Expressing Creativity in Uncertain Times

I never imagined that the many limitations enforced by coronavirus would act as a creative stimulus, but I’ve consistently been astonished to see profound, moving, astonishing and wonderfully silly moments on social media since the advent of corona virus.

It’s got me thinking about creativity and constraint. Constraints can push us into new and unexpected territory. As artists, we often find it useful to impose deliberate constraints upon ourselves as a way of firing up new ideas.

Some poets and writers give themselves prompts, for example including a certain number of unrelated words from a list, writing in a particular form, or in words of only one syllable. Not having access to the words we normally use can oblige us to experiment and thus make new discoveries. It might sound strange on one hand, but, on the other, it can result in fresh and interesting work, and the writer avoids the terror of staring at a blank page and wondering what to say.

Likewise, musicians may give themselves limitations, like only practising a few bars of a piece or using a specific technique, or only composing for a particular ensemble, or using an unusual scale or rhythmic pattern.

In the following clip, we get to experience an orchestra as individuals seen up close and personal in their own living quarters, finding ways to make music together nonetheless.


A scattered orchestra reassembles virtually to play the piece of music we most associate with unity.

In my impro class (theatre games), our teacher often gives us seemingly impossible briefs- for example, in a group of three, only two can sit at any one time, so whenever one person sits, another ends up on her feet. Meanwhile we’re only allowed to speak in gibberish, and move as if underwater. Sometimes, I feel as if my head will explode with all of the simultaneous instructions, but these so-called constraints often lead to unselfconscious and highly enjoyable scenes for both performers and audience.

A couple creates a fun illusion out of nowhere.

Sometimes restrictions are enforced in other ways- for example, a stay in prison, hospital or mental ward. The early 20th Century Swiss writer Robert Walser, who, after early literary success (he was the primary influence on Kafka) spent many years in a psychiatric hospital, and left behind small scraps of paper with tiny scratchings on them. It was only in the early 2000’s, nearly fifty years after his death,  the researchers discovered that in fact the ‘scratchings’ were pieces of fiction, written painstakingly in code in microscopic print ("Microscripts", pub. 2012). The writer himself never mentioned them-- he was content simply to find a way to express himself, apparently without caring whether anyone ever read them.

Below, the separate dancers work as a kind of ensemble, each one responding to the other's impulses.


Dancers from different continents ‘meet’ to dance one seamless piece of improvisation.

Because of more time at home, I’m noticing that people are baking more. Surprisingly, we’ve actually been eating a greater variety of foods than normal, because now we've had to seek alternatives to our usual weekly meals. Other friends are gardening, doing up old pieces of furniture, making home improvements, singing from their balconies in crowded cities during lockdown, dusting off neglected musical instruments, playing board games, and taking online dance classes.

And some are recreating famous paintings, using nothing but their own bodies and the clothes and objects around them. Here's one of my favourites.

So I encourage you not to let the limitations of your surroundings block you-- maybe they will, in fact, be the stimulus for new creations you never imagined possible.

Bon courage,

Valerie


Thriving as a Creative Artist in Uncertain Times

Dear Creative Artists,

I hope you’re staying well and taking care of yourselves. After some recent discussions with clients, I thought it might be worth sharing what I’m finding helpful, in terms of how we can support ourselves and each other under these unique circumstances.

Addressing emotional and mental wellbeing

Artists are a sensitive and empathic population, and I know at the same time it’s been tempting to just be stoic, to push down unwelcome feelings and just “get on with it”. However, letting yourself know honestly how you are feeling is amazingly helpful. Take time to be quiet and still each day and check in with yourself.

This crisis is bringing up very different challenges for people on a mental and emotional level. For me, for example, it’s brought up fears on a very basic level of not having enough to eat. For one friend, it’s brought back old memories of stress he had at a previous job during the 2008 downturn. For another friend, it’s fears of loneliness during a period of recommended “self-isolation”. For yet another, it’s “survivor guilt”, knowing that she’s ok, while so many others are suffering. It may be fears of illness or even mortality.

