From the monthly archives:

November 2009

Make Something Day

by Matt Blair on November 27, 2009

in Audience,Exercises,Meaning

Whether you are a celebrant in the tradition of Black Friday or a participant/non-participant in Buy Nothing Day, the day after Thanksgiving has become its own kind of holiday for many Americans.

Choosing between those two is a false choice, and I’d like to propose another option: “Make Something Day”.

Or maybe “Start to Make Something Day” would be more accurate, though more awkward.

Starting with Soap and Stone

I’ve always had an entrepreneurial streak. Earlier in my life, I had a brief career as a soap carver. I’m not sure of my age exactly. I think I was 9.

I do remember it was around the time I realized that demand for my painted rock business was unlikely to return to its peak:

Hey, Kid! Your Florida's pointing the wrong way!

Hey, Kid! Your Florida is pointing the wrong way!

Business lesson #1: Supportive parents buying one unit of output per year is not a viable market.

I needed another outlet for creativity, and found it in soap.

I only remember creating one major work in this more-forgiving medium, and it was a nativity set for my grandparents:

I think those concave abdomens indicate wise men with gifts?

I think those concave abdomens indicate...wise men with gifts?

Though I remember spending a lot of time carving that year, it was just childhood whimsy, and I was soon off to the next thing — digging holes in the backyard, or whatever.

I didn’t realize it at the time, but these little figurines meant a lot to my grandparents: they proudly put them on display every December, told their friends stories about them, then carefully wrapped each piece in tissue paper and stored them away for eleven months. (Luckily, I had the foresight to use a collapsible crib design.)

Decades later, the set is still in the family, unlike countless factory-made gifts that were tossed long ago.

And let me say “Bravo!” to Dial and Ivory for making archival-quality sculpting soap! What’s in that stuff!? Oh, wait — I probably don’t want to know.

More than Atoms

Handmade gifts are not just an economic ruse, a way to escape the madness of the shopping mall or an end-run on rampant materialism.

When you give something you’ve made, you aren’t just giving a physical gift. Atoms are abundant. The universe is filled with them. In terms of what any one of us as individuals can consume, they might as well be infinite.

To make a gift is to bundle up the most precious resources we have – attention, thoughtfulness and time — and put a bow on top.

The medium you choose is immaterial.

For whom?

Think of these creative gifts as imaginary commissions made to please unsuspecting patrons. Audience expectations and reactions may play a larger role here than in your other creative work. Making a gift is a chance to put your empathy cap on, and think more about what another person enjoys than what you enjoy.

Challenge yourself to try new styles and dabble in different aesthetics. For example, when I’m writing poetry, I’m rarely inclined towards traditional rhyming structures, but for many people “it ain’t a poem if it don’t rhyme” so a handful of limericks or rhymed couplets are good choices.

It’s still self-expression, just crafted into a form that connects creator and audience in a direct way. Depending on the way you handle your relationship with your audience in the rest of your work, that may feel like an awkward compromise, or it could feel revitalizing and authentic.

Questions

Have you ever gotten a gift made just for you? Was it something you liked? Did it feel meaningful at that moment? Did that change over time? Did it make you feel like the other person understands who you are?

If someone was going to do this exercise and create a gift for you, what would you like to receive? Do others know what you’d like? Do you give those around you enough clues or hints to guess?

Exercise

Pick at least one person this holiday season and make something as a gift rather than buying them one.

There are two goals:

  1. To finish a specific project for a specific person (or group) on a specific occasion.
  2. To stretch beyond your creative comfort zone and express yourself in uncharacteristic ways.

The process I suggest:

  • Often the most creative — and difficult — part is thinking of something that truly engages your audience of one. (Remember: You are not the audience!) Set some time aside to think about the person, and come up with at least ten or fifteen ideas for gift projects. Set them aside for a day or a week.
  • Make a list of techniques that are a little unfamiliar or awkward, or that you’ve wanted to learn but aren’t comfortable with — especially if you are an accomplished artist. Why? Machines make perfect and predictable things. Humans make idiosyncratic and imperfect and complex things. As Gretchen Rubin recently put it: “Flawed can be more perfect than perfection.”
  • Come back to to your ideas, match them to some of the techniques you listed, and make it happen.

One more tip: Because of the uncertainties involved, I sometimes work on two or three ideas in parallel, just in case one of them completely collapses in on itself. If, for example, you discover that your Florida is facing the wrong way after the paint dries.

It’s been awhile since I’ve used the exercise format on this blog, and I have to admit, my own first reaction is to think: “Wait a minute, who am I to tell readers what to do?” It is a change in tone. If you enjoyed this post, you may want to read past exercises. And if you do undertake a gift-making project, please let me know how it works out.

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Play

In a comment on my recent post about English as a kind of second language, Zoë Westhof mentioned the Surrealists’ interest in the unconscious mind, and their question of whether our unconscious experiences can escape the ‘taint’ of the conscious mind.

