music

The Mystery of Creativity

The world thrives on creativity. From entertainment to the arts to science and business, creativity plays an important role in giving us novel ways of looking at the world and solving problems. Thousands of books have been written on the topic of creativity. Many claim there is no mystery to creativity, and they offer approaches and exercises to make creativity “easier.” But there is no denying that there is no clear explanation for how and when creativity will “hit.” In my own creative endeavors, I’ve noted various approaches I’ve used.

Computer programming. In the early days of microcomputers and personal computers, there was a periodical titled Creative Computing. Computers were opening up entire new ways of looking at problem solving and hobbyists and experts were just beginning to recognize the potential for recreational computing. When I took a course in assembly language programming forty years ago, our homework had to be done on a DEC PDP-8/E minicomputer. Given an assignment to instruct the computer to flash the console lights from one end to the other, I went one step further and wrote a series of instructions that would produce more interesting patterns. A useful exercise? Only in learning how to tell a computer what to do at a very basic level. But mastering this in a creative way was very exciting.

Writing. I have long realized that the creative process in my writing is haphazard and difficult to describe, predict, or direct. For example, the development of the story in my fantasy novel, The Ban of Irsisri, involved a great deal of the following:

  • work on an idea

  • connect that idea to something else

  • sit on the idea for a while

  • turn the idea upside-down and see what happens

  • throw some new ideas at the work and see what sticks

  • trim away what doesn’t fit

  • go back to other ideas and see if they will connect

It was very much a process of evolution. It was also frequently like the process of accretion in planet formation, where over time bits and pieces glom together and attract more pieces.

Music. There are parallels in the development of music that I’ve written. I’ll toy around with a sound, a series of notes or chords, and jam with myself for a little bit. I’ll then develop something different, then think about how and whether those pieces could be connected. Then I go back in, as the work develops, and trim away excess while fleshing out other parts and laying down parallel tracks to give the music fullness.

Model trains. I’m currently working on a model railroading layout in my basement. It’s based on an N-scale train (one of the smallest size trains available), specifically a model of the Eurostar produced by KATO in Japan. There’s not much room in the basement, so the challenge I set myself was to construct something within a defined space, using as much of the track I have available as possible. I’m not into the highly-realistic scenery and detail that most train enthusiasts are. Instead, I’m trying to create something that looks futuristic. For the components, I’ve been collecting various household odds and ends, as well as leftover parts of various toys and toy systems, much like the found object concept in art.

Contrary to what some people claim, I still believe there is a significant amount of mystery to the creative process. This can be a cause for frustration when creative energy can’t be readily tapped, but it can also make for some real satisfaction in the end.

(For further reading, see Joe Fassler’s Light the Dark: Writers on Creativity, Inspiration, and the Artistic Process.)

Zarathustra and Mystery

When it comes to choosing names for fantasy characters, there are examples from history and literature that can be inspirational, or even repurposed. “Zarathustra,” or “Zoroaster” is one of those. Zoroaster was an ancient Persian prophet.

My first exposure to “Zarathustra” was via the score for a famous scifi movie.

I have blogged in the past about the sense of mystery, or mysticism, in fantasy and science fiction. I was introduced to this as a young teenager. When 2001: A Space Odyssey was released, my father took me and some of my friends to see it. The story generates all kinds of questions, including who placed a monolith on Earth to influence the evolution of Homo sapiens, and another monolith on the Moon to signal when humans first achieved space travel? What is the meaning of the "star child" at the end of the movie? I’m sure my father left the theater scratching his head and wondering why he had brought us to see this movie. I’m also sure I had some of the same questions, but the difference was I could accept that there are some questions for which there are no good answers. I was comfortable with, even relished, the mystery.

But beyond the mysteries presented in 2001: A Space Odyssey, I remember being profoundly moved by the movie’s score, and in particular, the opening theme by the composer Richard Strauss, which is the introduction to his tone poem, “Also sprach Zarathustra.” When I learned that Strauss was inspired by Friedrich Nietzsche’s famous work of the same name (in English, Thus Spoke Zarathustra), I had to read it. This was in the early 1970s, shortly before I started college. It was a time of mysticism and psychedelics and Hermann Hesse and Tolkien and black-light posters of wizards and mountains. In translation, Thus Spake Zarathustra was rendered into “Biblical” English (“thee,” “thou,” etc.), which only added to its mystery.

As it turned out, I don’t think I understood a word of it! But it impressed me, and I went on to read many other mystery-flavored works as I transitioned into college, including those of Hesse and Kahlil Gibran. Feeling nostalgic, and imagining I may decide to reread Nietzsche, I recently added a copy of Thus Spoke Zarathustra to my library.

ROTFL and DNA - Lost in Translation?

Thanks to my friend Missy Frazier, I've learned a person's laugh can be transcribed using music notation. (See http://cmuse.org/signature-laugh-transcribed-to-sheet-music/.) It turns out a person's genetic code can also be turned into music. (See http://news.bbc.co.uk/today/hi/today/newsid_8807000/8807091.stm.) So could we take someone's laugh, transcribe it using music notation, back-translate the music notation to genetic code, and use bioinformatics to find the gene sequence that codes for that person's laugh? Just a bit of whimsy for the geeks out there. :)

"Orfeo": Science, Music, and the Meaning of Life

OrfeoOrfeo by Richard Powers
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I was excited when I learned Richard Powers had published a new novel. I've read his work before and appreciated many things in his stories: figurative language, music, science, and allusions that make you feel like you've accomplished something when you recognize to what the allusion alludes. All of this can be found in Orfeo as well. But ... unlike his other work I've read, this story was not as enjoyable. Far too much time was spent on the music side, and not the science side. And to fully appreciate the role of music in this novel, you would need a pretty darn good education in music, including history, theory, and composition. At times I felt confused by the way the story jumped back and forth between the protagonist's past and present - it is important not to forget what's happening in one timeframe till you can return to that timeframe further along in the story. Finally, while the novel reminded me of concepts put forth by Douglas Hofstadter in Godel Escher Bach An Eternal Golden Braid, I believe Powers could have better leveraged the relationships between science and the arts.

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