The Necessity of the Unnecessary — Sarah Ruhl and Cyrus Kabiru

 
Images via macfound.org and wiriko.org.

Images via macfound.org and wiriko.org.

Playwright Sarah Ruhl makes a crucial observation in “The Necessary,” an essay from her book (highly recommended!) 100 Essays I Don’t Have Time to Write.

“What seems like the least necessary thing in your play might be the most necessary thing.  What seems like the most necessary thing in your play might be the least necessary thing.  Maurice Maeterlinck elaborates on this point in his essay‘The Tragical in Daily Life’: ‘The only words that count in the play are those that at first seemed useless . . . Side by side with the necessary dialogue will you almost always find another dialogue that seems superfluous; but examine it carefully, and it will be borne home to you that this is the only one that the soul can listen to . . . for here alone is it the soul that is being addressed.’

Be suspicious of an expert who tells you to cut a seemingly unnecessary moment out of your play.  The soul of your play might reside there, quietly, inconspicuously, glorying in its unnecessariness, shining forth in its lack of necessity to be.  The word expert was invented after the Renaissance, a time when plays sallied forth in all their beautiful ignorance.”

Sarah Ruhl
“The Necessary”
100 Essays I Don’t Have Time to Write, pp. 40-41

Consider, for instance, the famous line from The Godfather, after two soldiers of the Corleone family have killed one of their associates.  The senior of those two, Peter Clemenza (portrayed by Richarad S. Castellano) instructs his underling, "Leave the gun . . . take the cannoli."  As it turns out, the second half of the line, "take the cannoli" was an ad lib from Castellano.  Even if it had not been improvised, in storytelling terms, it can be declared superfluous, unnecessary.  Yet many viewers might agree with Ruhl that the soul of the movie shines forth in that line. 

Tom Rosqui, left, as Rocco and Richard S. Castellano, right, as Peter Clememza. Image via verifiedtrends.com.

Tom Rosqui, left, as Rocco and Richard S. Castellano, right, as Peter Clememza.
Image via verifiedtrends.com.

 

Another illustration of Ruhl's principle can be found in an anecdote about the writer Wilhelm Mach related by film director Krzysztof Kieślowski:

“This Mach was at some screening.  And Mach says, ‘I liked the film very much.  I liked it and especially that scene at the cemetery.’ He says, ‘I really liked the guy in the black suit at the funeral.’ The director says, ‘I’m very sorry but there wasn’t any guy in a black suit.’  Mach says, ‘How come?  He stood on the left-hand side of the frame, in the foreground, in a black suit, white shirt and black tie.  Then he walked across the right-hand side of the frame and moved off.’ The director says, ‘There wasn’t any guy like that.’ Mach says, ‘There was.  I saw him.  And that’s what I liked most in the film.’”

Kieślowski on Kieślowski
(translated and edited by Danusia Stok), pp. 158-159

So unnecessary was this character to the demands of storytelling that the director had no idea he was in the film!  And yet for the viewer, Mach, this unnecessary presence was everything.

A wonderful demonstration of Ruhl’s principle can be found in the artwork of sculptor and media artist Cyrus Kabiru (whose work is featured in the outstanding video project Afripedia).  One series of Kabiru’s artworks are presented as eyeglass frames.

"Africana Eyelashes," 2014
image via ckabiruart.daportfolio.com

"Zulu Mask," 2010
image via ckabiruart.daportfolio.com

"Istanbul Mask," 2013
image via ckabiruart.daportfolio.com

"Westgate," 2013
image via ckabiruart.daportfolio.com

Note how the power of these works is partly anchored in the absence of functionality.  In fact, Kabiru assembles his artwork out of trash, materials that the world has declared useless.  One might not imagine wearing these artworks except that one can’t resist imagining it.  They appear to bestow some mystical power, as if their wearer sees something that we don’t. 

These glasses are magic, our minds tell us, precisely because of how their  beauty emerges from superfluous ornaments and extravagantly impractical designs.  It is in these elements where the soul of Kabiru’s art, as Ruhl might say, shines forth “in its lack of necessity to be,” which is why Kabiru's wonderful creations are indeed most necessary. 


Thank you for reading.

Shadows and Blur Part 4 — The Diving Bell and the Butterfly

 
Jean-Dominique Bauby, who had lost the use of his limbs and voice, dictated his memoir, The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, one letter at a time. Claude Mendibil, shown here as she transcribes, devised a time-saving system of reciting the letters of the alphabet for Bauby in order of their frequency in French words and waiting for him to blink in response. Image via commons.wikimedia.org

Jean-Dominique Bauby, who had lost the use of his limbs and voice, dictated his memoir, The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, one letter at a time. Claude Mendibil, shown here as she transcribes, devised a time-saving system of reciting the letters of the alphabet for Bauby in order of their frequency in French words and waiting for him to blink in response.
Image via commons.wikimedia.org

 

 

In his book In Praise of Shadows, Jun'ichirō Tanizaki upholds the value of art that captures "the uncertainty of the mental process" rather than "neatly packaged conclusions."   

Jean-Dominique Bauby's memoir, The Diving Bell and The Buttefly: A Memoir of Life in Death, makes use of this principle to describe the transformation Bauby underwent after a massive stroke left him unable to use his arms, legs, and voice.  Here is the book's opening passage:

"Through the frayed curtain at my window, a wan glow announces the break of day.  My heels hurt, my head weighs a ton, and something like a giant invisible diving bell holds my whole body prisoner.  My room emerges slowly from the gloom.  I linger over every item: photos of loved ones, my children’s drawings, posters, the little tin cyclist sent by a friend the day before the Paris-Roubaix bike race, and the IV pole hanging over the bed where I have been confined these past six months, like a hermit crab dug into his rock."

