Should Artists “Sell Out”?


Should Artists “Sell Out”?

Recently, upon completing the multiple posts in my series’ entitled, What ‘Should’ Artists Do? and “The ‘Hidden’ Secret of The Creative Process”, I had the chance to reflect on the history of art itself. Having also previously promised the readers a series on that very topic, I realized that a mere chronology would not suffice to explain the underlying nature of art throughout history.

(Note: to understand the full context of this post, please read the aforementioned posts.)

This “nature”, the underlying forces that artists are within and without, dictates much in relation to what an artist decides to do and say. Thus, this “true” history of art, in my opinion, has involved three intersecting themes: what is official, what is unofficial, and what has been made. All art is made within the context of these historical concepts and forces. Understanding these forces will help us understand what is probably the most important artistic question one will ask themselves: what is “selling out”? But first we must look at the history of art to understand how humans have become “artists” in the first place. And though I will be referring to visual art, I am also discussing the general idea of creative makers as “artists”: composers, jazz improvisers poets, dramatists, anyone who creates what is defined as exemplary works in such media.


 Humans have been making carvings and images for close to 700,000 years; various figurines, cave engravings/paintings showing up across Africa and India. This “art”, though its exact expressive purposes are not known, reveals that at the very least humans show interest in creative expression, that humans were engaged in activities that moved beyond the acquisition of food, shelter, and the expression of primal social behavior. And though art eventually evolved to become a possible tool in acquiring food and shelter, i.e. an economic activity, this nearly one million year old instinct meant that “making” is inherent in our humanity; we express, with or without the word “art” (which implies that “skill” and “imagination” are key elements in separating common expression from aesthetic expression of a higher form).

The ancient cave paintings and figures required minimal skill and little imagination, thus we house such objects in a different kind of museum than a Dali painting. This categorical divide is not controversial, as a 230,000 year-old rudimentary carving of a female figure required the innovation of a tool, but the subject and form itself is not one created uniquely in a solitary mind, like Dali’s “Persistence of Memory”. But as art history progresses we discover an institutionalizing force affecting the human ability to create common and aesthetic objects, social forces that separate and divide the uses of skill and imagination, creating what one might call official and unofficial objects.


 Official things have a relationship with an authority, one holding a public duty to represent a larger group. When assign specific duties individuals essentially “sum up” the overall group, they act to work for the interests of the group that gave them that authority. As art then moves from unofficial acts by individuals to official acts, there is a move from the random to the specific: people who use painter become painters, people who use words become poets, writers, scribes, and so on. The more defined the act and actor the more official the action, at least potentially. Thus we do not call the 230,000 year-old human making hand prints in a cave an “artist”, unless there is now some modern authority or theory that assigns official values and status to that pre-historical being or act.

Thus we see the idea of “art” enter into human history as words and organized groups enter. There are now images of spirits and gods: the image becomes a summary of more than the creative drive. “Meaning” is given to what before being named, is officially “meaningless” (though it may be personally profound). The female figurine is a carving until it becomes a fertility symbol, a “symbol” requiring a symbolizer to make it so. The creative mind that now has the capacity to theorize about how and when a lightening god should be described, represented and appeased can also establish what the official image of that god or goddess must be in order to properly exist in the world of Man’s symbols. Thus we arrive at ritual behaviour being intertwined with social behaviour, a series of actions performed in a certain order, for religious or social purposes. Image making can be officially useful (religious, social) or informally useful (making, play).

This means images can now have have iconic value, they represent more than the physical or imagined physical qualities of trees, animals, gods, and such. They now represent courage, faith, love, rage, damnation: non-concrete aspects of being (abstraction). This allows the symbolizer, he or she whom is official to have even more power over what is officiated, as for every thing there is the iconic image of its opposite, which creates conflict. This is the unofficial. Herein lies power exchange.


The act of making, once a direct act, has now evolved into what is acceptable (canon) and what is not, because now there must be further measurements of not only what is or is not the official image, but what are the official attributes, and to what alternate icon the unofficial attribute will be assigned to. Thus we move from black and white to black versus white, each being iconic, being assigned differing values, in a dialectical process when what is official is “at stake”.

The history of Man has been written by those who have had socio-political control over humanity, as the literate amongst controlling factions have almost exclusively had the ability to write and build a canon (let alone have access to such a canon). Trillions of humans have lived and died under the various kingdoms, dynasties, empires and such without knowing the defining works of literature, art, and music history records as representative of each. So, as official and unofficial positions could be held in an era, the core making still occurred: Imperial portraits, folk crafts, orchestras, reed flutes, all occurred in the process of making while icons were chosen and canons were crafted and contested.

This also means that various official icons and canons fell in and out of favor with each passing era, with the passing of authority from one group to the next. Many positions of authority also made what they considered progress by returning to past models: a “classical” style the previous generation had erroneously forgotten.


This still exists today though it takes on a new significance with the rise of the Internet and greater access to the various official and unofficial creations of humanity. If you are an artist you have been part of this greater whole, in any number of positive or negative ways. The complexity of the relationship between what is official vs. unofficial is also affected by environmental and economic complexities never before known by mankind.

Thus my previous posts on what artists “should” do and the “hidden” secret of the creative process (informal, making) tie in to the official art world via how to supposed “succeed” in the art world or make money making art; topics I have not covered yet. As they may or may not be opposing forces, this finally brings us to the personal dialectic, maybe the only one that matters to the modern artist who seeks to move from unofficial to official status; the aforementioned idea of selling out.


To make a certain amount of money is often called “selling out”, if the artist is perceived to move from non-commercially to commercially viable genres. This means giving up status as a personification of purity to commerce, which carries an implied moral dimension; to be on the “right” side of the dialectic between pure creation and crass desires for attainment. The moral dimension of official art returns as what is financially less viable, as the properly personified “artist” doesn’t make alter their style to make money. Various amounts of money then become iconic of purity or uncleanliness. The artist bears guilt, shame, uncleanliness, impurity, as judged by those who, for example, value art for art’s sake, holding true to an ideology of art that makes money instantly suspect in its perceived official capacity to “pollute” and “alter” the core principles of the ideology itself.

So the true history of art, on the personal level, has now become a general choice to position oneself somewhere on a line between Point A and Point B, the official and unofficial, and how one’s making shifts and evolves, how it moves back and forth between the points. Making itself exists as a “pure” act, only to be altered later, if one has already sold out. Making alternately exists as an impure act, redeemable by making solely for the sake of art or non-commercial personal reasons.

Is the dialectical process filled with conflict or does it flow smoothly? Do you or I find ourselves conflicted over being outside commercial art or non-conflicted? Do we sell what we make or do we just make it? Does money matter or does art provide personal fulfillment that cannot be assigned a dollar value? Would we be filled with self-loathing to be commercially viable as an artist if it meant altering what we consider our true creative voice? Many artists find themselves outside of the dialectic, when what they have created is financially viable even as they pursued aesthetic purity (their own perceived morality of “not selling out”). Others may also agree with this assessment: that so-and-so never sold out and still became “successful”. There are many examples through out history of artist who never sold out and died for it, and artists who never sold out and ended up being extremely famous and rich for it. Ultimately the answer lies in the moral dimension we give to art, what we ourselves define as official, unofficial, and making.


