This is a follow-up to last year’s post on the creative process. Specifically, I’ve got some thoughts about the 1st stage of the process… the “ideas” stage. This stage is most deeply studied in the realm of improvised music, and so I’m thinking mainly of that environment as I write this.
In educational settings, the analogy is often used that improvising is like exploring a room. Attempting to discover new improvisational ideas is like becoming familiar with a room that you haven’t spent time in before. You look all around at the various parts, you study them, and you try to really look closely. The goal is to get to know everything about the room – all the details. The more aware you are of what the room contains, the more you will find the room to be useful.
This analogy makes sense to me in the world of music improvisation and creative ideas, but I think the reality of the situation is much bigger than the analogy suggests. For me, improvisational exploration has shown ideas to be not just rooms, but also hallways leading to different rooms.
For example, I spent a long time exploring (in jazz) the idea that the kick and the snare can compose two-tone melodies/lines/phrases/whatever underneath a swing ride pattern and a hihat foot accent on the backbeats. As I explored this “room,” I found that the various subdivisions of notes (triplet 8ths, triplet 16ths, straight 8ths, etc…) provided a vast vocabulary for composing kick/snare lines. I also discovered polyrhythms, unsymmetrical groupings in general, and accents. These discoveries really opened up my mind to the mountain of possibilities in the kick/snare comping, and had a huge effect on my playing. I felt like I was really starting to understand the “room” I was in and how it could serve my music making.
And then, my teacher told me about using my hihat foot in the comping (and not just accenting the backbeats), which turned the two-tone composing into three-tone composing. This totally blew my mind. I suppose you could say, in line with the room analogy, that I found a corner of the room that I hadn’t yet explored. “Oh hey… look over there… I’ve been in this room all along and I never knew THAT was in here.” But honestly, it felt more like I had found a completely different room. EVERYTHING changed. It was like I had discovered a trap door, and opened it, and found a new room altogether, whose existence I had never even considered. And this new room was bigger than the first one… way bigger. Tons to explore in the new room, and best of all, there were 3 or 4 additional doors in the new room that were visible. Not hidden trap doors either… obvious ones. But these were doors that I knew I shouldn’t open yet, because I needed to spend a little time just acclimating to the new room itself before I went any further.
Anyway, it was a cool experience, and it’s happened a handful of other times with improvising and creative exploration. So at this point, I no longer view improvising as exploring a room, but rather a whole house. I have no idea how big the house is, or what the layout is like. Some rooms are like hallways, with lots of doors to other rooms. Some rooms are like closets, where there is only one way into them and they are seemingly quite small. But in all this each room has something to offer. I know there are rooms that I’ve discovered that I really didn’t take the time to fully explore, and I know there are rooms that get a LOT more use than they really deserve.
I think this is ultimately why artists can be so different from each other creatively. To take the analogy further, I see traditionally-minded musicians as artists who tend to put emphasis on FULLY exploring every nook and cranny of the main/common/obvious room. The idea is that this room is so big and functional that you just don’t need any other rooms. But the more progressive guys see a lot of reasons to explore the immediate surrounding rooms, and yet still base operations out of the main room. And then there’s the crazy avant-garde guy who just heads straight for the farthest corner of the attic and sets up shop in a spot where almost no one can even find him. Along these lines…. early on in the life of this blog I wrote a post about programmers, and how electronic musicians have some almost super-natural exploring capabilities, because they don’t have to actually perform (physically execute) their ideas.
All of this to say… the “ideas” stage of the creative process is a big deal. The degree to which you explore not only the room you’re in, but the house itself – to this degree you will find fuel for ideas in your improvising. Don’t assume that the initial appearance of the room reveals everything that’s there to be found. There might be one of those revolving bookcases if you look close enough. And then… look out.