The Curse of the Creative
The skills we learn during the process of creating something will often put us in a position where we are able to produce a better version of the thing we just created due to the refined skills we attained during the process. This can be a vicious cycle, especially when it comes to deciding when one is finished with their latest creation.
So how can we can avoid getting caught in this loop? For myself, one of the ways was by reminding myself that I can always go back to it, even though I might not; it will always be there because that is what music is. This is the beautiful thing about music, or rather musicking; it is a journey, not a destination. But even this analogy doesn’t do it justice. It is like a journey that is always waiting for you to rejoin and one that changes with you, or will maybe remain the same upon your return. Even this more abstract analogy still doesn’t quite capture the beautiful ineffability of music; I have deliberately floundered with this to quickly show it is rather difficult to constrict it into analogy because by its very nature it cannot be fixed in place. The songs I have written over the last decade have changed over time along with me, and they have the potential to change as well; they can be played as earlier versions, different styles, with different instrumentation, but the core of them remains the same (even if we may never be able to truly unveil the potential of that quintessential source). I think this is loosely in alignment with what Walter Benjamin is referring to with the aura of a piece of music.
Art, Auras & Authenticity
Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction was published in 1935 and its main focus was influenced by Benjamin’s fascination with the mass changes the industrial age brought to society. These monumental changes affected numerous aspects of the way of life back then and many of these changes were a result of humanity’s new ability to mass produce. In his essay, Benjamin’s focus is in his fascination with the changes that the mass production of art brought to the medium and argues that this mass production changed how we view art as well as the art itself. His most interesting view, is his concept of the aura which relates to the authenticity of a work of art:
‘Even the most perfect reproduction of a work of art is lacking in one element: its presence in time and space, its unique existence at the place where it happens to be. This unique existence of the work of art determined the history to which it was subject throughout the time of its existence.’ - Benjamin
It is a sad fact that Benjamin’s life ended far too soon as his prolific views on the further advancements in technology and their societal impact would have no doubt been invaluable. What I would like to know is what he would say about the next step in our mechanical mass production, from an analogue means of duplication, to our current digital means that allows for a practically instantaneous and worldwide distribution. But before I jump into this particular discussion, I want to quickly clarify the connection to perfection that I am trying to make with this; in our digital age we have the advantage of technology that allows for so many wonderful creative options, but sometimes having too many options is a bad thing. We can be rapidly overwhelmed by this plethora of potential choice so knowing which is the ‘right’ one for your creative project quickly becomes a hinderance.
Inundated with Indecision
When things were analogue, artists didn’t have the option to go back and edit their work as easily as they do now. Compare the digital painter to the mechanical one: before, the paint that hit the canvas was one colour, size and texture/paint type (acrylic, watercolour etc). Now, with the perceived advantage of digital technology, the modern painter can manipulate the aforementioned categories of creative choice to the nth degree; the colour, texture, paint type and much more, can all be immediately changed at the artist’s whim at any point during the process. These digital benefits can become a double edged sword since these seemingly endless possibilities and configurations can give the artist too many options and subsequently make it more difficult for them to decide what is the ‘best’ version of their art. Da Vinci didn’t have the option to invert the colours of the Mona Lisa (strange example I know; there is probably a curator in the Louvre who currently feels offended and does not know why), or even make the entire thing a vector image that could be scaled up to a billboard size in a few clicks.
From my chosen field in the arts, the advances in music’s digital possibilities, and the vast capabilities that Digital Audio Workstations allow for, can make deciding when to put down the plectrum all the more tricky. Providing that I keep a backup of my work, I will always have the option to add/remove instruments, change melodies and structure, as well as make changes to the entire mix itself (and these options barely scratch the surface of what is possible). These clever tools we now have allow for endless options to alter a medium that is itself an ongoing process, so it’s no wonder that making the decision that ‘this is its final form’ is riddled with uncertainty and artistic dithering.
So, ‘how have you managed to decide Neil?’ I hear no one cry. ‘What a good looking question', I reply to the void. As is apparent from my extensive compositional archive of unreleased music over the last decade, answering this juicy question has not been easy and it has taken me the last year of research, reflection and rather deep introspection, to get myself somewhere close to an answer.
