Sunday, March 27, 2011

Redefining the Unknown

Arthur C. Clarke (1917-2008)
I was reminded this week of Arthur C. Clarke's Three Laws, which have been oft quoted in science fiction films and literature.  In case you aren't familiar with these tidbits of wisdom, they are:

1. When a distinguished but elderly scientist states that something is possible, he is almost certainly right; when he states that something is impossible, he is probably wrong.

2. The only way of discovering the limits of the possible is to venture a little way past them into the impossible.

3. Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.

Although the Third Law is probably the most familiar, it was the first two that got me thinking this week, especially about the unknowable.

For a couple of years, I was quite intentional about making decisions based on verifiable data, and not making decisions based on things that I didn't actually know (like how someone would react, or what would happen in the future).  Sometimes these predictions seem like absolute fact because they are so believable, especially if one is aware of certain patterns.  If Bob has gotten angry every time I have mentioned his ex-wife in the past, I have every reason to suspect that he will get angry if I mention her again, even though I don't actually know what Bob will do.  Criminals sometimes convince themselves that they will get away with a crime based entirely upon false assumptions about what other people will or will not do.  Making decisions based on information that is created entirely in one's own mind can be dangerous, or at least frustrating.  Most people can't predict the future nearly as well as they think they can.

That being said, there are some things that are probable even if they are technically in the realm of the unknown.  Once I realize that Bob is likely to get angry if I mention his ex-wife, but admit that I don't know for sure what Bob is going to do, I can decide how much value there is in testing my hypothesis.  Dismissing a pattern of behavior entirely, simply because Bob's future behavior is technically unknown, is honestly a rather stupid approach.  Scientists operate all the time in the realm of the unknown, testing hypotheses to see how accurate their predictions are, and correcting things along the way to learn as much as possible and get to a desired result.  Strategists in many fields operate in the realms of the unknown, predicting (with varying degrees of accuracy) what outcomes will result in the future from actions taken right now.  They can't possibly know the future, but they can make predictions.

During the time that I was attempting to base all of my decisions exclusively on verifiable data, I lost a job, threw money away, and spent a lot of time on fruitless efforts, all because I could not claim absolute certainty about future events.  In so doing, I discounted a huge portion of my personal strength.  I am a person who resonates with Clarke's Second Law, willing to push past the knowable into the unknown.  But such endeavors are not usually done haphazardly.  Usually, a scientist conducting an experiment has some data upon which a hypothesis is based, and that hypothesis is fine tuned by a number of intelligent predictions.  It isn't just a matter of throwing a dart without regard to the dartboard.

In all honesty, I think that people who are observant can make a great many reliable predictions.  Sometimes our minds trick us into seeing "patterns" where none actually exist, but the answer is not to discount the unknown and operate completely blind to such predictions.  Instead, it is better to venture into unknown territory with both eyes open, aware that our forecasts may be inaccurate, but willing to test them and see what happens.  Playing it safe and hedging bets are the kinds of things that lead distinguished but elderly experts to claim that something is impossible.  It would perhaps be more accurate to use "unknown" in the place of "impossible".  Personally, attempting the impossible seems foolhardy and unsatisfying, but attempting the unknown can be pretty inspiring.

So while I acknowledge that I cannot accurately predict the future, I can also acknowledge that my strategic and forward-thinking mind is a powerful tool that can guide me in a keenly directed exploration of the unknown.  If all of my decisions are based entirely on what I can know with utmost certainty, they are based on inaccuracy and half-truths.  It is actually much easier to be manipulated when one discounts personal discernment as essentially unknown and unverifiable.  Rather than discount it outright, I now believe that it is better to trust myself and work toward verifying the intelligent hypotheses of my insightful mind, reaching perhaps a bit past what I know to be possible.  I'm not sure how a person can grow otherwise.

Sunday, March 20, 2011

Enough Isn't Enough

The word "enough" has been on my mind recently.  It's a measuring tool that doesn't stay consistent.  Every complimentary thing I could acknowledge about myself can be minimized by the simple application of that one little word.  Sure I'm creative, just not creative enough.  I'm intelligent, but not intelligent enough.  Enough for what?  I don't know.  But I think it has something to do with personal satisfaction.

One organization with which I was involved was great at reminding people that they are indeed enough, just as they are in this very moment.  Rich enough, pretty enough, smart enough, good enough.  Except that the organization also encourages people to keep taking courses, which to me implies that I must not be enough if I need to get more of something for my life to be all that it can be.  If I'm already enough everything, then I am lacking nothing, and there is no reason to pursue further knowledge or training or anything.

