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Iteration

Don’t Just Finish Your Product, Evolve It

Classical music versus jazz, fixed versus free, planned versus improvised... which one is better for our creative process?


There’s a reason jazz wasn’t taught at the New England Conservatory before Gunther Schuller arrived in the 1960s. Artists are protective of their work, and classical musicians are no exception; many faculty members at the renowned Boston institution didn’t want the whims of jazz improvisers to “sully” their canon. The traditionalists there believed in an unambiguous divide between the realms of classical and jazz—both for themselves, and for posterity. 

But Gunther Schuller, who passed away on June 21 of this year, wasn’t having it.

As president of the New England Conservatory for a decade, Schuller wanted audiences and student performers to experience the best of both worlds—so he brought jazz into the curriculum. As a composer, he coined the term “Third Stream,” used to describe a genre of music “about halfway between jazz and classical,” as Schuller put it. He was in many ways the paragon of a venerable creative figure: someone who teased apart labels and combined ideas.

But Schuller’s professional output is a model for more than just combinatorial creativity. Classical music versus jazz, fixed versus free, planned versus improvised… we grapple with these dichotomies in non-musical work, as well. Is it true, as scientific studies suggest, that a jazz musician’s brain is inherently more creative? And thus does other free form art make one more creative? The answer is complicated—psychologists are finding that plasticity, as opposed to genre, may be a more powerful measure of creativity.

By way of comparison, the myth of the hyper-creative jazz musician bears some resemblance to the myth of the uber-artistic leftie. When it comes to handedness, creativity has more to do with degree rather than direction. That is, lefties aren’t always more creative than righties—the degree to which you use your left or right hand says more about your brain than the particular hand you’re using. Likewise, jazz musicians aren’t creative because they’re playing jazz as opposed to any other style. Rather, creativity is the ability to mediate between genres and experiment with the full spectrum. Creativity is about ambidexterity.

So what can we learn about creativity from people like Gunther Schuller, who have unified the advantages of both classical and jazz? With real estate in two separate worlds, composers like Schuller show us what it means to dance between the following dichotomies.

Openness to Experience vs. Reliance on Experience

David Greenberg, Ph.D. candidate in psychology at the University of Cambridge, says that a Gunther-style fusion of jazz and classical would likely appeal to someone who demonstrates what he calls “openness to experience.”

“Openness to experience isn’t about I.Q.,” he says. “It’s a different way of approaching the world.”

In a study published this month in the Journal of Research in Personality, Greenberg and his colleagues tested nearly 8,000 people in skill areas like melodic memory and rhythmic perception (you can take the quiz here). They found that out of five major personality traits, a characteristic called “openness” was the best predictor of musical sophistication and ability. What’s more, they were able to replicate that finding in non-musicians, too—which means you could be musical and not even know it.

A characteristic called “openness” was the best predictor of musical sophistication and ability.

Openness to experience means allowing yourself a reflective, complex intellectual life—one that is continuously assimilating new and unfamiliar ideas, Greenberg says. He points to John Coltrane, who is often regarded as one of the most influential jazz musicians of all time. “Coltrane was bringing African and Asian elements into his music,” he says. “He was a unifier. He went from playing be-bop with Miles Davis to avant-garde music. Based on biographies of him, his openness to experience was off the charts.”

But the greatest jazz musicians aren’t revered for endlessly incorporating new styles. Rather, they counter diversity of ideas with a deep, thorough knowledge of what came before them. In his landmark book on improvisation, Thinking in Jazz, Paul Berliner quotes guitarist and saxophonist Arthur Rhames: “Improvisation is an intuitive procedure for me now, but the way in which it’s intuitive, I’m calling upon all the resources of all the years of my playing at once: my academic understanding of the music, my historical understanding the of the music, and my technical understanding of the instrument I’m playing.” In other words, what we think of as “creative intuition” has nothing to do with eureka moments or passive daydreaming. Intuition is built on hard-coded, extensive knowledge.

Charles Peltz, director of wind ensemble activities and wind ensemble conducting at NEC, recalls that Gunther Schuller had truly earned his intuition. “He showed an emotional, unconditional acceptance of the ideas behind both [classical and jazz],” Peltz says. Schuller inculcated himself in both schools of thought. He respected the past and mastered its relationship to the present. This is what enabled him to compose music convincing enough to exist on its own terms.

Takeaway: Explore new genres, movements, and styles, but make sure you do your homework. Feel free to experiment, but dig into your arsenal of accumulated knowledge to enrich and contextualize those new ideas. Creativity is a delicate balance between freedom (new, “now”) and constraint (old, “then”).

Creativity is a delicate balance between freedom and constraint.  

Empathizing and Emotional vs. Systematizing and Structural

Jazz has come to symbolize a raw, emotional, and mercurial temperament. While it may be true that many jazz musicians consider it their duty to transmit emotion in the most direct way possible, the creative process for almost all musicians—including jazz musicians—exists on a spectrum between what Greenberg calls “empathizing” and “systematizing.”

