Category Archives: imagination

Literature as Music

Jonathan L. Friedmann, Ph.D.

Aspects of music can be spatially represented through notation and recording, which freeze moments in time. But, as an experiential medium, which relies on performance and audition, music reveals itself in the present tense. This temporal quality is not only thought to distinguish music from spatial arts, such as illustration, sculpture, jewelry, and ceramics, but also from written language, which cements ideas and oral expression into fixed letters. However, this characterization has its limits.

Author Anthony Burgess restricts the framing of words as concrete objects to informational writing. Scientific texts, legal documents, historical records, and other types of non-fiction primarily appeal to reason rather than imagination. They are written for study, reference, and comparison to other writings in the field. Their words are artifacts to be mulled over, digested, quoted, and critiqued. Contrastingly, Burgess sees literature as a “twin of music,” which, like music, occurs in real-time, transcends physical space, and manifests in the imagination.

Burgess’s interest in the link between music and literature stems from his biography. Best known for his 1962 novel A Clockwork Orange, featuring a deranged gang leader obsessed with Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, Burgess was also a composer of some 150 works, most of which have been lost. He wished the public would view him as a musician who writes novels, rather than a novelist who composes music on the side. Yet, in his memoir, This Man & Music, Burgess concedes: “I have practiced all my life the arts of literary and musical composition—the latter chiefly as an amateur, since economic need forced me to spend most of my time producing fiction and literary journalism.”

Burgess’s fiction brims with musical content, from characters who are musicians or music lovers, to writing styles that consciously borrow from sonata form, symphonic form, and the like. Stressing literature’s performative essence, Burgess complains: “We have come to regard the text as the great visual reality because we confuse letters as art with letters as information.” While non-fiction works might be understood as monuments of human thought, literature is a lived experience akin to traveling through a piece of music.

This discussion has more to say about literature than it does about music. Like the poet E. T. A. Hoffman, another composer who made his living in words, Burgess idealized creative writing as an art approaching music. Central to his argument is the conception of time as the canvas upon which both art forms take shape, and imagination as the invisible realm where their meaning is made.

Visit Jonathan’s website to keep up on his latest endeavors, browse his book and article archives, and listen to sample compositions.

 

Improvisation and Origination

Jonathan L. Friedmann, Ph.D.

All music begins as improvisation. Guided by an internalized assortment of musical conventions, proclivities, and preferences, and propelled by a need for self-expression, the musician offers up an unfolding sequence of tones. Sonic strokes are applied to a canvas of silence and time, coalescing into a piece of music. What happens after the initial act will determine what type of improvisation it is: creation for the moment, or creation for repetition.

In musical styles that value extemporization, such as jazz and ragas, certain sounds are not meant to extend past the performance. They are embraced as spontaneous creations in and for that moment. Beauty arises, mistakes are made, ideas are asserted, and ingenuity is flashed—all without concern for documentation. The experience begins and ends in real time. In contrast, music created for repetition is expected to persist beyond the improvisatory genesis. Tones emerge from the imagination, but are thereafter revised, re-shaped, and retained for future performances. This process occurs in both oral and scribal cultures, where music is reiterated through person-to-person transmission, notation, audio recording, and often a combination of these. The impulsive journey of formation becomes a roadmap for reproduction.

There are cases where creation for the moment and creation for repetition intrude upon one another. These “violations” take the form of transcriptions of improvisatory solos, recordings of jam sessions, embellishments in classical compositions, and the like. Purists shun such rule breaking: improvisers guard the ephemeral nature of their craft; classical musicians shield the notes on the page.

Frank Zappa was a vocal critic from the improvisatory camp. In a 1984 MTV interview, he blasted fellow guitarists for playing carbon copies of their recorded solos on stage. Zappa was asked, “Do you consider yourself a great guitarist?” Rather than self-labeling one way or the other, he gave an assessment of the state of guitar playing, lamenting the scarcity of intuition and risk taking. His response deserves quoting in full:

“Well, I’m specialized. What I do on the guitar has very little to do with what other people do on the guitar. Most of the other guitar solos that you hear performed on stage have been practiced over and over and over again. They go out there and they play the same one every night, and it’s really just spotless. My theory is this: I have a basic mechanical knowledge of the operation of the instrument and I’ve got an imagination, and when the time comes up in the song to play a solo, it’s me against the laws of nature. I don’t know what I’m going to play; I don’t know what I’m going to do. I know roughly how long I have to do it, and it’s a game where you have a piece of time and you get to decorate it. And depending on how intuitive the rhythm section is that’s backing you up, you can do things that are literally impossible to imagine sitting here. But you can see them performed before your very eyes in a live performance situation. I don’t like any of the guitar solos that have ever been released on a record, and I think that the real fun of playing the guitar is doing it live, not freezing it and saving it on a piece of plastic someplace or putting it on a video.”

