Saturday, October 15, 2011

Process of Writing 24: Forward Momentum and Emergent Order

I've overheard myself say lately that I'm on a creative roll. The truth is, I'm at a point in the project of writing the new music commission where the writing has become easier, more fluent and fluid, and so I get a lot done each week. A few weeks ago I wrote three songs during the week; I've been averaging about two songs per week since, with some weeks only getting one song done, due to external circumstances that have prevented me from sitting down at the writing table. Not bad distractions, just logistical things that need to be taken care of.

When you finally get the ship going and build up a good head of steam, it keeps going for a long time, and requires effort to slow down and stop. In physics, it's called the law of inertia, of forward momentum: A body in motion tends to stay in motion, a body at rest tends to stay at rest. (Yes, that's a law of physics, not just a tag line for a TV commercial for some energy drink for athletes.) So I've built up a creative head of steam, now, and am in what athletes like to call "the flow"—that non-ordinary state of consciousness where each move seems simultaneously spontaneous and pre-planned, where the tip of the paradox is that you are moving very fast but to your own perception there seems to be lots of time in which to observe and make decisions, choose paths, decide on tactics within your pre-planned strategy. (Tactics are the operations on the ground. You may have a per-planned strategic goal, and strategy is how you plan to reach your goal. Tactics are what you use in the moment, always adjusting your forces to approach maximizing your end strategy.)

It's easy to get pulled into watching a video or film or TV show and forget that what you are seeing is not continuous motion but a fast series of still frames. Moving pictures are an illusion. To create the illusion, we rely on the persistence of vision, which is a trick of the eye and of perception. The light coming into the eye lands on the retina, triggering bio-electrical waves in the neurons of the eye's sensor elements. Being biological rather than electronic, the waves of neural transmitters take a moment to pulse, and each pulse takes a moment to fade away. So, if you show 24 or 20 frames a second in the front of the eye, it perceives it as continuous motion because each frame lingers in perception long enough to overlap with the next frame, and create the illusion of smooth, continuous flow. You can affect the viewer's experience, in fact, by changing the frame-rate. (Of course, all this could be wrong. Some people like to think so, but seem to have no better explanation as a replacement.)

How can I describe how I feel when I write music? The persistence of pencils? Neurological inertia? The truth is, when a musician looks at one of my scores they perceive it as a seamless, continuous flow. But the writing proceeds by fits and starts, frame by frame. I build up what feels like a static charge of restlessness, when I sit and write for awhile. What I usually need to do is get up and walk around, go do something else for five or ten minutes, then come back to the writing table. I'm sure some writers will view that as seriously undisciplined, but maybe it's just another kind of discipline. The static charge analogy is a good one, because it describes how I literally feel after a half-hour or so of intense concentration on writing music: like I'm about to get struck by lightning. I have to walk it off.

I'm aware, too, that the static build-up is also about catching up to where I am in my mind with the writing. More precisely, I've caught up with writing the notation to the point where I have written down as far as I could go, and I need to go do something else to let the inner voices recharge and give me the next bit of music. This is very hard to put into words. It can feel like waiting to take dictation. Even though I am making musical decisions, and using all my craft to bring the musical idea into being, the inner process is at core very intuitive. it's all about listening with the inner ear.

People complement me for using a particular musical style for a particular piece, assuming it was my conscious intention. (In typographic design, the principle of transparency is often cited: That the type should be the transparent glass in which the wine of the text is contained. If the type is set up ideally, you don't notice it. ¶In poetry, the principle of transparency is similar: The perfect form to suit the content, form following meaning and function.) But as with writing poetry, I don't know what style the music is going to have until I hear it with my inner ear. True, I hear it before I write it down in score notation, but it often arises when I'm reading the lyric through, thinking about what music to use to set it. I might have some idea going in, but it really depends on the inner ear. Sometimes I have even had to reshape the lyrics, once the music started coming, to make them a better match.

This really is hard to describe. Basically, it's about listening to those inner musical voices, which is very intuitive, then using what you hear as the kernel of what you write down, at which point all your knowledge and experience and craft comes into service. The craft and music theory I have learned, which is more than most people ever even imagine, is all in service to the inspiration. It enables me to notate what I hear inside.

Back in music school, all they could teach us was craft. You can't teach inspiration. It's there or it isn't. You can teach how to be receptive to it, but you can't force it to come to you. There was a lot of bland music back in music school, a lot of failed experiments, as we composition students fooled around learning out craft, and often not having much to say. Having something to say is essential, in poetry or in music, or everything you write is hollow, or worse, if it's self-congratulatory for no real reason.

Getting up and walking away from the table, then, is a chance to let that creative voice inside you take a breath and decide where to go next. I can talk about it using analogies to other arts. Creative process is similar no matter what art form you're working in; or I should say, it is similar for me, who practices artistic crop rotation. So, analogies. Stepping away from the music writing table is like painters stepping back from their painting to look it over for awhile, till their eye sees what needs to be done next. Lots of non-artists think that everything artists do is all planned out beforehand, very consciously and deliberately, but that is rarely so. Many painters "follow the brush" at some point, and make decisions during the creative process that surprise even themselves. I am constantly surprised by the music I write, finding things in it later that perfectly support what I am writing, but I wasn't conscious of them being there while I was writing them. I've gone back over sacred music I've written and found numerological and geometric resonance patterns that enhance the meaning of the text, operating on some subliminal level even the composer wasn't aware of till I went back and found them.

