From the category archives:


Words on a Screen

by Matt Blair on January 18, 2010

in History,Inspirations,Meaning,Quotes,Senses

Each year on Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, I set aside some time to read through one of his speeches.

Yes, read. Not listen or watch, but read.

True, Dr. King was more of a speechmaker than a pamphleteer. The audio and video recordings of his speeches are indeed powerful.

But it’s kind of like that moment when you think of a song you’ve loved for years, and realize you have no idea what it’s about, or maybe just an incomplete understanding.

The non-verbal elements that inspire and attract us to a well-delivered speech can distract us from the actual message.

Strip away the soaring tone, the cheer of the crowd, the scratchy black-and-white sense of historical import, the measured breath and gleam in the eyes, the hands resting on each side of the podium as the voice rises and falls, and what’s left?

The words.

Quietly reading the text of a speech removes many of those sensual elements that allow us to get swept away in the moment.

It also fills out the frame in a way that all the short clips and soundbites we hear so often never do: not just the heights at the end, but the slow, steady climb through the rhetorical switchbacks before we glimpse the summit.

Here’s an excerpt of an excerpt that I posted last year:

Procrastination is still the thief of time. Life often leaves us standing bare, naked, and dejected with a lost opportunity. The tide in the affairs of men does not remain at flood — it ebbs. We may cry out desperately for time to pause in her passage, but time is adamant to every plea and rushes on. Over the bleached bones and jumbled residues of numerous civilizations are written the pathetic words, “Too late.”

Hard not to think of pre-earthquake Haiti when reading a quote like that.

This year, I chose “Remaining Awake Through a Great Revolution“, from which this line also reminded me of Haiti — and North Korea and Zimbabwe and Detroit and so many other places:

“There is nothing new about poverty. What is new is that we now have the techniques and the resources to get rid of poverty. The real question is whether we have the will.”

And this is the passage that’s stuck with me throughout the day:

One day a newsman came to me and said, “Dr. King, don’t you think you’re going to have to stop, now, opposing the war and move more in line with the administration’s policy? As I understand it, it has hurt the budget of your organization, and people who once respected you have lost respect for you. Don’t you feel that you’ve really got to change your position?” I looked at him and I had to say, “Sir, I’m sorry you don’t know me. I’m not a consensus leader. I do not determine what is right and wrong by looking at the budget of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. I’ve not taken a sort of Gallup Poll of the majority opinion.” Ultimately a genuine leader is not a searcher for consensus, but a molder of consensus.

On some positions, cowardice asks the question, is it expedient? And then expedience comes along and asks the question, is it politic? Vanity asks the question, is it popular? Conscience asks the question, is it right?

There comes a time when one must take the position that is neither safe nor politic nor popular, but he must do it because conscience tells him it is right.


Cowardice, Expediency, Politics and Vanity as the four horseman of Inaction, with Conscience as the savior?

I could sign on to that worldview.

The King Institute has a list of Dr. King’s speeches, with transcriptions of most.

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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


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?



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


For many modern-day visitors to Egypt, Abu Simbel is an out-of-the-way excursion, an option at the end of the itinerary. Down near the border with Sudan, and much smaller than most of the high-traffic historical sites in Egypt, it is an afterthought.

Just another postcard:

Egypt: Abu Simbel

Abu Simbel Postcard

But what if it is approached from the south, as humans have approached it for millennia? Or as part of a 14,000 km walk across the continent?

“Alexandre and Sonia Poussin undertake to walk the length of Africa entirely on foot, from the Cape of Good Hope to the Sea of Galilee. In a three-year trek along the Great Rift Valley of East Africa, their goal is to symbolically retrace the passage of early Man, from Australopithecus to Modern Man.”

After spending three weeks making their way through the deserts of northern Sudan towards Egypt, Alexandre said Abu Simbel seemed “huge and egoistic”, like an announcement that you’ve reached the beginning of civilization.

Egypt: Abu Simbel

Clambering up a fallen facade

So which is it? Just another set of statues at the end of the postcard deck?

