What’s inside your box?

Recently we cleared out our storage shed. Boxes and boxes of boxes; some belonged in the past, some in the present, some in the future. When I was unpacking them I couldn’t help but think of those Russian Matryoshka dolls – where inside one doll is another, then another, then… you know the ones. It occurred to me that we all live in boxes within boxes.

It was amazing how much redundant junk I’d been storing for years. It was a pleasant surprise to discover terrific things that I’d forgotten I had, once I’d thrown out the junk. There was so much more space for fresh things and I found I could consolidate boxes.

The size of your box depends on what you’ve got shoved in it. The less junk you have in it the more usable space there is. It’s a bit like that with our musical creativity – every now and then we need to trash some of our old ways of thinking in order to make space for some fresh stuff.

In my last blog I spoke about how it would be great if we could be more creative with our music, both in our playing and in our listening by thinking ‘outside the box’, as the saying goes.

But is this actually misguided? I think confinement is a state of mind. Perhaps we should be utilising better the space that’s in our box.  Or maybe we should be exploring our box and finding the hidden corners, or how high the walls are. Can we come and go between our boxes? It might be simpler just to make some more space in the box we’re in rather than moving out: do some house cleaning; open those windows!

BOXWhich brings me to the whole point of this blog (Yes! I hear you). How do we as teachers nurture creativity in our students while the arts’ industries (particularly the music industry) reward conventionality?

The first step is to let students know that in Art, there is convention and there is unconvention / experimentation; both can exist in the same box. Simply being aware of the two and understanding which one your student is instinctively drawn to, may be a starting point.

Creativity can enhance convention, and convention can channel creativity. One can be the vehicle, the other the driver. The danger is in not knowing which one is which, while the joy is in being able to make the best of both and go places.

There are many engaging activities that can help exercise the creative muscles for students, teachers and professionals. Here’s some of my favourites (grab your instrument of choice):

  1. What does ‘happy’ sound like?  How about ‘sad’? Angry? Can you make ‘angry’ move to ‘happy’?
  2. Think of something interesting that happened in your day. Imagine that as a movie, then imagine what music soundtrack would best suit that experience. Play it.
  3. Count to 7. See the numbers in your mind, and give them colours and sounds. Can you now count with colours? Sounds?
  4. Think of your mobile phone number. Use the numbers as musical intervals. Can you compose a tune around your phone number?

For the more technically minded –

  1. Compose a simple melody using one key/scale – e.g. G Major. Now harmonise that melody using chords from a different key/scale, e.g. Bb Major. Use these chords for a new song.
  2. Convention is that the I VI IV V chord progression is the most common in Popular music. In the key of C Major, this is C Am F G. This is the formula I alluded to in my previous post. Have you experimented with the permutations of this formula? There are 28! Can you find them? Remember, there are 7 chords in a Major key – use them all.
  3. You have been given the job of composing a 1 minute film sound track: a cowboy rides off on his horse to shoot the bad dude who killed his wife. In the scene it is evening with storm clouds and lightning flashing over the desert. Would you write your piece around what the audience is seeing/hearing (galloping horse, storm, dramatic scenery)? Or about what the cowboy is feeling (grief, sadness, loss, revenge)? One piece would be clichéd and very 60s; one would be very now and ‘arty’. Which is which?

Notice that these exercises encourage you to look at something conventional in an unconventional way. I hope that they might help you better think inside your box more effectively. The distance and shape of your horizons is your choice; just as the size and shape of your confinement is your choice.







Happy Birthday Mr Holdsworth

According to Nicolas Slonimsky (author of the seminal Thesaurus of Scales and Melodic Patterns, 1947), there are 479,001,600 possible ways of configuring the 12 note chromatic scale. This doesn’t include reversals, rhythmic variations or repetitions. I think the well of music creation is far from dry!

When I played in cover bands in the 80s (bands that played other people’s hits, past and present), there were many nights where I would look at the list of maybe 30 songs and see essentially the same formula – over and over – with only the key, the melody, tempo and lyrics changing.  The window dressing changed but the view was always the same.

What is astounding, is that in 2016 so little has changed. When I listen to contemporary music, often I can’t tell when in the last fifty years, the piece was written. I hear the same half-dozen formulas. What disturbs me greatly is the ‘Frankenstein’s monster’ approach to song production, where bits and pieces of old and new material are stitched together, usually with a ubiquitious rap, and sold as the ‘next big thing’.

The recording industry, from around 1960-2000, made a lot of money for not many people. As an industry manufacturing and marketing a product, it became reliant on the usual factors essential for survival which included competition, fast replication and minimal risk taking. The reason for the homogeneity of pop music now, is partly to do with this. Risk taking is not advisable; nor is creativity, because, heck! We might have to change our thinking!

I’m hoping that now, with the demise of the power of recording companies, artists will again experiment, take risks, and create. In the last few years we’ve seen the stirrings of this in mainstream genres such as Metal and Country.

One genre that has essentially escaped the confines of the bland pop template is Jazz. Jazz is less visual, more aural, and you don’t have to be good-looking, or young, or in-the-news to be a jazz muso. You do however, have to be pretty good on your instrument.

Contrary to the pop music demographic, the modern jazz audience demands, embraces, and rewards experimentation. They listen more than watch, and they abhor predictability. I consider Jazz to be like a ‘research and development’ department – what’s being worked on here will be pop music in ten years time. Just ask Quincy Jones.

Blog 3Next week is Allan Holdsworth’s birthday. He will be 70. Happy birthday, Mr Holdsworth. For those who don’t know of Holdsworth, he is considered by many (including myself) to be the greatest living exponent of improvised electric guitar. The other person often mentioned with Holdsworth is the late jazz saxophonist John Coltrane. Coincidentally, both studied the Slonimsky book I mentioned at the start of this blog.

Holdsworth, like Coltrane, has taken experimentation and innovation to the edge. It’s difficult now to even say that he’s a jazz musician. His improvisations have no point of reference to guitar playing – you won’t hear Clapton, Joe Pass, or any of the Greats. His chords and progressions are unique. Referring to my last blog (You can’t tell the time…), analysis of Holdsworth’s material is pointless, but listening to it is sublime. He plays the guitar with exquisite naivety, as if he has never heard another guitarist in his life, and yet improvises profound lines of linear beauty.

Holdsworth is on the record as saying it’s been a hard road. He has paid for existing outside the box: he tours rarely and sells very little product. Apart from the guitar-playing community, he is unknown. Within that community he is spoken of with awe. Sadly, it will probably take his passing for him to receive the recognition he deserves.

If you haven’t yet heard Holdsworth, then please listen to two entry-level Holdsworth pieces. Both are on YouTube: Joshua – Allan Holdsworth and A Kinder Eye – Level 42 with Allan Holdsworth. Both solos are exceptionally lyrical.

It is difficult to promote creativity because, paradoxically, creativity in mainstream music comes with constraints. The major product of experimentation is unfortunately, failure. These days, we are taught that failure travels with you and it has a big stick. The easiest way to avoid it is to stay in ‘that lane’ and leave true creativity to those foolish few who venture into the unknown.

So, how do we motivate people to think outside the box, even while the music business is enticing them into it? Watch this space.