One Song Four Versions … A Documentary … The Adjacent Possible

Dan Doyle
Dan Doyle
May 12, 2016 · 8 min read

It was renowned scientist Stuart Kauffman who coined the term The Adjacent Possible. Author Steven Johnson, in his interdisciplinary bestseller, Where Good Ideas Come From, aptly condensed the term as an idea that “captures both the limits and the creative potential of change and innovation.” A recent experience makes me wonder if Mr. Kauffman envisioned the wider application of his fascinating concept.


A few weeks after the December release of my CD, Stay Relevant, I decided to post a series of articles on Medium about the experience. I wanted to address the process involved in writing, composing and recording the CD’s 11 original songs, and focus on the vast creative opportunities that music presents. In January, I entered into preliminary discussions about a documentary on creativity that would draw upon my adult long career in sport and education, and most recent forays into novel writing (An African Rebound), non-fiction writing (The Encyclopedia of Sports Parenting), play writing (Shoeless Joe, to premiere in 2017 — view stage reading comment), and pre-production of another documentary, this one on the Grand Jury system in the United States. Of my assorted undertakings, I believe that music offers the most welcoming environment for creativity.

The Stay Relevant CD

Once I decided to move forward with the CD project back in 2013, the first step was to write the lyrics for the 11 songs (or 10 songs plus the rap song!). Since I do not write music, what followed was creating, in my mind, the melodies for each song. I then got together with my voice teacher, Dianne Mower, and pianist, Matt DeChamplain, for what ended up being six “development sessions.” The gatherings began with me singing the melody I imagined for a song. Matt would choose the chords that meshed with each melody. With Dianne serving as our head coach, the three of us would edit, adjust, disagree and agree until we felt good about each song.

Listen to snippets of the eleven songs:

Selecting the Musicians

In early 2014, Dianne spent considerable time with me discussing her recommendations. I soon learned that Boston Celtics legendary Coach and President, the late Red Auerbach, had nothing on Dianne Mower when it comes to putting a team together. By Googling any one of the following musicians, singers and engineers, you’ll see what I mean:

  • Sax and trumpet: Billy Holloman
  • Steel guitar: Terry Sutton
  • Drums: Rob Gottfried
  • Pianist: Matt DeChamplain
  • Organist: Joe Grieco
  • Mandolin: Bill Walach
  • Violin: Bruna Myftaraj
  • Co-rapper: Annika
  • Guitar: Norman Johnson
  • Bass Guitar: Don Wallace
  • Back-up vocalists: Dianne Mower and Joe Grieco
  • Initial Mastering: Norman Johnson and Bill Ahearn
  • Final Mastering: Platinum Engineer Gordon Bahary

The CD was recorded over four sessions in 2014 and 2015, with each song featuring its own set of musicians. Billy Holloman’s sax, which has accompanied him to recording sessions and performances with the likes of Bruce Springsteen and Elton John, fit perfectly with the song “Stay Relevant.” So too did Bruna Myftaraj’s 350-year-old violin with “A Parent’s Message.”

A fascinating feature of the recording sessions was how these professionals seamlessly commingled periods of complete focus with regular intervals of fun breaks … a joke… a beer… a donut. As a former athlete and coach, I am well acquainted with team practices characterized by long stretches of action without breaks — enhancing focus, conditioning and mental toughness. Yet I could easily see that the creative flow of a music session is strengthened by periods of diversion. When Red Auerbach coached the Boston Celtics, the vaunted Celtics fast break was set apart by its freedom within structure. When you coach Hall of Famers Bob Cousy and Bill Russell, both known for their innovation on the court, you accord them creative space; the same with Rob “The Drummer” Gottfried and steel guitarist Terry Sutton in the studio.

One Song Recorded Four Ways

(And A Documentary on the Creative Process)

In February, two months after the Stay Relevant CD release, Dianne, Matt and I began to work on the development of my newest song entitled, Quiet Street, 1200 Square Feet (lyrics below). We started by creating the sound for a swing version, followed by a country version, a rock and roll version, a ballad version, and a doo wop version. I liked several of the versions (swing an early casualty) and decided on a new approach: we would record a mini CD with the same song performed four different ways! Unwittingly, we were taking Mr. Kauffman’s scientific concept and employing it in the creation of my album.

