Brain Pickings

Posts Tagged ‘creativity’

21 DECEMBER, 2012

The Best Music Books of 2012

By:

From the neuroscience of talent to the illustrated Beatles, by way of Zen Buddhism and how creativity works.

The latest addition to this year’s best-of reading lists — spanning art, design, philosophy and psychology, picturebooks, history, graphic novels and graphic nonfiction, and food — is a look at the most noteworthy music books of 2012.

HOW MUSIC WORKS

Great times and tall deeds for David Byrne this season: First his fantastic collaborative album with St. Vincent (which made a cameo on Literary Jukebox), and now the release of How Music Works (UK; public library) — a fascinating record of his lifetime of curiosity about and active immersion in music. But rather than an autobiographical work, a prescriptive guide to how to listen, or another neuropsychological account of music, what unfolds is a blend of social science, history, anthropology, and media theory, exploring how context shapes the experience and even the nature of music. Or, as Byrne puts it, “how music might be molded before it gets to us, what determines if it gets to us at all, and what factors external to the music itself can make it resonate for us. Is there a bar near the stage? Can you put it in your pocket? Do girls like it? Is it affordable?”

Among the book’s most fascinating insights is a counterintuitive model for how creativity works, from a chapter titled “Creation in Reverse” — a kind of reformulation of McLuhan’s famous aphorism “the medium is the message” into a somewhat less pedantic but no less purposeful “the medium shapes the message”:

I had an extremely slow-dawning insight about creation. That insight is that context largely determines what is written, painted, sculpted, sung, or performed. That doesn’t sound like much of an insight, but it’s actually the opposite of conventional wisdom, which maintains that creation emerges out of some interior emotion, from an upwelling of passion or feeling, and that the creative urge will brook no accommodation, that it simply must find an outlet to be heard, read, or seen. The accepted narrative suggests that a classical composer gets a strange look in his or her eye and begins furiously scribbling a fully realized composition that couldn’t exist in any other form. Or that the rock-and-roll singer is driven by desires and demons, and out bursts this amazing, perfectly shaped song that had to be three minutes and twelve seconds — nothing more, nothing less. This is the romantic notion of how creative work comes to b, but I think the path of creation is almost 180º from this model. I believe that we unconsciously and instinctively make work to fit preexisting formats.

Of course, passion can still be present. Just because the form that one’s work will take is predetermined and opportunistic (meaning one makes something because the opportunity is there), it doesn’t mean that creation must be cold, mechanical, and heartless. Dark and emotional materials usually find a way in, and the tailoring process — form being tailored to fit a given context — is largely unconscious, instinctive. We usually don’t even notice it. Opportunity and availability are often the mother of invention. The emotional story — ‘something to get off my chest’ — still gets told, but its form is guided by prior contextual restrictions. I’m proposing that this is not entirely the bad thing one might expect it to be. Thank goodness, for example, that we don’t have to reinvent the wheel every time we make something.

Byrne gives a number of examples from the history of music that illustrate this contextually-driven creation and what it reveals about the nature of creativity:

It’s usually assumed that much Western medieval music was harmonically ‘simple’ (having few key changes) because composers hadn’t yet evolved the use of complex harmonies. In this context there would be no need or desire to include complex harmonies, as they would have sounded horrible in such spaces. Creatively they did exactly the right thing. Presuming that there is such a thing as ‘progress’ when it comes to music, and that music is ‘better’ now than it used to be, is typical of the high self-regard of those who live in the present. It is a myth. Creativity doesn’t ‘improve.’

He turns to nature for confirmation of this model:

The adaptive aspect of creativity isn’t limited to musicians and composers (or artists in any other media). It extends into the natural world as well. David Attenborough and others have claimed that birdcalls have evolved to fit the environment. In dense jungle foliage, a constant, repetitive, and brief signal with a narrow frequency works best — the repetition is like an error-correcting device. If the intended recipient didn’t get the first transmission, an identical one will follow.

Birds that live on the forest floor evolved lower-pitched calls, so they don’t bounce or become distorted by the ground as higher-pitched sounds might. Water birds have calls that, unsurprisingly, cut through the ambient sounds of water, and birds that live in the plains and grasslands, like the Savannah Sparrow, have buzzing calls that can traverse long distances.

[…]

So musical evolution and adaptation is an interspecies phenomenon. And presumably, as some claim, birds enjoy singing, even though they, like us, change their tunes over time. The joy of making music will find a way, regardless of the context and the form that emerges to best fit it.

Byrne brings this evolutionary lens back full circle to the emotional content of creation:

Finding examples to prove that music composition depends on its context comes naturally to me. But I have a feeling that this somewhat reversed view of creation — that it is more pragmatic and adaptive than some might think — happens a lot, and in very different areas. It’s ‘reversed’ because the venues — or the fields and woodlands, in the case of the birds — were not built to accommodate whatever egotistical or artistic urge the composers have. We and the birds adapt, and it’s fine.

What’s interesting to me is not that these practical adaptations happen (in retrospect that seems predictable and obvious), but what it means for our perception of creativity.

It seems that creativity, whether birdsong, painting, or songwriting, is as adaptive as anything else. Genius — the emergence of a truly remarkable and memorable work — seems to appear when a thing is perfectly suited to its context. When something works, it strikes us as not just being a clever adaptation, but as emotionally resonant as well. When the right thing is in the right place, we are moved.

[…]

We do express our emotions, our reactions to events, breakups and infatuations, but the way we do that — the art of it — is in putting them into prescribed forms or squeezing them into new forms that perfectly fit some emerging context. That’s part of the creative process, and we do it instinctively; we internalize it, like birds do. And it’s a joy to sing, like the birds do.

The rest of How Music Works goes on to explore such absorbing facets of music as the intricate inner workings of the music business, the secret of successful collaborations, Byrne’s own life in performance, and how the history of recording technology shaped music.

And what makes for a particularly enjoyable read is Byrne’s decidedly non-dogmatic, non-didactic tone — instead, he wraps his keen cultural insights in a sheath of self-aware subjectivity and unapologetic personal conviction, with just the right amount of conversational candor. (In a section discussing the social shifts in the early 1900s when classical audiences were suddenly forbidden from shouting, eating, and chatting during a performance, he opines with equal parts snark and cultural sensitivity: “I do wonder how much of the audience’s fun was sacrificed in the effort to redefine the social parameters of the concert hall — it sounds almost masochistic of the upper crust, curtailing their own liveliness, but I guess they had their priorities.”)

Originally featured in September.

David Byrne photograph via Wikimedia Commons

GUITAR ZERO

Are musicians born or made? What is the line between skill and talent in any domain, and can we acquire either later in life? That’s exactly what neuroscientist Gary Marcus explores in Guitar Zero: The New Musician and the Science of Learning (UK; public library) — a fascinating journey into the limits of human reinvention.

In an effort to reconcile his lifelong passion for music with his self-admitted chronic musical inaptitude, Marcus set out to debunk one of science’s longest-running theories about learning — that there are “critical periods” in which complex skills can be learned, and that they slam shut after adolescence.

If critical periods aren’t quite so firm as people once believed, a world of possibility emerges for the many adults who harbor secret dreams — whether to learn a language, to become a pastry chef, or to pilot a small plane. And quests like these, no matter how quixotic they may seem, and whether they succeed in the end or not, could bring unanticipated benefits, not just for their ultimate goals but of the journey itself. Exercising our brains helps maintain them, by preserving plasticity (the capacity of the nervous system to learn new things), warding off degeneration, and literally keeping the blood flowing. Beyond the potential benefits for our brains, there are benefits for our emotional well-being, too. There may be no better way to achieve lasting happiness — as opposed to mere fleeting pleasure — than pursuing a goal that helps us broaden our horizons.

To his astonishment, however, Marcus found a dearth of scientific literature and research on music learning in people of his age. The problem, it turned out, wasn’t lack of scientific interest but, rather, a lack of subjects — studying the outcomes of adults who put in 10,000 hours of practice proved difficult since most people of that age have life responsibilities that prevent them from putting in that time in the first place. So, Marcus decided to turn himself into the guinea pig.

For a glimmer of hope, he looked to a number of well-known musicians who arrived at their particular musical talent late in life — Patti Smith didn’t consider becoming a professional singer until she was in her mid-twenties, iconic jazz guitarist Pat Martino relearned to play after a brain aneurysm at the age of 35, and New Orleans keyboard legend Dr. John switched from guitar to piano when he was 21 after an injury, then won the first of his five Grammys at the age of 48. Having no such aspirations of grandeur, Marcus, aged 38 and with a documented lack of rhythm, still found himself desperately longing to learn to play the guitar. As he puts it, “Perhaps few people had less talent for music than I did, but few people wanted more badly to be able to play.” So he confronted the fundamental question:

Could persistence and a lifelong love of music overcome age and a lack of talent? And, for that matter, how did anyone of any age become musical?

Curiously, one of the most influential experiments on critical periods comes from barn owls who, like bats, rely heavily on sound to navigate; but, unlike bats, they see better than bats do, and one of the first things they do after hatching is calibrating their ears with their eyes, attuning what they hear to what they see. But because this navigational mapping of auditory information depends on the exact distance between their eyes and ears, which changes as the owl grows, it can’t be hardwired at birth.

