We’re absolutely convinced being unspecialized has given us huge advantages in the search for a radically new music.
There’s an obvious parallel here to what happens in the world of biology, where it’s seldom the most specialized species which evolve into importantly different new life forms.
This of course puts us at odds with all the experts who insist it’s only through specialization that one can accomplish anything serious. But before giving too much credence to these experts, one should always remember not so long ago their conventional wisdom had it that the earth was flat.
Besides we’re quite certain if we’d bought into this specialization rap and focused on one particular aspect of music, rather than tunneling towards its core from every direction as we have done, we never would have created such seriously beautiful music.
Because playing all our many different instruments has protected us from going stale. ( Practice )
While inventing and building our own instruments has given us the enormous advantage of making music with sounds no one has ever heard before.
( Our Instruments )
And doing our own recording and editing has taught us to listen with more careful objectivity. ( Our Recording )
We even feel using this website to write our own version of music theory, has helped us become more powerful musicians by making us more conscious of what we are trying to do, and of how we are trying to do it.
( Notation and Slow, Low, And Varied )
Now all of this must be enough to make most card carrying specialists feel somewhat uncomfortable. Still at least these activities are all music related.
But unfortunately for their mental equilibrium, our unspecialized approach to creating musical beauty goes way beyond doing things that are directly connected to music.
For example without skills developed by building houses and making furniture, it would have been totally impossible for us to have built our little orchestra of original instruments.
Not to mention that building all this stuff made us sharper and stronger and so turned us into people who are capable of playing better music.
People who never make things themselves, who just buy everything they need, can’t understand how demanding it is to build something seriously good. And it’s not only the designing process and the act of making careful measurements which takes brains, it’s that every second one must be totally alert or the material stuff will escape your control. So a power saw is always trying to drift off the line, a seam is always trying to go crooked, and a nail is always trying to bend, and only totally focused attention can stop these terrible things from happening.
In fact in our experience, building something material from actual stuff is intellectually more demanding than just about any of the so-called “higher” activities. For example, all but the most thoughtful of writing looked at closely turns out to be just a different form of going blah, blah, blah. And of course when you choose a wrong word you can always delete or erase it, but once a piece of wood is cut too short, there’s nothing to be done about it.
Which partly explains why after spending the spring of 2004 building two important new members of our kalimba family, we continued our preparation for recording “Sweet Heresy” by building two major pieces of furniture unlike anything we’d ever built before.
Since as usual we were chronically short of cash we made both from cheap unaristocratic materials, from plywood and junk softwood rather than expensive hard wood. But as is our habit we worked slowly and carefully, and when we were finished the two diagonal measurements across their fronts differed by less than 1/16 of an inch. ( Which means that their tops and sides met at very close to right angles, that though built of cheap materials, they were very close to square. )
Of course junk softwood 2×2’s and construction grade plywood are not materials which are normally used for building fine furniture. But if you’ve read this far, probably you’re not so surprised our construction technique is as unconventional as our music and our instruments.
In any case, it’s taken us decades to develop this ability to produce beautiful finished products by working very carefully with cheap materials. But at this point it’s become a very important generalized skill with implications for many parts of our life.
In fact it’s a skill without which we couldn’t have produced our magical music, since many of our precious instruments are also made with plywood. (Our Instruments)
While if we hadn’t already discovered we could create beautiful objects from cheap materials, we probably would have given up when faced with the task of producing clean professional sounding recordings with less than professional quality equipment. ( Our Recording )
Finding Our Own Way of Doing Stuff…
In addition to doing many different things, whenever possible we’ve also tried to find our own ways of doing them.
And despite what those with excessively developed respect for authority, teachers, and formal schooling would like to believe, rather than creating difficulties, this approach has usually worked. We’ve seen many times if we start from basics, are willing to proceed slowly and carefully, and are open to letting the process itself speak to us, we’ll probably end up with something interesting.
Figuring out stuff on our own has also meant our knowledge is cumulative. Each and every new task or skill we tackle builds on knowledge and experience accumulated while previously trying to figure out something else. By contrast new skills acquired through formal study tend to remain independent and are therefore much less likely to cross fertilize.
