Once the domain of a privileged few, the art of record production is today within the reach of all. The rise of the ubiquitous DIY project studio and internet streaming have made it so. And while the creative possibilities available to everyday musicians are seemingly endless, so too are the multiskilling and project management challenges to be faced. In order to demystify the contemporary popular-music-making phenomenon, Marshall Heiser reassesses its myriad processes and wider sociocultural context through the lens of creativity studies, play theory and cultural psychology.
This innovative new framework is grounded in a diverse array of creative-practice examples spanning the CBGBs music scene to the influence of technology upon modern-day music. First-hand interviews with Jerry Harrison (Talking Heads), Bill Bruford (King Crimson, Yes) and others whose work has influenced the way records are made today are also included. Popular Music, Power and Play is as thought provoking as it will be indispensable for scholars, practitioners and aficionados of popular music and the arts in general.
“By assigning an individual fader to numerous theories on creativity, then incorporating case studies and reflections from several working musicians as filters and processors, Heiser has crafted the equivalent of a classic pop album; balancing compositional elements that proudly bear their influences coupled with new ideas and insights that spark the mind. Popular Music, Power and Play holds up to repeated listens and is a welcome addition to both popular music studies and creativity research literature.” Alan Williams, Professor of Music, University of Massachusetts Lowell, USA
Marshall Heiser is an Australian academic, classically-trained instrumentalist, producer and music-technology developer. His previous publications explore such varied topics as sound in cinema; the interrelatedness of humor, play and creativity theory; the music of Brian Wilson, and the phenomenology of record production.
Introduction 1. The Frame 2. Power, Play and Creativity 3. Pushing Humpty 4. Playframing 5. Negotiations Case Study: Remain In Light 6. Beyond the Frame Case Study: The Struggle Behind the SMiLE Last Thoughts Appendix: Interview with Bill Bruford References Index
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When I was studying composition at the Qld Conservatorium of Music in the late 1980s, all I ever heard about was “Brian Eno this,” and “Brian Eno that.” All of the students (and teachers for that matter) were so enamoured of Eno and his work (especially the ambient material) since it was “clever” (good) but didn’t sound anything like the fingernails down a blackboard of Ligeti or whoever-else was considered important at the time (even better). For the record, I love Ligeti’s work (you may have heard some in Kubrick’s The Shining)…fingernails and all.
With Eno’s music you got to have your musical cake and eat it too. You got the procedural kudos of John Cage et al combined with the sensuality of a Debussy. Eno could even make Pachabel’s Canon sound good (that is, after putting it through a procedural wringer!).
Gaining insight into Eno’s work and ideas became a lot easier with the release of Eric Tamm’s very fine book Brian Eno: His Music and the Vertical Colour of Sound (1989) (remember, this was before the internet). Perhaps, the most striking revelations contained therein related to Eno’s down-to-earth character and his “somewhat superficial knowledge of the classical tradition and his disdain for its institutional infrastructure” (p. 20). Kudos!
Eno has remained productive in the years since and is (arguably) even more influential today. No doubt, he is also a lot wealthier thanks to his work with U2, and remains at the vanguard of popular music creative practice thanks to his embracing generative music and open source programming platforms (together with Peter Chilvers).
If you haven’t already read Tamm’s book, you might not be aware that Eno has made a living all this time by running away from a day job. That isn’t to say he’s not a hard worker. As a case in point, his slow and meticulous gradus ad parnassum approach to building up soundscapes was very much at odds with collaborator David Bowie’s first-take-is-the-best-take approach (see the hilarious video below). He is also capable of capriciousness: For example, if his infamous Oblique Strategies cards (developed together with painter Peter Schimdt) tell Eno to erase everything and start all over again, he’ll do it.
Eno: A Practitioner of Play
What I want to get across is that you’d be in error to put Eno on a pedestal. Anyone, can do it! That is, if you have the guts to go against all usual, well-meaning ‘advice’ from family, friends, loved ones and vocational guidance officers to get your life together. Do you have the wherewithal to devote 8 hours a day (or more) to play.
Instead of clocking on at the office, crunching numbers or pressuring pensioners into life insurance they don’t need, can you see yourself devoting that same amount of time to fiddling around with your DAW, Max/MSP, Pure Data or whatever musical means you prefer: juggling ideas, procedures, and sounds that – more often than not – will result in nought but creative dead ends? Probably not, given the low social status and financial instability that are for contemporary artists and musicians constant reminders of a comfortable life that might have been.
