Notes On Creativity As Blind Variation And Selective Retention



In a chapter on the sources of creativity in his book The Wandering Mind (2015), Michael C. Corballis draws on a 1960 article by D.T. Campbell (“Blind variation and selective retention in creative thought as in other knowledge processes.” Psychological Review 67, 380-400) about the constitutive elements of creative thought. Campbell distills the process into two concepts: “blind variation” or wandering which is subject to chance discoveries, and “selective retention” or recognition of these discoveries. Using the metaphors of paths and sparks, Corballis elaborates:

“Blind variation is captured in the very notion of wandering, whether ambulatory or mental–straying from a set path into unknown territory. What we find there depends on chance. It is the randomness of our wanderings, then, that supplies the spark of creativity, although when we do stumble across something new and important we need to recognise it as such–what Campbell called ‘selective retention'” (154).

This notion of blind variation/wandering subject to chance discoveries resonates with Nicholas Nassim Taleb’s notion of creative tinkering described in his essential book Antifragile (which I wrote about here). And the selective retention/recognition part reminds me of Gerd Gigerenzer’s work on gut feelings, which are intuitive judgments derived from paying attention to cues in one’s immediate environment while ignoring unnecessary information. To sum up, what’s powerful about Campbell’s blind variation + chance + recognition model of creativity is how it posits the process of ideational/artistic craftsmanship as not inventing per se, but rather setting ourselves on paths where we might notice sparks flying around.

Interface: On The Ergonomics Of Musical Instruments

“Most of the works are not about something–they are not trying to tell something–but they are more made like interfaces for the viewer.”
– Cevdet Erek

Recently I came across the music of the Turkish artist and musician Cevdet Erek, who creates sound art installation works that deal with sounds, space, and rhythm. Here is some video of his excitingly-titled “Room of Rhythms” (which I imagine is completely immersive bass-wise when you’re actually in it):

And here is a short profile on Erek:

Erek plays the davul, a Turkish double-headed bass drum struck with a mallet and a thin stick. The davul is commonly used in folk music, not only in Turkey, but also in Iran, Albania, Romania, Bulgaria, Armenia, Serbia, Macedonia, and Greece. (Interestingly, the Greek name for the davul is davouli, and in Greece the instrument sometimes goes by the names toumpano/tymbana/toubi, all of which connect to the Greek tympano—the source of the name for the modern timpani drums of the western orchestra.)

Erek’s recording Davul features the drum solo, in all its abstract beauty. I wouldn’t call this easy listening music, but then this blog is not about easy listening. Anyway, here is the first track, “Heal”:

As I was listening I started thinking about the ergonomics of playing an acoustic instrument–in this case, a davul drum with two different kinds of sticks at the same time. Then it occurred to me how difficult or even impossible it would be to program Erek’s freeform and flowing rhythms in my DAW software. How would I render all those timbral and timing subtleties? This lead me to marvel and wonder at how it is that musicians interface so well with time-tested acoustic musical instruments and how far electronic ones still have to go to earn our goodwill. With hands and sticks we connect seamlessly with our drums and percussion instruments. Ditto with our keyboards, and our lutes where one hand usually frets and the other bows or plucks. It’s all so ergonomic: we designed acoustic instruments with our playing bodies in mind, while at the same time we have spent centuries adapting ourselves to instrumental demands and resistances. Listening to Erek play I thought about how the electronic and digital turns in music making raise enduring questions: How do we relate to our instruments and thus to our musics? Can I interface with my laptop software the way Erek does with his davul? Is the electronic musician’s modality of relating—pushing buttons, turning knobs, triggering clips and scenes, etc.—still in need of thinking through?

For more posts on the ergonomics of music making:

Curating The Week: Aphex Twin And Tatsuya Takahashi, Nils Frahm, Bob Marley


Electronic musician Aphex Twin speaks with ex Korg engineer Tatsuya Takahashi.

“Of course us musicians always look at something new and we see if it does what we expect it to. And this is OK. But we shouldn’t overlook something before actually trying it out, try and get into the head of the designer first. I try and do this. It’s difficult sometimes to push your ego and expectations out of the way for a while, but if we don’t do this we won’t learn anything new. That’s not to say that every designer’s head is worth getting into, but we gotta give it a go sometimes.”

An interview with Nils Frahm.

“You need to warm up. It takes at least half an hour to arrive at a point where you’re in the music, in this mindset where all the ideas come from, where you don’t think too much—you simply feel. The piano is my therapy. I let the piano heal me. I don’t hide it. Without it I would be horribly depressed or in prison. It is something I have to do and the more I do it, the better I feel. Synthesiser or piano, it doesn’t matter: get the aggression and emotion out, start fresh. It is hygiene for my mental state. It doesn’t come quickly. I need time to get into this world, and I can’t really describe exactly what is happening, but sometimes it brings me to tears. Not because it is beautiful, but because sometimes it’s good to cry. And I see it in others too, at the concerts. They need an output.”

An article about Bob Marley.