Or a still-standing Ozymandias?

The order of our experiences, the precise sequence of where we’ve been and what we’ve observed, profoundly shapes our perceptions of our surroundings in the present moment.

When I heard Alexandre describe Abu Simbel that way last fall, it reminded me of a walk I had taken through the woods in Virginia several years earlier.

I was visiting Monticello, Thomas Jefferson’s home outside Charlottesville. After buying a ticket next to the parking lot, visitors have a choice: take a bus up to the house, or walk up a gently sloping path. I took one look at the crowded line for the bus, and headed for the forest.

As I walked, I looked at the trees, the trail, the changing October leaves, and wondered how it all might have changed since Jefferson — or Sally Hemings, for that matter — walked nearby two centuries ago.

More poignantly, when approaching Monticello from the forest you pass the graveyard first, well before the house is in sight. Jefferson’s gravestone provides a concise outline of how he viewed the accomplishments of his own life:

Gravestone of Thomas Jefferson

Gravestone of Thomas Jefferson (Sorry for the bad photo...)

I continued walking past the main lawn and the gardens, and rounded the front of the house to join the line for the tour. I listened to the chatter of those who had taken the bus to the top as they debated how long Jefferson had been president, and when, or which denominations of money featured his face.

Within the house at Monticello, the tour guides focused on Jefferson’s massive library, his incessant architectural tinkering, the specimens  Lewis And Clark sent him from their expedition, his prodigious correspondence, his wine collection, his agricultural experimentation, his massive debts, and, of course, his eight years as president.

I listened and absorbed all the historical details with my usual level of curiosity, but also through a more reflective frame: Before starting the tour, I had already seen how it ended, from Jefferson’s perspective.


Have you had the chance to approach an historic site or a work of art from multiple directions?  How was each approach different?

Do particular pieces of art imply a certain approach?  How is the work strengthened or weakened by arriving from another direction?

Think about the way paths are constructed in museums.  What can you glimpse from the outside? From the lobby?  From one gallery to the next?

Where does the ‘art experience’ start? How have the museum’s designers managed the transition from street to art? How does the sound environment change? The temperature? The lighting?

How would it be different if you came up an elevator from a parking garage instead of through the front entrance?


Find a place or work of art that can be approached by multiple paths, and take each.

Experience the same place or idea coming from these distinct perspectives, and make note of the differences.

A path could be a physical approach — the way you move towards something.

Or it could be a contextual approach: go to a gallery or a museum exhibit that you don’t know anything about. Note the experience. Then go study the historical and cultural context, and return.

Or it could be imagining a new path to a place you’ve already visited: Did the existing path enhance or detract from your experience of that place? If you were asked to redesign the approach, how would you do so?  What elements would you preserve and what would you change? What mindset would you try to create for visitors?


Zoë Westhof has me thinking again, this time about what it specifically means to change the world. (I encourage you to go to her site and join the conversation, or add a comment below.)

What does change have to do with creativity?

Changing the world is a particular form of creativity in which our chosen medium is life itself. Tactics for creativity and tactics for change largely overlap.

This connection between change and creativity is a segue-way into a new series I have in the works on the topic of why creativity matters. Consider this a preview.

Attempts at change benefit from a creative approach, both to imagine the kind of transformation you want to accomplish and determine the scope of your ambitions.

And creativity generates change — if not directly, at least as a side-effect.  What we create may be radically different or only a slight variation, but if it is exactly the same as what already exists, we wouldn’t call it creativity, we’d call it re-enactment or repetition.

Creativity is the driving force behind everything we do that’s different from what we’ve already done.

The Tactics

Read history: Learning more about the past will constantly remind you how dynamic the world really is, and how lucky we are — in so many ways — to be living in this moment.

For example: Did you know that the life expectancy for the working poor in mid-19th century Bethnal Green, London was sixteen?! (via Stephen Johnson’s Ghost Map.)

Study past change agents: Those who did it well and those who botched it.  What went right and what went wrong?

