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In Praise of Beginners (part 1)

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Creative Commons License photo credit: jakeandlindsay

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

are you good enough?

The good enough mine
Creative Commons License photo credit: kanu101

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…

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Creative Energy

Vertigo

Creative Commons License photo credit: Krassy Can Do It

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).

making waves

‘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

Sound Fascination!

blue sonar
Creative Commons License photo credit: TheAlieness GiselaGiardino²³

Creativity is a peculiar word. It’s a noun, and its basic meaning is something like ‘the capacity or tendency to be creative’ – that is, it’s directly related to the adjective ‘creative’, as applied to people or actions. So we’re given to understand that what we’re talking about is a quality – and therefore, that people who are creative are inherently and/or always creative, and that they do creative things. But the reality is that many people who are quite capable of doing creative things (i.e. everyone) actually spend a lot of time not doing them. Witness, for example, myself.

I have called myself a composer for quite a few years now. Not because that word is a perfect fit for what I do (when I do it) but because I’m not aware of a better one. I have made a bunch of original music, which didn’t exist before I made it and afterwards did, and I guess that process is called composition. I don’t have any kind of ‘legitimate’ training in composition per se, but I do have a fair amount of knowledge about how to put notes and rhythms and textures and ideas together (some of it even acquired in a formal educational context!). Does this make me a composer? I’m not exactly sure. Does it make me creative? That I can answer: no, it doesn’t. Why not? Because I haven’t done much of it at all for a long time now.

Creativity, in my mind, should refer more to the verb than to the adjective. That is to say, I’m more interested in creating than I am in ‘being creative’. But I cannot say I’ve done a lot of the former over the last while – at least not in the realm of music, which is after all my home turf. So I’ve determined that it’s time I started walking the talk again… More

Switched-On Yule!

Purple Moog
Creative Commons License photo credit: Mooganic

Whoa. Almost two months with nary a post here. Those who do this more, ummm, seriously/successfully would no doubt consider that a bit of a boo-boo, but… well… all I can say is, time flies when you’re having fun! The show I’ve been playing has been somewhat more all-consuming than anticipated, on both the time and energy levels, and so my whole online life has taken a bit of a back seat. So it goes.

I’ll return to that subject in a moment, but first: happy holidays! At least, for everyone that celebrates some sort of holiday around this time of the year. Not being particularly religious at this point in my journey I’m not tied to any particular celebration, but I did grow up with a strong family tradition of celebrating Christmas and, well, old habits die hard.

I definitely do feel that it’s important to take time when the days are shortest (and here in Berlin, they get pretty short, but I know there are lots of folks who have it worse!) to think about and connect with friends and family both far and near, and to mark those connections with gifts, feasts and festivities.


Oh come emmanuel by tobiastinker

And so we have done. I hope you have been able to as well, and that it has been full of peace and love – as life should really be, and not just at holiday time.

Anyway… I’m really just writing to kind of dust things off a bit and say that I’m going to be back at it here in 2011, as much as time allows – my performance schedule is a bit less gruelling, anyway – so hopefully a few of you will remember me and stop by from time to time. As always I’ll try to make it worth your while.

To that end, and in the spirit of giving that the season is known for, I’ve cooked up a little musical project, called ‘Switched-On Yule‘ – a little homage to the wonderful old ‘Switched-On Bach‘ record from 1968 that had a huge influence on me and arguably drew me into electronic music in the first place. More

Fearless Problem-Solving

Maker Faire Africa: Ghana 2009

Creative Commons License photo credit: whiteafrican (from the Maker Faire Africa, Ghana 2009)

What’s the difference between an artist and a technician? I suspect that the answer to that really depends on whom you’re talking to. I’m sure a lot of artists would say there’s all the difference in the world, but I’m not so sure I agree. I also think there are a lot of artists who get a lot done who might question the notion that there’s a cut-and-dried categorical difference between the two.

A lot of what really separates people who make art on an active, daily basis from people who don’t (but perhaps imagine that they could, or would like to) is not some mysterious source of ‘inspiration’ but technical skill and the experience it’s based on. And maybe even more than that, it’s about attitude. It’s about fearlessness.

I’ve been thinking about this lately because I’ve been immersed in a task that was highly technical in nature, and less overtly ‘artistic’ than usual. However, it has in a way been highly creative and satisfying and I thought it would be interesting to explore that a little – and get around the music-and-art-bias that sometimes pervades things around here.

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