Jean-Dominique Bauby
The Diving Bell and The Buttefly: A Memoir of Life in Death
Translated by Jeremy Leggatt

Note the reliance on images of confusion and uncertainty.  Echoing Bauby's writing, Julian Schnabel's film version employs blurred lens focus and unexpected shot framing to convey Bauby's experience of first emerging from the coma after his stroke.

Note that the unknowing has been rendered clearly.  The readers and viewers of these works will experience Bauby's initial confusion without being confused about whether they are correctly absorbing the material.  Bauby and Schnabel have created portraits of confusion, not confusing portraits.  

What is not known may be impossible to render, but our unknowing can nevertheless be rendered with precision.


Thank you for reading.

Shadows and Blur Part 3 — My Bloody Valentine

 
image via dailytrojan.com

image via dailytrojan.com

 

In his book In Praise of Shadows, Jun'ichirō Tanizaki finds a connection between the prominence of shadows in traditional Japanese architecture and the Japanese literary tradition of which he was a part:

“It is not that Japanese writers have been ignorant of the powers of concision and articulation.  Rather, they have felt that certain subjects — the vicissitudes of the emotions, the fleeting perceptions of the mind — are best couched in a style that conveys something of the uncertainty of the mental process and not just its neatly packaged conclusions.”

In Praise of Shadows, p. 45
(Translated by Thomas J. Harper and Edward G. Seidensticker)

We might extend this connection further, from shadows to what might be called blurriness — the quality of images we clearly perceive but do not perceive clearly.  My Bloody Valentine’s album Loveless derives much of its power from this principle.

The song “I Only Said” starts with a lead guitar singing like a seagull as it soars over a bruised ocean of guitars, and the roaring blurriness of that ocean (produced by any number of techniques) forces us to confront our unknowing.  As a thought experiment, imagine that ocean of guitars replaced by a single acoustic guitar, and how reassuring that acoustic guitar might be by way of its clear sonic image.  It’s the unsettling lack of clarity about what we are hearing that gives this album its haunting, mystical power.  (Even the album artwork, captured in the video thumbnail, relies on this the power of blurred imagery.  We stare at it and see a guitar, but perhaps other things too.  The act of puzzling over the image draws us further into it.)

As the vocal enters, the dark ocean of guitars overwhelm it, as if the singer's mouth barely clears the water's surface, the washing of the waves blurring the syllables as they emerge.  We lean forward, striving for understanding.  Here are the lyrics, according to Google, which can hardly be confirmed by listening.

See there, run away you said to go, you were it, you were it
To lay underneath the red sky there, to lay under her, I want her there
See you there, under her and under to go you were there and I'm slow
To lay over her and I'm slow, to lay under her, I've grown away

The drowned inaudibility of the vocal feels planned, not mistaken.  We don't fiddle with our headphones as we listen, though if the vocal were any louder we might because the blur would feel less decisive.   Thus, the band has created not a blurry portrait (one we wouldn't know how to encounter) but a portrait of blurriness.  We emerge from this sonic ocean without wondering if we listened correctly, only with a deepened awareness of our unknowing.


Thank you for reading.

Shadows and Blur Part 2 — Maya Deren's Meshes of the Afternoon

 
Maya Deren.   Image via www.picsofcelebrities.com

Maya Deren.  
Image via www.picsofcelebrities.com

 

The previous post looked at Jun'ichirō Tanizaki’s In Praise of Shadows, which explores the role of shadows in traditional Japanese architecture.  Near the end of the book, he identifies an analogous principle in literature:

“One of the oldest and most deeply ingrained of Japanese attitudes to literary style holds that too obvious a structure is a contrivance, that too orderly an exposition falsifies the ruminations of the heart, that the truest representation of the searching mind is just to “follow the brush.”  Indeed, it would not be far wrong to say that the narrative technique we call “stream of consciousness” has an ancient history in Japanese letters.  It is not that Japanese writers have been ignorant of the powers of concision and articulation.  Rather, they have felt that certain subjects — the vicissitudes of the emotions, the fleeting perceptions of the mind — are best couched in a style that conveys something of the uncertainty of the mental process and not just its neatly packaged conclusions.”

In Praise of Shadows, p. 45

(Translated by Thomas J. Harper and Edward G. Seidensticker)

Maya Deren’s Meshes of the Afternoon provides a great example of art that conveys such mental uncertainty, and it employs shadows of light and of mind. 

(If for some reason the video does not play, you can see it here)

It’s worth noting two things about the film:

1.  The imagery is perfectly clear.  The composition of the scenes are such that we know what we are seeing at all points.   

2.  Because of this clarity, we are abled to discern a strange, shadowed logic.  We can read the various narrative leaps and gaps not as some mistake on our part as viewers, but as questions raised by the film, a clearly articulated riddle. 

Sometimes, a writing student will produce a piece of writing about an uncertain moment, and when pressed, explain that the writing is uncertain because the character on the page is uncertain.  This fails to note the distinction between an uncertain portrait and a portrait of uncertainty.

To employ the use of shadows, whether the literal shadows Tanizaki wrote of when describing the Sumiya Teahouse or the metaphorical ones that create mental uncertainty, is not to eschew clarity.  Deren’s film provides and example of art that renders unknowing with arresting clarity.


Thank you for reading.

