Monday, 4 May 2020

Explore the Ma between and around things

Toru Takemitsu was always in demand as a film composer. Directors valued the way he made the atmosphere of a scene, particularly the feelings and tensions filling the silences within a scene, tangible.

As part of his preparation for writing a film score, Takemitsu would visit a film's location, walk around the sets, handle the props and mingle with the actors. He did this to "breath in the atmosphere" of the film and begin appreciating the director's intentions as they slowly manifested within the film's space and time.

His approach to creating film scores was highly effective: he wrote over ninety film scores and won numerous film music awards. He was particularly good at bringing out the atmosphere, tensions and emotions pervading a silent or quiet scene without adding a single note of music to it. Instead, he would write music immediately before and after the scene that would serve to highlight (through dramatic offsetting) the quality of a silence or quietness.

Takemitsu did the above because of his belief in the Japanese concept of Ma: the belief that the space between and around things is an emptiness full of possibilities, be this appreciating the silent breeze between trees, or reflecting upon the feelings, tensions, unspoken intentions and conflicts swirling within and around events.

For Takemitsu, creating film scores was about focusing upon the Ma of a scene (a scene's invisible atmosphere) and giving its possibilities a form that could be heard and appreciated. He did not seek to create something that, from his point of view, did not exist within the Ma of the scene: he sought to define what was unseen and unheard but possibly present.

Given the above, it is not surprising that Takemitsu's services as a film composer were much sought after by film directors.

The concept of Ma, the idea that the space between things is an emptiness full of possibilities, influenced not only Takemitsu's film music but also his many other works. As you listen to his music, you sense that its silence is at least as significant as its sound: sounds emerge from silence and seep and creep back into it; bright climaxes cast light upon following silence, revealing what is moving within it.  

And the concept of Ma influenced not only Takemitu's music but also his overall approach to life. When one reads his and others' descriptions of his life and experiences, it becomes clear that perceiving space as full of possibilities encouraged Takemitsu to do the following:
  • Collaborate rather than work individually. By working closely with others, he increased his ability to sense and define the Ma (the unspoken thoughts and unseen feelings and intentions) surrounding his collaborators' words and actions.
  • Seek to define what was unseen within a situation or space (e.g., the feel of a situation or the feelings permeating the space between and around a group of people) rather than fill a situation or space with his own preconceptions and ideas. By doing this, Takemitsu increased his ability to gain interesting and surprising insights both from his surroundings and from the people with whom he mixed and associated.
  • Wait for and then encourage something to emerge rather than force something to take a shape. By waiting for and noticing what might emerge and coaxing it into a recognisable form, Takemitsu again increased his ability to gain insights that others might miss. He also enhanced his ability to collaborate by giving himself the time to recognise and appreciate the emotions, understandings, assumptions, tensions and conflicts, etc., implicit within situations and between individuals.
  • Appreciate and accept the things he discovered (e.g., traditional music, local customs and practices, others' ideas and opinions, etc.) for what they were, on their own terms, rather than assimilate them into his existing thinking and approaches. By doing this, Takemitsu gained the ability to notice the entire nature of things: to see aspects essential to their uniqueness (e.g., their significance at a specific moment in time to people from a specific culture) that would otherwise be overlaid and obscured by his own experiences, expertise and preferences. This helped him internalise the often ephemeral, almost invisible, uniqueness of things and consequently perceive and adopt new ways of thinking and doing; he avoided merely integrating readily tangible and functional components of things (e.g., techniques, styles and forms) into his existing ways of thinking and doing.
  • Dialogue rather than debate. By seeking to explore and understand differing perspectives and ideas and holding them beside each other in his mind, Takemitsu allowed them to shed new light on each other: new light that revealed new shades of insight within the space between them; he had gained the ability to combine insights and form new and novel understandings and meanings.
Be like Takemitsu: collaborate with others and explore the feelings and intentions, etc., that surround words and actions; seek to define what is present but unseen within a situation; wait for and encourage things to emerge; appreciate and accept the things you discover for what they are, on their own terms; dialogue rather than debate.

Explore the Ma between and around things to discover new perspectives, insights and ideas.

Sunday, 19 April 2020

Gain from perspective 1.20

The computer game composer Wilbert Roget II (who has written award winning music for games such as Mortal Kombat, Call to Duty and Tomb Raider) describes composing in the 1st person: from the perspective of the characters within a game.

To achieve this perspective, part of his preparation is to become a game's character, try out the available outfits, tools and weapons, etc., and wander through a game's various scenes and levels.

