creative thinking

A New Place: musings on movement and stasis

a caccia di pozzanghere

Creative Commons License photo credit: ♥serendipity

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

In Praise of Beginners (part 1)

Start
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

Have We Been Taking the Wrong Approach?

[Insert Photos Here]

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

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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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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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