It should be mentioned that Zappa was no enemy of notation. He meticulously scored his songs for all instruments, including percussion, and was notoriously perfectionistic regarding the conversion of his writing into sound. But he also knew when to depart from predetermined ideas and respond to the moment. What he despised was the breakdown of distinctions between the fixed and the improvised. Implied in his comments is recognition that music can only be improvised once. After that, it takes one of two paths: evaporation or concretization. For Zappa, fleeting sounds should be kept fleeting, while stipulated sounds should remain stipulated. Even so, Zappa himself sometimes wandered into the awkward space where impromptu playing becomes frozen for consumption. A series of guitar-solo albums and a book of solos-in-transcription are testaments to that uncomfortable truth.

Visit Jonathan’s website to keep up on his latest endeavors, browse his book and article archives, and listen to sample compositions.

Art Is Not Artist

Jonathan L. Friedmann, Ph.D.

Biographies and backstories can taint our perception of artistic creations. The more that is known of the life and views of the artist, the more potentially challenging it is to embrace the art. Classic examples include the bigoted composer, the abusive author, the misogynistic painter, the egotistical architect, the politically opinionated actor. Without providing names, these epithets likely bring specific individuals to mind—a fact that itself shows the difficulty of separating the art from the artist. Because human minds and human hands are the imaginative and actualizing forces behind the art, the artist’s personality is, it would seem, inextricably woven into the work.

It hardly needs mention that the foregoing dilemma is specific to controversial creators. The upright artist is outside of this discussion, as is the one we know little about. It is also true that the nature and severity of a negative trait will determine our ability or inability to excuse a less-than-noble artist. Still, the reality remains: as soon as we learn of something incriminating or offensive (universally or personally) about an artist, the experience of his or her art is irreparably influenced.

Although this judgment is natural and perhaps unavoidable, there are three ways in which it is unfair to both artist and audience. First, like any human being, the artist is composed of an assortment of qualities, some good, some bad, some neutral. Artists may differ from “ordinary” people in areas such as talent, training, creativity and vision, but they have flaws and virtues like everyone else. Indeed, the inner complexity of the artist is popularly thought to exceed that of others—a stereotype that should, at the very least, caution us from reducing the artist to his or her blemishes.

Second, artistic expression is an indicator of higher attributes. That things of beauty can emerge from someone possessing a despicable quirk is proof of an internal coexistence of dark and light. It should not be forgotten that Beethoven, whose compositions are among the outstanding achievements of Western culture, practiced his craft in a pigsty apartment, replete with piles of garbage, un-emptied chamber pots, and a stew of foul odors. These physical conditions were an extension of Beethoven’s psychological condition; but just as his music transcended the filth in which it was written, so did it rise above the smudge in his mind.

Third, a work of art is but a stage in a larger process. The creative offering—whether a piece of music or a building—is made to be perceived. Art is not fully formed unless and until it enters the consciousness of someone other than the artist. It has no absolute identity apart from the perceiver’s interaction with it. Reception is, in a sense, the completion of creation. Our own personalities—our characteristics, inclinations and experiences—actively shape what we perceive, thereby nullifying (or mitigating) whatever trace of the creator’s persona is present in the work.

The key is to preserve our initial response to art, which occurs on a pre-rational and pre-interpretational level. It is only when the analytical mind kicks in that gut reactions are obscured by thoughts of the artist and other reflections. To avoid such second-level impediments, it is helpful to remember that art is not artist.

Visit Jonathan’s website to keep up on his latest endeavors, browse his book and article archives, and listen to sample compositions.

Practical Creativity

Jonathan L. Friedmann, Ph.D.

Creativity is conventionally defined as the use of imagination for the purpose of  achieving something novel. The Romantics understood it as a supernal gift bestowed upon a select and superior few. In the present day, “creative genius” is generously recognized in almost anyone involved in an artistic or quasi-artistic pursuit. Whether framed as a rarified possession or a universal property, creativity is made out to be a disembodied quality, appearing in a flash of insight and removed from everyday matters. Forgotten in all of this is the utilitarian proverb: “Necessity is the mother of invention.”

This saying reverberates throughout music history. The acoustic demands and tolerances of a music-making venue—forest, cave, hut, chapel, cathedral, club, concert hall, amphitheater, stadium, living room—have done more to shape musical styles, instruments and ensemble configurations than any other single factor. Technological advances in the 1920s gave us the 10-inch 78 rpm gramophone disc, which played for just three minutes on each side and forced songwriters to invent the three-minute popular song form—still the industry norm. Architects of worship music often keep track of changing tastes of the general public, adjusting devotional sounds accordingly in hopes of filling the pews. Even jazz improvisation had a practical beginning. People wanted to continue dancing after the melodies were exhausted, so the musicians accommodated them by jamming over chord changes to stretch out their playing.