Crucially, Roget does not become a protagonist: he does not become part of the action. This slight distancing ensures he is not distracted by the excitement of taking part and trying to succeed but instead focuses upon the look and feel of a game's world and characters.

By inhabiting a character and experiencing its world but not taking part in a game's narrative, I think Roget achieves not a 1st person perspective but a 1.20 person perspective: a perspective that gives him just enough mental space or headroom to notice details about the look and feel of a game that players caught up in the action would likely miss. 

Having gained insights from this 1.20 perspective, Roget can then create imaginative musical layers and backdrops that illuminate and enrich details that would be otherwise missed, so improving the overall quality of a game and enhancing game players' enjoyment.

We can all gain from using perspective 1.20. When seeking to solve a problem, do your best to experience it from the perspectives of those people affected by it. Whilst doing so, however, ensure you do not become too involved and caught up in a problem and its effects. Give yourself just enough mental space to begin noticing details about the look, feel and context of a problem: details that those caught within a problem's web of consequences would likely fail to see.

Wednesday, 15 April 2020

Throw it at the audience, warts and all!

"Throw it at the audience: warts and all!"

"Play anything you like."

"If they complain, never mind."

The above statements (from a Radio 3 interview) provide a significant insight into why two pianists, Zoe Rahman and David Rees-Williams, have become highly gifted improvisers: one of the secrets is to be uninhibited and able to express and share musical ideas "in the moment" as they form in the mind, appear upon the keyboard and begin sounding in the air.

This uninhibited expressing and sharing is not something all musicians can do. I recall one highly skilled professional orchestral violinist telling me that the mere thought of improvising in front of people filled her with dread: her training and musical conditioning inhibiting her own spontaneous creativity in favour of the rehearsed creativity of others.

Horses for courses and different musicians for performing different music.

But for those of us who need to contribute new and creative ideas (be these musical or otherwise), it is essential to marry our foundational knowledge, training and expertise with spontaneity of action.

The influence of our knowledge, training and expertise (our towering protective shadow of the tried, tested and sensible) can implore us to carefully rehearse our contributions before offering them.

This is often, of course, very beneficial. But habitual rehearsal can cause us to express and share ideas devoid of spontaneity: ideas that are shot through with and weakened by apparently sensible qualifications and "hedging our bets" second thoughts.

And it is these weakened ideas that people hear and, like an audience listening to a musician performing a "better safe than sorry" improvisation, quickly forget.

Rather than always perceiving your knowledge, training and expertise as a protective shadow of the tried and tested, occasionally try using them as a firm foundation from which you can launch new and creative ideas: share your ideas, warts and all; say anything you like in the way you like; if people complain, never mind (because this is better than having your ideas ignored and forgotten).

Thursday, 20 February 2020

Change the nuance of your idea

"The central idea behind the piece is having the same musical idea presented in slightly different ways by the two instruments, hence the changing nuance of the materials..."

Daniel Kessner

This quotation is taken from Daniel Kessner's programme note for a piece called "Nuance", a duet he wrote for bass flute and viola. 

Presenting or changing ideas in slightly different ways can achieve two closely associated things: it can help us perceive ideas in different ways, and it can help us improve ideas in surprising ways.

If you have edited photographs using Instagram filters or similar, you will have experienced the above at first hand: as you apply each filter to the photograph, some aspects are emphasised or enhanced and new aspects are revealed. Then, after you have selected a filter and begun editing the photograph's colour, brightness and contrast, etc., you discover that the slightest movement of your finger can bring forth additional and sometimes surprising nuances of shade, light and emphasis, some of which transform an average photograph into a good one and a good photograph into a great one.

Find slightly different ways to present or change your idea: change one or two of the words and phrases you use to describe it; slightly strengthen or soften the emphasise you give to different aspects of it; listen to it being presented by someone else, at one remove; add one or two small aspects to it, or take one or two away; slightly change the context within which it is framed.
What does changing the nuance of your idea reveal? How can what has been revealed help you enhance your idea?

Monday, 10 February 2020

Do not be deceived by initial negative impressions

The Viennese premier of Anton Bruckner's 3rd Symphony did not go well.

The audience laughed and hissed and departed in droves during the performance. When the symphony sounded its last notes, the orchestral players (who had never liked the work) immediately bolted for the exits.

Bruckner, who had conducted the symphony, was left alone on his podium to receive a battering of catcalls and sarcastic cries for encores.

