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Re: creative isolation

The topic of creative isolation is striking a chord with me: probably
with many others.  Somewhat off formal list topic, but nonetheless central
to all of us who want to create.

My own situation, and life story, is one that has kept musical creative
satisfaction tantalizingly within arms reach, but far too infrequent
in its actualization (probably a familiar theme to many).  At the present
time, I am an overly-degreed individual, writing software in a Nuclear
Medicine group while pursuing a PhD in quantitative social science research
and program evaluation.

My primary creative impulses in life are and *have always been* musical
ones, but it has taken a very long time for me to realize the profound
depth to which this is true.  Actually, as I write this at 43, I am in
the process of evaluating/re-evaluating the direction that I want my
energies to take.

There are many reasons why and when we create, and why choose or don't 
the musical road.  For me, the story has to do with the sense that I always
needed to be doing something else, something conventional, and also had to
do with some hand problems that have affected my feelings and senses about
playing the guitar (more than my actual ability, so I have come to learn).

Anyway, I know what creative isolation can be.  Although I spent a fair
portion of my 20's and 30's as a working musician, it has been a long
time since I've been surrounded *constantly* by performing and working

Here are my insights, for what they may be worth.

I agree completely with Jason N. Joseph:

>As time wears on I become increasingly cynical about this, perhaps
>agreeing with Brian Eno that there is *no way* to be freed of one's
>influences, and thus the task at hand is not to find your own "pure
>voice", which I take it he does not believe to exist, but instead to 
>come up with the most interesting and unique combinations of such
>influences... "Composting" he calls it.

Ultimately, I believe that music is a communal enterprise.  On an
individual psychological level, we are never separate from those works
which inspire us, those we might perform with, and those for whom we might
perform.  I'm not saying we can't take immense joy from sitting alone with
our instrument, but to me there is always *some* degree to which we create
and perform for that virtual audience that we carry in our heads.  I think
there is a natural, communicative, and expressive human impulse to share
beautiful art with others.  I think it is a basic as an infant wanting
to have someone to babble to.

To wit, the people in my life (and there have been quite a few) who were
able to take their musicianship somewhere were those who made full-out,
no-safety-net commitments to the process.  Talent is important, but this
ability to commit is actually more important, given even a nominal degree
of talent.  I suppose there are varying levels of professional commitment.
My main point is that I've never witnessed really potent stuff coming
from someone who did their thing in isolation (doesn't mean it can't 

What does all of this have to do with creative isolation?  I guess I would
subscribe to the "no person is an island" point of view.  We all start
somewhere, if we grow up in civilization.  Our aesthetics and tastes are
carved out and tuned by an interaction between our own nervous stuff and
the environment.  There is no "tabula rasa", but neither is there some
autonomous, congenital, pure, "inner voice", in my opinion.

So we are all musical mutts when it comes to our sensibilities and
imaginations, unless we have indeed been raised by wolves.  I don't
think we can ever escape our musical and tonal conditioning any more
than we can escape the meanings and nuances generated by the knowledge
of our mother tongues.

So what is this creative stuff all about, whether done in seeming isolation
or within a group session?  I think there is a large conditioning factor.
Dr Michael Pycraft Hughes wrote:

>Finally, Andre recommended listening to completely different avenues of
>music in order to overcome copying other musicians.  Matthias (got the 
>yet?) went one step further in suggesting listening to _no_ other
>musicians.  I'll go the whole hog and say _give up your instrument_!  OK
>it's a bit extreme.

This, to me, sounds like a means toward overcoming one's musical 
But might not it be closer to the *learning* of something new.  Can we 
the way we organize our thoughts, perhaps even our personalities, by taking
up a new language?  Perhaps.  But might this be an indirect means, somewhat
haphazard, and eliminative of the stuff that has worked for us.

