From the monthly archives:

March 2009

Gravel on the Ice

by Matt Blair on March 25, 2009

in Process and Workflow

My intention was to get up this morning and write.

In fact, I started writing, then went looking for a link related to the post I was working on, which led to a search through email, which brought up another email which had to be dealt with, which led to a lost password ‘situation’ and on it went.

At the desk for almost three hours, yet feeling like I’d just been bouncing around from nagging problem to nagging problem. All tasks that needed attention at some point, but none of which led to putting cohesive thoughts together in the last few hours.

“It’s going to be one of those days,” I thought as I stood up. “Or is it? None of this is insurmountable. None of it is impossible. It’s just annoying. A gaggle of petty, distracting, time-consuming annoyances. Life could certainly be worse.”

“It’s not as though I’d been buried in an avalanche,” I continued thinking to myself as I cracked an egg for a much-delayed breakfast. “It’s more like gravel on the ice.”

“Gravel on the ice?”

Where did that come from? What does that mean?

Traction and friction are two sides of the same phenomena.

In creative work, we hope to attain the first and avoid the second.

If an entire city is iced over (as Portland was recently) then gravel is essential for going anywhere. It’s messy, and the streets look terrible after everything has melted, yet it provides enough traction to walk around.

But that wasn’t the image I had when that phrase popped into my mind.

I was picturing myself on ice skates, trying to move elegantly across the ice. Instead of gliding gently over a smooth and finished surface, I imagined myself overly preoccupied with each movement, my eyes fixed a few feet in front of me, never able to look away for fear that with my next step, I would hit a pebble that would twist my ankle and send me spinning.

These weren’t boulders in my way. I could move around them. But having to pay such close attention meant that I could never gain any speed or momentum.

Just as we must choose our footwear and the type of movements we make based on surface conditions, we also need to choose our creative tools and gestures based on our own current conditions – energetic, emotional, and environmental.

When impeded by pebbles and grit, take off your skates and lace up your boots. And if you find your self slipping or sliding all over the place, you can either throw down some gravel to give yourself something to grip, or pull on your skates, embolden your gestures and see where the ice takes you.

This is based on a draft from this past winter that never made it onto the blog. I decided to revive and publish it before ice and snow seemed too distant in the minds of Northern hemisphere readers. For those of you in the South, consider it a preview.

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Reconsidering Wealth

by Matt Blair on March 20, 2009

in Meaning,Perception,Senses

I was traveling through Europe during the financial crisis of 1998. While it was not the kind of crisis that was obvious on the streets of western Europe, there were stories here and there of how the froth of the markets — especially the currency markets — had spilled into every day life.

In Helsinki, I met a German motorcyclist who was making plans to return home by ferry.  He’d made it through Poland, the Baltics and Russia, but with great difficulty: he couldn’t get any hard currency out of the banks at all during the last half of his trip, though everyone wanted to hand him rubles — as many as he could take.  But no one would accept rubles from him, a non-Russian.  Dollars, they told him.  Deutsche marks.  British pounds.  You’re a foreigner, went the implied argument.  You must have some real money.

He did, back in Germany. But the numbers in that account didn’t matter to a local bank in Latvia.  They had no dollars or Deutsche marks to give. No one was willing to translate those distant numbers into a fungible, functional currency, though they were eager to give him all the local paper he could carry.

He told me of the relief he felt crossing into Finland, inserting his bank card into a machine, and watching it proceed with the transaction, as though nothing unusual was going on. The alchemy of the ATM seemed like a small miracle. The numbers in his account in Germany could be made real again, translated into paper that meant something, no questions asked or explanations needed.

A few weeks later, I was in Paris, and pensive photos of Bill Clinton had pushed the financial crisis to the inside pages of the newspaper.

As I reached the top of one of the towers of the Notre Dame cathedral, my eyes moved upward to look out over the city, and stopped at a newspaper resting on the ledge. It had been carefully folded to the section with stock quotes. Given the climate, I immediately began to imagine some poor soul who had read it one last time, then set it aside before jumping. I hadn’t heard murmurs of anything like that, so maybe this paper’s reader had the sense to set it down and walk away, life intact, regardless of financial status.