The morality of art may found in our understanding and application of words like skill and imagination. Whether schooled or not, “artists” have shown levels of skill and imagination that are recognizable as such, though not always within the lifetime of the artist (Vincent van Gogh and J. S. Bach being prime examples). Thus selling out usually comes down to how, where, when, why the artists uses that skill and imagination. This is the morality of art within the artist, the central focal point of the individual; the basis of our critique of others and self in the art world, the political, world, the religious, world, and all other intersecting “worlds” a member of society finds themselves active in.

The use of political skill and imagination for self-gain is bad, while the use of skill and imagination to rid Third World nations of malaria is good. To paint just to please a certain set of art adjudicators in order to add a gallery showing to a resume is neither good not bad until a moral decision is made, until one has assessed how skill and imagination usage fits with an aesthetic morality, an ethical code, a line over which one shouldn’t cross in order to maintain the perceived integrity of their skills and imagination. Free jazz is an excellent example of this.

The world of freely improvised music has become an intricate and complex one, considering its simple and ebullient beginnings in the music of Ornette Coleman. Never destined to be a popular style of jazz, the history of this music is an ode of the resilience of the people who wished to keep it alive and well as a recorded and studied genre. It is for all intents and purposes akin to taking an oath of poverty to commit to making and promoting freely improvised music, though there will always be some academic interest in its history and limited social interest in the more idiosyncratic performers and works that somehow get the attention of the general public. Thus it is easy to imagine a certain kind of rugged morality existing in those who “refuse” to commit their musical careers to more financially and academically viable routes. This idea, though romantic to the college freshman that imagines himself or herself a musical outsider, has significant real world costs in the long term outside of academia. This musical estrangement also seems insignificant, considering the socio-economic and environmental issues facing 21st century citizens.


 We now arrive at the critical artistic issue, the inherent core to all of our artistic decisions: our creative morality, which I will define as our aesthetic ethos. If we share the same creative desires as our ancestors 700,000 years ago we desire to make known through art what is within us, which is beyond regular expression. As society made the issues surrounding such expression matters of ritual, religion, politics, aesthetics and so on, our desire to “make” remained. Then certain segments of society created groups and institutions that had hierarchies built within that made things official or unofficial. Our aesthetic ethos places things in a dialogue between good and bad: what to do and not to do, what we “should” or “should not” do.

Artists thus can only sell out, not be true to an ethos, if they have established that such an ethos is the most desirable one, the one that their skill and imagination must serve for the correct or best usage of their skills and imagination. Thus no one can tell an artist what they “should” do, as that is only answered in context of the skill and imagination of the artist, which is permanently outside of the understanding of another artist. If the artist must then answer such a question internally, what one “should” do must be measured against their ethos. As this can change, thus the methods and actions of the artist change, and thus no one bit of advice can work for all people. One can follow Kurt Vonnegut’s advice on writing, but to do so means at least some people would have to change an ethos they deep down know they cannot without dissonance in their soul. This also why no one method is guaranteed for all people; there never was nor will be a singular answer to any creative question. This guarantees there will always be art, skills and imaginations evolving and surprising us.

Can an artist “sell out”? Should an artist “sell out”? Your skills and imagination, in service of your ethos, are the only measurement of that.



“What ‘Should’ Artists Do?” Part Two



Recently I asked a fellow artist if she had any creative topic she wished me to write about, and her response was completely fantastic… replying “I would like to hear your thoughts about resistance… that thing that stops a person from doing what they should be doing”. And, as I outlined in Part One of this two part series, taking one’s art form seriously while taking oneself not seriously was a major step towards being free of obstructive ideas about artistic creation. Other strategies were reevaluating notions around words like “should” and “must” when considering and pursuing originality in art (what an artist “should” do).

But there was a key element missing in part one, which was: what an artist is willing to do. If a thing can stop us then (a) there must be an amount of unwillingness to change it (if it is in our control), or (b) a subsequently smaller amount of willingness.


This could be considered the ultimate artistic question for many reasons. First, it empowers the artist themselves to look at what is actually within their power and what lies out side of their ability to act, think, create, influence, etc. Second, it provides a much more realistic assessment of the true nature of one’s desires, i.e. whether or not one has artistic fantasies (becoming famous) or goals (sell a painting). Third, it provides the essential answer to that assessment, how much work one is willing to do to achieve competency, effectively strategize, think, plan, create, and act in relation to one’s goals.


Willingness to do any number of things in one’s artistic life will dictate a lot of, if not all of the creative life we wish to lead, especially: the length of our careers when we face resistance, and/or the various “should” and “musts” I mentioned in part one. It is really true that much of what success is built on is about just showing up in the first place, being the last (or even only) one willing to wait for something. I could give you so many personal examples of this; my entire career one could argue has been one long game of “hurry up and wait”, which I was willing to do. This willingness meant that I would not be stopped by short-term obstacles, given my desire to see ahead, over the horizon. Willingness to wait means that what is outside of my power can radically change, so watching and studying instead of directly acting many times is the best action.

For example, jazz music has waxed and waned in popularity from the 1920s until now, where it has essentially become an academic subject more so than a popular genre. In fact, children’s music sells more singles and albums than jazz, though jazz has provided society with advanced tangible and intangible artistic treasures. Thus, the jazz musician has historically always had to adapt to changing tastes to survive: playing pop music, doing commercial recordings for radio and television and so on. One’s ability to survive the times completely depended on one’s willingness to do or not do things. I am not saying that an artist should do X or Y, but that the artist must occasionally, by necessity, choose an X or a Y, and our willingness to do so definitely should be well thought out and strategic. We shape society in groups via our individual choices, but we can only control and act on so much of it. It is in our power to dig deeper and fight harder, or simply walk away, both being acceptable choices if the ability to act vs. our willingness to act is incompatible, ergo there is a real need for such an action.


Examining what one is willing to do provides a much more realistic assessment of the true nature of one’s desires, i.e. whether or not one has artistic fantasies (becoming famous) or goals (sell a painting). To use hyperbole, you hear it a million times as performer: “I would love to be able to play the X like Y”, or “I wish I could X as beautifully as Y”. Inserting the instrument and name of a musician, or the medium and name of an artist, everyone “wants” to X as well as Y does.

But 98% of the planet won’t, because of the key point of “resistance”: they are unwilling to do the work. Fantasies require no work, no willingness to work. Goals require all work and zero fantasizingWhat lies between is willingness. A measurement of willingness is a measurement of truth, especially when the measurement lies within your ability to act. Reality is a good friend if we learn something from it, a terrible enemy when we seek to mask it (see: the Dunning-Kruger effect). 

What we unconsciously desire is not always or usually what we are capable of. What we are capable of is measured repeatedly, as we move through Life. This is a real measurement, as advancing age by its very nature brings limitation. It is a blessing that fantasies are burnt away by time, while realism provides opportunity for advancement, however limited they get in one area or another as time passes. Plus, aging brings other opportunities for the artist: types of maturity, perspective, clarity, and so on that the young artist cannot know. The willingness to let go of former knowledge and embrace a more expanded, humane understanding of artistic creation means flexibility, willingness to let go of the obstacles we create for ourselves, the resistance we create out of our own ignorance.


