Have We Been Taking the Wrong Approach?

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Creative Commons License photo credit: CarbonNYC

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

The First Time…

Preparing for flight

Creative Commons License photo credit: Daniel Flower

Note: this is a slightly edited re-post from the first ‘version’ of this blog, and functions as a bit of a teaser for the now basically finished and nearly release-ready ‘Cliffjump Manifesto’ that I’ve been talking about here for far too long…

About six or seven years ago I spent some time in Dubrovnik, Croatia, a stunning medieval walled city on the eastern coast of the Adriatic. Some good friends/colleagues and I had the good fortune to have a ‘working holiday’ arrangement there for a couple of summers, whereby we would play music – basically whatever we felt like playing, but nominally jazz – in exchange for lodgings and food at a cool local taverna called the Sesame. Nice place, recommended if it’s still there!

During the daytime we could pretty much do whatever we wanted, which was naturally walking, exploring, swimming, and generally hanging out. Dubrovnik has incredibly thick and ancient stone walls, which in many places stand right on the water. In a number of spots there are narrow passages through the wall to little enclaves on the outside, often small cafés or restaurant. One of these, which we never really knew the name of but which we called ‘the Lav’ for reasons that will shortly become clear, was a favorite haunt in the late afternoon.

Everybody’s doing it…

Now ‘Lav’ in Croation (I am told) means ‘lion’, and the reason we called it that was this: next to the restaurants zone there was a kind of high rock terrace overlooking the water, and at the lip of this was a large rock on which someone had written this word, ‘Lav’. This was where people jumped from. I don’t really know how high it actually was, perhaps 15 meters (50 feet) or so. High enough to be daunting, but then lots of people were doing it; you could swim right underneath, the water was very clear and you could see that the shore dropped off very steeply and there was lots of uninterrupted water of great depth to jump into.

Nevertheless, it was a kind of test of courage, which built up over days and days while I built up my resolve to try this thing. I’m not a kid anymore and I don’t take these things as lightly as I used to, but I also haven’t completely outgrown the urge for a physical rush. So I have a very clear memory of standing up there on the rock on the day that I had decided I was going to do this thing, and taking deep breaths and telling myself that it was going to be OK, people were doing this all the time.. and fighting the biological imperative we all have built in that tells us to NOT JUMP OFF OF VERY HIGH THINGS, EVEN IF EVERYONE ELSE IS DOING IT….


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!)…


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…

Keep it secret! Keep it safe!

My preciousnesss
Creative Commons License photo credit: lrargerich

I read a short blog post a few days ago called ‘Creative Privacy‘, which posed the question “Do you agree that it’s best to keep your creative projects private until you’re ready for input and criticism?”… here’s what I posted by way of a comment:

This is a thorny one. I think it really depends on what you’re looking for by ‘letting people in’… and on your degree of artistic confidence. If you’re looking for approval or validation, because you need those things in order to feel OK about your work, then I think there’s danger there for sure. If you’re looking for criticism to hone your ideas, and you’re confident enough to handle that, it can be a healthy part of the process. It’s not necessary – some people create in a very private way, some in a very public way. I’ve experimented with both, and have pretty much arrived at a place where I’m confident enough to have a very open process; the project I’m immersed in now is a relatively public one, where I put out works in a very raw form and I’m not much bothered by how people respond to it. I’m really just happy if there is *some* response as opposed to deafening silence…

Predictably, there was a range of other responses, ranging from the somewhat paranoid (“what if someone steals your idea?”) to the more blustery (“I’m an artist. I don’t care about input and criticism!”). Some found an ambivalent middle ground; I guess you could put my own response in that category.

I think it’s worth examining our responses to this a little more closely, because they say a lot about our relationship to our work…


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.