Monday Musings: Technique and Creativity

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.


  1. Good stuff! A complex question (aren’t the good ones always?). The thing about virtuosity is that we all know how to get there. By hours. It’s a specific kind of work — pretty boring if you ask me. (Though I’m sure it could be made interesting if it were a priority.) There are, perhaps, those that find it boring, and those that find it a stimulating challenge, or that find the goal worth the trudge.

    The competent classical musician has to have a high level of technical facility whether they’re that interested in it or not. The rock/folk/pop/jazz people have more choices (though the problem with jazz today is that just about everybody thinks that you must indeed be a virtuoso. Roomfuls of virtuosos are very boring.) Those that don’t care about virtuosity — or rather don’t value it enough to put in the time — need to be more clever to be impressive. That’s a wide world of possibility, full of unknowns.

    Actually, there’s one name you mention in the virtuoso category that I wouldn’t put there — Miles Davis. He was a master (THE master in jazz?) of finding that clever solution. LESS notes. Making a virtuosity of timbre (the harmon mute; quiet, breathy tones, analog delay effects). Finding settings that better framed his strengths (fewer chords=modal forms). All clever solutions to his lack of Dizzy-esque or Clifford-esque pyrotechnics.

    I don’t know anything about Gary Willis or Tribal Tech — I’ll have to check that out! Thanks for a good Monday read (as usual).

  2. Thanks for the response, James. I guess it’s true, Davis wasn’t really a virtuoso in the same way as many other trumpeters, but not many players could cop his tone, and I have to say that on those occasions he chose to play uptempo bop in the late 50s/ early 60s he proved himself able to tear it up when he needed to. But his motivation to develop such a melodically incisive approach to playing was definitely related to having to live in the shadow of Diz!

  3. That’s true – at points in Miles’ career, when he was interested to, he could burn through some changes. It’s interesting — on the one hand, when I think of “virtuoso” or “supreme technical achievement” I think of extreme facility — like Coltrane, or Michael Brecker, or Mike Stern. But then, how could you not call Coleman Hawkins a virtuoso? He wasn’t technically accomplished in the same sense as those other guys, but he was a master with certain forms. I’ve used the term before with qualifications, like I might say that Johnny Coles (or Miles) is a virtuoso of silences. Maybe I just need to tidy up my terms. What do you think? Coleman Hawkins? Virtuoso?

  4. Hawk was undoubtedly a virtuoso. He brought the saxophone to the forefront as a solo instrument, was one of the first musicians to solo over changes rather than via melodic embellishment and was one of the first jazz musicians capable of playing in any key. He also continued to evolve and learned to play bop when that style began to take hold.

    If he does not appear as virtuosic in comparison with later players, I would suggest that’s because he performed in a less technically accomplished musical environment generally. As jazz has evolved, the level of facility possessed by the average player has continued to increase. What he was doing at the time compared to what the majority were doing was utterly astonishing, in the way that Charlie Parker and John Coltrane were later.

    To return to Oli’s question:

    ‘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?’

    I think in asking the question you’re erroneously assuming cause and effect. The technique of a player is not automatically linked to stylistic innovation and I don’t know if you realise that your question implies that innovation is somehow more common amongst less technically accomplished players – which it isn’t.

    There are two ways be remarkable in music (in the literal sense of the word); you can innovate stylistically or be a great technician and push the bounds of what is possible on the instrument. Of these two, jaw-dropping technique (whilst incredibly rare) is easier to achieve and more therefore more common – perhaps because it is tangible and quantifiable in a way that a general artistic conception is not.

    I would argue that it is not technique that causes musicians with great facility to be found wanting in the art of the music (as opposed to the craft), merely the fact that there are probably hundreds of thousands of musicians in the world for every one great artist. However, those players with monster chops will always attract attention for different reasons and this leads to them becoming known. Without the technique they wouldn’t be more innovative, merely unknown. Furthermore, for every amazing technician that doesn’t light your fire artistically, there will most likely be thousands of less technically proficient players you have never heard of but who you would most likely find equally uninteresting.

    Players like Satchmo, Bird, Jaco, Trane, Max Roach, Elvin Jones, Herbie Hancock, Keith Jarrett, Sonny Rollins etc prove that you can be both an incredible technician and an innovative artist – it’s just not the norm, which is what sets these kinds of people apart. The same is true of musicians in genres outside of jazz such as Hendrix and John Entwhistle in rock.