Musical and artistic styles seem to coalesce around the brilliant 
of artists.  When we hear a great artist like ________ (fill in the blank),
we hear something that is so complete, sometimes so overwhelmingly 
that to us it becomes a "pure" statement of something, like a heavenly 
ineffable, complete unto itself, having a life of it's own: the list of
superlatives can go on and on.  I feel this way when hearing great music,
and I realize that I cannot imagine it being any better: this music then
forms the horizon for what I may think is possible, although this 
too is open to reinterpretation over time, and often does get 

So I think some of this discussion about "going beyond" and expanding
horizons has a lot to do with the analysis/synthesis process that we
all go through when we *learn* something new.  No two of us hear and feel
the same way.  No two of us have the same hands, the same joints for
fretting or pressing the keys.

The best way we can love and honor our influences is to make them our
own.  I think when we bring the music home, deep into ourselves, that this
is when we innovate ... this is when the synaptic connections are made.
Mostly, I think it requires conscious effort and the inner discipline that
seems to come when we give ourselves to something bigger than we can fully
grasp, which is what happens when we form hypotheses and think inductively.
When we do this, we take a risk, and there is often the anxiety that we may
fail to bring home the goods, to hit some mark of truth, in the vast field
of possibilities.

There are so many ways to characterize the creative musical process.  
many of them are valid, and can help us in thinking about what we are 
For me, that inner "pure" voice is something that is sought via a process
that is dialetical in nature.  You have a thesis about the way your music
might sound from all your greatest influences.  As an antithesis to this,
you have all the things about those great influences that hit you in a
unique way: the unique factors you bring, be they psychological, 
conceptual, experiential, spiritual, or whatever: you throw some variables
into the pot which are special to you.  The audible and observable things 
do is then some kind of synthesis of all these factors, many of them common
to what is out there in the world and some of them unique to you.  Some
people will be able to cultivate more of what is unique within them.

I think that people grow and cultivate their unique factors, their unique
contributions to what is already out there in the world.  I think it is a
semi-conscious process.  Another way of saying this, is that you can create
the conditions wherein the whole spectrum of learning and creativity
(i.e. thesis, antithesis, synthesis) become possible.  Once you have
the right primordial soup, all the conditions for life (or music) are
available, and all you need is the right spark to get some combustion

A lot of the work takes place in creating those conditions; in creating
that soup.  A lot of that work is technical and specific.  How can I
play that voicing on the guitar?  Where on the neck can I get my hands
to play that scale?  What scales or patterns can I run over that chord?
How can I create phrases that will convey a particular feeling or create
a particular effect.  There is a lot of problem solving going on, but
not necessarily in terms of conventional notation, harmonic theory, etc.
These are just ways of describing or modeling something.  But there is
a lot of preparation for making music.  Everybody has to go through this.

Maybe the rest of creativity is intuition, talent, black magic, luck,
stubbornness, willpower.  Some people just have to work something over,
compulsively, till they get it to where it makes sense to them.  There
is a lot of processing going on.  Maybe a lot of it is going on even away
from the instrument.

When we finally hear a brilliant and "original" artist, we are taken
away by the statement, but the work that went into it is often lost on
us at that moment, almost hard to imagine.  Take an artist like Hendrix,
for example.  He didn't work with notation or harmonic theory, but you can
bet that he knew what sounds he was making while he played.  He's often
thought of as being revolutionary.  Often, other musicians reacted to him
as if he had come from outer space.  We know the cliches that he fell 
with his clothes on, the guitar across his chest.  When he was with the
Isley Brothers as a backup player, he was said to be playing constantly.
Who the hell knows what was going on with him during those times, how he
practiced, what he worked on.  We know he was deep into the blues, but he
also listened to Bob Dylan and a lot of pop music.  His understanding was
a deep one.  What he evolved into was no accident, no freak occurrence.