These and countless other musical developments were born of necessity. Their inspiration was more contextual than spiritual, more pragmatic than epiphanic. Like everything else, musical innovation is motivated by and responsive to perpetual forces: cause and effect, need and satiation, transition and mutation, problems and solutions. It is, then, better to think of creativity as an adaptive awareness than as something emerging from mythical nothingness.

Music is a living art. It is guided by evolutionary pressures. The survival of music in any of its myriad genres and forms requires that elements be modified and redirected to fit the social, physical and acoustic environment. When conditions are relatively static, music undergoes few and subtle alterations. When circumstances shift, musical creativity shifts along with them. These adaptive traits—technical, instrumental, presentational and other—are further tweaked as settings continue to morph. With the passage of time, and the technological advancements, trends and counter-trends that come along with it, some of these features persist and are absorbed into new mixtures, while others are rejected and replaced with new adaptations. And so it goes, down through the ages.

Need creates an opening for artistic maneuvering. Thus, at the risk of over-simplification, we might re-define creativity as the practical confrontation with necessity.

Visit Jonathan’s website to keep up on his latest endeavors, browse his book and article archives, and listen to sample compositions.

Theory and Practice

Jonathan L. Friedmann, Ph.D.

Theory and practice in music are often portrayed as opposing modes of discernment. Theory is viewed as abstract, analytical and remote from the musical moment. Its tools and methods distill a work to its elemental components and provide the mechanical framework for a piece’s construction; but they hardly account (or attempt to account) for music’s affections or aesthetics. At its most austere, theory becomes what seventeenth-century philosopher Marin Mersenne conceived it to be: the reduction of music to the movement of air. Opponents of this approach, like social critic Morris Berman, point to its apparent spiritlessness. For them, music is a happening, existing to be heard and felt, not dissected or diagnosed.

If we take the extremes of either position, then listening and analysis are two unrelated activities. True, the theorist rarely dwells on the effects of a piece while examining it under the microscope. And the listener rarely ponders specific properties that are stimulating a musical response. However, theory and practice are not as distant as we might presume. Not only are they aspects of the same phenomenon—music—they also address companion human needs for order and wonder.

The combination of formal design and amorphous impact is at the root of music’s appeal. Though features such as pitch, timbre, duration and harmony are susceptible to meticulous examination, their cumulative effect cannot be accurately predicated, precisely measured or empirically determined. It is at the same time science and art.

Mathematician and polymath Jacob Bronowski made a related observation in his influential book, The Identity of Man (1965). Using science and poetry as contrasting pathways of human inquiry, Bronowski explained that while scientific imagination seeks to resolve ambiguities by conducting decisive tests between alternatives, artistic imagination encourages divergent paths without deciding for one or the other. Science is miserly, weeding out the proliferation of new ideas; art is generous, exploiting the vastness of ambiguities. For Bronowski, these two trajectories of the imaginative process—narrowing and expanding—form the basis of human consciousness.

It is intriguing that both avenues exist simultaneously in music. A musical selection is receptive to the scientific approach of the theorist, who separates, labels and quantifies its basic materials. But it is also open-ended, inviting subjective reactions and creative interpretations. These modes of engagement can appear mutually exclusive and certainly call upon different devices and frames of mind. Yet, when we apply Bronowski’s insights, it becomes clear that theory and practice satisfy the concurrent and fundamental human needs for certainty and possibility. Science and art merge in music, enriching the entirety of consciousness.

Visit Jonathan’s website to keep up on his latest endeavors, browse his book and article archives, and listen to sample compositions.

From Thin Air

Jonathan L. Friedmann, Ph.D.

The genesis of musical creativity has long been perplexing. As a medium comprised of the invisible properties of silence and sound, music seems to emerge from and return to thin air. Its substance and impact defy pictorial and linguistic descriptions, and the experience of it is beyond the grasp of notated scores and mathematical graphs. Of all the arts, music is both the most mysterious and the most intimate. It is intangible and transient, yet deeply affects the interior of our being.

Because music-making is so difficult to unravel, many cultures have arrived at supernatural explanations. These range from calling musical genius a “gift from heaven” to more involved mythologies. An extreme example is found among the Suyá, a tribe of about three hundred located at the headwaters of the Xingu River in Mato Grosso, Brazil. The Suyá maintain that all new music originates outside of their dwellings. The composer’s spirit is sent to a village of animal spirits, where it listens to and learns different songs. When the spirit returns, the composer transmits the songs to the people.