You’ll also need a refined and discerning sense of aesthetic appreciation. This is where Eno and John Cage’s procedural approaches to creativity diverge. Cage was happy to live with the results of his chance music, accepting it on its own terms, whatever the hell it sounded like (anyone for another 8 bars of ‘Fingernails down a Blackboard?’). Eno, ever the aesthete, instead spends a great deal of time reflecting upon the artefacts of his play before releasing them to public scrutiny. So much so that Tamm’s considers listening to be Eno’s “primary compositional activity” (p.49).
In my PhD dissertation (2015), I assert that a playful sealing off of the ‘real world’ to create a confined psychological space is conducive to creativity. Interestingly, this claim, based upon a review of 20th & 21st century psychological creativity literature, has a precedent in Hellenic mythology:
DuringHellenic times an amalgamation of [the trickster god] Hermes and Thoth was effected in the figure of Hermes Trismegistus, “Hermes Thrice Greatest,” who was regarded as the patron and teacher of all the arts, and especially of alchemy. The “hermetically” sealed retort, in which were placed the mystical metals, was regarded as a realm apart — a special region of heightened forces comparable to the mythological realm; and therein the metals underwent strange metamorphoses and transmutations, symbolical of the transfigurations of the soul under the tutelage of the supernatural. (Campbell, 1993, p. 73)
The story of Hermes Trismegistus is the story of freedom-through-limitation (i.e., limitation with regard to time as well as space). As stated above, the Hellenic trickster/messenger god of Hermes was amalgamated with the Egyptian god of Thoth, representing a new deity not to be confused with the god Hermes alone.
Amongst other things, Thoth was the god of time/limitation, just as Chronos and Saturn were in classical Greece and Rome respectively. This correspondence is confirmed by the alchemical Latin name for Hermes Trismegistus of Mercurius senex; the co-joining of the Roman trickster/messenger god Mercury (Hermes) with Saturn (Thoth), “ a symbol of the law of limitation which gives shape to life, or the localised expression in time and space of the universal life” (Cirlot, 1971, p. 279).
This collision of the impish trickster with the ponderous devourer of his own children seems at first paradoxical, but is made possible by their common, though often overlooked, point of bisociation: that is, both gods relate to communication (though in quite different fashion).
The Bard’s two cents worth: Control and chaos
The pairing of the elderly Saturn and youthful Mercury finds its echo in William Shakespeare’s characters Prospero and Ariel. In Shakespeare’s The Tempest, Ariel’s mischievous powers are (at first) unwillingly and temporarily (i.e., for two days) limited by Prospero’s ‘arts’ and aligned to the will of ‘Providence.’ The result of this binding of forces — that would otherwise be discharged chaotically — results in a powerful transformation of consciousness for all the play’s key protagonists.
The theme of confinement, and the great power it can unleash, is a central one in The Tempest; a state of being that (the otherwise incompatible) Prospero and Ariel have in common. Butler asserts:
No other play creates a space which runs so entirely according to its own laws. This island setting – with its sharp boundaries, and magic that works here but nowhere else – makes its world seem isolated and self-sufficient, an autonomous theatrical laboratory with its own internal logic. (2007, p.xxii)
Likewise, the appropriate incongruity of combining supposedly opposite archetypes in the figure of Hermes Trismegistus results in Herme’s powers becoming ‘thrice great.’
Stravinsky on limitation and art
The composer and virtuoso orchestrator Igor Stravinsky once commented on the necessity (Stravinsky, 1997 version) of binding himself tightly with limitations as a means to traverse the terrifying “abyss of freedom” where too many creative possibilities make creative action daunting. Within a field of limitations however, he states, the composer is not burdened by rules like a penitent, but rather “is in quest of his [sic] pleasure” (p. 192).
As for myself, I experience a sort of terror when, at the moment of setting to work and finding myself before the infinitude of possibilities that present themselves, I have the feeling that everything is permissible to me…and I cannot use anything as a basis, and consequently every undertaking becomes futile. Will I then lose myself in this abyss of freedom? However…I possess solid and concrete elements which offer me a field of experience…It is into this field that I shall sink my roots… (p. 194, bold emphasis added)
The following observation made by Herbert Fleischer in 1931 demonstrates that Stravinsky’s framing of free play within chosen boundaries was not always lost on outside observers:
What a difference between Schoenberg’s pure, abstract constructivism and Stravinsky’s most natural music-making using earth soaked in blood! Stravinsky proves that the most stringent, almost mathematical construction and the most natural idea are not mutually exclusive opposites…(quoted in Cross, 2003, p. 243)
It was Stravinsky’s awareness that even arbitrarily chosen limitations/rules could facilitate great freedom that allowed him to adopt, and discard, a variety of compositional styles throughout his career (ranging from jazz to serialism!), just as, for example, an actor might a character’s costume and personae.
