Can a song change the world? Maybe if you helped write it. And if we replace the word “song” with “30-minute space drone jam.”
Our world faces challenges, or as C. West Churchman once said in the 60s, “wicked problems” that are accelerating and expanding in stature. The challenges I wrestle with on a daily basis occupy the environment, resource, economic, and behavioural spaces. For example, how do we create business opportunities while simultaneously meeting increasingly varied, and sometimes opposing objectives of economic growth, energy security, social inclusion, and reduced environmental impact? One doesn’t need to think long and hard to remember the other Big Global Problems in health, access to technology, and education, to start a non-exhaustive list.
Many responses to these challenges call, if not for magic bullet miracles, then for very rapid solutions from science, technology, or entrepreneurship. If our challenges are globally interconnected but our problem solving approaches remain in silos, then the key to addressing these multi-dimensional problems is being able to understand systems and to think in a trans-disciplinary context.
If the subjective emotional powers of music alone are not important enough to value, we must consider musicians (and artists at large) to serve a more practical function. Artistic experience is as critical to our toolset as any theoretical or practical background in technical, computing, business, or political topics.
If we buy into the transdisciplinary innovation approach to solutions (oh my gosh, what a mouthful), we have to remember from where this approach comes. Writer, curator, and scientist Piero Scaruffi has noted that the fundamental ingredients of innovation today in Silicon Valley were hijacked from artists. Scaruffi explains that Silicon Valley owes its culture and defining characteristics to the hippie and counter-cultural tradition in the San Francisco Bay area, pointing to the corporate culture of failure, meritocracy, a casual work environment, and the garage (as a symbol for space of creativity)—all fundamentally borrowed from the ideals of art practice.
Building off of Piero’s ideas, I would assert that the weirdo artist act of playing experimental music does three important things:
1) Empowers the individual by giving him or her the confidence to tap into his or her deeper curiosity and creativity;
2) Demonstrates the benefits of following a process and working within a framework; and
3) Draws on a common theoretical background or set of values. So being in an experimental band can be a very practical endeavour? Yes and furthermore, it’s a hell of a lot of fun.
1). For around a year I was in a band we called Xi Hammer. Every week our band would convene and “rehearse” over beers. Sometimes there were four of us, sometimes there were eight of us. Most of the time we had no plan. No start time, no end time. It was not uncommon for us to completely lose sense of time at our rehearsal space at Hunters Point—thanks both to the nature of our long-form music and to the physical location. As a former Superfund site, Hunters Point remains untouched by the wildfire of San Francisco gentrification and sits in the southeast corner of the city like some kind of portal to another dimension.
Our plan of not having a plan manifested itself, in music terms, through long jams. At times our jams were aimless or directionless. Around half the time we all found something—a moment, a groove, a rabbit hole of madness that was special. In rehearsing for our “proper gigs,” we would try to go back and reshape the clay in the direction of our abstract non-figurines. This process was interesting in its own right, but there was always something more special about that improvised moment; something hair raising about a joint discovery that only we could experience in that moment, and something that could never emerge from the muck in quite the same way as it did that singular time.
Albert Einstein once said that encountering the mysterious “is the fundamental emotion that stands at the cradle of true art and true science.” Maybe Xi Hammer’s spaced out music was not as revelatory as the theory of relativity, but I know we all were seeking the same ecstatic state as Einstein in our pursuits.
During these moments, playing in an improvisational experimental band is transportative. In fully engulfing ourselves in the music to keep burrowing into this rabbit hole or building this “ladder to God,” as Michael Gira of Swans might say, we must completely let go and follow our intuitions. We can lose sense of normal human filters and dip into these unconscious, pure creative spaces during these moments of creativity. Pure id.
After realizing that, yes, we created these sounds that could move and devour us, we had developed creative confidence. We had learned how to draw out the inaccessible and unlock the intangible parts of us. We had become addicted to excavating our experiences to get back to this state. And over time we could get there more quickly. In other words, we heightened our curiosity – how else can we get there? And if we put on the business world goggles again, I must therefore argue that creative problem solving comes from those who are pursuing discovery and transcendence with the curiosity and gusto that Einstein was.