Look for unlikely allies: Find people who seem very different from you, but, in your chosen arena of change, want essentially the same thing.

Develop empathy with opponents: Why do they want to hold on to the very things you are trying to change?  How can you ease their valid fears, undermine their irrational fears, and at least partially co-opt them?

Draw clear lines: Determine those whose minds can’t be changed. Ignore them if you can, marginalize them and mitigate their effects if you can’t.

Don’t wait for someone else: Maybe they are waiting for you?

Get yourself stabilized first: Change is a marathon, not a sprint, and you need to train and stay fit for the long haul. (See Bobby’s comment on Zoë’s post for a great example.)

Everyone has a role to play: All across the spectrum, from the radical marching in the street, to the contemplative researcher assembling the data to make the arguments that get people into the street, and everyone in between. Find your role, excel, and don’t waste time and energy fretting that you can’t do everything.

Don’t get discouraged by what’s beyond your reach: In today’s information environment, our sphere of awareness is vastly larger than our sphere of possible action. That’s a situation that sets us all up for disillusionment and despair.

We can’t individually fix every tragedy we know about.  The challenge is to stay connected at the global level, to the good and bad, while maintaining our momentum in making change on an achievable scale.

Challenge broad patterns and viewpoints, not just specific instances: Switching to low-power light bulbs is great, but if a public figure declares conservation a “personal virtue” you have an advocacy problem, not a light bulb problem.

Be open-minded: Change happens in unexpected and unplanned ways.

Beware of revolutions: Change that begins with a stated goal of shattering existing structures often spills a lot of blood, and what is shattered is rarely reassembled into something positive.  Most revolutions are disasters for just about everyone involved. (See the point above about studying history.)

Think of the world as malleable: something that can be hammered and shaped into new forms without breaking completely.

Beware of incrementalism: Tentatively proposing small change, and submitting it to a process of bureaucracy, negotiation and consensus-building is like running through the surf: you’ll expend a lot of energy, but you might not get very far.

Incrementalism is often a tool used by incumbents to shut change down.

Instead, make subtle and barely perceptible changes so far out of the range of expectations that they befuddle the establishment. Change the underlying reality before the status quo backers understand what you are up to, and put them in the position of defending a return to what has become an unpopular and undesirable past.

And don’t ask first.

Leave a trace: Leave No Trace is great for backcountry trails and Burning Man, not so great as a life philosophy. Your every action adds to your legacy. It is impossible not to have an impact. In every decision, try to make sure you bend the world towards your values, however slightly.

Slow and steady wins the race: Is it bad form to end a list of change tactics with a cliché?

Spread your ideas, and sow the seeds of the changes you want to see.

Just like art and culture, profound and lasting change is bigger than you and unfolds on a time scale longer than your lifetime.


The Next Act

by Matt Blair on February 19, 2009

in History,Life Cycle of Ideas,Reactions,Volition

Last weekend, I watched a video of Elizabeth Gilbert’s presentation at this month’s TED conference.  The title seemed promising: “A different way to think about creative genius“.

Her speech began with a common reaction to the success of her book “Eat Pray Love”:

“Everywhere I go now people treat me like I’m doomed.”

Many of the people she encounters sound that familiar post-victory refrain: “How are you going to top that?” She seems to have let that atmosphere of doom permeate her thinking:

“I should just put it bluntly, because we’re all sort of friends here now: It’s exceedingly likely that my greatest success is behind me.”


Her chief method of coping with the pressure to repeat the success of her last book is to seek what she calls a “protective psychological construct”. Looking to ancient Greece and Rome, she claims that ideas and creative efforts are not our own but come from “distant” and “unknowable” sources. In other words, we are the transcriptionists of spirits and elves and demi-gods, and can’t be held responsible for our creative output.