Shadows and Blur Part 1 — Jun'ichirō Tanizaki

 
Image via otromexico.com

Image via otromexico.com

In his book In Praise of Shadows (published in 1933), novelist Jun'ichirō Tanizaki, sets forth observations about the aesthetics of traditional Japanese architecture.  Foremost in his mind is the vital role of shadows:

There are no doubt all sorts of reasons — climate, building materials — for the deep Japanese eaves.  The fact that we did not use glass, concrete, or bricks, for instance, made a low roof necessary to keep off the driving wind and rain.  A light room would no doubt have been more convenient for us, too, than a dark room.  The quality that we call beauty, however, must always grow from the realities of life, and our ancestors, forced to live in dark rooms, presently came to discover beauty in shadows, ultimately to guide shadows towards beauty’s ends.

And so it has come to be that the beauty of a Japanese room depends on a variation of shadows, heavy shadows against light shadows — it has nothing else.  Westerners are amazed at the simplicity of Japanese rooms, perceiving in them nothing more than ashen walls bereft of ornament.  Their reaction is understandable, but it betrays a failure to comprehend the mystery of shadows . . .

. . . Of course the Japanese room does have its picture alcove, and in it a hanging scroll and a flower arrangement.  But the scroll and the flowers serve not as ornament but rather to give depth to the shadows . . .

In Praise of Shadows, p. 18 - 19
(Translated by Thomas J. Harper and Edward G. Seidensticker)

Note Tanizaki’s focus.  While we might be tempted to view the shadows as important only inasmuch as they provide contrast to some featured element, Tanizaki's attention is absorbed by the shadows themselves.  (His book is not titled The Usefulness of Shadows.)

Here, he speaks of the Sumiya teahouse in Kyoto.  Note how precisely he captures the darkness.

On the far side of the screen, at the edge of the little circle of light, the darkness seemed to fall from the ceiling, lofty, intense, monolithic, the fragile light of the candle unable to pierce its thickness, turned back as from a black wall.  I wonder if my readers know the color of that“darkness seen by candlelight.”  It was different in quality from darkness on the road at night.  It was a repletion, a pregnancy of tiny particles like fine ashes, each particle luminous as a rainbow.  I blinked in spite of myself, as though to keep it out of my eyes.

— page 34

Elsewhere he lingers over a related element —grime:

Glassmaking has long been known in the Orient, but the craft never developed as in the West.  Great progress has been made, however, in the manufacture of pottery.  Surely this has something to do with our national character.  We do not dislike everything that shines, but we do prefer a pensive luster to a shallow brilliance, a murky light that, whether in a stone or an artifact, bespeaks a sheen of antiquity.

Of course this “sheen of antiquity” of which we hear so much is in fact the glow of grime.  In both Chinese and Japanese the words denoting this glow describe a polish thatcomes of being touched over and over again, a sheen produced by the oils that naturally permeate an object over long years of handling — which is to say grime.  If indeed “elegance is frigid,” it can as well be described as filthy.  There is not denying, at any rate, that among the elements of the elegance in which we take delight is a measure of the unclean, the unsanitary.

page 11

In his embrace of these neglected aesthetic elements, Tanizaki finds parallels in literary technique:

One of the oldest and most deeply ingrained of Japanese attitudes to literary style holds that too obvious a structure is a contrivance, that too orderly an exposition falsifies the ruminations of the heart, that the truest representation of the searching mind is just to “follow the brush.”  Indeed, it would not be far wrong to say that the narrative technique we call “stream of consciousness” has an ancient history in Japanese letters.  It is not that Japanese writers have been ignorant of the powers of concision and articulation.  Rather, they have felt that certain subjects — the vicissitudes of the emotions, the fleeting perceptions of the mind — are best couched in a style that conveys something of the uncertainty of the mental process and not just its neatly packaged conclusions.

— page 45

When speaking of craft, experts generally stress the virtues of clarity, probably because the first obstacle facing any artist is being understood.  Tanizaki, however, stresses the danger of creating work that pretends all is clear, as in transparent.  He seems to insist that we include in our art what we don’t understand, the shadows and smudges of mystery, and that we learn to render our unknowing in all of its strange beauty.

Flaubert was an advocate of clarity, but note how well this observation resonates with Tanizaki:

Ineptitude consists in wanting to reach conclusions . . . What mind worthy of the name, beginning with Homer, ever reached a conclusion?

The Letters of Gustave Flaubert 1830-1857, p. xiii
(Translated by Francis Steegmuller)

And here, Flaubert captures the larger point.

What seems to me the highest and most difficult achievement of Art is not to make us laugh or cry, nor to arouse our lust or rage, but to do what nature does—that is, to set us dreaming.

p. xi

Dreams.  Their power to transport and haunt us relies not so much the magic that may unfold within them as much as the sense that some vital element has eluded our understanding. We wake up trying to figure them out.  Likewise, the art that calls us back makes use of shadows and other obscuring elements so that the questions eclipse the answers.


Thank you for reading.

 

Opposites part 5 — Jean Said Makdisi's "Crisis, with Glossary of Terms Used in Times of Crisis"

 
Jean Said Makdisi.  Image via middleeastmonitor.com.

Jean Said Makdisi.  Image via middleeastmonitor.com.

 

Jean Said Makdisi’s essay “Crisis, With a Glossary of Terms Used in Times of Crisis” (from her collection Beirut Fragments) captures life in war torn Beirut during the 1980s.  The madness of war is brought home not through descriptions of mangled bodies but rather through snippets of what people do during such situations.  And one thing people try to do is to go on with their lives.