To study how the owls calibrate their visual and auditory worlds, Stanford biologist Eric Knudsen devised a clever experiment, in which he raised owls in a kind of virtual reality world where prisms shifted everything by 23 degrees, forcing the owl to adjust its internal map of the world. Knudsen found that young owls learned to compensate for the distortion easily, and older owls could not — at least not in one go. But as soon as the 23 degrees were broken down in chunks — a few weeks at 6 degrees, another few at 11, and so forth — the adult owls were able to make the adjustment.

Using this insight, Marcus turned to David Mead’s Crash Course: Acoustic Guitar, which broke guitar playing into the kind of bite-sized morsels fit for the human equivalent of adult owls. It gave Marcus the basics, and thus the first step in rewiring his own brain.

This book is about how I began to distinguish my musical derriere from my musical elbow, but it’s not just about me: it’s also about the psychology and brain science of how anybody, of any age — toddler, teenager, or adult — can learn something as complicated as a musical instrument.

Wilder Penfield's cortical homunculus, a pictorial representation of the neural tissue in the primary motor cortex assigned to different body parts, illustrates that the exact amount of 'cortical real estate' varies between body parts, with the more sensitive ones getting more real estate. Marcus suggests a try-this-at-home test:

'You can confirm this with the aid of a pin and a trusted friend. Close your eyes as the friend gently pokes you with the pin. In areas with heavy cortical representation, you will be able to easily discriminate closely spaced pinpricks; in areas with light cortical representation, you will sometimes be unable to distinguish two pinpricks that are close together but not identical.'

Along the way, Marcus explores the basic elements of music and how it evolved culturally and biologically. He dives deep into the popular “ten thousand hours” theory of mastery, developed by cognitive psychologist Anders Ericsson, “the world’s leading expert on expertise,” and examines Ericsson’s second, lesser-known prerequisite for expertise — the notion of “deliberate practice,” which describes the constant sense of self-evaluation and a consistent focus on one’s weaknesses rather than playing on one’s strengths. In fact, the practice of targeting specific weaknesses is known as the “zone of proximal development” and offers a framework for everything from education to videogames:

[The ‘zone of proximal development’ is] the idea that learning works best when the student tackles something that is just beyond his or her current reach, neither too hard nor too easy. In classroom situations, for example, one team of researchers estimated that its’ best to arrange things so that children succeed roughly 80 percent of the time; more than that, and kids tend to get bored; less, and they tend to get frustrated. The same is surely true of adults, too, which is why video game manufacturers have been known to invest millions in play testing to make sure that the level of challenge always lies in that sweet spot of neither too easy nor too hard.

But what makes Guitar Zero exceptional isn’t simply that it simultaneously calls into question the myth of the music instinct and confronts the idea that talent is merely a myth — at its heart is a much bigger question about the boundaries of our capacity for transformation and, ultimately, the mechanics of fulfillment and purpose.

Originally featured in February.

WHERE THE HEART BEATS

“Good music can act as a guide to good living,” John Cage famously said. But what, exactly, is good music, or good living, or, for that matter, goodness itself?

In Where the Heart Beats: John Cage, Zen Buddhism, and the Inner Life of Artists (UK; public library), also one of the best psychology and philosophy books of 2012, longtime art critic and practicing Buddhist Kay Larson constructs a remarkable intellectual, creative, and spiritual biography of Cage — one of the most influential composers in modern history, whose impact reaches beyond the realm of music and into art, literature, cinema, and just about every other aesthetic and conceptual expression of curiosity about the world, yet also one of history’s most misunderstood artists. Fifteen years in the making, it is without a doubt the richest, most stimulating,most absorbing book I’ve read in ages — superbly researched, exquisitely written, weaving together a great many threads of cultural history into a holistic understanding of both Cage as an artist and Zen as a lens on existence.

From his early life in California, defined by his investigations into the joy of sound, to his pivotal introduction to Zen Buddhism in Japanese Zen master D. T. Suzuki’s Columbia University class, to his blossoming into a force of the mid-century avant-garde, Larson traces Cage’s own journey as an artist and a soul, as well as his intermeshing with the journeys of other celebrated artists, including Marcel Duchamp, Jasper Johns, Yoko Ono, Robert Rauschenberg, Jackson Pollock, and, most importantly, Merce Cunningham.

The book itself has a beautiful compositional structure, conceived as a conversation with Cage and modeled after Cage’s imagined conversations with Erik Satie, one of his mentors, long after Satie’s death. Interspersed in Larson’s immersive narrative are italicized excerpts of Cage’s own writing, in his own voice.

Where to begin? Perhaps at the core — the core of what Cage has come to be known for, that expansive negative space isn’t nihilistic, isn’t an absence, but, rather, it’s life-affirming, a presence. Cage himself reflects:

Our intention is to affirm this life, not to bring order out of chaos, nor to suggest improvements in creation, but simply to wake up to the very life we’re living, which is so excellent once one gets one’s mind and desires out of its way and lets it act of its own accord.

Xenia Kashevaroff

Image courtesy of the Metropolitan Museum of Art

In his early life, however, Cage was rather unable to get his “mind and desires out of the way,” leading himself into a spiral of inner turmoil. While engaged in a relationship with a man named Don Sample, he met artist Xenia Kashevaroff, the Alaskan-born daughter of a Russian priest, and quickly fell in love. The two got married and, for a while, Cage was able to appease his dissonance about his affair with Sample. But rather than gaining deeper self-knowledge, he seemed to steer further away from himself. Perhaps that’s what prompted him, sixty years later, to admonish:

I’m entirely opposed to emotions….I really am. I think of love as an opportunity to become blind and blind in a bad way….I think that seeing and hearing are extremely important; in my view they are what life is; love makes us blind to seeing and hearing.

By the 1940s, Cage’s relationship with Xenia had begun to unravel. When the two eventually divorced in 1945, Cage’s identity was thrown into turbulence. His work followed faithfully, as he set out to compose Ophelia (1946), a “two-tone poem to madness” based on Shakespeare. Larson writes:

Margaret Leng Tan asked Cage why his portrait of Ophelia is so much harsher than Shakespeare’s. She recorded his reply that ‘all madness is inherently violent, even when it is not directed towards others, for it invariably ravages the sufferer internally.’

Cage and Cunningham, circa 1948, as Cage's confusion and despair began to lift. In this classic image, taken at Black Mountain College, the perfection of their partnering seems a force of nature. Why did Cage struggle at first?

Image courtesy of John Cage Trust / Penguin

Soon, Cage began the decades-long romance with the love of his life, dancer and choreographer Merce Cunningham, which would last until the end of Cage’s life and bequeath some of the most magical collaborations in the history of 20th-century art. Around the same time, Cage began the other essential relationship of his life — that with Zen Buddhism.

Hardly anywhere does Larson’s gift for prose and grasp of the human condition shine more beautifully than in this passage articulating the profound, uncomfortable transformation that love sets in motion:

Caught in the roar of his emotions, Cage was forced to confront a question totally new to him: What is the ‘self’ that is being expressed? The self that hurts so badly it nearly kills you? The self that isn’t seen until it aches?

When Cage and Cunningham met, perhaps they felt a tremor of gravitational shift. It might have been small at first, or the shiver might have been so insistent it rattled them. Whatever the case, something evidently stirred between the two men before they came to New York. But maybe nothing was spoken.

So it is with the places preparing to teach us. It’s only when the heart begins to beat wildly and without pattern — when it begins to realize its boundlessness — that its newly adamant pulse bangs on the walls of its cage and is bruised by its enclosure.

To feel the heart pound is only the beginning. Next is to feel the hurt — the tearing of the psyche — the prelude of entry into the place one has always feared. One fears that place because of being drawn to it, loving it, and wanting to be taught by it. Without the need to be taught, who would feel the psyche rip?…. Without the bruise, who would know where the walls are?

Tying it back to Cage himself, Larson writes:

Bruised and bloodied by throwing himself against the four walls of his enclosure, and deeply shaken by his shrieking emotions, Cage stopped pacing his confinement and realized that his container had no roof. Looking up, he could see the sky. Fascinated, he set out to explore this new dimension.

What he found was a language of silence and immanence.

In 1964, John Cage was fifty-two years old and had been partnering with Merce Cunningham for two decades. The two men's bright confidence in 1948 has shifted to something calmer: the settled assurance of the bond between them -- one of the great redeeming love affairs in the history of the American arts -- which would endure until their deaths.

Image courtesy of John Cage Trust / Penguin

This Cageian inquisitiveness was indeed fundamental to both this personal life and his approach to music — an ethos reminiscent of Rilke’s counsel to live the questions. Cage:

What can be analyzed in my work, or criticized, are the questions.

One remarkable aspect of Cage’s music, derived from his close study of Indian traditions, was the notion of “disinterestedness” — which is not to be confused with “indifference.” Larson distinguishes:

From the standpoint of spiritual practice, the two words have nothing in common. Indifference borders on nihilism. It has a quality of ‘not caring.’ It is ‘apathetic.’ It expresses corrosive cynicism. Ultimately, it is poisonous, both to the practitioner and to the culture as a whole.

Disinterestedness, on the contrary, ‘is unbiased by personal interest or advantage; not influenced by selfish motives,’ according to the Random House Dictionary (1971). Disinterestedness is the natural outcome of meditation on the self and recognition of its lack of substance — then what can trouble you? freeing one’s mind from the grip of the self leads to spiritual ease — being at home in your own skin, free of self-attachment, cured of likes and dislikes, afloat in rasa. It’s how you open your ears to the music of the world.