This got me thinking about all those wordless singers and composers, from Lisa Gerrard to György Ligeti, who have used ‘nonsense’ languages to sidestep the entanglements of verbal meaning. A lot of vocal music in the Western tradition was never meant to be understood by the audience. Avoiding the vernacular has been an important historical thread for centuries.

Our conscious mind wants to interpret, to construct meaning and narrative from our fragmentary sensations. Look at all those examples floating around the internet of human faces seen in everyday objects and urban landscapes: from fire hydrants to sinks to peeling walls.

When we see a manhole cover with a smile on its ‘face’ we know on a rational level that happy manhole cover is incapable of being happy.

Sourire

It's just metal. (photo by skywaaker on Flickr)

Yet the ‘found faces‘ group on Flickr has nearly 5000 photos, contributed by almost 1200 members.

Interpretation of sense as symbol seems inescapable. And once your mind has made such an interpretation, try undoing it. Try looking at that manhole cover without seeing a smile. It’s incredibly difficult.

I’ve found in music, as with fire hydrants and manhole covers, that sounds with no semantic meaning, phonemes that are presented entirely outside of language, are still perceived as meaningful.

Ha-bee-uh-doo-ah-eh-oo-ai

Back in the 90s, I heard a recording of baby sounds on an effects CD I got from the library. The twists and turns in these little voices reminded me of the ornaments and appoggiatura you might add to a Bach sinfonia or a Haydn sonata. Why couldn’t these sounds become the basic elements of a composition, instead of a piano or an oboe? Surely they are more natural musical material than the sound of an organ or a turntable?

I began to imagine writing music for a choir of toddlers. While thrilled at the potential, I knew it was impractical in the extreme, but I also thought that maybe I could create some semblance of the idea by chopping up the recording and rearranging the pieces.

Click here to listen to the final result in a new window.

As I’ve played this piece for various people over the last fourteen years or so, the range of reactions has been fascinating to me.

Some people seem to run into an “It’s not music” wall, or for some other reason just don’t like it. And that’s fine.

In those that do react with interest, there seems to be a tendency to project whatever is on their mind onto the sounds.

For example, one friend, more concerned about the efficacy of her birth-control tactics than the ticking of her biological clock, felt haunted by it. The sounds evoked a terrible image of a baby army on the march — and maybe they were coming for her!

Another listener paused contemplatively at the end, and then, almost in tears, he told me that I had “captured the too-long-repressed voice of the Native American people crying for freedom!” In a random assortment of British babies?

By far the most common response has been: “Aww, that’s cute!”

Really? It wasn’t meant to be.

To me, these were just interesting sounds that I liked and wanted to work with. That’s all.

An Antidote for Too Much Math?

Well, maybe there was a little more than that going on. I created the piece in 1995, when home computers were only barely powerful enough to do this kind of thing. I used a system called CSound, which required tedious number-crunching: each entrance, exit, change in volume or position had to be calculated to the millisecond or programmed with a mathematical function. It was more like working on a complex spreadsheet than a musical score:

The original score for #30

Meaningless numbers? (Parts of the original score for #30)

The software took about an hour to process each minute of sound, so even the slightest change required hours of computing time before I could hear the results.

It was incredibly sterile and linear and boring work. The warmth and complexity and nuance of the sounds themselves — these little pre-verbal gurgles — provided an antidote to all that left-brain work. It kept me going in a way that might not have been possible if I’d been working with digitally-produced beeps and squiggles.

So I guess, even to me, as I was working with them, these sounds were not just sounds.

Meaningless: Impossible?

No matter how much I might have wished to work with meaningless phonemes, they just aren’t heard that way.

To our brains, that’s not a muted two-second sine wave that wavers slightly in pitch towards the end, it is a vulnerable little human that needs protection, affection, nutrition or attention. Maybe it even triggers instinctual responses?

Whatever we as artists and idea-shapers do to try to escape cultural references and connotations, we can’t control the other side of the equation: the interpretations of our audience.

What we intend to express and the message received can be very different.

We can deny that, or we can work with it.  And if we choose to work with it, we take on the task of understanding as much as we can about how the mind works, about how perception works, about culture, about history — about all the different things it means to be and feel and see and hear as humans.

Is it possible to perceive without interpreting or translating? What’s your experience?

Links and Related Articles

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Presentation

The subject reports “a multi-directional effusiveness, an avaricious over-seeking of meta-meaning, and an at-times overwhelming sense of the abundance of interconnectedness of ideas, in which each thought lurks in the shadows of another’s metaphor, and springs forth when approached, hoping to find its place within the whole.”

Diminished ability to punctuate and form distinct sentences and pararaphs is also suggested.

Diagnosis

The subject is experiencing a periodic flare-up of chronic Editor’s Block, loosely defined as a mind-numbing inability to agree with oneself on a final draft, or even an intermediate one.

