Written by Unraveled Founder, Farida Amar
A musician’s creative process is a hybrid which processes both emotional experience and technology based protocols. It is less about making songs and more about a unique approach to understanding the world we live in and a tedious appreciation of sound. For them, everything they hear can be part of a story. The sound of a dishwasher, the casual conversation overheard at a cafe, that beeping sound the street lights make when it’s safe to cross. If that isn’t overwhelming enough, their minds also have an insatiable need to generate ideas of sounds that do not yet exist for things they see and feel. A musician always has an idea of what kind of sounds raindrops might be making when they land on your window or what the clouds might be saying to each other as they sit there, lingering above us throughout the day. This sensitivity also allows them to tell stories in words or sounds about physical encounters with their environment – the warmth of resting your head on your lover’s collarbone, or a memory of the leather seats in an old car. The sensory experiences of artists in general are usually in hyper-drive, musicians being among the most overwhelmed, and the most productive of them have found ways to constructively manage and respond to their senses.
Therefore, it should be easy for even non-musicians to comprehend why rearranging these seemingly random stimuli into sequences is not only an interest, but truly a necessary process should any musician hope to get through the day without losing their mind. It is quite literally, their best chances at functioning. And thankfully, there have existed a whole slew of these people throughout history who have organized, collaborated, and produced tangible results, i.e. songs, that have given rise to an acceptance and appreciation of this lifestyle amongst the general public. The music industry, record labels, music stores, festivals, live music venues, even art galleries and websites are proof of this and therefore provide a kind of validation and sense of community for musicians around the world. Hence, this blog and this blog post.
The desire to belong is a basic human need. We are pack animals by nature. And musicians, regardless of how much some of them might glorify their individuality and need for personal space, would reach severe creative blocks should they isolate for too long. Sure, silence is important – turning everything off can also show you something you might need to see or feel from time to time. But, without the option to return to the stimulus of human behavior, nature and the sounds of the life happening around them, they would eventually shut down entirely. Life is their fuel, community is their validation, and the industry tells everyone else to give a damn about it. Luckily, musicians make things that are easy to give a damn about. Music affects everyone, even if they are not musicians themselves. The deaf are also attracted to the vibrations of sound and now, with so many advances in technology some amazing things are happening for the deaf and their relationship to music. For a brilliant example of this, check out this article written about Austin Chapman who shares his experience of hearing music for the first time, written by Rebecca J. Rosen for the Atlantic.
I am not a musician myself, but have many friends and colleagues who are musicians and sound installation artists. As a strict visual artist, I have a much less intense relationship to sound than they do. My understanding of sound really begins and ends with listening, whereas they cannot help but compulsively collect, rearrange and reproduce sound into new configurations. For a long time I thought musicians and visual artists were different creatures, and that because I was not a musician myself that I could not work directly with them. It wasn’t until I fell in love with a great musician that I became vulnerable enough to strip away all the definitions and realized that although sound and visual cannot become one, but they can in fact co-exist. That relationship didn’t last, but the things I learned about bringing visual artwork into audio production and vice versa remain and have continued to fascinate me and determine the direction of the majority of my current artwork.
It is important for the visual artists working with and for musicians to understand the following points:
- Musicians hear things in images and see things in sound. Most musicians like to throw it all into the mix, sit in the confusion for a while and respond immediately to the first instinct that pops up that tells them how it should all be arranged a certain way. And when they reemerge with results, they will most definitely have a hard time explaining how they arrived at what they are convinced is the best solution. Somehow, other musicians tend to understand this process faster than non-musicians – this is because they’ve had more practice! When you are in a room full of musicians who are all on the same page and you feel totally lost because no one can hold your hand and take you through the step by step process, it is not because they don’t care it is because there simply is no step by step process to begin with. The best thing to do in this moment, is to sit with your eyes closed and listen to the music over and over until you reach a kind of meditative state and at some point, it all clicks and somehow you just “see” it. Think of it kind of like a stereogram (those Magic Eye things they used to have in the malls). Don’t respond to their work as a visual artist, respond as an emotional human.
- Storytelling for musicians is usually nonlinear. They way they like to share ideas is much more like oral tradition than it is like reading a book. More like a theatre performance than it is like a tone board. For visual artists, this usually feels like they’ve skipped a bunch of steps in the creative process and we feel disoriented, as if we are back in kindergarten trying to connect the dots with a No. 2 pencil. If you feel like this, sketch a quick mind map. Literally. And share it with the musicians. Hand them all pencils and ask them to fill in the blanks. Their mind map might end up looking like a tornado in the end with crazy scribbles all over the place – but while they talk you through it you will begin to love the chaos rather than be frustrated by it. At the very least, it will be easier to ask more helpful questions. In fact, a great reference for this mind mapping can be found in the book Arboretum compiled by musician David Byrne.
- The amount time that visual artists spend learning how to explain concepts in words and sketches, musicians spend learning instruments. Do not be frustrated if you are presenting what you think is a very important idea to a musician, and they begin playing their guitar while you are talking. It is how they reciprocate. Multitask. Listen to what they are playing while you are talking and you might find that they are trying to understand you, not ignore you. Do not be frustrated that they often cannot find the words to describe what they are trying to say, ask them to play it for you or provide references for you as songs or images that you can decode and translate for them. If encoding and decoding is new for you, please spend some time reading up on the work of semiotician Saussure. That guy knew what he was talking about.
The collaboration between a musician and a visual artist can be rewarding, and has the potential to lead to unique multi-sensory experiences and interactive artwork that is only possible with a coming together of sound and image. But it requires patience and respect for the points in which their creative makeup deviates. Whether producing album artwork, a music video, a website or an event together – the requirements remain the same. A little understanding for each other’s differences will alleviate tension and help them avoid misunderstandings. I have found that this approach in my own work with musicians makes a world of a difference and I hope you will too.