Thursday, November 28, 2013

Oblique Strategies

Musician Brian Eno and artist Peter Schmidt produced their first set of Oblique Strategies in 1975. It was subtitled One Hundred Worthwhile Dilemmas and featured a deck of cards with a suggestion on each card. The cards can be used to inspire lateral thinking in any situation that requires problem solving. After a question is posed or problem encountered you simply draw a card and go. 

Each card is open ended in its direction. Some are deliberately obscure (Water) while some are more direct (Don't be afraid of cliches). When drawing a card the authors encourage us to trust it "even if it's appropriateness is quite unclear".

Some examples of the strategies:
  • Use an old idea.
  • State the problem in words as clearly as possible.
  • Only one element of each kind.
  • What would your closest friend do?
  • What to increase? What to reduce?
  • Are there sections? Consider transitions.
  • Try faking it!
  • Honour thy error as a hidden intention.
  • Ask your body.
  • Work at a different speed.
I received the latest edition of these cards from a good friend for my birthday. They have been very enjoyable to work with and apply to situations. I often pull one out and use it as I explore a concept in improvisation or composition. Sometimes I will draw the card and use the idea when playing through a familiar tune or modal vamp. 

Let me try some. To be consistent I'll play over the same vamp. It is a simple I-VI-ii-V progression with bass and drums at a medium swing groove. I did one take and played with each idea for a few minutes. Really though, I could explore these for a long time and in a variety of ways.

 My first draw.

For this one, I decided to improvise lines that begin quite busy. Each bar is filled up. Then I begin to subtract notes upon each pass of the progression. It becomes more sparse as time goes on until I have one note per change. Usually improvised solos start sparse and become busier. This is the opposite and felt interesting.

My second:

Here I decided to comp. The first passes are very much "inside" the harmony. Then I step "outside" by using ambiguous quartal voicings that move all over the place. I really enjoy basking in the dissonance. However, the trick is to know when to resolve them and to do it with grace. 

And the third:

There a few licks that I have tried to avoid lately. In the past I found myself overusing these "sweep" arpeggios. It is a technique on the guitar that helps us get a little closer to what sax players can do. However, they are flashy and quite tempting to pull out. This card spoke to me and said to play these flashy lines with gusto. After playing, I realized that I need to spend more time on these. Not only to clean them up but to find more clever ways of using them. 

Monday, November 18, 2013

Creativity Killer: Anxiety and Stress

The life of a performing musician is stressful. Why? One reason is time. Music is an art form whose canvas is temporal. It exists in a finite space. As a result, anything that goes wrong in that little window of time cannot be corrected. The flaw remains.

I often envy some of the more "asychronous" artists such as painters, novelists, poets, sculptors. These artists create outside the boundaries of time. They can stretch their projects out for days or years. They can add or take away as needed until they have a finished project. There is much less urgency in these arts.

I'm sure many still work with deadlines and as a result feel a bit of anxiety. But it isn't the same. A mistake to a painter may only cost some materials and the time already spent on the project. They can go back and make corrections as needed. Sometimes a mistake may even open up new options. However, an error in a musical or dance performance if not handled correctly could derail the whole experience. There is no going back and correcting anything. It has happened and will always exist.

Stage fright is a very real phenomenon that every musician has experienced at least once in their life, usually at the beginning of their career. Sometimes the effects can be debilitating. No matter how much mastery was achieved in the practice room, when that adrenaline kicks in the novice performer stalls. Their body tenses. They forget to breathe. Mentally, they tell themselves, "Don't mess up!". Which, of course, results in another mistake. Which will snowball into more errors. They feel trapped, yet there is no place to go but forward in the performance.

This performance anxiety can be debilitating and it affects some more than others. To some extent it is always present, even in the most seasoned performer. However, the masters know how to channel this energy into creating a positive performance. How can we get to that point?

