling about being in a New Place – somewhere you’ve never been before, a place you get to see and experience for the first time, with fresh eyes and ears. Anyone who has travelled a reasonable amount will be familiar with it. There’s an alertness, an innocence, an openness to the experience which is really special and which can never really be reclaimed on subsequent visits – although familiarity, of course, brings its own very different rewards.
There is also a difference between being in a new place for a very short time, just passing through as it were, and moving to a new place for a longer period. ‘Just passing through’ is what many tourists and travellers do – even if you have a few days to spend in a great city, say, you still have limited commitment and are really only there for the quick ‘taste test’.
There’s nothing wrong with this, but the fact remainst that living someplace new for an extended period – say, a few months at least – is an essentially different experience. You see things through different eyes when you’re looking for things to ground yourself and your new life in. There is a greater sense of commitment to the neighborhood you have landed in, the shops you know you’ll visit many times, the patterns you’ll fall into.
You’re inserting yourself into the environment in a more substantial way, and allowing itself to get much deeper under your own skin. You’ll become enmeshed with it, hear and feel its more subtle rhythms and allow your own to synchronize somewhat with them.
And being conscious of this at the outset (perhaps because you’ve done it a few times before, as I have) is a pretty neat feeling. It’s fun to know that there is so much waiting to be discovered, so many secrets waiting to reveal themselves to your explorations, so many stories waiting to unfold.
Just passing through, or staying a while?
That’s what I’m experiencing now, for the first time in many years. I’ve relocated for 5 months or so to Vienna, Austria – one of the great cities of Europe, without a doubt, and a place with a deep and complex history and culture which I’m excited to have the opportunity to really explore.
And it’s got me thinking about that particular sense of openness that comes with relocation – as distinct from the dislocation of travel which I discussed in the last post. More than being open to new experience, allowing a place to make its superficial imprint on you and imagining what it might be like to live there, this is about opening ourselves up as well. It’s a symbiotic thing.
In a sense, any creative act is more like this than like the just-passing-through feeling of travel; we give of ourselves to a new creation, and we allow it into ourselves just as we shape it, put our stamp on it, and so on.
But I’m wondering if some creative work is more like this, and some more like travel. There is a different feeling when poised at the edge of beginning something ‘big’, a sense of anticipation that many things remain to be discovered, many secrets have yet to be revealed… More
I have been travelling a lot lately, so I guess that means it’s time for a followup to my old Creativity and Travel post from a couple of years back. I’ve also been reading a bit more than usual, and one of the things I’ve been reading is Jonathan Fields’ excellent book Uncertainty, which I may do a full review of at some point.
I liked a lot of things about Uncertainty, and it rang true in a lot of ways; mostly confirming my suspicion that in many ways I am that oddest of creatures, a person who basically enjoys unstable or unresolved situations, genuinely likes to shake things up, try new and unfamiliar things, take on challenges I don’t know if I’ll be able to meet.
In many ways this ties into my general philosophy of ‘just say yes‘… interestingly, an old friend just contacted me via Facebook and told me that he remembers me from time to time when he uses a story about me learning to tune pianos to try to inspire patients to ‘confidently go forth into areas where they have no apparent skill in the present moment’. Guilty as charged, I suppose!
However, I am also human and so despite learned habit I am subject to many basic human instincts and traits, so the idea that we can find ways to mitigate our general distaste for being out on a limb also made a lot of sense to me. One of the key concepts Fields outlines is that of the Certainty Anchor: these are things in our lives that do not change and/or that we feel sure of, that can give us something stable to hold on to while we take risks in other areas.
Many of these consist of routines. We can anchor our threatened sense of self around a set of things we are sure about and that give us a feeling of security – familiar places, people, little rituals or practices we do the same way or at the same time every day. We all do this anyway, but if we pay a bit more attention to it and do it consciously or with more intention, we can increase that feeling of security that allows us to take risks in other ways.
So what does this have to do with travel? Travel is when we cast the certainty anchors aside for a little while and step into the realm of the genuinely uncertain. Or at least, it can be. Why would we want to do that? Read on…
Battle not with monsters, lest ye become a monster, as Nietzsche once said… and yet here I am coming back for a second round. Yes, it’s time for a re-match with the Rambling Roses (Rosa Multiflora) that are not so slowly but ever so surely taking over my parents’ property here in beautiful Nova Scotia.
The lesson I drew from my last encounter with these invasive giants was about physical work and the creative value to be gleaned from it. This time I’ve been pondering what might be learned from the plants themselves – and from the nature of the battle. More
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