I hadn’t followed any details of how the crisis was affecting America at all during my travels. I had limited access to the internet, a very small amount of money invested, and there was just too much to see to be bothered or worried. But curiosity got the better of me. On closer inspection, without even turning the page, I noticed one of the minor tech stocks I owned: it had lost more than half its value since I had landed at Heathrow ten weeks earlier. I shrugged — not because I didn’t care. I shrugged, as my eyes looked out across the city again, because I was in Paris.

I slowly walked back to the youth hostel where I was staying for the week. It was autumn, and I wanted to change into warmer clothes before a night of wandering.

Returning downstairs, I noticed two of my roommates sitting at the bar, in a cloud of smoke and gloom. They were paying 12 francs each for bottles of Kronenbourg beer, and I counted at least six empties on the table in front of them. (This was before paper Euros, and 12 francs was about US$2 at that time.) I walked over for a chat, and before I’d finished my hello, one of them said “We’re so broke, and everything costs.”

This was actually a decent youth hostel, one of the better ones I stayed in during that trip. It was not as though they had been subject to the kind of humiliating delousing described in Orwell’s Down and Out in Paris and London or were shriveled by hunger with nothing but murky water and days-old bread to eat. They had blown through more francs in beer in one afternoon than I had spent on food and drink in two days. And still they thought themselves poor.

The places we go, the books we read, the films we see, the ideas that excite us, the culture we share, the beauty we perceive, the friends we make, the people we care for, and who care for us — that’s wealth. Some of these require money, and some don’t. But they all add to the richness of life.

Earlier that afternoon, I’d had a late lunch, sitting in the sun, on the tip of the Île de la Cité, as the Seine seemed to flow all around me. I had a loaf of fresh bread, still warm from the oven, that cost me three and a half francs, and a large bottle of Volvic water, which cost me two francs at a small grocery store in a neighborhood I’d meandered through earlier.

Bread and water — the old stereotype of prison food? Not on that day, in this spot:


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I’d had a great day. I’d go so far as to say intoxicating. This couple had spent at least twelve times the amount of money I had spent, getting drunk and bemoaning their poverty, staring at the wall of a dark lobby in the city of lights. Their mindset was costing them more than anything else, because it prevented them from seeing the the beauty and potential all around them.

They asked me to join them at the bar, and I just smiled, politely declined and walked out.  At that moment, it didn’t matter how many francs or centimes were in my pocket, or how many numbers were attached to other numbers in a data center on the other side of the world.

I had a whole city to see, and so many of the best parts were free.

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Various Forms of Inertia

by Matt Blair on March 18, 2009

in Audience,Publishing

I went to see a film about Damien Hirst last night. Between interviews with Melvyn Bragg (host of the often-stimulating In Our Time radio show/podcast) the film showed Hirst at work: setting up a show of pieces from his collection at the Serpentine gallery, explaining his vision for Toddington Manor, and directing staff at several of his Factory-ish studios. Jeff Koons also weighed in from one of his own toy factories, his elves buzzing around in the background.

Seeing Hirst and Koons in those contexts got me thinking back to an interview I heard with Philip Glass in the mid-nineties.  I don’t remember all the details, but the general gist was that he had a few dozen employees working under him, and once you are the captain of such a ship, going back to a rowboat means tossing all those people overboard.

The moral obligation he felt to keep the organization afloat seemed like it could take precedent over any particular artistic directions he might have wanted to explore. Big ships have great difficulty navigating narrow channels, shallow bays or uncharted backwaters.

There is much to admire about this model: An artist reaches a point in their career in which they are able to support nascent and emerging artists, to provide apprenticeship opportunities for the next generation.

And such an enterprise not only supports the direct employees, it can become a cultural cornerstone, with enthusiastic fans and customers that desire and expect some level of stability and regularity in the results. In that way, it’s not so different from a story I heard this morning about Duarte’s Tavern, a multi-generational family restaurant in Pescadero, California.

But it’s important to remember how limiting a situation like that can become. I’ve always found the early works of Philip Glass the most engaging — the clarity of “Contrary Motion” and “Two Pages” much more compelling than his symphonic works, “Einstein on the Beach” so vastly superior to his later operas.

What if Glass woke up one morning and had a vision of a multi-year cycle of woodwind quartet pieces? One that could be his greatest artistic achievement, but that would only support a staff of two or three?

