What Do You Think… or do you?


One of the most overlooked aspects of being a musician is how you talk about music: yours or others, in print/radio/Internet interviews, or with those that can assist your career. We musicians tend to spend so much time working on our music; we forget that we need to be able to discuss it intelligently. There are only so many times one can say, “I don’t know… I just kinda…” before people tune out and stop caring about your work.

People like Frank Zappa, Umm Kalthoum, Joe Zawinul, and/or Alice Coltrane knew what they were doing musically and could also discuss their work and influences very eloquently. No matter where they come from or musical style they are categorized in, other such international artists such as Djivan Gasparyan, Hassan Kassa’i, Laurie Anderson, and/or Wayne Shorter can also discuss music amongst themselves eloquently as well, in ways that could facilitate amazing collaborations let alone discussion. People who may be interested in your music – fans as well as future collaborators – will naturally want to talk about it, and having a well thought out overview of what you do and think can only serve you well. All serious artists (art, music, drama, creative writing, etc, etc) are well read and great conversationalists. So where do you start? What kind of books and ideas should you explore? I’ll give you a head start, and list some of the kinds of books myself and other veteran musicians read to educate and develop ourselves. I have chosen a few works that deal with creativity, aesthetics, and improvisation throughout the fine arts in general. In each I have found interesting writings that have helped me or someone else move forward in their thinking and creating.

The Thinking Eye

This (two volume) collection of teaching notes and essays, written by Swiss artist Paul Klee (pronounced ‘clay,’ 1879-1940), were created during his tenure at the legendary Bauhaus art school in Germany – published several years after his death in 1956 and 1964. The first volume in particular is a brilliant analysis and discussion of art as a process of forming, not its final forms (finished paintings for example). His approach to making the process of painting an art form in itself is to compare art to how nature ‘makes’ things:

The study of creation deals with the ways that lead to form. It is the study of form, but emphasizes the paths to form rather than the form itself…This freedom in nature’s way of building form is a good school for the artist. It may produce in him the same profound freedom, and with it he can be relied on to develop freely his own paths to form…”     (as quoted in Jürg Spiller’s 1961 compilation Paul Klee Note Books Volume One: The Thinking Eye.)

Klee’s ideas have been highly influential among musicians as well as artists; jazz saxophonist Steve Lacy, for example, cite this collection as a source of inspiration for his own theories on music and improvisation. Unfortunately, it is very expenisve to own, but you can find it in big city libraries, as well as (in part) free PDF downloads here and there on the Internet. Both volumes are worth checking out, but it is the first volume that will absolutely amaze, and inspire you.

Form Without Formula

This thin little book by choreographer Patricia Beatty, available in university books stores for as little as $10, is a fantastic analysis of choreography and improvisation, using concepts that any type of artist can find a way to apply to their own work. If you have never thought about the idea of musical or visual gravity, for example, then this book will educate and enlighten you, rather enjoyably.

The Laws of Simplicity

This book by MIT computer scientist John Maeda is not only informative, but really fun to read in case one tires of strenuously thinking about deeper meaning in life. It deals with the balance between simplicity and complexity of use/design, and contains several interesting ideas about synthesizing the ambient experience of simplicity.

The Empty Space

Though originally published in 1965, this book is still as practical and as informative in the 21st century as it was in the 20th century. It is a collection of essays director Peter Brook gave on the art of creating/presenting modern drama. From Shakespearean theatre to film, he has done it all successfully and gives his insights and criticisms of the theatre in this small but affordable book.

Sync or Swarm: Improvising Music in a Complex Age

This book, by American saxophonist David Borgo, has become quite popular in university bookstores and classes across Canada and the US. It deals with individual and collective strategies in musical improvisation, much of it in light of chaos theory, consciousness and cognitive studies, all without getting into too much specialized, scientific detail for the average reader. It also comes with a CD containing examples of what is discussed int eh book. It does get technical at times, but I think it is a excellent book for anyone interested in creative, group based processes.

The Creative Habit

Twyla Tharpe is probably the most celebrated American choreographer and, I would say, one of the most brilliant dancer/creators in history. Known for her rigorous attention to detail and strict work ethic, Tharpe reveals step-by-step instructions n how one can train oneself to be creative or work effectively without the usual personal and creative stumbling blocks. Unlike other books on creativity, Tharpe’s work is less philosophical and much more practical, and her ideas are directly applicable to any kind of artist, musician, actor, or writer.

The Unknown Craftsman: A Japanese Insight Into Beauty

Easily one of my favorite books, this work by Soetsu Yanagi (Japanese philosopher and founder of Japan’s folk craft (mingei) movement) is a fascinating insight into the analysis and appreciation of Japanese and Korean pottery and other crafts. As well, it contains a number of interesting musings about Zen Buddhism and the beauty of asymmetry, and a lot of pretty pictures too. The most fascinating aspect of this work though is the historical writing around it and Yanagi’s life and work, and the relationship Yanagi had with Japanese colonialism in South Korea. Though Yanagi praises Korean works and artisans, there are themes and ideas in his work(s) that speak to what could be seen as a quietly condescending, patronizing tone towards Korean artists as a type of simple, undeveloped race: naïve natives who could become more sophisticated and ‘civilized through cultivation and patronage by Japanese connoisseurs and artists. Books discussing mingei and its relationship with Korea/Koreans such as Kingdom of Beauty (Kim Brandt) or The Aesthetics of Japanese Fascism (Alan Tansman) are excellent companion works to The Unknown Craftsman, and reading any of these will give you much to discuss with other musicians and artists.

The Critique of Judgment

This major work by German philosopher Immanuel Kant (1724 – 1804) is a very challenging read but a rather amazing discussion of beauty and its potential relationship with morality. It also discusses the idea of taste, what may (or may not) be beautiful, and the “order” of things as they occur in nature. Not only will you learn all sorts of amazing things from C.O.J, you will also be able to have vigorous and accurate discussions about philosophy.

These books will definitely fascinate you as well as develop a sense of where your own ideas and work fit into the greater scheme of things.



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