On Wit And Work: Adam Gopnik On Two Kinds Of Creativity

In his recent New Yorker essay on creativity in jazz and popular music (drawing on recent biographies of Duke Ellington and The Beatles as his case studies), Adam Gopnik makes a distinction between idea-based and action-based notions of creativity:

“Originality comes in two kinds: originality of ideas, and originality of labor, and although it is the first kind that we get agitated about, we should honor the second kind still more. There is wit, made by the head and spun out into life; and work, created mostly by the fingers engaging tools as various as tenor saxes and computer keyboards. It is an oddity of our civilization, and has been since the Renaissance, to honor wit more than work, to think that the new idea ‘contributed’ by the work matters more than the work itself” (Adam Gopnik, The New Yorker, Dec. 23 and 30, p. 123).

In the music world, critics are ever alert to characterize and describe the next big idea that manifests itself through an emerging style–whether it be minimalism or dubstep, post-classical or vaporwave. But how easy it is to forget that creativity in music lives on the ground, at the intersection of body-minds and instruments, unaware of its outside interpreters trying to make sense of it. And while any individual musician-composer may not overtly “know”–that is, be able to tell you with certainty–why they do what they do and what to call it, the value of their work remains within the practices that constitute it.

On Creative Analogies: Lessons From El Bulli

“Order, order, order, that’s how you create.”–Ferran Adria

If you have an interest in creativity, there are a number of reasons to recommend watching the film Cooking In Progress. The film tracks Ferran Adria and his crew from the famous El Bulli restaurant in a coastal town in north-east Spain. El Bulli is now closed–Adria has since turned his energy to opening a culinary and creativity center, as well as Bullipedia, a website database for mapping all the world’s culinary knowledge. When the restaurant was open, it operated for only six months of each year. For the other six months, Adria concentrated on culinary research at a kitchen lab in Barcelona. The key, as he puts it, is to “separate creativity from production.”

Much of the film takes place at the lab. We see Adria’s head chefs running experiment after experiment on different ingredients and different cooking techniques. Every once in a while Adria pops in and has a taste, frowns, makes suggestions for variations or alternate combinations, and his team’s R&D continues. As the El Bulli chefs experiment, they also meticulously document their findings by noting measured amounts, taking pictures, and rating the taste of their dishes. They’re like scientists running tests, then pouring over their results on giant note boards and laptop computers.

A few comments by Adria stood out for me. The first is his conviction that one needs to create time for oneself in order to have time to create. Sounds simple, but it’s really the most crucial first step of any endeavor. The whole point of closing El Bulli for six months of the year, after all, was to literally produce time. Another Adria comment is his notion of the importance of doing “creative audits” of one’s work to identify trends, habits, ruts, and evidence of what work has worked and what hasn’t. Creative auditing is necessary as a way to keep track of one’s progress and keep at bay–as much as possible–the overwhelming sense of all the possibilities not yet explored. As Adria puts it, “our problem is that there are a thousand combinations.” Finally, I was also struck by Adria’s constant awareness of the bottom line of all the culinary research in his lab: taste. In one scene, Adria describes the sensation in more poetic and adventurous terms. “At the moment” he says, “what matters is whether something is magical, and whether it opens a new path.” The chef/scientist/artist seeks through taste a sense of “surprise, emotion, and a new texture.”

There is something very musical about all this. Beyond the techniques, the equipment, beyond the ideas and flavor (or sound) combinations that may seem good in theory, there is the question of how the food (or the music) actually makes us feel in practice. Inevitably, the science always encounters the subjective I–me the taster (or me the listener). Near the end of the film, we see Adria tasting an oil, ice, and tangerine concoction. He looks up from his plate, glancing wide-eyed around the room. “This is it” he says simply.

