Monday Musings: Technique and Creativity

Posted on June 27, 2011


The critic goes outdoors.

There are some really skilled musicians around with very little to say: there are also some players with a very rudimentary technique who are able to stretch it into work of huge creative ambition. There are many more whose artistic strategies are too dependent on their technical aptitude to permit them to range very widely, or to produce much variety throughout their career, and on the other hand, there are those whose artistic vision outstrips their technical capacity to realise it.

Technique and creativity are ideas we all use in evaluating music, although we might not call them by those names, or by any names. The most casual listener might hear a performance as ‘clever but soulless’, ‘clinical’, ‘messy’ or ‘fun but out of tune’. What specific, objective actualities these concepts point at is debatable however.

Technique is something that can operate on many levels. There is the obvious level, of being adept at controlling a musical instrument: a modicum of this is obviously required in order to realise any music, and enough of it will always be impressive, sometimes breathtaking or even beautiful in its own right.

Beyond this, there is the technique of manipulating musical materials: in improvisation, this form of technique is very close to the first, and at its most basic level is a question of knowing what notes to play when; for more advanced improvisers, and for composers, it involves a more sophisticated understanding, from beat displacements to chord substitutions, and so forth. This is where the juicy notes and phrases come from, all the tricks that musicians use to make their work sound ‘good’.

Enclosing both these fields of technique is the broader craft of composition: the skill of stitching together and transforming a number of motifs to make a finished piece; and also, the skill of relating ideas to sounds, either by giving ideas sonic reification, or of investing sounds with meaning.

But wait, isn’t that last kind of technique the same thing as creativity? Well, yes and no. There are learnable skills, tricks and devices, by which sounds can be moulded to shapes that fit various categories of sonic art: but at the same time, there is some sort of magic that goes on, whereby some pieces just ‘work’ in a way that resonates with many listeners, but that can’t be defined by any taxonomy of compositional strategies.

My point, as always, is that this stuff is complicated, and we should take the time to think about it, before we start mouthing off on the basis of any unexamined assumptions. Is there a difference between creativity and technique? Certainly: they are two different words, with two different meanings. But the dichotomy between knowing how to do something, and deciding what to do with that knowledge, is a false one to my mind. It’s similar to language: our brains are not full of things to say, waiting for language to come along so we can say them. The thinkable is the speakable, and in the same way, in music, the writeable is the playable. Musical vocabularies have evolved with musical techniques, two sides of the same coin, two axes of the same system of signification.

The electric bassist Gary Willis has had a long career in jazz fusion, and has built a global reputation based on an absolutely copper bottomed technique. To say that is a lot more than to say he’s good at playing his instrument, however: no one ever built a reputation in jazz by simply being able to execute complex ideas rapidly and cleanly. Willis’ technical prowess lies equally in his knowledge of harmony, and his ability to manipulate its melodic manifestations. I believe him to be one of the best (and most underrated) improvisers in the history of jazz. His ability to expressively execute a continuously varied and inventive stream of melodic and timbral ideas, without ever playing unexamined stock phrases or just waggling his fingers around on a pattern, is frankly jawdropping.

There is enormous creativity in this, and in his early work with Tribal Tech, and his first two solo albums, the musical meanings he conveys reside to a large extent in the specific melodic content of his improvisation. That being said, Willis has never put his name to a project that just hashed up some mediocre musical scaffolding so that people could blow on it: the less controversially idiomatic jazz fusion he has played on has always been creative on every level. Many players would be content to ride their idiom and put their creative efforts into developing their improvisational voice.

Not Willis. From playing progressively more avant-garde jazz fusion (incorporating prepared instruments and other unconventional approaches) he went on to use programmed electronic elements on Actual Fiction (having obviously been listening to Squarepusher); and with his subsequent trio projects, Slaughterhouse 3 and Triphasic, he has progressed to more adventurous forms of experimentalism. I don’t intend to rehearse the merits of this music in detail, although I will say that everything I’ve heard Willis play on ranks among the best music I’ve heard.

What I want to do is ask a question that this constant probing creativity raises for me. Why is this combination of supreme instrumental achievement and persistent stylistic innovation so rare? What is it about developing the highest level of technical facility that seems to breed such stultifying musical conservatism? There are many highly creative bands of rudimentary technique that I would listen to in preference to Wynton Marsalis, Steve Vai or any other generically circumscribed master musician. I’m genuinely mystified by this: it seems that real creativity is more often in the hands of the less technically adept. Not many people will measure up to the standards of a Willis, or a Miles Davis, or a John Coltrane, but it seems that prevailing attitudes equate quality with an ability to play without error, rather than a unique artistic vision.