From the monthly archives:

July 2008

“Awake! Cries the voice…”

by Matt Blair on July 27, 2008

in Inspirations

Having begun the Inspirations series with an appreciation of failure, I now head about as far as I can imagine in the opposite direction.

One of the first ‘classical’ music CDs I ever bought was the 1986 recording of J.S. Bach’s Cantata No. 140 “Wachet auf, ruft uns die Stimme” by The Bach Ensemble, directed by Joshua Rifkin. (Originally released by L’oiseau-Lyre.)

It was a fluke, really. I didn’t know anything about this particular CD. I liked Bach, and there it was, in a shop that didn’t stock a whole lot of music written before 1950. It was an impulsive purchase, and yet it remains one of the most meaningful recordings in my collection, more than fifteen years later.

This recording contains two full cantatas, no. 140 and no. 51, and while both are very good, but it is the opening chorale of no. 140 that has the most profound affect on me.

The music itself is an exemplar of one of the stylistic elements I find so compelling about J.S. Bach: the mixture of rapid figures with slow, deliberate melodic lines. It’s like listening to a roomful of inter-generational conversations, with children chattering away in one corner, while an elder calmly imparts wisdom at the head of the table.

It’s not simply the notes, but the performance that makes this specific recording so important to me. The vowels of the soprano and counter-tenor are so pure that at times, they are nearly indistinguishable from the sound of the oboes. This is such a rarity because so many performers of Baroque music bring Classical- and Romantic-era sensibilities to the situation, and (in my opinion) ruin the sound through excessive vibrato. Maybe it’s having a small orchestra playing period instruments, and Rifkin’s decision to have one vocalist per part, rather than a full choir, that creates such a sense of intimacy? I’m not sure.

The effect is simultaneously stately and grounded, extraordinary and yet unassuming.

As soon as I hear the opening strings of the first track of this recording, I’m somewhere else, filled with a sense of awe, of possibility, and of connection to the inscrutably brilliant and creative mind of J.S. Bach, through the medium of this performance. There is a great deal of music that intellectually grabs me, but very few recordings that create this almost-physical sense of transportation and lightness.



by Matt Blair on July 22, 2008

in Quotes

“The best writing causes readers’ breathing to change.”

– Mary Pipher, “Writing to Change the World”


Ambitious Failures

by Matt Blair on July 19, 2008

in Inspirations

In sharing what inspires and replenishes my creativity, failure may seem an odd and ominous beginning. But failure is the origin of all creativity. When trying to express ourselves in interesting ways, we so often fail before we succeed. We have to be willing to do so, or we may never get started.

First, let me be clear: I’m not going to name any names, or point to any specific works or performances that I consider failures. I don’t go in for that kind of criticism — at least not in public! — because I don’t want to affect someone else’s experience of the same work.

There are little, boring failures all around us, like a flat tire or a pen running out of ink or over-cooked broccoli, but that’s not what I’m talking about here.

Ambitious failures require the audacity to have a grand idea, and to follow it through, despite all those along the path who try to distract with the temptations of mediocrity and cliche, who suggest the easy answers rather than seeking what feels right, and the tenacity to keep on going, despite enormous risks. I find that journey, and the work that emerges at the end of it, profoundly admirable, however dubious or lacking the artistic merits might be.

The most spectacular failures are often a result of following the most eccentric visions. And the spectacle of failure can itself be fascinating — assuming it doesn’t involve any lasting physical harm, of course.

The reasons for failure are often complex and unknown. They are open to interpretation. We decide how to frame failure, how forgiving, empathetic and accepting we would like to be.

Failure could suggest incompetence, or uncompromising integrity. It could suggest laziness and lack of forethought, or it could suggest reaching and striving despite difficulty. Failure means that goals weren’t met — but it also means there were goals. Failure might also be an indicator of misunderstood circumstances, and an opportunity for a re-appraisal of the situation.

When humbled, what do we dare do next? Failure can strip away the artifice, leaving us to focus on the essential.

Success might make us smug and self-satisfied, and it’s good to feel that way sometimes. But failure forces us to ask questions.

Witnessing someone else’s failure, or recollecting some of my own, I have to reflect: Am I taking all the risks I need to be taking? Am I putting enough on the line to not only succeed, but also, possibly, to fail?

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What are the rhythms in your life?

by Matt Blair on July 18, 2008

in Exercises,Senses

About ten years ago, I had a chance to hear the Tuvan musical group Huun-Huur-Tu perform their extraordinary overtone singing live in London. Between songs, one of the performers explained the nomadic origins of Tuvan musical culture, and asked the audience to listen for the rhythm of trotting horses in the rhythms they were playing.