The problem is that the affirmation is empty.  What exactly am I rich enough for?  I'm rich enough to be happy in my life, but I'm not rich enough to start a $3 million endowment for musical innovation.  That's just reality.  I believe that some people are smart enough to make healthy decisions about their own lives, but that doesn't necessarily mean I want them making decisions about my money or my intellectual property.  The word enough requires some kind of qualification in order to make any real sense.

My own challenge with the word recently even comes in a bit of a disguise.  My inner critic says something like, You should be doing more.  You should be composing more every day.  You should be getting out there and making something happen. Which all really amounts to: "I'm not doing enough."  It's a harsh criticism for exactly the same reason that it's a lousy affirmation.  It needs some kind of qualification in order to make any real sense. 

So my question back to the critic has become, "For what?"  There are a lot of answers that actually don't matter to me.  It's really alright to have some clear sense of realistic limitations.  It's alright with me that I can't start a $3 million endowment, so stating that I'm not rich enough to do so isn't much of an insult.  It's just a statement of fact.  So, I'm not composing enough to send a new piece out to every competition I hear about.  That's OK.  That would be exhausting, and it's more important to me that I enjoy my life.

My level of compositional activity at this point may not comparable to some prolific composers, but the question is whether I'm satisfied with what I'm doing.  If I'm not composing enough each day to be personally satisfied, then there's something specific to address.  Then, there's a qualifier that makes sense.  My inner critic may be trying to open the door to that conversation, but it's much more direct to throw an accusation than it is to ask "Are you satisfied with the amount of music you're creating day to day, or would you be happier if you stepped it up a notch?"  Now that is an interesting question.

Sunday, March 6, 2011

Stravinsky's Wisdom

There are some quotes that return again and again like a perfectly appropriate refrain for many different experiences.  I have mentioned before the value I find in Stravinsky's words, "The more constraints one imposes, the more one frees one's self."  The key, of course, is determining where those constraints come from.  External controls are a bit more difficult to embrace as desirable, but deciding for oneself where to create boundaries for a project helps define, focus, and inspire.

Q&A with August Bradley
My Dark Little Room by August Bradley
What I am finding with my current project, however, is that I sometimes fail to distinguish between what I want to create and what I must create.  I wind up thinking things like, If I compose a piece for an ensemble of this size, it will be a challenge to ever get it performed... I should go with something smaller.  That isn't really all that inspiring a decision, to be honest.  It's much more inspiring to consider what the perfect set of instruments would be for a particular piece.  It might be a full orchestra, or it might be just a quartet or trio.  That kind of constraint, being very specific about what is desirable, is what most easily opens the door to freedom.  It requires focusing on what I want rather than misconceptions about what must be done.

While that may not seem like a constraint, it does eliminate possibilities.  Once I consider that the perfect ensemble for a piece is a woodwind trio, I have no reason to consider how a violin or trombone could add to the sound.  I am free to focus on the instruments I have chosen as most desirable options, and I can go on to make further constraints about the piece based on the music and what I see as its ideal incarnation.  It becomes a matter of composing passionately rather than composing "correctly".

My own thoughts get in the way sometimes, though.  I can't start off this quietly and slowly; a piece has to grab the audience right off the bat.   Nevermind that thousands of very effective pieces start quietly and slowly, including a couple I've composed.  I can't repeat that entire section of the music; that's lazy and uninteresting.  Nevermind that repetition is an incredibly important and commonly used element of musical form that can have a musical purpose.  I have to add more complexity to this music; no one wants to listen to a piece that's too simple.  Nevermind that there have been musicians in every age who gained fame from simple pieces because so many people listen to them, or that some of the most memorable and well-loved works of music are just simple, well-written pieces that communicate something of value with compelling aestheticism.   Why in the world would I want to set up such frustrating constraints when the music itself suggests a different direction?  That doesn't create freedom.

So, as I conceive this piece, I am conscious of the kinds of constraints I am using.  I want nothing to do with the voice that claims to know how things must be, especially if those ideas lead me away from the direction of inspiration.  I want to create constraints that are based on my vision for the piece.  Freedom emerges when I am willing to set aside all of the conceptions about how the music must be and define its boundaries by what I want the piece to be.  It may take on its own twists and directions as I compose, but I will be more aware of them and better able to let the music "breathe" within well-defined boundaries.  If only the rest of life were as simple as setting aside the beliefs about what must be and focusing on what is possible.  If only.