Cage defined disinterestedness and equated it with ‘love’ in 1948:

‘If one makes music, as the Orient would say, disinterestedly, that is, without concern for money or fame but simply for the love of making it, it is an integrating activity and one will find moments in his life that an complete and fulfilled.’

(This sentiment regarding purpose and doing what you love would come to be articulated by many other creators over the decades to come.)

Echoing something Jackson Pollock’s dad once wrote to his son in one of history’s finest letters, Cage advises:

Look at everything. Don’t close your eyes to the world around you. Look and become curious and interested in what there is to see.

Cage has become 'the man of the great smile, the outgoing laugh,' his friend Peter Yates remembered. 'Around him everyone laughs.'

Larson concludes with a beautiful metaphor for both Zen Buddhism and Cage’s legacy, reflecting on artist Bruce Nauman’s show Mapping the Studio I (Fat Chance John Cage), which was spurred by Nauman’s discovery that he had mice in his studio:

In the studio, things happen by chance. A mouse runs by. A moth flitters through space. These ‘chance events’ are random and filled with non-intention — the buzz of small creatures, caught on film, in the midst of their busy eventful lives. As far as a mouse is concerned, its life is the center of the universe. By watching through the neutral eye of the camera, we are able to see what we might not glimpse otherwise: that a ‘silent’ space is an invisible game of billiards played by beings, each at its own center, each responding to all other beings. The mice, dashing here and there, are playing out their expectations about the cat. Life fills the gaps.

There are absolutely no metaphors, just observations.

[…]

The artist maps reality. That’s the cat-and-mouse game between the artist and the world. And it’s not just the artist who plays it. Each of us is in a cat-and-mouse game with our perceptual life. Do we really see ourselves? Or do we see only what obtrudes in daylight? Do we crash through our nightlife, scattering the subtle things that abide there? Or do we simply watch without judgment, in the expectation of learning something?

Originally featured at length in July.

THE CARTER FAMILY

The Carter Family: Don’t Forget This Song (UK; public library) by writer Frank Young and illustrator David Lasky, also among the best graphic nonfiction of 2012, tells the colorful story of the first true country music superband, among whose hundreds of recordings were such classics as “Will the Circle Be Unbroken” and “Wildwood Flower.” More than a mere chronicle of the family’s rise to success, this beautifully illustrated graphic and tenderly told story explores everything from the nature of creativity to civil rights to the frictions between poverty and wealth — and, above all, the boundless power of love, music, and the love of music. The book comes with a CD of original Carter Family music.

BONUS: Complement with this fantastic Carter Family tribute album, featuring such icons as Johnny Cash, Emmylou Harris, Sheryl Crow, and Willie Nelson.

THE BEATLES IN COMICS

The Beatles were only together for a decade, yet they remain the most massive and enduring phenomenon in music culture some four decades after their breakup. Shortly after the recent discovery of the Fab Four’s final photo shoot comes Beatles in Comic Strips (UK; public library), edited by journalist and music critic Enzo Gentile and also among the best graphic nonfiction of 2012 — a grown-up Beatle geek’s counterpart to the lovely vintage children’s book We Love You Beatles, collecting more than 200 rare cartoon strips dedicated to John, Paul, George, and Ringo to mark the fiftieth anniversary of their first single, “Love Me Do.”

'Beatles Story No. 4' (1974)

Image: Marvel Comics Group

'Beatles Story No. 26' (1974)

Image: Artima Color Marvel

'Beatles Story No. 30' (1974)

Image: Artima Color Marvel

'Girls' Romances' (1965)

Image: DC Comics

'Beatles Story No. 1' (1974)

Image: Artima Color Marvel

'The Invisibles No. 1' (1994)

Image: DC Comics

'Beatles Story No. 36' (1974)

Image: Artima Color Marvel

Originally featured in August.

SONG READER

In the 1930s, as recorded sound was beginning to replace live musicians who played sheet music in movie theaters to score films, the American Federation of Musicians formed an organization called the Music Defense League and proceeded to take out a series of newspaper ads admonishing against “making musical mince meat” and the “menace” of recorded sound. But in the eight decades since, besides the loss of sound quality with digitization and the demise of music notation as art, could we have lost something else, some part of the romance of music? That’s arguably what Beck has set out to capture, on the heels of reimagining Philip Glass’s lifetime of music, in Song Reader (UK; public library) — a remarkable sort-of-album containing 26 never-before-released or recorded songs that only exist as pieces of sheet music. The songs come with original full-color illustrations by celebrated contemporary artists, illustrators and designers like Jessica Hische and The Rumpus’s Ian Huebert, inspired by the aesthetic of the golden age of home-play.

Beck writes in the preface:

After releasing an album in the mid-1990s, I was sent a copy of the sheet-music version by a publisher who had commissioned piano transcriptions and guitar-chord charts of everything on the original recording. Seeing the record’s sonic ideas distilled down to notation made it obvious that most of the songs weren’t intended to work that way. Reversing the process and putting together a collection of songs in book form seemed more natural — it would be an album that could only be heard by playing the songs.

A few years later, I came across a story about a song called ‘Sweet Leilani,’ which Bing Crosby had released in 1937. Apparently, it was so popular that, by some estimates, the sheet music sold fifty-four million copies. Home-played music had been so widespread that nearly half the country had bought the sheet music for a single song, and had presumably gone through the trouble of learning to play it. It was one of those statistics that offers a clue to something fundamental about our past.

'Do We? We Do' illustrated by Sergio Membrillas

So when Beck met with McSweeney’s founder Dave Eggers in 2004 to discuss a songbook project based on music notation, they quickly became obsessed with the broader world of old songs and began collecting vintage sheet music, artwork, ads, and other ephemera that went along with the art of sound. Beck writes:

I wondered if there was a way to explore that world that would be more than an exercise in nostalgia—a way to represent how people felt about music back then, and to speak to what was left, in our nature, of that instinct to play popular music ourselves.

'Why'

'Old Shanghai' illustrated by Kelsey Dake

In a meditation on the humanity of sheet music and why the project is more than a gimmick, Beck reflects my own concerns about the presentism bias of the digital age and observes poignantly:

I thought a lot about the risks of the inherent old-timeyness of a songbook. I know I have friends who will dismiss it as a stylistic indulgence, a gimmick. There’s a way of miniaturizing and neutralizing the past, encasing it in a quaint, retro irrelevancy and designating it as something only fit for curiosity-seekers or revivalists. But although the present moment can exclude the past from relevance, it can’t erase its influence entirely. Each era finds something new to return to; things that seemed out of date have a way of coming back in new forms, and revealing aspects of themselves we might not have noticed before.

'We All Wear Cloaks' illustrated by Kyle Pellet

In the introduction, Jody Rosen calls the project “a trip back to pop’s primordial past” and offers a primer on the visual legacy of sheet music, tracing how — just like the evolution of natural history — the aesthetic of sheet music was shaped by the concurrent evolution of imaging technology:

Song sheets are strange, seductive art objects. In the first half of the nineteenth century, sheet music art was mostly text-based: titles splashed across covers in ornate fonts. After the Civil War, advances in lithography brought alluring black-and-white illustrations to sheet music. By the turn of the century, new photographic printing techniques and the development of offset presses made color illustration ubiquitous. Songs arrived on store shelves in a riot of colors and graphics — graceful art nouveau design motifs, proto-Deco typefaces, illustrations that ranged from cartoonish to classicist to sleekly moderne.

'Don't Act Like Your Heart Isn't Hard' illustrated by Josh Cochran

Beck concludes:

Fifty-four million homes singing ‘Sweet Leilani’ in 1937 would have felt like some weird convergence. That time is long gone, but the idea of it makes one wonder where that impulse went. As for these songs, they’re here to be brought to life—or at least to remind us that, not so long ago, a song was only a piece of paper until it was played by someone. Anyone. Even you.

Here are just a few of the wonderful performances based on the sheet music in Song Reader already out there, by both “professional” musicians like Steve Mason and Leila Moss, and “amateurs” (where’s the line anymore?):

Originally featured last week.

BONUS: WAYS OF LISTENING

Music has a powerful grip on our emotional brain. It can breathe new life into seemingly lifeless minds. But if there is indeed no music instinct, music — not just its creation, but also its consumption — must be an acquired skill. How, then, do we “learn” music beyond merely understanding how it works? How do we “learn” to “listen” to music, something that seems so fundamental we take it for granted?

Though published exactly thirty years ago, Music: Ways of Listening by composer Elliott Schwartz was one of my favorite vintage discoveries this year. Schwartz outlines the seven essential skills of perceptive listening, arguing that they’ve been “dulled by our built-in twentieth-century habit of tuning out” and thus need to be actively developed. Perhaps most interestingly, you can substitute “reading” for “listening” and “writing” for “music,” and the list would be just as valuable and insightful, and just as needed an antidote to the dulling of our modern modes of information consumption.

