The Music Of JC Harris

positively the most intelligent progressive rock on this here planet

positively the most intelligent progressive rock on this here planet


Creative Strategy Number Two-Mutation

More on practicing creativity. Brian Eno’s cards again. Mutations. Mis-hearing. Mis-copying. Stravinsky. Rick Wakeman. Wagner Tiso. Mushroom hunting. Bruce Dickinson. Excuse me while I kiss this guy.

Roger CortonWe got comments from our last installment. The gist of which were, “I’m not interested in suffering.”

JCHWell, me neither. So let’s try this. I’ve made great sport of Brian Eno…

RCWho is crying about it at some Swiss bank even as we speak.

Regardless of the mechanism, you have to be on the look out for the mutations; the small aberrations that are hiding in plain sight. Those are the opportunities.

JCHNo doubt. But it was really only pique. He was right. I was wrong. I used to think that one could be truly ‘creative’. You know? Pull completely new ideas out of thin air. I had nothing but disdain for anyone who used gimmicks like playing cards to generate ideas.

I now realize that the idea of ‘creativity’ is mostly a myth. Ideas almost never just pop up out of nowhere. They are almost always the result of accidents, mistakes, kismet, coincidence or more precisely mutations. I also realise how hard it is to keep cranking out new ideas. After a while, even the studliest stud starts to run out of…

RCI get it. Jeez. So the suffering is just a way to trigger an emotion?

JCHI suppose. I think it unlocks something that just can’t get out because every day we all have to behave so ‘normal’. ‘Suffering’ is one of the only socially acceptable excuses for behaving out of control we have left (laughs). No wonder creativity is on the wane! Anyhoo, if pain doesn’t work for ya, big boy, how about this:


JCHTranscription, more precisely.


JCHHear me out. OK, there are two ways to do this. First, you can copy by ear. This actually worked a lot better back in the analog days. I’m amazed at how many other guys I’ve run into have had the same experience. You’d listen to a song and transcribe it as best you can, but you’d get it wrong. That’s the key; getting it wrong.

RCThat’s the mutation.

JCHNot to name drop but I’ve gotten this from big shots like Rick Wakeman

RCJourney To The Center Of The Earth Wakeman?

JCHYeah. But the best was Brazilian genius Wagner Tiso. He claims that a lot of Samba came from trying to play jazz and getting it wrong. They had all these crappy sounding records. They wanted to play jazz, but they couldn’t hear the harmonies clearly and they filtered it through their lens.

RCThat almost sounds too good to be true.

JCHMaybe it’s slightly apocryphal, but only slightly. I think that any time you mis-hear things, you afford yourself a great opportunity.

RCOr you could end up with something stupid like, “Excuse me while I kiss this guy.”

JCHWell, I for one think that’s a very creative gag. Even if it isn’t all that musically useful. But to make this practical these days, you have to do things to ‘creatively mis-hear’.

RCSuch as?

JCHWell, you can listen to music behind a door. Or through really crap ear buds sometimes works. I was at a swimming pool last week with the music bouncing off the walls. Anything that drastically changes the EQ. You start missing the bass notes. Or maybe the drum beat changes. And yeah, maybe even the words change. If you’re lucky you mis-hear the words and the new phrase, which makes no sense in the context of the source song, becomes a germ for a totally new song.

RCI think I understand. And I get that it’s like the ‘suffering’ you talked about last time.

JCHHow so?

RCWell, in both cases, you have to be constantly vigilant; on the look out for these unexpected ‘mutations’.

JCHWow is that an excellent point. You do have to be vigilant. Regardless of the mechanism, you have to be on the look out for the mutations; the small aberrations that are hiding in plain sight. Those are the opportunities. They’re not bad. Rather, they should be encouraged to happen. Kinda like mushrooms. They’re not ‘fungus’; they’re the tastiest morsels! There’s a lot more to say about that, but I gotta stay on track.

RCWell, you’re focused today.

JCHTry–ing! OK, copying tip number two. This one is more painful, but even more useful for me. It’s probably only useful for people who read music, but who knows? Maybe tab people will find it helpful, too. Anyhoo, when I was in my first semester as the world’s worst music student, I tried copying some bits from the score to Stravinsky’s Firebird Suite.

RCYou mean, The Opening To A Yes Concert. (laughs).