In his essay Poetics of Music (1997 version) Stravinsky simply likens the unprecedented ‘language’ of his so-called revolutionary music in The Rite of Spring to the breaking of a habit. But he qualifies that once such a break with the past has occurred, it must be replaced by a similarly constricting new framework: “The more art is controlled, limited…the more it is free” (p. 194).
Confinement and limitation in rock music
This analogy of a creative ‘field’ of limitations within which play can take place is also mentioned by King Crimson co-founder Robert Fripp. In a 1982 interview, he outlines the approach using the analogy of sports and the rules of the game:
…I wish to determine the parameters of the band’s action. Not to be a dictator, but more like a guy saying, ‘This is the sports field; now go and play sports and I’ll play sports with you.’ It’s initiating a situation so you can concentrate energy…(Fricke, 1982, p. 25)
In the same interview, Bill Bruford, drummer with King Crimson, gives an illuminating account of how this approach feels from his perspective:
lt starts out as a stream of negatives first off, which cracks many a lesser man. ‘Don’t do this, don’t do that, and I suggest you don’t do this. By the way, I also recommend you don’t do that.’ You’re in a prison and you’ve got to find your way out of things. I quite like that. I must be a masochist or something, but I don’t feel right unless I’m imprisoned and told to find a way around it. That’s the challenge. (p. 25)
Neuroses, play and confinement
The multidisciplinary researcher/scholar Avshalom Elitzur states in his article “Humor, play, and neurosis – The paradoxical power of confinement” (1990) that “any form of perception or communication…by their nature require the elimination of the “noise” of irrelevant information” (p. 18). Elitzur argues that a common link between humour and play (as well as neuroses) is a “period of confinement.”
In other words, in order to play a game, or make a joke, one must temporarily limit or suspend key elements of awareness. However, in play the confinement to a ‘local logic’ (Ziv, 1984) is relatively longer than that experienced in the telling of a joke, so that, at least temporarily, the “play or the game becomes our entire world, and the broader realm of reality is mainly ignored…subject to denial, suppression, and other defenses” whereas, the neurotic is, at length, confined to a kind of pathological “enforced play” (Elitzur, 1990, p. 20).
Perhaps, this proposed link between neuroses and play could help explain original Pink Floyd frontman Syd Barrett’s eventual pathological withdrawal from society in favour of a self-imposed artistic confinement (physical, as well as, cognitive – he continued solitary painting, but not the more social music making) in the safety of his mother’s home in Cambridge, until his death in 2006 (Chapman, 2010).
Parrallels with Carl Jung’s Bollingen Stone
In 1922, after the death of his mother, psychologist Carl Jung purchased some land on the side of Lake Zurich near a small island where he and his family used to go camping. Soon after, starting off alone, he first built a modest circular stone tower, eventually enlisting professional help after the structure reached the height of about a metre (van Kralingen, 2018). Four major extensions were added over the next 30 or so years, with the last being in 1955 after the death of his wife. He reflects:
…Words and paper did not seem real enough to me. To put my fantasies on solid footing, something more was needed. I had to achieve a kind of representation in stone of my innermost thoughts and of the knowledge I had acquired. Put another way, I had to make a confession of faith in stone. That was the beginning of the tower, the house I built for myself at Bollingen. (Jung, 1963, p. 212)
Jung spent all his subsequent summers living at this stone house in Bollingen (it being too cold to inhabit during the winter). He felt that the structure and its gradual development somehow mirrored milestones with regard to his inner psychic life, and providing much-needed respite from the demands and quickening pace of 20th century life.
I have done without electricity and tend the fireplace and stove myself. Evenings, I light the old lamps. There is no running water, I pump the water from the well. I chop the wood and cook the food. These simple acts make man simple; and how difficult it is to be simple! Here, at Bollingen, the torrent of creation is lessened; creativity and play are close together. (p. 214, bold emphasis added)
In 1950, after he had ordered the delivery of stones cut to specific size, one large stone cube was delivered in error. Jung saw this “orphan stone” as a portent of sorts and demanded that it be left with him. He proceeded to inscribe three of its four sides, placing it prominently near the lakeshore and tower entrance. After completing the Orphan Stone, Jung told Maud Oakes, “I need not have written any books; it is all on the stone.” (Oaks, 1987, p. 88). The inscription by Jung (in Greek) reads: “Time is a child — playing like a child — playing a board game — the kingdom of the child. This is Telesphoros, who roams through the dark regions of the cosmos and glows like a star out of the depths. He points the way to the gates of the sun and to the land of dreams” (Jung, 1963, p. 227).
