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.

Reading for writing (IEM #2)

The reading for my IEM project with Nicholas Isherwood goes in (at least) two directions, the theoretical (coupling of kinaesthetic and cenaesthetic, as mentioned in the previous entry, and a topic for later entries) and the creative. I say creative, because I’m not seeking out text with high literary value, but rather that which will facilitate creating a new work. The initial, and still core, idea is to use everyday expressions that link body and environment. Dead or frozen metaphors as they’re sometimes called. Language as Ralph Waldo Emerson’s “fossil poetry”. Breath of wind. Mouth of the river. Stream of words. And similar expression in languages other than English. Farsi, courtesy of Mo Zareei, presents some twists: Ghorreshe abr (the roar of the cloud), Gerye yeh abr (the tear of the cloud). Indonesian too, thanks to Yono Soekarno: Kaki langit (foot/leg sky – the horizon), Jari mentari (fingers sun – sun rays). Some phrases are common across many languages, and will find a place in the project (navel of the world, heart of stone). In working with such expressions, and their musical and sonic potential, I’m excited by the idea that the piece might follow a path back to the “brilliant image” that Emerson’s fossil poetry is a remnant of.

The etymologist finds the deadest word to have been once a brilliant picture. Language is fossil poetry. As the limestone of the continent consists of infinite masses of the shells of animalcules, so language is made up of images, or tropes, which now, in their secondary use, have long ceased to remind us of their poetic origin. But the poet names the thing because he sees it, or comes one step nearer to it than any other. This expression or naming, is not art, but a second nature, grown out of the first, as a leaf out of a tree.

My focus is not a literary one though, as I’m not seeking to revivify the beings of second nature through language. Rather, I’m hoping to draw attention to the connection between first and second nature, to afford the listener an experience of second nature growing “out of the first.” Sound, music and language growing in and out of each other.

To underpin these metaphors, I’m also seeking out foundational texts (creation myths of one kind of another) which speak directly of the meshing of body and environment, though most often in these the body (or some kind of divine being) magically always already exists and the environment emerges from it.

Puruṣa from the Rig Veda (India)
When they divided Puruṣa how many portions did they make?
What do they call his mouth, his arms? What do they call his thighs and feet?

The Moon was gendered from his mind, and from his eye the Sun had birth

Ovid’s Metamorphoses
Atlas, so huge, became
A mountain; beard and hair were changed to forests,
Shoulders were cliffs, hands ridges; where his head
Had lately been, the soaring summit rose

Pan Gu (Chinese)
P’an-Ku’s bones changed to rocks; his flesh to earth; his marrow, teeth and nails to metals; his hair to herbs and trees; his veins to rivers; his breath to wind; and his four limbs became pillars marking the four corners of the world

The one which most struck me, a creation myth appropriate to the contemporary world, a piece of speculative science, is Plato’s Timaeus.

God took such of the primary triangles as were straight and smooth, and were adapted by their perfection to produce fire and water, and air and earth – these, I say, he separated from their kinds, and mingling them in due proportions with one another, made the marrow out of them to be a universal seed of the whole race of mankind; and in this seed he then planted and enclosed the souls, and in the original distribution gave to the marrow as many and various forms as the different kinds of souls were hereafter to receive. That which, like a field, was to receive the divine seed, he made round every way, and called that portion of the marrow, brain, intending that, when an animal was perfected, the vessel containing this substance should be the head.

Reading this via Lakoff and Johnson’s work (and ignoring the triangles) there seem a number of metaphors at work here. The head is a vessel. The body is a substance (marrow, as the essential substance). But underlying these is the more fundamental image of mankind as both plant and earth – first nature (seed and field) – in and out of which grows second nature – humanity.

And finally, unexpectedly, I came across this from Pierre Schaeffer, one of musique concrète’s most significant inventors:

A shell against your ear will make your blood sing to the rhythm of the sea. This is because there are two universes, similar in every way, separated on by the surface of your skin.

Emerson rephrased? Merleau-Ponty seems a more likely influence. Nevertheless, this might just find a place in the piece.