December 21, 2010 § Leave a comment
December 15, 2010 § Leave a comment
From Q on Producing
My daddy used to say to my brother, Lloyd, and me, “Once a task is just begun, never leave it ’til it’s done. Be the labor great or small, do it well or not at all.” Every day he said that. That has stuck with me through everything I’ve done.
Preparation and Luck
There’s nothing in the world worse than having an opportunity that you’re not prepared for. Good luck usually follows the collision of opportunity and preparation – it’s a result of that collision. You’ve got to be prepared. So, make your mistakes now and make them quickly. If you’ve made the mistakes, you know what to expect the next time. That’s how you become valuable.
One day, when I was working in Paris for Eddie Barclay’s record company, Barclay Disques, Eddie’s secretary walked in the room and said, “Grace Kelly’s office called today and said Mr. Sinatra would like you to bring 55 musicians to the Sporting Club in Monaco for a charity fundraiser.” He wanted me to bring my house band, which included Kenny Clarke, Don Byas, and Stephan Grappelli along with the Blue Stars, who later became the Double-Six (Mimi Perrin, Christiann LeGrand, and Wards Swingle). Obviously, I said, “Hell yes!”
We played with Frank that night. I think maybe six or eight words were exchanged between Frank and me the whole night. I’d never seen anything like him before – he was like something from another planet. It was so magical. That was 1958, and I didn’t hear from him until 1962; he called me from Kauai, where he was directing None But the Brave. He says, “Q!” – nobody had ever called me that before – “I just heard the record that you arranged for Basie. I’ve always wanted to do Bart Howard’s ‘In Other Words’ [‘Fly Me to the Moon’] the way you arranged it, instead of like the original 3/4 version. Would you consider working with Basie and me and our band?” I couldn’t have said yes fast enough! Especially since I had come up with that arrangement in my hotel room, without a piano, when I couldn’t get the notes on the page fast enough.
It all just came together. After Basie practically adopted me when I was 13 years old and we became so very close, who would ever have guessed that I’d be writing hits for him later and working with Frank Sinatra and all that? You can’t control it, you know, you can’t pick it, that’s for sure. It’s not in your hands. You’re judged on the last thing you do, and you need to just keep on doing your thing, developing your skill, and then let what happens happen. I was just fortunate that I was able to work with, I think, the greatest artists from the last 60 years of American his- tory. All of them: Lionel Hampton, Louis Armstrong, Billie Holiday, Basie, Duke, Ella, Michael, and everybody else, all the way up to the rappers today!
It would have never happened if I wasn’t ready – if I wasn’t prepared for what was to come. If I wasn’t ready, I wouldn’t have lasted 20 minutes with Frank. Trust me! Frank would either love you or he’d run over you with a Mack truck. There was no in between. And if you ask Frank Sinatra to jump without a net, you’d better have your stuff together!
Core Skills of a Musician
On one of my first compositions/arrangements, entitled “The Four Winds,” which got me in the door with both Hampton and Basie, I printed an asterisk with a little note on the Bs throughout the chart that said, “Attention! Play all of these a half-step lower because they sound funny if you play them natural.” The guys in the band said, “You just put a flat on the third line at the beginning and then you don’t have to write all that stuff all day.” But you know, I was 13 years old – I didn’t know what I was doing. Passion for something is just not enough. You need to put your time in on the core skills – there’s no way around it.
In Malcolm Gladwell’s book Blink, he talks about knowing something instinctively about a person or a situation. He calls them slices of insight. He followed that book up with Outliers, in which he makes the important point that the secret to making those instinctive determinations resides in 10,000 hours of study – 10,000 hours of practice. So, your insight is guided by your experience. I believe it! I don’t care what you do, whether you’re a doctor or a carpenter or a musician, if you don’t have the science together (practice), your soul (passion) just doesn’t have a clue how to get where it wants to go!
If you want to be great, put your time in on the fundamentals. Learn the basics of music and build on that. Learn how to read music. Learn about harmony, counterpoint, leitmotifs, constructing a melody, and definitely orchestration. If it has to do with music, learn it! Learn everything about the kind of music you’re into and about every other kind of music. Master your craft. Put your time in!