And what if the members of the fifth generation of the Duartes aspire to be archaeologists or geneticists rather than make asparagus soup? Do their obligations to family and the expectations of the restaurant’s customers outweigh such ambitions? After all, it’s probably the restaurant that’s putting them through college.

Of course, in our creative endeavours, not all of us are dealing with the pressures of meeting a payroll for dozens of people or keeping a business thriving well into its second century.

But what obligations — explicit or implicit — have we wandered into that limit our creative options? Are these obligations having a positive impact? Are they forcing us to be more creative? Or do they subconsciously constrict our choices and warp the creative decisions we make in undesirable ways?

Such challenges are not peculiar to multi-million dollar enterprises or 115-year old restaurants. In a letter from Robert Rich I pointed to on the scrapbook last week, he describes one of the snares that even modest success presents:

A further caveat: it’s easy to get trapped into the expectations of these True Fans, and with such a tenuous income stream, an artist risks poverty by pushing too far beyond the boundaries of style or preconceptions. I suppose I have a bit of a reputation for being one of those divergent – perhaps unpredictable – artists, and from that perspective I see a bit of a Catch 22 between ignoring those expectations or pandering to them.  If we play to the same 1000 people, and keep doing the same basic thing, eventually the Fans become sated and don’t feel a need to purchase this year’s model, when it’s almost identical to last year’s but in a slightly different shade of black. Yet when the Fans’ Favorite Artist starts pushing past the comfort zone of what made them True Fans to begin with, they are just as likely to move their attention onwards within the box that makes them comfortable. Damned if you do or don’t.

These are the kind of creative balances we must each strike for ourselves. I’m not suggesting that any set of choices is better than the other, just that we should make such choices deliberately, and approach the challenges of tradition, obligation, expectation and even appreciation with the same kind of creativity we bring to the work itself.

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Eat the Stinky Cheese

by Matt Blair on March 13, 2009

in Exercises,Senses

Saint Albray Cheese

Saint Albray Cheese

I do not know any words in English — or any other language — that could come close to describing the way Saint Albray cheese arrives in the nose.  Aromatic is far too dainty.  Acrid is too derogatory. And pungent isn’t strong enough.

Something emanates from it — almost a physical presence — that fills the nose and then the mouth. On more than one occasion, it has caused me to cough, as if encountering a chemical spill. Through experimentation I found that it becomes more itself if left out of the fridge for an hour or so to warm up. The taste is much more mild than the smell; rich and complex. If you can make it through the shroud of stench that surrounds it, this cheese is exquisite.

At least it is to me.  I’ve tried to share my enthusiasm for it with others, often to their horror. One or two have found it ‘interesting’ while politely declining a second bite, but most have looked at me as though I’ve tried to poison them.  Well, we all have different tastes.

However horrendous this cheese smells, it is still made for some reason or other. Its fans can’t all be stupid or wrong.

And the same goes for all sorts of films and books and works of art. It’s easy to dismiss something that we don’t understand, or that seems repellent on its face. But the simple fact that an idea continues to be part of our culture — that people still make that cheese or sing that song or tell that story — tells us something important about our culture, something we might miss if we go with our initial assumptions.

Questions

What, for you, is the cultural equivalent of Saint Albray? Think of an artist or art work that others respect and appreciate but that has always repelled you for some reason? Can you imagine why other people like it?

Have you judged it unfairly?  Has your judgment caused you to miss important aspects, or avoid certain situations that might have been enjoyable?

Do you feel like you have to rationally justify your aesthetic tastes, or are you comfortable following your intuition where it does and doesn’t lead you?

Have you ever felt intimidated by works of art or experiences that others find profound, but that seem inscrutable to you? Or that don’t affect you in any way?

Exercise

Go see art you don’t expect to like.  Art that’s not your style.

Sit through a film by a director that you can’t stand.  Go to a retrospective for a sculptor that’s always caused you to quicken your pace through that part of the museum.

Pick a well-known creative work or cultural phenomenon that you have dismissed in the past, and re-experience it.  Find at least one redeeming and worthwhile aspect that you didn’t experience on first exposure.

The goal of this exercise is not to change your sense of taste, but to get you out of the comfort zone of your assumed preferences.  You may discover something new, or you may not, just as in any adventure.

This may seem like a perverse way to indulge your dislikes, but there’s always the possibility of discovering the unexpected, glimpsing a nuance you hadn’t perceived before, finding what your well-developed tastes had kept hidden.