On The Lessons Of Antifragility For Creativity: Nassim Nicholas Taleb’s “Antifragile”


“We know more than we think we do, a lot more than we can articulate” (35) – Nassim Nicholas Taleb

I used to resist randomly exploring some aspect of music software–an instrument, a sound, an effect, a sequencer–because I wanted to have a sense ahead of time where I was headed. (Good luck with that Tom.) But this needing to know closed off interesting options that I could not predict. Whenever I just went with whatever caught my attention though, trying things out at random, I always ended up in an interesting musical place. My push and pull experiences with chance and randomness while working with music software came to mind last year as I read Nassim Nicholas Taleb’s Antifragile. Taleb, a scholar and statistician, suggests the concept of antifragility to describes things that “thrive and grow when exposed to volatility, randomness, disorder, and stressors and love adventure, risk, and uncertainty.” Reading Taleb, who is a compelling essayist, I thought anew about how my needing to know where the music was going hampered the creative process. Could I learn to embrace antifragility–to love “randomness, uncertainty, disorder, errors, stressors, etc.” when making music?

For Taleb, one only achieves a measure of control when one embraces randomness and the nonlinear. Taleb’s book (a companion to his earlier books, Fooled By Randomness and The Black Swan) aims to provide a philosophical guide to what he calls nonpredictive decision-making under uncertainty or opacity, or in other words, “how to not be afraid to work with things we patently don’t understand…” (11) One way to do this is by tinkering. Tinkering is a process of trial and error that allows one to make many small mistakes or incur small losses. The mistakes that come via tinkering are important, Taleb says, because they are rich in information yet small in harm. They also do vital work by stressing the system of which they are a part and making it stronger. And by yielding information and stressing the system to make it stronger, tinkering sets the stage for discovery–the possibility of finding “something rather significant” (236).

At one point in the book Taleb provides a list of words that describe the conditions that confront and characterize our decision-making under opacity: uncertainty, variability, imperfection, chance, chaos, volatility, disorder, entropy, randomness, dispersion, and unknowledge. The point is that there is so much more we don’t understand about the world than we do. How then can we regenerate ourselves by using, rather than suffering from, the opaque unknown? By being curious, and by making mistakes via tinkering. In my reading of Taleb’s essay, it is this strategy for embracing the unknown that is potentially so useful, especially to Makers Of Things who know well that they never fully control the sources of their creative work in the first place. “Antifragility takes time” (12), Taleb assures us. Only over time are the shapes and meanings of nonlinearity–“fractal, jagged, and rich in detail, though with a certain pattern” (325)–made apparent.

From The Archives: “Roadscape”

A few days ago a friend texts me an urgent musical request:

“Send me roadscape”

So I send it.


About ten years ago I first tried my hand at sequencing and recording music on a computer. Back then, my Apple desktop machine was a blue- and silver-colored beast running Logic software. I also had a large Yamaha digital piano/synthesizer as a controller and sound bank. I was ready to go. But I wasn’t quite sure how to go about making electronic music. I didn’t want to just loop things–I didn’t yet grasp how that could actually be interesting. Instead, I decided to improvise parts one at a time, layering stuff to hear what might happen. It was the first time I had tried such an all digital project.

One day, I happen upon a preset sound that sounds like a DX-7- ish keyboard bell timbre. There isn’t anything particularly attractive about this sound, but I’m struck how if I hold down a note long enough the patch makes the initial bell sound followed by a strange sort of continuous drone resonance that slowly increases in volume. It’s kind of spooky–in an engaging musical way that makes your ears perk up and listen, as if responding:”Oh, where is this sound going? Cool!” In my experience, it’s like that with sounds. A sound grabs you because it’s interesting, maybe somewhat indeterminate and ambiguous, evocative, and ultimately compelling. (Now that I think about it, if you believe that we project our values out onto the sounds we like, then I’ve just unwittingly offered you some of the adjectives I prize!) So I play with the bell sound for bit. After a few minutes I hit record and improvise some simple and consonant arpeggios–fourths and fifths, octaves, some thirds. I leave a lot of space between my notes. This space allows that spooky after-resonance to emerge. It also leaves room for the other parts that I will soon layer in.

The next part is the piano. The Yamaha controller has a wonderful piano sound and that combined with its weighted keys makes it a pleasure to play. After double checking the notes in the bell part, I hit record and play along with it on the piano, adding deep bass notes, some cluster chords, and again, pausing between phrases to create space around the notes. Since I’m working in MIDI, an errant note or two can be easily fixed later. The key is to improvise a take non-stop. This gives the part the best chance of being cohesive and having a sense of tension and directionality–like it’s moving towards something. After a few aborted takes, I play something all the way through that I’m happy with. I listen back to it once to make sure it’s okay.

