In athletics there’s a concept called motor unit recruitment, which refers to how the body activates additional motor units (i.e. one motor neuron and the associated muscle fibers it stimulates) to accomplish an increase in muscle strength. An example of motor unit recruitment is how light exercise recruits the body’s slow-twitch motor units, while high intensity exercise recruits fast-twitch ones. The recruitment concept explains why, as the essayist Nassim Taleb reminds us, “lifting one hundred pounds once brings more benefits that fifty pounds twice” (Nassim Taleb, Antifragile, p. 271). It’s also why say, a few minutes (or seconds!) of sprints can turbo-charge one’s running strength and form. When we sprint, our running becomes the full body exuberance it is: our stride lengthens, we land on the balls of the feet, and our arms swing like piston pendulums. What makes sprinting literally transformative then, is its intensity.
In my experience, a similar recruitment dynamic applies to creative work. Interesting things happen when we reach a level of working intensity akin to the athlete’s recruitment of fast-twitch muscles. A state of intensity requires us to actively achieve levels of focus and resourcefulness that otherwise remain untapped in everyday life. I notice that my focus and resourcefulness often increase in proportion to my irritation that at the moment, nothing is working. It’s a sensation of being boxed in by my own small-mindedness. I ask questions as if they are keys that might open the box:
Can’t you make something happen?
Can you turn this into something interesting?
Is there another way to spin it?
How might you reveal what’s already there?
Can you stay with it until it becomes compelling?
In sum, I wonder if the recruitment demands of creative work make it an athletic endeavor in disguise?
“JXL’s score is the kind of orchestral music that is easier to imagine from a synthesizer than an ensemble: one finger on the strings, another on the choral voices, a pinky sliding over to trigger the mournful military brass. The hand of Zimmer always feels present, in the influence of that inescapable Inception BWAH, and in the mingling of symphonic portent with a four-on-the-floor pulse.”
“I’ve found that quite a good trick is that if you feel like you’ve put too much reverb on something just add more, or if something’s too repetitive, repeat it more. When you do that you’ll find that when you repeat a motif intentionally you‘ll do it slightly differently every time so you can build variation into these stubborn processes.”
“When you open up the metadata search in LR, take a look at what camera you use the most. How about what lens you use? Next, click on the camera you use most, and then in the Text field, enter an aperture. How many images were shot at F8? What about F2.8? You will start to see trends in your shooting habits.”
“A categorization is a natural way of identifying a kind of object or experience by highlighting certain properties, downplaying others, and hiding still others…To highlight certain properties is necessarily to downplay or hide others, which is what happens whenever we categorize something. Focusing on one set of properties shifts our attention away from others. When we give everyday descriptions, for example, we are using categorizations to focus on certain properties that fit our purposes.”
George Lakoff and Mark Johnson, Metaphors We Live By (2008), p. 163
I notice a pattern to the way I intend to work, but then fail to do so. Here’s the scene:
I’ve set aside time to explore sounds, create new ones, or figure out some aspect or other of my software. One day it’s reverbs, the next day it’s percussion sounds, and so on. For a few minutes, I focus on the goal of the session. But then there’s an interruption: the moment I hear something interesting, I abort the session goal and start writing music with the sound, around the sound, or next the sound. In short, I move from practicing to performing.
Was the session’s goal really its goal?
Until recently, I thought this switching from one mode of working to another was a problematic move because I was “losing focus” or “getting off the path” at the slightest hint of something more interesting. I kept “getting in my own way” and preventing myself from “getting something done.”
Notice the quotation marks around all of these cliché ways of thinking about attention. Framing the phrases this way helps us see that, depending on the context, it’s not necessarily counterproductive to lose focus/get off a path/get in one’s own way/prevent oneself from getting something done. Come to think of it, I’m deliberately counterproductive all the time!
In my production/composing work there’s a an optimal, yet never-quite-achieved dynamic balance between knowing my tools and knowing how to do something with these tools. I try to learn more, yet come up short. I intend to take my time, but then accelerate the work to capture a fluttering moment. I work fast, but then try to slow down to refine the moment I captured. The best way to describe this creative dynamic is as a continuous oscillation—like multiple strings ringing in uneven vibrations.