Thus, her essay is filled with opposites.  She and her family ride out mortar fire in a bomb shelter, and the next day, she drives to her office at the university, where she meets with fellow professors about the Freshman English program.

The following scene, filled with opposites, evokes an especially striking and unexpectedly convincing portrait of people trapped in war.


One night, the phone rings.  “Aren’t you coming?  We’re waiting for you.  Have you forgotten that you are invited to dinner?”

“You’re joking.  First of all, I had forgotten about it.  And if I had remembered I would have assumed you had canceled.”

“Why should we cancel?  Everyone’s here.  Come on: We’re waiting for you.”

“But—“  “Come on; there is nothing tonight —ma fi shi.

I confer hurriedly with my husband.  At first we agree not to go.  It is madness to go out, and who feels like a dinner party at a time like this, anyway?  A few minutes later, we shrug at each other.  Why not?  We have to live, to grasp enjoyment when it comes.

The party is hilarious.  After the tension of the last few days, a sense of abandon overcomes us.  I am relieved that there is not political discussion of causes, effects, and apportionment of blame; none of that confidential exchange of highly significant gossip and anecdote; no prognoses; no quarrels between politically opposed partisans.  I am sick of this talk.  Everything changes around us but this never ends, going on and on, amid knots of bent heads and earnest faces.  Only once does the subject of the war come up.  A professor of political science whose opinion is taken seriously says, “It’s all over.  This ceasefire is going to hold.”  An explosion of machine guns and mortars answers his words even as he utters them.  He raises his glass in a mock toast.  “Vive la guerre,” he says, joining in the laughter, recognizing with the rest of us the futility of trying to make sense of what is happening.

As the evening progresses, so does the battle outside.  We eat our dinner tyring to keep our minds off the noise.  At one point, one of the guests pauses, looks around at the apparent mindlessness of the proceedings, and then says quietly to me, “Someone should record this madness.  Someone should write all of this down.”

Finally, we can no longer ignore the situation as shells begin to fall nearby.  We hastily take our leave and make our way home through the empty streets.  By the time we get back, the battle is in full swing.  We barely have time to collect the children and get to the shelter.  For a short time, the glow of our evening’s enjoyment strengthens us, but this soon fades as the gravity of the situation deepens.

—“Crisis, with Glossary of Terms Used in Times of Crisis”
From Beirut Fragments by Jean Said Makdisi, pp. 43-44


The second half of the essay is written like a phrase book for a wartime Beirut. Thus the phrase ma fi shi in the above excerpt is explained . . .


 shu fi?          What’s going on?
fi shi?            Anything wrong?
fi shi              Something
ma fi shi        Nothing

These apparently innocuous phrases are actually part of a life-saving code that Lebanese have developed in the face of sudden violence.  You might be driving along the bustle of the city, or on a scenic mountain road, and come to a traffic jam or a deserted stretch of road.  Either of these could spell trouble.  “Shu fi?  Fi shi? (“What’s going on?  Something?”) you ask a passerby or a fellow driver.  “Ma fi shi” (“Nothing”).  “It’s just a traffic jam or an empty road,” he answers.  Or else “fi shi” (“Something”)—he has heard shouts or shots or, at any rate, something untoward—he is not quite sure what.  The clinching “Al’ane” might come, and the responding question, “Bain min wa min?” (“Between whom and whom?”) might lead to your identifying the elements involved.  On the other hand it might not, and you could go home, having come within an inch of your life, none the wiser.

Ma fi shi” may also be used ironically, as when all hell has broken loose but you say, “Ma fi shi,” and smile bitterly.

—“Crisis, with Glossary of Terms Used in Times of Crisis”
From Beirut Fragments by Jean Said Makdisi, p. 50


Strange how scenes of dinner parties emerging and then ending amidst battles and the ironic exchanges of fellow commuters capture something of the true terror of war.  Jean Said Makdisi’s insights into how war feels for those caught up in it turns on the very idea of how oppositions collide.


Thank you for reading.

Opposites part 4 — Bill Yates's "Sweetheart Roller Skating Rink" photos

 
 
This is not the photo one might expect to see in a documentary series about a roller-skating rink, and yet everything here that is unexpected is exactly what deepens the sense of reality.  Part of an amazing documentary series by photographer Bill Yates.  Image via lenscratch.com.

This is not the photo one might expect to see in a documentary series about a roller-skating rink, and yet everything here that is unexpected is exactly what deepens the sense of reality.  Part of an amazing documentary series by photographer Bill Yates.  Image via lenscratch.com.

From the Orlando Weekly:

“In September 1972, photographer Bill Yates was wandering the back roads of Florida when he stumbled across the Sweetheart Roller Skating Rink in Hillsborough County.

Every weekend, for the next 7 months, Yates documented the skaters, the go-go girls, the booze, the humidity, everything. He shot over 600 photographs, but the negatives were packed away and forgotten when Yates moved to Providence to go to school at the Rhode Island School of Design. 40 years later, the photographer unearthed this amazing time capsule.”

Note the expressions on the faces of the onlookers, who feel something other than swept up by the moves of the dancers in front of them.  Their detachment and, in some cases, defiance opens up and deepens our sense of what is happening in the room.  Photo by Bill Yates.  Image via lenscratch.com.

Note the expressions on the faces of the onlookers, who feel something other than swept up by the moves of the dancers in front of them.  Their detachment and, in some cases, defiance opens up and deepens our sense of what is happening in the room.  Photo by Bill Yates.  Image via lenscratch.com.