Like Stravinsky’s sinking roots down into a metaphorical “field of experience.” Jung is grounding his mercurial imagination here in something that is ancient, ponderous, resistant to change, seemingly eternal: stone. Herein lies the paradox, the more one constricts one’s actions, slows down, thinks less, the greater one’s capacity for turning Hermes’ dim, half-heard whispers into tangible creative acts. And tellingly, at the centre of Jung’s carved, sealed space (an eye or a mandala), who do we find? A playful child.
The (First and) Last Word: Shiva and Maya
It would seem that not only has self-limitation been acknowledged in the past as being capable of heightening creativity with a small ‘c’. According to a major Hindu tradition known as Shaivism – where Shiva (Siva) is proclaimed as the Supreme Being and creator/destroyer of worlds – self-limitation and playfulness are understood as being responsible for all of creation as we know it. Devadatta Kali Jaya (2008) explains:
The universe is Siva’s own self-expression, consciously projected out of his own overflowing joy, born of his own sense of wonder (camatkara), and willingly entered into in a spirit of spontaneous playfulness. Siva does this through the power of maya, which is his own power of self-limitation.
…Now, that’s creativity with a big ‘C.’ ‘Nuff said.
Please note: Portions of this article were presented in thesis form (not the mythological bits, that’s for sure) in the fulfilment of the requirements for the PhD of Marshall Heiser from Griffith University.
Butler, M. (2007). Introduction. In M. Butler (Ed.), The Tempest (pp. xxi-lxiv). London, England: Penguin.
Campbell, J. (1993). The hero with a thousand faces. London, England: Fontana Press.
Chapman, R. (2010). Syd Barrett: A very irregular head. London, England: Faber and Faber.
Cirlot, J. E. (1971). A dictionary of symbols. London, England: Routledge.
Cross, J. (2003). The Cambridge companion to Stravinsky. Cambridge, England; New York, NY: Cambridge University Press.
Elitzur, A. C. (1990). Humour, play and neurosis: the paradoxical power of confinement. Humor, 3(1), 17-35.
Fricke, D. (1982). Old Cult Groups Never Die (They Just Become More Popular): King Crimson Hits the Road. Trouser Press.
Hutt, C. (1966). Exploration and play in children. In Symposia of the Zoological Society of London (18), 61-81.
Jung, C.G. (1963) Memories, Dreams, Reflections. (Recorded and edited by Aniela Jaffé. Winston, C., & Winston, R., Trans.). London, England: Routledge & Kegan Paul.
Oakes, M. (1987). The Stone Speaks: The Memoir of a Personal Transformation. Asheville, NC: Chiron Publications.
Stravinsky, I. (1997 version). Poetics of Music. In F. Barron, A. Montuori, & A. Barron (Eds.), In Creators on creating: Awakening and cultivating the imaginative mind (pp. 189-194). New York, NY: Putnam.
In this short clip, Bob Dylan presents a powerful insight into his creative process circa 1966 (and indeed, creativity in general). It is also a good example of playframing.
What’s striking about the footage is not so much the playful process informing Dylan’s Burroughs-style wordplay, but the increasingly childlike, jubilant tone he displays whilst doing so. He starts off nonchalant, simply an out-of-towner scanning the text. His mood soon changes to mischievous, as he begins to mouth the words. As he invents new outrageous combinations, he becomes increasingly physical and energised. Jumping around like an excited child. He begins to laugh and grin; clearly rejoicing in his manipulation of the mundane. Calling out in an excited, giggly tone, he stomps his feet and swinging one arm around like a wild, emphatic pendulum.
This scene exemplifies not only the combinatorial play described by Einstein (Hadamard, 1945) but also Lieberman’s (1977) discussion/definition of “playfulness” (PF); a quality that may, or may not, be present in specific instances of play and indicated by the “glint-in-the eye” behavioural markers of (a) sense of humour, (b) spontaneity, described as a process of recombining things already known; and (c) manifest joy.
The above example also subtly illustrates Hutt’s (1979) contrasting of exploration and play. Dylan’s initial scanning of the sign, where he attempts to understand simply what this thing is is an example of exploration. His behaviour, after becoming familiar with the text and is stimulated to see what he can do with it, is deemed by Hutt to be play. As she explains: “In play the emphasis changes from ‘what does this object do?’ to ‘what can I do with this object?’” (1971, p. 246). These two actions are symptomatic of quite different frames of mind.