Understanding limitation and the necessary realism of self-reflection, one can get down to the “true” work, the real work at hand: how many of the core competencies are we willing to work on towards our goals, and how much effort we are willing to put into each? As I stated, this provides the essential answer to that assessment, how much work one is willing to do to achieve competency, effectively strategize, think, plan, create, and act in relation to one’s goals.

If we face resistance, now defined as “that which stops us from doing what we have set out to do” (not dream about, but set goals towards), then determination (willingness + passion) will guide us. This determination will survive; because we can then ourselves survive without always relying on passion alone to sustain us. Plans are better than passion, as plans just require a willingness to do the work.  Plans are the skeleton of willingness, and willingness does not have to be at a maximum for a plan to work.

 It is HARD to practice the saxophone for 7 hours a day, though I was 100% willing to do it in college. I needed to do it in order to build the foundation necessary for what I do today. So back then it was necessary, and I was extremely eager to do the lonely, hard, often boring work of running scales up and down the horn for hours and hours. What was not in my control was the fact that, as a working saxophonist in my late teens, I was competing with saxophonists several years or decades ahead of me in technique or experience. I was also willing to acknowledge this within myself. Thus, I could move ahead with a strategy that maximized my then limited opportunities while minimizing my frustrations and struggles in the practice room. An efficient, well prepared study schedule meant that, while my ego wanted to move faster, my goals and strategies moved at a realistic pace, which actually had the effect of making my goals easier to achieve, at what would end up being a faster pace.

 As for my competitors, I noticed that they had certain habits and skill sets: all of which I could acquire and utilize myself. Thus it was fair that they got opportunities I didn’t at that time. Their success was not an obstacle in the way of my own, but rather a lesson waiting to be learnt. They deserved their status and position in the community via their work, and my place in this situation had not been earned yet. This realistic assessment could only mean that I either emulated their positive work-traits or just not succeed in that particular marketplace.

They also had connections I didn’t have, but would soon have once I was ready to have them. Desiring these connections and being ready to capitalize on them are two very different things, so being ready later than sooner was a huge benefit to me. They also did a lot of things I hate doing; business things that involved a lot of official forms and doing math! I really hate filling out paperwork and arithmetic. Really, really, really hate it. But my life has been filled with a huge amount of paperwork and filling out forms and so on, because it is the only way to get all a Ph.D., travel all over the world, do business, and so on. I have willingly done way more than others, so I get way more opportunities than others; it’s simple math. And I have worked and waited for them longer than others as well.

As I begin to approach the later side of middle age, this has not changed one bit. I still work towards goals, I still strategize, assess my strengths and weaknesses, and vigorously seek improvement in what I can control. I do not have unlimited time, health, and resources. I do have the same determination as I did when I was young, the same willingness that guarantees that nothing within myself resists my own actions, that nothing internally will stop me from doing what I want to be doing (aka “should” be doing). 

What I am not willing to do though is practice the saxophone for seven hours a day, because I (1) actually don’t have to in order to achieve what I now want to achieve, (2) don’t want to because it would take away from what I do want to work on, and (3) can’t, because to do so would undo the particular sound and style that defines my uniqueness (which requires less hours but more focused concentration). My current unwillingness is the right kind of unwillingness… for my current situation. Thus, the “resistance” to seven hour practice days is the correct choice for me. 

Willingness (A Reprise)

I would like to hear your thoughts about resistance… that thing that stops a person from doing what they should be doing”.

There is so much resistance one can choose to succumb to from external sources, and so many ways to create internal resistance within us; willingness becomes a critical issue in artistic progress. We possess power to act, have real strengths and weaknesses, and can determine a definable amount of action we are willing to take. Thus I would argue that there is no resistance save for what we decide, no immediate “doing” save for what we can, and no universal “doing” save for what we are willing to do.


An Introduction To Ornette Coleman’s Atlantic Sessions


An Introduction To Ornette Coleman’s Atlantic Sessions

As a proponent of (First Wave) free jazz and former student of Pulitzer Prize winning saxophonist Ornette Coleman, I am always happiest when sharing his music with my friends and students, especially those who are new to free improvisation. And since many of you are not practicing musicians I thought I would introduce to you Ornette’s amazing early work. First, let’s look at what came before Atlantic.

The Beginning of Free Jazz

There is always some controversy as to whom “started” the free jazz style: pianist Cecil Taylor, or Ornette Coleman, the usual suspects in this debate. Though certain artists like Jimmy Guiffre before had played freer forms of jazz than their peers in the past, it was Taylor and Coleman who are consider the most vital progenitor of the music, at least in this debate.

Taylor’s 1956 LP Jazz Advance had free form piano soloing on it, and his 1959 LP Looking Ahead! was also much freer in some ways than Ornette Coleman’s first two LPs: Something Else! The Music of Ornette Coleman, and Tomorrow Is The Question (recorded for the Contemporary record label). In fact, Taylor’s piano playing on Looking Ahead sounds more akin to the stylistic trends of Second Wave free jazz; the album’s title a seemingly prophetic self-reference to the Sixties. What makes it all even more tangled is that Looking Ahead, Tomorrow Is The Question and The Shape of Jazz To Come were all released in 1959 within a few short months, so naming a “Father” of free jazz is difficult. But what separates the two, and to me resolves the debate, is Coleman’s accessibility.

Both Taylor and Coleman, being a part of the First Wave, utilize a tradition jazz bass and drum rhythm section, playing a walking quarter note style bass line and steady bebop style beat. All in each group are free to do whatever they like… but the bass and drums are consistent and unchanging in their tempo and style. This changes in the Second Wave of free jazz, the stereotypical free jazz of screeching saxophones and pure noise where everyone is playing with no reference to anything. Both Taylor and Coleman maintain this First Wave bass/drum relationship in their groups (quartets).

But the key difference is that Taylor’s quartet during that period contained two chordal instruments in front of their rhythm section: piano and vibraphone, which can play chords. This means a lot of notes can be stacked one on top of another, which creates so much density and/or dissonance at times, it can be hard on the ears. Coleman’s quartet, on the other hand, consisted of two melody instruments: saxophone and trumpet, which can only play two note stacked at a time, which leaves less room for dissonance, unless one chooses to screech (Second Wave). This increased possibility of consonance (nice sounds), combined with Coleman’s penchant for engaging melodies and a joyous feeling, meant that people gravitated to Coleman with significantly greater enthusiasm. 

 The Atlantic Sessions

Between May 22, 1959 and March 27, 1961 Ornette recorded the 50 plus songs that would become part of his (classic) free jazz albums such as The Shape Of Jazz To Come, Free Jazz, This Is Our Music, and others for Atlantic Records. In the process he not only invented a new sound and genre in jazz but also opened up new directions in modern art, dance, classical music, rock (Frank Zappa, Velvet Underground, The Stooges), and others who came across his music from non-jazz related arts. In fact these ten sessions consisting of four men playing clever melodies and deceptively simple free form improvisation, recorded within the space of just over 96 weeks, made such a huge socio-cultural impact in the arts, it is rather breathtaking. There is no doubt that if you have any music in your collection that is innovative, it can be traced back to an Ornette Coleman album somehow.