If old fears and anxieties are being triggered, the easiest thing to do is just take some time to scribble them down on paper, however they come out, and then tear up the paper or burn it. It’s best to take a few minutes daily to do this. Or if you feel you need to trace the feelings backwards more mindfully, do some journaling. There’s increasing data to support the theory that journaling actually has a tangible effect on mental, emotional and physical wellbeing. https://www.nytimes.com/2018/10/25/style/journaling-benefits.html

For me, once I discovered that my fears could be traced to some specific experiences I had as a child, something relaxed inside of me and I was able to reassure myself that I would have enough to eat- which markedly reduced my stress levels.

It may sound counter-intuitive, but having fun is also incredibly vital right now- I recommend watching comedy, playing games with friends online, holding Netflix streaming parties, and so on. It can be easy to feel that we shouldn’t be enjoying ourselves during a crisis, but actually, it helps no one if we’re suffering, particularly unnecessarily (for example, worrying about situations that are outside our control- of which there are many). And laughing is great for the immune system!

It’s also helpful to notice what we have, and to appreciate it- being grateful to have enough food, a roof over our heads, a beautiful sunny day to go out in, and so on. There may be things about this new way of life that are actually better. Look out for them.

Addressing practical needs

Of course, there are new aspects of your work and study to deal with. For some of you, your working lives may have been drastically altered at short notice.

I encourage you to be flexible and adaptable, and to experiment. I’m sure you’re already brainstorming possible options to continue earning and to keep your business afloat. One of the trickiest parts of this challenge is that it has come so suddenly.

I know some of you are considering teaching online and needing to research the best modality with which to do this. For others, you might need immediate revenue and will need to start looking for temporary jobs. And for others, there may be extra unoccupied time to fill.

If you’re moving your teaching business online, I recommend checking out the Facebook group “Online Music Teachers” run by a colleague of mine, where he spells out how to teach effectively, and what kind of set-up you need. He has an extremely successful online teaching practice and loves to work that way and there are generous resources available.

If you find you have extra time to fill, then, once your life has settled down from this initial upheaval, I encourage you to set some practice, repertoire, composing or writing goals. After all, this situation is temporary, and it would be great to emerge stronger at the end.

In fact, I suggest you ask yourself some good questions- you know, not the kind that undermine you, like “What the hell is wrong with me?” 😉 but more like,


“How can I emerge [fill in the blank- stronger/wiser/more resourceful/happier] from this situation?”

And if you’re not feeling ‘together’ enough to do this yet (and even when you are), then I encourage you to play or write for pleasure and as a release, as much as possible.

Being open to receiving support

It’s vital that we reach out to each other. What kind of support systems do you have? Do you need to create more at this time? I’ve been calling and texting more friends and family members to share about the impact of this new situation, and being honest about the challenges.

So, reach out, even if you haven’t spoken to the person for a while. Many people say they are feeling more connected than ever, right now, and what a blessing it is.

Reaching out to support others

One of the most beautiful things I’ve witnessed so far has been all the kindness people have shown each other. In our village of 1000 people, there are now 200 who have offered to help if someone is in need, through a volunteer-manned helpline. You may have read about, seen or experienced acts of kindness or selflessness yourself. Finding ways to be of service and take action will help you feel more empowered and take your mind off your own challenges for a while. I’m sure there are many opportunities on your doorstep.

I’d love to hear how you are doing and wish you well!

Bon courage,

Valerie


Uncovering the Dream

dream by damselfly58

dream by damselfly58

A while ago, I began to realise that a strange thing was happening to me. Every time I was invited to a wedding, something went terribly and bafflingly awry.

 When one of my best friends asked me to bring something meaningful to place on the altar at her wedding  I knew just the thing– a beautiful wooden statue of two people kissing, closely entwined. I got up early that morning, and it was not until I was halfway to work that I realised that I had left the statue behind. I couldn’t risk being late for my students, so I had to resign myself to attending the wedding without the statue, and hoped my friend wouldn’t mind. She was gracious about it at the time, and it wasn’t until much later that she let on that she had been deeply disappointed. Continue reading…


Impro as a Lifestyle

impro

photo: Remy Bertrand

Recently, I’ve been taking theatrical impro classes which culminate in a public show, and they’ve sparked lots of ideas in me. Our teacher, Remy is extremely imaginative and adventurous, and so we never know exactly what we’ll be doing from one moment to the next. However, we do generally start the class with a warm-up.

