Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Posts Tagged ‘John Cage

Quote of the Day

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May 18, 2017 at 7:30 am

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Quote of the Day

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Written by nevalalee

October 13, 2016 at 7:30 am

Quote of the Day

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John Cage

[John Cage] replies to the composer and editor R.I.P. Hayman, who had asked him, “Is politics to society what music is to sound?” The question, Cage remarks, is “a little too mathematical,” but he goes on to answer, “yes if music is thought of as a body of laws to protect musical sounds from noises, as government protects rich from poor.”

Alastair Macaulay, in a review of The Selected Letters of John Cage

Written by nevalalee

July 22, 2016 at 7:30 am

The Book of Changes

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The I Ching

If there’s a single theme to which I’ve repeatedly returned for the five years and more I’ve been writing this blog, it’s the importance of randomness in the creative process. I’ve always tried to systematically incorporate elements of chance into my work, in a large part because I’m temperamentally the opposite: I’m an architect, not a gardener, and nearly everything I’ve written—fiction and nonfiction alike—has been planned, outlined, and structured within an inch of its life. I adopted this approach as a kind of survival strategy: I figured out early in my career that I had a better chance of finishing a project, rather than abandoning it halfway through, if I had a blueprint to follow. And that’s still true. But the fact that I’ve always been a fundamentally rational writer has led me to think about creative randomness and serendipity to a greater extent, I suspect, than many of those who naturally take a more intuitive approach. An author who begins a story without a clear end point in mind, apart from a willingness to follow the narrative wherever it leads, doesn’t need to consciously worry about randomness: it’s baked into the process from the beginning. But because I’m predisposed to lay everything out before I type the first sentence, I’ve tried to be diligent about keeping that fertilizing aspect of chance alive.

As Gregory Bateson wrote: “Creative thought must always contain a random component. The exploratory process—the endless trial and error of mental progress—can achieve the new only by embarking upon pathways randomly presented, some of which when tried are somehow selected for survival.” Elsewhere, Bateson is reported to have said to his secretary: “I am going to build a church some day. It will have a holy of holies and a holy of holy of holies, and in that ultimate box will be a random number table.” And the search for productive forms of randomness has been one of the most absorbing parts of my writing life over the last ten years. I’ve written at length here about how I’ve tried most of the usual suspects, like Brian Eno’s Oblique Strategies, and how the most useful repository of random connections I’ve found has been Ted Hughes’s anthology A Choice of Shakespeare’s Verse, which helpfully provides more than two hundred numbered quotations that I pick out of a virtual hat whenever I’m trying to crack a creative problem. I’ve also dabbled with methods associated with divination, which, as a sources of symbols for inspiring unexpected trains of thought, can be genuinely valuable tools. As I once wrote about the tarot:

It’s really a portable machine for generating patterns…It results in a temporary structure—in the form of the cards spread across the table—that can be scrutinized from various angles. At its best, it’s an externalization or extension of your own thoughts: instead of confronting the problem entirely in your own head, you’re putting a version of it down where you can see it, examine it, or even walk away from it.

The Tarot of Marseilles

But there’s one obvious resource that I’ve never been able to use to my own satisfaction: the I Ching. I’ve always been a little surprised by this, since it’s probably the most famous of all oracular texts. I’ve toyed with various translations, notably the Richard Wilhelm edition, and I had a reasonable amount of success with The Portable Dragon by R.G.H. Siu, which pairs the original hexagrams with illuminating quotations from both eastern and western sources. But the results have always left me cold, and it’s taken me a long time to figure out why. I found a helpful clue in a discussion of the subject in Joseph Needham’s Science and Civilisation in China, the legendary seven-volume masterpiece that I was recently delighted to find is available for download at Monoskop. In his section on the I Ching, which he thinks had a negative influence on the history of thought in China, Needham writes:

The elaborated symbolic system of the Book of Changes was almost from the start a mischievous handicap. It tempted those who were interested in Nature to rest in explanations which were no explanations at all. The Book of Changes was a system for pigeon-holing novelty and then doing nothing more about it. Its universal system of symbolism constituted a stupendous filing-system. It led to a stylization of concepts almost analogous to the stylizations which have in some ages occurred in art forms, and which finally prevented painters from looking at Nature at all.

