Brain Pickings

Posts Tagged ‘music’

03 NOVEMBER, 2014

Bruce Springsteen’s Reading List: 28 Favorite Books That Shaped His Mind and Music

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From Montaigne’s philosophy to Flannery O’Connor’s short stories, literary anatomy of the creative icon.

“A book is a heart that only beats in the chest of another,” Rebecca Solnit wrote in her beautiful essay on reading and writing. It is also, perhaps, a seed planted in another’s garden of consciousness. It is no coincidence that most highly creative people are voracious readers — books, after all, enable us to live multiple lives in one by giving us access to emotions and experiences impossible to compress into a single lifetime, and creativity is the combinatorial product of all the ideas and experiences floating around our minds. To peek inside a creative icon’s lifelong reading list is to glimpse his or her existential library of the mind — the range of ideas and influences and inspirations that were fused together into the work for which that person is known and beloved.

Joining the previously published reading lists of notable luminaries — including those of Leo Tolstoy, Carl Sagan, Alan Turing, Nick Cave, David Bowie, and Brian Eno — is singer-songwriter Bruce Springsteen, one of the most influential and celebrated musicians of the twentieth century, and the recipient of twenty Grammy Awards. In a recent New York Times interview, marking the release of his charming picture-book Outlaw Pete (public library), Springsteen shares the books that shaped his music and his mind, from poetry to philosophy to children’s books — an eclectic reading list spanning numerous genres and sensibilities, life stages and moods. (Favorite childhood book: The Wonderful Wizard of Oz; last book that made him laugh: Richard Ford’s The Lay of the Land; last book that made him cry: Cormac McCarthy’s The Road).

  1. Moby-Dick (free download; public library | IndieBound) by Herman Melville
  2. How to Live: Or A Life of Montaigne in One Question and Twenty Attempts at an Answer (public library | IndieBound) by Sarah Bakewell
  3. Lonely Hearts of the Cosmos: The Scientific Quest for the Secret of the Universe (public library | IndieBound) by Dennis Overbye
  4. Love in the Time of Cholera (public library| IndieBound) by Gabriel García Márquez
  5. Anna Karenina (free download; public library | IndieBound) by Leo Tolstoy
  6. Leaves of Grass (public library | IndieBound) by Walt Whitman
  7. The History of Western Philosophy (public library | IndieBound) by Bertrand Russell
  8. Examined Lives (public library | IndieBound) by Jim Miller
  9. American Pastoral (public library | IndieBound) by Philip Roth
  10. I Married a Communist (public library | IndieBound) by Philip Roth
  11. Blood Meridian (public library | IndieBound) by Cormac McCarthy
  12. The Road (public library | IndieBound) by Cormac McCarthy
  13. The Sportswriter (public library | IndieBound) by Richard Ford
  14. The Lay of the Land (public library | IndieBound) by Richard Ford
  15. Independence Day (public library | IndieBound) by Richard Ford
  16. A Good Man Is Hard to Find and Other Stories (public library | IndieBound) by Flannery O’Connor
  17. Mystery Train: Images of America in Rock ‘n’ Roll Music (public library | IndieBound) by Greil Marcus
  18. Last Train to Memphis: The Rise of Elvis Presley (public library | IndieBound) by Peter Guralnick
  19. Chronicles (public library | IndieBound) by Bob Dylan
  20. Sonata for Jukebox (public library | IndieBound) by Geoffrey O’Brien
  21. Soul Mining: A Musical Life (public library | IndieBound) by Daniel Lanois
  22. Too Big to Fail (public library | IndieBound) by Andrew Ross Sorkin
  23. Someplace Like America: Tales from the New Great Depression (public library | IndieBound) by Dale Maharidge
  24. The Big Short (public library | IndieBound) by Michael Lewis
  25. The Brothers Karamazov (free download; public library | IndieBound) by Fyodor Dostoevsky
  26. Great Short Works (public library | IndieBound) by Leo Tolstoy
  27. The Adventures of Augie March (public library | IndieBound) by Saul Bellow
  28. The Wonderful Wizard of Oz (public library | IndieBound) by L. Frank Baum

Complement Springsteen’s Outlaw Pete with a sweet illustrated adaptation of Bob Dylan’s “Forever Young.”

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30 OCTOBER, 2014

Jazz Legend Bill Evans on the Creative Process, Self-Teaching, and Balancing Clarity with Spontaneity in Problem-Solving

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“The person that succeeds in anything has the realistic viewpoint at the beginning and [knows] that the problem is large and that he has to take it a step at a time.”

In a 1915 letter to his young son, Albert Einstein advised that the best way to learn anything is “when you are doing something with such enjoyment that you don’t notice that the time passes.” Many decades later, psychologists would give a name to this distinctive, exhilarating state of immersive, self-initiated learning and creative growth: flow. Again and again, artists, writers, scientists, and other creators have described this state as the key to the “spiritual electricity” of creative work.