So let’s begin at 9:30 pm on Friday, May 22nd at Radio Recorders in Hollywood California. The session was Ornette playing alto saxophone, Don Cherry playing cornet, Charlie Haden playing bass and Billy Higgins playing drums. As a bonus for all you fellow jazz nerds, I will also include the master copy number incase you want to track the original recording down in the Atlantic archives.

This group would go on to become legendary in the jazz world for their wonderful quartet sound, thanks to the combination of their musical personalities. Drummer Billy Higgins for example, had a more laid back, softer approach than other drummers yet still played with rhythmic intensity. Higgins’ penchant for playing a particularly cross-rhythmic style of bebop influenced drumming meant he provided the group roiling waves of drums and cymbals in a wonderful sea of rhythms, often imitated but never truly matched. Bassist Charlie Haden, a former child star at the Grand Ole Opry, had a lush tone and a wonderful bounce to his playing. Trumpeter and/or cornet player Don Cherry played in a probing, weaving sort of manner that complimented Ornette’s cheerful, angular patterns like thread weaving through lace. Put these men tighter and you get a sound and vision for future styles of music like no other.

The other thing that made Ornette ergo this group famous is that they were playing a song with a prewritten melody, but their improvisations were completely free, meaning they could make up any anything they wanted: base their improvisation on the melody, base it on Higgins’ rhythms, Haden’s bass notes, each simultaneously basing one off each other any point in the song after the melody. This was unheard of in mainstream jazz until Ornette came to Atlantic and released The Shape of Jazz To Come. He had released other albums with similar strategies that had not received similar attention, so The Shape of Jazz To Come is the “first” Ornette Coleman album to cement his legacy.

Ornette routinely named his songs after they had been recorded, so what made this first session for Atlantic unusual is that two of the songs that evening were already named before they were recorded. “Chronology” (#3508) was originally called “Step In”, but was changed upon release, as was the upbeat “Nomad”, which became “Congeniality” (#3510). The music recorded at this session was used on the album The Shape Of Jazz To Come, which was released in 1959, save for two tracks: “Just For You” (#3513) which appears on The Art of the Improvisers (1970), and “Monk And The Nun” (#3512), which appears on Twins (1971). This is very important to note, as it reveals a pattern that was and still is common in the music industry: artists having no control over their work. Though Coleman had creative control over The Shape of Jazz To Come, as his fame grew, so too did Atlantic’s desire to profit from his popularity. Now there is nothing inherently wrong with selling more of an artist’s work… but both The Art Of The Improvisers and Twins were complied and released with zero input from Coleman, which is hugely detrimental. This is because song order and textural considerations are vital in abstract forms, and releasing works without an artist’s input kills the flow of the very thing that made it vital in the first place. So the various sessions that produced Twins and The Art Of The Improvisers just so happened to be rather inspired but unused outtakes, including a 17 minute first take of the now classic half hour work “Free Jazz” that was not even supposed to be released ever, in any form.

(Note: the same thing happened with Coleman’s recording To Whom Keeps A Record. Released only in Japan in 1975, without his input, the pieces happened to be arranged so that when read in sequence would say, “music always brings goodness to us all, p.s. unless one has some other motive for its use”!)

My personal favorite from this session is “Chronology”, with its joyous stop-and-start ending. It seems to sit in a wonderful place right between a traditional jazz song and free jazz, with the best elements of both, not too abstract and not too traditional to bore or alienate anyone!

I hope you have enjoyed this little peek into the public beginnings of a 20th century genius. Now let’s enjoy some music!


What “Should” Artists Do?



Recently I asked a fellow artist if she had any creative topic she wished me to write about, and her response was completely fantastic… replying “I would like to hear your thoughts about resistance… that thing that stops a person from doing what they should be doing. This is such a perfect question!!

I see and hear questions like this all the time, although usually phrased in highly pretentious ways by academics who have no true feeling for art and design, like art must always be this serious business whispered about in hushed tones in the back corners of libraries filled with books on Post-post-post-postModernism! So it is a great joy for me to be able to clear the air here and pull back the curtain on the ‘pretense’.

Pretense No. 1: “Art Is Serious”.

Between May 22, 1959 and March 27, 1961 my saxophone teacher Ornette Coleman recorded the 50 plus songs that would become part of his (classic) free jazz albums such as The Shape Of Jazz To Come, Free Jazz, This Is Our Music, and others for the Atlantic record label. In the process he not only invented a new sound and genre in jazz but also opened up new directions in modern art, dance, classical music, rock (Frank Zappa, Velvet Underground, The Stooges), and others who came across his music from non-jazz related arts. In fact these ten sessions consisting of four amazing men playing clever melodies and deceptively simple free form improvisation, recorded within the space of just over 96 weeks, made such a huge socio-cultural impact in the arts that it is rather breathtaking. There is no doubt that if you have any music in your collection that is innovative, it can be traced back to Ornette Coleman somehow. It is also a fact that Ornette Coleman took his music extremely serious while being the most affable man ever. He spoke with a sweet, happy whisper that wafted like Zen incense through his apartment; tickling the senses of anyone about. He made sure I had a sandwich before our lessons! Imagine that. A man who won a Pulitzer Prize for music… making you a sandwich, when HE is the teacher and YOU are the student! He was also constantly composing or writing down ideas, practicing Bach pieces, or chatting about music using his usual mixed metaphors, at no time giving the impression he was the Pulitzer Prize, Grammy Award winning jazz icon that he was. He was a happy, hard working genius who played happy music, no matter how dissonant it sounded to his detractors.

This I find to be one of the great pretenses, that art must be a “thing” that must be taken seriously meaning that artists must act serious and say serious things and wear serious clothes and read only philosophy and say really big words to fit the idea of an artist. More often than not, this is where we find the resistance happens. “Well, I can’t do that…so I guess I am not a REAL artist (one of the serious art people)! Sound familiar? “I am an accountant. I couldn’t possibly be a painter”. Nonsense. The resistance is the (outside) notion of seriousness.

As poet Michelle Marie notes in the comment section below, the Nobel Laureate poet Philip Levine also hated such pretense, observing that basically academia would “sit around in a circle and decide who they weren’t mad at that year, and pick from among their own. It didn’t matter who was actually a good poet!”

(Note: to be fair, the artist or academic that desires your taking “art” seriously may have an need for validation sublimated within themselves, ultimately saying “I need you to see me as serious by taking art seriously. If you don’t respect art you don’t respect me, and if you don’t respect me, I don’t feel respected (loved)”. In that case maybe they don’t need a publishing deal, but rather a hug.)

Thus, if we don’t act a certain way or do art a certain way we are not doing things “right” and thus we don’t feel comfortable doing it because it seems unnatural for us, which it is! The “art is serious” obstacle is Nature’s way of telling us that someone has lied to you and gotten you to believe that you can’t, shouldn’t, or should do or be something you are not. 

All the geniuses I know take the act of making art extremely seriously, but themselves not very seriously. It is critics and wannabe artists, gallery owners, and certain academics who play at making art so holy and untouchable that they become the only priests allowed into the holy sanctum to bring out the truths you need to know, exclusively from them. There are historical facts about art, but ‘art is serious” is not the fact of the artist outside of his or her work. This creates resistance.

