“Craft is what enables you to be successful when you’re not inspired.” – Brian Eno
As a research flâneur, one of my favorite meta-subjects is the nature of the creative process and the question of how new and original ideas arise. Over the course of reading about music I’ve wandered into some compelling efforts to unpack how creativity works and I’ll begin by sharing a few of them with you. In a 1960 article (“Blind variation and selective retentions in creative thought as in other knowledge processes”), the psychologist Donald Campbell speaks of creativity in terms of “blind variation” or wandering which is subject to chance discoveries and “selective retentions” or recognition of these discoveries. Arthur Koestler’s 1964 book, The Act of Creation, posits creativity’s key as “bi-sociation” or bringing two seemingly unrelated entities together. In a 1988 article (“Society, Culture, and Person: A Systems View of Creativity”), the psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi (famous for his “flow” concept) triangulates creativity as a by-product of an interaction between an individual and a cultural domain with rules and conventions, and a social field that evaluates and judges the creative work. In his 1979 ethnographic memoir Ways of The Hand, the jazz pianist and sociologist David Sudnow describes creativity as a terrain of pathways for “various critical tasks faced when sustaining orderly articulated movements” (3). In her 2003 book The Creative Mind, cognitive scientist Margaret Boden applies a computational perspective on (re)combining familiar items, and exploring and transforming an established conceptual space. In his 2014 book Antifragile, statistician and essayist Nassim Taleb frames creativity in terms of tinkering or trial and error experimentation to generate small mistakes that are rich information, setting the stage for discovering “something rather significant” (236). In her 2015 book The Storm of Creativity, architect Kyna Leski describes the creative process as transforming via “displacing, disturbing, and destabilizing what you (think you) know” (13). And in his 2017 book The Evolution of Imagination, Stephen Asma likens creativity to inquiry—“an intellectual, artistic, and even bodily form of investigation and expression” (4).
This blog is in some ways fundamentally about creativity and vectors of invention. I have reviewed books on the topic (such as ones by Ed Catmull, Philippe Petit, and Kyna Leski), and I have written obliquely about it in my Working Knowledge and Performance Notes posts. Insights regarding creativity are everywhere. Take cooking, for example. I have found similarities between how chefs think about generating ideas and how composers do. The work of Michel Bras, Ferran Adria, Rene Redzepi, and Alain Passard is particularly interesting. Here is Bras, the self-taught master, describing his process: “In cooking, I often identify with the ingredient. I try to understand it, become one with it in order to recreate it.”
When it comes to talking about my own music making, I’m circumspect about detailing techniques and methods because doing so seems reductive. But I do write about them. Offline I make short notes about what is and isn’t working to gradually steer myself towards productive rather than dead-end paths. Interestingly, most of the notes have something do with “leaving more space.” (Note to readers: leaving space always helps!) In my experience, if there is an essence of creativity it emerges not so much from techniques or methods (and certainly not from one’s “gear”) but within the flow of a performance. Performances, of course, are complicated staging or spectacles that we see all around us: politicians and reality TV characters—who are sometimes one and the same—perform, teachers perform, and so do novels and musical improvisations. One of the things that makes performances complicated is their sense of urgency—that is, their relationship to pressures, real or imagined. (I have written about performance here.) Performances have led me to cool places where the most interesting-sounding discoveries are by-products of serendipity, transpiring halfway between accident and my less than ideal technical facility for “sustaining orderly articulated movements” as Sudnow says, within music’s time. A plainer way of saying this is that although I’m not always sure how I get things done, things get done through a performance. And while I usher them along, connecting their moments, the better performances seem to draw on alternate bio- and psycho-energy sources. Why rule out the effect of ineffable intangibles such as your disparate thoughts, the time of day, your location, your hunger, or your muscle memories on your ability to conjure something apropos for the project at hand?
What though, are the sources of performance skill? When I’m in a pragmatic state of mind (e.g. it’s morning), I might say that creativity through performance depends on how you draw on and apply your experience. In my case, I’ve been playing two musical instruments (percussion and piano) for about thirty-five years. With the piano, not playing it very dexterously, but that hasn’t stopped an understanding from developing between the layout of the keys and my sense of where I want to go over them. (Knowledge proceeds independent of practical skill.) Based on knowing a musical instrument, I can reliably find ways to get from here to there and, most of the time, back again. (If not, we’re going to have a surprise ending folks!) When I’m in a more associative mood (e.g. it’s late afternoon), I might say that creativity is about how you use your experience to defy the materials with which you work. Whether making a bird out of folded paper or a chordspace out of tones and semitones, you imagine that your craft is always gesturing somewhere else.