  1. Develop your sensitivity to music. Try to respond esthetically to all sounds, from the hum of the refrigerator motor or the paddling of oars on a lake, to the tones of a cello or muted trumpet. When we really hear sounds, we may find them all quite expressive, magical and even ‘beautiful.’ On a more complex level, try to relate sounds to each other in patterns: the successive notes in a melody, or the interrelationships between an ice cream truck jingle and nearby children’s games.
  2. Time is a crucial component of the musical experience. Develop a sense of time as it passes: duration, motion, and the placement of events within a time frame. How long is thirty seconds, for example? A given duration of clock-time will feel very different if contexts of activity and motion are changed.
  3. Develop a musical memory. While listening to a piece, try to recall familiar patterns, relating new events to past ones and placing them all within a durational frame. This facility may take a while to grow, but it eventually will. And once you discover that you can use your memory in this way, just as people discover that they really can swim or ski or ride a bicycle, life will never be the same.
  4. If we want to read, write or talk about music, we must acquire a working vocabulary. Music is basically a nonverbal art, and its unique events and effects are often too elusive for everyday words; we need special words to describe them, however inadequately.
  5. Try to develop musical concentration, especially when listening to lengthy pieces. Composers and performers learn how to fill different time-frames in appropriate ways, using certain gestures and patterns for long works and others for brief ones. The listener must also learn to adjust to varying durations. It may be easy to concentrate on a selection lasting a few minutes, but virtually impossible to maintain attention when confronted with a half-hour Beethoven symphony or a three-hour Verdi opera.

    Composers are well aware of this problem. They provide so many musical landmarks and guidelines during the course of a long piece that, even if listening ‘focus’ wanders, you can tell where you are.

    […]

  6. Try to listen objectively and dispassionately. Concentrate upon ‘what’s there,’ and not what you hope or wish would be there. At the early stages of directed listening, when a working vocabulary for music is being introduced, it is important that you respond using that vocabulary as often as possible. In this way you can relate and compare pieces that present different styles, cultures and centuries. Try to focus upon ‘what’s there,’ in an objective sense, and don’t be dismayed if a limited vocabulary restricts your earliest responses.

    […]

  7. Bring experience and knowledge to the listening situation. That includes not only your concentration and growing vocabulary, but information about the music itself: its composer, history and social context. Such knowledge makes the experience of listening that much more enjoyable.


    There may appear to be a conflict between this suggestion and the previous one, in which listeners were urged to focus just on ‘what’s there.’ Ideally, it would be fascinating to hear a new piece of music with fresh expectations and truly innocent ears, as though we were Martians. But such objectivity doesn’t exist. All listeners approach a new piece with ears that have been ‘trained’ by prejudices, personal experiences and memories. Some of these may get in the way of listening to music. Try to replace these with other items that might help focus upon the work, rather than individual feelings. Of course, the ‘work’ is much more than the sounds heard at any one sitting in a concert hall; it also consists of previous performances, recorded performances, the written notes on manuscript paper, and all the memories, reviews and critiques of these written notes and performances, ad infinitum. In acquiring information about any of these factors, we are simply broadening our total awareness of the work itself.

Music: Ways of Listening is to listening what Mortimer Adler’s How to Read a Book is to reading — a timeless, yet remarkably timely meditation of a skill-intensive art we all too frequently mistake for a talent or, worse yet, a static pre-wired capacity.

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14 DECEMBER, 2012

Adrienne Rich on Creative Process, Love, Loss, and Public vs. Private Happiness

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“No one’s fated or doomed to love anyone… The accidents happen.”

We recently lost beloved poet, essayist, feminist, and MacArthur “genius” Adrienne Rich. After last week’s beautiful reading of her 1968 poem “Gabriel,” I revisited the wonderful PennSound archive at the Kelly Writers House, my alma mater, which houses an extensive collection of Rich poetry readings, conversations, and interviews.

Below, I’ve edited several excerpts from a 2005 discussion revealing a rare glimpse of Rich’s creative process and her relationship with art, love, and loss.

Rich adds to history’s finest definitions of art:

One of the great functions of art is to help us imagine what it is like to be not ourselves, what it is like to be someone or something else, what it is like to live in another skin, what it is like to live in another body, and in that sense to surpass ourselves, to go out beyond ourselves.

On love and loss as the foundation of all art:

Behind all art is an element of desire. … Love of life, of existence, love of another human being, love of human beings is in some way behind all art — even the most angry, even the darkest, even the most grief-stricken, and even the most embittered art has that element somewhere behind it. Because how could you be so despairing, so embittered, if you had not had something you loved that you lost?

On public vs. private happiness:

The question always is there, ‘What kind of a privilege is it just to be able to feel purely and simply happy?’ But we can, and in spite of so much — and in spite of so much knowledge. And, for me, there’s always this issue of private and public happiness.

On her creative process, echoing Twilight Zone creator Rod Serling on where ideas come from:

A poem can come out of something seen, something overheard, listening to music, an article in a newspaper, a book, a combination of all these… There’s a kind of emotional release that I then find in the act of writing the poem. It’s not, ‘I’m now going to sit down and write a poem about this.’

Lastly — because true art is in the doing and not the talking — at a 1985 event at Cornell University, Rich reads from her sublime and sensual Twenty-One Love Poems, found in the fantastic volume The Dream of a Common Language: Poems 1974-1977 (UK; public library):

No one’s fated or doomed to love anyone.
The accidents happen, we’re not heroines,
they happen in our lives like car crashes,
books that change us, neighborhoods
we move into and come to love.
Tristan und Isolde is scarcely the story,
women at least should know the difference
between love and death. No poison cup,
no penance. Merely a notion that the tape-recorder
should have caught some ghost of us: that tape-recorder
not merely played but should have listened to us,
and could instruct those after us:
this we were, this is how we tried to love,
and these are the forces they had ranged against us,
and these are the forces we had ranged within us,
within us and against us, against us and within us.

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04 DECEMBER, 2012

The 10 Best Psychology and Philosophy Books of 2012

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From Buddhism to the relationship between creativity and dishonesty, by way of storytelling and habit.

After the best science books, art books, and design books of 2012, the season’s subjective selection of best-of reading lists continue with the most stimulating philosophy, psychology, and creativity books published this year. (Catch up on last year’s roundup here.)

THIS WILL MAKE YOU SMARTER

Every year for more than a decade, intellectual impresario and Edge editor John Brockman has been asking the era’s greatest thinkers a single annual question, designed to illuminate some important aspect of how we understand the world. In 2010, he asked how the Internet is changing the way we think. In 2011, with the help of psycholinguist Steven Pinker and legendary psychologist Daniel Kahneman, he posed an even grander question: “What scientific concept will improve everybody’s cognitive toolkit?” The answers, featuring a wealth of influential scientists, authors, and thought-architects, were collected in This Will Make You Smarter: New Scientific Concepts to Improve Your Thinking (public library) — a formidable anthology of short essays by 151 of our time’s biggest thinkers on subjects as diverse as the power of networks, cognitive humility, the paradoxes of daydreaming, information flow, collective intelligence, and a dizzying, mind-expanding range in between. Together, they construct a powerful toolkit of meta-cognition — a new way to think about thinking itself.

Brockman prefaces the essays with an important definition that captures the dimensionality of “science”:

Here, the term ‘scientific’ is to be understood in a broad sense — as the most reliable way of gaining knowledge about anything, whether it be human behavior, corporate behavior, the fate of the planet, or the future of the universe. A ‘scientific concept’ may come from philosophy, logic, economics, jurisprudence, or any other analytic enterprises, as long as it is a rigorous tool that can be summed up succinctly but has broad application to understanding the world.”

Neuroscientist David Eagleman, author of the excellent Incognito: The Secret Lives of the Brain, explores the concept of “the umwelt” coined by biologist Jakob von Uexküll in 1909 — the idea that different animals in the same ecosystem pick up on different elements of their environment and thus live in different micro-realities based on the subset of the world they’re able to detect. Eagleman stresses the importance of recognizing our own umwelt — our unawareness of the limits of our awareness:

I think it would be useful if the concept of the umwelt were embedded in the public lexicon. It neatly captures the idea of limited knowledge, of unobtainable information, and of unimagined possibilities. Consider the criticisms of policy, the assertions of dogma, the declarations of fact that you hear every day — and just imagine if all of these could be infused with the proper intellectual humility that comes from appreciating the amount unseen.

Nobel laureate Daniel Kahneman, who authored one of the best psychology books of 2011, contemplates the “focusing illusion” — our tendency to misjudge the scale of impact certain circumstances, from a pay raise to the death of a loved one, will have on our actual well-being.

Marketers exploit the focusing illusion. When people are induced to believe that they “must have” a good, they greatly exaggerate the difference that the good will make to the quality of their life. The focusing illusion is greater for some goods than for others, depending on the extent to which the goods attract continued attention over time. The focusing illusion is likely to be more significant for leather car seats than for books on tape.

Politicians are almost as good as marketers in causing people to exaggerate the importance of issues on which their attention is focused. People can be made to believe that school uniforms will significantly improve educational outcomes, or that health care reform will hugely change the quality of life in the United States — either for the better or for the worse. Health care reform will make a difference, but the difference will be smaller than it appears when you focus on it.

Martin Seligman, father of positive psychology, writes about PERMA, the five pillars of well-being — Positive Emotion, Engagement, Positive Relationships, Meaning and Purpose, and Accomplishment — reminding us that reducing disabling conditions like poverty, disease, depression, aggression, and ignorance is only one half of the life satisfaction equation:

Science and public policy have traditionally been focused solely on remediating the disabling conditions, but PERMA suggests that this is insufficient. If we want global well being, we should also measure and try to build PERMA. The very same principal seems to be true in your own life: if you wish to flourish personally, getting rid of depression, anxiety, and anger and getting rich is not enough, you also need to build PERMA directly.”