(c) 2015 Marshall Heiser
Please note: Portions of this article were presented in thesis form in the fulfillment of the requirements for the PhD of Marshall Heiser from Griffith University.
Hadamard, J. (1945). An essay on the psychology of invention in the mathematical field. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.
Hutt, C. (1979). Exploration and play (#2). In B. Sutton-Smith (Ed.), Play and learning (pp.175-194). New York: Gardner Press.
Hutt, C. (1971). Exploration and play in children. In R. E. Herron & B. Sutton-Smith (Eds.), Child’s play (pp. 231-260). New York, NY: Wiley.
Lieberman, J. N. (1977). Playfulness: Its relationship to imagination and creativity. New York, NY: Academic Press.
This is a demonstration of a sequencer app built by Marshall Heiser using Max/MSP and the “playframing” approach to creative practice. The video features an impromptu, unedited jam session by the author with the program.
In the 21st Century, popular music creative practice, dissemination, and performance/reception have all been transformed by the rise of the internet, youtube and a general “democratisation of technology” (a term coined by Leyshon, 2009). Popular music making today is seen as a recreational activity for all to engage in (even for “non-musicians”) as much as it ever was a passive one. As a musician and songwriter, I once bemoaned the fact that the performer/audience, producer/consumer dichotomies (amongst other paradigms) had broken down to a point where it became increasingly difficult for individual’s identifying as a practitioners of music to justify their place in society. Now I embrace it.
The game has changed
Around about 2010 I finally accepted that the old music industry ways had passed (at least as the main focus for practitioners). And with that acceptance of the death of the old came the birth of something much, much more satisfying. I had realised for some time that by focusing more on the process of music-making I could reclaim the joy and innocence of music making time and time again. Each piece of music could be approached as a game with its own rules that were totally binding, but only within the scope of that particular piece. Instead of identifying as a practitioner of music, I now saw myself as a practitioner and advocate of play.
At that time, I had discovered Max/MSP, the perfect system for a game-like approach to music making. Instead of trying to using Digital Audio Workstations and instruments that offered too many creative possibilities, I could now build my own virtual systems that were limited in scope according to the needs of the piece of music in question. Each with their own rules of engagement, and with interfaces of my own design that attempted to control the user much as the user would attempt to control them.
The rules of the game
The rules/limitations of this featured program (Simple SATB Sequencer) are what makes effortless action possible and results in the musical statement’s balance of coherency/variation when engaged by the user in a sensitive (rather than “expert”) fashion. Best results are obtained by inputting less notes in each sequencer and focusing attention upon the relationships of the four voices in a “sum-is-greater-than-the-parts” manner. Negotiating the rules (both as designer and user) is a form of “playframing” (a term coined by Sutton-Smith, 1979).
So what are the rules of this particular game (Simple SATB Sequencer)? 1) Four individual (monophonic) voices, each capable
of inputting eight notes in sequence 2) Four pitch steps per voice 3) Each sequence voice’s cycle can be put out of sync with the others by a “quarter measure” 4) Overall pitch scale can be chosen (from a set of presets) 5) Cycle of each sequence voice can run through its series of notes in one of three ways: up(1-8), down (8-1) or up/down (1-8,8-1) 6) The pitch range of each sequence voice is limited to something similar to traditional soprano, alto, tenor & bass. 7) Each voice has it’s own discreet synthesiser sound generator 8) The timbre of each voice can be manipulated easily via choice of waveform type. 9) The timbre of each voice can be further manipulated easily via filter settings (and choice of filter type) 10) The articulation of each voice can be manipulated (less) easily via a set of presets/ graphical user interface embedded in a sub-window (not being able to access this feature from the main GUI window actively discourages the user from using it too much).
Leyshon, A. (2009). The software slump?: Digital music, the democratisation of technology, and the decline of the recording studio sector within the musical economy. InEnvironment & Planning. A, 41 (6), 1309 – 1331.
Sutton-Smith, B. (1979). Play and learning. New York, NY: Gardner Press.
Here’s a nutty little instrumental jazz tune I wrote called “Sunday Sho.” Hope you like it. I wrote it using a technique I call “playframing” (for more details go to: playframesphd.wordpress.com). In this particular piece, a simple syncopated 2-bar rhythmic motif was applied to a number of different virtual instruments in Apple Logic Pro software, leaving myself free to play with the pitch values and instrument combinations.
Regarding the video: The footage was sourced/compiled from the creative commons repository “archive.org” and was originally created by Karl Sims as part of a research project titled “Involving simulated Darwinian evolutions of virtual block creatures.” Visit him at karlsims.com Sho nuff.