If no one ever experimented or tried new stuff out, we’d be a sorry lot living in caves with bare walls throwing rocks at animals to get ourselves dinner. No bows and arrows, no wheels, no electricity, no computers, no space travel, no web conference calls discussing neutrinos, no s’mores. There’s also a lot of utter crap we wouldn’t have to deal with as well: pollution, cluster bombs, advanced marketing techniques for someone’s useless trinket, GMO’s in your organic brown rice, PR firms and microwavable s’mores.
This applies to music, arts and philosophy just as much as it applies to technology, science and commerce. There will be inspiring innovations, and there will be crap in its wake as well. The larger point is about moving forward through exploration, curiosity and creativity. You’re not going to learn how to ride a bike until you try; and that includes some scraped knees and elbows along the way. But you’re not even going to be able to do that until someone’s curiosity and ingenuity invents the tires, spokes, handlebars and metallic frame first.
Experimentation in the arts isn’t generally viewed as being as crucial to humanity’s fate as advances in medicine, food development and technology are. C’est la vie. But some of the earliest attempts at communication (and all arts are at their core simply a form of communication), from wall paintings, carvings and music to storytelling, constellations and early attempts at written symbols have generated more than their fair share to our general welfare and advancement. And if you’re an aspiring artist, writer or musician, or even an established pro in the creative arts, at some point in your development you’re going to have to try new things or new ways of doing things as part of the learning process.
If you don’t, you either: a. have a static teacher who doesn’t encourage you (from outside) to try new things, b. have no curiosity (from inside) to want to try new things/approaches, c. live in a vacuum, or d. are ensconced in a strict traditional/cultural discipline where adherence to a very specific methodology is crucial to the end result. And that can be fine with you. With the ever-changing world of technology and cross-genre pollination however, trying new things and new methods (especially updated software interfaces) has become a necessity; although one done involuntarily due to outside forces. But if you’re an explorer, if you’re someone who wants to test limits or move your artform forward, or simply one of those curious types (“What would it sound like, look like, read like if I tried X instead of Y?”), then you’re not going to be happy standing still or simply keeping up with the status quo of your medium. You’re going to want to experiment, you’re going to want to explore.
And whether you’re a traditionalist or a forward thinking kind of guy/gal, there are going to be times in your endeavors when you get into a rut or run into a wall and are going to need a way around or through. You’re going to have to look for a creative solution with the tools at hand. Here again, the chance to experiment. This series, Experiments in Writing and Recording Music, aims to help you do just that; a collection of tips, tricks, war stories, and anecdotes geared towards helping the musician, producer, engineer and other creative types maneuver past their obstacles.
This series is not the end-all be-all for curing writer’s block or coming up with the Perfect Sound that your record needs. Nor does it aspire to be an infallible guide to inventing your own unique ground-breaking sub-genre of music or painting, or the last word in experimental techniques. It simply aims to be plainspoken, genuine and reputable, based on over three decades’ worth of curiosity and experience in experimental sounds, music and recording. Hopefully along the way there will be a tip or reader’s comment that works for you; or better still, an idea that makes you think of yet another idea or way of doing things. Then you can share that story with us.
There are all kinds of ways to experiment, from finding different ‘well-traveled’ ways to finish your project to thinking outside of the box to completely re-imagining what the problem/stagnation is in the first place. You can gain a new perspective just by changing genres (The Rolling Stones’ staple “Start Me Up” spent years as an overlooked reggae song until it ‘clicked’ when they tried it as a rocker), switching up instruments, turning something inside out or even by letting it sit in a drawer somewhere for a month until you can re-approach it with fresh eyes and ears. You can get rid of all preconceptions and barriers, hand it off to another person, or get one of those books on writer’s block. You can use tools like Brian Eno’s Oblique Strategies, or apply some post-modernist’s techniques, even to a folk artist’s conundrum. Expand your mind, expand your outlook, expand your toolbox, expand your skill sets. But where we’re going to start first in the upcoming Part 1 of this article is (surprise!) actually in the opposite direction: using limits in your work to actually get ahead. I hope you’ll come back and check it out!