Biological anthropologist Helen Fisher, who has previously examined the neurochemistry of love and desire, zooms in on the temperament as the essential building block of the self:

Personality is composed of two fundamentally different types of traits: those of ‘character;’ and those of ‘temperament.’ Your character traits stem from your experiences. Your childhood games; your family’s interests and values; how people in your community express love and hate; what relatives and friends regard as courteous or perilous; how those around you worship; what they sing; when they laugh; how they make a living and relax: innumerable cultural forces build your unique set of character traits. The balance of your personality is your temperament, all the biologically based tendencies that contribute to your consistent patterns of feeling, thinking and behaving. As Spanish philosopher, Jose Ortega y Gasset, put it, ‘I am, plus my circumstances.’ Temperament is the ‘I am,’ the foundation of who you are.

Theoretical physicist Carlo Rovelli reminds us that uncertainty and the willingness to be proven wrong are a vital part of intellectual, and I dare add personal, growth:

The very foundation of science is to keep the door open to doubt. Precisely because we keep questioning everything, especially our own premises, we are always ready to improve our knowledge. Therefore a good scientist is never ‘certain’. Lack of certainty is precisely what makes conclusions more reliable than the conclusions of those who are certain: because the good scientist will be ready to shift to a different point of view if better elements of evidence, or novel arguments emerge. Therefore certainty is not only something of no use, but is in fact damaging, if we value reliability.

But my favorite comes from curator extraordinaire Hans-Ulrich Obrist:

Lately, the word “curate” seems to be used in an greater variety of contexts than ever before, in reference to everything from a exhibitions of prints by Old Masters to the contents of a concept store. The risk, of course, is that the definition may expand beyond functional usability. But I believe ‘curate’ finds ever-wider application because of a feature of modern life that is impossible to ignore: the incredible proliferation of ideas, information, images, disciplinary knowledge, and material products that we all witnessing today. Such proliferation makes the activities of filtering, enabling, synthesizing, framing, and remembering more and more important as basic navigational tools for 21st century life. These are the tasks of the curator, who is no longer understood as simply the person who fills a space with objects but as the person who brings different cultural spheres into contact, invents new display features, and makes junctions that allow unexpected encounters and results.

[…]

To curate, in this sense, is to refuse static arrangements and permanent alignments and instead to enable conversations and relations. Generating these kinds of links is an essential part of what it means to curate, as is disseminating new knowledge, new thinking, and new artworks in a way that can seed future cross-disciplinary inspirations. But there is another case for curating as a vanguard activity for the 21st century.

As the artist Tino Sehgal has pointed out, modern human societies find themselves today in an unprecedented situation: the problem of lack, or scarcity, which has been the primary factor motivating scientific and technological innovation, is now being joined and even superseded by the problem of the global effects of overproduction and resource use. Thus moving beyond the object as the locus of meaning has a further relevance. Selection, presentation, and conversation are ways for human beings to create and exchange real value, without dependence on older, unsustainable processes. Curating can take the lead in pointing us towards this crucial importance of choosing.”

The true gift of This Will Make You Smarter — of Brockman — is in acting as a potent rupture in the filter bubble of our curiosity, cross-pollinating ideas across a multitude of disciplines to broaden our intellectual comfort zones and, in the process, spark a deeper, richer, more dimensional understanding not only of science, but of life itself.

The text of the answers is also available online in its entirety.

Originally featured, with more excerpts, in February.

TINY BEAUTIFUL THINGS

When an anonymous advice columnist by the name of “Dear Sugar” introduced herself on The Rumpus on March 11, 2010, she made her proposition clear: a “by-the-book common sense of Dear Abby and the earnest spiritual cheesiness of Cary Tennis and the butt-pluggy irreverence of Dan Savage and the closeted Upper East Side nymphomania of Miss Manners.” But in the two-some years that followed, she proceeded to deliver something tenfold punchier, more honest, more existentially profound than even such an intelligently irreverent promise could foretell. This year, all of Sugar’s no-bullshit, wholehearted wisdom on life’s trickiest contexts — sometimes the simplest, sometimes the most complex, always the most deeply human — was released in Tiny Beautiful Things: Advice on Love and Life from Dear Sugar (public library), along with several never-before-published columns, under Sugar’s real name: Cheryl Strayed.

The book is titled after Dear Sugar #64, which remains my own favorite by a long stretch. It’s exquisite in its entirety, but this particular bit makes the heart tremble with raw heartness:

Your assumptions about the lives of others are in direct relation to your naïve pomposity. Many people you believe to be rich are not rich. Many people you think have it easy worked hard for what they got. Many people who seem to be gliding right along have suffered and are suffering. Many people who appear to you to be old and stupidly saddled down with kids and cars and houses were once every bit as hip and pompous as you.

When you meet a man in the doorway of a Mexican restaurant who later kisses you while explaining that this kiss doesn’t ‘mean anything’ because, much as he likes you, he is not interested in having a relationship with you or anyone right now, just laugh and kiss him back. Your daughter will have his sense of humor. Your son will have his eyes.

The useless days will add up to something. The shitty waitressing jobs. The hours writing in your journal. The long meandering walks. The hours reading poetry and story collections and novels and dead people’s diaries and wondering about sex and God and whether you should shave under your arms or not. These things are your becoming.

One Christmas at the very beginning of your twenties when your mother gives you a warm coat that she saved for months to buy, don’t look at her skeptically after she tells you she thought the coat was perfect for you. Don’t hold it up and say it’s longer than you like your coats to be and too puffy and possibly even too warm. Your mother will be dead by spring. That coat will be the last gift she gave you. You will regret the small thing you didn’t say for the rest of your life.

Say thank you.

In the introduction, Steve Almond, who once attempted to be Sugar before there was Sugar, captures precisely what makes Sugar Sugar:

The column that launched Sugar as a phenomenon was written in response to what would have been, for anyone else, a throwaway letter. Dear Sugar, wrote a presumably young man. WTF? WTF? WTF? I’m asking this question as it applies to everything every day. Cheryl’s reply began as follows:

Dear WTF,

My father’s father made me jack him off when I was three and four and five. I wasn’t good at it. My hands were too small and I couldn’t get the rhythm right and I didn’t understand what I was doing. I only knew I didn’t want to do it. Knew it made me feel miserable and anxious in a way so sickeningly particular that I can feel the same particular sickness rising this very minute in my throat.

It was an absolutely unprecedented moment. Advice columnists, after all, adhere to an unspoken code: focus on the letter writer, dispense all necessary bromides, make it all seem bearable. Disclosing your own sexual assault is not part of the code.

But Cheryl wasn’t just trying to shock some callow kid into greater compassion. She was announcing the nature of her mission as Sugar. Inexplicable sorrows await all of us. That was her essential point. Life isn’t some narcissistic game you play online. It all matters — every sin, every regret, every affliction. As proof, she offered an account of her own struggle to reckon with a cruelty she’s absorbed before she was old enough to even understand it. Ask better questions, sweet pea, she concluded. The fuck is your life. Answer it.

Originally featured in July.

WHERE THE HEART BEATS

“Good music can act as a guide to good living,” John Cage (1912-1992) once said. But what, exactly, is good music, or good living, or, for that matter, goodness itself?

In Where the Heart Beats: John Cage, Zen Buddhism, and the Inner Life of Artists (public library), longtime art critic and practicing Buddhist Kay Larson constructs a remarkable intellectual, creative, and spiritual biography of Cage — one of the most influential composers in modern history, whose impact reaches beyond the realm of music and into art, literature, cinema, and just about every other aesthetic and conceptual expression of curiosity about the world, yet also one of history’s most misunderstood artists. Fifteen years in the making, it is without a doubt the richest, most stimulating,most absorbing book I’ve read in ages — superbly researched, exquisitely written, weaving together a great many threads of cultural history into a holistic understanding of both Cage as an artist and Zen as a lens on existence.

From his early life in California, defined by his investigations into the joy of sound, to his pivotal introduction to Zen Buddhism in Japanese Zen master D. T. Suzuki’s Columbia University class, to his blossoming into a force of the mid-century avant-garde, Larson traces Cage’s own journey as an artist and a soul, as well as his intermeshing with the journeys of other celebrated artists, including Marcel Duchamp, Jasper Johns, Yoko Ono, Robert Rauschenberg, Jackson Pollock, and, most importantly, Merce Cunningham.

The book itself has a beautiful compositional structure, conceived as a conversation with Cage and modeled after Cage’s imagined conversations with Erik Satie, one of his mentors, long after Satie’s death. Interspersed in Larson’s immersive narrative are italicized excerpts of Cage’s own writing, in his own voice.

Where to begin? Perhaps at the core — the core of what Cage has come to be known for, that expansive negative space isn’t nihilistic, isn’t an absence, but, rather, it’s life-affirming, a presence. Cage himself reflects:

Our intention is to affirm this life, not to bring order out of chaos, nor to suggest improvements in creation, but simply to wake up to the very life we’re living, which is so excellent once one gets one’s mind and desires out of its way and lets it act of its own accord.

Xenia Kashevaroff

Image courtesy of the Metropolitan Museum of Art

In his early life, however, Cage was rather unable to get his “mind and desires out of the way,” leading himself into a spiral of inner turmoil. While engaged in a relationship with a man named Don Sample, he met artist Xenia Kashevaroff, the Alaskan-born daughter of a Russian priest, and quickly fell in love. The two got married and, for a while, Cage was able to appease his dissonance about his affair with Sample. But rather than gaining deeper self-knowledge, he seemed to steer further away from himself. Perhaps that’s what prompted him, sixty years later, to admonish:

I’m entirely opposed to emotions….I really am. I think of love as an opportunity to become blind and blind in a bad way….I think that seeing and hearing are extremely important; in my view they are what life is; love makes us blind to seeing and hearing.

