Part 4 on practicing creativity. AKA ‘our longest rant ever’. Why consciously practicing creativity matters. Jaron Lanier. Bernie Worrell. Mining for sapphires. Light pollution. Wilt Chamberlin. Malcolm Gladwell.
Roger CortonWe haven’t had enough talk, talk talk yet about ‘creativity’?
JCHNo. No we HAVEN’T. I promised last time that I was going to explain why this matters so much…
...practicing creativity should be for every musician; not just ‘the elites’. It should be taught to ten year olds; to adult students; to everyone
JCHAnd should matter to you.
RCI am usually reluctant to use the word ‘should’.
JCHWhich is why I’m where I am and why you’re… er… never mind. (laughs) But assuming that someone cares about what I care about than yes, I am going to finish up my…
RCLecture is the word I think you were going for.
JCHAs Fred Flintstone used to say, “How very droll.” OK, here we go. I think it matters for music in general but for progressive rock in particular because, frankly, most of it STINKS.
RCMost of what?
JCHMusic, Rog. What are we talking about here, tangerines?
RCSorry. But that’s such a broad statement. Of the set of all music, most of it stinks?
JCHOK, maybe that was a bit over the top. Hopefully I can be forgiven if I say that I think the situation is DIRE.
RCYou’re doing it again.
JCHDAMN. You’re not letting me get away with anything these days.
RCWell, we’ve been hammering on the same nail now for four weeks so please, let’s get to the point.
JCHTouché. Culture, and by that I mean western culture has been in a state of arrested development for about the past twenty years. I’ve mentioned Jaron Lanier’s great book “You Are Not A Gadget” and he blames this stagnation on the explosion of ‘sharing’ technology. Once we all started sharing everything, musicians started focusing almost all their creative energy on reusing materials rather than creating truly novel ones. One big reason there is almost no emphasis on creating new stuff because there’s this attitude, “Well we’ve found something that ‘works’ so why fix it if it ain’t broke?”
RCWell there’s also this. I was thinking of Bernie Worrell’s passing. NPR played an interview where he complains about young musicians’ dependence on presets these days rather than doing sound design from the ground up. Something like, “Young people are so used to hitting a preset now, pretty soon no one will even know how to play a chord.”
JCHOh, so Bernie gets to exaggerate but I don’t! Typical. But yes, I agree. The skill level of the average musician has never been lower. Or rather, it’s become a bell curve. There are more guys who are phenomenally good technicians and then there are a LOT more guys in the game who use presets. And just to be clear when I say ‘technically good’ I don’t mean that they can necessarily read great or play lots of notes or other traditional metrics. I mean that there are lots more guys now who can sound EXACTLY like Stevie Ray or James Jamerson or whoever. The ability to copy has become simply amazing.
RCBut I take it you’ll say that’s also part of the problem.
JCHFor sure. As I said a couple of weeks ago, doing something different is a key to having your own style. But the emphasis now has been on becoming ‘that guy’. The ability to emulate is now considered to be a form of ‘creativity’ in its own right. Kind of like how ‘DJing’ is now considered to be on a par with ‘musicianship. To my mind, it’s confusing ‘skill’ with ‘creativity’.
RCWhy do you think that is?
JCHWell, as a brilliant guy once said to me, or maybe I said it to myself and I’ve convinced myself that someone brilliant said it to me, “All the good notes are taken.” There’s a worship of the past now. Maybe what we call ‘tonal music’ has kinda run out of gas. I dunno. But more and more I hear music which sounds like something else. It’s perhaps more finely crafted than the source, but it’s still the same. Everything seems retro now. Truly new sounding material just doesn’t seem to captivate.
RCWhat’s wrong with that?
JCHI always go back to this counterpoint teacher I had who told me something so unbelievable that it took me a decade to realize that he was telling the truth. It was so outrageous that I completely ignored his follow-up comment.
JCHHe said that there were a number of people alive now who could write in the style of Bach that would be indistinguishable from the original. In essence, other people could write Bach as well as, or better than Bach.