He was so traumatised by his experience that a whole year passed before he could resume composing.

But the 3rd Symphony's premier was not the total disaster it had at first seemed. This was because it caused the following three things to happen:
  1. Bruckner gained a 1st champion for his symphony: a music publisher, Theodore Rattig, offered to publish the symphony and a four-hand piano transcription of it.
  2. A seventeen year old music student was greatly impressed and influenced by the symphony: his name was Gustav Mahler. Some years later, he gained ownership of the symphony's handwritten score.
  3. The history of the symphony, the symphony's influence upon Mahler and the ownership journey of the symphony's handwritten score (Mahler's widow inherited the manuscript and smuggled it out of Germany to ensure the Nazis could not use a valuable musical artefact to bolster their cause) all contributed to a story that inspired many people.
When you premier a new idea, when you share it with people for the first time, remember that initial negative impressions of people's reactions can be deceiving: a 1st champion may make herself known above the catcalls; a seed of inspiration may have been planted within an open, creative and gifted mind; the story of your idea's emergence and subsequent journey within minds and beside lives may reach out to and inspire more people than you initially imagined.

(And today, of course, Bruckner's 3rd Symphony has taken its place amongst the established symphonic repertoire.)   

Wednesday, 8 January 2020

Create a universe of imagination from a tiny spark of feeling

"To explore remembering is to explore being creative."
Bruce Adolphe (Composer)

Arising from your first feeling and sensation, your first thoughts lead to your first gestures and actions; your first gestures and actions lead to your first reactions.

And you begin to form memories.

From your memories emerge ideas you have had and clues, slivers and snippets of insight, pointing towards ideas you will have.

Notice how you form memories. Record how your ideas emerge. Gather in the clues, the slivers and snippets of insight, pointing towards ideas you will have.     

Entwine your memories, ideas and slivers and snippets of insight with those of other people.
What meanings and understandings are revealed as the memories, ideas and slivers and snippets of insight meld within people's minds?     

Above all, what emerges new, brilliant and unforeseen?

Meld separate memories, ideas and insights into new shared memories, ideas and insights, and create a universe of imagination from a tiny spark of feeling.

"How small a thought it takes to fill a whole life."
Ludwig Wittenstein

Friday, 3 January 2020

Help create passports to creativity

During a lunch with the violinist Samuel Dushkin, the composer Igor Stravinsky wrote some musical notes on a napkin. These notes formed the following vertical stack (or chord) of notes:

Stravinsky passed the napkin to Samuel and asked him if the chord was playable on the violin.

Given the awkward look of the chord and the significant space between its notes, Samuel immediately said that the chord was unplayable; he thought it would, quite literally, be too much of a stretch.

On returning home, however, Samuel tried playing the chord on his violin. To his surprise, he found that the chord was quite easy to play.

He immediately telephoned Stravinsky to tell him the good news. Stravinsky was pleased; he said the chord would be "the passport" to the concerto he was going to write for Dushkin.

Stravinsky was not a violinist and had, until finding the above passport to compositional success, been reluctant to write a concerto for the instrument. He had assumed that his lack of familiarity with the violin would hamper his efforts and cause him to create a mediocre concerto.

However, as his fellow composer Paul Hindemith had suggested, Stravinsky's unfamiliarity with the violin proved to be an advantage, enabling him to write for the violin in fresh and surprising ways: ways that expert violinists may have dismissed as unplayable or "unviolinistic".

The chord that had at first seemed unplayable to a virtuoso violinist became the symbolic and generative core of Stravinsky's innovative and engaging violin concerto. Each of the concerto's movements, and some of the sections within the movements, start with the chord.  

The chord became the creative gateway through which Stravinsky was able to access and explore, what was for him, a new and exciting musical landscape.

The above example offers us two important lessons about creative problem solving. Firstly, being unfamiliar with a discipline, issue or problem can be an advantage: it can lead to a person exploring things in new ways and discovering new approaches and solutions. Secondly, being familiar with a discipline, issue or problem can (at least initially) be a disadvantage: it can stop a person exploring things in new ways and discovering new approaches and solutions.

Stravinsky, despite his initial misgiving about writing for the violin, heeded the advice of Paul Hindemith and transformed the apparent disadvantage of unfamiliarity into a creative strength. Samuel Dushkin tested his familiarity based initial assumptions and discovered they were wrong (and in the process he gained a masterpiece for the violin).

Perceive unfamiliarity as a potential advantage and encourage others to do likewise; test your familiarity based assumptions: help create passports to creativity.