“In the seventies, [Chris] Blackwell marketed Marley to white, college-educated rock fans and maturing hippies, who were drawn to reggae as earthy and authentic. But in return for performing with the Commodores, Frankie Crocker, arguably the most powerful black-radio d.j. and programmer of the late seventies, promised that his station would play Marley’s new single, ‘Could You Be Loved,’ every hour on the hour for three months. And Marley, who was sandwiched on the bill between Kurtis Blow and the Commodores, was confident that his live show would eviscerate everyone else’s. He was right. As Alvin (Seeco) Patterson, the Wailers’ drummer, recalls, ‘I remember when Bob finish, everybody walked out.’”

Notes On Vybarr Cregan-Reid’s “Footsteps: How Running Makes Us Human”



“When running, thinking plays sixth fiddle to sensing–for hearing, seeing and feeling how places present themselves to our consciousness takes precedence over careful consideration.” – Vybarr Cregan-Reid, Footsteps, p. 56

Vybarr Cregan-Reid’s Footsteps: How Running Makes Us Human is a lucid and literary exploration of running. Cregan-Reid is an academic (professor of English) who has turned his analytic and communicative powers towards understanding how and why humans are well-designed for running outside and describing in micro-detail that experience. Footsteps joins a growing list of Quality books about running, including biologist Bernd Heinrich’s Why We Run, Robin Harvie’s The Lure of Long Distances, Richard Askwith’s Running Free, Adharanand Finn’s Running With The Kenyans and The Way of the Runner, and novelist Haruki Murakami’s What I Talk About When I Talk About Running. The best parts each of these books is when the author grapples with what it is the happens exactly (or vaguely) perceptually-speaking when we head out (yet again) to run. The ways in which the authors describe the hidden life of running reminds me of the challenge of analyzing other fleeting aesthetic experiences, such as listening to music. (Phew, I knew there was a way to connect this to music!)

Cregan-Reid’s book is woven from a rich cloth of historical and scientific references (noted in endnotes) and conceived in a four-part, grand style (“Part I: Sensing, Part II: Reasoning, Part III: Earthing, Part IV: Roaming”). His essential point is that running through natural environments (preferably barefoot, with a non-heel striking technique) is the best way to re-charge “a physical empathy that is impossible to know intellectually” (83). Stop right there: Have you ever considered the idea of recharging your sense of physical empathy? When we go outside to run, we revisit old capacities for having sensory experiences that are deeply imprinted on us. Humans are ideally suited to running slow and steady, not least because we have large feet, efficient cooling capacities, and the ability to keep our heads steady as we run. More importantly, running does something very powerful to our mind: it frees it to engage the sensational world around us in a playful, open, non-judgemental, and associative way that on the best runs can feel like effortless attention.

To support his claims, Cregan-Reid draws on writers such as Thomas Hardy (“It is the attitude of the observer which makes things great or small” [161]), William Wordsworth, Samuel Taylor Coleridge (“In Coleridge, movement is elevated into a philosophy” [59]), and numerous others who spent as much time walking around outside as they did committing words to paper. He also draws on attention restoration theory (ART), which suggests that natural environments offer us “soft fascinations” that we interact with when we run through them. ART suggests that exposure to the sounds and sights and smells and terrains of fields, forests, hills, and mountains can restore and build our powers of being in the world. All this, of course, is in contrast to the dreadful running treadmill, a technology whose history is intertwined with the prison system in nineteenth century England, where it was once known as a “discipline wheel” (198).

Building on the theme of soft fascination, Cregan-Reid borrows the word “nothinking” from Charles Dickens’ novel Bleek House to suggest a state of mind that running restores and builds. What an excellent concept! Nothinking is like a flow state in which we connect our experience of memory with noticing and reflection in the present. The author elaborates: “The experience of ‘nothink’…brings with it a kind of attention to the details and aspects of the world that are seemingly imperceptible at other times. ‘Nothink’ creates a kind of high-definition recollection coupled with a creative ability to identify points of connection between the inside and the outside” (214).

As Cregan-Reid takes us on his running excursions in various locales–from the lake country in the U.K. to the Pacific Northwest, from California and Paris to the Charles River in Boston and nearby Walden pond–he does an exquisite job of articulating his book’s second major theme: freedom. In his barefoot ramblings down country paths, along rocky coastlines, and even in and around urban centers, the author provides a sense of the blissful freeform freedom running outside can generate. “We may not be able to escape the city” he writes, “but we are still free, when running, to revel in the fact that we are basically highly mobile stone-agers ripping down the lanes, byways and boulevards of our cities” (228).

