On creativity

Curly Flat studios, June 2018

I'd never considered myself 'creative'. In my teens & twenties I'd played in bands but that was (from my perspective) just a bit of fun and as a bass player I was hardly perceived as an Artist - even by my own estimation. As I grew older (& wealthier) I discovered the delights of synthesizers and the potential of multitracking but as I entered my thirties my musical toys began to gather dust and ideas of creative composition drifted into the category of youthful frivolity. And so they remained until a chance encounter with an old friend raised the idea that this might be fun to have another go at.

My return to musical creativity started in December 2015 when I splashed out on three mini-synthesizers, small & cheap enough to (self-)justify the outlay but still 'proper' machines that could produce a good range of sounds. Six months later I added another unit from the same range and, as time passed, another couple of more professional instruments (picked up cheaply on eBay). A few additional devices were required to connect everything together but all told the whole setup cost around two weeks wages, not an unreasonable price for a hobby and definitely a bargain considering what could be done with it.

When I started on this experiment I set myself some rules, restrictions that would (I hoped) encourage me to be more freely productive at the expense of my tendency to obsessively tinker and edit. The pertinent points were:

For more on the start of this process and my initial reactions see my articles on Life with the Volcas.

As an exercise in production this certainly worked - in the subsequent three years I have created 140 tracks that are (IMHO) good enough to keep with a total duration of around ten hours. I don't churn out pieces as frequently as I did in the first year but the quality level has definitely risen to compensate, the later pieces are much more musically involved and (mostly) carefully constructed.

Life has thrown a spanner in this creative production line in recent months as the need to find and then establish myself in a new job has taken a huge proportion of my available energy, leaving little for other endeavours. However the hiatus in composition has given me an opportunity to step back and review the process, reassessing my approach & response to the creative exercise itself rather than the specifics of the results.

The restrictions have been, ironically, the biggest help in opening up my creativity. I find myself very easily overwhelmed by the limitless possibilities of a blank page (or empty project file) and quick to dismiss my first elements for their technical, tonal or artistic shortcomings. Reducing the number of options makes it easier to choose between them and the pressure to come up with something (even if self-inflicted) can push me out of the logjam of indecision. Somehow having set myself constraints in the past I feel I must comply with them - the older me in some way outranking my current self, giving me an excuse to continue despite my inner criticisms & misgivings. At some level I'm setting up an 'external' overseer to vet (or override) the fears that pop up when I'm expressing my personal creativity - loose enough to maintain a level of quality control that I'm happy with but strong enough to keep me from geting locked in endless dissatisfaction & revision.

Closing down some areas can often force myself to explore others. I like the precision of sequencers & drum machines but without the option of programming them from the computer I'm forced into elaborate dances over the controls to use their (relatively) simple systems to build up more elaborate musical structures. Sometimes a missed or mistimed cue can take a piece off in an unexpected direction, the 'mistake' becoming a (subconscious?) invitation to try something different or explore the distinction between 'interesting' and 'cacophonous'. The adrenaline rush of running up to four synchronised units, each with their own specific (and sometimes perversely differing) controls, can be a logistical nightmare but can also hold me right in the moment - no longer struggling to keep up but surfing the wave and making creative choices almost by instinct.

The shortcomings of the instruments, especially in the first year with just the little Volca units, also provided a spur to inventive solutions. The Keys synthesizer, my main source of melodic & harmonising tones, was theoretically capable of playing three notes at once but in practice this often resulted in thin, harsh, & grating chords. To get around this I'd build the chords up in stages, progressively layering the notes, tweaking the sounds between takes, and using unusual inversions - sometimes by design, often by accident. One of the units would switch between patterns at the end of a phrase while the others did it immediately, encouraging me to arrange songs in ways that fitted this behaviour or to make use of the 'lead in' when the pattern changed before the phrase completed. Each instrument came with its own collection of quirks & foibles and although these could often be exasperating they slowly developed their own 'character', ways of working that I could use to smoothly construct a piece. And to compensate for my own rich collection of failings & eccentricities.

The push to complete pieces quickly revealed another aspect of my creative process - I tend to 'discover' a piece as I go along rather than start off with an objective that I strive towards. Because so much of what I record uses sequencers the first tracks will usually establish the overall structure of the piece but the style, harmonic & melodic content may go through huge changes as extra elements are added (and, sometimes, removed). A misplayed or misprogrammed note can be a springboard into a new scale, an unusual bass note can redefine the chord over it, a syncopated melody can make a rhythm swing or emphasise its solid regularity. With the impetus to move on to a completion it's easier to go with the flow than to try to hold an overarching vision. I think this is a reflection of my creative drive at quite a deep level, there's rarely (if ever) more of a message in what I produce than 'this sounds nice' - although 'nice' can cover quite a range of meaning. Artists are often divided into 'makers' and 'finders' and although that's undoubtably an over-simplistic division I certainly tend toward the latter category.

I'm a 'finder' in my approach to sound synthesis too. The Volcas, although capable of a wide range of sounds, do have a relatively limited set of controls and there's not a lot of scope for modifying their built-in voices. My later instruments are far more versatile with (for me) almost unlimited sonic possibilities but I still find myself tweaking the presets rather than constructing something new from the base up. Another case of being overwhelmed by the possibilities I suspect.