Every time I’ve heard their music since, even in films that have nothing to do with Tuva or cavalry, I hear those hooves moving along, and half expect a horse to enter from the side of the screen.

The rhythms of our lives infuses our art, our perceptions, and our aesthetics. It changes what we expect to see and hear, the small decisions we make in our own creative work, and, if it is something we encounter regularly enough, I think it even changes what we find beautiful, and what we don’t.


What are the rhythms in your daily life? How are these environmental patterns shaping your own perceptions, choices and aesthetic attractions?

How often can you hear planes flying overhead or train whistles?

How much time do you spend in transit? How much time do you spend waiting?

How much time do you spend sitting, and how much standing?

How many cups of tea or coffee do you drink each day? Do you notice if that pattern changes?

On a typical day, do you speak with twenty people on the phone for an average of five minutes each? Or three people in person for an hour or so? Or do you spend long periods of time working on your own, with only brief and occasional interactions?


Although poetry and drama are the most overt examples, all language has rhythm. In print, in conversation, through radio and television, we marinate each day in the nuances of the language around us. What effect does it have on us?

Sometimes it is easier to enjoy the musicality of language when the meaning of the words is entirely beyond our grasp.

In this exercise, listen to the news in a language you don’t understand.

The BBC World Service has quite a few options. Here are a few suggestions to get you started:

Choose a few from this list, and spend several minutes listening to each before drawing any conclusions. Try to listen to each long enough to get ‘acclimated’ to it.

Then explore these questions:

  • How does this sound different from your own native language?
  • How is the intonation different?
  • Do the phrases seem longer or shorter?
  • Does it sound faster or slower?
  • Can you imagine someone singing your favorite song in this language?
  • What kind of music could provide support for this language?

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At the end of his book “52 Projects“, Jeffrey Yamaguchi has a list of 52 resources for inspiration. Here are some examples:

5. Photography project in which disposable cameras are released into the world.
21. Your favorite book.
35. Akira Kurosawa’s film “Ikiru”
37. The lost art of C. Lintero
43. The picture or drawing that has been on your fridge for years.

Some of these items have a phrase, or a few sentences of explanation, while others offer no hint about what they have meant to him, and may “require you to do some digging.”

The final item on his list is a suggestion to the reader:

52. Your own personal list of fifty-two inspiration sources. Write it down now.

It seemed like a worthwhile exercise, and a good way to outline and understand what feeds my own creative life a little better, so I started to compile my own list. The project began to expand in my mind, and I realized that I wanted to share what these works and experiences mean to me, and explore what it is about the nature of these experiences that replenishes and rejuvenates me. The list already includes historical places and events, books, films, music, abstract ideas, relationships, performances, and memories — from the grand to the quotidian. I don’t feel like I’ve found any edges yet.

Instead of resources — which sounds a bit bureaucratic to me — I’ve decided to simply call them ‘Inspirations‘. The first one will appear in this category in the next few days, and I’ll share a few each month after that.

I’d love to hear what inspires you. Please add a comment or send an email.


At all hours

by Matt Blair on July 9, 2008

in History,Quotes

“Drudgery, calamity, exasperation, want, are instructors in eloquence and wisdom. The true scholar grudges every opportunity of action past by, as a loss of power. It is the raw material out of which the intellect moulds her splendid products. A strange process too, this by which experience is converted into thought, as a mulberry leaf is converted into satin. The manufacture goes forward at all hours.”

– Ralph Waldo Emerson, “The American Scholar


In addition to this blog, I plan to post an article or two a month that explores these ideas a little more deeply.

The first article outlines my notion of creativity as agriculture, a key theme of my work at the moment.

Creativity is frequently described as a fire that needs to be rekindled, or some kind of (implied) beast that needs to be unleashed. For me, creativity is a slower, more complex process which none of these standard metaphors really capture.

Put on your sunhat: we’re headed into the fields.

Read the article: “Creativity as Agriculture: An Introduction


Your Orchestra

by Matt Blair on July 3, 2008

in Quotes

“The universe is your orchestra. Let nothing less be the territory of your new studies.”

R. Murray Schafer



by Matt Blair on July 3, 2008

in Creativity as Agriculture

This is the moment when the soil parts, and we don’t quite know what will emerge, what kind of thing this is. But we have decided affirmatively, maybe for the first time, to let it emerge.

This website will feature the fruit of years of labor, labor that seemed like it must be done, even if the ends were unknown, and remain somewhat hidden below the surface.

There are things we must do, things we must say, parts of ourselves that we must give over to the whims of sun and soil, not knowing what precisely they will grow into, but eager and curious to find out.

Welcome to Elsewise Media.