By the 1940s, Cage’s relationship with Xenia had begun to unravel. When the two eventually divorced in 1945, Cage’s identity was thrown into turbulence. His work followed faithfully, as he set out to compose Ophelia (1946), a “two-tone poem to madness” based on Shakespeare. Larson writes:

Margaret Leng Tan asked Cage why his portrait of Ophelia is so much harsher than Shakespeare’s. She recorded his reply that ‘all madness is inherently violent, even when it is not directed towards others, for it invariably ravages the sufferer internally.’

Cage and Cunningham, circa 1948, as Cage's confusion and despair began to lift. In this classic image, taken at Black Mountain College, the perfection of their partnering seems a force of nature. Why did Cage struggle at first?

Image courtesy of John Cage Trust / Penguin

Soon, Cage began the decades-long romance with the love of his life, dancer and choreographer Merce Cunningham, which would last until the end of Cage’s life and bequeath some of the most magical collaborations in the history of 20th-century art. Around the same time, Cage began the other essential relationship of his life — that with Zen Buddhism.

Hardly anywhere does Larson’s gift for prose and grasp of the human condition shine more beautifully than in this passage articulating the profound, uncomfortable transformation that love sets in motion:

Caught in the roar of his emotions, Cage was forced to confront a question totally new to him: What is the ‘self’ that is being expressed? The self that hurts so badly it nearly kills you? The self that isn’t seen until it aches?

When Cage and Cunningham met, perhaps they felt a tremor of gravitational shift. It might have been small at first, or the shiver might have been so insistent it rattled them. Whatever the case, something evidently stirred between the two men before they came to New York. But maybe nothing was spoken.

So it is with the places preparing to teach us. It’s only when the heart begins to beat wildly and without pattern — when it begins to realize its boundlessness — that its newly adamant pulse bangs on the walls of its cage and is bruised by its enclosure.

To feel the heart pound is only the beginning. Next is to feel the hurt — the tearing of the psyche — the prelude of entry into the place one has always feared. One fears that place because of being drawn to it, loving it, and wanting to be taught by it. Without the need to be taught, who would feel the psyche rip?…. Without the bruise, who would know where the walls are?

Tying it back to Cage himself, Larson writes:

Bruised and bloodied by throwing himself against the four walls of his enclosure, and deeply shaken by his shrieking emotions, Cage stopped pacing his confinement and realized that his container had no roof. Looking up, he could see the sky. Fascinated, he set out to explore this new dimension.

What he found was a language of silence and immanence.

In 1964, John Cage was fifty-two years old and had been partnering with Merce Cunningham for two decades. The two men's bright confidence in 1948 has shifted to something calmer: the settled assurance of the bond between them -- one of the great redeeming love affairs in the history of the American arts -- which would endure until their deaths.

Image courtesy of John Cage Trust / Penguin

This Cageian inquisitiveness was indeed fundamental to both this personal life and his approach to music — an ethos reminiscent of Rilke’s counsel to live the questions. Cage:

What can be analyzed in my work, or criticized, are the questions.

One remarkable aspect of Cage’s music, derived from his close study of Indian traditions, was the notion of “disinterestedness” — which is not to be confused with “indifference.” Larson distinguishes:

From the standpoint of spiritual practice, the two words have nothing in common. Indifference borders on nihilism. It has a quality of ‘not caring.’ It is ‘apathetic.’ It expresses corrosive cynicism. Ultimately, it is poisonous, both to the practitioner and to the culture as a whole.

Disinterestedness, on the contrary, ‘is unbiased by personal interest or advantage; not influenced by selfish motives,’ according to the Random House Dictionary (1971). Disinterestedness is the natural outcome of meditation on the self and recognition of its lack of substance — then what can trouble you? freeing one’s mind from the grip of the self leads to spiritual ease — being at home in your own skin, free of self-attachment, cured of likes and dislikes, afloat in rasa. It’s how you open your ears to the music of the world.

Cage defined disinterestedness and equated it with ‘love’ in 1948:

‘If one makes music, as the Orient would say, disinterestedly, that is, without concern for money or fame but simply for the love of making it, it is an integrating activity and one will find moments in his life that an complete and fulfilled.’

(This sentiment regarding purpose and doing what you love would come to be articulated by many other creators over the decades to come.)

Echoing something Jackson Pollock’s dad once wrote to his son in one of history’s finest letters, Cage advises:

Look at everything. Don’t close your eyes to the world around you. Look and become curious and interested in what there is to see.

Cage has become 'the man of the great smile, the outgoing laugh,' his friend Peter Yates remembered. 'Around him everyone laughs.'

Larson concludes with a beautiful metaphor for both Zen Buddhism and Cage’s legacy, reflecting on artist Bruce Nauman’s show Mapping the Studio I (Fat Chance John Cage), which was spurred by Nauman’s discovery that he had mice in his studio:

In the studio, things happen by chance. A mouse runs by. A moth flitters through space. These ‘chance events’ are random and filled with non-intention — the buzz of small creatures, caught on film, in the midst of their busy eventful lives. As far as a mouse is concerned, its life is the center of the universe. By watching through the neutral eye of the camera, we are able to see what we might not glimpse otherwise: that a ‘silent’ space is an invisible game of billiards played by beings, each at its own center, each responding to all other beings. The mice, dashing here and there, are playing out their expectations about the cat. Life fills the gaps.

There are absolutely no metaphors, just observations.

[…]

The artist maps reality. That’s the cat-and-mouse game between the artist and the world. And it’s not just the artist who plays it. Each of us is in a cat-and-mouse game with our perceptual life. Do we really see ourselves? Or do we see only what obtrudes in daylight? Do we crash through our nightlife, scattering the subtle things that abide there? Or do we simply watch without judgment, in the expectation of learning something?

Originally featured at length in July.

AS CONSCIOUSNESS IS HARNESSED TO FLESH

It’s no secret Susan Sontag’s journals have been on heavy rotation here this year. As Consciousness Is Harnessed to Flesh: Journals and Notebooks, 1964-1980 (public library), the second published volume of her diaries, offers an intimate glimpse of the inner life of a woman celebrated as one of the twentieth century’s most remarkable intellectuals, yet one who felt as deeply and intensely as she thought. Oscillating between conviction and insecurity in the most beautifully imperfect and human way possible, Sontag details everything from her formidable media diet of literature and film to her intense love affairs and infatuations to her meditations on society’s values and vices. The tome includes her insights on art, love, writing, censorship, boredom, and aphorisms.

Nothing is mysterious, no human relation. Except love.

BREAKTHROUGH

What extraordinary energy we expend, as a culture and a civilization, on trying to understand where good ideas come from, how creativity works, its secrets, its origins, its mechanisms, and the five-step action plan for coaxing it into manifestation. And little compares to the anguish that comes with the blockage of creative flow.

In 2010, designer and musician Alex Cornell found himself stumped by a creative block while trying to write an article about creative block. Deterred neither by the block nor by the irony, he reached out to some of his favorite artists and asked them for their coping strategies in such an event. The response was overwhelming in both volume and depth, inspiring Cornell to put together a collection on the subject. The result is Breakthrough!: 90 Proven Strategies to Overcome Creative Block and Spark Your Imagination (public library) — a small but potent compendium of field-tested, life-approved insight on optimizing the creative process from some of today’s most exciting artists, designers, illustrators, writers, and thinkers. From the many specific strategies — walks in nature, porn, destruction of technology, weeping — a few powerful universals emerge, including the role of procrastination, the importance of a gestation period for ideas, and, above all, the reminder that the “creative block” befalls everyone indiscriminately.

Writer Michael Erard teases apart “creative block” and debunks its very premise with an emphasis on creativity as transformation:

First of all, being creative is not summoning stuff ex nihilo. It’s work, plain and simple — adding something to some other thing or transforming something. In the work that I do, as a writer and a metaphor designer, there’s always a way to get something to do something to do something else. No one talks about work block.

Also, block implies a hydraulic metaphor of thinking. Thoughts flow. Difficulty thinking represents impeded flow. This interoperation also suggests a single channel for that flow. A stopped pipe. A dammed river. If you only have one channel, one conduit, then you’re vulnerable to blockage. Trying to solve creative block, I imagine a kind of psyching Roto-Rootering.

My conceptual scheme is more about the temperature of things: I try to find out what’s hot and start there, even if it may be unrelated to what I need to be working on, and most of the time, that heats up other areas too. You can solve a lot with a new conceptual frame.

Designer Sam Potts suggests that heartbreak isn’t merely evolutionary adaptive strategy, it’s a creative one:

Have your heart broken. It worked for Rei Kawakubo. You’ll realize the work you’d been doing wasn’t anywhere near your potential.

The inimitable Debbie Millman has kindly offered this hand-lettered version of the typeset list in the book:

Writer Douglas Rushkoff rebels:

I don’t believe in writer’s block.

Yes, there may have been days or even weeks at a time when I have not written — even when I may have wanted to — but that doesn’t mean I was blocked. It simply means I was in the wrong place at the wrong time. Or, as I’d like to argue, exactly the right place at the right time.