Pretense No. 2: “You Should…”

This notion that there is a “should”, like artists ever have to “should” anything, is such a laugh. We certainly should cook dinner for our kids if we have kids, pay our taxes, honor our commitments, not break the criminal code, etc. But art and especially music are not “church”, so “should” has no value here. It is healthy to take breaks from practicing the saxophone so as not to injure one’s joints and tendons. It is healthy to stretch one’s back before, during, and after drumming for four hours. We should do that. We should also do the work assigned to us at art school or quit if we don’t like it. But, if we are an independent artist, ‘should’ is irrelevant. As an independent artist I should do whatever the fuck I feel like doing! That is why I am independent. If we have a job and don’t have enough time to paint, find the time. If we don’t have the time, be creative and invent a new way of painting that only takes ten seconds and produces works as lovely as Vermeer.

Also, there are days where it is fun to reflect on the arts without doing them, to study and meditate on stuff: going to museums, walking in nature, and so on. This can be done while doing chores. There are a million ways to live our art, and the legendary artists of the past lived lives that unified art and life (often to tragic ends but there were many happy artists as well!). So there is no should, just variations of the verb “to be”: am doing, did, will do, thought of doing, will do tomorrow, etc.

It is completely amazing how not making music makes you a better musician. The brain needs time to process the information it is fed over long practice sessions and invariably I would take a week off in jazz college and come back better than if I had practiced for that extra week. Invariably. It still applies to this day. There is nothing better for my process. I never practice the day before a gig. I like to do tai ch’i, or explore the city I am in, especially in Asia. I know how to play the saxophone… but what I don’t know yet is the interesting sight I might see down a side street in Ho Chi Minh City, which inspires a rhythm, which inspires a song, which I write down a fragment of on a piece of paper, which I quote while I am improvising jazz the next night at my gig in Chiang Mai, Thailand. If I had been in my room practicing I would not have been given that little gift by the city. Not painting, instead going for a walk, is more art inducing if we open our hearts and minds. Others have gifts to give us, we should let them share their wisdom and ideas.

Pretense No. 3: “You Must…”

This is still a “you should…” statement, just phrased in a more direct manner.

I used constantly drive my buddy the brilliant flamenco guitarist (and vintner) Roger Scannura totally crazy by not actively promoting my independently produced albums. Scannura, a skilled and enthusiastic businessman, would become amusingly outraged by my seeming “refusal” to make money. According to Roger I certainly won’t be doing what I “should” be doing any time soon, but I have made it so “must” does not enter the picture. I can afford to not rely on album sales or other revenue streams because I consciously chose to structure my socio-economic life in such a way that “you must…” does not enter the creative picture. My artistic freedom is paramount. I will not sell it to anyone. “I must” not do anything I don’t want to. “You must” only happens when you allow yourself to be ruled by others and their desires.

A person can get stuck in “you must…” if they are not careful, so if you are not there yet, do NOT think “you must”, until you know you can enter into that particular “you must” in full control of the situation. You must be able to be the one that profits 100% from that “must” or you will be devoured by it. That is the odd benefit of my being an avant-garde saxophonist/graphic score composer; so few people know about what you do that you don’t have to face “you must” very often! “Must” is a noose of paperwork, false friends, gallery owners, self doubts, paintings you don’t believe in, songs you wrote to please others, and so on; a false jazz of ‘should’ and self-hate (resistance). It is quicksand that prefers you barely alive as long as possible.

So… do anything you want with that paint brush whenever you feel like it, or don’t. Do fun stuff that makes you feel happy. And if someone tells you “you must”, make sure you run away from them as fast as possible.


The “Hidden” Secret of The Creative Process: パート3


“Butterfly Glyphs” (Rough Draft: 2013)

In Part One of this series I discussed how creating fine art in a specific location, combined with endlessly repeated habit, has consistently been the best possible scenario for creating one’s best work (as proven in the lives of the great painters, musicians, writers, playwrights, and so on down through time). Where and when we create is more important than what and how. You will face as many moments of great creativity as indecision and doubt. But you and I maximize our chances for our best work and ideas to arise… when we are consistently in our own ideal location, at the right time. Then, in Part Two I introduced the idea of learning to improvise your “presence”, a training regimen designed to focus and heighten one’s physical/emotional awareness of the moment (improvising one’s “presence”) while exploring, and eventually ridding the practitioner of the various fears and inner judgments keeping them from realizing their creative potential.

Thus, Part One dealt with a location and time for your efforts, while Part Two dealt with body, emotions, and irrational thought made rational. In Part Three now we will now deal with the practical, logic aspect of creativity, naming a process and/or method that is the core structure of all subsidiary processes and methods; the very method that Albert Einstein himself used to discover some of the most profound secrets of the Universe without lifting a finger.

This means I am going to let the cat out of the bag as they say; spill the beans, let you in on the real secret that the top creative minds carry in their heads, often without realizing it. In fact, most of the great minds of human civilization probably didn’t realize the secret of their thoughts in the way I am about to explain to you. Now that probably sounds like a pretty grand statement to make, but when I reveal it I am confident I will be more right than wrong, at the very least. The answer contains two parts but the general idea is one simple concept.

It is “the” secret behind creativity; how people suddenly have amazing ideas that seem to magically come from nowhere. You can practice it, and it costs nothing. So don’t waste your money on books, DVDs, apps, and courses. You already have what you need to write a truly original novel, poem, song, make an original painting, and so on. Anyone that tells you different just wants access to your wallet. It’s free… you’re welcome!

The key to being able to create what seems to be almost mystical, unforeseen works (“inspiration”) is diatactical thinking. The word “diatactic” comes from neurology, which refers to the molecular union of the various brain cells and nerve centers necessary to coordinate one’s motor activity; how thoughts become commands which become motions. In common terms diatactical thinking means taking two totally different ideas and finding ways to connect them. The subconscious (or unconscious mind) does this naturally, which takes away the mystery of creativity; it is how things just “pop up” in our heads, the inspiration that seems to come out of “nowhere”. The word inspiration itself comes from the Latin verb to breathe in, like one is “ingesting” what some consider “divine” guidance. But it is not magic at all. All great scientists, artists, musicians, and so on had the kind of mind prepared for these sudden moments of inspiration, and the real geniuses can think diatactically.

Einstein famously daydreamed about riding a beam of light through space, and thus came to think about how he could turn the beam around to head back to Earth, which meant he had to think about the problem of gravity and its relationship with light, and on and on. The most famous example though is the 19th century German chemist Frederich Kekulé, who dreamt of atoms dancing and linking with each other, later day dreaming in front of his fireplace about atoms forming in strings as he watched smoke curl in his fireplace. The atoms then moved in a snake like fashion in long strings of atoms which then linked back onto themselves like an ouroboros, the ancient symbol of a snake eating its own tail. This diatactical method of thinking is possible on the conscious level as well, and we can train ourselves to do it very easily as part of our creative activities.

For example, let’s take the words toast and saxophone. Putting them together we can imagine: a saxophone made out of bread, bread shaped like a saxophone, a toaster shaped like a saxophone that puts out little saxophone shaped pieces of toast = a breaded or toasted saxophone = burnt metal = melted saxophone = trumpets + saxophones melted together = interesting art piece. Using a random Internet verb and noun generator, I got the words “maintain” and “quantity”. Maintain + quantity = keeping a bundle of sticks tied up, rope maintaining the bundle through tieing, rope + sticks = rope ladder, twenty five rope ladders all laced together maintaining the structural integrity of a raft, a ship… etc., etc. Now these examples may not be inspired or very creative. But giving your mind a vast quantity of material with which to work diatactical is the second part: (1) think diatactically, and (2) provide the mind with vast resources with which to diatactically think.