Think of it as an opportunity to exercise aesthetic empathy: imagine experiencing art through the minds of others, and pay close attention to what they might see or hear or taste in it that you don’t.

Postscript

In the interest of thoroughness, I attempted relive my own experiences as I was writing this. Unable to find any Saint Albray in the store’s case, I asked the cheesemonger, who informed me that they no longer carried it because they ended up throwing so much of it out — unsold! Quelle horreur!

She suggested Chimay as a substitute. I like their beer, so I thought I’d try it. The verdict: I think the monks should stick to beer.  Their cheese was to Saint Albray as Velveeta is to an aged cheddar, as Silly Putty is to potter’s clay. Bland to the palate, and completely lacking the nasal intoxication that makes Saint Albray so affecting. (But don’t let that bias stop you. Maybe you’d like it, even though I don’t!)

My search continues. In the interim, the myth must suffice.

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The Right Storm of Attention

by Matt Blair on March 12, 2009

in Performance,Quotes

“Attention is what creates value. Artworks are made as well by how people interact with them — and therefore by what quality of interaction they can inspire. So how do we assess an artist who we suspect is dreadful but who manages to inspire the right storm of attention, and whose audience seems to swoon in the appropriate way? We say, ‘Well done.’”

Brian Eno, A Year With Swollen Appendices

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Tools We Can Rely On

by Matt Blair on March 9, 2009

in Process and Workflow

Many years ago, when audio editing software was primitive and hard drive space too scarce for regular backups, I hit the wrong key and saved a 30 second excerpt of an audio piece over a 40-minute original recording. I managed to recover the original, but it was a long, long night.

We each probably have our own stories of technology failing us, or of inadvertently scuttling a project with some minor action of our own. Usually, these flubs aren’t show-stoppers or permanent blocks, but a few petty annoyances combined can be enough to pull us out of flow. We forget the thrust of our thoughts, and might even wonder whether the project is worth our time, or if we shouldn’t turn our attention elsewhere for a little while.

Thin Ice

In creative work, the tool layer should support the idea layer: it needs to provide a solid, smooth and reliable platform for our idea work. Bad tools are like thin ice. They cause us to step tentatively, not boldly. Our eyes are looking down for signs of trouble rather than forward, or toward the sky.

And when the ice cracks, we fall through and lose momentum. Our attention turns to extracting ourselves and patching over the hole. Once we’ve done that, we may feel a momentary surge of satisfaction, then a sinking feeling that after so much time and energy, we’ve just gotten ourselves back to where we were, and not any closer to where we were headed.

Composer Tech

When a musician uses a computer to create new work, there are all sorts of distractions lurking within. The oboe sound isn’t quite write, so he searches for a more authentic one. The software keeps switching a g-natural to a g-sharp because it thinks he is trying to change keys. He wants one measure to have a long pause in the middle, and disappears into the documentation trying to figure out how to bend the machine to his will.

Sitting at a piano, the tools are simple, dependable and have been tested over centuries. There is a very low probability that the creative process will be disrupted by a failure of the piano, or the pencil, or the staff paper. This leaves the mind free to work at the creative layer, the idea-crafting layer, rather than the tool layer. You don’t expect a piano to sound like an oboe, so there’s less “distraction of perfection” — fiddling with the details while the project stalls.

Techno-Skepticism

I’m not a technophobe. Technology has transformed our ability to express and share our ideas in startling and empowering ways. If you want to hear how all the string quartet parts sound with the rest of the band, a piano alone won’t suffice.

But I am a techno-skeptic. Protecting ideas as they emerge — from all distractions — is critical to the creative process, and therefore it is important to be skeptical of anything we allow into that process.

Here are some of the tactics I use when choosing tools for my own creative projects:

Tool selection sessions. Set aside time in your schedule for assessing and evaluating new tools. Go into the experience without any expectation of producing a usable creative result, and then you’ll be pleasantly surprised if you do. The main goal is understand whether this tool would be more of a disruption or distraction than its worth, or whether adding it to your toolbox will enhance your creative expression.