The creative process has more than one kind of expression. There’s the part you could show in a movie montage — the furious typing or painting or equation solving where the writer, artist, or mathematician accomplishes the output of the creative task. But then there’s also the part that happens invisibly, under the surface. That’s when the senses are perceiving the world, the mind and heart are thrown into some sort of dissonance, and the soul chooses to respond.

That response doesn’t just come out like vomit after a bad meal. There’s not such thing as pure expression. Rather, because we live in a social world with other people whose perceptual apparatus needs to be penetrated with our ideas, we must formulate, strategize, order, and then articulate. It is that last part that is visible as output or progress, but it only represents, at best, 25 percent of the process.

Real creativity transcends time. If you are not producing work, then chances are you have fallen into the infinite space between the ticks of the clock where reality is created. Don’t let some capitalist taskmaster tell you otherwise — even if he happens to be in your own head.

Musician Jamie Lidell echoes Tchaikovsky:

Cheers. Watcha gonna do with a blocked toilet? I mean, that’s all it is, right? A bung that needs pulling to let the clear waters of inspiration flow.

Maybe. Or maybe it just takes showing up. Going back again and again to write or paint or sing or cook.

Some days the genius will be in you, and you will sail. Other days the lead will line the slippers, and you’ll be staring into the void of your so-called creative mind, feeling like a fraud. It’s all part of the big ole cycle of creativity, and it’s a healthy cycle at that.

Philosopher Daniel Dennett has a special term for his method:

My strategy for getting myself out of a rut is to sit at my desk reminding myself of what the problem is, reviewing my notes, generally filling my head with the issues and terms, and then I just get up and go do something relatively mindless and repetitive. At our farm in the summer, I paint the barn or mow the hayfield or pick berries or cute fire wood to length…. I don’t even try to think about the problem, but more often than not, at some point in the middle of the not very challenging activity, I’ll find myself mulling it over and coming up with a new slant, a new way of tackling the issue, maybe just a new term to use. Engaging my brain with something else to control and think about helps melt down the blockades that have been preventing me from making progress, freeing up the circuits for some new paths. My strategy could hardly be cruder, but it works so well so often that I have come to rely on it.

One summer, many years ago, my friend Doug Hofstadter was visiting me at my farm, and somebody asked him where I was. He gestured out to the big hayfield behind the house, which I was harrowing for a reseeding. ‘He’s out there on his tractor, doing his tillosophy,’ Doug said. Ever since then, tillosophy has been my term for this process. Try it; if it doesn’t work, at least you’ll end up with a painted room, a mowed lawn, a clean basement.

But as a tireless proponent of combinatorial creativity, my favorite comes from the inimitable Jessica Hagy of indexed fame, who pretty much articulates the Brain Pickings founding philosophy:

How can you defeat the snarling goblins of creative block? With books, of course. Just grab one. It doesn’t matter what sort: science fiction, science fact, pornography (soft, hard, or merely squishy), comic books, textbooks, diaries (of people known or unknown), novels, telephone directories, religious texts — anything and everything will work.

Now, open it to a random page. Stare at a random sentence.

[…]

Every book holds the seed of a thousand stories. Every sentence can trigger an avalanche of ideas. Mix ideas across books: one thought from Aesop and one line from Chomsky, or a fragment from the IKEA catalog melded with a scrap of dialog from Kerouac.

By forcing your mind to connect disparate bits of information, you’ll jump-start your thinking, and you’ll fill in blank after blank with thought after thought. The goblins of creative block have stopped snarling and have been shooed away, you’re dashing down thoughts, and your synapses are clanging away in a symphonic burst of ideas. And if you’re not, whip open another book. Pluck out another sentence. And ponder mash-ups of out-of-context ideas until your mind wanders and you end up in a new place, a place that no one else ever visited.

Marvelous.

Originally featured, with more excerpts, in October.

WHY DOES THE WORLD EXIST?

“What is it that breathes fire into the equations and makes a universe for them to describe?,” wondered Stephen Hawking in A Brief History of Time. “Why does the universe go through all the bother of existing?”

This inquiry has long occupied scientists, philosophers, and deep thinkers alike, culminating in the most fundamental question of why there is something rather than nothing. That, in fact, is the epicenter of intellectual restlessness that Jim Holt sets out to resolve in Why Does the World Exist?: An Existential Detective Story (public library). Seeking to tease apart the most central existential question of all — why there is a world, rather than nothingness, a question he says is “so profound that it would occur only to a metaphysician, yet so simple it would occur only to a child” — Holt pores through millennia of science and theology, theory by theory, to question our most basic assumptions about the world, reality, and the nature of fact itself, with equal parts intelligence, irreverence, and insight.

Reflecting on his many conversations with philosophers, theologians, particle physicists, cosmologists, mystics, and writers, Holt puts things in perspective:

When you listen to such thinkers feel their way around the question of why there is a world at all, you begin to realize that your own thoughts on the matter are not quite so nugatory as you had imagined. No one can confidently claim intellectual superiority in the face of the mystery of existence. For, as William James observed, ‘All of us are beggars here.’

And while the book is remarkable in its entirety — take a closer look with Kathryn Schulz’s exquisite review for New York Magazine — one of Holt’s most fascinating conversations is with someone one wouldn’t immediately peg as an expert on cosmogony: novelist John Updike, who seems to share in Isaac Asimov’s famous contention that “the most beautiful experience we can have is the mysterious.” Holt writes:

[T]he laws amount to a funny way of saying, ‘Nothing equals something,'” Updike said, bursting into laughter. “QED! One opinion I’ve encountered is that, since getting from nothing to something involves time, and time didn’t exist before there was something, the whole question is a meaningless one that we should stop asking ourselves. It’s beyond our intellectual limits as a species. Put yourself into the position of a dog. A dog is responsive, shows intuition, looks at us with eyes behind which there is intelligence of a sort, and yet a dog must not understand most of the things it sees people doing. It must have no idea how they invented, say, the internal-combustion engine. So maybe what we need to do is imagine that we’re dogs and that there are realms that go beyond our understanding. I’m not sure I buy that view, but it is a way of saying that the mystery of being is a permanent mystery, at least given the present state of the human brain. I have trouble even believing—and this will offend you—the standard scientific explanation of how the universe rapidly grew from nearly nothing. Just think of it. The notion that this planet and all the stars we see, and many thousands of times more than those we see — that all this was once bounded in a point with the size of, what, a period or a grape? How, I ask myself, could that possibly be? And, that said, I sort of move on.

Taking a jab at the “beautiful mathematics” of string theory, Updike echoes the landmark conversation between Einstein and Indian philosopher Tagore, exclaiming:

Beautiful in a vacuum! What’s beauty if it’s not, in the end, true? Beauty is truth, and truth is beauty.

Holt invites Updike to reconcile the “brute fact theory” of science and the “God theory” of religion:

He was silent again for a moment, then continued. “Some scientists who are believers, like Freeman Dyson, have actually tackled the ultimate end of the universe. They’ve tried to describe a universe where entropy is almost total and individual particles are separated by distances that are greater than the dimensions of the present observable universe … an unthinkably dreary and pointless vacuum. I admire their scientific imagination, but I just can’t make myself go there. And a space like that is the space in which God existed and nothing else. Could God then have suffered boredom to the point that he made the universe? That makes reality seem almost a piece of light verse.”

What a lovely conceit! Reality is not a “blot on nothingness,” as Updike’s character Henry Bech had once, in a bilious moment, decided. It is a piece of light verse.

Originally featured in July.

THE POWER OF HABIT

“We are spinning our own fates, good or evil, and never to be undone. Every smallest stroke of virtue or of vice leaves its never so little scar,” William James famously wrote on habit. Indeed, try as we might to reverse-engineer willpower and flowchart our way to happiness, in the end it is habit that lies at the heart of our successes and our failures. So argues New York Times reporter Charles Duhigg in The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business (public library), proposing that the root of adhering to our highest ideals — exercising regularly, becoming more productive, sleeping better, reading more, cultivating the discipline necessary for building successful ventures — is in understanding the science and psychology of how habits work.

Duhigg, whose chief premise echoes many of Timothy Wilson’s insights in Redirect: The Surprising New Science of Psychological Change, takes a deep dive into the bleeding edge of neuroscience and behavioral psychology to explore not only why habits exist in the first place, but also how they can be reprogrammed and optimized.

Duhigg first became fascinated by the power of habit eight years ago, while in Baghdad as a newspaper reporter. There, he met an army major who was conducting a curious experiment in the small town of Kufa: After analyzing taped footage of riots in the area, the major identified a common sequence — first a crowd of Iraqis would gather in the plaza, drawing in spectators and food vendors, then eventually someone would throw a rock and all hell would break loose.

So the major summoned Kufa’s mayor and made a strange request: Get the food vendors out of the plaza. The next time the sequence began to unfold and a crowd started to gather, something different transpired — the crowd snowballed and people started chanting angry slogans, but by dusk, people had gotten hungry and restless. They looked for the familiar kebobs, but they weren’t there. Eventually, the spectators left and the chanters lost steam. By 8PM, everyone was gone.

Upon asking the major how he figured out the clever strategy, Duhigg got the following response: “Understanding habits is the most important thing I’ve learned in the army.”

Originally featured in March.

