October 23, 2014

On Creativity...

by Chris Randall

Long-time readers will know my fascination with the discussion of creativity, and its care and feeding; in point of fact, many of you come here specifically for that discussion when it rears its head, and not (evidence to the contrary) to make snarky comments about silly synth-nerd gear.

I've been at this (for values of "this" that equal working in the creative fields) for long enough now to recognize my own limitations and strengths vis-a-vis the creative energy, and in general, to know when I'm "in the mood" and can be productive, without having to go full Barton Fink. (There is a time and a place for that, though, it must be said.) In fact, my general impression of the matter is that I'm so good at recognizing that flow-state, or the beginnings of it, that I actually miss out on a lot of good ideas because I don't bother even attempting a creative endeavor if I'm not "feeling it" or whatever. And I can trigger it at will with a couple simple methods, but I don't feel that the flow-state that I purposefully trigger is as productive as one entered in to unwarranted, or even unwanted.

That's my own personal opinion and experience. In this, as all things, your mileage may (and most likely will) vary.

The reason I put that picture of Jackson Pollack up top: he was one of those lucky son--of-bitches that was the recipient of the Bolt Of Lightning. The Mack Daddy of inspiration flow-states. One of those that changes everything. Whether you like his work or not is beside the point. There was before he made Full Fathom Five, and then there was everything after. His bolt was so powerful it touched other forms of art, and it's not often we get a heavy cross-polination. That's something to remark on.

Anyhow, on to the purpose of this post. In Slate this morning, they published a long-forgotten essay from Isaac Asimov entitled On Creativity. It is an excellent read, given in Asimov's usual conversational style. The purpose of the essay is to provide a framework by which a group of scientists may do research for the government, but it easily translates to "band" or any of the other expression forms we're familiar with. It is, it seems to me, largely concerned with control of the flow-state, mostly in the manner I do myself. I came about my method through trial and error, and it's nice to see it codified and given credence by such a luminary.

If you know Jackson Pollock's history, you'll know that he didn't really just happen on Full Fathom Five by accident. In much the same way as Asimov describes the Theory Of Evolution in the preamble to his essay, Pollock attended workshops with other experimental painters, and was actively searching for a new method of expression to convey to the world what was in his mind. He wasn't gifted this method out of whole cloth; it was the result of taking in other people's work, and talking to other people that were also actively searching for new methods of expression. In the same way, Sgt. Pepper's didn't just happen one day. It was the result of heavy competition, both within the Beatles, and with other bands of the day, like the Beach Boys, and actively searching with an open, experimental bent, for a new way of expressing old ideas, by a group of highly skilled musicians.

In short, a nice gift from beyond the grave Dr. Asimov left us today, and some food for thought. Comments? Criticism? Disagreement?


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Oct.23.2014 @ 9:42 AM
"The advice I like to give young artists, or really anybody who'll listen to me, is not to wait around for inspiration. Inspiration is for amateurs; the rest of us just show up and get to work. If you wait around for the clouds to part and a bolt of lightning to strike you in the brain, you are not going to make an awful lot of work. All the best ideas come out of the process; they come out of the work itself. Things occur to you. If you're sitting around trying to dream up a great art idea, you can sit there a long time before anything happens. But if you just get to work, something will occur to you and something else will occur to you and something else that you reject will push you in another direction. Inspiration is absolutely unnecessary and somehow deceptive. You feel like you need this great idea before you can get down to work, and I find that's almost never the case."

― Chuck Close

Oct.23.2014 @ 10:58 AM
Every time I get a new piece of gear or music software, I get a new piece of music out of it, often one that is superior to what I get when i sit down to be creative. I think it's because I'm playing; not 'creating.'

Which doesn't mean buying something new every time I want to make a track -- though I would if I had room and could afford it -- but it does suggest that approaching the studio without expectation and fooling around can get one into the zone.

And for me that is the most rewarding part of making music -- not the approval of others, but the experience of working on something when it's going well. Nothing else matters for as long as you dwell in that mental space.

Oct.23.2014 @ 8:20 PM
Chris Randall
The Chuck Close quote, to a certain extent, runs parallel to Branch Rickey's pithy yet eloquent aphorism, "luck is the residue of design."

To put it another way, training and practice will certainly aid in your search. But to pull another folksy, homespun aphorism out of my ass, "he either fears his fate too much, or his deserts are small, that dares not put it to the touch, to win or lose it all."

While the Marquess may have had a flair for the dramatic, at the end of the day, with great risk comes great reward. A workmanlike approach will yield workmanlike results. An intellectual curiosity and a willingness to be embarrassed are what yields the best results.


Oct.23.2014 @ 8:32 PM
The Chuck Close quote was on my mind after seeing the Nick Cave 20,000 Days On Earth flick. Nick gets up, goes to work and puts in the time.

Oct.24.2014 @ 5:09 AM
The flash of brilliance is indeed a romantic notion, and one which I'm not particularly prone to believe in, at least not in the sense that they just happen (simply by being gifted/a genious/lucky). However, as you (Chris) do describe, one can trick/steer/... oneself into the tunnel of said flashes. But once you get there, you're pretty stuck without the basics covered. Hearing a symphony in your head will just prep you for the loony bin unless you have the skills, training and tools to get it out. Secondly, putting up with the grunt work does prime your brain for unleashing those in-the-shower moments. I think. I like absinthe, by the way.

Oct.24.2014 @ 8:33 AM
Flow state, motivation and creativity have been subjects heavily studied by the famous godfather of positive psychology, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi. If you have not heard about his books, you should have a look for them.

For example, he gives in one of his books 8 characteristics to define the flow state :

- the task currently performed is workable, but is challenging and requires particular skills
- the person is focused on what he does
- the goal is well defined
- the action performed provided an instantaneous feedback
- the individual's commitment is deep and free of any distraction
- he has a great control on his actions
- self-concern diseappears in the flow state, for the benefit of self-awareness
- the perception of time is modified

Oct.24.2014 @ 8:59 AM
Chris Randall
I 100% agree with those 8 characteristics. That is absolutely my experience. Gonna have to check this dude's books out.


Oct.24.2014 @ 9:10 AM
Wolfen; spot on, perhaps with one exception, #3. In our context, the goal may be "make music" (or sound(s)), but other than that, I'm not so sure. Otherwise, it does seem to describe the state rather well.

Oct.24.2014 @ 9:37 AM
I think in the contrary #3 is very important. Because commitment and motivation can only be optimal when your goal is clear, and that you know why you are doing your task.

If you take the example of the goal "make music", I think it is in general a weak one, and that a stronger one would be "finish the song before the deadline tonight because you need to if you want to be paid", or "make a song from this idea I got yesterday in my way home", or "I have two hours to make a song from these new tools I have just bought, else I won't be able to upload a YouTube video before next week" etc.

Moreover, I think #3 can be "critical" if you want to get a finished song, and not just to spend some time doing something you will never make listenable to other people. Because making music can be a way to spend time instead of a task with a beginning and an end. We may speak about all these subjects for technical work on your prefered musical instruments, and learning how to play an instrument in general...

Oct.24.2014 @ 9:45 AM
On a side note, the Oblique Strategies of Brian Eno can be seen as a way to provide a path to the flow state for people who have creative block, by giving them a new goal (follow what the card says). I had a lot of fun exploring this concept when I developed my software Inspiration some years ago. I liked also the idea to be able to write your own piece of advice one day, for example from a book you have just read, and read it again randomly several months later. My "Horizontal Strategies" gave me a lot of new/fresh ideas...

link [musicalentropy.ss.co...]

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