Wednesday, 24 July 2013

Integrate diverse ideas

For Sibelius and Elgar, the creation and linking of diverse ideas was the very foundation of their compositional style. Listening to a Sibelius symphony is like listening to a jigsaw in sound. Musical fragments are introduced, developed and then gradually combined, so that by the end of the symphony ideas that were diverse and unconnected have become joined up and unified, part of a greater whole.

When listening to an Elgar symphony this process of fragmenting and then unifying is not so obviously apparent, but a description of his compositional process is very insightful. One of Elgar’s friends describes entering a music room and being greeted by the sight of musical fragments scattered all around: pinned to walls, placed on chairs, covering the floor. Amongst all this was Elgar, looking from one fragment to another, identifying links, making connections and creating novel ways to develop and combine his ideas. This short anecdote illustrates very clearly that creating a stimulating, unified whole from diverse, independent and fragmentary ideas was central to Elgar’s compositional style.

We can apply the above approach to problem solving in general. Firstly, we need to generate lots of diverse ideas for solving the problem. Then we need to explore how each idea could be combined with the others in order to create new, even better ideas.

Ultimately, we need to explore whether or not one holistic, joined up solution can be found that successfully incorporates the majority of ideas generated.

Friday, 19 July 2013

Tell stories

There are many examples of story telling and narrative drive in music, from the country and western song, to the tone poems of composers such as Liszt and Richard Strauss, but perhaps the grandest example of story telling in music is opera. And perhaps the grandest and most ambitious of all opera is Richard Wagner’s Ring Cycle.

It is worth standing back from this gigantic monument of a work to appreciate its timeless, story telling characteristics. There are heroes and heroines and impossible undertakings. There are villains who seek to undermine the heroic progress and replace it with one of their own. There are endings and new beginnings. There are victories and defeats and countless reversals of fortune and through it all, intertwined with the story's narrative, there are essential truths about the nature and meaning of life. 

In terms of the music itself, significant ideas and characters are given their own musical themes and these rise out of the musical ocean accompanying the action when they are particularly significant or the onward narrative demands it. In Wagner's operas this background, boiling ocean of ideas is not only symbolic of the subconscious and conscious feelings of the individual characters, but also of the overall feel of the world depicted, its ‘background radiation’, the cultural and psychological atmosphere within which the characters live and breath.  

It can often be very effective to take the above principles and apply them creatively to our problems and issues. Who are the key players and are they positive or negative forces (heroes, heroines or villains)? What are or could be their roles? How powerful are they and how important are they to the situation or problem? What challenges, events or tasks are crucial to your success? Which ones need special (perhaps heroic) attention, the mastery of specialist skills or the application of expert knowledge? What is the overall story of the problem? Where were its beginnings? What is its history, its back-story? How has its narrative progressed so far? How many subplots (secondary problems) have formed? When will all the subplots or secondary problems come to a head? How is it all likely to end? What type of ending would you like? What are the alternative endings? If it looks likely that it will end tragically how can you alter this (or at least survive to fight another day)?

Lastly, what type of atmosphere or background radiation surrounds the problem? Within what ocean of culture, thoughts and emotions does the problem exist? How has this shaped the problem? Indeed, is it the very reason for the problem's existence?

Friday, 12 July 2013

Transform mediocre ideas

Schubert was an exceptional songwriter; he could conjure great songs from mediocre poetry.

He was able to see the seed hidden within a cliché ridden poetic phrase and make it flower in music: to focus upon the smallest spark of inspiration and kindle it into flames of creativity. For example, in "An Die Musik" Schubert transforms sentimental "candyfloss" verse into a song that beautifully expresses his love of music.

Most innovative ideas begin life as mediocre ones. At first, just like anything new-born, they seem capable of nothing except devouring time and resources. But, given care and attention, they can transform into mature and beautifully crafted solutions.

The next time you are confronted with a new-born mediocre idea, look beyond its half-baked appearance for that small sharp spark of inspiration.

Give this spark your care and attention; help it transform into something excellent.

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Friday, 5 July 2013

Introduce the new by way of the familiar

Whilst listening to Elgar’s 2nd Symphony for the first time, I remember experiencing a very surprising but not unpleasant sensation. The music started as expected, perhaps a little subdued in places compared to Elgar’s normal style, but still very much recognisable as Elgar. Then, well into the first movement, I felt that I was being ever so gently but persistently nudged into a parallel universe of sound: one that I definitely did not recognise as ‘Elgarian’. It was magical and fantastical: the sort of music you might hear whilst dreaming of a forest at nightfall.

These dreamlike sounds were very different from Elgar’s usual musical style, and if he had started his symphony with them his audience would likely have been baffled. They might even have thought that they were listening to music by some other more modernistic or impressionistic composer. Indeed, their bafflement could have become strong enough to diminish their willingness to listen.

Elgar carried his audience with him by starting with what was familiar and then gradually introducing something new and innovative. We too can apply this approach when introducing and implementing new ideas. It is especially effective for gaining support from within cultures that are very traditional in their thinking (like Elgar’s Edwardian audience!).

When you next need to introduce and gain acceptance for new and innovative ideas, think about the following:
  • The current context or situation and how your ideas are relevant to and grow out of it.
  • The specific steps you can take to help people relate your ideas to their personal experiences and current situations.
  • How you can present your ideas as additional options that complement and build upon existing approaches.