THE (HONEST) TRUTH ABOUT DISHONESTY

Behavioral economist Dan Ariely belongs to the rare breed of scientists who are both actively engaged in empirical research, running all kinds of fascinating experiments in the lab, and keenly skilled in synthesizing those findings as equally fascinating insights into human nature, then communicating those articulately and engagingly to a non-scientist reader. Adding to his track record> of doing precisely that is The (Honest) Truth About Dishonesty: How We Lie to Everyone — Especially Ourselves (public library), in which Ariely asks a seemingly simple question — “is dishonesty largely restricted to a few bad apples, or is it a more widespread problem?” — and goes on to reveal the surprising, illuminating, often unsettling truths that underpin the uncomfortable answer. Like cruelty, dishonesty turns out to be a remarkably prevalent phenomenon better explained by circumstances and cognitive processes than by concepts like character.

Ariely writes in the introduction:

In addition to exploring the forces that shape dishonesty, one of the main practical benefits of the behavioral economics approach is that it shows us the internal and environmental influences on our behavior. Once we more clearly understand the forces that really drive us, we discover that we are not helpless in the face of our human follies (dishonesty included), that we can restructure our environment, and that by doing so we can achieve better behaviors and outcomes.

Particularly interesting is a chapter on the relationship between creativity and dishonesty. The same habits of mind that allow us to create elaborate ideas turn out to also be responsible for enabling dishonesty and the subsequent rationalizations justifying our immoral behavior. That penchant for justification, in fact — which Ariely places at the “control tower of thinking, reasoning, and morality” — is a powerful driver of how we make decisions towards what we want to do and reverse-engineer them towards what we believe the right thing to do is.

[S]ometimes (perhaps often) we don’t make choices based on our explicit preferences. Instead, we have a gut feeling about what we want, and we go through a process of mental gymnastics, applying all kinds of justifications to manipulate the criteria. That way, we can get what we really want, but at the same time keep up the appearance — to ourselves and to others — that we are acting in accordance with our rational and well-reasoned preferences.

Here’s where it gets interesting:

[T]he difference between creative and less creative individuals comes into play mostly when there is ambiguity in the situation at hand and, with it, more room for justification… Put simply, the link between creativity and dishonesty seems related to the ability to tell ourselves stories about how we are doing the right thing, even when we are not. The more creative we are, the more we are able to come up with good stories that help us justify our selfish interests.

But could it be, Ariely wondered, greater intelligence was responsible for better stories? One experiment measured the brain structure of pathological liars, and compared it to normal controls — more specifically, the ratio of gray matter (the neural tissue that makes up the bulk of our brains) to white matter (the wiring that connects those brain cells). Liars, it turned out, had 14% less gray matter than the controls but had 22-26% more white matter in the prefrontal cortex, suggesting that they were more likely to make connections between different memories and ideas as increased connectivity means greater access to the reserve of associations and memories stored in gray matter. “Intelligence,” it turned out, wasn’t correlated with dishonesty — but creativity, which we already know is all about connecting things, was.

In another experiment, Ariely tested how “moral flexibility” was related to the level of creativity required in different jobs by visiting an ad agency and studying the capacity for dishonesty in representatives of its various departments:

[T]he level of moral flexibility was highly related to the level of creativity required in their department and by their job. Designers and copy-writers were at the top of the moral flexibility scale, and the accountants ranked at the bottom. It seems that when ‘creativity’ is in our job description, we are more likely to say ‘Go for it’ when it comes to dishonest behavior.

Ultimately, Ariely explains the osmotic balance between creativity and dishonestly through our capacity for storytelling:

Just as creativity enables us to envision novel solutions to tough problems, it can also enable us to develop original paths around rules, all the while allowing us to reinterpret information in a self-serving way… [C]reativity can help us tell better stories — stories that allow us to be even more dishonest but still think of ourselves as wonderfully honest people.

Originally featured at length in May.

THE STORYTELLING ANIMAL

“The universe is made of stories, not atoms,” poet Muriel Rukeyser memorably asserted, and Harvard sociobiologist E. O. Wilson recently pointed to the similarity between innovators in art and science, both of whom he called “dreamers and storytellers.” Stories aren’t merely essential to how we understand the world — they are how we understand the world. We weave and seek stories everywhere, from data visualization to children’s illustration to cultural hegemony. In The Storytelling Animal (public library), educator and science writer Jonathan Gottschall traces the roots, both evolutionary and sociocultural, of the transfixing grip storytelling has on our hearts and minds, individually and collectively. What emerges is a kind of “unified theory of storytelling,” revealing not only our gift for manufacturing truthiness in the narratives we tell ourselves and others, but also the remarkable capacity of stories — the right kinds of them — to change our shared experience for the better.

Gottschall articulates a familiar mesmerism:

Human minds yield helplessly to the suction of story. No matter how hard we concentrate, no matter how deep we dig in our heels, we just can’t resist the gravity of alternate worlds.

Joining these favorite book trailers is a wonderful short black-and-white teaser animation:

One particularly important aspect of storytelling Gottschall touches on is the osmotic balance between the writer’s intention and the reader’s interpretation, something Mortimer Adler argued for decades ago in his eloquent case for marginalia. Gottschall writes:

The writer is not … an all-powerful architect of our reading experience. The writer guides the way we imagine but does not determine it. A film begins with a writer producing a screenplay. But it is the director who brings the screenplay to life, filling in most of the details. So it is with any story. A writer lays down words, but they are inert. They need a catalyst to come to life. The catalyst is the reader’s imagination.

In discussing the extent to which we live in stories, Gottschall puts in concrete terms something most of us suspect — fear, perhaps — on an abstract, intuitive level: the astounding amount of time we spend daydreaming.

Clever scientific studies involving beepers and diaries suggest that an average daydream is about fourteen seconds long and that we have about two thousand of them per day. In other words, we spend about half of our waking hours — one-third of our lives on earth — spinning fantasies. We daydream about the past: things we should have said or done, working through our victories and failures. We daydream about mundane stuff such as imagining different ways of handling conflict at work. But we also daydream in a much more intense, storylike way. We screen films with happy endings in our minds, where all our wishes — vain, aggressive, dirty — come true. And we screen little horror films, too, in which our worst fears are realized.

From War and Peace to pro wrestling, from REM sleep to the “fictional screen media” of commercials, from our small serialized personal stories on Facebook and Twitter to the large cultural stories of religious traditions, The Storytelling Animal dives into what science knows — and what it’s still trying to find out — about our propensity for storytelling to reveal not only the science of story but also its seemingly mystical yet palpably present power.

Originally featured in May.

QUIET

Do you feel a pang of guilt when you decline a dinner party invitation in favor of a good book and a cup of tea? Or, worse yet, do you reluctantly accept the invitation even though you’d much rather curl up with the book? You are not alone. In Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking, Susan Cain dissects the anatomy of this socially-induced guilt and delves deep into one of psychology’s most enduring tenets — that the single most important defining aspect of personality is where we fall on the introvert-extrovert spectrum — to break through the “long and storied tradition” of neatly mapping this binary division onto others, like submission and leadership, loneliness and happiness, settling and success.

Cain exposes the much more complicated interplay between these character traits and society’s metrics for fulfillment, exploring how “closeted introverts” — a self-reported one third to one half of people, including cultural icons and legendary entrepreneurs like Gandhi, Abraham Lincoln, Steve Jobs, Bill Gates, and Craig Newmark — are expending enormous energy on trying to pass as extroverts in a culture that rewards extroversion and conflates it with boldness, happiness, sociability, and success.

Introversion — along with its cousins sensitivity, seriousness, and shyness — is now a second-class personality trait, somewhere between a disappointment and a pathology. Introverts living under the Extrovert Ideal are like women living in a man’s world, discounted because it goes to the core of who they are. Extroversion is an enormously appealing personality trait, but we’ve turned it into an oppressive standard to which most of us feel we must conform.”

Ultimately, Cain teases apart not only how and why we internalize society’s extroversion bias very early on, but also how we can reconnect with the valuable qualities implicit to introversion and rethink our hard-wired strengths in a culture that categorizes them as weaknesses.

I had always imagined Rosa Parks as a stately woman with a bold temperament. But when she died in 2005 at the age of ninety-two, the flood of obituaries recalled her as soft-spoken, sweet, and small in stature. They said she was ‘timid and shy’ but had ‘the courage of a lion.’ They were full of phrases like ‘radical humility’ and ‘quiet fortitude.’ What does it mean to be quiet and have fortitude? these descriptions asked implicitly. How could you be shy and courageous?

Originally featured in February.

Honorable mention: Complement Quiet with Frank Partnoy’s Wait: The Art and Science of Delay.

BONUS: MORTALITY

“One should try to write as if posthumously,” Christopher Hitchens famously opined in a New York Public Library talk three days before his fatal cancer diagnosis. “Distrust compassion; prefer dignity for yourself and others,” he advised young contrarians years earlier. How striking, then, becomes the clash between his uncompromising ethos and the equally uncompromising realities of death, recorded in Mortality (public library), his last published work, out this week — a gripping and lucid meditation on death as it was unfolding during Hitch’s last months of life. But what makes the book truly extraordinary is his profound oscillation between his characteristic, proud, almost stubborn self-awareness — that ability to look on with the eye of the critic rather than the experiencing self — and a vulnerability that is so clearly foreign to him, yet so breathlessly inevitable in dying. The ideological rigor with which he approaches his own finality, teasing apart religion and politics and other collective and thus impersonal facets of culture, cracks here and there, subtly at first, letting the discomfort of his brush with the unknown peek through, then gapes wide open to reveal the sheer human terror of ceasing to exist.

To the dumb question ‘Why me?’ the cosmos barely bothers to return the reply: Why not?

Read closer with the original article from September.

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