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

JCHRants

Letter To The Editor Of Guitar Player On Creativity

After all my ranting about ‘creativity’ recently, I get back from Vancouver (which was great, thanks to all!) and find the latest Guitar Player in the box. And in his August 2016 editorial, Michael Molenda asks why so many guitarists struggle to find a creative voice. Coincidence or conspiracy? Who knows. But I wrote him to give him a piece of what passes for my mind on this.

Dear Mr. Molenda,

With one side trip, I’ve made my living as a musician now for 30+ years. I made the money that put the kids through school and paid the mortgage as a sideman and a teacher. So for the past 15 years I’ve done my own far less lucrative thing in the (cough) genre of progressive rock. I’m boring you with this because when I went down that road I took a serious pay cut to do music I found to be much more ‘creative’. I feel I have some skin in the game of ‘being creative’.

If you haven’t read it, I would encourage you to read Jaron Lanier’s excellent book “You Are Not A Gadget”. In this study of the negative effects of technology and corporate control, he has a chapter where he posits that there really has been no ‘new’ musical genre in over 20 years. I agree with this. I believe that most people are now, for various reasons, pretty happy with merely recombining existing stuff… or continuing to ‘perfect’ existing styles rather than coming up with anything really new.

We live in a world of museum music (from Beethoven to Stevie Ray to Miles to Prince to everything ‘Americana’). It’s no accident that the biggest album of last year was titled ‘1989’. Frankly most people, even the greatest players are not all that ‘creative’… if by creative one means, coming up with truly new ideas. These days, most players at every level don’t aspire to be novel, which is just fine with most listeners. We all tend to want purpose-built music. Most players–at all levels, aspire to play well but not new. I can’t remember the last time I had a student or saw a band that was really ‘different’. Good musicians, like athletes, now routinely achieve technical heights unimaginable when I was a kid, but new styles and ideas? Eh, not so much.

Magazines like GP are partly to blame in the same way that doctors are partly to blame for the epidemic of obesity. It’s a lack of holistic outlook, IMO. Ironically, as we get better at dealing with the technical aspects of playing the guitar or fixing a broken liver, very few medical students learn about ‘diet’ and very few music mags attempt to teach people to be ‘musicians’. I sure wasn’t taught anything about ‘creative ideas’ in music school. To press this metaphor… studying ‘composition’ meant developing fluency in counterpoint; not “thinking up cool, new shit.” I think it was expected that ‘talented’ people would somehow figure all that out on their own.

My suggestion is that teachers (and I include GP) need to make it an essential part of their mission to teach ‘creativity’. I believe that it can be taught (although like ‘diet’ you’ll get lots of eye rolls in the beginning) and that it must be taught. There are too many ways to NOT be creative today; to hit a preset; to work on sweep picking @ 200pbm but not have a single decent idea of one’s own; to confuse the ability to channel with having one’s own voice. IMO all the tech we have today prevents actually hinders new ideas. So now ‘creative study’ is an actual necessity–in the same way that physical exercise is now a necessity. In short: we are no longer ‘self-regulating’ beings, either physically or creatively.

Do I know what those exercises look like? I think so. But I’ve already gassed on way too long. Plus, I have to confess the sad truth is that in decades of teaching, I rarely have had students who are actually willing to try such ideas. In that way, I feel like a friend of mine who is a physical therapist: everyone knows that PT is effective for pain relief, but almost no patients actually follow the exercises. It’s odd, but another sad truth is that most of us prefer to either take a pill or just live with it.

If you believe, as your editorial implies, so many of us are deluded as to whether or not we really are being creative, then all the more reason for GP to actually attempt to do something about it.

Best,

–JC Harris
Seattle, WA

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