Thursday, 4 April 2019

Stick with the things that make you laugh

Whilst drinking in a pub, the composer Carl Nielsen noticed a painting hanging on a wall. It was a comic depiction of the four temperaments, or personality types, that ancient philosophers believed determined human behaviour: choleric (ambitious and leader-like), phlegmatic (relaxed and quiet), melancholic (introverted and thoughtful) and sanguine (pleasure seeking and social).

The painting was so extreme in its caricature of the temperaments that it made Nielsen laugh loudly. Choleric, for example, was depicted by a man on horseback who was violently waving a sword; his eyes bulged out of their sockets and his face was impossibly distorted by rage.

Despite Nielsen's initial reaction, or more likely because of it, the painting stuck in his mind. He became increasingly fascinated by the theory of the temperaments. Eventually, this fascination inspired him to compose his 2nd Symphony "The Four Temperaments".

Each movement of this symphony thoroughly explores one of the temperaments; an extensive and complex piece of music had grown from a seed of an idea planted within the composer's mind by a comical painting (and the laughter it had caused).  

Things we initially perceive as silly, comic or absurd; things we greet with disbelief and laughter: these things can often prove of immense value. If we resist dismissing them from our minds and instead reflect upon them for a while, if we ponder their meaning, they will likely offer us unexpected insights and inspiration. 

Ernest Duchesne, a French military doctor, noticed (with some amusement) that stable boys were storing leather saddles in the most absurd of places: a dank, dark room. Duchesne's amusement, however, was soon followed by curiosity. Why were the stable boys doing such a silly thing? The answer to Duchesne's question revealed method in the stable boys' apparent madness: they had discovered that encouraging mould to grow on saddles helped prevent infection of horses' saddle sores.

Ernest Duchesne and the stable boys had discovered the antibiotic properties of moulds, and they had done this 32 years before Alexander Fleming discovered penicillin (an antibiotic produced by these moulds).              

Friday, 29 March 2019

Tubin's swap

The Estonian composer Eduard Tubin (1905 to 1982) had a lot to thank his family for: not least their decision to swap a cow for a piano!

When Eduard was a child, he showed a strong talent for music. Luckily, his parents were music lovers who were keen to help him develop his gift.

They did not have much money with which to help Eduard, but they did have cows; when a piano became available within the village, they swapped one of their herd for it. This was not an easy decision to make: the cow helped sustain the family's everyday existence.

Eduard loved his piano and was soon giving performances to the local villagers. Over the next few years, his musical abilities grew and his reputation spread. At the age of 15, he won a place at music college. This was the beginning of a long musical career that brought forth ten symphonies and many other significant works. Eduard's parents must have been very pleased with the return on their investment, which had far exceeded the immediate benefits of cow ownership.

Often, to achieve our potential (or the potential of our ideas) we must swap something of obvious and immediate value for something that is not: something that is an investment in a possible future we would like to see become reality. This requires us to take a leap of faith that may expose us to ridicule; many of the Tubin family's neighbours probably thought it at best ill-advised and at worst stupid to lose the prize asset of a family cow.

What is valuable to you now and are you willing to swap it for something that will help you attain the future you desire? Do you have the courage to make the imaginative, risky and future-orientated decision?

Are you willing to stand apart from the herd and endure some bellows of ridicule in return for possible future benefits?

Tuesday, 26 March 2019

Know your audience

Anton Dvorak was acclaimed during his lifetime as a great and popular composer. This success was in no small part due his preparation and approach to composing: he would identify the music his audiences liked, explore the traditional music of the towns and regions where his music was to be performed, and ensure he weaved his insights into his compositions.
Being aware of the context within which ideas and inventions will be introduced increases their chances of success.  

A good example of an invention that did not take account of context was the Sinclair C5, a very small single-seat electric car that positioned the driver low down towards the road surface and provided no protection from the often inclement British weather. Unsurprisingly, the C5 failed to catch on; it was an uncomfortable (and sometimes very damp) way to travel and, most importantly, lorries drivers had trouble seeing it because it was small and low to the ground.
An example of an invention that did take account of context was the clockwork radio. This was created with the needs of isolated African communities in mind. These communities had very little or no access to affordable electricity. As a consequence, it was very difficult for these communities to keep abreast of their regions' and countries' news and current affairs. Most importantly, they often did not receive information that was vital to their survival. Within this context, a radio that used an alternative and easily maintained power source was likely to become very popular and successful.

When identifying new and innovative solutions to problems, put significant effort into researching the context within which they will be implemented. This will increase the likelihood of your ideas becoming valuable additions to people’s lives (rather than irrelevant eccentricities relegated to obscure footnotes within the annals of failed solutions).

