Though he was operating within a tight timeframe and a limited budget, Brian Eno conducted many sonic experiments during the making of Another Green World. To me, this is pretty admirable considering the exorbitant cost of a day in the recording studio. Rather than just hand the musicians a fixed set of songs, Eno spent precious hours just trying things out: swinging a microphone over a speaker just to see what the feedback sounded like, for instance.
It must have been stressful to make these oddball attempts at new sounds with a group of professional musicians standing around, instruments in hand, eager to Get On With It.
After college, I put on a staged reading of one of my plays and brought in a real, grown-up, professional actor for one of the roles. We were out in the real world, but I was still in college theater mode. I can still remember the withering look he gave me when I started the cast on a vocal warm-up. Oof. All I can say is, Eno must have had extraordinary confidence to persist in that environment.
In a way, though, experimenting alone is even more excruciating. It’s just you, by yourself, exploring one dead end after another. Maybe you’ll find something great that day. Maybe you won’t. At one of the many low points of her early career, the choreographer Agnes de Mille spent long hours by herself in a studio, struggling desperately to develop a movement idiom of her own. Trying to move her body in ways other than those dictated by her ballet training. I’m not suggesting de Mille went out on the floor and flopped around. But I suspect that, had one been in the room, one might have witnessed substantial amounts of flopping. What de Mille painstakingly worked out, however, eventually became a major influence on the development of American musical theater. She choreographed a number of hit shows from Oklahoma! to Carousel.
The libretto of the 1976 Philip Glass and Robert Wilson opera, Einstein on the Beach, incorporates the words of Christopher Knowles, a differently-abled poet. Knowles, who was thirteen at the time the opera was created, simply went up to Wilson and handed him an audio cassette entitled “Emily Likes the TV.” I have no idea why any thirteen-year-old kid, let alone one struggling with an intellectual deficit, would know the first thing about avant-garde theater directors. But that’s the story as we have it. On the tape, Wilson later recalled, “a young man’s voice spoke continuously, creating repetitions and variations on phrases about Emily watching the TV. I began to realize that the words flowed to a patterned rhythm whose logic was self-supporting. It was a piece coded much like music. Like a cantata or fugue it worked with conjugations of thoughts repeated in variations.” Knowles’s poetry became an integral part of the libretto.
Just listen to some of Knowles’s lyrics. They don’t make sense per se, but there is undeniably a “self-supporting” logic to his words. While I don’t know what Einstein On the Beach is about—certainly not Albert Einstein—I know I like listening to it. I also know that it simply couldn’t have been developed in any “traditional” way.
If you’re going to reinvent your medium, or simply shake yourself out of a creative rut, you’re going to have to swing a mic from the ceiling. Flop around on the floor. Listen for the “patterned rhythm” in the odd, droning words of a teenager talking into his tape recorder. Just as an experiment, I wrote this essay as a series of bullets. Did it work? No! The entire process was tortuous. But our job as creators is to spot patterns, and there are none to be found on the blank page. You need to go out in the wilderness. Clap your hands together, see what emerges from the underbrush. The novelist and publisher Mark Teppo shakes his subconscious loose with Tarot cards. John Cage used the I Ching to compose music. Maybe you can write your next project with the help of an astrological reading. One way or the other, you’ll have to journey further out if you want to go deeper in.
I think experimentation gets a bad rap because commercial work rarely shows any sign of it. In a finished, professional piece, everything seems so purposeful, deliberate, inevitable. That’s because, by the time we see the sculpture, all the chisel marks have been polished away. As you develop your own craft, don’t let their absence fool you.
If you experiment, you run the risk of dead ends. But it’s actually riskier to try to create something “finished” from the start. It usually doesn’t work. That spare prose you admire and hope to emulate might have been achieved through a loose, wordy first draft that was pared down over dozens of passes. Speaking as an editor who has seen a few first drafts in his day, I can say you’d be shocked to see the contrast between some starts and their final form. A trip into the unknown might be unavoidable if you’re going to arrive someplace worthwhile.
To be clear, no creative experiment occurs in a vacuum. We learn the rules in order to properly break them. With his naive experiments, Eno was pushing against the virtuosic prog rock of his day. Agnes de Mille, against European ballet. Wilson and Glass? No idea—Stephen Sondheim, maybe. To break new ground, you need a map of the existing territory, if only to avoid it. You also need a direction to explore.
To coincide with the exhibition “Mystical Symbolism” at the Guggenheim a few years ago, Alex Ross wrote a piece for the New Yorker about the influence of esoteric thought on modernist art, literature, and music:
[In] the early twentieth century Kandinsky, Pound, and other modernists absorbed…’an amalgam of spiritual sources—Christian, Hindu, Buddhist, kabbalistic, alchemical, and just plain wacky.’ Assuming the pose of a sorcerer or guru emboldened more than a few artists and writers in their quest to explode tradition and create a new order.
As odd as the occult beliefs of the Theosophists or the Swedenborgians might have been, avant-garde creators of the time heard the music in them, the “patterned rhythm” beating a path into uncharted wilderness. These artists were looking for magic and they found it. But instead of using what the mystics taught them to summon demons, they brought forth an aesthetic revolution.
By all means, complete your next project through careful revision and keen attention to detail. But perhaps, just this once, just to see what happens, begin it with sorcery.