American short story writer Harlan Ellison is know for the great originality, quality, and quantity of his output. He has written so many high quality stories, scripts, essays, and such it almost seems unreal. And inevitably when asked about where he “gets” his ideas from he will often respond with varying levels of anger or incredulity, like such a question need be asked. It is not mystical or mysterious for him, it is about working extremely hard and engaging in copious amounts of reading in order to study and understand past masters. Writers like Harlan Ellison and novelist Kurt Vonnegut seem to be able to write without limits, create without boundaries, when all they do is what you or I can do, in great quantity (time and effort). In fact, I intentionally put this concept to the test in the summer of 1999 as I visited the various cities in Western Japan (Kansai) while I lived in the city of Amagasaki (near between Kobe and Osaka). And what I discovered was that even I could do this, without specialized training or any given talent!

When I was doing my Bachelor’s Degree in Music Education (1989 – 1993) I read about John Cage’s book Notations in a music history class. That was the first time I saw graphic scores. This book was legendary, because it was the first time someone had collected graphic scores from various composers and put them in a single book to be studied, and maybe played. But I was focused on jazz and classical saxophone, so I didn’t think about graphic scores at all during this time as a creative pursuit. Then in 1997 while I was living in New York City I had the chance to study with the Pulitzer Prize winning jazz legend named Ornette Coleman, who was the founder of free jazz.

Ornette liked my scores so he took me on as a student and eventually he suggested that I go to Japan. I thought that was amazing because I had gone to Japan to perform in 1995 and secretly thought maybe I should go there to study and work. I really wanted to go but didn’t know how to get a job, find an apartment, etc. I told Ornette about my secret dream, and he was so encouraging I felt like I could do it if I just believed in myself like he did. So I moved to Osaka, Japan to live (1998 – 2001), and eventually met the legendary painter Shozo Shimamoto. He had met John Cage and had an interest in graphic scores, so Shozo encouraged me to make my own, and experiment with art and music mixed together. So that was the beginning of my actual serious study consideration of actually making graphic scores. My first scores were really basic: just a few lines and scribbles. But as I played around with them and studied Japanese art and Zen Buddhist culture, I fell in love with the process.

But I had one problem with the graphic scores I saw other people making. They would just make scribbles, which required no thought and no serious study, and then just improvised what they imagined the scribbles might sound like. There is nothing wrong with doing this. But, to me, if you wanted to call it a musical score, it has to have some kind of order. Looking at art then making up music based on your feelings is just improvisation. If something is a score it has to create some kind of similar result no matter who plays it. If you play J. S. Bach’s solo cello suites, then I play them, they should have the same notes. So I didn’t like how many artists just splattered ink on paper then called that a “score”! I wanted my scores to actually have some kind of order, some kind of sequence or style that musical notes cold be attached to. So my scores have objects or symbols in them: original objects or symbols I either create, or use from Japanese language, math, etc.

So I bought a nice leather-bound notebook and spent the summer of 1999 just scribbling and doodling in my notebook, just “playing with” lines and circles while sitting on benches at Zen Buddhist temples in Kyoto, in bars in Osaka, wandering through the National Museum of Buddhist Art in Nara, sitting around coffee shops in Kobe, or in my apartment in Amagasaki, just drawing and not thinking, doing what is known as “following the brush” (zuihitsu: 随筆). A zuihitsu work in Japanese literature is what you would call a freeform essay in English or stream-of consciousness writing; just letting your mind and pen wander from topic to topic without editing, letting the work form itself. So I was creating a zuihitsu with scribbles, dots, and lines.

I especially like the sōsho or “grass” style of cursive Japanese calligraphy (草書), so I imitated (but did not formally study) the flow of ink and brush that happens in this style.

While I was doing this recreationally, I was studying the classical works of Zen Buddhism and taking copious notes, studying traditional Japanese Noh Theater music in an actual Noh theater school, performing and doing research in a Shinto gagaku orchestra, studying the Japanese language (and eventually achieving an advanced level), working with Shimamoto Sensei, studying judo and aikido, ergo studying martial arts philosophy, and so one. This meant I was filling my mind with a huge amount of information: words, images, and concepts from Japanese culture. Now this doesn’t mean I can claim I truly understand Japanese culture at any depth, but it does mean that I at least had a massive amount of information on Japan in my head, information for me to diatactically think with, in both English and Japanese.

So when I was drawing in my notebook I didn’t want to try too hard, so I could just let my scribbles just “evolve” on their own like a zuihitsu. I am not a trained artist either, so I thought I would just let my drawing happen naturally. Soon I saw common patterns coming up over and over again. I noticed I like certain patterns or shapes: circle mixed with dots, Japanese writing, and various symbols all mixed together. I also noticed I didn’t like lots of colour, preferring just black ink. This all happened naturally and soon I had three full leather bound notebooks (300 pages) full of scribbles which had turned into a set of over 50 original symbols I had created.

Then I started making my graphic scores using only a mix of these symbols, which meant I had my own original notation. It was not traditional musical notation, but I could assign musical values to the symbols and thus if a person used my graphic scores, the scores had a set order people could give meanings to. That is why you can call my work actual musical scores. My scores will have 9 things in one place, and maybe 5 things in another. So you know you can make, for example, nine notes here, or maybe have five rhythms there, but at least you know the score has 14 possible musical “things”.

Having done all this, my graphic scores have been performed, exhibited or published in 23 countries, which does not prove I am a great artist or a genius or anything that would make me special. I am not special. What it does prove is that diatactical thinking works. It was not possible for me to draw a blank, to not have lots of ideas about Japanese culture. It was impossible to avoid Japanese culture in my mind and soul. I made it so that my life was a living embodiment of the ongoing attempt to try and understand a culture I am deeply passionate about. Living life this way does not require talent, it provides so much diatactical material, you could almost say I had no choice but to become the kind of interdisciplinary artist I have.

This too is not an original idea of mine either. Einstein and all other geniuses carried immense amounts of non-diatactical information in their heads as well. An excellent example is William Ivins, a self-taught (!!) art historian and curator at The Metropolitan Museum in New York City. Ivins secured his positioned by looking, endlessly looking and being able to compare literally thousands of works in libraries, museums, in his memory, galleries, recognized works, known techniques, materials, chemistry, tools, forgeries, etc. filling his mind with a seemingly limitless catalogue of ideas and images with which to do his job. Ivins mind was always “in tune” and ready to see any/all things possible, instantly come what may..with no formal schooling. 

Thus, I knew that the sheer volume of information I carried in my head from all the time I have spent in Japan, China, Việt Nam, and South Korea, studying for my Ph.D., reading thousands of books on Zen, art, philosophy, and so on, would become a diatactical resource for me that ensured I would arrive where I wanted to. You can’t have a 30 page Reference section in your Ph.D. dissertation like I do and not have a diatactical mind. And it doesn’t even take that much material. Our minds are very creative and flexible, meaning we may not have the time to read tons of material, but what time and resources we do have will be used very effectively if we actually practice diatactical thinking.

