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!)

Why the ‘wrong’ tool is often the more creative one…

It’s axiomatic among woodworkers and do-it-yourself types, the importance of having the right tools for the job, and up to a point this is true in more overtly creative endeavours as well (hey, what do you know, I’ve already written about this too!). However, today I’d like to flip this around a bit and look at it from another angle. The point is, there is often more creative fuel to be found in not having exactly the right tool, or exactly the right piece of lego. Re-purposing or re-imagining something, using it in a completely different context, is often far more interesting and opens up more possibilities.

Of course, if using the wrong tool for the job is likely to get your finger cut off, it’s not recommended, so I’m not suggesting reckless abandon where safety is at stake. As always my main perspective on all this comes from the realm of music, where mistakes rarely present significant physical danger.

Today’s post is inspired, in part, by the title of a piece I’m working on for the Sound Fascination series, which goes by the same name (listen to it in the player above!). I called it that because the process of building one of the sounds involved (using a powerful sound design tool called ‘Kore’) reminded me of the same kind of open-ended creativity that I used to feel when building those imaginary spacecraft, which went something like this:

With a very broad idea in mind, reach into the lego box and fumble around for something that looks interesting, or like it might fit the immediate purpose, and see what comes up. Stick it onto what you’ve built already and see if it feels right, and let that determine the idea for the next bit. If it doesn’t seem to fit, put it back in the box and look for another – and maybe in two minutes the first piece will be exactly right for some completely different purpose.

Of course, there’s a word for this process: it’s called ‘play’. And while I said above that most of what I know about creativity comes from observing myself and others, I could just as easily say that most of what I know about creativity comes from playing with lego, from building lego spaceships.

What if you have too many tools?

Of course, part of the motivation for this whole new project that I’m working on is the collection of amazing tools for creating and sculpting sound that I’ve amassed over the past few years, so in a way it’s odd that I’m writing about the importance of having a limited set of tools. I’ve got a functionally infinite realm of sonic possibility in front of me every time I sit down in the studio (I’m sitting there right now). So how do I decide what to build, what pieces to start with, what colours and shapes and sizes?

I’m reminded here of an interview I read a while ago with a musician/producer/engineer named Scott Solter, about whom I know precisely nothing except what’s in the article (in Tape Op magazine, issue #67). He talks a lot about ‘prescriptions’, which he describes as “ways of getting into a piece without the confusion of too many choices… of approaching each piece without becoming consumed with too many ‘what ifs’…” A prescription is a way of setting out ‘parameters’ that form “an artistic architecture that gives a project shape and direction”. For example, the piece I made today is a lego spaceship…

That makes a lot of sense to me, and while I haven’t yet experimented with setting out formal prescriptions for these pieces (note that we are not using the word ‘rules’ here, which would mean something very different), I do have a few useful guidelines. One of them is that I try to use no more than 4 or 5 sound sources in a given piece, and often less. I’m trying to get at an immediate kind of process, and that means not getting too lost in adding layer after layer, or detail after detail. After all, building a lego spaceship is really only fun if you can finish it at one sitting, and that means working with what you have and not second-guessing yourself at every turn.

A little knowledge is a (wonderfully) dangerous thing!

Another way I like to ‘keep things real’ is by only half-knowing what I’m doing with most of these tools. I’m a self-confessed dabbler, tweaker and preset-surfer. I don’t spend countless hours building up sounds from basic waveforms, though I’m very happy that there are people that do… I’m far more likely to look around and grab something that seems interesting and start playing it, and then tweak it a bit until it works for what I’m doing. I am a big fan of morphing and randomization functions. The creativity, for me, is all about finding unusual combinations, hearing things that might work together in an interesting way, and letting the process determine the outcome. If I know too much, I’m more likely to get lost in the process and lose sight of the goal.

Of course, I’m not saying that I have no idea what I’m doing. I’ve been working with electronic music in one form or another for 25 years, and music more broadly for longer than that. I’ve put in my ten-thousand hours and then some on a number of levels, particularly with regards to playing the piano and understanding music theory – but I’ve always been curious about too many different things to become a real specialist in any one of them. For better or for worse, I’ve always been more interested in the big picture, in learning just enough to do what I want to do or what the immediate process demands, and then moving on.

That process, with all its flaws and all its unpredictable quirkiness, is at the heart of my version of creativity. It’s the defining feature of my music, at least from my perspective. I’d love to hear yours, in the comments area below – are you a specialist or a generalist? how does playfulness inform your creative process?

* quote taken from the Flickr page, presumably a quote from the creator of the ‘Tree Ark’ spaceship in the picture