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!
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
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
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).
‘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
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….
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…