In Lens Scratch, Yates describes the undertaking:

I had just purchased a Yashica Mat at a pawnshop and as usual I was out riding around looking for something to shoot. I happened upon an old wooden structure built in the 30’s in rural southern Hillsborough County (Tampa, FL) – the sign read Sweetheart Roller Skating Rink. That weekend in September 1972, I ran 8 rolls through the camera. After that I photographed nearly every weekend until late spring of 1973. I was 26 years old. That first weekend I was met with curiosity and suspicion by the skaters. The next weekend I returned with proof sheets which I stapled to the wooden siding of the rink’s interior. For some, complete disinterest in the images. For others, it was as if they were staring at themselves in the mirror – they couldn’t get enough. The skaters became like actors parading their bodies, confronting one another for an audience – the camera. Though the roller skaters may not have thought of themselves on a stage, they were no less explicit and physical in their stagecraft. Some of the scenes were unapologetically theatrical. Young men aggressively wrapping arms around their girlfriends’ necks, gesturing uncomfortably for the camera – a sexual come-on, an uncensored performance. Yet others were deadpan. I soon became wallpaper – I was there, but I wasn’t – just snapping the shutter.”

Here are a few more of Yates’s stunning photographs of the roller rink scene.

Photo by Bill Yates.  Image via lenscratch.com.

Photo by Bill Yates.  Image via lenscratch.com.

Photo by Bill Yates.  Image via lenscratch.com.

Photo by Bill Yates.  Image via lenscratch.com.

Photo by Bill Yates.  Image via lenscratch.com.

Photo by Bill Yates.  Image via lenscratch.com.

Photo by Bill Yates.  Image via lenscratch.com.

Photo by Bill Yates.  Image via lenscratch.com.

Notice how the photos themselves capture emotions that are both opposed to and yet an essential element of this milieu.   Somehow, the idea of sweethearts roller skating together is deepened by glimpses of alienation, fatigue, defiant anger, booze, and cigarettes. 

A photo series that captured innocent hand-holding skaters with fawning smiles would have missed out on the deeper liveliness of adolescence, so deftly captured here where innocence collides with its opposite. 


Thank you for reading.

Opposites part 3 — Harpo

 
Harpo Marx.  Image via biography.com.

Harpo Marx.  Image via biography.com.

 

That clowns have a scary edge to them is well known.  The observation, however, is less frequently made of comics, where it is equally true.  The best comics inspire laughter that draws upon delight but also fear.  (Think of how Shakespeare's fools not only entertain but deliver frightening truths.)  One of Richard Pryor's most famous routines was a reenactment of a heart attack.  

This all points back to the principle of Opposites, one of twelve 'guideposts for actors' identified by Michael Shurtleff in his book, Audition. Harpo Marx's performances routinely bring together opposites—joy and anger, libidinal aggression and prepubescent innocence, and more.

One particularly striking set of opposites in his work is that between slapstick and the sublime, especially evident when he pauses to play a harp solo.

Note how these instantaneous shifts in and out the sublime do not negate the slapstick that precedes it.  To the contrary, these moments deepen both the slapstick and the entire performance.  

The sublime is a crucial element of the Marx Brothers' humor at large.  Without it, Groucho's wagging eyebrows are merely waggish.


Thank you for reading.

Opposites part 1 — Killer of Sheep

 
Charles Burnett.  Image via blog.nwfilmforum.org.

Charles Burnett.  Image via blog.nwfilmforum.org.

 

In his classic book on acting, Audition, casting director Michael Shurtleff offers a series of twelve guideposts that help actors enrich their performance.  The fifth of those is Opposites.

Whatever you decide is your motivation in the scene, the opposite of that is also true and should be in it . . . 

Think about a human being: in all of us there exists love and there exists hate, there exists creativity and there exists an equal tendency toward self-destructiveness, there exists sleeping and waking, there exists night and there exists day, sunny moods and foul moods, a desire to love and a desire to kill.  Since these extremities do exist in all of us, then they must also exist in each character in each scene.  Not all opposites, of course, not this exhaustive listing I’ve just given, but some of them.  If it is a love scene, there is bound to be hate in it too; if there is need, great need, for someone, we are bound to resent that need.  Both emotions should be in the scene; it is lopsided and untrue if only one is.

Michael Shurtleff, Audition, pp. 77-78 

We saw how this applies to narrative in our discussion of bridges, where one section of a song or book or film can challenge and thereby deepen the surrounding ideas.

Charles Burnett's masterpiece, Killer of Sheep, shows this principle in action, especially in its portrayal of children.  

Note how these scenes are made richer by the opposites play and war.  The games these children play are both fun and frightening.  They have life-and-death hovering over them, which not only adds realism but also depth to our sense of their emotional life.


Thank you for reading.

Practice Part 5 — The Value of Tracking Work

 
Hemingway is said to have aimed for 500 words a day.  Image via www.authenticubatours.com

Hemingway is said to have aimed for 500 words a day.  Image via www.authenticubatours.com

 

One of the biggest obstacles to creativity is a lack of self-entitlement.  “Who am I to be here” in front of the computer, canvas, or on the stage?  “I haven’t worked hard enough.”

A few years ago, I started logging my hours of writing and drumming.  Here was some of what I learned:

  • I was surprised to find how much work I actually do.  My lazy self-image might say less my work ethic and more about my method of self-motivation. 
     
  • At times when I didn’t work, it helped to have a concrete sense of what a productive week can look like (which I had, thanks to my work logs).
     
  • As a writer, I felt most free when I was most conscious of meeting my minimal work targets.
     
