Sunday, November 3, 2013

4 Non-music TED Talks that resonated with me as a composer

For the last several months I have been really inspired and motivated by TED Talks. The funny thing is that I can't help but think of my creative activity as a composer while I watch talks that often have nothing to do with music. Although there are some great talks about music, I'd like to share 4 that don't have any direct connection to music, and yet have inspired me in some way as a creative being. Whether it is turning constraints into creative opportunities, the awe of infinity, redefining what it means to be the best, or understanding that people with different tastes aren't wrong, these speakers have helped me start to think more openly and creatively. Click through after the break to read my thoughts and watch the clips.

1. Martin Villeneuve: How I made an impossible film
Turning constraints into creative opportunities

When faced with a small budget and lack of reputation, many filmmakers (or creative artists in general), would reconsider their projects. Cut back, scale down, hire less-well-known actors, do cheaper effects. Martin Villeneuve's science fiction film Mars et Avril is 'impossible' because of what it is given the constraints that were placed upon it. How was a young, unknown, relatively unfunded filmmaker able to attract the famous and busy Canadian actor Robert Lepage to star in his movie? How was he able to get custom designed futuristic musical instruments without money? How was he able to get special effects and designs like those of his favorite artists? The amazing answers of how he worked around these constraints are inspiring to any creator who, like myself, has faced what seemed like impassible roadblocks to our dream projects. Hint: his solutions involve holograms, Cirque du Soleil and asking nicely, respectively.
"So I want to tell you that, if you have some crazy ideas in your mind, and that people tell you that it's impossible to make, well, that's an even better reason to want to do it, because people have a tendency to see the problems rather than the final result, whereas if you start to deal with problems as being your allies rather than your opponents, life will start to dance with you in the most amazing way. I have experienced it. And you might end up doing some crazy projects, and who knows, you might even end up going to Mars."
(Another fascinating talk about looking at problems as creative challenges is Janette Sadik-Khan: New York's streets? Not so mean any more about transforming New York City's transportation network inefficiencies into creative public spaces.)

2. Adam Spencer: Why I fell in love with monster prime numbers
The awe of infinity

In this humorous and engaging talk, Adam Spencer talks about the thrill that he gets as the mathematic community seeks out the next largest prime number. The current longest known prime number is about 17 and half million DIGITS long (he says to print it would be half again as long as the Harry Potter series)! To me this talk meant something because the very idea of a prime number is that it is only divisible by one and itself, and yet here they are discovering numbers of immense size which still fit that rule. Can you imagine a number longer than a series of books and yet it can't be divided by two or three? In fact, he points out, the ancient mathematician Euclid proved that there are an infinite number of primes. That means that no matter how many more they find, or how large they are, there will always be bigger and larger ones.

I can't help but think of these verses, from the Pearl of Great Price:
"If two things exist, and there be one above the other, there shall be greater things above them ... there is nothing that the Lord thy God shall take in his heart to do but what he will do it ... And the Lord said unto me: These two facts do exist, that there are two spirits, one being more intelligent than the other; there shall be another more intelligent than they; I am the Lord thy God, I am more intelligent than they all." Abraham 3:16-19
"And worlds without number have I created; and I also created them for mine own purpose; and by the Son I created them, which is mine Only Begotten ... For behold, there are many worlds that have passed away by the word of my power. And there are many that now stand, and innumerable are they unto man; but all things are numbered unto me, for they are mine and I know them." Moses 1: 33-35
As Spencer says, "Numbers are the musical notes with which the symphony of the universe is written." The simple fact that not only is there such a thing as infinity, but that there is also an infinity of unique prime numbers seems to me to be symbolic of the great individuality and treasure that is every living soul. And I do believe that there is an Intelligence who can number, know and love us all. As a creative person, I rejoice to know that there will always be something new to create.

