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Harrisonburg, Virginia, United States
Professor of Saxophone, James Madison University

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

The Canvas of Creativity

After my last post (Coltrane's Brain . . . ), I had an interesting email exchange with a friend.  He made some points about talent and genius that I would like to expound upon.

The purpose of the last post wasn't purely Coltrane worship, which has been overdone already, to the point of absurdity.  Rather, my point is that his recorded works provide documentation of the transformative power of effective practice.  What makes Trane so special, in my opinion, is that he perfects his technique to the point that he can sometimes execute ideas faster than he can think them up.  One Down, One Up is one of those rare moments when he is able to temporarily equalize the velocity of his technique with the creativity itself.

This is the mark of a mature genius - insight through applied skill.  Take for example the thought experiments of Albert Einstein.  Einstein spends so much time thinking about specific ideas, he must have myelinated circuits that related to deep thought, giving him access to insights that were far outside  commonly accepted ideas.  In 1919, scientists prove what Einstein predicted to be true four years earlier:  gravity bends light.  This changes the way we look at physics forever, and although many scientists found the idea to be impossible, Einstein had already worked it out in his mind.  Unfortunately for us, the birth of an idea is impossible to observe - that moment is experienced by the thinker alone.

Improvised music makes for an ideal look at the speed of creativity because the canvas is time - we listen to the creative act as it unfolds.  The level of creativity varies, depending on the musician, and the style.   The creativity of bebop is different than that of the later works of Coltrane, simply because bop relies more on assembling clichéd constructs to outline chord changes.  While bebop is a difficult and nuanced style of playing, the expressionism of "the new thing" attempts to break free from building with pre-composed chunks of music.  Coltrane gives particular voice to this movement because his technical abilities have been so finely honed.  As much as I love the avant garde playing of Archie Shepp and Albert Ayler, they rely much more on entropy, simply because they lack the technical circuitry that Coltrane earns throughout the 1950's.  (I'm not judging one music to be better, or worse - just different, on a purely technical level.)

The creative genius of writers, composers, theoretical physicists, and philosophers is much more difficult to examine with proper perspective.  A writer's talent is built up with sketches and drafts that are carefully hidden from the public eye, and creative thought is hidden away in a tangle of white matter.  In most disciplines, it is impossible to observe the precise moments of insight, which is exactly why Live at the Half Note is so special.

Imagine that Coltrane is a supersonic jet, where his technique is the sound of the engine, and his mind is the aircraft.  As his processing speed increases, he starts to catch up with his own sound waves, until they start to pile up at the front of the vehicle.  When his creative velocity breaks the technique barrier, we hear the metaphorical sonic boom of Trane cutting through all that piled up sonic energy.  That sonic boom is common to all genius, but rarely is it captured for posterity.

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