There are techniques one can use to help with this. The Inner Game of Music by Barry Green is often recommended as a manual for overcoming stress in performance. This principal bassist of the Cincinnati Symphony outlines a method for quieting that inner chatter that causes stage fright by defining two "selves". Quoting Green:
"Self 1 is our interference. It contains our concepts about how things should be, our judgments and associations. It is particularly fond of the words 'should' and 'should not' and often sees things in terms of what 'could have been. Self 2 is the vast reservoir of potential within each one of us. It contains our natural talents and abilities, and is a virtually unlimited resource that we can tap and develop. Left to its own devices it performs with gracefulness and ease."
Green's techniques are very helpful. The tricky part is practicing it. If you only perform intermittently, you will not be able to master these techniques. The more you perform, the more you will be able control the fears. It may even be the case that forcing yourself to perform a lot works as a kind of exposure therapy. In extreme cases, medicine like beta-blockers can assist if needed. However, none of these techniques will work one bit if the musician hasn't properly prepared. If you haven't put the time in the woodshed learning every nook and cranny of your art, no self-help book or psychopharmaceutical will help.

The Brill Building
However, there are some artists who work at their creative peak when they are stressed. In the 1960s, Aldon Music Publishing employed professional songwriters to work in the Brill Building in NYC. Their daily task was straightforward: write a hit pop song. Each morning songwriters like Carole King, Phil Spector, Neil Diamond and Burt Bacharach would clock in for a day of menial labor. Their task was to slave on the piano in their cubicle and write a tune. At the end of the work day they had to present their songs to the their boss, Donny Kirshner. Their paycheck depended on their creative output. To ramp up the anxiety, Kirshner would even pit the composers against each other. Despite this (or maybe because of it), many of the top hits of the early 1960s came out of this building.

In improvised music like jazz, the seasoned musician will note that there can be no mistakes if you are listening and reacting carefully. Because even if you start a melody on an unintended note, the best jazz musicians craft the notes AFTER the mistake to make the mistake sound correct. Sometimes these "mistakes" wind up creating some very interesting lines. The rest of the ensemble may respond in kind. Beginning improvisers often hear their mistake and cringe, thus making more mistakes. Master improvisers hear the mistake, embrace it and make it their own.

I leave you with this TED talk with Stefon Harris entitled "There are no Mistakes in Jazz". They start with a free jam that morphs into a tune. The talk begins at 6:30. He highlights the importance of not only embracing your mistakes but also the mistakes of your ensemble mates.

Monday, November 11, 2013

Aleatoric Exercise: Let's Roll!

Karlheinz Stockhausen 
presenting a graphical score
Aleatoric (or "chance") music is any music where some of the performance or composition elements are left up to chance. 20th century classical composers such as Pierre Boulez,  Karlheinz Stockhausen, and John Cage used a variety of techniques to incorporate randomness in their compositions. Boulez would compose a number of musical options that the musician could choose during a performance. This would create what Boulez called a "mobile form". Stockhausen would often use non-standard graphic notation which provides the performer with a general guide to interpret the music in her own manner. Thus the piece would change from performance to performance depending on the interpretation of the graphic. Cage composed his Music for Changes by consulting the I Ching (an ancient Chinese book that is used for divination) to determine duration and pitch as used in the composition.

The I Ching: 64 hexagrams used by 
composer John Cage 
and jazz guitarist Pat Martino
As jazz musicians explored "free" jazz and the avant-garde in the 1960s they would also add chance elements to their playing. In improvisation, musicians like Ornette Coleman, John Coltrane and Sun Ra would make one or more elements of the performance "free". They may abandon a defined meter, tonality, harmonic progressions, or even the beat. These elements would be free to the improvisor and their ensemble to collectively determine during the performance. Jazz guitarist Pat Martino has also used the above mentioned I Ching to explore string combinations available on the guitar.

An important aspect of all of the above examples is to recognize that the artist only uses chance for a part of the project. If the entire creation was left up to chance there would be no human input. It would not be music. However, using varying degrees of chance to lock in certain elements can get the musician to explore those other elements more freely (see the previous post on Limitation Exercises).