And I think he’s onto something. The I Ching has a way of closing off pathways of thought—unlike the tarot, which opens them up—because it’s almost too comprehensive and organized. The tarot is a mess, but in the best possible way: the patterns it generates are necessarily incomplete, and they require a secondary act of consolidation in the user’s brain. The I Ching feels more like a card catalog. (Needham shrewdly compares it to the bureaucratic organization of much of classical Chinese society, and says: “The Book of Changes might almost be said to have constituted an organization for ‘routing ideas through the right channels to the right departments.'”) And after trying valiantly for years to incorporate it into my writing routine, I set it aside: it seemed to have some of the same freezing effect on my work that Needham identifies in Chinese culture as a whole. This is all very subjective, of course, and it clearly doesn’t apply to everyone: the I Ching played an important role in the careers of such artists as John Cage and Philip K. Dick, and I wouldn’t discourage any writer from at least trying it out. But when I relinquished it at last, it was with something like relief. The central principle of the I Ching is resonance, but for whatever reason, it just never resonated with me. And if a tool doesn’t work, it has to be put away. Because the search for randomness is too important to be left to chance.

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Written by nevalalee

April 15, 2011 at 7:56 am

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Playing solitaire with ideas

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Yesterday, I spoke briefly about how Walter Murch, editor of Cold Mountain and longtime collaborator with Francis Ford Coppola, had to cope with the loss of providential randomness that occurred when he switched from old-fashioned editing machines to nonlinear systems like Final Cut Pro. Over time, Murch has developed a number of ways of dealing with the situation, including detailed script notes, picture boards, and handwritten scene cards. And in an elegant instance of convergent evolution, Murch’s tools of the trade, as an editor, are not so different from the tricks that most novelists utilize for similar reasons.

In Behind the Seen, Charles Koppelman gives as beautiful a description of the reasoning behind such tools as any I’ve ever encountered:

The scene cards, picture boards, and script notes are simple and uncomplicated. But they aren’t just different methods of cataloging. Like composer and printmaker John Cage’s throwing the I Ching to determine creative choices, these tools allow Murch to incorporate randomness into the edit process. If a scene isn’t working for some reason that isn’t readily apparent, a sideways glance at the picture boards might reveal a hiccup in the pattern of images that wasn’t obvious before. Let’s reshuffle the scene cards and see what color pattern emerges…But it requires forethought and effort to plan for the unplanned, to invite the unexpected, and to prepare these alternate tools for working on a film. [Italics mine.]

This last point is essential. It can take many hours, and a lot of planning, to be sufficiently random. Murch could prepare scene cards much more quickly on a computer program, but he prefers to do them by hand: “There is something appealing about the visual handcraftedness,” he says. “The personality of handwriting is more engaging to the eye, especially if I’m going to stare at them for a year and a half.” (Which is one reason why, as Jon Vagg recently pointed out in the comments, my own mind maps tend to look so weirdly calligraphic, until they almost become aesthetic objects in their own right.)

Scene cards, too, can be a useful tool for a novelist. Once I’ve generated ideas through a mind map or other method, the individual nuggets—which can be lines of dialogue, plot points, or fragments of action or description—usually end up on cards. (I used to use index cards, but I’ve since found old business cards, obtained from local merchants or friends changing jobs, to be a more convenient size.) Then, once I have enough cards, I play solitaire: the cards go on my desk, or on the floor, and I rearrange them until the outline of each section begins to take shape. And I’m not the only writer who does this. Nabokov, famously, wrote entire novels on index cards, and here’s Joseph Heller talking to The Paris Review:

I keep a small sheath of three-by-five cards in my billfold. If I think of a good sentence, I’ll write it down. It won’t be an idea (“have him visit a brothel in New Orleans”). What I put down is an actual line of intended text (“In the brothel in New Orleans was like the time in San Francisco”). Of course, when I come back to it, the line may change considerably. Occasionally there’s one that sings so perfectly the first time that it stays, like “My boy has stopped speaking to me and I don’t think I can bear it.” I wrote that down on a three-by-five card, perhaps on a bus, or after walking the dog. I store them in filing cabinets. The file on Something Happened is about four inches deep, the one on Catch-22 about the length of a shoe box.

In the end, the cards for Kamera, as pictured above, took up a couple of long boxes. For my most recent stories, like “Kawataro”—which I’ve just learned will be appearing in Analog in June 2011—I’ve been doing much of this organizational work on the computer, but for my next novel, I’m planning to return to the card system. It’s slower and more cumbersome, but as I’ve said before, writing things out by hand can generate ideas by itself. And, as Murch observes, handwritten cards are much easier to live with, especially if you’re going to be staring at them for a year of your life.

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