Some of the rappers are coming to me for help. They’re already making money at music, but they’re not totally satisfied artistically. I tell them the same things: Learn the fundamentals! Great musicians put a lot of energy into what they do. They put their 10,000 hours in, and more, practicing scales and developing their skills.
They learn about music and songwriting and arranging. They study the thing they want to be great at. Then, all of a sudden their soul is released to express itself. Music engages the left and right brain simultaneously without fail. It’s an absolute, right along with mathematics. Music affects the emotions and the intellect; always, it pulls at each side. That’s why music has a healing effect. Music can positively affect people with Down’s syndrome, autism, dyslexia, and more, because it stimulates both right and left sides of the brain, simultaneously.
Core Skills of a Producer
The producer has to be able to take charge of virtually every phase of the creative process. He or she must be able to find and recognize a good song, get the right instrumentalists and background singers, and find the right engineer and studio. You have to be the conductor of everything from the bottom to the top of the project. And, you have to be able to help the artist realize their musical vision and personality while you do everything else. You have to learn about marketing, covers, liner notes, and you have to know enough about all of the instruments to be able to communicate effectively with the players. On top of everything, you need to be a psychiatrist in the studio so you know when to tell the artist to take a break or to keep pushing through. You have to push them, but you can never let them fall. If you have studied and know what you’re doing, you can be confident that you can handle whatever comes up.
As a music producer you have got to be extremely proficient with music. If you expect to have the kind of confidence you’ll need as a producer in the studio, you must be proficient in your core musical skills in addition to being able to handle all of the organizational and relational demands placed on the producer.
Whether it was Michael or Frank or Ray Charles, I had no insecurities – I was ready because I had worked so hard. When Frank would say, “That’s just a little too dense up front in the first eight, Q,” in five minutes I’d fix it. That’s what I was born for, man. I’d go to flugelhorns so the high end would mellow out and get out of the way of the vocal or go straight to one of my favorite sounds: four flugelhorns, three alto horns, double bass, four French horns, four trombones, and a tuba. I’d have them all play soft, with no vibrato. That’s sexy, man. It’s the warmest sound on the planet. It’s like painting, man, and you have to be able to respond on a dime.
The people in China wouldn’t like a painting of a bowl of fruit, even if Rembrandt or van Gogh painted it. I find that fascinating. I noticed that the longer I looked at many of their paintings, the more things I’d see. For example, what seemed at first to be an organized pattern of small oblong shapes, could turn into a rabbit, or a little girl’s face, or any number of things. Everything was intertwining to form one piece of art, but it was built from connected individual pieces.
I knew there had to be some science involved, so I asked Nate Giorgio, an artist that I deeply admire. He told me that it’s called monoprint and that it is indeed produced using a scientific process. The Chinese think art should come from the abstraction of the artist’s mind, which I love because that’s the same way I think about musical voicing and color.
Charcoal, Watercolors, and Oil
I used to do cartoons and sketches – I was really a junkie and I was actually into art before music. Producing music always reminds me of painting. I would always start with charcoal sketches, then I’d add watercolors, and finally oil. The charcoal sketch defines the basic shapes and proportion in broad terms – that’s the way I like to start a production. The trick is to not get locked in right away – that mind-set draws from the jazz mentality. Go with what you feel, but then give everyone else the same canvas. Benefit from the creativity that they bring to the palette. Find the structure on the canvas by defining dynamics, colors, density, and so on.
Sometimes people have a hard time getting started. Steer clear of “paralysis from analysis.” Just get started. A lot of times, you just need to stop thinking about it and get started with a contour or a shape or something like that. Start with an image in your soul, and let it out. As the sketch takes shape, we can lay on the watercolors. Charcoal and watercolors can always be changed, but as the structure becomes more established, when the background lines and other basic components are nailed down, it’s time to commit and put it in oil. When you get to the oils, that means you’ve got the background nailed, you’ve got the melody nailed, you’ve got countermelodies in place, and you’re able to commit. Once it’s in oil, it’s final – you’re closing in on it because you know where you’re going. It’s just a psychological trick, but it works.
If you take your music from charcoal to watercolors to oil, you leave room for creativity. One of my favorite sayings is “Let’s always leave some space for God to walk through the room.” I believe in that. The studio is a sacred place, which is why I never wanted a studio in my home.