Another strategy in outwitting my draconian inner critic was using a different name to publish my work under. Starting in mid-2017 I created a virtual 'band' to release my solo music - Renmei. This coincided with the purchase of my first 'professional' synth and provided a symbolic transition from my early attempts with the Volcas to something less formative and more focussed, ironically with a bit more consistent character than my scattershot explorations beforehand. Compartmentalising my solo synth work away from my real name has been unexpectedly liberating and I've gained new insight into the idea of a pen name as a way of freeing one aspect of myself rather than just a way of avoiding hordes of fans and admirers.

An aspect of my inner critic that I hadn't noticed before is how mercurial & inconsistent he can be. When I get to the final mixdown of a piece I'm usually pretty pleased with it but on the very next listen I'll invariably find it hopelessly bad. Next up will be the judgement that it's just a retreading of something I (or, worse, someone else) has done before. It usually takes around a week before I can listen to something without an exaggerated emotional response and decide if it has enough merit to warrant keeping or is destined for the bin.

As time has gone on I've become more lenient in my 'quick turnover' approach, although in a very specific way. After completing the first couple of tracks (which usually define the overall song structure) I'll often put the piece aside for a few days before returning to complete it. This seems to give my subconscious time to develop an overview of how the arrangement can be structured while, conversely, letting me approach it without the immediate associations & ideas that were there at the start. This, along with a deliberate attempt to extend my harmonic boundaries (for a long time I never ventured outside of a single key & scale for any piece) has led me to writing down the chord progressions as I go, no longer able to hold it all in my head.

The more I produce the easier it becomes to get started on a new project, although it's surprising how quickly a short break can make things feel like hard work again. There's a definite hill to climb to begin work on a new piece, followed by an easier stretch as I flesh out the idea, and then another hard grind to work on it to the point where I can accept that it's done. And then back again - once I've completed something there's a very strong pull to start on another one. It's been a pleasant surprise to find how easily new ideas pop up, especially when I'm just widdling around with the gear - my 'see where this could lead' approach doesn't need much of a starting point to get going. And when things do get bogged down it's often a cue to try strange or radical ideas - if the existing piece isn't working then there's nothing to lose. Even when I do give up on something there's usually something I've learned or a fragment I can begin again from. It's not a new insight but it does seem like the trick to creating stuff is to create stuff.

The downside to my self-imposed dogma is that nearly everything I produce sounds like a demo recording, not helped by my very amateur mixing setup & skills (and keyboard virtuosity). There's a certain safety in this - if tracks remain 'unfinished' that's a perfect defense against criticism, coming from myself or other listeners. Judge me on my aspirations rather than my output!

This was one of the reasons I decided to make all my recordings publicly available - if I can hear the good stuff in what I produce then I need to trust that others (if only a few others) will hear it too. It's tempting to keep adding more polish & embellishment but that can be a way of hiding the aspects that express my own aesthetic with a veneer of social acceptability. Without the need (or expectation) to 'sell' my recordings to a wider audience I'm free to indulge in my hobby with myself as the sole arbiter of taste. Obviously I have my own standards of when something is 'finished' and good enough to release but I've come to realise that the level that I enjoy working at is fairly rough & ready and that refinement beyond that quickly becomes a joyless chore. The quality of my output is rising over time but the process needs to remain satisfying & fun to keep me keep coming back to it.

Making my creations public brought the sad realisation that nobody else was interested in them. It wasn't quite that bad - I'd always get a dozen or so listens to a new track and one person actually bought two of my albums - but the wider, appreciative audience I'd hoped for conspicuously failed to materialise. Sigh! In hindsight this should have come as no surprise, to have a hundred people listen to a track of mine I should be willing to listen to a hundred other tracks and although I strive to hear new music I don't come close to that level of speculative 'browsing'. And those hundreds of other artists do exist - a quick look through Bandcamp (where I publish my albums) reveals a vast array of music, even just those within my own area of electronica. The superficial impression of modern music being bland, safe & predictable is broken with just a scratch at the surface but the revealed landscape is so full of choice that it's hard to know where to begin.

I suspect the urge to creativity - from composing symphonies down to our individual style of dress or speech - is close to a fundamental human need, a way for our individuality to be witnessed & acknowledged as a unique presence in the world. As the tools to be creative (in the broadest sense) become more widespread & accessible the scarcity of the resulting output is progressively diluted, to the point where we are starting to drown in the deluge. Although I'm a little older than the 'precious snowflake' generations I was brought up with the idea that creativity is always a good thing so it's jarring to think of it being a pollutant, something that needs to be managed before it clogs up the system.

My approach to this dilemma is to be my own audience. Creating new pieces of music brings me enormous satisfaction and I find myself listening to my own tracks pretty often, either by deliberate choice or, more often, when they pop up in shuffle play. Making my works publicly available does bring a level of scrutiny & quality control that I might not otherwise manage but at the end of the day hoping for external validation is a futile endeavour. I am the 21st century version of an old man whittling in my shed, my creations arranged along the windowledge for all world to see but without any real expectation of comment, compliment or acclaim. From my perspective I'm bringing new beauty into the world and that will do for now.

(My Renmei tracks can be heard on Bandcamp.)

December 2018