  • As a drummer, I felt most confident on stage when I knew I had met my practice targets in the time leading up to the show.
     
  • I always use a timer, which I stop during breaks so that the measurement has integrity.  (On my computer, I use a program called Active Timer that tells me how much time I spent in any particular document (as opposed to time spent checking email, etc.)
     
  • I set modest goals in order to build a rhythm of success instead of failure.   (If you are wondering about the power of a regular modest output, consider that John Irving stops his writing day at three pages; Hemingway’s daily target is said to be 500 words.  Multiply these small doses by 250 days and you can see that they add up.)
     
  • I find that in weeks during which I work consistently, even when I fell short of daily targets, I end up producing better work.  Working every day leaves me more limber.  The hardest thing is to come back to work after an extended absence.
     
  • The accumulation of the work logs whets my appetite for doing more work.  I’m open to considering that this testifies to my twisted artist’s conscience, but I also know that we artists often need to find ways to trick ourselves into working.  If keeping track of my work is one such trick, why not keep doing it?

Thank you for reading.

Practice Part 4 — Practice Discovery

 
Natalia Ginzburg.  Image via d.repubblica.it.

Natalia Ginzburg.  Image via d.repubblica.it.

 

Consider the following observation from Italian writer Natalia Ginzburg about her early writing process:

So I was always hunting for characters, I looked at the people on the tram and on the street and when I found a face that seemed suitable for a story I wove some moral details and a little anecdote around it.  I also went hunting for details of dress and people’s appearance, and how their houses looked inside; if I went into a new room I tried to describe it silently to fit well in a story.  I kept a notebook in which I wrote down some of the details I had discovered, or little similes, or episodes which I promised myself I would use in stories.  For example I would write in my notebook ‘She came out of the bathroom trailing the cord of her dressing-gown behind her like a long tail’, ‘ How the lavatory stinks in this house — the child said to him — When I go, I hold my breath — he added sadly’, ‘His curls like bunches of grapes’, ‘Red and black blankets on an unmade bed’, ‘A pale face like a peeled potato’.  But I discovered how difficult it was to use these phrases when I was writing a story.  The notebook became a kind of museum of phrases that were crystallized and embalmed and very difficult to use.  I tried endlessly to slip the red and black blankets or the curls like bunches of grapes into a story but I never managed to.  So the notebook was no help to me.  I realized that in this vocation there is no such thing as ‘savings’.  If someone thinks ‘that’s a fine detail and I don’t want to waste it in the story I’m writing at the moment, I’ve plenty of good material here, I’ll keep it in reserve for another story I’m going to write’, that detail will crystallize inside him and he won’t be able to use it.

From “My Vocation” by Natalia Ginzburg
Included in The Little Virtues

Her insight that “there is no such thing as savings,” carries over to many realms.  A drummer might, in the course of practicing, discover a particularly fun fill and decide to perfect it for use at a particular point in a particular song.  Then, during performance, the drummer will find that the fill feels wrong.  The moment of discovery has been lost, and the fill has crystallized and lacks the fluidity demanded in the moment.

Likewise, a songwriter may want to hold onto a melody or a line of lyrics, an architect may want to hold onto a particular vision of how two spaces adjoin.  In all of these cases, what we might prioritize is not holding onto the particular ideas but rather the creative flow that led to them.

Note that this does not discount keeping notes from which we might later proceed.  It only points to the fact that though we can preserve a discovery, it’s much harder to preserve its moment of arrival, and the distinction is crucial. 


One way this phenomenon shows up in the world is when bands find that their albums and lack the magical feel of their demos.  The demos are filled with discovery; the albums, with failed attempts at reenacting those discoveries.  Discovery, by its nature, cannot be reenacted.  One can only set oneself free to pursue new discoveries.  (It's for this reason that my band, Semisonic, resolved to make master-quality demos.  A master-quality demo might not need to be redone.)  


Thus, when we come upon an especially striking idea, we might do something with it right then and there.  Spend it, because we can't save it.  And later, when our work is done, we might reflect upon what happened to make that moment of discovery possible.


Thank you for reading.

 

 

Practice Part 3 — Exorcising Our Demons

 
Image via www.theguardian.com.
 

Among the problems that wait in the practice room or writing desk are all of the artist’s demons, the naysayers, real and imagined, who hover over the workspace.

These demons sneer and shake their heads at us.  They tell us to be someone other than who we are.  They slime us with their negativity.

To exorcise these demons from our creative life, we must identify them and the thoughts they have implanted in our minds.

To this end, I invite my writing students to conduct an inventory of their demons.  (This process can be adapted to serve creators in any number of forms).

The first step invites the writers to identify their doubts about themselves.

1.   Complete this statement:

The part of myself that I don’t want to see on the page is . . . 

The second invites the writers to think about possible sources of their self-judgment.

2. Complete both of these statements. 

a) The reader whose judgment I fear the most is . . .

b) The part of me that this reader most dislikes is  . . .

Note that these judges may be both real and imagined.  They are often projections (it may be that Uncle Bob could care less about your short stories) who nonetheless loom over our work.

The truest answers may surprise us.  They may also upset us.  We might find that naming our demons threatens some long-programmed aspect of our mindset.  To denounce those demons will upset the warped moral center of our creativity.

But naming and denouncing these demons is the key to our liberation.  Having exposed the sources of our doubt, we can then ask ourselves if we intend to allow these naysayers (real, imagined, or some combination thereof) to have control of our process.   Or do we intend to reclaim our process from them?  If so, time to identify those creative nemeses and tell them to fuck off.


