The first time I understood creative process was through studying jazz. In about the 6th grade I started getting exposed to jazz through being involved in the school band program, and throughout high school, I spent most of my day time hours in a band room behind a drum kit.
Blue Notes are Awesome
I couldn’t read music very well. Notes on a page never made sense to me. So I primarily learned by listening to records, and feeling my way through a given piece. My favorite records were Bebob and Hardbop from the 50's and 60's. The structures of these types of songs, at least in how we were taught to think of them, was essentially a main melody, or “the head”, leading up to a solo. A collective statement, leading to an individual response, followed by commentary by other soloist. The solos were the whole point. They were a dialogue with the experience in real time. Once you got to the jazz solo, anything could happen. There were guiding principals that lead the ear — chords, rhythms and scales — and from those came an endless chain of thoughts, statements, experiments and expressions.
If a horn player or piano player had those chords and scales as the core of their language, I similarly had the entire sound of a drum kit at my disposal. You learn fairly quickly that hitting the batter head of a drum is only the beginning. The rims, shells, metal tubes of the stands, and every possible edge of a kit could be incorporated into a given statement. Speed it up, slow it down, make it up as you go. Mistakes only lasted as long as it took to exit a passage and often times those offered surprise and excitement. The “blue note” — technically an expressively flatted note in a scale — was jokingly used as a catch-all description for a dropped stick, an odd note, or a rhythm that just stretched time. It would be clear fumble of some kind, and you learned quickly how to recover a passage out of sheer panic. This moment of fear was what taught you most about improvisation, process, and how to incorporate a near-disaster into an overall statement. If the accident occurs, absorb it into the overall statement, but whatever you do, don’t stop.
Mistakes really only had to do with how well you dealt with the situation…
This is what made jazz human. No two players sounded alike, even if they were equally boring. And any given musician had the potential of blowing it. But mistakes really only had to do with how well you dealt with the situation, and the more experienced you became, the better you got at dealing with them. It by no means meant you didn’t make them. It just meant you weren’t afraid of the risk.
The Middle Makes It
Visual art for me is very much the same — be it a design project for a client, or a painting. When I started pursuing abstraction seriously, it was merely an extension of what I had learned playing the drums. If there was an ending to a song, it was everything that happened in the middle that made it what it was. The ending was more or less determined by a player finishing a thought or just stopping at the end of their 36 bars. A painting is merely a beginning and end, but it’s the middle that makes it what it ultimately is.
The first marks on a canvas, or the first cut piece of paper for a collage, are typically just a beginning. Not a planned strategy. Just this material, on that flat surface to see what happens. The Dadaist and Surrealists perfected this kind of approach. They called it Automatism, and had much more interesting (or boring) explanations for the how’s and why’s behind it.
The important thing was that it happened without a preconceived idea in mind of how something should end. The outcome was not predetermined. The only thing that is decided in any good work, even if it’s a monumental installation that takes planning and logistics, is that it begins.
All that is needed from the maker is patience, and willingness to make a mistake. Sometimes the mistake forces you to white-out a complete section. That move alone could be what takes you in a direction you never would have thought of by following a plan.