You’re looking for something very special to happen in that studio, very mystical and special – something spiritual. That special thing has to happen for the music to be really powerful – for it to have a powerful effect on the listener.
I can’t think about what the listener is going to say or about focus groups and all that nonsense. I don’t want to hear about what 40 people who are not even involved in music think. Can you really tell me you’re going to go against what you feel in your soul and make changes based on that? I don’t think so. Go with what you feel in your gut. Listen to the whispers from God. I just go by the goose bumps I get when I hear the music. If the music moves me, it’ll move somebody else, too. If it doesn’t move you but you think it might move someone else, that just doesn’t work. On every project I’ve produced, from the biggest-selling to the least, I just started out saying, “Let’s do the best we can.” Nobody knows what’s gonna happen, ever. All we can do is use everything at our disposal, all of our resources, to make the best music possible – music that touches our soul and our mind.
December 15, 2010 § Leave a comment
My goal in conducting research on creativity and brain functions is to discover ways that everyone – even those who do not consider themselves to be creative – can access the creative abilities that are their birthright, and use them to enrich both their own lives and to benefit society.
Why do you think many people are so timid about their creativity?
By its definition, a creative act or idea requires that a person do or think something original – something hasn’t been done in quite this way before. By leaving the “tried and true” pathway of action or thought, the individual exposes herself to possible failure and ridicule. That exposure is very anxiety-provoking for many people. Highly creative people have figured out, however, that failure is a learning experience and, as such, is a necessary and expected part of future success.
What is the CREATES model?
The CREATES model is a conceptual lens for understanding the role of the brain in the creative process. Based on brain imaging and psychophysiological studies, the model suggests that there are different brain activation patterns for different aspects of the creative process. Right now the CREATES model identifies seven activation patterns (which I call brainsets) that appear to identify success at the various stages of generating, evaluating, elaborating, and implementing creativity. I consider the CREATES model to be a work in progress that will grow and change as we accumulate more information about our creative brains.
What do you think are the greatest challenges for people who want to get more creative?
Everyone has a built-in censoring system in their brains that filters thoughts, images, and memories, and stimuli from the outside world before they reach conscious awareness. Our censoring system keeps us focused on our current goals and on information that prior learning has taught us is “appropriate.” Learning to loosen up this mental filtering system to allow more novel ideas and stimuli into conscious awareness is one of the biggest challenges for people who don’t think of themselves as creative. In Your Creative Brain, I provide a lot of information on how to loosen the censoring system so that ideas can flow more fluently.
Does every brain really have the potential to be creative?
Yes! While it’s true that some brains are naturally more inclined toward creative ideation than others, all brains have a marvelous ability to continually change and develop. Research has shown that people who are naturally highly creative can switch between various brain activation patterns more easily than those who are less naturally creative. However, this is a skill that can be practiced and learned. Although it may not make an Einstein out of everyone, practice and exercise can definitely make any brain more creative.
What do you hope readers will get from Your Creative Brain?
I hope that readers will realize how vitally important creativity is to all of our human endeavors and that being creative is not just for artists, musicians, and writers. I hope they will also practice some of the exercises in the book and see for themselves how much richer and more fulfilling their lives can be when they use the inherent innovative faculties of their creative brains.
What do you hope to accomplish with the Creativity in Action project?
For decades, the image of an illuminated lightbulb has been used to represent the concept of the “creative idea.” We instinctively equate creativity with light and know that creative ideas light up the world. My goal is to get project participants to light up the space around them with their ideas. When we see other people’s ideas, it often stimulates some of our own. This is the essence of a Golden Age – everyone’s ideas are cross-fertilizing! I hope the Creativity in Action project is a going to be one example such cross-fertilization.
If you could offer just one piece of advice to someone who wants to get more creative, what would it be?
I hope it’s okay if I offer two pieces of advice that I will elaborate on in later posts on YourCreativeBlog. First, keep learning new things. Take courses, read widely, and learn how to play a new instrument or how to cook Tuscan food. Learn, learn, learn! Second, try not to judge the things you’re learning. Keep an open mind. Everything you learn is a possible element that may make its way into some future creative idea that you can’t even imagine today. And the more open-minded you remain about what you learn, the more likely you are to see how it can be combined with other information to form a novel and original product or idea.