In her telling of it, this pure understanding of creativity held for centuries in the West, until:

“…the Renaissance came and everything changed and we had this big idea, and the big idea was ‘Let’s put the individual human being at the center of the universe’, right? Above all gods and mysteries, and there’s no more room for, like, mystical creatures who take dictation from the divine. And it’s the beginning of Rational Humanism, and people started to believe that creativity came completely from the self of the individual. And for the first time in history, you start to hear people referring to this or that artist as *being* a genius rather than *having* a genius. And I gotta tell ya, I think that was a huge error.”

I was just about to turn it off when I heard that part. She goes on to say that this shift put all the weight and expectation of creativity on the shoulders of a single person, and thus was born the archetype of the tortured artist, doomed to a life of suffering:

“And I think the pressure of that has been killing off our artists for the last 500 years…”

Where to begin…

I agree: it is an error to see a single individual as the sole source of his or her creative output. The notion that ideas originate either from supernatural beings whispering into our ears and guiding our hands, or from the mind of a single individual is a false choice. It’s not either/or.

Ideas and creative abilities don’t come from gods or djinns or fairies, nor do they come from individuals.  Ideas emerge from the global conversation of culture, from the interaction of minds and the artifacts that other minds have left for future generations: cave paintings, sculpture, drawings, pottery, engravings, poems, symphonies, letters, recipes, books, etc. The source of creativity is us. The Big Us. The global human We.

That’s Humanism.

When I have a creative idea, whether it turns out to be insightful or banal, I don’t think of the source as simply, only me. It also comes from the poet I was reading this morning, and the music that was on while I was making breakfast, and the book I read last night, and an email from a friend, and someone’s photo gallery on Flickr that I was looking at three days ago, and on and on. Don’t tell the copyright lawyers, but every creative thought is, to some extent, a derivative work.

A slight tangent: Rationalism and science did not put human beings at the center of the universe. Quite the opposite, as I wrote about in my Darwin piece last week. Also, Humanism does not put the emphasis on the individual. If it did, it would be called “Selfism” or “Individualism”.

I didn’t write this merely to be obstinate or contrary — there are practical implications. Take a look at all those people around you who contribute to your ideas and your creativity, thank them, and support them in any way you can. Buy music from a local band you like or a painting directly from the artist or an e-book from an emerging author, encourage a young girl to go into science, or a young boy to learn to sculpt. Invest in your creative colleagues, and the creators of tomorrow, out of appreciation to all those in the past who have spent their own lives creating work and crafting ideas that have enriched your your world.

Returning to the fear that sent Ms. Gilbert on her quest back through the ages: lining up a scapegoat prior to the test of the marketplace, or demurely giving credit to intangible beings doesn’t seem like the healthiest ways of managing  creative anxieties.

What if her next book sells 10% as many as the last one?  What if it gets a terrible review in the New York Times? What if Oprah doesn’t choose it as a book of the month? Well, her publisher won’t be happy.

But, so what?  What if the book has a more profound impact on a smaller audience than her last book did on a larger one?

The question I would ask Ms. Gilbert is this: “As well as your last book has done, I doubt that it is money that motivates you to to sit down and wrestle with words and ideas every day.  What does?”

When we are scared that our next project won’t measure up to our last, maybe we should look at the way we measure success. By reflecting on what motivates us to put time and energy into our work in the first place, we can develop ways to evaluate what we do that have personal meaning.

I also question the idea that creative output has a single peak, after which it’s all downhill. Does one great success preclude future accomplishments of the same kind, or — more importantly — success of an entirely different and unimagined kind? If you’ve had success, why would you limit yourself to inventing elaborate coping mechanisms to cushion the bumpy ride down the mountain?  Instead, while still at the top, scan the horizon for other peaks to climb — or even unknown valleys to explore.

You can never know if your best work is behind you. Actually, there is one way to know with certainty: let that fear keep you from working.

The attitude of another TED 2009 speaker provides a helpful contrast.

Having affected the way hundreds of millions of people work each day, Bill Gates could have wandered off to some private golf course for the rest of his life, or sequestered himself in an isolated mansion building play forts out of platinum bars to protect himself from the specter of failure. He hasn’t.

Despite controversial business practices and the number of hours of human life lost to “blue screens of death“, by many measures, the creation of Microsoft was an astounding success.  Was it the success of a lifetime? Maybe.

