What are the main elements of a creative musician?

The Slits pre gig setup – Hornsey art school 1977 (Ana da Silva)

Delving into the deep recesses of what it means to be a creative musician opens up an array of projections and possibilities, a question that is impossible to answer but which I feel needs to be asked. My interest is as a Higher Popular Music Education (HPME) researcher seeking to discover whether university education is supporting current popular musicians to explore their true creative selves. As neoliberalism sweeps through the UK university sectors employability is linked to course design and outputs; I wonder whether HPME can in part replace record company A+R departments who gambled, took risks with young creatives and provided them with the time and mentoring to achieve their maximised music identity. If we are going to mentor musicians then surely it is supporting their creative journey which is vital.

In traversing the slopes of creativity, I pose an open question for exploring what it means to be a creative musician, a conversation which will support the debate and open pathways of exploration. Through jazz, classical, dance, punk, rock and other global music genres are there interconnections which help to define what a creative musician is?

There are many elements of creativity that connect to perceived elements of musicality, which resonate with all elements of the creative arts including flexibility, associative thinking (chance and freedom), collaboration, metaphorical thinking (comparative) and synthesising (mixing conscious and unconscious) (Vaughan, 1977, p.72). It is the interconnection between conscious and unconscious thought processes that help to define creative artists. Richard David James (Aphex Twin) used dreaming as a way of exploring the unconscious state, recalling sounds, motifs and atmospheres which he would create in his waking state. Teaching at the German Bauhaus school in the early 20th century, Johannes Itten, used breathing exercises and movement to help students move into trance-like states, to reduce the impact of considered thought.

Maybe we need to leave musicians alone or press the reboot button located on their person. Engaging with the concept of natural artistic creation, musicologist Michael Spitzer argued that musicality is innate within the human species and the naturalness to perform and create it is stunted through a series of cultural phenomena. Within art, cutting back to the original naturally creative self is achieved through unlearning, where previous education and the creation of a blank slate on which to provide the space and inspiration to explore creative avenues is attained. British ethnomusicologist John Blacking discovered that the Venda people of South Africa believed that music existed as something naturally assumed through the human body and socialised experiences; trance induced states and automated learning from birth assumed an automatic imbibing of musicality, where music is life: life is music.

Correlating to the emotional and cognitive elements of creativity, arriving in the flow, being lost within artistic creation intrigued Hungarian psychologist Mihalyi Csikszentmihalyi. Teaching student artists to recognise when they are in a flow state and techniques on how to get there should be an ingredient of popular music education. Research psychologist and former partner of Mick Fleetwood, Jenny Boyd interviewed musicians about their creative experiences discovering numerous recollections about getting lost in music, being in a flow state, reducing the conscious impact on the creative process. Boyd reflected on Jung’s theory that ‘the centre of the total personality lies midway between the unconscious and the conscious,’ with this transference being an important point. Her findings revealed that some musicians used meditation to transcend to ‘no mind’ and ‘referred to a kind of mental ‘stillness’ necessary for the unconscious to make itself known through creative expression’

Alternatives to exhorting technical proficiency, within my own research (Blank Canvas due for release with Intellect publishing in early 2022) I explore connections between UK art education and the creative development of popular musicians. Some of the main elements of creativity relate to interdisciplinary features. I argue that musicians and music educators should look away from music specific ideals to develop musicianship, with art schools being one avenue overdue for in depth exploration. Musicians could expand their outlook to include subjects such as philosophy, psychology, culture, politics and science for example to help inform practices.

Inspired by the Bauhaus, Belgian socio-cultural theorist Thierry De Duve believed that the closer someone existed to a newborn state then the greater their natural level of creativity. He also crucially detailed three periods (3 is always the magic number) within the field of visual arts, with the three main elements of the third section of the schema coinciding with key components of popular musicians who exploded through the 1960s and 70s: Attitude – Practice- Deconstruction.

Looking at these independently then: 

Attitude – is a difficult word to define but can be seen as an artist who takes risks with a radical edge, not being a slave to conformity or tradition but aiming towards pure creativity, without allowing anything to stand within their pathway.

Practice – can refer to a few constituents but in general connects to the creative process, letting this evolve and revelling in the journey. It can also be related to the actual physical practice required to assist in the development of enhanced musiciality.