3. BLACK: My journey to yo-yo mastery
Redefining 'being the best'

The first time yo-yo master BLACK won the World Yo-Yo Contest, he thought accolades, TV interviews, sponsorships, fame and money would be the results.
"But after coming back to Japan, totally nothing changed in my life. I realized society didn't value my passion. So I went back to my college and became a typical Japanese worker as a systems engineer. I felt my passion, heart and soul, had left my body. I felt I was not alive anymore."
Unwilling to live without his passion, BLACK redoubled his efforts to excel at his art. Mixing technical mastery with dance, martial arts and acrobatics, he turned yo-yo into a type of performance art which it had never before been. The message I get from it is this: it doesn't matter what your passion is. But if it really is your passion, be the best at it. Be so good at it that you redefine what being the best at it is.

This reminds me of a phrase repeated throughout Scott Westerfeld's The Last Days, in the context of excelling: Be the Taj Mahal of what you do. BLACK, in this case, is the Taj Mahal of yo-yo.

4. Malcolm Gladwell: Choice, happiness and spaghetti sauce
Understanding and reaching people with different tastes

Malcolm Gladwell has done several fascinating TED talks, but while watching this one I thought constantly about how his lesson on taste in spaghetti sauce is relevant to musical taste. Gladwell talks about three different things that Howard Moskowitz taught the food industry that totally changed the way they think.

First, if just asked, people won't really tell you what they like. "You will never, ever say to someone who asks you what you want that "I want a milky, weak coffee." While people are a little more open with sharing their musical tastes, I think all of us harbor music that we don't really want to talk about but that secretly means a lot to us. We are afraid that this music will be criticized or laughed at if we share our feelings. The fact is there IS a market for this music, just like Moskowitz discovered there was a market for chunky sauce even though nobody was saying that's what they wanted.

The next lesson has to do with 'horizontal segmentation' - the idea that there aren't people out there who have better taste, just different taste. The example used is mustard. Replace the word 'mustard' with 'music' and the point is clear: 
"Mustard does not exist on a hierarchy. Mustard exists, just like tomato sauce, on a horizontal plane. There is no good mustard or bad mustard. There is no perfect mustard or imperfect mustard. There are only different kinds of mustards that suit different kinds of people. He fundamentally democratized the way we think about taste. And for that, as well, we owe Howard Moskowitz a huge vote of thanks." 
I guess I feel tired of being part of the shaming those who don't 'get' classical for their lack of 'good taste'. (What, you don't like Grey Poupon?) Because if they are genuinely being enlightened by the art they consume, who am I to tell them that that experience isn't legitimate because they don't get the same experience from the music that moves me or from the music I create?

The third idea that comes from Moskowitz's example is that there is no such thing as the 'perfect dish' - only perfect dishes. 
"Because we thought that what it took to make people happy was to provide them with the most culturally authentic tomato sauce, A; and B, we thought that if we gave them the culturally authentic tomato sauce, then they would embrace it. And that's what would please the maximum number of people." 
But the fact is, there is no one universal right answer, and in attempting to foist one off on people we do them a disservice. Or, as Gladwell sums up: "In embracing the diversity of human beings, we will find a surer way to true happiness." In music I feel more ready than ever to embrace and work with the diversity of taste that people have. Is it possible that I can produce music that is true to my 'brand' and yet meets the demands of differing tastes?

I could have gone on at length about any one of these talks, and if you have hung around me the last few months we have probably had a long discussion at some point about one or more of these talks. While not musicians, Villeneuve, Spencer, BLACK and Gladwell have me thinking in new and exciting ways about my art and career. 


Ryan Spackman said...

The first one really hit home for me. I have several "impossible" dreams and plans. Perhaps that's all the more reason to pursue them. (ie: writing several books, writing/producing a movie, devolping a computer/board game, and successfully selling them all).

Ryan Spackman said...

Also Mike, I just wanted to compliment you on your writing. It is most excellent and professional.

R. Michael Wahlquist said...

Ryan! Thanks for your comments on this and several other posts recently! Thanks for reading. I really appreciate your insights and comments, and in fact you've given me several ideas for things I'd like to write about in the near future. Especially on some of those most polemical articles about John Williams, etc. my position has matured since I first wrote them.

I also enjoyed that first talk immensely. I think of some of the constraints I have: time, lack of training on certain topics, lack of connections, etc. and that talk makes me really want to think about how I can turn those things around into an advantage.