Mr. Gates doesn’t seem to be spending too much time fretting about whether his next act will top the last one. The wealth and position he gained through Microsoft might some day be seen as merely a stepping stone on his path towards achieving far bigger and more ambitious projects. The eradication of malaria, and the increase in economic activity and quality of life that could engender in the developing world, for example.  There are no guarantees, but it is certainly possible that his work with the Gates foundation could positively impact far more lives than Windows XP ever has.

There’s another point here: When Bill Gates left Harvard to begin his career in software in 1975, he couldn’t have imagined — for many reasons — that in 2009 he would be spending “lots of time” asking AIDS researchers “what the bottlenecks are and understanding how we can make faster progress.” Or that he would be traveling to Nigeria in hopes of convincing community leaders of the safety of polio vaccines.

We don’t know where our work will lead. We don’t control all the factors that determine its success.

But we keep working and learning, learning and working, not shying away from the responsibility for our mistakes — or our accomplishments.

The results fall where they may. But we don’t have to fall with them.

We pick ourselves up and carry on, always ready to take the stage for the next act, with a commitment that we — that big, global We, again — will make this act better than the last.

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“As buds give rise by growth to fresh buds, and these, if vigorous, branch out and overtop on all sides many a feebler branch, so by generation I believe it has been with the great Tree of Life, which fills with its dead and broken branches the crust of the earth, and covers the surface with its ever branching and beautiful ramifications.”

– Charles Darwin


But isn’t Darwin all about brutality and competition and death and extinction?

Today is the 200th anniversary of Charles Darwin’s birthday.  He doesn’t have the best reputation, especially in America. The word Darwinian — not unlike Orwellian — has taken on a pejorative sense that maligns the profound ideas of the man. In modern usage, it is often associated with the death of “weak” and “undesirable” creatures, and sometimes people, as in pop culture references like the Darwin Awards.

A dim and destructive view of things, yes, but it’s certainly not the only way of looking at Darwin’s work.

There is another perspective: that Darwin’s natural selection (to be more specific about it) is the means  through which life survives and adapts. Adaptability depends on mistakes in reproduction, some of which make a species better able to carry on despite changes in its local environment. If such a process were not in operation, life might have been extinguished long ago by changing circumstances. How much more dismal and destructive history would have been if everything had stayed as it originated! In fact, there wouldn’t be any living history to discuss — nor beings to discuss it.

Static species die, and nourish the tree of life. Dynamic species adapt and evolve.

The Tree of Life (Charles Darwin, 1937)

The Tree of Life (Charles Darwin, 1937)

Darwin’s articulation of evolution was a significant break in the tapestry of human thought, as momentous as the realization that we are revolving around a star, one of many, rather than all the stars revolving around us; that the firmament is not a protective shell encasing us as a kind of cosmic womb, but rather that we are a constituent element of something that is far from firm; that we are a tiny little piece of an immense whole, on a pale blue dot, as Carl Sagan once put it.

If we are not at the center, we began to wonder, then what does that mean?  If Copernicus forced us to think about what we are on the edge of this vastness, the findings of Darwin and other biologists since have us wondering about who we are as a species in the span of time.

If we are designed creatures, each made from a single divine mold, then any attribute that is distinct is a deviation, a flaw, a blemish to be sanded down, or a reason to be sent to the seconds bin by the Quality Assurance team.

But if we are evolved creatures, then diversity and constant variation, the interaction of our distinct forms with our surroundings, and the way we adapt to those interactions all contribute to the ongoing creation of the species. Diversity is the very mechanism through which we have become what we are today, and through which we will become whatever we will be ten or a hundred or a thousand years from now.

Enough of cosmology and biological history: What does this have to do with creative expression?

In our thinking and our work, do we strive to find a single and original expression of an idea, some unreachable urtext or perfect Platonic form? Or do we let our ideas emerge, move into a particular moment and place, gain form through interaction with the minds and ideas and perspectives of others, and be sculpted by time and the elemental forces of history and culture?

