Some thoughts on being creative

These are notes to myself to keep me inspired in making music. I originally wrote them 29.10.95 but gave them a recent re-edit. At least some of these nuggets are humbly recommended for general creative motivation and cogitation.

i. Spontaneity vs craft
I like to keep up two distinct types of activity, firstly spontaneous one-take performance (not necessarily recorded) and secondly to build up painstaking layered tracks. These activities aren’t distinct, as the improvisation can have pre-rehearsed elements, and spontaneous elements can occur on the carefully crafted multi-track. In practice my favourite result is a tension between the two – beautiful meaningful form containing rogue moments of chance and provocation.

ii. Experiment
It’s healthy to experiment, though some experiments only really do the experimenter any good, and perhaps is not appropriate to then keep and inflict on audiences. I like to indulge in experimental activity, but I’m well aware that it is often something covered already, some years, probably decades, ago. It can still be a good exercise in self-enlightenment, and may add something to the personal expressive vocabulary. Failing that, it’s just great fun.

iii. Richness
If nothing particularly exceptional is happening in the music, something worthwhile may be going on in the lyrics, and so it doesn’t matter – or vice versa. Dare to get sparse, and even stop and give way to silence. Alternatively, try piling it on, create an embarrassment of riches, a sensory overload of eventfulness – you can always strip it down again. One specific idea is to build up a wall of sound by adding many threads, but then go into each track with a magnifying glass as it were by briefly sliding the volume up, lingering for a moment and then sliding it back into the knotty mass. A metaphor for the individual soul existing both separately and as part of the whole of humanity disappearing in the aeons of history.

iv. Self belief vs old hat
Believe that there is no limit to what can be done. So what if it’s the same old chords on the same old guitar. No-one played them just like that before, and with those words, with that expression. There is always another corner to turn, with something that might surprise. Without this belief there is a danger of living in an orbit of awe around your favourite influences unable to create your own pull of gravity.

v. Convention and cliche
Play naturally, don’t bow to convention. I don’t have to have drums on my music. I don’t have to fill up every conceivable space in the listening spectrum. I don’t have to make the lines scan, rhyme, mean something, there need not be a chorus. Use cliche as another tool – it’s not ruled out, but it’s strong stuff and should be used carefully. Over-use is like cooking a really subtle dish, and then pouring half a bottle of vinegar all over it. Conversely, don’t hack a perfectly good piece of work to bits just out of a stubborn need to sound different. Walk the tightrope between convention and obscurity – I’m not saying it’s easy.

vi. The ideas bag
Over the years I store up my ideas, and now I have many song and instrumental snippets awaiting their turn in the limelight. Old ideas no longer of interest lie slumbering like inert rocks, but you never know when they might be blown into action by a seismic shift from somewhere – then they suddenly make sense and slot in to place. Attention is best paid to those ideas which are most engaging, inspire one at the time, seem to fit in with one’s present mood and direction. But those seemingly unpromising scrag-ends can be dark horses and surreptitiously come into their own.

vii. Just do it
Do make time to come to the tape-recorder (or computer or mp3 recorder) occasionally empty-handed and open-minded, even blank-minded. So it may result in nothing, but you may serendipitously spark off a brilliant new direction.

viii. Oblique Strategies
I’ve never actively used them, but I love dipping into Brian Eno and Peter Schmidt’s Oblique Strategies. Some of them are echoed by what I’ve just been rumbling on about. They can plant seeds of creative direction from random fortune-cookie sized snippets of elliptical wisdom. If not, move on… There is one that has always lingered in my mind: Honour your mistake as a hidden intention. I simultaneously revere the advice and take it with a pinch of pepper.

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