Of course, that could partly be the human habit of consciousness that likes to find patterns in even random systems; call it the persistence of form in consciousness. But chaos mathematics has demonstrated very well by now how order is an emergent property, how self-organizing systems arise out of chaos and create self-consistent patterns. This in fact may be how amino acids converged in the early era of our planet to organize itself into life as we know it.

Like many others trained in the sciences, I have no problem believing in a higher level of being, a Great Spirit or whatever label you wish to use, and I find that the mechanisms of how life organizes itself are beautiful and even divine. The problem with the anti-science religious-right creationists, who are for the most part scriptural literalists, is that they have taken a mythic story, a simple story, and tried to explain it as literally true. That is the root error that spawns many others: the belief that mythopoetic scripture is literally, factually accurate and true. They may be right in that "In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth," after all every story has to have a beginning, even the story of spacetime—but they are flat out childish and naive in their explanation of the mechanism of Creation. The story of Creation given us by emergent order arising out of chaos, of self-organizing systems that emerge and evolve into life, is no less a divine story than some anthropomorphized deity waving his hand and making everything in less than a week, some four thousand years ago. In fact, emergence is a more elegant, more wondrous, more beautiful, and more coherent and attractive narrative by far. It contains no less of the divine spark. As a story, like all life, it glitters from within. Visionaries can see the sparking of the mitochondria powering the cell. The fire of life that supports all life, that is the power under life, which can perceived even by the science-trained as divine in source and origin.

The desire of scriptural literalists for a simplistic, even childish, literal story proclaims their unconscious desire to remain children before their God, and never grow up: never be allowed to grow up, never want to grow up. It is an infant's narrative of total dependency on the absent parent. It expresses a desire to remain infantile. Well, adult life can be complicated, and require that one take personal responsibility for the consequences of one's actions. That can be daunting. Some people never do want to grow up, and do everything they can to avoid it. And if not remain infantile children, then remain sheep guided by a shepherd. But anyone who has ever herded sheep, especially up in summer mountain pastures, knows how stupid and helpless sheep really are, unable to get themselves out of trouble without assistance. Is that really who you want to be? Is that really your divine image? The Adult who keeps you a child, the Shepherd who makes you be a sheep?

In my theology, which is not mine alone, the Adult wants you to grow up and become an Adult yourself. The Divine leads by example, not by dictatorship. The lesson of mysticism, as it has appeared again and again in every age and location on this planet, is that experiencing the Divine directly is everyone's birthright. We can all see the sparking of the mitochondria, or the growth of the seed into the tree. All you have to do is look, and watch, and see. It's not hard. It doesn't require special talent or guidance. Intuition and vision is a skill that can be trained, and has a craft to it that can be taught—just like in music school, in art school, and in other creative disciplines.

In my theology, artists are co-creators with the Divine. Everyone is creative, and capable of co-creating with the Divine, although not everyone is overtly an "Artist." Not everyone paints, or writes, or draws, or invents a melody to sing. Well, actually, that's not true: Everyone does do those sorts of things, but in our culture where "artist' is categorized as a discreet profession separate from everyday life (like most jobs, like jobs from which one "needs a vacation:) we tend to view artists as a special class. In other cultures, especially in certain indigenous tribal cultures, everyone is an artist because everyone engages in handicrafts. Ordinary objects are decorated by their owners, who made them, who did not need to go to a specialist to make them, and did not need to hire a specialist to decorate them. We in Western culture have a real blindness about this, because we assume artists are specialists; in fact, we tend to overlook or dismiss this very level of continuous creativity made every day by ordinary people precisely because it is not specialist art, not seen as different and special. We overlook the masterpiece of bone-carving made by an Inuit hunter from the tusk of the walrus that he killed to feed his family last winter, because it's not the Mona Lisa hanging on a museum wall. Western culture is very blind about this. We ignore handicrafts by dismissing them as "handicrafts" when in fact they are the source and origin of all "higher art." They are the emergent order rising out of creative chaos. Even great painters made finger-paintings and humble sketches when they were children.

How did I get here? I was talking about creative inertia: A body that is in the creative flow tends to stay in the creative flow. As I've expressed it before, one the basic laws of creativity seems to be: The more you do, the more you do. Creativity becomes an anentropic self-generating power station: a genuine case of perpetual motion. The more you make, the more you are able to make. This is partly the practice effect, how practice hones and sharpens skill. Raw talent is inchoate and chaotic, not knowing how to do what it wants to do; learning craft that supports the talent turns the talent into a skill: a disciplined, orderly practice that emerges out of inchoate chaos.

The connection between creativity and Creation is obvious: Both are Order emerging from Chaos. This is why when we are engaged in creativity we are co-creators with the Divine. It's not that we are only co-creators when we're making art, it's just the connection is more obvious at those times.

So I have forward momentum. And I'm approaching the completion of the new music commission. This doesn't mean that everything is suddenly easy to write. Some pieces flow very quickly onto the page. Others I still struggle with. I admit that today was a day of some struggle, but I did manage to finish the piece I was working on. Tomorrow is a new start. And we go on.

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