Monday, 16 October 2017

A Change of Lighting

The next few entries will be inspired by the following excerpt from Thomas Mann's Doctor Faustus:

"We might laugh, but there was no amusement in the virtuous roar that went up from a stunned world at this execution of a cut-and-dried plan of campaign, knowledge of which had long been public property. However, I saw that our host liked this line much better and was glad of the chance to laugh, so I willingly joined in, not without recalling what Plato had said of comedy and tragedy: how they grow on the same tree and a change of lighting suffices to make one into the other" (Chapter 30, 295)

I am going to try to change the lighting for some works of art to see what happens. "What happens" means "assessment or analysis," and I know that my assessment will differ from other people's.

1. Change of "Lighting" on a photograph from shade-busting to shade-enhancing.

2. Transposition from a major key to a minor key.

3. Diction Switch up from positive connotations of a word to a negative connotation.

4. Translucent sculpture into an opaque sculpture.

5. Recoloration of a film snippet from high key to low key.

6. Recasting of a short play so good guys are bad guys (but with the same dialogue)

Friday, 6 October 2017

Follow Virginia Woolf's Advice

I am re-reading Virginia Woolf's A Room of One's Own, and I found a few things relevant to this blog's mission. Woolf is a writer, and her long essay is, understandably, about writing, but her advice can be transposed to other creative endeavours.

1. A creative person requires solitude and a modicum of financial independence.

"[A] woman must have money and a room of her own if she is to write fiction" (Chapter One). 

2. Don't bow down to critics.

"[D]elightful as the pastime of measuring may be, it is the most futile of all occupations, and to submit to the decrees of the measurers the most servile of attitudes. So long as you write what you wish to write, that is all that matters; and whether it matters for ages or only for hours, nobody can say. But to sacrifice a hair of the head of your vision, a shade of its colour, in deference to some Headmaster with a silver pot in his hand or to some professor with a measuring-rod up his sleeve, is the most abject treachery, and the sacrifice of wealth and chastity which used to be said to be the greatest of human disasters, a mere flea-bit in comparison" (Chapter Six).

3. If good art is important, then someone must create it. That someone is you.

"[G]ood books are desirable and . . . good writers, even if they show every variety of human depravity, are still good human beings. Thus when I ask you to write more books I am urging you to do what will be for your good and for the good of the world at large" (Chapter Six).

4.  "Greatness" is not inherent in individual people. Greatness is a potential that exists in society. Only when people exercise this potential can it ever become reality.

 "[G[reat poets do not die; they are continuing presences; they need only the opportunity to walk among us in the flesh" (Chapter Six).

Thursday, 14 September 2017

Interdisciplinarity for Art's Sake

To stretch myself creatively, I have been sketching and drawing.

I started with a book called Basic Drawing Techniques by Richard Box.  It was short and simple. Mostly I appreciated its emphasis on materials. I went out and bought charcoal pencils, conté sticks, graphite pencils, and two kinds of paper. I happened to have oil pastel sticks and colour pencils because of many years' worth of unused school supplies for my son when he was in elementary school.

I am not a visual artist and make no claims for my abilities. I do make a claim, however, for the principle of my objective, which is that stretching myself creatively will improve my skills in my chosen specialization, writing.

My interest lies here in multidisciplinarity in the arts: do artists gain strength in some way if they work in more than one discpline? 

Academics have looked at this question through various points of view. 

I have started to look at this idea through the lens of multipotentiality, an educational idea that argues that some students have the potential to excel in in more than one kind of skill. Such people should be encouraged to develop these skills, to be, as Robert Twigger argues in his article "Master of Many Trades," a polymath rather than a monomath.

Multipotentiality has a relationship with interdisciplinarity. People with multipotentiality may engage in interdisciplinarity. When I think of interdisciplinary artists, I come up with a long list of  people across time and geography: William Blake, Joni Mitchell, David Lynch, Margaret Atwood, Leonardo Da Vinci, Michelangelo Buonarroti, Edgar Degas, Marcel Duchamp, Julian Schnabel, and Tom Ford.

I could have added to this list. I avoided thinking about high-profile celebrities who put their names on products that they had little hands-on contact with.  

My search for information about these artists made me realize that few artists remain in one genre. Sometimes the genre-jumping is more extreme. Tom Ford's shift from fashion designer to director is one such example. Even within a  genre normally considered to be "one thing," such as drama, shifts in roles can put the artists on different sides of an art form's production and reception. I think of the wide difference between being an actor on stage and writing a stage play, a shift that Sam Shepard made frequently. 