Dianne and I are now selecting the musicians for each version. In the near future, we will gather for an all-day recording session, and then release the mini CD on iTunes and CD Baby. Noelle Fougere, a gifted young videographer, will film the recording sessions. A documentary on the creative process will result. Features will include commentary from creative people with whom I have crossed paths.

The Adjacent Possible and Its Many Forms

While Mr. Kauffman brilliantly addressed The Adjacent Possible in scientific terms, it has many other applications. As Mr. Johnson confirmed in Where Good Ideas Come From, “The Adjacent Possible was present in the primordial innovation of life itself, as it was the force that inspired and challenged the ‘Tiger Team’ of engineers who brought the Apollo 13 safely home.” Football icon Vince Lombardi had long passed before Mr. Kauffman’s phrase was birthed. Yet Coach Lombardi’s “run to daylight” offensive strategy was a gridiron version of The Adjacent Possible. Hall of Fame Quarterback Bart Starr would hand the ball to Hall of Fame Running Back Paul Hornung. Halfback Hornung would then scour the line for an opening … seeking but a few scant inches of opportunity… “running to daylight.”

Writing A Novel: The Adjacent Possible In Action

Creativity is about establishing connections. A critical objective of a fiction writer is to tie up the hundreds of connections that exist in a draft, and to always look for ways to enhance the story. I am about 70% finished with the sequel to An African Rebound. To assure proper correlations, and welcome new ideas, innumerable pages in the sequel draft contain a “remember” note at the end of a paragraph (e.g., remember to make known Ambassador Foster’s long-ago friendship with Nina Simone.)

I now have over 200 “remember” notes, and will likely finish with at least 300, if not more. This is one reason why the final edit before a book goes to print can take months, if not years.

Indeed, Mr. Johnson may well have been thinking about a novel when he wrote:

A Higher Purpose

I founded the World Scholar Athlete Games in 1993, again unknowingly utilizing adjacent possible principles. There are no national teams at the World Scholar-Athlete Games. Rather, a girls basketball team might be made up of young women from 12 different countries; a boys soccer team might be made up of 16 young men from 16 different countries, and so on. There are as many young singers as there are track and field athletes, (our choir was once joined by Aretha Franklin on stage at closing ceremonies). There are as many young writers are there are volleyball players. Thus far, 191 countries have sent delegations to the event, some large, some small. Scholar-Athlete Games have been held in the United States, Israel, Australia, Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland.

The Scholar-Athlete Games Documentary and Music Division

The Scholar-Athlete Games is crafting a plan that will encourage Games graduates, past and future, to produce meaningful documentaries on issues such as social justice, peace, and the environment, and to write, compose and record music and songs with a message. Our next Scholar-Athlete Games event, the African Scholar-Athlete Games, will include the production of a documentary on African Sport with a focus on the need for equipment and facilities. Technology, of course, now makes documentary and music production much more attainable, “increasing the diversity of what can happen next” as Mr. Johnson wrote.

For more than a decade, the Scholar-Athlete Games maintained an office in Belfast, Northern Ireland where we administered our Belfast United program, and four Ireland Scholar-Athlete Games. The core concept of Belfast United was to put equal numbers of Catholic and Protestant youth together on teams. When the peace accord was signed in 1997, Belfast United was cited by the Northern Ireland government as having created “the chipping effect” … in this case chipping away at the centuries of sectarian violence. A key objective of the Scholar-Athlete Games Documentary and Music Division is to create the same “chipping effect” on matters of societal importance. A key strategy is to encourage our past and future

participants to explore The Adjacent Possible … to seek out the unexplored … to run to daylight. But before I ask these young people to embark on this journey, I needed to learn how to take on these tasks myself.

Quiet Street, 1200 Square Feet Lyrics

If you liked this, please follow me on Medium and hit the Recommend button below. Thank you!

Dan Doyle ddoylemusic@gmail.com


Author of The Encyclopedia of Sports Parenting and An African Rebound. Founder of the World Scholar-Athlete Games.

Dan Doyle

Written by

Dan Doyle

Author of The Encyclopedia of Sports Parenting and An African Rebound. Founder of the World Scholar Athlete Games.

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