JCHThink about it. People run faster now than before. They play basketball better. It’s arrogant to think that some people are so ‘touched’ by genius that they can’t be copied, even after hundreds of years of effort. Lots of guys have made copies of Van Gogh or Da Vinci paintings that can’t be detected by experts. So why not (cough) ‘discover’ a new Bach concerto? But that’s not the important thing. Remember the follow-up comment.
RCWhich you ignored.
JCHThe world doesn’t need another Bach. The world needs the ‘Bach’ that matches the current time. Boy does that resonate with me now. But we seem to be stuck in this time warp where people continue to polish established genres to an ever finer lustre. And that’s decadent with a capital ‘D’. It’s much easier than struggling to make sense of your own time. That’s also the Solid State Siren. It’s nice and safe and warm in the past.
RCIn one sentence, please?
JCHAll the variety we have now, ironically, makes it harder to focus on something new. I kinda think of it’s like how they mine for sapphires nowadays.
RCOK, I know my cue, “JC, How do they mind for sapphires?”
JCHA good friend of mine is a jeweler. He’s the kind of guy who would travel to the jungles of South America to find sapphires and emeralds, etc. Apparently, they’re like mushrooms in that they’re hard to find, but really they’re hiding in plain sight. You just had to have great eyes. But now they tend to use great machines to sort through tons of rock to find them. The sapphires are still there, but they aren’t as apparent now. You have to work a lot harder to reach them and you need machines to do all the sifting. It’s definitely not for amateurs. That’s how I feel about great musical ideas. They’re still there, but you have to be a lot more dedicated. Hence my emphasis on creative exercises. They give you the ‘equipment’ to filter out the noise and make more opportunities appear, seemingly out of nothing.
RCOK. But you’re ignoring volition and desire. You’ve also suggested that people today are more interested in sights than sounds. So maybe part of the problem is that most people just don’t choose ‘music’ as their creative outlet anymore.
JCHThat’s right. I do think that Beethoven or Picasso now is more likely to be a movie maker than a guitar player. The world is generally far more captivated by visual. But I’m getting too expansive. Regardless of the reason I’m trying to give the prescription.
JCHYes. I think creativity needs to be taught because I think it’s no longer a given that great or even good ideas will get into people’s heads. There are just too many options. Too many distractions.
RCI thought you said that distractions are good.
JCHLook, don’t go all lawyerly on me. I know what I said. What I mean is that, as I’ve ranted before I feel like we’re reaching all manner of ‘limits’. We educate kids to watch their diet, right? Why?
RCAbundance. We have so many options now. We can’t eat whatever we want without getting fat.
JCHRight! We’ve reached the limit of what we were physically designed to do without some sort of self-management. And it’s the same thing with regard to lots of stuff. We have to be a lot more intentional because we’re inundated with so many things that our bodies and minds just weren’t designed to cope with.
RCAnd where does creativity come into this?
JCHI don’t think you can just assume now that creative ideas will be there for you when you need them. Think of it like light pollution.
JCHHow many stars can you see at night now?
RCI don’t know.
JCHWell, I’ll bet it’s only a fraction of what you could see when you were a kid. There is so much light going on all the time; light you don’t even notice, but it blocks out the stars. You have to go way out of town to get away from it. And I mean way out of town.
RCNow I get you. That’s right.
JCHWell, I think that we’re all so inundated with devices, advertising, text messages, just more stuff whizzing by constantly that there is almost constantly something for our brains to pay attention to. Unfortunately, it’s not stuff that is all that useful. But it is captivating. The people who make this stuff have decades of experience with psychology to know what grabs our attention.
RCWhat you’re describing is the reason so many people like mindfulness training and all that.
JCHRight. But what I’m talking about is not ‘tuning out’, but rather restoring the ability to see the stars!
JCHLook, when I go outside at night, I’d have to turn out all the lights within miles in order to see the stars. Impossible. So what I do? I go out on the water. But still I have to go a long way off shore to see stars the way I did when I was a kid. Well, in my daily life I can’t turn off all the crap that the world is spewing forth. But what I can do is be aware of it and practice focusing my attention on the things–like distractions and goofs and so on–that further creative ideas.
RCSo you’re saying that people need to practice creativity in the same sense that they need to practice eating properly; that we’ve reached a point where that sort of thing is not self-regulating. It is an intriguing idea.
