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Posts Tagged ‘music’

30 OCTOBER, 2014

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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23 SEPTEMBER, 2014

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

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

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

Marcus writes:

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

Greil Marcus by Michael Macor (SF Gate)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Art doesn’t explain itself.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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22 SEPTEMBER, 2014

Joni Mitchell on Freedom, the Source of Creativity, and the Dark Side of Success

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“How does a person create a song? A lot of it is being open… to encounter and to… be in touch with the miraculous.”

At the age of eight, Joni Mitchell (b. November 7, 1943) contracted polio during the last major North American epidemic of the disease before the invention of the polio vaccine. Bedridden for weeks, with a prognosis of never being able to walk again, she found hope in singing during that harrowing time at the hospital a hundred miles from her home. And yet she did walk again — an extraordinary walk of life that overcame polio, and overcame poverty, and pernicious critics to make Mitchell one of the most original and influential musicians in modern history, the recipient of eight Grammy Awards, including one for Lifetime Achievement. The liner notes of her 2004 compilation album Dreamland capture with elegant precision her tenacious spirit and creative restlessness: “Like her paintings, like her songs, like her life, Joni Mitchell has never settled for the easy answers; it’s the big questions that she’s still exploring.”

When musician, documentarian, and broadcast journalist Malka Marom chanced into a dark hole of a coffeehouse one November night in 1966, it was this explorer’s soul that she felt emanating from 23-year-old Mitchell, who was quietly tuning and retuning her guitar onstage. Marom knew that she was in the presence of genius. Over the decades that followed, she would interview Mitchell on three separate occasions — in 1973, in 1979, and in 2012. These remarkably wide-ranging conversations are now collected in Joni Mitchell: In Her Own Words (public library | IndieBound) — an effort “to crack something so mysterious … the creative process itself, in all its fullness,” over the course of which Mitchell, with equal parts conviction and vulnerability, tussles with those “big questions.”

Joni Mitchell by Jack Robinson | © The Jack Robinson Archive (robinsonarchive.com)

One of Mitchell’s most defining characteristics and a pillar of her artistic success is her unflinching integrity of vision — a creative compass that seems to always be oriented to her own true north and nobody else’s. Her own standards are the only ones she ever heeded and her own values the only ones she ever sought to measure up to. When Marom asks what gave Mitchell confidence through the ample rejection she faced early in her career, she speaks beautifully to the idea that the best art comes from a place of self-transcendence and is created for an audience of one:

I’ve never thought of that. I guess the only thing was being witness to my own growth. You know, I would suddenly see that, yes, the music was getting better, and the words were getting better. Just my own sense of creative growth kept me going, I guess.

Tuning into that inner voice, Mitchell suggests, was just as vital in her journey as tuning out the external noise that tried to drown it out — a practice arguably even more important, yet more challenging, for artists today, whose work is constantly offered up for external scrutiny online and off, through exponentially multiplying channels of exposure. Mitchell tells Marom:

My growth has been slow, like a crescendo of growth, based on my dissatisfaction with the previous project, where I thought was weak, not what the critics thought. The critics dismissed a lot of what I thought was my growth and praised a lot of what I thought common about my work. I disagreed with most of them. So I had to rely a lot on my own opinions, not to say that I wasn’t constantly asking them for advice and mulling it around, not dismissing it.

She revisits this notion of creating from a place of freedom rather than normative restriction based on the ideals and shoulds of others:

Freedom to me is a luxury of being able to follow the path of the heart, to keep the magic in your life. Freedom is necessary for me in order to create, and if I cannot create I don’t feel alive.

Mitchell’s creative source springs from precisely this feeling of miraculous, wholehearted aliveness. She tells Marom:

How does a person create a song? A lot of it is being open, I think, to encounter and to, in a way, be in touch with the miraculous.

Much of what we call “inspiration,” Mitchell suggests, is really the active practice of finding oneself by getting lost:

I think that as long as you still have questions, the child questions, the muse has got to be there. You throw a question up to the muse and maybe they drop something back on you.

'In the Park of the Golden Buddha,' 1995 | © Joni Mitchell (photograph by Sheila Spencer)

But Mitchell’s most salient reflection is also her most vulnerable. Looking back on her journey from poverty to affluence, from critical derision to acclaim, she speaks to the rather conflicted relationship many of us — especially artists of all stripes — have with success and its outward expressions, a tension predicated on the toxic myth that there is a nobility to poverty and that financial success necessarily detracts from the authenticity of the work.