For example, if a saxophonist decides to play something that focuses primarily on a set of notes (a scale, for example), he can let his emotions guide him (an “empathizing” strategy)—or he can conceive a larger vision for the performance, setting rules and scrutinizing the music as he plays (a “systematizing” strategy).

Greenberg says his two music teachers growing up couldn’t have been more opposite. One was an extreme empathizer; he advocated for feeling the music above anything else. The other was strictly a systematizer: “It was almost like going into a doctor’s office—he’d examine everything about you,” Greenberg says. “His homework would be to look at a four-bar phrase and break it apart into its finest details.”

Takeaway: Figure out whether you’re more of an empathizer or systematizer (hint: neither is superior). Then decide which parts of your workflow could benefit from more of either mode of thinking. If you’re more of an empathizer and you’re not sure how to choreograph an opening number, put on your systematizer hat and break down the movements into their smallest physical categories. If you’re more of a systematizer and you’re trying to choose a design template, try tapping into what feels right, and then let your systematizing side re-evaluate. The bottom line: sometimes a little strategy will make your version of a blues lick sing.

Process vs. Product 

A violinist is handed the sheet music for Beethoven’s Violin Concerto. There it is, emblazoned in black ink.

A student listens to an improvised bass solo and then transcribes exactly what he heard. There it is, emblazoned in black ink.

What’s the difference? Lots of musicians could give you their opinion, but there’s no clear-cut answer. If there is a distinction at all, it might have to do with the relationship between process and product. The violinist hears the product—Beethoven’s Violin Concerto—progress and fluctuate over the course of its approximately 45-minute duration; in this way, what makes the performance unique is the musician’s interpretation of Beethoven’s static product. The student listening to the bass solo knows that his transcription is a mere artifact of that particular performance, and the solo would not be “the same” by any means if played again. The bassist’s new process would generate an entirely new product.

This analogy is especially relevant for professionals working with any kind of digital media. On the Internet, your product is literally your process, and vice versa. We do not so much as “finish” projects as evolve them.

We do not so much as “finish” projects as evolve them.

In other words, your projects can be understood as a series of performances that are dynamic and change over time. Viewed through this lens, work becomes less about “producing results” and more about prompting change. The question, then, is how do you choose to assess that change?

For example, if you’re an online publisher and choose to reprint an article from a different publication, is your reprint considered an “original performance” because it’s being inserted into a new context? And what about social media? If you write an essay as a series of tweets, your product is built into a platform that’s designed to reveal itself over time. Will that have an effect on your creative process? 

Classical and jazz musicians would have a wide range of answers to these questions because their work is integrally dependent on change over time. Digital media, too, is constantly dealing with questions of ephemerality, ownership, and originality—questions that music has been suited to address for hundreds, if not thousands, of years. 

Takeaway: To harness creativity, abandon all efforts to imagine a perfect end product. Instead, think about how it’s going to change over the course of its life.

Accidentals vs. Purposefuls

In music, “accidentals” are musical pitches—rather, musical glitches—that don’t belong to the scale or mode currently in use. A more sensible name for these rogue notes would be “purposefuls,” since they’re always written into a piece for a precise reason. In classical, jazz, and any other genre, accidentals subvert the listener’s expectations… on purpose.

The coolest thing about accidentals is that they bust out of musical boundaries in the most unapologetic way. Musicians emphasize these notes; they dramatize their presence, as if to say, “yes, you heard me correctly.” Accidentals show us just how trite it is to bicker over categories or labels—no matter what kind of working you’re doing, the “accident-on-purpose” is a near-universal phenomenon. Classical musicians wear accidentals like cherished hand-me-downs: the clothing is the same, but means something different in each new context. Jazz musicians employ accidentals on-the-fly, but just because they’re not written down doesn’t mean they’re not as purposeful.

Accidentals bust out of musical boundaries in the most unapologetic way.

Takeaway: Be an accidental. Deviate from what’s expected, but understand the context in which you’re doing so. What’s the reason for your accident? How does it relate to everything else in your story, art, or design? Make your mistakes out loud, and on purpose.

***

Scientists are eager to understand what’s going on in the brain during jazz improvisation. Who would blame them? However, researchers who want to use that knowledge as a means to understand creativity at large are missing an important part of the story. We see certain genres of art as being more or less creative as a result of the cultural cues and mythologies that surround them. But if you dig deeper, the internal processes at play are all variations on a single theme; understanding how these processes work could be the key to making your work a resounding success.

Allison Eck

Allison Eck works for NOVA, the award-winning PBS documentary series, where she works on social media and editorial content for NOVA Next, NOVA’s new longform science journalism platform. A Hamilton College alum, you can find her playing clarinet with the Cambridge Symphony Orchestra, browsing local bookstores, and researching her next story. Tweet her at @allisonceck.

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