It doesn’t even matter if our diatactical ideas are what people call “good”, we just need to practice and practice, and good ideas will emerge, often when you least expect. Diatactical thinking is not a magic trick, but we don’t have to have good ideas all the time for it to be working. It doesn’t matter if it doesn’t produce ideas that inspire us every time. If we get one good idea out of one hundred, it is still better than no good ideas out of one hundred. It also doesn’t guarantee that we will use these ideas in a brilliant manner. Lots of people have had great ideas for books, songs, paintings, etc. History remembers who it was that finished their ideas, good or bad. There is no magic better than the “magic” of hard work over long periods of time. But, if you work hard over long periods of time in a specific place, learn about the relationship between you mind, soul and creative faculties, and engage in diatactical thinking, you will produce the best work you ever could, guaranteed!

(Note: If you would like to try diatactical thinking , here is a fun exercise, See if you can write a tiny story, the size of a paragraph, that contains these words: squirrel, Wall St., sousaphone, airplane.)


The “Hidden” Secret of The Creative Process: パート2



In Part One of this series I discussed how creating fine art in a specific location, combined with endlessly repeated habit, has consistently been the best possible scenario for creating one’s best work (as proven in the lives of the great painters, musicians, writers, playwrights, and so on down through time). Where and when we create is more important than what and how. You will face as many moments of great creativity as indecision and doubt. But you and I maximize our chances for our best work and ideas to arise… when we are consistently in our own ideal location, at the right time.

Now, as my readers are as creatively varied as possible, I cannot give all of you relevant info on your individual arts. I am not that gifted. But, what I can do is suggest creative practices that can be done by anyone, resulting in greater overall inspiration and creativity, no matter where one channels that inspiration. These are creativity boosters anyone can do, and I would like to share with you a particular type of training I enjoy.

Since 2010 I have been exploring and practicing “Action Theater,” which I first heard about in choreography and improvisation classes at York University in Toronto. Created by Ruth Zaporah, and detailed in her book Action Theater: The Improvisation of Presence, it is a type of physical improvisation training that is designed to focus and heighten one’s physical/emotional awareness of the moment (improvising one’s “presence”) while exploring, and eventually ridding the practitioner of the various fears and inner judgments keeping them from realizing their creative potential. I like to call it emotional Tai Ch’i, a way of allowing one’s doubts to move as gracefully as one’s confidences, much like Japanese butoh dance. It gets the blood flowing, takes me out of my musician’s consciousness, and puts me in a place of exploration and discovery far outside of my field of knowledge (before judgment or valuation can arise). 

In the bookZaporah presents a twenty-day plan for creative exploration through movement, and each chapter lays out a full day’s process. Through the use of multiple exercises, stories, anecdotes, and metaphors utilizing movement, vocalization, and speech, her technique slowly moves the practitioner away from preconceived notions of creative action and focuses awareness on the present moment; emotional barriers such as fear and boredom are removed in the process, and the practitioner is free to create without inner hesitation. The actual exercises themselves focus on time, space, shape, and energy, and the practitioner is taught how to examine, experience, and alter each as part of their new, expansive expressive palette. This kind of training is especially important to improvising musicians, as we tend to view the body as just ‘the body;’ the mind and fingers being the vital elements in the process of playing.

The first exercise for example, On/Off Clothes, is a playful exploration of a common action; reconfigured to be explored and/or pondered in a new way. You can either take clothes off or put them on, but whichever you do, focus your attention on every aspect of it and find a way to improvise each part of the overall action. If you are putting on a shirt, focus on breathing evenly while picking up the shirt off of the floor, like it is a profound action. Then you can try finding a new, interesting way to put it on inside out.  The whole time you are doing this, try and be completely focused and aware of the shirt, and find ways to get your entire body involved in the process. Speed is also an option for exploration. Move fast sometimes, and other times move slowly. Do some things like you are in complete control and other things like you are being directed like a marionette, avoiding conscious thought in the process. And it does not have to include nudity. Merely donning or removing one’s hat can be done in the same manner as above.

What is also great is that you don’t need “talent” or any other such abstract noun to do the,. If you are a bad dancer it is OK. If you feel embarrassed by trying such things, no one will know, as you do them in private, in any size place. In fact, the more far removed you are from knowledge of dance and theater the better, as your explorations will be free of bias. You’ll be surprised at the kinds of unexpected beauty your mind and body are capable of, especially when aestheticizing common motions. For example, see how many ways you can pick up a pen from your desk. Then begin to add words and phrase to the motions. This kind of “serious play” loosens one’s inhibitions and makes us more willing to be more adventurous when we return to our craft (poetry, musical composition, etc.). 

It is also particularly fun to do the exercises along with music. The works of composers Philip Glass and Steven Reich lend themselves to creative movement, and thus I recommend pieces such as Reich “Music for 18 Musicians”, or anything from the Philip Glass album “Glassworks”. The Jan Garbarek album “StAR” is also an excellent recording for integration into physical motion, though any music you like will do.

Playing with ideas such as these helps one see things anew from outside your usual frame of reference), and often this new vision leads to new paradigms for exploration in the fine arts; physical activity that stirs your creative juices. It also helps build stamina and flexibility, two very important factors in stage performance for dancers, actors, and musicians alike. It is a fun and easy process, requiring no physical skill other than the range of your daily motions, which provide a fun and profound creative way to move forward in Life.


The “Hidden” Secret of The Creative Process: パート1

The “Hidden” Secret of The Creative Process

Recently, the poet Robert Okaji e-mailed me and asked if I would write a post on how one goes about being creative, engendering the maximum of individuality in the creative process, etc.

First of all, it is rather humbling that Okaji, being as skilled as he is would want to know my opinion on the matter.  But, the beauty of creativity is that we are all so different, and have individual “ways and means”: behaviors and locations in which we can maximize potential and minimize our creative obstacles, or the financial parameters in which we desire to or must work, etc. We can all at least add a perspective, and here is mine.

In analyzing my “Process” years ago, defined as “how I go about making what I consider my best work”, I discovered the following: I preferred doing all my work within the same 11 hour period of the day, 6 pm to 5 am. This means that I like doing each activity I want or must do in segments: blogging around 6 pm, academic writing from 7 to 9 pm, drums from 9 to 10 pm, poetry from 10 to midnight, saxophone from midnight to 4 pm, and graphic score work in one hour sittings from 4 to 5 am. These invariably overlap when I get inspired, meaning I will write poetry from 10 pm to 2 am and “procrastinate” by playing saxophone at midnight to get away from writing. So I am technically always doing work while “avoiding” it in other forms. I also do all this work in an empty conference room when I am on the road, or in my hotel room (writing only), or in my office. All activities happen in the same space, and I especially love spreading all my notes and books and papers on my hotel bed and working until dawn. One location + a preferred order of behavior(s) mean I do my best work. This gives me a kind of personal “arithmetic of creativity”: specific location + endlessly repeated habit(s) = best output. I have concepts and techniques that I work with in my graphic scores, jazz improvisation, composing, saxophone study, drum/percussion study, poetry, academic writing, and so on. But they all happen at my peak ability in one place, during specific six segments of time, overnight.

