Saturday, July 23, 2016

For the Benefit of Mr. Kite: How Creativity Works

"... Whether you're writing a Shakespearean tragedy, or trying to come up with a new graphic design or writing a piece of software, how we think about the problem should depend on the problem itself. Creativity is really a catch-all term for a variety of very different kinds of thinking." ~Jonah Lehrer*

* * * *

When Rolling Stone dubbed The Beatles' Sgt. Pepper as #1 album rock album of all time, here's how they defended their selection:

Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band is the most important rock & roll album ever made, an unsurpassed adventure in concept, sound, songwriting, cover art and studio technology by the greatest rock & roll group of all time. From the title song's regal blasts of brass and fuzz guitar to the orchestral seizure and long, dying piano chord at the end of "A Day in the Life," the 13 tracks on Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band are the pinnacle of the Beatles' eight years as recording artists. John Lennon, Paul McCartney, George Harrison and Ringo Starr were never more fearless and unified in their pursuit of magic and transcendence. 

The album was truly an incredible achievement on so many levels. As a creative endeavor alone it is astonishing. We studied some of the lyrics in high school English class. And we returned to it again and again over the years. No matter what period of life, the songs still hold up. But the real significance of Sgt. Pepper is due to it's ground-breaking creative expression.

In a 1987 article titled Cultivating Invention, Ernest Breton and Raelene Gold propose that creativity emerges from cultivating an environment that creates and nourishes creativity. Their article was directed toward businesses striving to create effective R&D efforts, but their insights apply directly to those ground-breaking influencers in the music industry.

"Like the farmer who removes impediments to the growth of plants, the company seeking inventions must remove impediments to invention," they wrote.**

In the visual arts this breaking down barriers, removing impediments to creative possibilities, is the story of modern art. Beginning with the expressionists, the various movements through cubism to total abstraction were a series of breaking down walls. The Sixties evolution from sock hop rock 'n roll to "anything's possible" only took a matter of years, not decades. The Beatles' output is essentially a documentation of this transformation.

In Sgt. Pepper everything that was happening converged.

It's interesting how different the songs are individually from playful (When I'm 64) to surreal (Lucy in Sky with Diamonds), to philosophically poignant (Within You, Without You). The creative variety explodes like an aural flower garden. Like Dylan, Beatles fans at this point began getting serious about song meanings. What was Fixing a Hole about? Who blew his mind out in a car in Day in the Life?

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Creativity doesn't begin and end with the creator. In music there is also the Listener. The one who hears the song adds his or her own experience to what has been created.  New meanings can be derived that weren't originally there. The song sets in motion new possibilities. This is especially so in classical music, so aptly exemplified in Disney's Fantasia.

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Getting back to Sgt. Pepper, the writing team of Lennon-McCartney was in full flower. The world was their pallet of colors to work with. Everything was possible. Their minds were open to everything being a potential song catalyst so that when John Lennon walked into an antique shop in January 1967, a 19th-century circus poster for Pablo Fanque's Circus Royal appearance at Rochdale caught his eye. "Everything from the song is from that poster," he explained, "except the horse wasn't called Henry."

Here's the full text of the original Pablo Fanque's Circus Royal poster:
PABLO FANQUE'S CIRCUS ROYAL,
TOWN-MEADOWS, ROCHDALE.
Grandest Night of the Season!
AND POSITIVELY THE
LAST NIGHT BUT THREE!
BEING FOR THE
BENEFIT OF MR. KITE,
(LATE OF WELLS'S CIRCUS) AND
MR. J. HENDERSON,
THE CELEBRATED SOMERSET THROWER!
WIRE DANCER, VAULTER, RIDER, &c.
On TUESDAY Evening, February 14, 1843.
Mssrs. KITE and HENDERSON, in announcing the following Entertainments, assure the Public that this Night's Production will be one of the most splendid ever produced in this town, having been some days in preparation.
Mr. KITE will, for this night only, introduce the
CELEBRATED
HORSE, ZANTHUS!
Well known to be one of the
best Broke Horses
IN THE WORLD!!!
Mr. HENDERSON will undertake the arduous Task of
THROWING TWENTY-ONE SOMERSETS,
ON THE SOLID GROUND.
Mr. KITE will appear, for the first time this season,
On the Tight Rope,
When Two Gentlemen Amateurs of this Town will
perform with him.
Mr. HENDERSON will, for the first time in Rochdale,
introduce his extraordinary
TRAMPOLINE LEAPS
AND
SOMERSETS!
Over Men & Horses, through Hoops, over Garters,
and lastly through a
Hogshead of REAL FIRE!
In this branch of the profession Mr. H challenges
THE WORLD!

The transformation of poster to song is inventive enough, but the interpretation of the sound effects of a circus put it over the top. In addition to the usual instruments --organ, guitars, harmonica, drums -- George Martin's harmonium, Lowrey organ, glockenspiel and Hammond organ create the fanciful air of a circus fair. The sound track, the musical orchestration, perfectly illustrates the freedom with which the Beatles could go on a rampage with imagination flowing unimpeded.

And yet, the second aspect of all this creative expression is that it's flowing within a form. It's not abstract. There's a structure. It's the length of a song. There's rhythm and meter. It's freedom within form.

It hardly matters who the Henderson's are, the avid Sgt. Pepper fan is swept away in the fanciful whirl of it, especially knowing that "tonight Mr. Kite is topping the bill." But there's something dark in it all, which adds to it's strangeness. Or is this only my imagination?



*How Creativity Works: NPR Interview
**Research Management, Sept.-Oct. 1987, Vol. XXX No. 5

Meantime life goes on all around you. Celebrate it.

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