December 15, 2010 § Leave a comment
Honoring the Creative Process
Acquiring a Creative Mind
December 15, 2010 § Leave a comment
Begley is particularly astute on the bizarre organization of Kafka’s writing day. At the Assicurazioni Generali, Kafka despaired of his twelve-hour shifts that left no time for writing; two years later, promoted to the position of chief clerk at the Workers’ Accident Insurance Institute, he was now on the one-shift system, 8:30 AM until 2:30 PM. And then what? Lunch until 3:30, then sleep until 7:30, then exercises, then a family dinner. After which he started work around 11 PM (as Begley points out, the letter- and diary-writing took up at least an hour a day, and more usually two), and then “depending on my strength, inclination, and luck, until one, two, or three o’clock, once even till six in the morning.” Then “every imaginable effort to go to sleep,” as he fitfully rested before leaving to go to the office once more. This routine left him permanently on the verge of collapse. Yet
when Felice wrote to him…arguing that a more rational organization of his day might be possible, he bristled…. “The present way is the only possible one; if I can’t bear it, so much the worse; but I will bear it somehow.”
It was [Max] Brod’s opinion that Kafka’s parents should gift him a lump sum “so that he could leave the office, go off to some cheap little place on the Riviera to create those works that God, using Franz’s brain, wishes the world to have.” Begley, leaving God out of it, politely disagrees, finding Brod’s wish
probably misguided. Kafka’s failure to make even an attempt to break out of the twin prisons of the Institute and his room at the family apartment may have been nothing less than the choice of the way of life that paradoxically best suited him.
It is rare that writers of fiction sit behind their desks, actually writing, for more than a few hours a day. Had Kafka been able to use his time efficiently, the work schedule at the Institute would have left him with enough free time for writing. As he recognized, the truth was that he wasted time.
The truth was that he wasted time! The writer’s equivalent of the dater’s revelation: He’s just not that into you. “Having the Institute and the conditions at his parents’ apartment to blame for the long fallow periods when he couldn’t write gave Kafka cover: it enabled him to preserve some of his self-esteem.”
December 10, 2010 § Leave a comment
“It’s one of the most banal couplets I’ve ever heard,” Bono says sheepishly about the words he wrote for one of U2’s best-known songs. ” ‘I want to run, I want to hide….’ That’s not very interesting, but you know what? People don’t hear the couplets when we play the song.
“They hear something else in the music. They hear a band talking about a special place, a better place, and asking if the audience wants to go there with them.”
Bono, who writes most of U2’s lyrics, is keenly aware that the music’s power often comes less from his pen than from the sweeping sonic foundation built by the band.
“Feelings are stronger than ideas or words in a song,” he says, pacing the floor of his Central Park West apartment, offering a contrarian view of pop songwriting.
“You can have 1,000 ideas, but unless you capture an emotion, it’s an essay.”
The comments are surprising from a man who devotes so much of his time to ideas — from the spiritually tinged themes that underlie many U2 songs to his high-profile crusade to get wealthy nations to forgive Third World debt.
“Songwriting comes from a different place,” he says. “Music is the language of the spirit. I think ideas and words are our excuse as songwriters to allow our heart or our spirit to run free. That’s when magic happens.”
It happens so often for U2 that the group has come closer to matching the quality and mass appeal of The Beatles over the past 25 years than any other band.
This is pop music at its most ambitious — personal and independent enough to satisfy discerning listeners, yet open and accessible enough to pack stadiums. Although the group has experimented with electronica and other contemporary sounds, the essence of U2 is classic rock ‘n’ roll.
You won’t find lots of humor or party toss-offs in U2. The Irish quartet’s flurry of Top 40 hits, including “Pride (In the Name of Love)” and “One,” mostly are soaring anthems built around the same message of brotherhood that characterized The Beatles’ later years. Yet U2 arrives at songs in a much different way.
John Lennon or Paul McCartney usually came up with songs and then taught them to George Harrison and Ringo Starr. But U2 collaborates to a degree that is rare — a process that depends on the singular chemistry of the four musicians.
