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Matt Roberts' Music Blog

Thursday, March 17, 2011

Books About Creativity That I Love (or at least own)

In my quest to understand the creative process better, I've amassed a modest library on the subject.  I thought it might be helpful to post my thoughts on some of the books I own.  I feel somehow unqualified or disinclined to call these "book reviews", but I'll just say a bit about how each book effected me personally.  Here they are, in the order I was exposed to them:

It seemed everyone was reading this book when I was starting music school.  I hope young musicians are still reading this book, because I think it has an important message. It had a big effect on me at the time.  I started doing the "steps" and listening to the guided meditations during breaks in my practicing. I even attended a five-day workshop on this subject with Kenny at The Banff Centre in 2002.  (Actually, I just found YouTube videos of his wrap-up concert at the end of that week: part 1, part 2, and part 3.) Personally, I found the spirit and overall philosophy of this book to be very inspiring, but when I tried to use it as a specific path to achieving the kind of freedom it describes, it didn't really work for me.  I have a tremendous amount of respect for Mr. Werner and his vision.  For me this is a good book to flip through now and again, to sort of soak up its vibes.

I purchased this book because I was excited and interested in the idea of creativity being a skill you could learn by practice - just like, say, juggling or playing a major scale.  I wanted to learn and improve that skill.  What I was hoping for was an almost scientific analysis of creativity, what it is, where it comes from, and how it can be harnessed.  I found only a small portion of the book was about the details of how a formulated creative process would work. The rest seemed to me a sort of catalogue of tricks for stimulating your creativity.  (Which is also helpful in its own right!) Along the way we get a bit of a portrait of Twyla Tharp as an artist.  All in all, I think it was a helpful book to read, and each person will probably respond to it in a very personal way, depending on their own strengths and interests.  For example, Christine Bougie considers it her bible - check out her blog posts on it here, here, and here.

I definitely feel that there is something fundamentally sympathetic between Zen and creativity; Zen lore and culture is full of beautiful art in the form of poetry, paintings, rock gardens, etc. When Samu Sunim (head of The Toronto Zen Buddhist Temple) found out that I was a musician, he remarked that artists often like Zen, because "Emptiness - that is like a blank canvas."  ("Emptiness" is a central concept in Zen.) However, I didn't really feel a strong affinity for this book, and I never finished it. It didn't seem to be addressing the specific questions I have. I'm sure there are lots of great things to be discovered in it though. Maybe I would be better off considering some of the original writings of Dogen et. all.

The bulk of this book is made up of theoretically-based composition exercises, but I was interested in the last chapter, which is basically a collection of rants on the compositional process by the likes of Bill Evans, Carla Bley, George Russell, Horace Silver, Pat Metheny, Chick Corea, Lyle Mays, Anthony Davis, Herbie Hancock, Richie Beirach, and Ralph Towner.  While I didn't find anything specific to latch on to, I found it really interesting to read the essays.  Each artist has a totally different perspective and set of interests about composing. I eventually flipped through the first section of the book, and was surprised that I found the compositional exercises fun to think about as well.

I've blogged about this book before - actually, twice.  This book isn't actually specifically about creativity, but I found it helped my creative process more than any other book I've read in recent years.  I guess I'm just excited about Brene Brown's whole "thing".  Part of that might just be because I have an affinity for her outlook - we both like to take a "scientific" look at "messy" subjects, and try to invent systems to deal with them.  (I think part of this book is kind of about learning to be comfortable not doing that.)  Lately I've been noticing that someone can tell me something really wise, but if it isn't told to me by someone I'm prepared to hear it from, in the way that I want to hear it, I don't appreciate it. Which is my loss. (And the aggravation of my teachers and everyone close to me!) Anyway, this book is about letting go of anxieties about who you are. I may read it a second time.

I was pretty excited by this book because the title seemed to be getting right to the heart of my issue.  Unfortunately, when I actually started reading it, I found it kind of poorly written, and even sort of bizarre.  However, I did find a few bits I really like.  I haven't yet finished it, but to me the best of everything I have read thus far can be summed up in the following quote:

"The function of the overwhelming majority of your artwork is simply to teach you how to make the small fraction of your artwork that soars."

I think if someone were to take just that quote and what is implied by it to heart, amazing things could happen.

Maria Schneider is apparently a devotee of this book - she reportedly carried it with her everywhere she went during her visit to U of T a few years back, and she sometimes does clinics with the same title.  I've only just started it, but it seems to me like a sort of manifesto for the modern artist (Robert Henri lived from 1865-1929), and it seems to espouse some ideals that I can get on board with. For example, it opens with this quote from Mr. Henri:

"There are moments in our lives, there are moments in a day, when we seem to see beyond the usual. Such are the moments of our greatest happiness. Such are the moments of our greatest wisdom. If one could but recall his vision by some sort of sign. It was in this hope that the arts were invented. Sign-posts on the way to what may be. Sign-posts toward greater knowledge."

The book seems to be full of sort of fatherly advice that Robert Henri gave to his students.  So far it has been inspiring, and I'm looking forward to finishing it.

Have you read any of these books? What is your opinion of them? Do you have any other recommendations?

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