When Maron notes that “once you’ve known poverty, it digs into you no matter how successful,” Mitchell agrees and admits to being “suspicious of wealth” because she had come from destitution. Looking back on that tipping point when she went from struggling artist to star, with the affluent lifestyle to boot, she contemplates the inner tussle of values:

I had difficulty at one point accepting my affluence, and my success, even the expression of it seemed to me distasteful at one time, like to suddenly be driving a fancy car. I had a lot of soul searching to do. I felt that living in elegance and luxury cancelled creativity, or even some of that sort of Sunday school philosophy that luxury comes as a guest and then becomes the master. That was a philosophy that I held onto. I still had that stereotyped idea that success would deter it, that luxury would make you too comfortable and complacent and that the gift would suffer from it.

But I found that I was able to express it in the work, even at the time when it was distasteful to me… The only way that I could reconcile with myself and my art was to say, “This is what I’m going through now; my life is changing. I show up at the gig in a big limousine and that’s a fact of life.”

I’m an extremist as far as lifestyle goes. I need to live simply and primitively sometimes, at least for short periods of the year, in order to keep in touch with something more basic. But I have come to be able to finally enjoy my success, and to use it as a form of self-expression.

Leonard Cohen has a line that says, “Do not dress in those rags for me, / I know you are not poor.” When I heard that line, I thought to myself that I had been denying, which was hypocritical. I had been denying, just as that line in that song, I had played down my wealth.

Many people in the rock business [have] their patched jeans and their Levi jackets, which is a comfortable way to dress, but also it’s a way of keeping yourself aligned with your audience. For instance, if you were to show up at a rock and roll concert dressed in gold lamé and all of your audience was in Salvation Army discards, you would feel like a person apart.

Leonard Cohen and Joni at the 1967 Newport Folk Festival | © David Gahr/ Getty Images

Despite how gradual her rise had been and how emblematic of the idea that the myth of the overnight success is indeed a myth, Mitchell recalls the hollowing feeling of beginning to feel separate from her audience by a magnitude of wealth. And yet she finds her peace in a rather Zen-inspired perspective, one where everything that is is welcome as it is, allowing experience to unfold without the layering of judgment. Seen that way, poverty and affluence, like meeting and separation and like most seeming polarities in life, are two sides of the same coin, two dimensions of the human experience, riddled with many of the same anguishes and anxieties. (Henry Miller touched on this beautifully in his 1935 meditation on money, through the parable of the factory owner’s predicament.) Mitchell tells Marom:

I’m still searching for meaning and purpose. You know, people have a funny idea that success, [that] luxury is the end of the road. That’s not the end at all. As a matter of fact, many troubles begin there. They’re just of a different nature.

I’ve had the experience of poverty, middle class, now extreme wealth and luxury, and that’s difficult too.

Echoing Georgia O’Keeffe’s ideas on mental toughness, she adds:

I live in a beautiful place, like it would be a dream place. Many a day I walk through it and don’t see anything… If I have to live with less, I can do it easily. I can live with much less. As a matter of fact, for my nature, it’s too complicated to have so much because I can never find anything. [laughs] That’s a silly little problem but you don’t need that much. It’s a big headache… I like the luxury of having a swimming pool. But if I could have a shack or a tent down there next to my swimming pool, I’d be very contented. [laughs]

But her most eloquent and sensitive articulation of these ideas, fittingly, comes from one of her songs — “The Boho Dance” from her 1976 album The Hissing of Summer Lawns:

You read those books where luxury
Comes as a guest to take a slave
Books where artists in noble poverty
Go like virgins to the grave
Don’t you get sensitive on me
’Cause I know you’re just too proud
You couldn’t step outside the Boho dance now
Even if good fortune allowed
Like a priest with a pornographic watch
Looking and longing on the sly
Sure it’s stricken from your uniform
But you can’t get it out of your eyes

Joni Mitchell: In Her Own Words is a magnificent read in its entirety — a rare glimpse into the inner world of a rare kind of genius. Complement it with Leonard Cohen on the key to the creative life, Bob Dylan on sacrifice and the unconscious mind, Pete Seeger on the myth of originality, and Carole King on overcoming creative block.

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