Let's explore. Any element of music can be left up to chance. Melody, harmony, chord progression, rhythm, and form are all fair game. It is best to start with just one and explore that thoroughly. You can also explore this as composition or as a spontaneous improvisation.

A set of polyhedral dice 
(d4, d6, d8, d10, d12, d20)
The first thing we need is a random generator. I don't think you need anything as esoteric as the I Ching. A simple set of polyhedral dice that you would would find at a game or hobby shop (or Amazon) would work well. For our purposes the most useful would be the following dice: d4, d6 (which you probably have already), d8, and d12. You can actually create any sided dice by always rerolling certain numbers (a d6 can be a d5 by rerolling any 6s).

I recommend real dice because nothing beats the feel of chance in your hands. But if you must, here is a useful "virtual dice" website.

I hesitate to define this process too much. Part of the fun is the exploration and the freedom. If one of these ideas sounds intriguing go for it. Don't be afraid to change it as you go or to even abandon the chance technique. If you hear something in your ear so strongly, then by all means stop the chance and start creating.

To get you going, I recommend you follow these steps:
  1. Choose a main element of composition or improvisation you would like to explore (harmony, melody, rhythm, form). 
  2. Define one aspect of that element (intervals, measures, chord tones, sections, chord quality, rhythm, meter, etc.)
  3. Match that aspect with the dice (d2/coin, d4, d6, d8, d10, d12, d20) that you feel is most appropriate. This is where you can be creative. Eventually you can combine these elements as well.
Here are some ideas to get you going. Choose one of them that seems interesting. Or let them inspire you to create your own. However, DO NOT do all of them at once. You will be overwhelmed. Choose just one for now! Later on you may combine them. Let's roll!

  • Roll a dice to determine the interval from one pitch of a melody to the next. You can make the melody ascend/descend as needed to determine an appropriate contour. Use larger dice for a more disjunct melody. You can make the intervals major or minor depending on the key. 
    • Example: A roll of : 4, 2, 5 would yield a four-note motive. You can choose if you wish to ascend or descend with each interval.  Keeping it diatonic in the key of C Major and starting on Do could yield: C (up a 4th) F (down a 2nd) E (up a 5th) B.
    • Or you can ignore the key and use a coin or dice to determine if the interval is major/minor/augmented/diminished.
  • Roll a 12 sided dice to create a pseudo-"tone row". Designate 1 as a pitch with the other 11 forming the chromatic scale. You could ignore repeated notes or embrace them.
  • Choose a pitch collection that fits a particular dice. Some examples:
    • d4 - tones of a 7th chord; a tetrachord (like Do Re Me Fa or Fa So La Ti)
    • d6 - a hexatonic structure (like Do Re Mi So La Ti); a whole tone scale; a pentatonic scale (reroll 6s); a blues scale (1 b3, 4, b5, 5, b7)
    • d8 - any 7 note scale (major, harmonic/melodic minor, or their modes (reroll 8s), octatonic (diminished scale)
    • d12 - the chromatic scale
    • Then with that chosen pitch collection/dice, roll to compose a melody. Assign a value of the dice to each note. Roll until you feel you have a complete melody/phrase. Or you can even predetermine randomly how many rolls you will make. The choice of octave is up to you.
    • You can also any of the above to determine root motion (see harmony below).
  • You will need to create the rhythm and harmonic accompaniment of the "chance" melodies. This is how you will make this chance process musical and human. So once you have your notes, add rhythm and harmony to make it your own.
  • Roll a d4 to determine the quality of the next chord (major, minor, diminished, augmented).
  • Roll a d6, d8, or d12 to determine the root of the next chord.
  • Roll a d8 to determine the function (roman numeral of the next chord).
  • Roll a d12 to determine a single pitch that MUST be present in all of the chords you place in a piece (or a section of a piece). That tone may be in the basic triad or in one of the extensions (7th, 9th, 11th, 13th or altered sounds).
  • Roll any dice to choose a meter.
  • Roll a d4 to build an irregular compound meter. (e.g. You roll 3, 2, 2, 3. That could be a 10/8 time signature with the following pulse in bold (1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10) or in konokol (ta-ki-ta, ta-ka, ta-ka, ta-ki-ta)
  • Roll a d6 to determine the rhythmic value of the next note or group of notes. Assign a value to each number (e.g. 1 - whole, 2 - dotted half, 3 - half, 4 - quarter, 5 - eighth, 6 - sixteenth).
  • Roll a d20 to determine a length of a section (# of bars)
  • Roll a d4, d6, or d8 to determine the number of sections.

