We’re absolutely convinced being unspecialized has given us a huge advantage in the search for radically new music.
There’s an obvious parallel here to what happens in the world of biology, where the most specialized species seldom evolve into importantly different new life forms.
This of course puts us at odds with all the experts who insist only through specialization can one accomplish anything serious. But before believing these professional thinkers, 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 the specialization rap and focused on only one particular aspect of music, rather than tunneling towards its core from every direction as we’ve done, we never would have created such elegant magical music.
That neither of us plays just one of our self made instruments, that they’re all so different and that we both play all of them, has protected us from going stale.
Also since each is a one-of-a-kind beast unlike anything that’s ever previously existed, they’ve given us the enormous advantage of crafting music from never before heard sounds.
While doing our own recording and editing has taught us to listen with more careful objectivity.
Even creating this website has helped us become more powerful musicians, increased our understanding of the long not always easy path we’ve followed to our very different music.
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 furniture, it would have been totally impossible for us to make our little orchestra of original instruments.
Not to mention that crafting all this stuff made us sharper and stronger and so turned us into people 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 designing and making careful measurements which takes brains, it’s that every working second one must be totally alert or the material stuff will escape your control. 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. Only totally focused attention can stop these terrible things from happening.
In our experience building something 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 dispassionately 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 is why after spending the spring of 2004 making two new keyboard style kalimbas, in the fall we continued our preparations for recording a second CD by making two major pieces of furniture unlike anything we’d ever built before.
Since as usual we were chronically short of cash we crafted 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’d finished the two diagonal measurements across their fronts differed by less than 1/8 of an inch. (Which means that though built of cheap materials, they were closer to square than lots of pricey furniture.)
Of course junk softwood 2×2’s and construction grade plywood are not materials normally used for making fine objects. But if you’ve read this far, probably you’re not so surprised our furniture 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. However at this point it’s become an important generalized skill with implications for many parts of our life.
It’s a skill without which we could never have created our magical music, since many of our precious instruments are also made with plywood.
While if we hadn’t already discovered we could make 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.
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 also means 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 therefore are 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 somewhat too cute, 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 might 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. Back home we’d then dig a hole, soak its bottom with water, and pop our new friend into the totally uncultivated, unfertilized soil.
By the time we left Taos, around our house we had beds of drought resistant harebells, columbines, wild roses, fleabanes, geraniums, penstemons, scarlet buglers, asters, and many other flowers whose names we didn’t even know.
Of course we weren’t 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 trusted our intuition and proceeded.
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 baked treats like the peanut butter cookies and banana bread we eat every afternoon with our green tea), pretty quickly we modify the recipe and make it our own.
For example since we’ve usually been short of funds, we’ve learned to make all sorts of super meals using cheap vegetables like cabbage, carrots, potatoes, and onions.
And when we were living at 7,000 feet where the boiling temperature is lower and cooking vegetables can take forever, we learned to precook them in our nuke, or to stew rather than steam them, or to prepare them with a pressure cooker. Again like with our gardening, we worked this out by intuition and trial and error, not by consulting a text on “cooking at high altitude”.
In general life’s been kind to us, but we’ve seldom had enough money and every so often we’ve been scary broke.
In 2006 things had reached the point where if they didn’t improve we were contemplating a one-way trip to the Rio Grande Gorge Bridge. We had no savings, no assets, and were desperately worried about how to pay the rent and buy our food.
Fortunately we discovered by working together we could do an excellent job of translating Japanese business documents into English, and for a long while supported ourselves translating hundreds of thousands of words of contracts, surveys, e-mail chains, magazine articles, depositions, and other even more boring stuff.
But the relevant point is that even when we were teaching ourselves to do this grinding work and had to put music and our other activities on a back burner, we were in fact becoming more powerful generalists, were laying the foundation for the creative surge which led to our Work In Progress CD.
Most importantly, translation made us more comfortable with computers. Not only were we forced to learn our way around every single formatting option of Word and to become skillful with programs like Excel and PowerPoint, we also had to develop the butt and brain calluses required for working long days at a computer.
As a result, when to edit one of our musical pieces we had to stare for many hours at the screen, we could do it. Indeed compared to translating some poorly written and fundamentally stupid commercial document, hours spent that way were a downright delightful experience.
Furthermore without the computer savvy acquired as translators, we would have been less successful coming to terms with Tracktion 2, the program with which we recorded and edited the music for Work In Progress, and WordPress, the program we’ve used to create this website.
Also since turning out translations of which one can be proud is very difficult and demands total concentration, doing it for far too many hours made us stronger and sharper, while that we did it together further improved the nearly telepathic communication that’s vital for our music.
So being totally broke, which at first had seemed to spell the end of our unspecialized existence, after the dust had settled actually widened the already broad range of our activities, added new capabilities to our quiver of skills, and made us bigger more generalized humans capable of producing even more beautiful and more magical music.
One more time we emerged from a crisis with an even stronger faith that for us taking an unspecialized path is the only way to go, that if we put our noses to the grindstone, all we’d get would be ground down noses.
When We’re Hot, We’re Hot….
A lovely feature of our unspecialized life is getting better at one activity always improves our performance in all the others.
That’s to say when we’re cooking good food, building elegant furniture, creating unusual gardens, and sewing beautiful curtains, we’re also playing magic music.
Which is why when we recorded, even though it was tempting we refused to cut down on our other activities. We knew walking, reading, cooking, and gardening were absolutely essential for our musical creativity.
We’re more convinced than ever that specialization seldom leads to artistic creativity, that more often what it does is deepen the grooves in one’s brain and so insure any new productions will at best be more technically developed versions of what one’s done before.
To us specialization feels like just another aspect of the materialism which has so impoverished the modern world, in that it’s based on the belief doing more of something inevitably means to do it better.
Now obviously to a point this is true, but when it comes to creating art and doing magic, it’s only true up to a point…