Arun at Cre8iveIgnition writes passionately about creativity. There's lots of other art goodies on his blog too. But this post is the one I want to talk about.
Arun's point is this: Rules are necessary for creation. Without rules, you can get lost and even frozen for ideas.
I would never have believed the above statement had I not played - no, inflicted - live music on some listeners.
Ever got together with a bunch of friends and started an impromptu jam on a chord sequence? You know how it goes. "We'll play a few bars of A minor, do two bars in G, then 2 bars in F and then do a turnaround to A minor". It's bloody awful, both for the musicians and their unfortunate listeners (unless their ears and minds are sufficiently lubricated with alcohol.) After about 10 minutes, the fearless musical exploration turns into a vulgar display of guitar effects pedals and amp wattage. It happened to me every time.
See, without the predictable verse/chorus/verse and the dependable 4/4 beat, the listener gets bored and restless. The musical idea needs to exist in a recognizable form and shape. Listeners respond to the form. The form or the structure is the artist's best friend. And when the artist violates the form in unexpected ways, his or her work becomes really exciting.
A fine example of such a violation is the Beatles' "A Day in the Life". The first verse leads us safely to the second verse - no surprises there - but the second verse changes the form completely with the line "Having read the book/I'd love to turn you on" line (not just musically, but also lyrically - those were considered "naughty" words in 1966.) The bizzare bridge that follows the second verse takes us into another world with a sharply different tempo and mood. What the hell is going on? Well, you stick around for the comb-dragging, hat-grabbing, stair-climbing character to tell you his experiences through the rabbit-hole...at which point, the familar verse-form comes in again to tell you about more inspired lunacies. Four thousand holes in Blackburn, Lancashire. Yeah.
Now, Lennon-McCartney need the verse-chorus-verse form to create this bit of dizzying psychedelia. On the other hand, the deliberately designed psychedelia of Revolution # 9 often fails because of a lack of a recognizable structure. (It does have a structure, just not a well-known structure.)
Imagine a musician's plight if he were handed 7 notes and asked to make rain? Won't do. What he or she needs is the familiar structure of the Malhar group of raags. (And the audience needs umbrellas.)
Similarly, a film genre is a structure which is used by great writers and directors to explore new stories and worlds. Like Fred Zinneman's "High Noon". A standard western structure (Good marshall takes on some bad guys) is used to explore highly political and personal themes (honor, integrity) with almost unbearable suspense of a murder-thriller.
But structure and genre often get a bad rap. "I hate westerns" and "I hate chick-flicks*", are two commonly heard statements (uttered usually by women and men respectively.) What they usually mean is they hate westerns and chick-flicks that do not tell a fresh, compelling story. Why is Kurosawa's "Stray Dog", set in the "old cop/rookie cop" genre a great film but not the dozens of cop movies that have used (and will continue to use) the exact same set-up? (Well, see the film and you will know why.)
(*Is David Lean's "Brief Encounter" a weepie chick-flick? Of course not. It's a great film. But the basic structure of the film is a classic weepie, all right.)
Rules, constraints, form, structure - call it what you will - are necessary for creativity. Only when we have a destination can we take those fun side-trips. Or else we are stuck listening to ambitious but pointless guitar jams for 2 hours.
P.S.: Here are the famous "Vows of Chastity" taken by the so-called Dogme 95 film-makers. Again, rules and constraints that force the artist into exploring new and often unsafe creative options.