Monday, 18 March 2019

Allow discord the time and space to resolve

After listening to one of his masterclass pupils play a Beethoven piano sonata Daniel Barenboim, the famous conductor and pianist, made a deceptively simple comment; he said that one should never rush when there is a clash: that it should be given the time and space to be played out.

The pupils attending the master class were well-accomplished pianists who possessed an in-depth knowledge of the music in front of them. In spite of this, however, Barenboim felt he needed to make the above observation; the pianists, for all their facility and expertise, were finding it difficult to fight a deeply ingrained need to move quickly away from ‘notes of discord’.

Barenboim was talking about musical dissonance and how to resolve it elegantly during a musical performance, but the principle of staying with dissonance rather than quickly leaving it behind has resonance within non-musical contexts.

Many of us gloss-over disagreements and conflicts as quickly as we can, so minimising the dissonance we experience between others and ourselves. We often do this, despite knowing that it would be best to provide the time and space within which notes of discord could fully resolve.

When faced with a conflict or disagreement, a note of discord between others and yourself, stay with it. Be curious, despite your instinctive foreboding, and work at finding the best way to play things out to a mutually satisfying conclusion.

Friday, 15 March 2019

Apply the ‘Helios Principle’

One of my favourite orchestral works is the Helios Overture by Carl Nielsen. It opens with a vivid and moving depiction of sunrise, and then beautifully depicts the sun’s progress across the sky from dawn to dusk.

When I listen to this music, I hear the progress of a life: the hot, intense miracle of birth; the exuberant energy of youth; maturity and achievement; the exhausted sighing towards darkness.

Nielsen's overture is a perfect example of the natural world providing inspiration for creative thoughts and deeds.

Look within the natural world for seeds of inspiration: seeing birds in flight inspired people to build flying machines; the beak of a kingfisher inspired the sleek and efficient shape of Japan’s famous bullet train; the intricate structure of a butterfly wing inspired a new way to combat counterfeit banknotes.  

What do you find most beautiful and intriguing about the natural world? How can this inspire you to think in new and exciting ways? How has the natural world solved problems similar to yours? How can you adopt and adapt these solutions?

Wednesday, 13 February 2019

Show your commitment

CPE Bach, perhaps the most experimental and innovative of JS Bach’s composer sons, had a reputation for clearly (often exaggeratedly) showing what he was feeling as he performed music.
When asked why he did this, he replied that he could not expect his listeners to be moved emotionally if he himself failed to demonstrate being similarly moved.

For a new and innovative idea to be accepted, people need to become convinced of its worth. For this to happen, those responsible for the idea must demonstrate their personal commitment to it.
Are you showing commitment to your ideas? Are you showing enthusiasm for your ideas? What are you saying and doing in support of your ideas? Do you need to show, say and do more?
(An Australian doctor showed significant commitment to his idea. He discovered that most stomach ulcers were caused by microbes in the stomach rather than stress and an unhealthy lifestyle. None of his colleagues accepted his discovery, so he infected himself with the microbes and cured himself with antibiotics. His colleagues acceptance of his discovery soon followed).

Saturday, 9 February 2019

Clear the decks!

My composition teacher took one look at my scribbled, untidy, almost unintelligible manuscripts and said, "You need to create a clean copy of where you are at! If you don’t, you will get confused and find it almost impossible to progress."
He was right: I had got confused!
I was not having trouble coming up with ideas for my compositions; my problem was gaining a clear picture of exactly what I had created so far and where it needed to go next. I was haphazardly piling idea upon idea upon my manuscript: like an unskilled painter in oils who, rather than creating a coherent and pleasing picture, slaps on more and more sticky colours to crate nothing more than mess!
I took my teacher’s advice.
I took stock of what I had produced so far -- and cleared the decks. I created a clean copy of the piece of music upon which I was working. I did not discard any of my ideas, because what does not work within one piece may well work within another, but my new copy included only those ideas I felt would work within the context of the piece I was currently writing.
As I continued to work on my piece, creating clean copies at regular intervals, I found myself looking back over my old workings and reconsidering some of the ideas recorded there. As I now had a clear view of the overall direction in which I wanted my composition to develop, I was able to reassess these ideas and adapt some of them to my current thinking and needs.
Regularly "clearing the decks" of my past piled-up thinking (not deleting but putting out of sight for a while) provided a space within which my creativity could progress unencumbered.
If you are struggling with a problem, try "clearing the decks".
Put your past workings to one side for a while: turn the page; start a new flip chart; copy your working from a whiteboard; rub the board clean, and then write up where your thinking has taken you so far.
Also, ask yourself the following questions:
  • How has my thinking changed as I have worked?
  • Are my initial goals and assumptions still relevant and correct?
  • What new things have emerged as I have worked? 
  • What new insights have I gained as I have worked?
  • What have I learnt from the way others have reacted to my work?

By knowing where you are, you will be able to work towards where you need to go next (and you will begin to see the ideas and approaches that will get you there).