Deconstruction – again has meanings which intersect, including deconstructing collective ideas but also deconstructing the music itself into constituent parts. 

Taking these three main elements into consideration could be vital for the nurturing musician who is looking for a framework of creativity, examining the main elements then utilising work that is personal and true to the self alongside an openness to collaboration, whether with other musicians or themselves.

Entering the traditional music realm, key elements of musicianship could be seen as pitch and rhythm but exactness within either doesn’t tell the whole story for a creative musician. I believe that all humans have their own natural pitch and timing capabilities and emphasising or enhancing these is an area of interest for the creative musician. The Velvet Underground’s Mo Tucker drummed with a natural non-linear expression counter to exactness exploited by the lifeless click used by many drummers and rhythm exponents. The random swing of an Akai MPC drum sampler gave a machinic but naturalness to early hip hop programmed beats. 

Art school students such as ambient pioneer Brian Eno and post punk musician Gina Birch invited chance induced and randomisation into their music making, inspired by conceptual art. Bill Drummond of the KLF (alongside managing Echo and the Bunnymen and Teardrop Explodes) believed in conceptual processes where the idea is of equal or greater importance than technical efficiency or outmoded musicianship. Alice Fox of 80s band The Marine Girls still employs processes of unlearning extended from the Bauhaus, another punk infused artist who saw the value in recalibrating, trying to stop playing the same patterns which define you and reflect your learned traits. Allowing the system to take control as in the artistic science of cybernetics where the process is complexly cross-connected where organism is key, as it is the art piece and everything which exists around it which is where the magic happens.

Alongside the soon to be released Blank Canvas, I have written a couple of journal articles which explore these ideas. https://www.researchgate.net/profile/Simon-Strange/publications

Through my research it is simplicity that is an important element, where the concept defines the process of creation. Minimalist music inspired by the four grandees (La Monte Young, Steve Reich, Terry Riley and Phillip Glass) embedded itself into popular music genres, stripping away extraneous parts which masked the bounce or frequencies of music. Minimalism = simplicity, providing space between the notes where the conceptual nature allowed the music room to breathe and the listener the chance to place their own meaning within the music. I believe this is a vital element of dance music genres in particular.

Music writer Simon Reynolds in his opus on dance music (Energy Flash), stated that iconic Detroit house producer Juan Atkins undertook philosophical explorations whilst compiling DJ sets, trying to enter the mind of the creator of a track to work out where the next one should match. As a non-traditional musician, the mind is an important tool for DJ’s and electronic producers. Many musicians aim to mimic but for the artists within the field, being innovative and original is a key goal. Bristol musician Tricky shared his creative philosophy: ‘I wanted to make something that no one’s ever heard before – I wasn’t interested in anything else’ (Fisher, 2014, p.47)

We are in a period within the music industry of saturation, where from 60,000 albums a year in 2002 rising to almost that number a day in 2021. How do you break through this noise, a morass of content waiting to engulf you. Gatekeepers still exist but competition is fierce so originality and innovation might be the only way to break through; surely the music buying public are ready to engage with this. Exploring the past to make judgements on the present – sociocultural theorist Mark Fisher coined the term popular modernism where a modernist avant-garde exploration for future innovation is matched with a populist reach. Fisher saw in post punk, a reworking of the past where the present or the future is unknown creates work which has longevity and depth, a concept where the interconnection of experimental and commercial ideas merge. Surely this is where we need to emerge.

To be conscious of the unconscious is a vital element of creativity, this interplay which defines the connection between known and unknown the learnt and unlearned – musical creativity is a bi-play of numerous elements but maybe it is this intersection which should be concentrated on when supporting musicians to develop their creative selves. Focusing on the development of creative expression in musicians is key.

References

Boyd, J. and George-Warren, H. (2013) It’s not only Rock ’n’ Roll. London: John Blake Publishing.

Fisher, M. (2014) Writings on depression, hauntology and lost futures. Zero Books.

Spitzer, M. (2021) The Musical Human: A history of life on earth. Bloomsbury.

Vaughan, M. (1977) ‘Musical Creativity: Its Cultivation and Measurement’, Bulletin of the Council for Research in Music Education, (50), pp. 72-77.

Music in the art school