Avoid the most sophisticated tools. Use tools that are just barely sophisticated enough for the task at hand. Think of filmmakers using story boards first instead of shooting a “rough draft” of the film. In my own creative work, I find that little is gained and much is lost by trying to be on the bleeding edge. I prefer the phrase bleeding edge to cutting edge, because it emphasizes the pain rather than the usefulness. When the complexity/dysfunction pain drops — or if you have built-up thick calluses! — then it is time to adopt the tool.

“Fix it in the mix.” Yes, it’s a cliché, and really bad advice if you are trying to capture a polished performance. But with so many good editing tools, it’s often just easier to enhance ideas after the first attempt: overdub the audio, insert a different clip, or work on a backup copy and revert to the original if you mess up. Use a simple tool to get enough of an approximation of an idea when it first pops into your mind, and then use more sophisticated tools to clean it up or recreate it later.

Caveat Creator

Problematic tools can also present us with beautiful dilemmas — boxes we are forced to work within.

A MultiMoog Synthesizer

A MultiMoog Synthesizer

About fifteen years ago, I found a filthy old MultiMoog synthesizer in a music store, and bought it for about 20% of the going rate at the time because it was “broken” and the owner didn’t want it.

What did “broken” mean? There was something wrong with the envelope circuitry, so the sound started when I turned it on, and didn’t stop until I turned it off. Everything else about it, including the keyboard (I could change the pitch) and the volume knob (I could fade in and out) still worked, and it could create rich tones and intricate patterns. It wasn’t something you could use for a prog-rock cover band, but as a complex drone machine — a kind of 20th-century hurdy gurdy — it was full of possibilities.

Sometimes, reliable dysfunction can be just the right thing.

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Am I too word-oriented in my exploration of creativity?  Why do I place such an emphasis on writing, poetry, and language in general?

No matter what we each choose as the preferred medium of our creative expression, we all use language. We all live by language.

Language is the nexus through which most (but not all) thought passes as it transits from mind to mind.  It is the standard intermediate form, and preserves the greatest store of human experience.

Words are probably the most accessible medium that artists and creative thinkers share, and experimenting with words is the most effective way to learn patterns and behaviors and tactics that can then be applied to work in other media. If I was writing about creativity using only terms and processes specific to electronic music, it would be more difficult to translate those ideas directly to sculpture or photography.

This bias is not mine alone: Our computers have keyboards — word capture devices — not paint brushes, uncarved marble, or drumsticks. To work with ideas, and exchange ideas, inevitably and unavoidably, means to work with words.  A greater facility with human language can enhance our work in nearly every domain of human endeavor.

Languages and written words are the jars into which we pour our ideas and perceptions, to store them away, or take them to the market, or mix them with other ideas to share at a table with friends.

Poets and philosophers and linguists and inter-cultural explorers of all kinds discover or invent more intricate containers, or repurpose old ones, or assemble them in exquisite and every-changing arrays, all in hopes of capturing everything between earth and sky and beyond — the totality of human existence.

And that’s the ultimate problem: not all of life will fit in such figurative jars. Much of it doesn’t.

Yes, I love words, but I am equally enthusiastic about what I refer to as the “non-verbal” — the encounters for which words are insufficient. I don’t simply mean those moments when the words we know as individuals, or our own abilities to articulate, are lacking. I’m talking about experiences for which our shared human language — all human language in aggregate — is inadequate.

There is no jar big enough to capture the precipitation of even one thunderstorm. We can catch a little of it. We can drink from it, be rehydrated by it, be cleansed by it. But no matter how well-crafted or expansive the jar, its contents are no substitute for running through the thunder and the rain, the irrepressible storm of life.

As we walk home soaking wet, language and words and poetry are the drops of water we wring from our clothing.

As we seek the uncontainable, the ineffable, and the transcendent, we use words to find our way, and to see where we’ve been.

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Fluxional

by Matt Blair on March 5, 2009

in Meaning,Quotes

“But the quality of the imagination is to flow, and not to freeze. The poet did not stop at the color or the form, but read their meaning; neither may he rest in this meaning, but he makes the same objects exponents of his new thought. Here is the difference betwixt the poet and the mystic, that the last nails a symbol to one sense, which was a true sense for a moment, but soon becomes old and false. For all symbols are fluxional; all language is vehicular and transitive, and is good, as ferries and horses are, for conveyance, not as farms and houses are, for homestead.”

from The Poet by Ralph Waldo Emerson

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