The benefits for interdisciplinarity must be balanced, mind you, with an awareness of the benefits of specialization. In "Creativity and Interdisciplinarity: One Creativity or Many Creativities?" (ZDM Vol. 41, no. 1-2, 2009, 5-13), Jonathan Plucker and Dasha Zabelina review the literature on teaching creativity and conclude that neither a generalist approach nor a specialist approach in education helps students develop their potential in terms of creativity. Plucker and Zabelina define creativity, by the way, as "the interplay between ability and process by which an individual or group produces an outcome or product that is both novel and useful as defined within some social context." To foster creativity, education must allows students to sample both generalist and specialist foundations, since overly general learning does not give enough context for students to transfer their knowledge, and overly specialized learning does not encourage students to look outside the bounds of a narrow discipline.

This area of study will take me more than one post to consider, so expect more on the subject of multipotentiality and interdisciplinarity.

Monday, 3 July 2017

Quiet Creativity

Susan Cain's Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can't Stop Talking posits that introverts, people who find the social world overstimulating and hence prefer solitude and small group interactions, are nevertheless vital components of the social world despite being in the minority. Like many popular books of this kind, Quiet directs its attention towards the usefulness of such persons in organizations. Nevertheless, Cain devotes one chapter specifically to creativity, so I have gleaned some information relevant to this blog.

Cain uses published research to bolster her claims. One such study was conducted in the late 1950s and early 1960s by Berkeley's Institute of Personality Assessment and Research, which compared well-known creative people (people who have made a name for themselves) in engineering, science, math, architecture and writing with others deemed "less groundbreaking" in the same fields. The well-known creative people tended to be "interpersonally skilled but 'not of an especially sociable or participative temperament" (74). Cain notes that current management models value social cooperation over  solitude, a style that Cain nicknames the New Groupthink (75). By borrowing George Orwell's term for the authoritarian suppression of intellectual individualism, Cain reveals her skepticism about management strategies such as open-plan offices and team-based organizational structures.

Many such management models like to use the idea of "networking," a term popularized by computer technology, but as Cain notes, technologies such as the Internet allow people to work alone in rooms that are geographically dispersed rather than crammed into a cubicle farm in a highrise. Computer scientists tend to be introverted people, after all. Even management styles tend to value the extrovert. Not surprisingly, Cain questions extrovert-centred ideas of leadership. She quotes Janet Farrall and Leonie Kronborg in their own book Leadership Development for the Gifted and Talented that some famously introverted people, such as Charles Darwin and Marie Curie, have contributed massively to the world.

Apple founder Steve Wozniak is Cain's exemplar of the social value of introversion, a man who, though he helped design the type of personal computers that made the Internet a world-wide phenomenon, developed his best ideas when he was alone.

The ideal quiet person that Cain describes is not a shy person, someone who is anxious in groups. A quiet person will think and wait before speaking up rather than bolt forward at the head of the line.  Noisy groups irritate this kind of person, so time alone gives a low-stimulus environment better suited to permit the quiet person to think clearly.

Sunday, 18 June 2017

Imitative Exercise: Setting and Thomas Mann's Buddenbrooks

I sometimes worry about physical settings in my stories. How much do I need to describe, and how much do I let my readers fill in on their own? I found a passage I liked in Thomas Mann's second novel, Buddenbrooks (1901), translated by HT Lowe-Porter, which describes the idiosyncratic location of the Hansesaal, the assembly room for the Lübeck's government councillors:

The room belonged to the beer-hall and dance-establishment of a widow named Suerkringel; but on certain days it was at the service of the gentlemen burgesses. The entrance was through a narrow whitewashed corridor opening into the restaurant on the right side, where it smelled of beer and cooking, and thence through a handleless, lockless green door so small and narrow that no one could have supposed such a large room lay behind it. The room was empty, cold, and barnlike, with a whitewashed roof in which the beams showed, and whitewashed walls. The three rather high windows had green-painted bars, but no curtains. Opposite them were the benches, rising in rows like an amphitheatre, with a table at the bottom for the chairman, the recording clerk, and the Committee of the Senate. It was covered with a green cloth and had a clock, documents, and writing-materials on it. On the wall opposite the door were several tall hat-racks with hats and coats.


The language is fairly simple, so my attraction  to it does not lie in the sophistication of word choice. The verbs are not vivid: "were" is the most common verb. Neither is the sentence structure is  particularly complex: "The (noun) (verb)" starts most sentences. Quite possibly, the setting itself attracts me more than the way the setting is described. Government buildings I am familiar with are not rooms attached to a tavern. This particular meeting room does not seem opulent, either, or at least it is not described as being opulent. Photos I found of the actual Lubeck Rathaus make the building seem impressively styled, though it's true that in Mann's time they may not have been so impressive or at least not as impressive as other buildings the book described.