Desiring Not to Desire
“Life’s not about what’s Better Than.” - John Butler
When working on getting a track ready I always have the wee chattering monkey in my mind telling me that, ’this could be better’ but the turning point for myself was realising that this idea of ‘it could be better’ is from my perspective. Since the concept of perfection is subjective, this thought process is fundamentally flawed since one man’s treasure is another’s hot garbage. It’s similar to the idea of self improvement - the self that is going to do the improving is the one that needs improved so they get caught in a double bind. Or to put it another way, the reason you want to be better is the reason why you’re not (Watts). In relation to my previous mindset, I was seeking perfection because I wanted to be in the best possible position to produce the optimal version of my music; to bring forth the authentic aura. It has taken a long time for me to get out of this mindset so I would like to share some of my Hairy Highlander wisdom upon you, dear reader:
Let go of the pursuit of perfection and embrace yourself as you are. Let go of this desire to be better, but be careful not to force this because if you are trying to let go of your desires, you will eventually realise that the very act of wanting not to have desires is a desire in itself; another crippling double bind. It’s like trying to calm turbulent waters by hitting it with a stick. Water will calm itself when left alone (Watts). As I discussed before going on this philosophical tangent, technology and the infinite choices it can bring will lead to incessant indecision if we do not learn to let go of the desire to be perfect, accept our limitations, and embrace our imperfections, for it is the imperfect that is truly beautiful. A simple analogy to end this section on is the Japanese art of Kintsugi, where broken pottery is repaired with golden glue (sometimes silver or platinum but I opted for alliteration) so that the fractures of the objects are no longer viewed as flaws but recognised as an integral part of what makes the object what it is.
Pitfalls of Perfection
I am of the opinion that a piece of music can never be in a perfectly finished state and that is actually a beautiful thing. Condemn it to perfection and you sentence it to death. It becomes inert. And music, like life, is in flux and it is in this ebb and flow that the beauty of it is found. Imagine for a moment that creating something perfect was attainable and you achieved it. Would you be happy with the result? Once something is perfect, it isn’t going anywhere. It’s hit the peak. It’s arrived at a destination. It has ended. It becomes stationary, inert, dead. A perfect rose preserved in formaldehyde that no one will ever smell; a fundamental component of a flower that makes it what it is.
So from this we can say that if something was indeed universally perfect, it kills the conversation, which is analogous to life and to who you are. By studying my tunes and my reasons for not releasing them, I was able to examine this phenomenon myself (although at first unknowingly). I had wanted the perfect conditions for creating the optimal version of my music. It took a while, but I eventually saw this attitude in myself and who I am, and with time tempered with consistent reflexivity, I was finally able to see the chains I had shackled to myself.
I will however concede that there is the possibility for temporary subjective perfection, but this window is positioned in many different variables (including time, space, cultural, societal, personal etc), and can not exist indefinitely due to the nature of being not being fixed. This line of thought was developed from the following quote from Christopher Small and his concept of reception history:
“Whatever meaning art may have thought to reside in the object, persisting independently of what the perceiver may bring to it. It is simple there, floating through history untouched by time and change, waiting for the ideal perceiver to draw it out” - Small
Death is not the end
“‘Form is the end, death’, he wrote. ‘Form-giving is life’ (Klee, 1973, p. 269)” - Ingold
This quote about form being the death of the art made sense to me upon first read. However, upon reflection I realised, in the words of Gandalf the White, that death is not where the journey ends, merely a path we all must take (yes I will take any excuse to throw in a LOTR reference, regardless of its validity). Influenced mostly from Small’s concept of reception history and the realisation that despite my initial thought that perfection is subjective and unattainable, I had missed an important distinction. Universal perfection is truly impossible - this is implied by stating that perfection is subjective, but it is important to clarify. Small’s idea of reception history, combined with my interpretation that the perfect form of a piece of art lies in the eye of the beholder, suggests that the beholder’s gaze that draws out perfection has maybe already been, or is yet to come. This concept appears to relate Benjamin since that, from my understanding, the authentic aura of a work of art is not automatically generated at the time of its creation, but can be revealed at any point in time throughout its existence.
As I have mentioned, there is nowhere to go with universal perfection. No duality. No discussion or conversation. It simply is perfect and has truly become dead. The beauty is in the movement, in the journey, in the flux, in the change. As I mentioned in Me, My Music & I, we are all backs and fronts to each other. Light and Dark, Good and Evil, Pepsi and Coke. Each defines each other. But it is all subjective. What does something that is universally perfect have to contribute? Everyone unanimously decides it’s perfect. Then what? Sit and stare in awe for eternity? Gross. No thanks. Let’s have a conversation. I’d rather have someone let me confirm how I feel about something by telling me what they think of it; enable me solidify my positionality in relation to theirs. If we all agreed with each other, we’ll never know where we stand or who we are.
With all these digital tools further enabling my already established indecision, my introspection led to the realisation that perfection is entirely subjective and ultimately unattainable; I was effectively pushing on a pull door for an embarrassingly long time. I will be exploring this a little further with my final blog post If not now, when?; the recurring question of the entire project that kept me on an even keel and allowed me to embrace my imperfections, let go of the idea of producing the perfect mix (or opportune creative environment), and instead reassure my insecure wee self that what I am creating, and who I am, is Good Enough.