Written in 2009, “A Stranger To Its Maker” is a crazy attempt to define the undefinable and describe the indescribable act of creativity. As far as I know by the blog stats, no one ever read it. It’s a bit wordy, but upon re-reading I thought there may yet be someone out there who could appreciate and perhaps even put into practice some of the ideas regarding that amazing moment immediately before a creative thought is actualized.
Thanks for checking it out and I hope you find something of value.
David Archer Sept/2013
“A Stranger To Its Maker”
Try to forget everything you know about your instrument.
Try to forget everything you know about songwriting.
Try to forget everything you know about music.
I dare you.
Of course, you can’t really do such a thing. But you can find a place of creativity that exists somewhere between a child-like blank slate and the feeling of being trapped by your hard won (or new found) knowledge and experience.
Methods, styles, formulas, influences, processes, practice habits, listening habits, scales, progressions, sounds, environment, practical or physical limitations – any or all of such creative tools can occasionally look like the wall at the end of the universe of originality when a songwriter is in search of something new.
Maybe not new to the world… but at least sort of new to the writer.
New enough to temporarily ease that endless hunger.
But sometimes we find ourselves trapped within our patterns of knowledge and experience. We can be stuck in a rut and have great difficulty imagining anything outside of what we’ve already imagined.
We all know preparation is one of the most important aspects of playing music. It can also be a roadblock. When it comes to the raw material – the initial trolling for ideas of substance – the actual kick off point of a song – well, at that moment, being completely unprepared can be a decided advantage.
As I said above, I know we can’t really do this. I know that our trained (or not so trained) musicians hands will move instinctively into familiar positions and motions, our minds will find oft used rhymes and familiar cadences. I know that absent a blow to the head (or something too strong for too long) we cannot banish awareness once it has been achieved.
But forget all that. All we need to do is create the illusion of unawareness.
Just for a moment – you need to fool yourself.
Just for a second or two – and there it is.
The instrument in your hands is completely unfamiliar. In your other life you may know things about this instrument – about music – but not here and now.
Here you are a child. You know nothing.
Well, you are pretending you know nothing, but in the world of creativity, that can be enough.
That consciously created illusion of unawareness is the tiny crack in time and mind that is all your creative spirit needs to slip through and slide back with something you’ve never seen or heard before.
Something that, for the time being, belongs only to you.
But how do you do that?
I think there are a number of ways.
Ideally, it is possible – through intuition and practise – to empty your mind of the immediate knowledge relating to your creativity. Not in any complete sense, and, as written above, not even in a real sense, but it can be done effectively enough to allow you to move into easily accessible but personally uncharted creative territory.
A limited, targeted emptying of the mind sort of resembles meditation except that it usually happens very fast. By constant application, you can reach a place where you can summon unawareness at will. As in meditation, it helps if there are few distractions, though some of these distractions (street noise for example) can be slip-streamed into the process.
You likely did all this as a child without knowing it. But what we are attempting to recreate is the blankness in the child’s mind in the moment before the imaginative game or song was created. As adults, we often seem to have a little trouble relating to this child-like state. We resist it and try to fill it with things we are certain we know. That may be why it is difficult to sustain this state.
But no matter. We don’t want to sustain it.
We want to fill it with music of uncertain origin.
If this state of mindful emptiness seems unattainable, there are other, more physically real ways to get to the same place.
For example, in the spirit of un-preparedness I sometimes grab my guitar in passing when I least expect it. I try to surprise myself (and my muse – that’s another story) by pivoting off what I probably should be doing to suddenly find myself on the edge of a creative cliff.
Then, figuratively speaking, I jump.
Whether by mindful emptiness, by an impulsive real world act or by some other method, the result is almost always exhilarating.
At first, the song (or whatever) is just the air rushing past my ears. But I know there is something else out there. I know, even in my illusionary ignorance and naivety, that I will land somewhere. And that if I jump right and land right, I’ll be somewhere I’ve never been before. It almost has to be that way – there’s just so much out there and I know so little.
Maybe you’ll unconsciously sound a note or a partial chord – maybe it’s a dischord – it doesn’t matter. Go with it. If you don’t like where you land, quickly jump again. Another key. Another chord, riff or melody. Remember, you don’t know where you are, where you’re going or what you’re doing, so it really doesn’t matter what it sounds like. Groan out a tune. Search for a phrase, look for a sign. See if they’re related. Listen for the drone, the echo, the harmony, the counter-point. Move it around slowly and carefully or thrash and flail wildly, it all works the same.
It’s all how you feel, not what you know.
Confusion is good. That’s often where the music comes from anyway and for sure imposing order on chaos is the end goal. But don’t worry about imposing order now. That part comes soon enough. So if you’re confused, you’re doing this part right. Revel in it. Play with it. Have fun with it.
But within the confusion, you keep your ears open.
You are listening for something.
Two or three notes hummed up against a chord that you’re not sure you could name. Maybe the hint of a rhythm inside a riff. The ghost of a melody behind a random inversion or perhaps an accidental phonetic nonsense sound that triggers an unusual harmonic phrase.
It could be anything, but if you’re listening, you’ll know it when you hear it.
Follow it. Track it down and own it. Work it. Play with it. Shape it.
Once that process is complete – it could be seconds or minutes – rarely longer, your time of sublime unawareness is over.
You’ve got an idea and you don’t know where it came from. During the sequence above, you could have tapped into memory streams related to literally anything you’ve ever heard in your life. (Remember, your state of unawareness was largely an illusion) Any sound, any source. And if you think all that music and sound stored in your sub-conscience mind is in neat orderly little rows, you would be gloriously wrong.
Although these various streams can be separated, they are also present as a massive multi audio mash-up in your brain. It’s like an endless spiritual ocean of sound and you just reached in and pulled out a few silvery gossamer threads.
Pure liquid music.
Now make it real.
Knowledge, awareness and experience are again at your fingertips.
In fact, they come crashing back into the picture.
As the waves of knowledge and experience wash over you, they will often try to re-shape what you’ve found and make it fit familiar patterns, to bend it into what you already know.
You can, to varying degrees, allow this re-working to unfold as it will. It’s pretty much unavoidable to some extent, and it’s driven by the very same creative impulses that made you take the leap in the first place.
At this point, you can trust in what you know. Acknowledging the danger of back-sliding your creation into overworked ground will encourage you to be vigilant in avoiding familiar traps, backwaters and dead ends. They might have been your twelve lane highways in the past, but for this new music they could end up leading nowhere.
While shaping the idea, allow enough room for exploration to keep it from getting too comfortable too quickly. If – despite resistance – structures and patterns evolve into obvious forms, work to keep other important aspects such as melody or lyric from following and vice versa.
If you find that intuition or habit is dragging a new found idea back into old grooves, it is worth the effort to consciously resist by easing through the ebb and flow of the music (the exploration) while striving to be aware of the original sounds that started the process.
In other words, let it remain a stranger to its maker for as long as possible.
If memory fades, you can still hear faint echoes of the sounds that started it all in the back of your mind.
And those faint echoes are exactly what creativity is all about.