The Suyá also believe that the spirits of tribespeople are linked with particular animal spirits. This has musical implications, as the spirit of one person may travel to the spirit village of fish, while the spirit of another might go to a community of deer spirits. The former will return with fish songs, the latter with deer songs. According to Anthony Seeger, an anthropologist and author of Why Suyá Sing: A Musical Anthropology of an Amazonian People, about thirty percent of Suyá men and women in a generation claim to have spirits that acquire new songs.

However fantastical this and other beliefs about musical creativity may be, they do illustrate the enigma of the process. Musical inspiration is difficult to pinpoint, as it is often spontaneous and rarely perceptible by sight or other senses. Cultural factors naturally shape the details of the musical stories. A monotheistic group places its deity at the inspirational center, animistic tribes locate music with animals, polytheistic societies assign the role of muse to a god or two, and so on.

Whatever form a myth takes, its impetus is the mysteriousness of musical creation. While a painter begins with paints and a sculptor starts with stone, the composer commences with seemingly nothing but air. Of course, on a technical level, all of the available notes, durations and articulations are already present in nature, and the organization of these sounds can be distilled, mapped and analyzed with precision. But music-making may be as close to creatio ex nihilo as we can approach.

The materials of music differ from materials in the physical sense. Most creative activities involve selecting, arranging and shaping pre-existing external matter, or creatio ex materio. But music, while played on instruments and within mechanical parameters, seems to reside in a spiritual or otherwise inexplicable realm. As a result, musical creativity lends itself to supernatural storytelling.

Visit Jonathan’s website to keep up on his latest endeavors, browse his book and article archives, and listen to sample compositions.

 

Creativity’s Conditions

Jonathan L. Friedmann, Ph.D.

“Necessity is the mother of invention.” This handy phrase, attributed to Irish dramatist George Farquhar, reminds us that human inventiveness is not purposeless or entirely self-generated. Creativity in any enterprise is spurred on by some perceived need, the type and magnitude of which are usually proportional to the issue being addressed and the field in which the innovation is taking place. Anthropologists point to a slew of social and environmental factors that determine the presence and rate of innovation in a given society. Among them are population density, area of inhabitance, natural resources, inter-group interaction and societal organization (bands, tribes, chiefdoms and states). Certain combinations of factors encourage invention, while others do not. As Jared Diamond writes in Guns, Germs, and Steel: “All human societies contain inventive people. It’s just that some environments provide more starting materials, and more favorable conditions for utilizing inventiveness, than do other environments.”

This rule applies equally to inventions that are practical, artistic or a combination of the two. Where necessity is absent, so is ingenuity. This is why, for example, slow technological development is a hallmark of indigenous hunter-gatherers, while rapid advancements characterize post-industrial societies. Hunter-gatherers are continually on the move, following the animals on which they depend and migrating to where the plants they use are available. These small and mobile populations lack the motivating circumstances to devise new and potentially cumbersome tools, and have little of the downtime necessary to experiment with technologies. In contrast, producing new ideas is the main way to grow the diverse, globally connected, information-rich and service-based economies of the post-industrial world.

Musical innovation follows a similar pattern. Societies that are small, isolated and relatively uniform generally do not demand fresh musical styles or forms. Their music is almost entirely of a functional sort, serving practical aims such as warfare, ritual and storytelling. There is room for improvisation, but musical customs tend to be conservative, operating within longstanding and typically limited musicways. In other words, their music is consistent with the rest of their lifestyle.

The opposite occurs in first-world societies, where everything seems in constant flux and there is seemingly unlimited access to the world’s music library. With endless musical influences comes virtually endless musical possibilities, particularly in (sub)cultures that demand continuous output. Moreover, larger populations produce larger numbers of musical innovators, as well as larger audiences to appreciate the innovations.

The crucial role of human and natural environments in musical creativity is not just evident when we compare radically divergent populations, like hunter-gatherers and denizens of an American metropolis. Historically and cross-culturally, those climates most conducive to musical creativity have yielded the greatest inventive flourishes. It is no coincidence that chronological lists of famous Western composers are heavily represented by a few countries, or that certain performers living in certain places are more popular and prolific than others stationed in similar societies elsewhere on the globe.

This discussion and its supporting examples could go on and on. The specific ingredients favorable for musical creativity or non-creativity vary from cultural setting to cultural setting. However, there is a simple formula that can be used to make the broader point: Creativity has conditions; innovation has inducements.

Visit Jonathan’s website to keep up on his latest endeavors, browse his book and article archives, and listen to sample compositions.