As I read the book I found it interesting how it is that neither walking nor riding a bicycle have the same effects as running, and I wondered if running’s special status is due to its tactile rhythmic aspects? I was particularly attuned to those passages in which Cregan-Reid speaks of the running body knowing things about the world of which the conscious mind is unaware. When he runs, he says, “it feels like I could do this with my eyes closed, that my balance and the movement of my limbs are processes that are independent of thought” (237). (In fact, he does experiment with running with his eyes closed.) In addition to matters of proprioception, I found myself thinking about running’s impact on our sense of time: What happens when you move your body at a faster tempo than usual? Does the intensity of your movement somehow make your sense of the environment around you seem to move slower? For me, the answer is a resounding (and somewhat trippy) yes. But the running that Cregan-Reid describes is never about speed because speed can break the trance. It’s more about a kind mobile idleness, a rhythmic flaneuring that has serious meditative qualities. Like the creative process itself, running long and slow is free play with mysterious cognitive benefits. “Our time is too valuable and short to be contained within our cubicles and workspaces” says the author near the end of the book. Footnotes makes a poetic case for those human qualities of attention “that cannot be outsourced so easily, that we have free access to, once we clear the decks of cognitive noise and distraction” (266).


Notes On Editing Music


Editing is taking things out,
getting rid of pointless part doublings and overlaps.
This creates space which allows what is already there to fill it.

Editing is nudging a part earlier or later
to sync (or not sync) better with the others.

Editing is dropping a part into a lower register,
moving a pitch up or down
a third or a fifth to make a new harmony
that was always latent, just not sounding.

Editing is finding the lowest possible volume
for a part to be clearly heard.

Editing is adding effects to change to mood.

Editing is working in passes,
noticing some issues now, and some later.

Editing is getting to know what you were originally trying to say.

Editing is saying I don’t believe it,
and putting the piece (or part thereof) away.

Editing is allowing yourself to wince,
then investigating its sonic cause.

Editing is staying hopeful.

Editing is asking yeah but what if?

Editing is seeing if the edited thing is still speaking to you,
despite (or because of) all your tweaks.

Editing is tinkering by way of small errors
to learn something about what is and isn’t working.

Editing is using your creativity in its evaluative, not generative capacity.

Editing is paying close attention to the effects of tempo.
(Slower is often the better way.)

Editing is making sure nothing sticks out.

Editing is creating little moments of difference that stick out.

Editing is bringing it all into focus.

Editing suggests that structure is sometimes more important than sound.

Editing is maximizing the seductive potentials of timbre.

Editing requires a clear mind
because without clarity neither you nor your work can shine.

Editing is polishing both your work and your understanding of it.

Editing is the systematic application of critical assessment
tempered by honesty and a generous enthusiasm.

More brettworks posts on editing:


Ventrilo-Dialogue: A Poet Meets A Composer


Poet: I take an idea and unravel it
into its component parts
so that they lie in front of me—
a set of word tools
used to both assemble
and constitute a prose structure
based upon the potentials inherent in the idea
but in an abstracted musical form.

Composer: I take an idea and develop it
using its component parts
so that stretch out ahead of (and behind) me—
a set of sound tools
used to both assemble
and constitute a sound structure
based upon the potentials inherent in the idea
but in an abstracted “narrative” form.

Poet: So that’s our hello?

Composer: I guess.

Poet: Where does feeling reside for you?

Composer: In the number and quality of potentials I can extract from an idea.
Where do your ideas come from?

Poet: From my feeling that an idea is worth pursuing.
Why do you work with sound?

Composer: Because the sense of words is too specific.
Why do you work with words?

Poet: Because the sense of sounds is too vague.
What is your instrument?

Composer: Close listening and receptiveness to accidental congruities.
What is yours?

Poet: Imagining relationships and creating tensegrity through deliberate design.
What problem are you trying to solve?

Composer: Scattered attention and vague thinking. You?

Poet: I want to re-enchant language.

Composer: Focus and enchantment are our shared interests, then.

Poet: Yes, and the pleasure that lies somewhere in between.

Resonant Thoughts: On Repetition And Baking Analogies In Shunryu Suzuki’s “Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind”


“We may find it not so interesting to cook the same thing over and over again every day. It is rather tedious, you may say. If you lose the spirit of repetition it will become quite difficult…Anyway, we cannot keep still: we have to do something. So if you do something, you should be very observant, and careful, and alert. Our way is to put the dough in the oven and watch it carefully…Actual practice is repeating over and over again until you find out how to become bread.”
– Shunryu Suzuki, Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind (1970).

That Voice

The woman at the grocery checkout
is the superstar of the place
running on charm

from Spanish to English inflected
—How are you my dear?—
moving accents offbeat,
making thyme a sensible purchase

that voice shape shifts and calibrates
a thousand sensations,

that voice bears gifts
of depth and presence,

that voice was randomly assigned
but its goodwill exceeds anything I can buy.

The Improviser


Improvising is a litmus
of the thinking under the notes
the knowledge behind the gestures
the taste over the technique:

hands on strings
the musician tunes into concord
then embarks slow and spare
bird flight from a distance

sounding the scale notes
one after another, climbing
tracking free meter beats, counting
slow phrases, color the mood

circle a theme to explore
spontaneity, change of direction,
reiteration and insistence,
swoop onto anything
to make a yes of a maybe
extend the tradition
of instrumental relating
under the fingers, in the muscles

flying without alighting,
mapping without compass,
reconfiguring the already heard
into new intensities of time.