In 1966, legendary jazz pianist Bill Evans (August 16, 1929–September 15, 1980) sat down with his composer brother, Harry Evans, for an intense and deeply insightful conversation later released as Universal Mind of Bill Evans: The Creative Process and Self-Teaching. From filmmaker William Meier comes this gorgeous cinematic adaptation of Evans’s thoughts on the autodidactic quality of creativity and the value of working at the intersection of clarity, complexity, and spontaneity.

Here is a longer excerpt from the documentary, where Evans discusses the step-by-step process of creative problem-solving:

The whole process of learning the facility of being able to play jazz is to take these problems from the outer level in, one by one, and to stay with it at a very intense, conscious-concentration level until that process becomes secondary and subconscious. Now, when that becomes subconscious, then you can begin concentrating on that next problem, which will allow you to do a little bit more.

I don’t consider myself as talented as many people but in some ways that was an advantage because I didn’t have a great facility immediately so I had to be more analytical and in a way — that forced me to build something.

Most people just don’t realize the immensity of the problem and, either because they can’t conquer it immediately, think that they haven’t got the ability, or they’re so impatient to conquer it that they never do see it through. If you do understand the problem then you can enjoy your whole trip through.

People tend to approximate the product rather than attacking it in a realistic, true way at any elementary level — regardless of how elementary — but it must be entirely true and entirely real and entirely accurate. They would rather approximate the entire problem than to take a small part of it and be real and true about it. To approximate the whole thing in a vague way gives you a feeling that you’ve more or less touched the thing, but in this way you just lead yourself toward confusion and ultimately you’re going to get so confused that you’ll never find your way out.

It is true of any subject that the person that succeeds in anything has the realistic viewpoint at the beginning and [knows] that the problem is large and that he has to take it a step at a time and that he has to enjoy the step-by-step learning procedure. They’re trying to do a thing in a way that is so general [that] they can’t possibly build on that. If they build on that, they’re building on top of confusion and vagueness and they can’t possibly progress. If you try to approximate something that is very advanced and don’t know what you’re doing, you can’t advance.

Universal Mind of Bill Evans is revelatory in its entirety. Complement it with the great composer Aaron Copland on the conditions of creativity and Julia Cameron on how to get out of your own way and unblock creative flow.

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23 SEPTEMBER, 2014

Greil Marcus on What the History of Rock ‘n’ Roll Teaches Us about Innovation and the Art of Self-Reinvention

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How to continually experience “the satisfaction that only art, only the act of putting something new into the world, can bring.”

“All of us, we’re links in a chain,” Pete Seeger said in an altogether wonderful 1988 interview, capturing with elegant economy of words the notion that creativity is combinatorial — that we create, we contribute to the world, by taking a variety of existing bits of knowledge, memories, impressions, influences, experiences, and other material floating around our minds, and recombining them into “new” ideas that we call our own. Mark Twain spoke to this concept with unforgettable wit in his letter to Helen Keller, renouncing the myth of originality. But in The History of Rock ‘n’ Roll in Ten Songs (public library), Rolling Stone music critic Greil Marcus — whose School of Visual Arts commencement address on the false divide between “high” and “low” culture is among the greatest graduation speeches of all time — argues there might be more to the story of how truly groundbreaking creative work comes to be.

Marcus writes:

Whole intellectual industries are devoted to proving that there is nothing new under the sun, that everything comes from something else — and to such a degree that one can never tell when one thing turns into something else. But it is the moment when something appears as if out of nowhere, when a work of art carries within itself the thrill of invention, of discovery, that is worth listening for. It’s that moment when a song or a performance is its own manifesto, issuing its own demands on life in its own, new language — which, though the charge of novelty is its essence, is immediately grasped by any number of people who will swear they never heard anything like it before — that speaks. In rock ’n’ roll, this is a moment that, in historical time, is repeated again and again, until, as culture, it defines the art itself.

Greil Marcus by Michael Macor (SF Gate)

Although Marcus is concerned with the history of rock ’n’ roll, he invariably puts in perspective the larger narrative of creative culture, particularly the way we mythologize creative breakthroughs, package those constructed stories, and disseminate them to a point of propaganda, warping or suppressing the reality of the creative experience. Marcus offers an illustrative example:

What if your memories are not your own, but are, rather, kidnapped by another story, colonized by a larger cultural memory? “It gets dark, you know, very late in Boise, Idaho, in the summer,” David Lynch once said of 9 September 1956, when Elvis Presley first appeared on the Ed Sullivan Show — a show supposedly watched by 82.6 percent of all Americans watching TV that night. Lynch was ten. “It was not quite dark, so it must have been, like, maybe nine o’clock at night, I’m not sure. That nice twilight, a beautiful night. Deep shadows were occurring. And it was sort of warm. And Willard Burns came running towards me from about three houses down the street, and he said, ‘You missed it!’ and I said, ‘What?’ and he said, ‘Elvis on Ed Sullivan!’ And it just, like, set a fire in my head. How could I have missed that? And this was the night, you know. But I’m kind of glad I didn’t see it; it was a bigger event in my head because I missed it.” … In the history of rock ’n’ roll … Lynch’s story might count for more than whatever happened on TV that night. Records that made no apparent history other than their own, the faint marks they left on the charts or someone’s memory, might count for more than any master narrative that excludes them.