Thank you for reading.

Practice Part 1 supplement — Finding Relaxation Through Procedure

 
Jazz maestro Alan Dawson, whose teaching has reached generations of drummers.  Image via blogorhythms.wordpress.com.

Jazz maestro Alan Dawson, whose teaching has reached generations of drummers.  Image via blogorhythms.wordpress.com.

 

As one works to locate and remove effort, it becomes clear that effort is easier to spot in its physical manifestations.  Someone practicing a musical instrument may have an easier time isolating points of effort (tightening fingers and wrists, for instance) than, say, a novelist who labors over a particular plot point (though her posture and strained facial muscles might tip her off to the presence of effort).

Many artists develop procedures to facilitate their own relaxation, physical and mental.  Their rituals and procedures reduce decision making and thereby simplifies the practice agenda.  Some examples include . . . 

  • The procedure of copying work by others and then letting this give way to ideas of one's own.  This is the basis for Clark Terry's "Imitate, Assimilate, Innovate" formulation.  In earlier posts, I have pointed to examples in writingpainting, and filmmaking.  
     
  • Joan Didion's writing routine is to start by retyping the last few pages of her previous day's output.  This gets her into a flow, and then she keeps doing.
     
  • Bill T. Jones's dance process starts with a perfunctory execution and naming-out-loud of the dance moves, and then he proceeds through various steps toward full-blown expression.
     
  • Sanford Meisner's Repetition Exercise is a procedural method of accessing one's acting intuition. 
     
  • Establishing a practice schedule, so that the question "when and where and for how long shall I work?" has been settled in advance.  This removes the moral effort of asking and answering the question "shall I practice?"
     
  • Establishing a practice routine, so that the question "How shall I start?" has been answered.  For instance, Hemingway always ended his writing day at a point where the starting point for the next day was clear.  He didn't have to make a decision first thing in his writing day.  It had been made at the end of the previous day.  

    Here, Drummer Alan Dawson demonstrates a warmup exercise he developed called The Rudimental Ritual.  

 

The term ritual is worth noting, as this exercise helps a musician enter into a mindset focused on work, so that she gets warmed up and in a flow, ready to engage some particular problem.  Some writers begin their day with 30 minutes of free writing—nothing to do with their current work, simply a way of getting the words flowing onto a page and opening the conduit from their intuition.

  • Establish practice rules.  For instance, "I will take a five-minute break every half hour," or "No email before noon" or "I will stop after three pages."  Again, this relieves the conscious mind from answering questions that might otherwise distract the artist.

We think of procedures as confining, but as we see here, well-defined procedures can be vehicles of expressive freedom.


Thank you for reading.

Practice part 1 — Practice to Remove Effort

 
Jimi Hendrix, who was said to have had his guitar slung around him at all times, allowing the constant practice that produced the effortless virtuosity with which he changed rock and roll.  Image via reddit.com.

Jimi Hendrix, who was said to have had his guitar slung around him at all times, allowing the constant practice that produced the effortless virtuosity with which he changed rock and roll.  Image via reddit.com.

 

This series on practice is aimed at exploring not only the practice of performance (musical instruments, voice, dance, acting, and so forth) but also the practice of making (writing, composing, painting and sculpting, choreographing, and so forth).  In both realms of activity, practice might be viewed as a gateway to more fluid creativity.


When a beginning drummer enters a practice space, her first impulses (like those of the beginning writer, dancer, painter) are to 'let it out,' though what it is may not yet be known to her.  The thrill of doing something with this newfound medium is foremost in her mind, and this inevitably leads her to go for it, to smash and crash and rock out.  Doing so, she hopes to find expression.

And then this goes nowhere.  The drummer is disheartened.  She doesn’t feel she is quite letting it out, perhaps because she has not yet realized how much effort she has inserted between herself and her ideas.  She’s gripping her sticks tightly, making faces, hitting loudly.  What awaits her is the discovery that progress will come with the removal of effort.

The point is made brilliantly in this Ted Talk from classical pianist Benjamin Zander.   The relevant segment is found from 1:15 to 4:15 in his presentation.

Thus, whenever we creators are in our practice room, writing desk, or art studio, we might constantly ask ourselves, “Where am I feeling effort, and what happens when I remove it?”  Answering those questions illuminates the way forward.

The point of practicing any creative activity is to align one's output with one's intuition.  And too often, what stands between those two is effort and all of the inefficiency it interposes between the artist and her intuition.  Effort seduces us into thinking we are smashing through some wall.  Too rarely do we realize that this wall is the effort we are injecting into the process.  By removing it, we learn to get out of our own way.  We find that our deepest expression is within us and that we access it not through effort but through relaxation.


Thank you for reading.

Shifting Gears

 
Image via thebiketube.com.

Image via thebiketube.com.

 

Dear Readers,

I’m going to shift gears.  The posts will now come in dribs and drabs and will not appear on a daily basis.

For those who are new to the site, the general idea is to explore connections between creative endeavors.  What can songwriters learn from filmmakers?  What can painters learn from jazz improvisers?  And so forth.

The posts are organized by theme on the overview page.  If you’ve been following along, I invite you to look back through the list 133 posts that have already appeared to see if there are any that might interest you.


Thank you all for reading, and stay tuned for more.

Festival of Drums — Ringo Starr

 
Ringo Starr.  Image via tumblr.com.

Ringo Starr.  Image via tumblr.com.

 

If it sounds as if John Lennon is singing with heavy eyelids, it may be because Ringo sounds as if he’s playing the drums in his robe and slippers. 