JCHRight. I went out and got a for real, score. And I was so excited! I’m like a real fuckin’ music guy! But it was torture. It took me hours to do just a few bars. Just copying notes! So again, I’d make mistakes. Or even when I didn’t, I’d hear things that you miss unless you know to look out for them.

RCMakes sense.

JCHSo transcription, aka ‘copying’ is just the best learning and composing device ehhhverrr. A total two-fer! When you get it right, you get inside a piece in a way you can’t any other way. But when you get it -wrong-? That’s when the fun begins.

RCThe mutation.

JCHWe spend so much time trying to be ‘correct’ but the great thing about transcribing is that you can’t lose. If you get it right, you improve one aspect of your playing. When you get it wrong, it improves the other.

RCWell, the only ‘lose’ is that it still requires effort.

JCHOK, so you want something for nothing?

RCOf course! Most of us enjoy practicing about as much as we enjoy diet and exercise. We’re hoping for leverage, something to kickstart the whole shebang. I get ideas for songs, but it takes….

JCHFor–ehhhver. Sorry I just love doing that.

RCIt does. Or it’s painful.

JCHWell last time I gave you a sure-fire method that doesn’t require any expenditure of calories.

RCJust being ready when disaster strikes!

JCHHey, you were a Boy Scout. You forgot the motto already? But let’s get back to that whole ‘vigilance’ thing. In my mind, the key to being creative–and you’ll want to write this down–is not in being able to pull new ideas magically out yer ass, but rather being observant.

RCSo a lot of this seems like growing mushrooms. Searching around and hoping for the best. How is that different from a kid using a laptop and one of those pattern generators. Or any kind of ‘collage’ as you like to say? The whole world today is about putting puzzle pieces together.

JCHRight. But… and I’m cringing because it will sound all San Franciso, Tibetan Singing Bowl new-agey.

RCGo head. I’ve always known that’s the real you.

JCHNone of that stuff, from Brian Eno’s tarot cards to using a computer pattern generator is organic. None of those techniques can ever yield results as good as what I suggested because they don’t come from inside. They are about trying to get something for nothing. But when you mis-hear or mis-copy and get the idea? THAT comes from within YOU. It was YOU that did it. And that’s not only should feel better, it is better. The ideas are better because, again, they’re filtered through you.


JCHRight. When you get the idea from a tarot card or a pattern generator, it’s like choosing a color or pattern from an Ikea catalog. You’re getting something that lots of other people get. Yes, you may put it in your living room, but it’s still straight from the catalog. But when you mis-hear an idea; when you mis-copy an idea? You’re making a new chair! It may kinda look like the Ikea chair…

RCEnough with the Ikea…

JCHBut it’s your chair. And for whatever reason, the fact that it’s your chair makes it better. Really.

RCBut the price is that you have to practice copying.

JCHYes, but again, the more you do it, the more ideas you get. Just like mushroom collecting… you get better at it and your results becoming far less random. Good mushroom pickers know how to score, believe me.

RCIt’s funny to me that you place so much value in randomness; in mutations as you say, after spending so much time learning the craft.

JCHIt is funny. And I think it holds a lot of people back as they age. It’s a cliché but one reason young people often get better ideas is because they feel freer (is ‘freer’ a word in English?) to fuck up. Think about bands you play in now. Everyone values ‘tightness’. When was the last time you played in a band–and I mean for money–where people were free to just try things?

RCYou mean, “Explore the space” like ace producer Bruce Dickinson? Never. I take your point.

JCHRight. And just to be clear, I don’t mean ‘jam bands’ or jazz. I mean just trying any idea in any context. Most bands now are almost totally scripted; either covers or with a click. People these days value precision almost over everything else. Now precision is great, but I’m telling you, it’s the accidents, the mutations, that make for the light bulb moments.

RCSo long as you recognize them when they happen.

JCHNOW we’re communicating! Oh, and as long as you write them (the mutations) down. THAT is the key. You have to find a way write them down somehow before they drift away.

RCWell, we have to drift away for now.

JCHNice send off. But that really is the key to all of this. Noticing the mutations. Not just letting them drift away.

RCI promise. We’ll cover it next time.

JCHCover what?

RCEven less humorous than “Excuse me while I kiss this guy.”

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