The first lesson from this is that, while the dynamic balance between knowing and doing with partial knowing is not complicated, it takes experience to recognize when a perceptual shift is happening that’s taking us from practice to performing. One of the things that used to make me uncomfortable was the sense that I was unequipped to act on this shift in perception as it happened. I need time to figure it out.
Well, actually, no you don’t—just use what you have.
Depending on the context, I’ve recorded parts using the keypad on my laptop or the tiny keys on a small MIDI controller. Last week, for example, as I was playing a part on this controller I realized that its size limitations were forcing me into quick decisions about melody, because I was literally out of physical space (I had 2 octaves to work with). I couldn’t go where I wanted to go, so I had to slow down and linger on tones longer. It was analogous to the general feeling of this past year’s quarantine.
A second lesson from shifting from practice to performance is that it can be helpful to have something to resist against. This something can be a plan, the idea of the straight and narrow, the prospect of the boring and diligent, the horizon of the careful and patient, and so on. In real life, I love the narrow/boring/careful, but in music not so much. If music is a kind of virtual modeling of life, then it’s a place where we might try out different ways of being. Instead of practicing more, why not just wing it?
Notation for Le Ray Au Soleyl by Johannes Ciconia (c. 1390s)
What is it that keeps your attention when you encounter a music? Is it its instrumentation and timbre world? Its performers (human or machine)? Its melodies? Its chords and harmonies? Its feel and vibe? Its sheer volume? (That bass!) Its rhythms that make you want to move? Does the music ask you to slow down or get hyped up? Does it invite you to concentrate on it, or is it content to percolate in the background? Does it reference other musics, or does inhabit its own realm (or both)? Perhaps most importantly, does the music give you a reason to return to it again?
The musics that I return to have in common the fact that they create tensions whose affective power don’t diminish over time. I think of these tensions like taut rubber bands or strings in a state of stretch, containing energy. The tensions are an enchantment held suspended, yet they keep changing. Part steady-state, and part ever evolving, my favorite musics are analogues of what running coach Shane Benzie calls a “sea of tension.”
There are many established ways to create tensions in music. The simple wavering of a tremolo is an example. The low drones used in TV and film soundtracks is another example. Strict repetition of parts is also a tension maker, as it creates anticipation for when and where something will disrupt the musical texture. A problem with such tension-makers is that once we notice them, they are less impactful.
Some of my favorite musics are seas of tension constructed so that parts relate to one another in measured ways. One counterpoint technique for achieving such tension dates back to the 14th-century and is known as prolation canons (or mensuration canons), whereby a main melody is accompanied by imitations of it in other voices (parts). The tension created in musics built upon prolation canons comes from the fact that these imitations of the main melody happen at different rates of speed (or prolations). For example, an accompanying voice can extend the note values of the main melody, through a process of augmentation. Or the voice can reduce/compress the melody’s note values, through a process of diminution.
The prolation counterpoint technique evokes structural/design approaches in other realms. Think of an architect who spins out a single idea into various facets of a building in related proportions, the novelist who weaves storylines at different rates of unfolding, or the chef who prepares a single ingredient four ways for a dish. What all of these scenarios have in common is that the practitioner recognizes and explores the fractal-like potentials of a set of materials. There is nothing more exciting than understanding that even the smallest gesture contains within itself a world potential creative counterpoint.
Here then, are five examples of musics built around prolation canons, from the 14th- to the 20th-centuries.
Le Ray Au Soleyl by Johannes Ciconia (c. 1390s)
Missa prolationum by Johannes Ockeghem (mid-15th century)
Missa L’homme armé super voces musicales (agnus dei) by Josquin Des Prez (1547)
Canon a 4 per Augmentationem et Diminutionem by J.S. Bach (1751)
Cantus in memorium Benjamin Britten by Arvo Pärt (1977)