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 can’t say I’m the world’s most prolific social media user sometimes, especially when I’m going through a heavy work phase as I have been recently (more on this soon)… but sometimes I have to admit that it facilitates wonderful meetings with people I would very likely never have encountered otherwise.
Recently, after a lively debate on another online-friend’s post, I was contacted by Deryn Collier to see if I was interested in making a contribution to her ongoing series of ‘Soundbites’ – short, provocative question-and-answer format pieces on creative ideas and issues.
The question Deryn gave me was this:
Stacey Cornelius’ post a few weeks ago got us talking about creativity and risk. You have a project underway where you compose a piece in less than an hour and you post it immediately to your website. Most people would call this risky, but you think of it as exploration and play. Is there a difference? What is it? Risk of what? Exploration of what?
And, given the tight 200-word limit, here’s what I came up with:
First I should probably clarify that the ‘under an hour’ thing is more a prescription than a rule, as I don’t like being rigid about these things. However, it’s a helpful framework for actually getting something done… It also minimizes risk, as it’s clear that not every session will produce a masterpiece.
However, I believe creative risk is largely artificial and comes from falling into a trap I like to call the Phony Syndrome – imagining that everything we ‘put out there’ is an opportunity for the world to discover the frightened child hiding behind the confident, competent façade we try so hard to maintain.
But kids don’t actually do this to themselves, at least not until we teach them to. They don’t worry about how their work will be perceived, they just pour the blocks out on the floor and start stacking them up into something. What people will think of it or whether it’s ‘good enough’ are thoughts that don’t enter their minds until later. I think it’s our great mistake to let them in.
So I basically try to channel that approach as much as possible. If people end up liking the results, so much the better!
We’re travelling in Canada just now, and we just got back to Montreal (our home base when we’re back here) from a week-and-a-bit in Ontario. One of our stops was with some old friends north of Toronto; since Ed, one of the friends in question, has also been a lifelong musical collaborator, it seemed natural to try to make a little music together to mark the occasion.
This is nothing unusual; despite our lives taking very different directions over the years, we’ve tried to maintain our musical connection with fairly frequent collaborations of one sort or another – I’ve sat in with his band on a few occasions, which is always fun, and played some tracks on a couple of his albums, including the superb new double album ‘Oracles and Ice Cream‘.
However, this time we flipped things around a little – I invited him to contribute to an installment of my ongoing ambient/electronic project, Sound Fascination. I really had no idea how this would turn out – we’ve never worked in that style together, and we weren’t even playing together per se, I was simply trusting him to jump in and find something cool and interesting to play over a ‘bed of sound’ I’d prepared. Which, of course, is exactly what happened.
Connect the dots
When I posted this track (called ‘Melancthon‘ after the township Ed lives in), I included the following in the description:
“It’s always amazing to me how after so many years we can still find the connection point so easily and organically…”
… and this got me thinking about creative ‘connection’ and what that might mean, and how one might go about fostering such a thing. I’ve written here before about collaboration and what an important role I think it plays in creative life and development, but I’m talking here about that natural, effortless mutual understanding that sometimes ‘just happens’ with someone – and makes collaboration that much easier, deeper, more efficient and satisfying.
While it’s not so surprising that I should have an easy and ‘organic’ musical connection with someone I’ve known all my life and indeed, with whom I learned much of what I know about music (at least, much of what I think is really important), this kind of connection is something I’ve felt with people I’ve just met, and people who work in completely different creative arenas.
So I’ve been thinking about what might lie behind this. How is it that sometimes we just ‘connect’ with other people and sometimes we don’t? Is it a matter of some literal or figurative ‘chemistry’ we cannot hope to understand intellectually? (I’m talking about creative connections here, primarily, but of course people ‘connect’ with each other, or fail to, in all sorts of ways). Is there some common factor in all these different kinds of connection? More
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
(or, the importance of having the wrong tools for the job…)
“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!) More
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.