 

Note how many fills Ringo plays and yet how unobtrusively he renders them.  A more aggressive drummer might play these same notes as if smashing down a wall, thus removing any chance for the song to take on its psychedelic aura.  In Ringo’s hands, these constant fills suggest turning over in one’s sleep, or perhaps the gentle tumble of kaleidoscope beads. 

The Beatles’ secret ingredient is laziness.  Though their songs and costumed presentation are bright, the Beatles are not bright-eyed.  The droopy sweetness of their harmonies, for example, does not try to rev us up.  They send us elsewhere.

“What seems to me the highest and most difficult achievement of Art is not to make us laugh or cry, nor to arouse our lust or rage, but to do what nature does—that is, to set us dreaming.”

— Gustave Flaubert

The Beatles set us dreaming, not through displays of mechanical facility but by relaxing into the power of their intuitions.  And that relaxation is only possible because their drummer is a master hypnotist.

Thank you, Ringo.


Thank you for reading.

Festival of Drums — The Facility Trap

 
Fred Armisen as Jens Hannemann.  Image via nytimes.com.

Fred Armisen as Jens Hannemann.  Image via nytimes.com.

 

I once took a few lessons from a drum teacher who had great advice on how to loosen one’s hands, which meant his students and protégés had blazing speed.  After one lesson, a couple of them stopped by, and soon the conversation turned, as it so often does with a certain breed of drummers, to a list of complaints about how other musicians were insufficiently interested in their chops.

They mocked Ringo.

The youngest complained about “all these bands and songwriters who pay you for all the notes you don’t play.” 

The next youngest chimed in, “We got a lot of thoroughbreds out there pulling garbage trucks,” a reference to the supply of drummers whose blazing chops were wasted, in his opinion, on playing backbeats.

Having by far the slowest hands in the room, I said nothing.  I simply listened and thought to myself, “All three of you could learn a lot from the likes of Ringo.”

The drum-jock mindset, which misses the forest (music) for the trees (mechanics), is nicely skewered here.


The first time I saw this video, it took me a few minutes to realize that I was watching a parody by comedian Fred Armisen, not an actual instructional video.  That bit of confusion says a lot about Armisen’s comedic insights as well as the bloated size of his target.

One needn’t dismiss such things as hand-speed to understand that improved mechanics might not be the ultimate purpose of practice.  What if the ultimate purpose of practice was expression, for which mechanics are only a vehicle?  

The trap many drummers fall into (the problem extends beyond drummers and beyond music) is this:  Improving one’s mechanics is a simpler proposition than learning to express.

Compare two tasks:

A) Practicing a backbeat with a metronome

B) Making one’s backbeat more beautiful.

In order to accomplish B, you’d do well to spend some time on A.  But A and B are not equivalent.  B is a more demanding and more complicated task.

Though A can be hard work, judging one’s success in A is fairly straightforward.  One records oneself, listens, and identifies where one is ahead of or behind the metronome. 

B, however, demands that one raise aesthetic questions for which there are no easy answers.  I may know how to play in time with a metronome, but does my time sound alluring?  Is it saying something?  Are the sounds coming out of kit in conversation with each other?  How will all of this sound when the other instruments are added?  What surprises am I encountering?

These are harder questions to answer, which is why metronome work can become a refuge.

We can telescope back and compare . . .

Mechanics—playing in time with a metronome, playing a faster single-stroke roll, developing limb independence.

with

Expression — bringing the music to life.  Understanding that a song has a spirit, a narrative shape, and so forth.

Mechanical facility may aid expression, but it falls short of fulfilling all of expression’s demands.  Mechanics are sometimes called technique, but this ignores the fact that expression requires the development of other techniques such as . . . 

  • Listening to what the other musicians are doing
  • Thinking in terms of a song's drama and narrative structure
  • Understanding what the melody and lyrics want from the drums
  • Understanding what silence can do for us
  • Thinking about the tradeoffs we make with each note we play
  • Learning to channel our intuition

Mechanical technique is important but these non-mechanical techniques are more crucial still.  And they are the most overlooked, especially by those who dis Ringo, one of the most deeply musical drummers ever to pick up a pair of sticks.


 Thank you for reading.

 

 

 

Festival of Drums — Dennis Davis

 
Dennis Davis.  Image via flickr.com.

Dennis Davis.  Image via flickr.com.

 

The best drum performances take on the spirit of the song. 

 

“Fame” does not describe mastering the celebrity life so much as take stock of the spotlight’s toll.  As we listen, we don’t picture David Bowie basking before the crowd so much as walking out the stage door into a headache-inducing glare of flashbulbs and seeking shelter in the dark, quiet of his limousine and the illicit offerings kept there.  We may see him parade down red carpets, but we can feel the heaviness in each step.

Dennis Davis’s drum groove conjures the song’s inebriated intersection of moxie and anxiety.  The hugeness of the kick and snare groove brings across the swagger, especially the sixteenth-note snare fills (for instance, at 2:53), which create rock-star sized downbeats where the vocal can make grand re-entrances.  But then notice the small size of the crashes that follow, which sound more like dings.  It's as if the rock star trips on the stage curtains.  The bite of the snare drum (along with the distorted guitar riff) suggests the anger brewing beneath the surface.  And the occasional tickling of the hi-hat suggests nervous fingers searching for the last cigarette in the pack.

Every move Dennis Davis makes on the drums is perfectly aligned with the story told by the song.  No wonder he was sought out by artists such as David Bowie and Stevie Wonder.  He knows how to tell a story on the drums.


Thank you for reading.