Indeed one could even say we’ve now become specialists in being creative. ( To our ears this does sound a bit too high minded and a bit like bragging, but it’s an important point…. )
For example when we moved to Taos and wanted to put in a garden, we didn’t do it the normal way by first improving our soil and then buying nursery plants.
Instead when hiking in the mountains we kept our eyes open for plants which would look good in our garden. When we found one we next looked for a patch with lots of healthy seedlings, dug up a strong looking baby, put it in a plastic bag, dripped some canteen water on its roots, and in our packs carried it down the mountain. Then when we got home we dug a hole, soaked its bottom with water, and popped our new friend into our totally uncultivated, unfertilized soil.
Now around our house we have beds of drought resistant harebells, columbines, wild roses, fleabanes, geraniums, penstemons, scarlet buglers, asters, and many other flowers whose names we don’t even know.
Of course we’re not the first people to put in a garden of wild flowers, but the interesting thing is how we did it. Because in line with our policy of figuring stuff out ourselves, we didn’t start by taking a course in landscaping with wild plants and we didn’t even read any books on the subject. Instead we just trusted our intuition and proceeded.
And as a result one more time we ended up with more than just a beautiful unusual product, we also developed more skill at being creative.
We’ve also taken the same sort of “not by the book” approach to our diet.
So while we cook almost all of our meals, we seldom follow recipes, and when initially we do ( as was the case with some of the baked treats like the peanut butter cookies and banana bread, which we eat every afternoon with our green tea ), pretty quickly we modify the recipe and make it our own.
And since we’ve usually been short of money, we’ve learned to make all sorts of super meals using cheap vegetables like cabbage, carrots, potatoes, and onions.
Also, now that we’re living at 7,000 feet where the boiling temperature is lower and cooking things can take forever, before sautéing vegetables we’ve learned to precook them in our nuke. However here like with our gardening, we proceeded by intuition and trial and error, not by consulting a text on “precooking with a microwave oven”.
When We’re Hot, We’re Hot…
One of the interesting things we’ve discovered about living our unspecialized life is getting better at one of our activities always improves our performance in all of the others.
That is to say when we’re cooking really good food, building beautiful furniture, creating beautiful gardens, and sewing beautiful curtains, we’re also playing good music.
Which is why when we were recording Sweet Heresy, even though it was tempting we refused to cut down on our other activities. We knew our walking, our reading, our cooking, and our gardening were absolutely essential for our musical creativity.
But what we didn’t know was that life was winding up to throw us a pretty wicked curveball, that rather than selling many copies of our new CD we were just about to go broke, and that for a while it would even look like we would need to give up our lovely unspecialized existence to concentrate strictly on earning money.
Fortunately after briefly floundering around in panic, to pay the bills we managed to reinvent ourselves as commercial Japanese to English translators. But even during the initial most difficult period when we were just teaching ourselves to do this new work, when every file took forever to finish, somehow we snuck in at least a little walking, stretching, and gardening. Because we understood if we didn’t, we would just go mad and crash.
Then later when things had calmed down and between jobs it became possible to do a bit of new recording, we were delighted to discover doing way too much translation had actually turned us into better musicians by making us sharper and more focused.
While once we started to edit these new recordings, we also realized translation by turning us into more savvy computer users had equipped us to do a much better job of editing.
So in the end going broke, which at first had seemed to spell the end of our unspecialized existence, actually widened the already broad range of our activities, and made us bigger stronger more generalized humans capable of producing even more beautiful music. ( Doing Music Differently )
One more time we emerged with even stronger faith that for us taking an unspecialized path was the only way to go, that if we put our noses to the grindstone, all we’d end up with would be ground down noses.
Indeed a central part of our rap ( one might even call it part of our message ) continues to be that specialization seldom leads to artistic creativity, that more often what it does is deepen the grooves in one’s brain and so insure that any new productions will at best be more technically developed versions of what one has done before.
More than that, to us specialization feels like just a different aspect of the materialism which has so impoverished our culture, in that it’s based on the belief doing more of something inevitably means that you’ll do it better.
Now obviously up to a point this is true, but when it comes to creative art, it’s only true up to a point……