Saturday, 8 September 2012
I've been thinking about the role of space in relation to creativity for a long time. By this I mean the role of not doing in relation to doing. I've just finished reading David Whyte's Crossing the Unknown Sea: Work as a Pilgrimage of Identity, and he talks there about spaciousness as a quality of 'good work' (which he defines as work that is true to your nature, which arises easily, without effort and will....).
Human beings left to their own devices - a very rare event- seem to work according to the quality of a given season and learn similarly in cycles. Good work and good education are achieved by visitation and then absence, appearance and disappearance. Most people who exhibit a mastery in a work or a subject have often left it completely for a long period in their lives only to return for another look. Constant busyness has no absence in it, no openness to the arrival of any new season, no birdsong at the start of its day. Constant learning is counterproductive and makes both ourselves and the subject stale and uninteresting (76).
This is a direct challenge to the idea of 'the thousand hours'; the research on music that says that the brilliant musicians are distinguished from the good musicians because they have put in more hours of practice. It's also a challenge to the image of the 'serious' artist, imagined to be standing before their canvas from morning till night, working as if possessed by a demon. This is not to say that it isn't true that the musician who has put in more hours has benefited technically from those hours, or that extended immersion creates the conditions for the emergence of good work, both of which seem to be the case. The point about spaciousness is subtle, and seems to relate to something intangible about the quality of the work, about its very nature... to those ideas explored by Green and Werner in relation to musicians who are technically brilliant, but whose music still somehow lacks something.
My twenty five years or so of working within formal employment structures, and of trying to continue painting and music around the edges of those structures, were certainly characterised by the unconscious assumption that hours were for filling up, for using to the full. The possibilities of work, of thinking about students, of research, of jazz theory, of improving tone or drawing, always seemed to stretch out until the edges of the universe, and there were never enough hours for their exploration.
In my early twenties, I was sure that the busyness of teaching was a temporary affair, and that one day soon I would stop it all and begin the true work of painting, which I unquestioningly assumed would mean those 12 hour stretches (at least) of full immersion. One of the reasons that this never happened was because I was never quite sure what I was supposed to be doing in those long stretches of immersion. I was waiting for the day I would be seized by the muse and thrown onto the canvas, a willing victim of the greater power that I believed was shortly about to rise up within me.
There's no question about the need for hours; about the emergent powers of immersion and of simply doing the work. But I've found, as I've finally forayed into this period of complete commitment, that there's something about what Whyte calls ' the magic and spaciousness of the hours themselves' which I didn't understand before. That breathing in needs, intrinsically, to be followed by breathing out. That music is formed by the spaces between notes, rather than being, as I'd always assumed, about the technical qualities of the notes themselves. That producing images has to be balanced by looking; that working at a desk has to be balanced by walking outside. Time spent doing has to be balanced by time spent not doing.
A related issue is how creative work is approached, in terms of time. As I've slowly, slowly, let go of lifelong habits of willing and striving and disciplining, I've been observing the rhythm that my days actually seem to want to inhabit. One feature of this is a long, slow moving in to the work at the beginning of the day; a movement which itself takes on a different form each morning. I've come to understand that this gradual, slow approach is necessary in terms of finding..... what is it........ something like a real place to start. This is in contrast to timetabled habits of just diving straight in, in relation to a mind-directive such as, 'right, let's get back to that scale/ this painting, I want to master X today....'. In fact, I'm working within about half an hour of waking up, but by making space for the work to take its form as it wants to (which has been very hard, as I keep thinking I should be disciplining and structuring myself) there's no strain, and no real intention. My fear is always that if I don't structure myself I'll fall into totally non-productive sloth, which seems to link to what I have written about so much in this blog as being 'blocked'. I suspect that this is how I've framed the evolution of learning to breathe in and out, in terms of creativity.
It relates also to the daily practice, as taught by Paul Oertel. I remember watching someone work on the workshop in Wales in May. They were moving and improvising for about twenty minutes, and when they stopped, they said that they 'had just got to the door'. It had taken that long for everything to calm down inside the person enough for the focus of the work to begin to reveal itself; to get past the chattering and striving of the mind.
The idea of a gradual approach also relates to the alap in Indian Classical music. If I'm remembering this properly, the alap is the first section of a raga, which is basically an improvisation within particular constraints. As far as I'm aware, a raga always starts with an alap, which is basically a long, slow warming up as the musician moves into the space from which they are able to create the more complex, later parts of the improvisation. Here's an example . It's amazing - the faster rhythmic development doesn't really start to happen until about 24 minutes in, then it slows down again, before starting to build at around 28 minutes, which is ten minutes before the end of the raga. Skip to 35 minutes in if you want to see the contrast!