An impro warm-up is designed to get us to a place where we are able to be open, creative, free, bold, natural, inventive, uninhibited. Once we are in that place, anything is possible. It doesn’t really matter how we get there. Recently, we were instructed to improvise several scenes and songs in Spanish, although most of us don’t speak the language. At other times, we will speak gibberish, or mime, or do one action while describing another. It’s more about what goes on inside us- allowing ourselves to experience that moment of daring, the pushing-through of the membrane that usually stops us emerging fully into life. Continue reading…


Klezmahler!

She’Koyokh and members of the Aurora Orchestra

A few days ago, I happened to hear about an intriguing concert in London- the Aurora Chamber Orchestra playing Mahler’s First Symphony, followed by a Klezmer band, She’Koyokh. Being a fan of both Mahler and Klezmer (traditional Eastern European Jewish folk music), I decided to book tickets, not quite knowing what to expect.

The concert took place at St Luke’s, Old St in the City, a converted church, now rehearsal and concert space for the LSO and others. The first half began with the orchestra in darkness, a sole spotlight on Timothy Orpen, an astonishing young clarinetist, who played a virtuosic solo by Jörg Widmann. Hardly had he finished when a clarinettist in the rafters took over (Susi Evans, from She’Koyokh), playing a traditional Doina, accompanied, still in darkness, by the orchestra. This was drama at the service of the music, and it worked beautifully, highlighting the prime role of the clarinet in both the symphony and in Klezmer music, and introducing both improvisational and traditional music from the outset. It was only after the conductor, the charismatic Nicholas Collon, crept on to the stage and the first few chords of the Mahler symphony trembled into life, that the lights began to come up.

The Mahler was performed in a brand new version for chamber orchestra by Iain Farrington, with one instrument per part. This version was fascinating. Watching single strings cope with demanding counterpoint and lyrical intensity in a virtuosic display with the transparency of chamber music was stimulating. Each wind player brought individual colour and charisma. There was nowhere to hide, and no one wanted to. There was sometimes a pull between those wanting to let music breathe (particularly string players), and the wind agreeing with the conductor in wanting to drive the music forward. This resulted in minor ensemble difficulties occasionally, but over all the playing was outstanding. The famous funeral march of the third movement is punctuated by obvious references to Klezmer music, making explicit the raison d’être of the programme. It was only in the fortissimo sections of the final movement that I really missed the impact of a large orchestra.

After the interval, it was the turn of She’Koyokh, a distinguished klezmer band, to take the stage. In vibrant outfits, with rakish hats and equally rakish grins, they provided an immediate contrast to the classical players, and the audience were enthralled within minutes by a series of songs and dances from the Sephardic Jewish tradition, Bulgaria, and Turkey, amongst others. Astonishingly, some of the Aurora players had volunteered to join them, having taken a series of workshops on Yiddish music. A main part of the success of the evening came from seeing music being made with such playfulness, courage and risk-taking. Watching the classical players step (leap) outside their comfort zone, be inspired by folk music, and willing to improvise publicly was an inspiration.

As humans, we often mistake seriousness for purposefulness, and vice versa. Here purpose was all joy. The strengths of the classical players: virtuosity, musicianship, the ability to learn new music quickly in different styles, combined with the strengths of the multi-cultural band: Characterfulness. Juice. Drama. Instinct. Chutzpah. Groove. It was one of the most invigorating evenings I’ve experienced in a long time, and I didn’t want it to end.


Precious Nonsense

The other morning I chanced upon this poem, and it blew past my defences and burst me open.

i thank You God for most this amazing

day:for the leaping greenly spirits of trees

and a blue true dream of sky;and for everything

which is natural which is infinite which is yes

 

(i who have died am alive again today,

and this is the sun’s birthday;this is the birth

day of life and love and wings:and of the gay

great happening illimitably earth)

 

how should tasting touching hearing seeing

breathing any-lifted from the no

of all nothing-human merely being

doubt unimaginable You?

 

(now the ears of my ears awake and

now the eyes of my eyes are opened)

~ e.e. cummings ~

 

Why should a poem that one can’t make sense of have such an impact? It’s like some part of the psyche makes sense of it when the other parts cannot. Maybe the lack of sense confounds those parts and meaning jumps into the space left behind. In his book, “Precious Nonsense”, Professor Stephen Booth  suggests that the greatest appeal of our most valued works of literature may be that they are, in one way or another, nonsensical. Precious nonsense is precious indeed.