2) The process of playing music in an improvisational group requires stepping back and stepping up. A framework to work within is important—both in music and in the material world. A process demands a give and take—in Xi Hammer, our process couldn’t have worked if everyone just soloed all the time. We needed to be able to read each other as band members, and thus non-verbal communication took on a great deal of importance. In learning to be bold and generative when it mattered, it was necessary to follow the rules agreed to: whether it is something as loosey goosey as “this one’s in A major and Argyris will start” or something more detailed, rules are necessary to unlock creativity.
Patience and respect for the band (and the band process) is critical. I always approve of trying new things (for example, why not play the guitar with your drumsticks!?), but after a while in a group, we can learn some common guiding norms. Maybe it isn’t a good idea to bust out a bombastic Bruce Springsteen riff when the rest of the band is hypnotised by a very slow ambient trance. It is always best to build off of each other, rather than wildly disrupt things (just like in theatre improv).
There is a fine line between improvisation and chaos (in the 9-to-5 world, an analogy would be one of those aimless eight-hour brainstorming sessions, sidelined by tangential discussions of petty details), and this is why structure is significant—knowing when and having a predictable cue to bring a freight train (or whirling dervish) to a stop. Without being able to predict or anticipate what our band members will do, those “ladder to God” moments could not emerge. Otherwise it’s all just a mess of cacophony.
Therefore developing strong communication, following some simple rules, and respecting the contributions of peers are critical ingredients to enable the creative process. And again, these very “practical” or “job posting” skills of the material world of working within a framework and process can be developed quite intuitively in an improvisational experimental band.
3) I’ve played in other bands over the years. What Xi Hammer had that was different and special was that there was no central songwriter. Nobody standing around calling the shots. Everybody was coming from his own space. Andy was coming from indie rock, like Guided by Voices and Sebadoh. Jeremy was into late night music, trippy rhythms, and out-there electronics. Argyris loved his stoner rock and heavy bluesy stuff. These different backgrounds and experiences forced us to forge some space of agreement; a meeting point. This space of convergence was important – we found the overlap from our background and could identify collective values.
A nontrivial aspect is that we all knew each other as friends, and moreover a group of friends who met a college radio station. [Side note: I once explained to my mother that the best litmus test for me (in a life partner search, or something like that) is to ask the question whether someone worked at an American college radio station. This is more important than a common religious upbringing, or some kind of other shared experience.]
So what is it about college radio that creates such a deep bond, or inducts its volunteers into a border-line cult? I believe a college radio volunteer actually maps to something deeper: a belief that music matters. College radio DJs intuitively and deeply know that art can transform and that music can be meaningful. Furthermore, there is a humbleness that comes from being exposed to thousands and thousands of records. Meaningful music is not restricted to The Beatles, and furthermore, some of the most meaningful music is much more subtle and abstract.
This was critical to our (non-)success in Xi Hammer. It wasn’t a didactic approach that we had. We weren’t trying to come up with “messages” or “statements”. We were respecting something greater than the sum of our parts. We had a common belief, a common vocabulary. A common unending worship of repetitive, churning, and hypnotic noise from Sunn O))) to Glenn Branca. This is how we found something fundamental that uniquely created our identity.
This kind of collective value, or unspoken vision, was core and central to Xi Hammer. It was probably as valuable and key to a creative process (if not more) as knowing a set of design thinking methodologies or a common corporate set of values or missions. And so a common background of college radio goofiness and seriousness gave us a directed mission statement to create the kind of art we desired.
Let us backtrack to the kinds of people developing some of the most interesting and efficient ideas to tackle the Big Global Problems: those who can think in systems, see multiple points of view, and understand how people and entities behave together. Creative confidence is essentially what makes an entrepreneur successful—they’re creative, risk-taking, bold, and generative (just like experimentalists). Effective brainstorming and solution design is enabled by patience, respect, and communicative teamwork within constraints (traits also held by experimentalists). And finally, successful businesses and problem solutions require broad overview with a deep set of guiding values (necessary among experimentalists).
Our secret weapons are those who are curious, act gutsily, and contribute. And so it’s time to unleash the artists. Investing in the impractical is the most practical thing we can do.