Wednesday, 23 September 2015

Put demands for originality back in their box

'There is a disdain for composers...who borrow elements from one piece and bring them into the next ones'
Claude Baker - Composer (From 'The Muse that Sings' by Ann McCutchan)
Demands for originality of ideas and approaches, demands for a 'new model every year', can hinder or even stop in their tracks the long-term reflection, thinking and development that leads to truly valuable and ground-breaking innovations.

Such demands can also blind us to the most obvious 'just right' solution to a problem.

Composers develop their personal styles over many, many years, taking elements of their style and approach, and sometimes even specific musical themes that they find attractive, intriguing or otherwise significant in some way, and reworking them in subsequent pieces.

The Baroque composer Handel is probably the best known re-user of his own (and others') musical material. This habit enabled him to not only write an immense amount of music to order but also, through repeated rearranging and improving, 'take pebbles and polish them into diamonds'.

More recently, the mid 20th Century composer Erich Wolfgang Korngold reused music from previously written film scores to create fully fledged concert pieces. His Violin Concerto, which uses and develops music from four of his film scores, is probably the best known example of this.

If audiences, commissioners and critics ceaselessly demand 'something original' from composers, insisting upon shiny eye catching baubles to add to fashionable collections rather than carefully cut diamonds that, through the care of their crafting, offer superior and unique quality, the steady and sustainable evolution of composers' individual styles (and the priceless creativity that eventually blossoms from them), will be interrupted, curtailed, stopped.

Also (and just as importantly) a forced and blinkered focus upon being original can cut off a composer's line of sight towards that most simple but joyous of phrases, that most simple but striking of rhythms and harmonies, that briefest but most timely of pauses, that most straightforward but powerful of climaxes, that most obvious but attractive reworking of a piece. 

If John Adams had put originality at the forefront of his thinking he would not have written Grand Pianola Music, so depriving audiences of its energy and vitality and the immediate and infectious joy of its final movement melodies. If Beethoven had fretted about being original he would not have used the most simple and ubiquitous of rhythms and harmonies to open his 5th Symphony, or paused most obviously but dramatically between their iterations. If Christopher Rouse had prioritised originality he would not have allowed Prokofiev's 'Montagues and Capulets' movement from the ballet Romeo and Juliet to so obviously (and powerfully and effectively) influence the climactic moments of no less then three of his orchestral works. If Max Richter feared unwarranted ridicule for being unoriginal he would not have reworked Vivaldi's Four Seasons, successfully reinventing it for a new generation of listeners.      

So originality, as an aspect of musical composition, is over-rated, and when it becomes valued above all else it stupefies, stalls and stops the creative process.

This is true for not only musical composition but also all creative thinking and problem solving. 

To think 'outside the box' you do not always have to be totally original. Like Handel, Korngold and the other composers mentioned above, look for existing ideas and approaches you can build upon, combine and use in new ways.

And put incessant demands for originality 'back in their box'.

Thursday, 17 September 2015

Reboot your language

'You know that thing you do with the slide when you go way up high? Let's use that sound.'

John Zorn - Composer (From 'The Muse that Sings' by Ann McCutchan) 

In a traditional context where musicians are literally and metaphorically 'on the same page' in terms of the music being played, such as during orchestral rehearsals of the works of Mozart or Beethoven, the use of well-established musical terms and jargon is very effective. It provides a professional language or code that enables musicians to understand each other quickly, make best use of rehearsal time and consistently deliver high quality performances. 

This can be likened to a project within a single organisation. Each person participating knows, or quickly learns, the well-established language, technical terms and jargon of their organisation, using them to communicate clearly with each other and get things done quickly and efficiently. 

The music John Zorn writes, however, is very different from the music of Mozart or Beethoven. It is modern, experimental and progressive: less about playing something from 'the same page' and more about playing something new 'in the same space'. This difference demands that he works closely with musicians who are skilled improvisers possessing very personal and rich musical languages that often defy attempts to describe or notate them using traditional musical terminology or techniques. In fact, trying to describe and capture these languages using traditional musical approaches would hinder rather than help the collaboration between Zorn and his musicians: constraining and inhibiting creativity and expression rather than releasing and encouraging it.

This situation can be likened to a collaboration between people from different organisations, each of those participating bringing with them their own organisational languages, technical terms and jargon. Trying to constrain or 'vacuum pack' these diverse aspects within the language and terminology of one of the participating organisations would clearly be ineffective and undesirable: it would inhibit and constrain rather than encourage and release the creative and innovative problem solving that most cross-disciplinary collaborations are set up to achieve.          

So, within the above kind of situation it is important to co-create a new way of communicating: one that not only enables clarity and understanding but also releases creativity and innovation. To begin this process we need to go back to our default speech setting: the speech setting that everyone understands and that focuses upon and describes, in very simple every-day terms, what we see, hear and do.  

When we do this our speech will gradually reboot into a language that fits our collaborative context, enhances mutual understanding and integrates and exploits to mutual advantage partners' diverse knowledge, skills, expertise and experience.

Wednesday, 2 September 2015

Mahler's kaleidoscope

Can you remember looking through a kaleidoscope? A modern equivalent would be viewing the random, intricate and colourful patterns generated by computer software to accompany music.

7th Symphony is like a slow motion, auditory equivalent of this experience. It takes a vast array of differing and richly interesting ideas and mixes them together in unexpected ways, creating vast and ever-changing tapestries of sound.

Audiences struggled with this symphony. Its kaleidoscopic form was not easy to grasp, especially as it was so startlingly different from those used by Mahler in his earlier, more obviously structured symphonies.

So why did Mahler write this symphony in such a challenging way? The answer lies in his view of the symphony. He felt that it should ‘encompass the world’. Now think about the world. It consists of an almost infinite diversity of elements that have been thrown together, often creating beauty out of the chance coincidence of their existence.

Now think about our experience of the world. As we go about our daily lives we experience the sweep and swerve of random kaleidoscopic events. Most of what we experience is not presented to us in the conveniently packaged and neatly edited form of a book, television programme or film, and consequently we have to work hard at comprehending the meaning and appreciating the beauty of the multitude of events and sensations that flow towards and around us.

This is what Mahler is portraying in his music. He is making his listeners work hard at perceiving and appreciating the immense swirling structures of his music (just as they have to work hard at comprehending the ever-changing world that surrounds them) and the harder they work the greater their appreciation of his music’s innate beauty.

The next time you need to address a complex situation or problem put some time and effort into appreciating how its constituent parts have come together; look through its kaleidoscope of events. Do the patterns you see reveal anything of its true nature? Do you see the glimmer of an answer to your problem?