I’ve been wondering whether the same happens in other arts. In painting, I would say yes. It’s what happens in a still life with the appearance of a sudden skull. It happens either when something unexpected is there, or something unexpected happens inside me when I see it. “It frustrates your expectations, actually”, as our aesthetics Professor used to say. So if it’s about what happens inside the viewer, then it’s not within the control of the artist. And no two people may experience the same thing.

I think of Magritte and Dali- except I feel there is such a sense of deliberate provocation in both cases. They want us to be surprised and perplexed- and it’s obvious why we should be.

At the recent da Vinci exhibition in the National Gallery, London, his two “Madonna of the Rocks” paintings hung opposite each other. Same artist, same composition, completely different result. In the painting from the Louvre, the figures radiate a tender peace, every limb is gracefully rounded, their faces glow. In the London painting, however, their faces are pale, angular and ghostly, their presences lifeless, flat and posed. Surely this must be the earlier painting- it has no spirit. Yet no, the experts think it is from a later date.

I also think of the medieval painters’ way of depicting subjects such as the Annunciation- Flemish painters showing Mary surprised by Gabriel as she makes lace or cooks waffles; or the cat takes centre stage, its fur on end as the angel appears. In one painting of the Ascension, only Jesus’ feet can be seen protruding from a cloud. Did the medieval viewers laugh as hard as I did when I saw those? Did they laugh at all?

What about music? Are there pieces that transcend or flout the expectations of the intellect? Everywhere. Mozart’s “Dissonance” quartet is a classic example. Steve Reich’s Six Pianos that morphs from the microcosmic to the macrocosmic – infinitely busy to infinitely peaceful- and back again. Beethoven’s Grosse Fugue, which initially seems to have no coherence or tonal centre. The moment in the Gloria from Bach’s B Minor Mass where the music moves from 3/4 to 4/4 symbolizing the spiritual contrasting with the material (the number three traditionally representing the Trinity and four Earth), when I feel more elation as the music descends to earth than I did when it hovered in the stratosphere. The mystery of how the Goldberg Variations can sound as fresh at the 50th hearing (or the 500th) as they did the first- if not more so.

Such moments of surprise can be found anywhere.  I recently discovered a Soviet-era version of Winnie the Pooh in which the classic childhood character morphed into a fretful, obsessed, existential little bear who sang aggressive tuneless snippets as he stomped across the Steppes. He was still using a lot of A.A. Milne’s words and plot lines, but he was no English Winnie.

I want to write like greenly day-mazing cummings. I want to care as little as he did about what others thought of his work. I want to blow myself open and share the freshness of my imagination.  Starting today.


Film-Poem Alchemy

This afternoon was the last day of the Christmas holidays, unexpectedly sunny, crisp and breezy. After the departure of some visitors, Robert and I were about to go out for a walk and some tea and cake, when he suddenly pointed to a patch of light on the wall behind me. The reflections from the garden of waving branches and the wrought iron of a clothes post were casting flickering shadows onto the wall in an astonishing fashion, almost like a silent movie. Robert grabbed his iPhone and captured some video. “You could use that for a poem-film, “ I remarked, thinking about the beautiful short videos some friends had made recently.

When we got home from our walk, I began improvising to the footage on the piano, while Robert listened and wrote.  Within twenty minutes we both had something. Remarkably, when Robert read his poem aloud, it was exactly the right length. He recorded it, synchronized it with the video, and then I recorded my part on top onto a different track so that we could experiment with individual volume and colour.

I’m not a recording engineer, but I know what works when I hear it. In this case, I knew we needed to take the ‘edge’ off the sound on both tracks. It took a little whole to find the right effect for the piano part. It wasn’t until Robert added a little reverb that it harmonized with the imagery. It sounded as if it had been recorded many years ago in a dusty, cavernous ballet studio on a slightly tinny upright. Perfect.

We both could hear that Robert’s voice was also cutting through the texture in a way that sounded too immediate, modern and dynamic. When he equalized it, using an effect called RCA Victor 1947, it all came together.

Result: a film-poem in one evening. If only making art could be this easy and graceful every time.