Good luck. In future posts I will pick one of these and demonstrate the process. Keep in mind that these techniques do not have to be used to compose a whole piece. You may use it just to get going, or to get you out of a dead end. You also may not wish to create a whole piece with the technique. You may just wish to use this as an exploration tool. I explore that in future posts as well.

Thursday, November 7, 2013

Limitation Exercise: Playing on a Single String

One of the best ways I have found to open up new doorways in composition, improvisation and general music exploration is creating a limitation exercise.

The limitation exercise is a very powerful tool that at first seems counterintuitive. The basic idea is to limit your creative output to just one (or sometimes two) elements. You will put a restriction of some kind on your music. This may seem contrary to the whole creative process. Why would you restrict the options of your creative output? Isn't the whole point of divergent thinking to take many different ideas and make connections? If you exclude some ideas, how does that encourage creativity?

I think when it come to making any art, including music, there are just TOO many options. When you have the option of exploring every aspect of harmony, melody, form, rhythm, lyrics, and tone color it becomes just too much. The creative mind shuts down. Even though you have all of those options available, without restrictions you just wind up returning to the tried and true. You stick with those musical elements in which you are most comfortable. The result winds up being the opposite of breaking new creative ground.

I was first clued into this idea of limitations through clinics with John Abercrombie, the jazz guitarist. He describes a limitation exercise he took from Boston guru Mick Goodrick. Goodrick calls this exercise the science of the "unitar". Guitarists have a tendency to play very much in "position". That is their hand stays in one location and plays only the notes available on those six strings in the area of the neck. By observing Eastern musicians like sitar players, Goodrick noticed that they tend to move their hand up and down a single string to create their melodies. Goodrick then asks the questions what kind of music would you make if you had only one string: a "unitar". This exercise works for any string instrument: guitar, violin, bass, mandolin, etc.

Mick Goodrick's "The Advancing Guitarist"

The exercise is thus: pick one string. Spend about ten minutes exploring creating melodies on just the one string. He sets up additional limitations as well. Only stick to one mode or key (you may want to keep a drone going on a lower string or other tone source). No chromaticism, just those seven notes. Bend only notes that are a half step apart.  (Check out Mick's book "The Advancing Guitarist" for other great limitation exercises.)

Seems pretty strict. What can a guitar player learn through this process? Well after about ten minutes, one finds themselves playing quite differently. In a sense, your playing is more melodic. Sometimes it sounds more like Eastern music. But for those ten minutes all the guitarist must focus on is ONE mode, ONE string and that is it. There is no worry about making changes, playing hot licks, or playing many notes.They can now explore other elements that are often neglected: dynamics, rhythmic motives, tone color, expression, articulation, and even silence.

Just creating a limitation exercise won't necessarily result in a masterpiece. It is often just an exercise. A way of practice. A method to let the muse explore every nook and cranny of that particular limitation. As a result, these limitations can bring about more freedom.

They next steps would be to:

  • try the other strings
  • try the other modes/keys
  • play it through a chord progression (or a tune)
  • add chromaticism
  • combine two strings (adjacent or non-adjacent)
  • use only one finger
  • use all four fingers
  • use both hands (tapping)
  • change tone color
  • come up with other additions on your own
Each of these additions can be added gradually on an as needed basis. Avoid the temptation to go through them all at once. This can be a concept you come back to for years to come. Each time you want to explore a fresh way of playing, revisit this or any of the other limitations we will explore in the future blogs.

