The Intensity Recruitment Concept

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?     

Curating The Week: Film Music, Clark, Metadata

A critical reading of film music.

“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.”

• An interview with producer Chris Clark.

“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.”

An article about creativity, photography, and metadata.

“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.”

Notes On Shifting Attentions: From Practicing To Performing

“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?