Next, percussion parts. I load up a preset kit on the keyboard and limit myself to kick drum, hi hat, and snare drum-ish sounds–which sound more metallic that drum-like. The sounds are located between the notes C and E on the keyboard so they are easy to play together with my fingers as drum sticks. I play back the DX-7 and piano sounds and play along to them. It’s not a steady beat per se that I’m playing; more like percussive interjections, filling some of those deliberately left spaces with little shards of groove that don’t repeat much. As the music gets louder and softer I try to drum along at those dynamics–responding to the other two parts as if in dialogue with them. (Electronic music making = talking back to oneself!) After I’ve recorded the play-along percussion part, I copy its MIDI onto another track loaded with the same kit sound. I displace this kit by about a beat or so, turning it into an echo of the first part. I also pan each drum part to the far left and right, respectively, making a true stereo percussive field. It isn’t regular procedure to extreme pan drum tracks like this, but I like the sound and the clarity brought by the separation between the original and its copy.

The final layer is bass. I chose a simple sine tone bass. I like sine tone basses because they get the low-end job down without calling undo attention to themselves. With the bass sound I double some of the low piano notes, playing in unison with them, and where I can I add in little flourishes and lead-ins. After I have recorded a pass, I listen back while looking at the MIDI on the piano roll onscreen, finessing a note here or there up or down (if I missed a pitch) or left or right (if I was early or late doubling a piano note). But for the most part I leave it as is.

With that I’m done and bounce down to an MP3 file. I title the four-part piece “Roadscape.” I like how the music wanders yet still has a sense of something almost arriving–like the road just up ahead that keeps disappearing around the bend.

On David Byrne’s “How Music Works”

It’s hard to keep track of all the things David Byrne does. He’s the former front man of the Talking Heads, of course, but also a singer-songwriter who has collaborated with musicians from all over the world, a record label founder, a sound art installation artist, a designer, a visual artist, a photographer,a bicycle enthusiast, a blogger, and a writer. Everything connects in Byrne’s world, and he is excellent at getting us to hear, see, and read how and why. How Music Works (McSweeney’s 2012) is Byrne’s set of essays about music and his ongoing musical life. The book is part memoir, part music ethnography, part music history/music theory, part cultural critique, part music business advice manual, and part diary. It all adds to up to a meandering yet consistently engaging read. Part of what makes Byrne interesting is how he takes on the big issues–issues that many academic specialists might avoid–by taking a bird’s-eye view of music making on a global scale.

Byrne is a generalist in the best sense of the word, constantly asking questions about the nature of music, how it works, and how it affects us. For example, in the opening chapter, he examines the possibility that music evolves to suit its acoustic context. Byrne illustrates his thesis by comparing and contrasting varied musical traditions (and their contexts) that range from West African drumming to Gregorian chant, opera, to Bach, Mozart and Mahler. It’s a fascinating perspective that helps explain the possible relationships between musical structure and acoustic context. As Byrne points out, the intricate polyrhythms of West African drumming would be a blur of sound inside a gothic cathedral; likewise, chant music sung outside would miss the sustain and ambiance provided by a church’s resonant interior space. Later in the book, Byrne extends this concept of space shaping musical style in his discussion of CBGB’s, the New York bar rock club the Talking Heads first honed their craft and sound. All this fits with Byrne’s general theory that creativity is not such much about the artist who makes stuff as much as it is about the conditions–social, but also physical and acoustic–that make the artist’s craft possible in the first place.