In a way, this is a concept scientists and inventors have not only accepted but even celebrate — the entire canon of scientific innovation and technological breakthrough is woven of a multitude of incremental innovations, seemingly useless ideas upon which scientists subsequently built until the cumulative innovation reached a tipping point and became a so-called breakthrough. Both the tragedy and triumph of this creative lineage, of course, is that the ideas folded into this incremental groundswell, like the records that “made no apparent history other than their own,” were in fact radically innovative in their own right but were overshadowed by the “breakthroughs” built on their backs.

Marcus speaks to this in considering these unsung heroes of popular song, citing Maurice Williams’s 1950s South Carolina doo-wop group, the Zodiacs, as an example:

It was the invention in the music that was so striking — the will to create what had never been heard before, through vocal tricks, rhythmic shifts, pieces of sound that didn’t logically follow one from the other, that didn’t make musical or even emotional sense when looked at as pieces, but as a whole spoke a new language.

But because this music was pioneering a new language, its challenge was to tickle, then speak to, then find a market in “the audience that it at once revealed and created.” To do that successfully, Marcus argues, required — as it does today, in music and in all creative endeavors that create their own market — nothing short of purposeful self-invention and perpetual self-reinvention, the vital and vitalizing cycle of self-renewal which John Gardner memorably championed in the 1960s. With his unmistakable dynamic lyricism, Marcus writes:

The ear of the new audience was fickle, teenagers knowing nothing of where the music came from and caring less, and why should they care? It was new, it was different, and that was what they wanted: out of a nascent sense that the world in which their parents had come of age had changed or in some deeper, inexpressible manner disappeared, a sound that made the notion of a new life a fact, even if that fact lasted only a minute and a half. To make that fact — to catch that ear, to sell your record, to top the charts, if only in your dreams — you had to try something new. You had to find something new. You had to listen to everything on the market and try to understand what wasn’t there — and what wasn’t there was you. So you asked yourself, as people have been asking themselves ever since, what’s different about me? How am I different from everybody else — and why am I different? Yes, you invent yourself to the point of stupidity, you give yourself a ridiculous new name, you appear in public in absurd clothes, you sing songs based on nursery rhymes or jokes or catchphrases or advertising slogans, and you do it for money, renown, to lift yourself up, to escape the life you were born to, to escape the poverty, the racism, the killing strictures of a life that you were raised to accept as fate, to make yourself a new person not only in the eyes of the world, but finally in your own eyes too. A minute and a half, two minutes, maybe three, in the one-time, one-take fantasy that takes place in the recording studio, whatever it might be … or forever, even a year, even a few months, in the heaven of the charts, where one more hit means the game isn’t over, that you don’t have to go back to the prison of fate, that you can once again experience the satisfaction that only art, only the act of putting something new into the world, can bring.

Citing Albert Camus’s famous 1947 proclamation — “There is always a social explanation for what we see in art. Only it doesn’t explain anything important.” — Marcus turns to another record emblematic of the same dynamic, Joy Division’s iconic 1979 album Unknown Pleasures, and reflects on the osmosis between creative vision and cultural context:

The songs were art, which by definition escapes the control, the intentions, and the technique of the people who make it.

Art doesn’t explain itself.

Much later in the book, having examined some of the twentieth century’s most influential songs and musicians, Marcus revisits the subject of that osmosis with a luminous sidewise gleam:

Regardless of who writes it, no successful song is a memoir, a news story, and no such song does exactly what its author — and that can be the writer, the singer, the accompanist, the producer — wants it to do. One must draw on whatever new social energies and new ideas are in the air — energies and ideas that are sparking the artist, with or without his or her knowledge, with or without his or her consent, to make greater demands on life than he or she has ever made before.

This seems to be Marcus’s overarching message, presented with great subtlety and nuance — the idea that the most enduring and influential music, like the most enduring and influential artifacts of creative culture at large, springs from the artist’s courage to surrender to the currents of the time not by relinquishing his or her identity but by inhabiting it boldly, to translate the private story into the language of the public’s longing and to make that common language sing with shimmering honesty.

Midway through the book, he captures this elegantly in an aside that might just be his most piercing point, adding to history’s finest definitions of art:

Any work of art [is] a fiction that bounce[s] back on real life, maybe the author’s, maybe not.

The History of Rock ‘n’ Roll in Ten Songs is a beautiful read in its entirety, Marcus’s writing nothing short of enchanting. (The section on Etta James in particular is an exquisite masterwork of prose.) Complement it with David Byrne on music and how creativity works, then John Gardner on the art of self-renewal.

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