Bono and guitarist the Edge bring ideas into the studio — a title, the trace of a melody or a catchy riff — then bassist Adam Clayton and drummer Larry Mullen join in the construction of the songs. The grueling give-and-take sometimes stretches for weeks as the musicians toss ideas back and forth, equal partners in the search for an emotion that seems fresh and deeply rooted.
When the marathon sessions are going well, Mullen says, the rehearsal studio feels like a playground. When they’re going badly, it feels like a boxing ring.
“We’re tough guys,” Clayton says. “We know we’ll get there eventually. A lot of it is perspiration. You just have to put in the hours and do your time.” The Edge is fond of repeating the band’s private joke that it’s “songwriting by accident.”
“It’s more like Miles Davis than The Beatles in a way,” Bono says.
Only after the band finds that powerful emotion, be it blissful or melancholy, does Bono begin applying lyrics. Sometimes he’ll draw phrases or lines from the notebook he carries with him. Occasionally, he’ll work from a finished lyric.
His improvisation in the studio often starts with him just muttering sounds that seem to fit the flow of the music being created — “Bono-eze,” his bandmates call it.
“When Bono starts going through his Bono-eze, it can change what we’re playing and take the song in a different direction,” Mullen says. “If he’s doing something very intense, it might not even be what he’s saying, but the way he’s behaving, the way he’s throwing the microphone around. The energy and intensity helps shape the song.”
Gradually, Bono begins changing sounds into words and lines, trying to articulate the feelings the music stirs in him.
Unlike many great songwriters, he doesn’t spend much time editing his words. He even declares that “craft and taste can be the enemy of songwriting” because they encourage you to follow certain rules, rather than simply following your emotions.
“At various times, we’ve tried to stick to conventional songwriting,” Mullen says from Dublin. “But after a few months we see it’s not working. We need to dismantle the ideas and start again.”
Adds the Edge: “My worst nightmare is sounding ‘professional.’ I think we work best when we keep moving into the unknown.”
U2’s unorthodox songwriting style was born out of necessity.
When the band members came together in high school, they weren’t good enough at their instruments to play convincing versions of the hits of the day. To hide their inexperience, they came up with their own songs.
“From fairly early on, it became clear to us that we had no idea about songwriting technique,” the Edge says. “Our way into songwriting was to dream it up. … Instinct was everything for us, and it really still is.”
While he sometimes wishes the band’s songwriting process gave him more time to write the lyrics, Bono still thinks the system comes up with the best songs.
“When I look at our first 10 years, I just hear unfinished work, lyrics we never finished because we ran out of studio time,” he says of his contributions. “I hear ‘Bad,’ and see what’s not there. I just see a list of failures.”
Still, he wouldn’t change way U2 works. For all his personal frustrations and the band’s uncertain moments, they all know they’ve found a way to connect with audiences.
Although Bono and his family live most of the year in Dublin, he enjoys the energy of New York.
He still takes delight in pointing out some of the landmarks as he sits in the passenger seat of a van headed to a meeting on easing world hunger. As the driver navigates through traffic, Bono shoves the new U2 album into the CD player and pounds his fist on the dashboard as the music blasts through the speakers. There’s a driving, rock ‘n’ roll vitality to the music, which is due out this fall; a freshness that you hardly expect from bands in their third decade.
But U2 has been able to remain both current and relevant. They get airplay on college and alt-rock radio stations and find their “Beautiful Day” at John Kerry campaign rallies.
As the vocal starts, he sings along. But it’s so noisy in the car you can’t really make out the words. Bono’s expression, however, tells you he’s very proud of this album. He suddenly stops singing and begins chuckling as he turns down the volume. “Did you hear that last verse? … You never write a verse like that. That was definitely improvised. But there are other lines in the song I wrote ahead of time.”
When the songs are finished, Bono looks at the disc.
“Lou Reed is a friend, and I once asked if he had advice for a young poet, and, in his usual cryptic way, he summed it up, ‘Break rhyme occasionally.'”
Bono laughs as the van pulls to a stop.
“You know, songwriting really is a mysterious process … because we’re asking people to expose themselves. It’s like open heart surgery in some way. You’re looking for real, raw emotions, and you don’t find that by sticking to the rules.”