Creativity and constraints (IEM #3)

The fecundity and prodigiousness of sonic matter is something of a trope in (experimental) electronic music. This is implicit in the title of Paul Theberge’s book Any Sound You Can Imagine. If anything is possible, everything is the result. Everything, needless to say, is a lot. Put in more serious terms, this (over)abundance of materials – and of meanings and creative possibilities – was core theme in my paper “The Acousmatic and the Language of the Technological Sublime” (presented at EMS 2007)

Faced with the sonic fecundity of technology, the acousmatic composer becomes a bricoleur, sorting through and trying to make sense of the mountain of sonic material produced by the very technology the composer claims mastery over.

Way back in 1951 Pierre Schaeffer was grappling with the problem of how to get from a surfeit of wayward concrete sounds to music, and although he was ultimately defeated by his predilection for the conventionally musical, his articulation of this challenge remains germane:

We want to create a work. How shall we go about it? First provide ourselves with material, then trust to instinct? And how shall we establish the score? How are to to imagine a priori the thousand unexpected transformations of concrete sound? How can we choose between hundreds of samples when no system of classification, and no notation, has yet been decided upon? (In Search of Concrete Music, 78-79)

If anything is possible, if sounds are growing and mutating like an audible viruses (another trope in electronic music, cf. Goodman’s “audio virology”), then where should I start? In instrumental music, the blank sheet of manuscript at least carries with it some minimal level of structure because the smooth or open space of “pansonority” (Ivan Wyschnegradsky, 1928) has already been striated into pitch-space, and the reserve of instruments and their repertoire of sounds etc. already lies waiting. In comparison, the blank screen of a Max patch, for example, is much blanker. The magnitude of the tabula rasa is that much greater. This white on white picture I’m painting is over-simplified and ignores the fact that I am at present creating a piece based on a fairly specific set of materials (see the previous two entries), but nonetheless Schaeffer’s “how shall we start?” problem remains. The usual, and useful, response to “how shall we?” is to seek to fetter the sonic wilds. Or, as Jaccque Attali has it, to discipline noise so that it behaves itself and transforms into music. At a grand level this is Schaeffer’s project in Traité des Objets Musicaux (realising the missing “system of classification”). At a lower, more individual level, this is the challenge of creating a “work-concept”, a box to work in that is neither too constricting nor too roomy.

In contemporary parlance this is the matter of creative constraints. The dimensions of imaginative space which each project requires so that a number of things can happen. Firstly, that creative agoraphobia doesn’t set in (constraint establishes boundaries). Secondly, that any action taken can be directed towards a goal (constraint creates pathways). Thirdly, that as ideas and materials accumulate there are reasons to keep some of these and discard others (constraint encourages economy). Fourthly, that as a piece begins to take shape / develop / disclose itself it is able to hold itself together and isn’t pulled apart by the different forces at work in its various elements (constraint promotes cohesion). Fifthly, creative energy and focus increases within the reaction chamber of a project (constraint affords flow). Or, in Stravinsky’s words “My freedom will be so much the greater and more meaningful the more narrowly I limit my field of action and the more I surround myself with obstacles” (The Poetics of Music in the Form of Six Lessons).

All fine so far. But what is a constraint exactly? A limitation or restriction, as per my dictionary widget. This is partly what I mean. In that any particular creative project should (realistically can) only engage with some ideas, materials, forms, processes. That is, in theory everything is possible, but in this particular project only some of those things are useful. The negative senses of constraint, as can’ts and shoulds (the auxiliary verbs of convention), are not of interest here, except as something to attend to in the ongoing excavation of one’s creative psychology , including phenomena such as Bloom’s anxiety of influence or the social imperatives to produce work that demonstrates certain features as markers of membership in particular creative communities (complexity, technical virtuosity etc being those that often apply in contemporary composition). Constraints in the positive sense engender a kind of negentropy, such that time and energy isn’t frittered on ideas and concerns that are peripheral to the project at hand. The question is of course, what is central and what is peripheral? In the initial stages of a project, one simply doesn’t know for sure. So is there a tool for establishing at least a provisional certainty (is that an oxymoron?). I am very tempted to say that it intuition is the best tool to rely on here. The feeling that something is right, even if – and this is very important – the rightness is accompanied by other intimations, such as the seemingly inordinate difficulties involved in seeing through the thing that seems right (recent-ish research suggests that hurdles are a very good stimulus for creativity). Intuition, even when properly tempered by stubbornness and willingness to take risks, is often maligned in artistic work (particularly through the push to legitimate art-work as artistic research), but it is important because it involves recognition of one’s own (possibly) unique position in relationship to a set of materials and ideas which are in all likelihood not unique but which one chooses as one’s own and in doing so a unique situation is set up, which is not boundless but limited through this choosing. Within it, one can’t do anything, but only those things that fit and fit into this temporary situation. It’s intuition all the way down. The rightness of the materials and ideas, affording a sense of the rightness of their combination and articulation, the rightness of the situation these establish which in turn affords and excludes further choices. Constraint as the feedback loop of the self which in a deeper sense is the acceptance of one’s finitude. This doesn’t make creative work any easier, but it does make it more possible.


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