In addition to weaving grand theories, Byrne writes about the musics around him as they make sense through his own listening. He makes striking observations about contemporary hip hop, for example. Designed for booming sound systems, hip hop heard emanating from a moving car, says Byrne, is “generous music” in that its booming low end is publicly shared for all to hear (whether they want to or not!). The style is also kind of abstract in that it “floats free of all worldly reference” (132). Byrne elaborates: “It’s music that, by design, affects the body. It’s very sensuous and physical, even though the sounds themselves don’t relate to any music that has ever been physically produced. You can’t play air guitar or mimic playing an instrument to a contemporary hip-hop record; even the sounds that signify ‘drums’ don’t sound like a drum kit” (132). Similarly, Byrne is adept at explaining his own history of making music–at home alone in his studio, or in his many collaborations with other musicians (most recently with St. Vincent). Byrne shares his technique for improvising wordless melodies (158), working with the limitations of computer software, and even the genesis of his lyrics for the Talking Heads hit “Once in a Lifetime” (161). Byrne likes music that grooves and makes us move and explains how the Talking Heads essentially made acoustic dance music, working collaboratively in the studio as a human step sequencer: “One or two people would lay down a track, usually some kind of repetitive groove that would last about four minutes…Others would respond to what had been out down, adding their own repetitive parts, filling in the gaps and spaces, for the whole length of the ‘song'”(157-58).

For Byrne, this collaborative songwriting process was “about hunting and pecking with the aim of ‘finding’ short, sonic, modular pieces…Then we would shape those accumulated results into something resembling a song structure” (186). Insiders’ accounts of musical process like Byrne’s help us understand what it was like to be making popular art music on the lower East side of Manhattan in the late 1970s and early 1980s. It captures the feeling of being on the crest of a wave that included punk (the Ramones also played at CBGB’s), disco, gospel and other American vernacular musics, and modern classical composers like Steve Reich and Philip Glass–and how these styles and sounds came crashing together in the Talking Heads’ post-punk, pre-synth pop art-dance funk-rock. Says Byrne, “while punk rock was celebrated for needing only three chords, we had now stripped that down to one.” Using only a single chord “made the tracks feel more trance-like, somewhat transcendent, ecstatic even–more akin to African music or Gospel or disco” (159). These tracks, he says, were “driven more by textural variation than by melody or harmony–more like minimal classical music or some traditional forms of music around the world than the rock and pop traditions we came out of” (159).

Inspired by Byrne’s description of his one-chord rock, I had a re-listen to “Once In A Lifetime.” I first heard the song in the early 1980s via MTV. I was a little young to appreciate the music back then, but I do remember the live concert video in which a sweaty Byrne dressed in an oversized suit channeled the role of a preacher on a roll. As I listened to the song again I was struck by how solid, rhythmic, and well orchestrated the song is. Wow! It really does sound like a band making steady-state acoustic machine music, with just enough little quirky touches–like the occasional slightly wonky drum hit–to give it soul. What is most noticeable to me is how every part–the two note bass part, the disco guitars, and even the vocals–fits into its own rhythmic slot and leaves room for the others. Here’s the song:

There’s a lot of other material covered in How Music Works too–including essays on music recording technology, the politics of elitism in classical music, and the evolutionary origins of music. Here and elsewhere, what Byrne’s book does best is convey the thinking of an artist still very much at work–listening, composing, performing, collaborating, reading, mulling ideas over, spinning theories, sharing passions and excitement, giving advice, and even giving credit where credit is due. At one point in the book, Byrne simply suggests that for him, creativity is something to engage in as an everyday activity like cooking or doing errands. Creativity is also an emergent force–less a product of our individual talents than the networks of energy and information in which we find ourselves. It’s an interesting notion, and one that How Music Works communicates over and over by being generous, open, and self-effacing.

On Beginnings And Anywheres: A John Cage Aphorism

I see the words on an inspirational magnet in a shop window.

“Begin anywhere”

the late American experimental composer John Cage (1912-1992) tells us.

But what was the point of this telling?

Cage in fact walked the walk of his talk, relying on rolling dice, consulting the Chinese I-Ching book of hexagrams, and even scrutinizing the minute imperfections of music staff paper to define anywhere for him and assist in making the decisions (or free himself from the decision-making) required to construct his music scores.

But again, what was the point of this telling?

A quick and perhaps unreliable Internet search reveals that Cage might have meant his words as advice for those facing the psychological paralysis brought about by not knowing where to begin their project, their work, their book, their art. Perhaps–and now that I think of it, Internet searches themselves can often be exactly like this as well–the problem is having too many options, too many links, which brings about a flawed question to oneself: Where’s the best place to begin (my search, my project, etc.)?