Do we hover over our ideas, trying to control and force them towards a particular destination?  Or do we fertilize and nurture and ultimately follow our ideas as they twist and turn and become, recognizing that we are but one factor in the shaping of their future?

Darwin’s natural selection reminds us that even a process without a goal, or a journey without a destination, can produce interesting and useful and meaningful results — such as creatures who evolve to the point of understanding the process through which they became observant and reflective.

On the Origin of Species ends with these lines:

“Thus, from the war of nature, from famine and death, the most exalted object which we are capable of conceiving, namely, the production of the higher animals, directly follows.  This is grandeur in this view of life, with its several powers, having been originally breathed into a few forms or into one; and that, whilst this planet has gone cycling on according to the fixed law of gravity, from so simple a beginning endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been, and are being, evolved.”

Creation is not some dusty fact of history, something that has already happened, something finished.

Life continues to adapt, and we are in the midst of it.

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MLK: Tomorrow is Today

by Matt Blair on January 19, 2009

in History,Quotes

We are now faced with the fact, my friends, that tomorrow is today. We are confronted with the fierce urgency of now. In this unfolding conundrum of life and history, there is such a thing as being too late. Procrastination is still the thief of time. Life often leaves us standing bare, naked, and dejected with a lost opportunity. The tide in the affairs of men does not remain at flood — it ebbs. We may cry out desperately for time to pause in her passage, but time is adamant to every plea and rushes on. Over the bleached bones and jumbled residues of numerous civilizations are written the pathetic words, “Too late.” There is an invisible book of life that faithfully records our vigilance or our neglect. Omar Khayyam is right: “The moving finger writes, and having writ moves on.”

Martin Luther King, Jr, on April 4, 1967


The Ordinariness of Arnold Schoenberg

by Matt Blair on October 5, 2008

in History,Inspirations

My high-school piano teacher was reluctant to coach me on anything written in the 20th century. It all seemed just too decadent and non-sensical to her church-musician ears, except maybe Bela Bartok, who had the excuse of ‘ethnic’ explorations.

A few years later, I was learning Arnold Schoenberg’s “Six Little Pieces” for piano. Schoenberg was modern, I was told, and to many of my musical teachers and mentors, it was thought he represented an ending: the end of beauty and achievement in the Western tradition. It would be ugly from here on.

As I studied this music, I came to some conclusions of my own. These pieces barely made sense without reference to previous centuries of European musical tradition. Indeed, what was remarkable to me was not how different they were from what had come before, but how similar.

In what ways?

  • The meter was 3/4, the same as the Bach minuets I had learned as a I child.
  • The rhythms used quarter, eighth and sixteenth notes. No extremes here.
  • Who was to play the music? A neatly-dressed, serious-minded and well-trained pianist.
  • For whom? An audience seated in the dark, quiet and appreciative — if a little alienated.
  • The instrument was the piano, the same instrument that dominated European music in the 19th Century.
  • How was the piano played? Fingers on the keyboard, just like Beethoven.

So what was different? The harmony and the shapes of the melodic lines.

Schoenberg was an incrementalist, not a revolutionary, and much of the music he wrote was a natural progression, an expected permutation — perhaps long overdue — and not a radical departure or complete reinvention.

Why is this sense of ordinariness still important to me?

It reminds me that the details we pay attention to determine our sense of innovation.

The musical establishment was focused on the particulars of harmony and melodic shape, and any experimentation with those core elements was a radical act. For me, considering the sweep of global music in the 20th century, and anticipating the 21st, these experiments seemed relatively unremarkable.

I always return to this perspective when thinking about how a project relates to tradition: which parts are best left as they would be assumed and expected to be, and which parts could be essentially and profoundly different? And when I’m working with or for someone else who might be more traditional: which aspects are defensibly different, and which aren’t worth fighting for?

It reminds me of the interplay between familiarity and confusion: give an audience just enough of what they know to understand the context, and just enough innovation to surprise and delight.


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