Another example is Frank Zappa: someone with a great musical mind and
imagination.  Some of his pieces have more ideas happening in a few
bars than others have happening in their life's work.  He was ripe with
"Invention" (appropriately, a mother of invention).  Where did that all
come from?  From nowhere?  In his mind his was tuning into 50's do-wop
music, blues, Bulgarian music, 20th century "serious" composition, etc.,
since he was a teenager.  He made connections.  He was able to internalize
stuff in ways that no one had before and make some serious musical 
out of what had come before.  His own metaphors of "invention" and 
are apt descriptions for what he was actually doing.  And of course he, as
did Hendrix, as did most of the great ones, made this music in a social
context.  There were people around.  Bands.  Music was written and put
together for live performance.  A person like Zappa had, it would seem,
a pretty keen awareness of what he was doing and of what materials he was
working with.  He once spoke about himself not as a composer, but as an
organizer of stuff.  "Give me some stuff", he said, "and I'll find a way
to organize it for you".

To cut to the chase of all this verbiage, it is my argument that no one
is free of their influences, even if they hole themselves up in a cave.

Jason N. Joseph wrote:

>I routinely bounce back and forth between these two seeming opposites
>[internal vs. external stimulus]. I'm slowly coming to some kind of piece
>with *that* incongruity, too.

To me, the "incongruity" is a perfect example of what I'm talking about.
There is a commutation, a "Composting" if you will, that goes on as
we absorb (thesis), react (antithesis), and create (synthesis).  There
is a continuum, an almost imperceptible passing back and forth as we
listen, react, compare, edit, etc., often in short spaces of time.

In Gestalt psychology, there is the duality of figure and ground.  Have
you ever seen those plates (line drawings) that can been seen as either
an old woman or a pretty young woman.  We are often jumping back and forth,
altering our own perspective on what we see, on what we hear.  Maybe in one
moment I will hear my striving to express an ideal as played by one of my
heros, as played by one of my influences.  In the next moment, I will hear
that the voice has become me, that I am making the statement now, and
that I have appropriated the music as my own.   It is amazing when this
happens, joyful.  All of a sudden, my whole is greater than the sum of
its parts, of its influences.  It is like catching that great proverbial
wave and going for it.  Thought and striving almost seem to stop as we
are witness to our own creativity, our own ability to make a statement
that is in ways like others, but yet like no other.  Figure and ground.
Figure and ground.  Go figure!

To get to this point, to be able to hang glide upon the thermals and
eddies that others have created, is called paying your dues.  It is the
love of the music that creates the energy and discipline to do this
crazy work, to practice for hours, to figure out the notes that somebody
else has played.

And again, we are hard-pressed to achieve isolation in this work.
If we put down the instrument for a year, maybe we are seeing the
extinction artifact as our habits decay.  I'm not questioning whether
or not one might not have a new sense of the music after a year away.
But generally, I think that growth and maturation as a player will be
accompanied by some conscious effort, irregardless of what formalisms
or symbolisms are used to model what is happening musically.  Although
time away from anything can make us feel fresh about what we do, I
wonder about the extent that time away can help us to do new things.
Might this not be more of a manipulation of our own perceptions than
a means toward new ideas and creativity, unless we are using that time
away to process and integrate what we have already been exposed to.  In
this sense it is like waking up fresh, after a good sleep, when things
somehow seem to have sorted themselves out (research on learning, in fact,
highlights the importance of sleep in integrating knowledge acquired).

Well, I have played with a lot of words here ... hopefully not put
others to sleep.  And it is so easy to get lost in words ... that is
why we all love music so much ... it cannot lie to us.

As a final note, it is interesting that this line of thought has
evolved among this group of loopers.  As a looper, is one not
creating some sort of creative isolation, in so far as one is
bouncing their ideas off the wall/mirror that looping devices provide.
Might not a lot of looping experimentation be likened to the game
of solitaire, in which one is forced to react to the choices that they
have made in the previous play.

I can see that others are responding on this topic of isolation and
creativity, so I will cut my entry here and read the others.

Can we ever start with a blank canvas, tabula rasa?  I think not.



Emmanuel Angel
Nuclear Medicine Physics and Instrumentation Group
University of Pennsylvania
Philadelphia, PA