JCHExactly. You can no longer count on ideas just ‘coming to you’ without you being intentional. Hence these exercises. It may be because all the good notes are taken or because there are too many other distractions or whatever I’ve been yammering about. But what matters is that it’s a fact that you have to practice being creative now. You have to work at it in a way that one did not before the world got so much more complicated.
RCInteresting. I’m thinking about how athletes never used to need spring training. They would all say that ‘playing’ was all it took to keep their bodies in shape.
JCHLots of musicians still think that. But no artist at the top of his or her game lives that way now. Everyone works out in some way. Hell, look at chess players. They practice constantly on non-chess activities to keep their minds flexible. That’s how musicians should think about creativity. As the world continues to progress, it’s going to become ever more important to actually exercise those creative muscles just as one now has to exercise the body.
RCI get it. I don’t know if I’m able to actually go with it, but at a certain level, I can appreciate the necessity.
JCHOK, if there’s one thing I’m trying to get across–and I seem to have not done a good job at it–it’s that practicing creativity should be for every musician; not just ‘the elites’. It should be taught to ten year olds; to adult students; to everyone. It’s for you, dear friend. Seriously If you practice this, I am one hundred percent certain that if you tried some of the exercises I’ve mentioned, you would enjoy yourself more on even the most banal country gig you do. Seriously.
RCThat’s a stretch. Wait did I just say that? (laughs). But like I said, I don’t know if I can do any of the exercises you’ve recommended. They’re just too…
JCHSilly? EXACTLY. Check out this episode of This American Life: Wilt Chamberlin. It’s about Wilt Chamberlin.
JCHYou bet. It discusses how he was obviously already the best basketball player of his age, but that he sucked at foul shots.
RCI remember that.
JCHWell for one season, he did his free throws underhand
RCLike Rick Barry.
JCHYou know your basketball. He’s on the show too. Anyhoo, Wilt switches briefly to doing them underhand and then has his best game ever. But shortly thereafter he gives it up permanently.
RCWhy? He said, sensing the punchline.
JCHIn his biography Wilt says that shooting free throws like that made him feel like a ‘sissie’. He knew it was a better way to go, but he just couldn’t bring himself to do it! In fact, nobody besides Rick Barry would do it. And they all said the same thing: they were afraid of looking stupid. Grown men! Professional athletes making huge money! The prospect of looking silly was more powerful than being better.
RCWow. But I have no problem understanding that. Peer pressure is a bi-atch.
JCHNow. Maybe you can get away with that if yer ‘Wilt The Stilt’, right? But most of us are not ‘the best’ at anything. We need all the help we can get.
RCI’ll have to listen to that but cut to the chase; why did Rick Barry shoot underhanded.
JCHWell obviously, because he’s the kind of guy who is wired to not give a shit what other people think. So I have to circle back to where we began this “jazz odyssey” on creativity. You have to want to do the work. You have to value what you’re working on. Like I always say, people are what they do. If you’re not practicing, be it scales or creativity? You don’t want it. Not really.
RCI know why so many students quit you, son. You always tend to get a little hard core at moments like this.
JCHAll I’ve been trying to do here is suggest that this sort of practice is necessary for a musician in today’s world and that it is possible to improve the quality and quantity of good ideas in your art. So long as a student shows up and we’re in agreement on those basics? I’m a barrel of monkeys, dude.
RCUmmm. Right. But speaking of having fun, since we’ve taken ‘creativity’ to infinity and beyond, I’m going on vacation for a few weeks. I’m sure the show in Vancouver will keep you occupied.
JCHI’ll miss you (sniff).
RCWell, before I go I’m going to post the transcript to the bit I cut out from a couple of weeks ago…
JCHYou mean on inventing your own language? Woo hoo!
RCYes. It was pretty silly. Plus we were running over. But if you need filler…
JCHYou mean ANOTHER QUALITY RANT?
RCUm. Sure. Sure. Put it up there while I’m gone. That way you can answer the comments.
JCHAs you know, I have an extremely high threshold of silliness. Goes with the territory. Have a blast!
RCYou too. By the way, this is now officially our longest rant ever. It will be interesting to see if anyone bothers to make it to the bitter end. I sure don’t have time to strip it down. Aloha!