Perhaps this passage impresses me because it reflects the book's goal of describing a ruling class of merchants, who, despite their severe Protestantism, valued trade and wealth to the point where all other values were pressed into their service. The room is described prosaically and with an emphasis on its country plainness ("whitewashed," even "barnlike"); nevertheless, it is attached to a beerhall and dancehall, two places associated with the kind of licentiousness that the Buddenbrook family and its social class were supposed to reject. This rejection in theory does not always apply in practice. Some characters in the novel have their downfall because of scandals over drinking or associations  with people outside their narrow social circle.

Word choice plays an important role in this representation of Hansesaal, but only in conjunction with other of the book's motifs. This passage demonstrates the interrelationship between the sentence level of writing and the thematic level of writing. A description, therefore, can do more than present a sensory impression of a place to satisfy people's desires to "see" where characters are. The description of a specific setting can reflect and thus participate in the communication of thematic goals.

Friday, 14 April 2017

Creativity and Musical Arrangement

To find out what arrangers think about the creativity and music arrangements, I interviewed Allan Gilliland, dean of fine arts and composition at MacEwan University and a prolific composer and arranger. His base of operation is classical music, but his experience as a jazz trumpeter has allowed him to write and perform in many music genres for both small and large ensembles. When I spoke to him, his recent musical adventures included the scoring for the Edmonton Citadel Theatre's production of Sense and Sensibility and a new orchestral composition for jazz legends Tommy Banks and PJ Perry for the Edmonton Symphony Orchestra's 2017-2018 season.

Typically, Gilliland says, an arranger works with someone else's melody. The arranger must do, as Gilliland says, "everything else." This "everything else" includes scoring for the instruments in an ensemble, harmonization, bridging, transposition, and countermelody.  One form of arrangement popular in jazz is contrafact: the use of chord progressions, rather than melody, from someone else's composition. An arranger in contrafact thus creates the new melody over the chords.Thus George Gershwin's "I Got Rhythm" has lent its chords to Dizzy Gillespie and Charlie Parker's "Anthropology" and to Django Reinhardt's "Daphne."

Gilliland says that some "famous and great arrangements" have not received the respect they deserve because of the music industry's greater valuation of original composition. Arrangers are paid through fee for service. Unlike composers, arrangers tend not to get royalties, since only melodies can be copyrighted. Gilliland gave the example of Gil Evans, whose collaborations with Miles Davis are legendary. Also legendary is the fact that Evans received no royalties from the success of those collaborations. (Read Stephanie Stein Crease's biography of Gil Evans to find out more.)

In the case of contrafact, chord progressions cannot be copyrighted in American law, so a musician can generate a copyrightable melody over an uncopyrightable chord progression. The contrafactual arrangement, therefore, lies in a tender zone at the interstices of copyright law and the emulation of other musicians.

Gilliland says that the diminished status of arrangers is unfair because they are doing "really creative work." Jazz and big band in particular use arrangements heavily, so these genres lean on the labour and ingenuity of arrangers.

Gilliland  both composes and arranges, and he says the creative act is present in both. For arrangement, he says that creativity feels different, more "bound" to the originating melody. He agrees that there can be a "clash of creativity" between the original work and the arranger's desire to interpret that work through instrumentation and scoring. Some song standards have been arranged countless times, so the challenge is to make an arrangement that stands out from others. Gilliland says that some arrangers will ask themselves, "What can I do that people won''t expect?" Some arrangements, for example, are "deconstructions," such that the original has been dispersed in complex ways into the arrangement. Compare, for example, Dave Ballou's arrangement of Billy Strayhorn and Duke Ellington's "Smada" to a recording of the original.

Or compare a standard version of "O Canada" with Gilliland's arrangement.

Sunday, 2 April 2017


As part of my novelty agenda for this year, I plan to be a busker for a day. Why a busker? I was walking around doing chores and thinking of novelty ideas. All kinds of strange thoughts enter my head when I am desperate for ideas, as I often am. The word busker surfaced, and I had to admit that, yes, I have never busked before. No way around it.

Other ideas I generate I can eliminate because they cost too much money to arrange (go to Easter Island, buy a horse), or I can see no reasonable route to accomplishing  the novelty (compete in the Olympics, become an inventor), or I just don't want to do it (yell at a rude person I meet in public, rob a bank). Busking for one day, though, I could not handily dismiss.

I can more or less play a piano accordion, so I plan one day this summer to go outside to a street corner and play. All my work in coming up with a repertoire of songs got me thinking around music arrangements. I want to do one or two new songs to supplement my existing collection of accordion music, which is dominated by classical music, folk tunes and American jazz standards. Has someone out there, for example, arranged "Hotline Bling" for piano accordion? (Yes, of course.)  If so, where can I find the sheet music?

From this speculation, I asked myself, What kind of person would be in the business of arranging Drake songs to publish as accordion sheet music, or as sheet music for any other instrument, for that matter?

I need to investigate.