It’s a flawed question because there is no best place to begin. From the standpoint of creative work, all places are good enough and all places are beginnings.

Finally, something else comes to mind when I think about that inspirational magnet. Begin anywhere, certainly, but once begun with whatever it is that you’re doing, be deliberate about your going. Cage walked the walk of his talk in this respect too. Whatever methods he used to help him make musical decisions, once he set up the system, so to speak, he rigorously adhered to it, letting it take him and his compositions somewhere (and these somewheres didn’t always make for engaging listening either). In other words, it takes a great discipline to grant oneself the freedom to begin anywhere and then let that anywhere run its course.

Here is Cage’s “Sonata V” from his Sonatas and Interludes (1946-1948) for prepared piano:

On Play

Play, I’ve come to realize, is a favorite word of mine.  In no particular order, here are some possible contexts for it:

He plays that piano well.

The book’s title was a play on words.

My dog is playful.

No worries: we were just playing around.

You just got played.

The musicians were playing off of one another.

Play with the ideas until they fit and make sense.

Play is a favorite word because good things tend to grow out of play, and by “good things” I mean interesting and useful things. Play is usually fun, too.

I wrote about play in an earlier post on this blog, but lately I’ve been thinking about it again in the context of composing.  You see, my process is usually to sit down at the computer and just start playing around–in the sense of randomly listening through and trying out sounds.  Simple.  The mindset feels like that of a young child grappling with different-shaped blocks, trying to figure out what goes with what.  Are there rules to this play?  No, not really.  Whatever catches my ear (as if my ears might fly away like butterflies if not so caught) becomes sufficient reason to jump into capture mode (now the potential musical idea is the butterfly liable to get away if I don’t act fast), quickly experiment with some patterns and then hit record and improvise.  At this point, I’m still in a play state, only it’s kind of like I’m under self-surveillance too–observed by my own critical ear.  It remains play though because I feel as if I don’t know what I’m doing: I’m in new territory and don’t know where I’m going.  It’s fun in a slightly scary kind of way.

After this moment of recording under self-surveillance I often lose that sense of play as I begin judging what I’ve done.  First thoughts to materialize in my mind: “That’s kind of lame.”  Or a shrug: “Whatever.”  Or sometimes I like what I’ve done because it sounds vital: “I really like this!”  But whatever its tenor, self-judgement is corrosive, at least at this stage of the game.  At later stages, though, it’s a useful tool.

In his novel Television, Jean-Philippe Toussaint articulates two distinct stages of artistic process:

“The first, subterranean, is a gestational process, demanding looseness and flexibility, a game and open mind, in order to fuel the handling of new ideas and new materials, while the second is soberer, more orderly, requiring method and discipline, austerity and rigor; this is the process that takes over when it comes time to put the [work] into its definitive form” (100).

For me, play is part of what Toussaint calls the “subterranean” and “gestational” process.  The trick, if that is the right word, is to forestall the “soberer” self-critiquing stage long enough for ideas to flower.  So I improvise–play–with an open mind.  Who knows where this is going?  Maybe nowhere.  The important thing is that for this very moment it feels new and holds my attention.

I have a lot of these musical beginnings (trapped butterflies!) stored as files on my computer’s hard drive.  They’re blueprints for full pieces to be completed down the road, but they also serve other, vaguer purposes.  Sometimes, when I’m doing something mundane like changing the water in the fish tank I listen to the sketches on loop mode, as if they’re already finished.  I’m listening, believe it or not, to try to get to know them.  They’re still strange to me and I’m trying to understand what essential feeling they embody.  Put in the form of a question: What is this thing?  Put in the form of a statement: I’m trying to let the music socialize and teach me something.  It strikes me that even as I generate these ideas I’m not all that well equipped to make sense of them.

So I take my time, listening and mulling things over.  It’s possible that this process–this trying to get a sense of what the sounds are all about–is as interesting as the compulsion to one day get the things finished.

And then, just when my listening starts moving away from play, I hit stop.