Friday, 24 November 2017

Look beyond the habitual and immediately obvious

Ravel once commented that the snare drum rhythm running through his orchestral piece Bolero mimicked the sound of the machinery in his father's factory. He also said that the piece's melody was inspired by a song his mother sung to him at bedtime. These two memories and the way Ravel combined them in his mind and music hint at how the contrasting qualities of his parents became melded within Ravel's consciousness, helping mould the person and composer he was to become: not only precise, correct and logical but also sensitive, intuitive and artistic.        
Mark Elder (conductor of the Hallé Orchestra), speaking in purely musical terms about Bolero, has described a similar melding: he talks of the 'snake charm' melody and repetitive snare drum rhythm of Bolero as being not in opposition but intimately and interdependently linked; he describes them as growing and evolving equally and as creating an emotional tension between themselves that significantly contributes to a unique and compelling musical experience. 

This melding of contrasting or opposing ideas to create something uniquely powerful is made possible by Ravel's ability to look beyond the habitual and obvious ways of perceiving things.

When thinking about a side-drum, many if not all of us will immediately imagine a loud dry rapid-fire cracking sound produced by a drum being played by someone in uniform taking part in a parade or ceremony (or, if they are unlucky, marching into battle at the front of an army).
This imagining is almost instinctive given the strong martial history and associations of the snare drum. This instinct has, with understandable justification, been reinforced over the years by those who have played and taught the snare drum. For example, one such teacher (Sanford A. Moeller) wrote the following: "To acquire a knowledge of the true nature of the [snare] drum, it is absolutely necessary to study military drumming, for it is essentially a military instrument and its true character cannot be brought out with an incorrect method. When a composer wants a martial effect, he instinctively turns to the drums."

When writing Bolero, however, Ravel did not use the snare drum in this militarily influenced and compositionally traditional way. He looked to the snare drum's use in dance music, where the contrast of precise rhythm against flowing melody defines and enhances the beat and lilt of the music: drum and melody meld to create an enjoyably foot-tapping whole.

From here, for a composer as talented and deep thinking as Ravel, it was only a short step or two towards making imaginative personal associations between contrasting or opposing memories and experiences (as the opening paragraph illustrates). 

Through the genius of Ravel, these memories and experiences and their associations (at once opposed but also mutually supportive) flow into the unique music of Bolero. They enhance its artistic richness and enhance the enjoyment of listeners who (just like Mark Elder) sense a tension and then growing energy between the father's rhythm and the mother's melody. 

By the end of Bolero, rhythm and melody (father and mother) have become transformed into one loud writhing mass of purposeful sound and feeling that penetrates deep into the bodies and souls of listeners; once heard, Bolero is never forgotten.

When seeking to solve problems, especially difficult and complex ones, we are often confronted by apparently contrasting or even opposing ideas and options. These contrasts and oppositions are reinforced or even created by how we habitually perceive the ideas and options, which is greatly influenced by their most well-known history and how they are commonly (and perhaps most easily) applied.

Seek the alternative histories and uses of the ideas and options before you. Once found, do they uncover creative and useful ways to combine the ideas and options? Do they reveal how contrasts, oppositions and differences can be combined to create generative tensions: tensions which will power the growth of unique solutions and approaches?

More than this, do the alternative histories and uses you uncover (together with the creative associations and combinations they suggest) trigger even more associations with and between your personal experiences, knowledge and memories?

To start this process, ask (and persevere) with the following questions:
  • In what other ways have the ideas been used?
  • Could you adopt, adapt and combine some of the other ways the ideas have been used?
  • In what other situations and contexts have the ideas been used? 
  • Do some of the other situations and contexts offer you additional ways to use and combine the ideas?
  • Do these additional uses and combinations of ideas trigger new associations with and between your personal experiences, knowledge and memories? What personal experiences, knowledge and memories do they bring to mind? 
  • Does what you remember further change your perception of the ideas and how they may be used and combined?     

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