Tuesday, December 27, 2005

Constraints To Set You Free

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.


Arun said...


Read this and love the 'examples' that you give. There is however, a devil's perspective to the entire discussion. Will come back with that in a day or so.


km said...

Friend of a devil is a friend of mine.

Look forward to your post :))


Intern said...

Well, I came here bloghopping from Arun's Blog ...

.. and very interesting post!!!
Audience respond to structure - agreed!!

Now I'm totaly nincompoop with the technical aspects of music; but I go like hearing good songs ...
so my query maybe absurd...
still I would like to ask...
We do keep hearing new genre of music; now when these evolve; aint they totally different from previous forms...
Like when "Psychedelic Music" evolved only in 1960's ... and its form would be unheardof for people of that time ... still very popular!

Coming back to structure:
when in paintings, "the Impressionits" were so different from the ertswhile "Academic" style of painting. Again, cubism or modern art; can hardly be classified into structure then present ... but art aficionados responded positively ...

So dont you think; people respond to NEW forms or structure ???

[Let me add....i'm quite impressed by your selection of movies: The last Waltz [loved it!!!]; China Town, Blade Runner ... hmmm interesting!]

Arun said...


The other perspective at: http://cre8iveignition.blogspot.com/2005/12/devils-advocate-vs-creativity-angel.html

Would love to have your comments on this.

km said...

Hi, Intern, thanks for the comment. And say hello to another musical nincompoop :)

Boy, this is becoming a meta-art discussion.

About your first point: psychedelic music tells new stories, but in the same form as a conventional pop song. I mean, structurally, nothing distinguishes it from a typical love song, does it? And by structure, i mean the basic form of the song-poem. A chorus, a verse, a chorus.

As you might already know, atonal jazz and classical music are considered really new forms of music, where, to be slightly technical, there is no "home" key to return to after each bar or each verse. Check out musicians like Stockhausen who adopted it as their style..

Now, I must say, your argument about the Impressionists versus the French Academy painters stumped me. But if you look at the history of Impressionism, that movement did not establish itself for at least half a decade. People were not willing to adopt its new form! Didn't Cubism and Surrealism face the same challenge initially?

But you are right too in saying people respond to NEW structure. The question is, do they respond right away? Remember how so many film-lovers initially *hated* Pulp Fiction?

(And I don't know anyone who doesn't love Last Waltz! I am HUGE fan of The Band and Scorsese, of course....not to mention classic SF.)

Happy 2006 to you,

Intern said...

Wish you a happy new year too!!!

I wish I knew more about the technical side of music, I'm lost there!!!

But I'm taking liberties, and digressing from the subject matter under discussion here....
Just to tell you, I was quite struck by your selection of music and movies... [in your profile]

Citizen Kane - Now isnt that a futuristic movie; much like Pulp Fiction would be in it's time.
I notice two Woody Allen movies I've enjoyed: "Take the money and Run" - it was hilarious!!! Again Bananas - pretty unconventional movie! [ Well I havent seen Annie Hall as yet!]

In Music...
I notice you mention the name J.J Kale ... and for all I know; Eric Clapton [my fav.] copied some Kale's songs:
- Cocain
- After Midnight
- Tulsa Time
- I'll make love to you after midnight

Anonymous said...

Excellent, love it! » »

Anonymous said...


I am regular visitor of this website[url=http://www.weightrapidloss.com/lose-10-pounds-in-2-weeks-quick-weight-loss-tips].[/url]pronounce.blogspot.com really contains lot of useful information. I am sure due to busy scedules we really do not get time to care about our health. Let me show you one truth. Recent Research displays that nearly 70% of all U.S. grownups are either obese or overweight[url=http://www.weightrapidloss.com/lose-10-pounds-in-2-weeks-quick-weight-loss-tips].[/url] Hence if you're one of these people, you're not alone. In fact, most of us need to lose a few pounds once in a while to get sexy and perfect six pack abs. Now next question is how you can achive quick weight loss? [url=http://www.weightrapidloss.com/lose-10-pounds-in-2-weeks-quick-weight-loss-tips]Quick weight loss[/url] is really not as tough as you think. Some improvement in of daily activity can help us in losing weight quickly.

About me: I am author of [url=http://www.weightrapidloss.com/lose-10-pounds-in-2-weeks-quick-weight-loss-tips]Quick weight loss tips[/url]. I am also health trainer who can help you lose weight quickly. If you do not want to go under difficult training program than you may also try [url=http://www.weightrapidloss.com/acai-berry-for-quick-weight-loss]Acai Berry[/url] or [url=http://www.weightrapidloss.com/colon-cleanse-for-weight-loss]Colon Cleansing[/url] for quick weight loss.