Creativity Through Restriction

A few weeks ago, I came across the following statement:

To which, I replied:

…encouraging the following dialogue:

Although it was certainly a challenge, I found that forcing myself to pare down my writing during my doctorate resulted in several outcomes. First, it became quickly apparent if I had clearly thought through the ideas I was writing down. Waffling about tangential subjects that only skirted the edges of what I actually needed to say was rather counterproductive, and forced me to question if I actually knew what I needed to say at all. Second, my understanding of the nuances of the English language improved dramatically. Capturing the essence of my message in clear, concise prose often took a lot more energy and creativity to do than to talk around the subject. Thus comes one of the key characteristics often attributed to creativity: the ability to approach a problem or puzzle in an unique way, to tease it out from a radically different approach than has been taken before. For me, the puzzle was to continually find more concise methods of expressing myself, resulting in me becoming occasionally rather maniacally brutal to sections that I had spent weeks or months preparing in the process. The use of constraint as a foil in writing is not new, ranging from poets fitting phrases into specific metres to Ernest Vincent Wright's novel Gadsby, famously written without a single letter 'e'.

At the beginning of last week, I spoke at Leeds College of Music's International Festival for Artistic Innovation, a week-long series of presentations, rehearsals, and performances exploring what 'innovation' may encompass within music. Within the same session as my paper was a presentation given by Mark Slater and Adam Martin about Nightports, a compositional project based upon the following manifesto:

Arrive. Move. Shift. Change. Depart.

Nightports inhabit the crossroads between song and dark electronica. A shifting, transient world of intense pulses and intimate lines. All sounds emerge from one voice, one body and pass through transformations, distortions, translations to produce a music of extremes. Delicate, powerful, fragmenting, flickering.

In their presentation, Slater and Martin described how the entire compositional and production process was governed by the rule that all of the sounds used had to have their origins in the singer, Emily Lynn. This restriction forced them to make practical and aesthetic decisions in the construction of the final recording. For example, in order for the original set of recordings fit within the genre of electronica, they had to possess appropriate musical elements that would characterise it as such. Thus, to create the palette of sounds familiar to electronica, the original vocal material had to be transformed, stretched, and distorted. The resulting sounds then impacted the process of arranging and producing the final recording. Slater and Martin's presentation illustrated a variety of these puzzles brought about by their manifesto, and allowed them to describe the ways that they had to find creative solutions to them.

These unrelated incidents made me reconsider how context affects artistic development. Which encourages creative thought more: freedom or restriction? Choosing one of an unlimited number of possible solutions to a problem may not necessarily demonstrate a high level of decision-making, as there is not anything to prevent someone from being guided simply by personal preference or ease of execution. However, as less solutions become available due to whatever restrictions are put in place, the more someone will have to critically weigh their options. This does not necessarily mean that they will have to compromise and choose a path that is not ideal. Rather, they may devise new solutions that allow them to abide by the restricting criteria yet still achieve whatever it is that they want to achieve.

Contemplating this issue in generic terms of 'problems' and 'solutions' is one thing: what about in other musical contexts? To a certain extent, any kind of musical performance – particularly acoustic performance – carries a host of restrictions brought about by the instrument itself. The application of extended techniques and electronics can certainly broaden my sonic palette, and inventing new ways of getting sound out of instruments is certainly an ongoing creative challenge. Even beyond simply creating sounds, however, improvisation may also relate to this issue. Years before having discretely considered the benefits of restriction for creative thought, I applied this concept toward working with improvising ensembles of students. I found that simply telling a group to improvise on their instruments and respond to each others' sounds resulted in rather dull and uninspired performances (not to mention unimpressed students). Given the opportunity to play anything at all, these young musicians either stayed completely within their comfort zone or didn't take the task seriously. However, this changed once the ensemble had a rule they had to abide by. These could range from instructions such as 'You cannot play any note longer than a second' and 'You cannot play above pianissimo' to 'You can only play using three pitches' or 'Every note must be lower than the previous'. Although simple, these rules provided foils which the students could wrestle with, posing a problem that needed a solution. Thus, the young musicians needed to strike a balance: to follow the technical restriction whilst still attempting to satisfy their innate urge to create an interesting and meaningful musical performance.

What do you think? Which encourages creative thought more: freedom or restriction?