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viznomics

viznomics is a blog by Byta founder Marc Brown

Rules To Be Free

Rules To Be Free

I hang out with my neighbour a lot. She works at an audio company, designing and building speakers and headphones. A few weeks ago I found a book nestled between no less than 9 different sized and shaped Bluetooth speakers and at least three times as many plants.

The book, titled Range explains “why generalists triumph in a specialized world”. This goes against the 10,000 hours idea – that repeated focused practice is the source to outsized success. There is merit to both perspectives so I don’t find that debate too interesting really. Malcolm Gladwell even has a quote on the cover, so they both must be right.

There is, however, a chapter around music which was thought-provoking, because it reminds me of something I have thought a lot about. The chapter focuses around Jack Cecchini and him being a self taught musician. The book’s author, David Epstein, quotes Cecchini as saying “The jazz musician is a creative artist, the classical musician is a re-creative artist.” While the quote fits the book’s narrative, I find the statement dismissive. I feel he misses the point. Both musicians are actually creating, it’s just that their processes are different. Let me explain this by way of three examples and then give one further insight.

I’ve often wondered what Cecchini is loosely referring to – what is the difference between classical artists and others? Such as jazz musicians in this case. I was thinking about this exact thing a few years back. I was living in London and attended a classical recital by a friend of mine. During the short performance of three classical works, in this grade-1 listed building called Burgh House in London’s Hampstead, I watched my friend play what I considered up to be a flawless performance. On complimenting him afterwards I remember him being hesitant that he performed as flawlessly as I thought he had.

Around that same time, I was also fascinated by Jimmy Page’s guitar playing and body movements in a live clip of Whole Lotta Love, which must be from The Song Remains the Same. His playing seemed so relaxed, effortless and off the cuff.

Recently I had been trying to work through how to articulate the difference between these contrasting performances when I came across Range’s chapter on jazz vs classical. My guess is Cecchini’s view would be that the classical player is re-creating a classical work and that Page is creating a new one, while still not as improvised as a jazz performance. I don’t see it that way. I believe they are both creating, just coming at it from different angles. The classical musician’s goal is to practice over and over again, learning the piece. This is in order to execute their interpretation of the work exactly as the composer intended while injecting their own emotion, and personality, making it their own (new) creation.

Page, and many other musicians, are equally as fastidious with their attention to detail. They put just as much effort into practice and craft in order to deliver the performance (also a new creation) they want to. The difference here is that the non classical musician practice over and over in order to let go, to be free of the restrictions the musical work places on their performance.

There’s another example I stumbled on, though in this case not tied to physical instrumentation, yet equally as musical. I’ve seen lots of unreleased Biggie Smalls footage. However the most impressive clip I’ve seen is Biggie battling someone freestyle on the street in New York. The footage is grainy and Biggie is using an old school mic connected to some PA out of shot. The clip is electric, though his raps are hard to work out the crowd’s reaction says it all. He totally destroys his opponent:

So what'cha got to say? This mackin word is bond
There's no other assumption, I got it goin on
I'm not conceited, my friends tell me this
Even my mother, be noddin her head to this
Makes her proud to see her one son get loud
Flip on a sucker, and bow to the crowd
Drink a little Hennessy, smoke a blunt or 2 or 3 or 4


Biggie didn’t train using the exact same phrases over and over again. Though that doesn’t mean he isn’t executing with the precision of the classical musician, while creating at the level of a jazz musician. A relaxed delivery yet with powerful cadence showcases a seasoned performer who has mastered their craft. What makes this even more exceptional is Biggie was only 17 at the time.

So again I don’t see these differences like Cecchini does; classical as “re-creation” and jazz as “creation”. In all three of my examples the musicians use the process of creation to build something new and emotional in a live setting. The difference is merely their approach, how they choose to express themselves. The classical musician through precision, Page with a delivery focused on casual yet grandiose performance, and Biggie presenting the confidence of someone at the height of their verbal powers.

Rules to be free

While living in London I got to work with a Scottish visual artist named Martin Creed. Martin (all artists are called by their first name in the artworld you see) is probably most well known for winning the Turner Prize with Work No. 227 “The lights going on and off” (2000) and Work No. 360 “Half the air in a given space” (2004) he has also created many musical works (Work No. 409 “Piece for choir and elevator” (2005) being a favourite) and released many albums and singles.

When I started working with Martin he was preparing for his “Mothers” exhibition in 2012. In the press release Martin talks about being free ‘Trying to do what you want to do, trying to be free and trying not to do what other people want you to do.” Though if you know anything about Martin’s work you would know that everything has to have rules, self imposed rules – how the works are to be presented, performed, etc. If I remember correctly all the paintings in the Mothers show were created either by Martin and others, each one based on a series of rules.

How can someone be free with so many rules? Isn’t that a paradox? From observing Martin during that time I have come to understand the magic in his approach. I interpret his thinking as the rules actually create order from chaos, which gives Martin the opportunity to be free. Rules are not restrictive, instead they are permissive, a foundation enabling the freedom to create.

This is why I don’t agree with Cecchini’s creation / re-creation dichotomy. No matter what genre an artist or musician works in, there are rules which lay a foundation. Jazz is not a series of random notes. No matter how improvised a piece is the musician still needs to know how to play those notes, same for freestyle raps. What about classical music then? How can they be free if they are not improvising? Well the classical musician is working to a set series of rules and has worked to perfect their execution in order to be free in their mastery of their execution. Again classical musicians are creating something new, with the emotional power to connect with the listener, a unique interaction between musicians using the musical rules in a much different way than jazz musicians.

Rules to be free, a beautiful way of seeing the world.