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?

Conducting a Literature Review

A few years ago, I was asked for some advice from a friend on how best to conduct research. She was in the midst of working on a Masters in Trumpet Performance, and had never had to do any large-scale research before. In response, I wrote the following list of suggestions, reflecting on how I conducted a literature review. Given that I was only a year into my PhD at the time, I'm somewhat proud as to how sensible this list still appears to me. I would be interested to hear if this resonates with anyone else who has conducted this kind of research. Is there anything missing?

Take notes. This might be obvious, but it is vitally important. It could be as straightforward as a skeleton outline of what topics are talked about where. By all means, include page numbers! This will help if you need to find a certain quote, or reread something that didn't seem important when you first ran across it.

Keep a record of what you need to read. It could be as simple as a to-do list, or as in-depth as makes sense without being paralytic. I currently have three lists going, each on a different scale. One is a bibliography of books and articles that I need to read, taken from citations found in other sources. If something looks vaguely interesting or relevant, it gets added to the list. The second is slightly larger in scale, and is decidedly short-term. It deals with projects that are small and can be focused on over the next few days to a week. The third looks at the big picture, dealing with chapters, upcoming conferences, and so on.

Keep a record of what you've read. My system includes date read, location (library, file, online, etc.), full bibliographic citation, and relative importance of each source. There are fewer frustrations than discovering half-way through an article that you've read it before. Likewise, these records make life easier when reevaluating your progress. Further down the road, when you are putting the finishing touches on your thesis, you will thank yourself for having all of the bibliographic information you need already organised on your computer.

Make your own system. Theoretically, any organisational system will be helpful, but it's even more valuable to you if it's one that you've thought out and rationalised yourself. Even though it will take a little time up front to do, and will require tweaking as time goes by, it will prove to be the backbone of your research.

Keep an open mind. In the beginning, you very well might not have a very strong sense of direction – a perfectly natural feeling. As you read, keep note of things that seem odd, unique, interesting… essentially, anything that jumps out at you, regardless of if it seems like a worthwhile avenue of investigation. Balance out your reading with critical analysis, reflecting on what you've read, and compare that to your experiences as a performer, listener, and teacher. It is from those reflections that the really interesting conversation topics will grow.

Talk to people. Whether they're in your field or not, it's always good to bounce your ideas off of someone. They're brilliant for reevaluating your views, and force you to get experience overcoming objections at an early stage. Likewise, you need to be able to explain what you're doing to someone who knows extremely little about music. It takes a lot of mental flexibility to be able to do so succinctly, and will force you to distill all of your ideas into the most simple statements. These synopses, however, will most likely prove to contain the underlying ideas of your work, and are useful in checking your current smaller projects against.

Be critical of your own work. No one can write the perfect thesis from start to finish. There are bound to be sections that you slave over for days, then realise are irrelevant to your overall topic a month later. Don't get rid of them completely, but don't hang onto them simply because you put a lot of time and effort into them. Have several people read portions of your writing and critique it, and learn where your strengths and weaknesses are. From my experience, for every 1000 words I write, usually what I'm trying to get across can be said in 700. Distilling your ideas to their essence and being extremely straightforward in your presentation of them is a valuable skill to have.


If you show someone something you've written, you give them a sharpened stake, lie down in your coffin and say, 'When you're ready.'

David Mitchell, Black Swan Green

It has taken a long time for me to build up the courage to post anything that I have written online. As a bit of a perfectionist (particularly when it comes to academic tasks), I am not comfortable with the idea of sharing anything that I haven't thoroughly proofread or vetted every single detail. However, there is no end point to that process – I could continually revise things that I write ad nauseum and never share it with others. Therefore, here is my toe in the water: an informal blog designed to air out my ideas about anything that fascinates me. That being said, a sounding board for my scattered thoughts is not nearly as interesting as the conversations that may ensue. If the concepts written about here resonate in you, inspire further questions, or otherwise, please respond in the comments or through my Contact page. I'm interested to hear what you have to say!