The secret that I have discovered, which is not really “mine” and also not really a secret, is how the “creative process” is really about where and when we work, and not about what and how. Some produce their best material through endless hours and revisions. Other do raw work for a couple of hours then use the rest of the day to engage in other activities which can be the source of their inspiration when they return to work. Thus, it is not about the creative process, but rather the relationship between the location of where they work vs. do not work, and what habits they do or do not hold to. It doesn’t matter what I think about art or sound, what my training is, what I wear, where I am, my talent level, who I know, or anything else. Location + habit = the creative process, not how much I write or what I write about, whether I study/think about jazz or Turkish classical music in 10 beat cycles, or anything. Place + work = creative blossoming 90% of the time in the short term, and 100% of the time in the long term. But that is just me… my way of seeing it.

Is this my opinion or does history bear it out as fact?

An excellent compendium of documented creative work habits is Mason Currey’s fantastic book Daily Rituals: How Artists Work (Alfred A Knopf: 2013). In it he reveals how a myriad of work habits and locations have been the basis for the great creations of Mankind.

George Orwell, for example, had no time to write because of his teaching schedule, so he took a part time assistant job at a used bookstore, which allowed him enough free time to write and perfect his craft. His daily schedule of opening the shop at 8:45 and working for an hour, then being free to write until returning to work from 2 to 6 pm gave him the freedom and structure he needed in which to progress. In his case, the bookshop provided a necessary site and ritual. Painter Jackson Pollock would wake up around 1 pm for “breakfast”, then work in his old converted barn/studio from 2 to 6 pm, leaving the evening free for time with his wife and supper guests.

Jazz legend Louis Armstrong had a detailed and exhaustive daily ritual on the road that kept him active all day and late into the evening, including extensive use of various medications, remedies and medicinal marijuana usage to maintain his strength and sanity, and help alleviate his chronic insomnia. Each part of the day happened as exactly as the day before, and Armstrong’s life long touring regimen became legendary: it worked like clockwork. Existential philosopher Jean Paul Sartre made it his personal and singular rule to work only three hours in the morning, then three in the evening; all he needed to do. His output was brilliant, but his personal life was filled with frenzy, chaos, and excesses of red wine and barbiturates. In the end his personal life caught up with him, but his strict regimen of two three-hour daily writing sessions produced some of the most important Western philosophy in history.

Japanese novelist Hiruki Murakami has an interesting take on his daily ritual. When working on a novel he gets up at 4 am, and works for six hours straight. Then, in the afternoon he runs and swims (often both), runs errands, listens to music, reads, and then goes to bed at 9 pm sharp, holding himself to this schedule very strictly. As he describes it, he “mesmerizes” himself through repetition, through this mesmerisation he reaches the deeper state in which he can contemplate and write his best work. The brilliant Spanish artist Joan Miró too held to an inflexible daily schedule that began at 6 am when he arose to eat a few slices of bread and a cup of coffee before entering his studio at 7 am to work until noon. He then did one hour of vigorous exercise before having a frugal lunch finished with exactly three cigarettes and one cup of coffee. This was followed by what he called “Mediterranean yoga”, a five-minute nap! He would then deal with the daily chore of reading letters, meeting friends, returning to work in the studio from 3 to 8 pm, every day, without deviation. He hated interruptions, or having to attend outside events, saying, “I absolutely detest all (exhibit) openings and parties! They’re commercial, political, and everybody talks too much!”

Swiss psychoanalyst Carl Jung on the other hand, had a more cheerful, relaxed approach to his writing, having built for himself a stone cottage complex that had: no carpets on its uneven stone floor, no the modern amenities such as electricity or a telephone, daily wood chopping for heat, an oil stove and oil lamps, and daily trips to the adjacent shore (Lake Zurich) to draw water he had to boil for drinking and cooking. It was here he could get away from his workaholic office life of patients, university lectures and so on, and work on his writing, which he did for only two hours a day during the morning. The rest of the day was spent in leisure activities such as painting, meditating, preparing food, and so on. Those “mere” two-hour periods resulted in work that made Jung a towering figure in human thought, and the Father of Analytical Psychology. As he himself stated, writer Truman Capote was a completely “horizontal writer”, and couldn’t think unless he was “lying down, either in bed or stretched out on a couch and with a coffee and a cigarette handy. As the afternoon wears on, I shift from coffee to mint tea to sherry to martinis”. Even his typing was done in bed, with the typewriter balanced on his knees.

The legendary German composer Ludwig Van Beethoven had very particular approaches to his day. His coffee had to be made with sixty beans per cup, and he would often count each bean individually to ensure his coffee was exactly as it should be. He also had a very unusual habit of washing his hands in a washbasin while singing loudly, often composing, washing, and singing for extended periods of time (occasionally interrupted by a momentary period of intense meditation). This behavior made his servants laugh, which would send him into an uncontrollable rage. Also, his constant splashing over the course of his washings meant that he often soaked the floor of his apartment, making him rather unpopular with his landlord and neighbors below. Legendary Dutch painter Vincent van Gogh had a very simple, extreme approach to creativity; no ritual other than paint all day until near collapse, in what was described as a “dumb fury of work”.

Filmmaker David Lynch, though having meditated every day for decades, found inspiration in fast food during a seven year period in his life in which, “I would go to (Bob’s Big Boy) after the lunch rush and ate (sic) a chocolate milkshake and four, five, six, seven cups of coffee – with lots of sugar. And there’s lots of sugar in that chocolate shake… I would get a rush from the sugar and I would get so many ideas!” Composer Igor Stravinsky, named by TIME magazine as the most important composer of the 20th century, could not compose a note unless the windows were closed and he was assured no one could hear him. He worked from 9 am to 1 pm without a break, after doing calisthenics at 8 am to getting his energy for the day. If he felt creatively blocked, he would often stand on his head briefly, which he felt would rest his head and clear his brain. Even playwright Tom Stoppard, a chronically disorganized procrastinator, found a way to “structure” his creativity, noting that fear of an impending deadline was the thing that made him rise to the occasion and write all night in the kitchen while chain smoking. His smoking habits too were unusual, in that he would smoke cigarette after cigarette taking only two or three puffs before snubbing each out. This way he felt like he was smoking with a “very long (fresh) filter”. Stoppard’s procrastination/smoking were habits he engaged in, which engendered his writing sessions in a specific place.

In every case, each artist had a location, habit, and a chronology that worked for them, and thus they produced great works; their arts are wildly diverse yet, they share this commonality. No matter how inspired or uninspired, they created, edited, and revised ad nauseum in their spot until the end of their “shift”. They also did their regular living via habit and location, and thus Currey fills his book with over 160 examples of this reoccurring phenomenon. There was a specific, repeated place, a strict time, and creative achievement on the highest level.

I can’t tell you what and how to create, but history bears out the fact that location + ingrained habits = Beethoven, Picasso, Stravinsky, Miles Davis and innumerable other luminaries. How you personally go about this will be as unique as any other, but by holding to your own arithmetic of creativity (location + habits = best output) you undoubtedly will be as creative as possible.

In Part Two of this series I will discuss a particular method of inspiring creativity when one has their “where and when” figured out.