Innovation and the Creative Imperative
Dr. Richard Niles
Colleagues and students have often asked me how they might develop their own original style. I usually take a deep breath and strive to tailor the answer to the individual. I often begin by saying that to even ask the question is a creative step in the right direction.
Many musicians are quite happy to be brilliant technicians capable of interpreting any music at any tempo. This is an accomplishment to be very proud of. But some feel that it’s not enough to be an excellent musician in either a technical or professional sense. They understand that there is indeed a creative imperative – a duty or commitment to go beyond reproducing the great tradition of music. There is a case to be made that if one has achieved excellence, the ‘true artist’ is even more obligated to serve Art by contributing to its development.
How is this achieved? One way is for the artist to see themselves in context to both the past and present of their art. Analysis and study can help identify the methodologies of the great innovators. What exactly did they want to express and how exactly did they do it? Similarities and differences in approach soon become apparent. Humans tend to solve problems in similar ways, and there are patterns specific to influential artists.
In music, the new concepts and styles of artists such as Mozart and Bach, Duke Ellington and Miles Davis, Bob Dylan or The Beatles, did not develop by accident. Artists exist in a kind of cultural ecosystem, their point of view derived from their point in time and frame of reference. But presented with this data to process, some artists develop a vision that looks beyond the zeitgeist to break new ground.
This is not to say that great artists ignore their environment or resist influences. Mozart was influenced by Bach while Beethoven was influenced by Mozart. They did not merely copy but added their own elements to create their own original body of work. Both Bill Evans and Duke Ellington were influenced by Ravel and Debussy but each added their own sensibilities to that influence with different but equally groundbreaking results. Chick Corea and Keith Jarrett were both influenced by Evans but took that influence in very different directions.
Fusion is often the key to innovation. The blending of seemingly disparate styles can often result in a new direction. It is a rewarding and enjoyable exercise to choose two genres at random, put them together and listen to the result. This can certainly break an artist out of a creative rut. Try mixing traditional Norwegian Sammi music with 1950s New Orleans Rock ‘n’ Roll. How would 80s Techno Pop sound with the vocals of Le Mystere de Voix Bulgares? Even if these combinations are artistically unsuccessful, they are enjoyable to try and can open up new possibilities.
Jazz vibraphonist Gary Burton is a fine example of this. He fused mainstream jazz with country music and rock rhythms and electric guitar to create what is arguably the earliest example of jazz-rock. (Although serial innovator Miles Davis is often credited with creating jazz-rock, Burton’s “Tennessee Firebird”  slightly predated “In A Silent Way”.) Burton also took a new approach to his instrument, playing the vibraphone with four mallets and ‘bending’ notes. This new performance methodology is another element found in many pioneering artists.
Pat Metheny brought together a love of Burton and Davis with the soul of Wes Montgomery and the melodic clarity of the Beatles to create his own unique body of work. Frank Zappa joyously mixed the concepts of 20th century composers such as Varese with San Fernando Valley rock and downtown LA doo-wop.
But ‘fusion’ is defined as ‘the process or result of joining two or more things together to form a single entity’. My italics are important because mixing red and blue should result in purple. Mixing A with B should equal C, not A + B.
Herbie Hancock’s unique fusions of jazz, rock and electronic music work have made him one of music’s great innovators. Yet an example of fusion which does not work so well for this author would be his Imagine Project (2010). This admittedly enjoyable and polished album of mildly jazz-influenced arrangements of pop songs features singers drawn from the pop/rock genre. They sing in their own pop/rock/soul styles. Accompanying this, Hancock plays in his style, unrelated to the singers or the tracks. He ‘takes it out’, playing ‘Herbie licks’ that are either in a different key or willfully chromatic while the rhythm section remains resolutely straight. The result is A + B, not C. This is a bit like a joke that is funny the first couple of times you hear it, but eventually becomes tedious.
Self-analysis is key in the process. It can be very difficult for an artist to objectively evaluate themselves. One of the most useful guidelines is songwriter Johnny Mercer’s lyric “accentuate the positive, eliminate the negative and don’t mess with Mister In-Between.” I often liken a musician’s development of a concept to the subtractive method of creating a piece of sculpture—the work of art is revealed by the marble that is taken away.
As a trained professional, you may be able to do many things. But what do you do best? What is particularly unique about the way you sing, write or play? What have you received the most compliments for? (Your relatives don’t count!) Pat Metheny recommends that an artist should “follow what they love.” What aspect of music do you love most? What aspect could you literally not live without?
Eliminating the negative is somewhat simpler. Polite applause or rotten tomatoes are very good indications of which marble to chip away. Again, ask yourself which aspect of music you are not good at or simply don’t enjoy. Your own technical facility can be another guideline here. Miles Davis is a very good example of an artist who avoided his somewhat limited technique, instead concentrating on his phenomenal ability to create lyrical melodies with a very personal, emotive tone. Turning a negative into a positive, his ‘cracked’ notes only intensified his human impact.
Most artists I’ve worked with over the years find ‘Mister In-Between’ to be the most difficult to identify and to eradicate. Just because you can do something doesn’t mean you should. ‘Good’ is not good enough in art. The Good can actually dilute the great. By getting rid of aspects of your art that are just O.K. you can sharpen the focus on “the positive”. Make it as easy as possible for your audience to identify ‘your thing’ and don’t clutter up the really special stuff.
It can also be valuable to go back to go forward. This can mean two things. The first is returning to your own past—the original influences that first inspired you to become an artist. That first moment you saw your place in the world defined by a word, a sound, a style or an artist is the key to finding your essence.
Another way to progress is to find inspiration from a past you might be unaware of. Endless ‘eureka moments’ from the history of the creative arts can be found in the treasure trove of YouTube. Sadly, many young aspiring artists are very limited in their awareness of the past. They know little of the history of the art they profess to be dedicated to. With so much information available on the internet, there is simply no excuse for this. Not knowing what has already been done can lead to ‘re-inventing the wheel’. One of my students excitedly ran into one of my lectures with his new band demos. I listened to it and said, “That’s very good, but have you ever heard of Genesis?”
Even music you hate can be useful. Many people put down any successful music as being mindless, crass commerciality. But isn’t it interesting to know why the music has been embraced by the public? What subject matter might you also be addressing, in your own way. Identifying what you hate can also help clarify what you love. Moreover, listening to and analyzing successful music can lead to appreciating certain elements you may want to use in your own music.
I have often heard people say, “But everything has already been done! How can I come up with something new?” I can imagine people with this same negative attitude saying this throughout history, and being proven wrong when innovators such as Bach, William Blake, Charles Ives, Salvador Dali or Bob Dylan came along. The universe offers infinite possibilities and it takes a certain type of person to strive to find the next undiscovered territory. Are you such a person?
The creative imperative is not a ‘fluffy’ thing. It involves having a strong enough respect for the artform to dedicate yourself to endless study and backbreaking work. It involves the humility to surrender yourself to a power greater than yourself. You must be an explorer willing to expose yourself to the danger of failure because you believe the only real risk is not taking one.