Treatments Recommended

  1. Eat an unknown variety of apple.
  2. Feel a light drizzle on one’s face.
  3. Run one’s fingertips across the branch of a rosemary bush and inhale deeply every five or ten minutes until only the memory of scent remains. (Or until the hands are washed — it is flu season.)
  4. Listen carefully to the crunch of leaves underfoot.
  5. Look away from the computer screen, and wordlessly observe scenes like this one:
More compelling than a thesaurus -- sometimes

More compelling than a thesaurus -- sometimes

Prognosis

The subject will return in a few days to report on the efficacy of the suggested treatments.

The tonic effects of time should not be discounted in this case.

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I’m back after an unexpected break. When I finished writing this piece last week, my nose was stuffy and my throat was unhappy, and it seemed really inappropriate to read a post that had “tears” and “history” in the title in a voice eerily close to that of Henry Kissinger. I’m planning to get back into a weekly rhythm, alternating between podcasts and text-only posts. I’ve also decided to post the full text for each podcast, in case you prefer reading on screen while I get all the audio kinks worked out. Thanks for tuning in!

Some headless, all nameless

Some headless, all nameless

Play

Nearly every creative person I know has experienced the question, often asked by someone with a blank, slightly-confused look: why do you do that?

Why do you take all those photos, or scribble notes everywhere, or make birthday cards by hand? Why do you knit, or make quilts, or paint with watercolors, or make sculpture from scrap? Why do you want to write a novel or make a film?

Some people ask these questions out of innocent curiosity, because they’ve just never experienced such impulses.

But from other people, the tone can be vaguely threatening — even menacing.

It seems that what they’re really saying is: “What gives you the right?  What makes you important enough to do that?  Who do you think you are?”

Studs Terkel once described his work as “conversations with people not celebrated”.

In a 1997 interview, Terkel references a Bertolt Brecht poem which he considered a kind of credo. Here’s the audio from the interview:

And here is how I summarized Terkel’s recollection of the Brecht poem in the podcast version:

Who really constructed the Pyramids of Egypt and the Seven Gates of Thebes? When the Great Wall of China was built, “where did the masons go for lunch?”

“When Caesar conquered Gaul, was there not even a cook in the army?”

When Sir Francis Drake defeated the Spanish Armada in 1588, “did he do it by himself, or what?”

“When the Armada sank, we read that King Phillip wept. Were there no other tears?”

I hadn’t heard of this Brecht poem until Terkel mentioned it, but it does remind me of reading the description of Xerxes’ army in The Histories. According to Herodotus, there were 2,641,610 soldiers of various origin in that army. When you add what I’ll euphemistically call ‘support staff’, the number more than doubles.

Of course, Herodotus isn’t exactly considered an investigative journalist, but even modern scholars think the number might have been at least two or three million.

So it wasn’t Xerxes, who invaded Greece: it was millions of people. What was that really like, from moment to moment?

For example, what did all those standing on the shore really think when they saw the king order soldiers to lash the waters of the Hellespont as punishment for destroying his bridge?

So I tracked down this Brecht poem. It’s translated title is “Questions from a Worker Who Reads“. Here are the last two stanzas:

Every page a victory.
Who cooked the feast for the victors?
Every ten years a great man.
Who paid the bill?

So many reports.
So many questions.

History is not simply a grand procession of other, more important people.  It’s not merely wars and occupations of territory, religious bifurcations, trade disputes, endless intrigues, rapprochements, and murderous royal successions.

History is an aggregation — an accretion, actually — of the thoughts and experiences of each human being.

Great 20th-century historians like, Studs Terkel and Howard Zinn taught us that, though others like Montaigne laid the groundwork before them.

We don’t shoot photos or scribble notes or quilt to capture history with a capital H. We shoot to capture our history — our own lives and experiences.

Let future generations — the Studs Terkels of the 22nd or 28th centuries — worry about how to catalog and absorb the materials we’re creating. That’s not our job.  Our job is to capture, document and preserve the ideas of our time so those future historians have something to work with.

The diaries we keep, the poems we write, the photos we take and post to Flickr — whatever medium we use to capture our sensations of the world around us — they are all ways to store ideas in seemingly-inert objects.  It’s through such artifacts that ideas can survive local indifference or open hostility and be brought to life again in another place, or another time.

What gives us the right? What makes us important enough to do all this “creative stuff”? Who do we think we are?

We are not slaves hauling stones to the gates of Thebes, leaving no other trace of our existence. We are not another unnamed laundress in Xerxes’ caravan.

We are making those reports Brecht was talking about. We are the keys to exploring those many questions.

We are the other tears — and joys — of human history.  And, unlike King Philip’s contemporaries, we have widening literacy, pens and paper, blogs and Twitter, podcasts and HD camcorders. Why shouldn’t we use them?

Sources

Credits

Outro music: A song by students from the Xi’an Biomedical Technical College, Xi’an, China. Recorded in September, 2007.

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