Non-string players don't fret (ugh!). We will explore limitations that will work for you as well. For right now, try to think of a limitation you can apply to your instrument/voice. It doesn't have to be just a limitation on technique either. There are many musical limitations you can impose as well.

Tuesday, November 5, 2013

Side Projects and Hobbies

This first technique has nothing to do with music. That's right. Well then how in the world will it enhance your musical creativity? We shall see.

Austin Kleon's fifth bullet point in Steal Like an Artist is "side projects and hobbies are important". His thesis is that if your are a writer, you shouldn't only write. If you are a painter, you shouldn't only paint. And if you are a musician you shouldn't only play music.

Occasionally, artists will devote time to a singular passion with great success. Andrés Segovia, the pioneering classical guitarist, was devoted to the cause of elevating his instrument to the status of the concert hall. I could be wrong but I don't think Segovia dabbled in many "side projects and hobbies". His singular devotion to the classical guitar was so great that it is said he even practiced for 3 hours on the morning when he died (age 94).

Andres Segovia (1893-1987)
Now Segovia achieved great success in making the guitar a serious musical instrument. Thanks to him, one could now study what was a simple folk instrument in the conservatory. However, some have criticized his overly dogmatic approach to musical interpretation on the instrument. He was very much steeped in the Romantic style and was not interested in what was going on in the modern music world. One of his most celebrated students, John Williams, recently criticized Segovia's teaching style, saying he stifled his students creativity and that the Segovia's only acceptable interpretation of the music was his own.

Now if Segovia was involved with painting, dance, or poetry as a side project, would that have opened him up to new ideas and interpretations? Or would he have lost valuable focus time and would not have had the impact on the guitar world that he did? I don't know. There is a fear that some of us have about side projects and the road to mastery. The "Jack of All Trades, Master of None" can be a compliment or a slam depending on your perspective.  However, I am finding more artists who need to explore all of what life has to offer, beyond just their art. And those side projects can make you see your main project in a different light.

By exploring other mediums, arts, philosophies, and hobbies you will discover interesting connections that encourage divergent thought. You will make connections that can enhance your own art. Occasionally, you may be able to fuse the two together in exciting ways.

Of course, if you have the inclination to be a "dabbler" (as George Leonard describes in his book "Mastery") you want to tread carefully here. These side projects may have a tendency to become the dabbler's siren song. You will keep looking for the hot new hobby to explore and get all excited about, as opposed to mastering what you have already undertaken. There is a fine line here.

Nonetheless, it is clear that many artists find refuge in their side projects. Here is a short list of famous musicians and their extended hobbies/interests:

Joe Diorio, jazz guitarist - painting

Steve Vai, rock guitarist - beekeeping
David Bowie, rock musician - chess
Mos Def (Yaslin Bey), hip hop artist - acting
Neil Young, rock musician - model railroading
Frank Sinatra, jazz crooner - crossword puzzles
Johnny Greenwood, guitarist for Radiohead - chicken rearing
Jim Martin, guitarist for Faith no More - pumpkin farming
John Coltrane, jazz saxophone - inter-religious studies
Don Glen Viot (Captain Beefheart), avant-garde rock muscian - painting
Patti Smith, punk rock musician - poetry (good poetry, too!)

And my favorite:

Arnold Schoenberg, modern classical composer - playing ping-pong

So think about the side project you would love to explore or return to and get to it. And you don't have to limit it to just one thing. There is a lot of knowledge out there to discover and a lot of things to create.

And for a more open-ended perspective: the following is from an interview in Downbeat magazine where jazz pianist Thelonious Monk provides his take on hobbies:

Interviewer: What other interests do you have?
Monk: Life in general.
Interviewer: What do you do about it?
Monk: Keep breathing.