    It is true that one can be a great artist without virtuosity. People like Monk and Dylan, and maybe Miles spring to mind. However, I think an argument can be made that it’s actually more common that the great innovators in music are generally at least highly advanced technicians if not virtuosi.

  5. I’d agree with Barry about Hawk: I can’t think of any other saxophonists who could claim a similar achievement until Parker, namely that he conceived a new way of applying his instrument to the music, and did the groundwork to be able to apply it. Who else in his day would have been able to record a tune that wasn’t top-and-tailed with the head?

    To respond to your response, Barry: first, I have to hold my hands up and say I wrote this in a hurry (as ever). Where I ask at the end about the combination of instrumental facility and ‘stylistic innovation’, I really mean ‘creativity’; it’s just that I was talking about Gary Willis, whose creativity manifests itself in stylistic novelty, but there’s more to creativity than tinkering with the vocabulary. It’s obviously a highly contestable term, but I guess I use it to describe a working process where musical materials are used in a critical and self-aware manner, rather than as given, unexamined and unthinkingly.

    And I have to say that this kind of application to and focus on using musical materials to express specific meanings rather than the generic ones that come built in, most definitely is more in evidence among less technically accomplished players. Obviously a judgement of music’s creativity is always subjective, and a sample is always partial, but just going by the music I come across (and I spend many hours of my life coming across music), that’s exactly the conclusion it leads me to. When I get something technically impressive to review, it is usually dull; there is an inverse proportion between the technical skills of the players and the extent to which the musical materials are thought about. Obviously a great deal of generic music comes my way that is neither here nor there technically, and I don’t generally bother to review anything I don’t like, so you won’t find it here (here’s a dull, technically over-accomplished record I did review though:

    I think there are many more ways to be interesting as a musician than by either being a chops monster or innovating stylistically: whatever musical language you choose to employ, you have the choice to be conventional or unconventional, generic or idiomatic, a repeater of truisms or a teller of truths. I’m not talking about ‘great artists’: I come across musicians every day who make the effort to say something interesting with the resources at their disposal, and I also come across those who don’t.

    Clearly in certain fields (jazz, ‘classical’, certain forms of rock) a developed technical facility is a prerequisite to participation; in other styles you might never know whether a player was an instrumental whizz, because the idiom doesn’t permit them to demonstrate it. And no, obviously, it’s not the technique itself that stifles anyone’s creativity, but I do think that many musicians may have a relatively advanced technique because they lack the imagination to do anything except practice (I’d put myself in this category: I’m no virtuoso, but I have far more technique than I have any use for).

    So anyway, I don’t claim to have any answers, but yes, I really did mean to suggest that innovation is more common among less technically accomplished musicians. It arrives on my doormat every day: I am constantly amazed by the incredibly bizarre, witty, imaginative, moving and exciting things that people manage to do with, as Keith Richards put it, ‘five strings, three fingers and one arsehole’.

  6. Very much enjoying reading your posts, Barry and Oli. Speaking to Oli’s experience finding more innovation among the less technically advanced musicians: it’s my belief that limitations are the most prevalent generator of innovation and novel solutions. Which is why, perhaps, you see less innovative work from chops monsters. I’m a guitarist. If I could play like Kurt Rosenwinkel, I probably would. But I can’t. Lots of practice could get me closer, probably, but many years of practice has shown me that I don’t have a natural aptitude for that kind of technically sophisticated style. So I’ve had to find other things to do. I guess you could put it like this: if you’re not beautiful, you’d better be clever.

  7. This is a fantastic article! It is so rare to come across a musician\artist who has mastered the scientific, creative, and spiritual side of their art. I guess that’s why in Indian tradition once someone has mastered the Sitar they achieve the highest honour of being called a “Sri” or guru. It takes a lifetime (or two!) to really hone a talent to the stage of “mastery”. And we’re all so lucky to come across those individuals who have matured (after blood, sweat, tears n life) into real diamonds.

    Thanks for articulating things into words Oli. It needed to be said.

  8. Thanks for shaming me with your concision, yet again James! I like to think I’m pretty AND clever, but luckily no-one’s fool enough to encourage my conceit…
    Thanks for the kind words, Heart Music. All around mastery is indeed a real rarity: I love to hear the work of a master musician (they wouldn’t be master musicians if their music wasn’t eminently listenable), but at the same time, I think there’s a great deal of very worthwhile work produced by apprentices and journeymen, to which it can be rewarding to lend your ears.

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