Sunday, November 3, 2013


Welcome to the blog!

Creativity (or our American population's lack of it) seems to be a hot topic lately. The largest companies are realizing that graduates may be coming to work with higher IQs than ever before, but their creative ability is sorely lacking. Tests for creativity like the Torrance test reveal that today's children have Creativity Quotients that are the lowest ever. Meanwhile, CEOs of companies have selected "creativity" as the most crucial factor for future success.

Despite the dropping creativity in the general population, creativity is all the rage in the blogosphere. Austin Kleon's blog post "Steal Like an Artist" was taken and published into a book that sold many copies. Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi's book "Flow: The Psychology of an Optimal Experience" has become a popular tome for creativity buffs. Creativity is a regular topic from the contributors at TED. Maybe it is the pliability of the internet as a medium to express ideas not just in a written form? Mashing up text, images, videos, sounds, and interactivity seems to have created a renaissance of creative thought from people who would have never thought they were creative before.

Meanwhile, true divergent thinking is rarely addressed in the American classroom at any level. Part of the issue is people relegating creative intelligences to just the arts. Creativity is for all disciplines, but that would be a subject for another blog.

So why address the issue of creativity in music, if music is inherently creative? Because, I have encountered musicians, visual artists, and writers who tell me "I am not creative". This is odd because these same people "create" many unique and engaging pieces of art. Nonetheless, something makes them feel deficient when it comes to creativity. Why?

I think the issue is that "creativity" is so hard to define. The model of the mad artist who drips with creative ideas but can hardly function in the real world is an outdated one. Yet, we still cling to the image of the tortured genius just sitting and waiting for the lightning to strike. While the Archimedes moments are a very real phenomenon I believe that creative intelligence can be developed just like any other mental skill.

This blog is my attempt at exploring these techniques for my benefit. It is my quest to find that deep well where artists drink. I am no expert by any means. But I know that feeling when I am in the "zone". You know it too. The walls fade away and all that is left is you and your craft. You have felt this before. Csikszentmihalyi describes this as "Flow". In his words it is  "being completely involved in an activity for its own sake. The ego falls away. Time flies. Every action, movement, and thought follows inevitably from the previous one, like playing jazz . Your whole being is involved, and you're using your skills to the utmost."

Maybe you regularly are in this state or maybe you haven't been there for a while? When I began to draw as a child, I went through the techniques in Betty Edwards' "Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain". Now, I know the left/right brain paradigm is an outdated one, but this book was able to send me into that "right brain/zone/flow" state. Going through the preliminary exercises (gesturing, upside down drawing, contour drawing, and positive/negative space) were enchanting. For someone who has never been in a "flow" state when creating it can be a revelation.

A technique from Edwards' book: copying the upside down drawing of Stravinsky in order to silence the "left brain"

As I explored music through the years, I noticed I rarely entered that same state that I would as a visual artist. The notes on the page, the technique, the rhythmic counting, coordination can be very daunting. There was a lot to be exact about for the music to come out right. If anything, creativity was something that seemed to be an optional thing added at the end of mastery: to add some spice to a performance.

I never was aware of the musical equivalent of Edwards' books but I have found bits and pieces along the way. And as I explored I realized there were exercises that one can create to bring about this state of flow for any musician: beginning to advanced, jazz to rock, classical to hip hop, amateur to professional.

In this blog I will explore some of these methods and hope you would be willing to contribute some as well. Not all of these techniques may work for you. Some will seem downright silly and maybe even a waste of your practice time. You may be right. That would be up for you to decide.

We will explore all areas of music: composition, improvisation, performance, rhythm, melody, harmony, form, texture, analysis. Creativity can be found across that whole spectrum. I also will review some books and musician's works to analyze this creative process in action.

Let's go.

Melodic Contour Exercise

An effective and quite creative method for composing/improvising strong melodies would be to connect it with the visual artist's techniq...