External pressure inhibits creativity


I’ve come across the idea time and time again.  It’s a very well documented and widely expressed phenomenon.  Yet, while artists and non-artists may be aware of the adverse relationship between external pressure and creativity, even accept it as common and be able to cite examples, they may not be aware of all the forms this “external pressure” may take.  I’m making it a point to compile instances of this idea in writing and in conversation to increase awareness and, consequently, advocate for disregarding external pressure in artistic practice.

I’ve wrestled with it myself as in, to what degree am I modifying or limiting my artistic expression in response to perceived social pressures, e.g. audience taste?

Personally, I feel like I’m maturing as an artist and feeling less the need to succumb or adapt to external pressure.  Perhaps, the two go hand in hand.  Of course, there are times for artistic compromise in collaborations, but that’s a whole other story.

The main point here is that artists have to deal with external pressure and become comfortable with their response to it.

The idea that external pressure inhibits creativity has become more interesting to me recently as I’ve become more and more aware of the dynamics of “authenticity” in the music world.  I think responding to external criteria of authenticity can have detrimental effects on artistic expression.  So, it is a personal mission to make people aware of the potential danger of this pressure and to encourage artists to be true (authentic) only to their artistic vision.

Here’s an instance of a response to an external pressure that I just came across.  Musician Michael League – bassist, composer, leader of Snarky Puppy, etc. – is responding to the question: “Is Snarky Puppy passing the torch of jazz to the younger generation?”

Micheal’s response: I try not to think about things in that kind of context. When you put that kind of pressure on yourself, I think it can inhibit art.

Michael is an artist.  A “true” artist, in my opinion, because his primary concern is based in his personal aesthetics.  As he says, “Does this chord sound nice to me? Does this groove sound good? Do I like this song?”

I want to encourage artists to be in this head space.  It’s the only “authentic” head space to be in, as it’s the only one that facilitates artistic expression.  And it’s a head space without the ache (wah wah).

You can read the full interview with Michael League here (it’s a shorty but goody):



Composition premieres


Exciting news: my brass trio Where Three Are Gathered has been selected to be premiered Thursday, December 3rd at a concert of new brass music in the World Art Centre at SFU!

My (as yet) untitled quartet – flute, alto, sax, bass, percussion – will be premiered at the Ascension show opening night: Friday, December 11th in Studio D, SFU School for the Contemporary Arts.  The work is still in progress in the meantime.

Just last night I had the opportunity to “premiere” a new piece (in more like a “workshop” format) called Ketjak for Coalescence: if monkeys can… at my World Music class.  It is an interactive performance piece for improvisers and voices.  My plan is to continue to refine this piece by working with various community groups. I feel this could be an ongoing project and part of a larger initiative.  I’ve been inspired to come up with other such pieces as I think there’s potential for building music communities by establishing connections between musicians of various traditions and genres who wouldn’t otherwise work together.  Particularly, I’d like to see groups of improvising instrumentalists work with choirs, especially of the ‘amateur’ or ‘community’ variety.

Exciting times!

Thin Edge New Music Collective


Based out of Toronto, Thin Edge is a group of 13 musicians who work in various combinations, commissioning and premiering work by both Canadian and International composers.

I like the first sentence of their “About” page:

Thin Edge…”believes that contemporary music is a powerful medium which has the ability to comment and reflect on modern society in a unique and poignant way.”

I might steal this idea for my own manifesto!

Check out several videos on their Watch/Listen page.  There are some great pieces here, including Brain Harman’s Hum, Chaya Czernowin’s Sahaf and  Anna Pidgorna’s Through closed doors and Molly Fishman’s Please Close Your Eyes.


Fall projects

This week has been a big week.

Last Sunday I finished the first draft of my piece for the SFU Ascension dance show coming up in December.  With five other composers, I joined this year’s “house band” – an ensemble of flute, alto sax, double bass and percussion – for the first reading session.  My choreographer, Madeline de Shield is digging my music and decided that she would finish her choreography and then we’d meet to discuss what tweaks I’d need to make.

I also finished the penultimate draft of my brass trio, completing the fourth movement for a reading session on Thursday morning.  In addition to consulting with my composition mentor, Owen Underhill, about the score, I ran the french horn parts by Steve Denroche, who has been a part of the stellar workshop trio at SFU, and the trumpet parts by a few of my trumpet pals via email.  I’ve really enjoyed writing for this instrumentation and will definitely write more for it, perhaps even adding a short additional movement for my current piece, which is called Where Three Are Gathered.

As is often the case, due to my composition mania, the ink was still drying on new pieces and I couldn’t wait to start in on my next idea.  In this case, it’s an open-form, structured improv piece for an unspecified ensemble, ideally, of at least eight musicians (simultaneously playing two alternate versions or “streams” of the piece) and an ensemble of voices (possibly the audience).  It is intended to be an interactive performance, at least in its current state.  The core material is related to the Balinese “Kecak”or “Ketjak” – “monkey chant.”  I’m planning to workshop/premiere this at my World Music class’s Festival of Ideas next Tuesday.  On Thursday afternoon I worked on some of it with my regular improv group.

On top of all that I finished my application to the University of Miami for the M.Mus program in Studio Jazz Writing.

Now I need to focus on finishing up papers and other assignments.  Crazy that the semester will be done in a couple weeks!


Structure and Strategy (for the Creative Enterprise), part 3

What kind of organizational structures are best suited to a creative enterprise?  Guess what? Depends on your strategy.

But here are the common types:

  1. Sole Proprietorship
  2. Partnership
  3. Company
  4. Society

The characteristics of a sole proprietorship include: keeping it simple (in some ways, yet, perhaps, inviting complexity in other ways), going solo (although it could mean a slew of supporters and collaborators), no liability protection (hopefully, you’ll never need any), no “shares”, i.e. no granting of partial ownership to outside investors.

The characteristics of a partnership include: two or more individuals “carrying on business in common with a view of profit” (according to the B.C. Partnership Act); full liability of each partner for the actions of the other(s); might not be officially stated but can be determined by a court of law.

The characteristics of a company include: for profit; shareholders with limited liability; a distinct entity from all its shareholders; specialized management separate from the shareholders; freely transferable shareholder interests; shareholder control.

The characteristics of a society include: distinct entity from all its members; limited liability for officers, directors and members; specialized management separate from the members; no shareholders; not for profit.

These four common types of organizations don’t complete the full picture of options. Here is a great article by Jane Marsland on “Shared Platforms” – what they are, how they work and why they’re useful:

Click to access Shared-Platforms-and-CVOs.pdf

Basically, a “shared platform” is a charitable, non-profit organization – a type of society – that coordinates charitable projects among multiple organizations.  The advantage of such an organization is that it can provide an array of professional, cost-effective services to arts organizations such as  governance oversight, legal compliance, financial management, grant administration, human resources, etc.

In a future post, this blog will highlight some of the considerations when working with others toward shared (or sometimes not shared) goals.  Sharing, of course, is something we learned in kindergarten. But nowhere is it more complicated than in the arts world as creative visions intersect with social and economic limitations.  Having formal written agreements is crucial.  What are the parameters involved?

Stay tuned.

Structure and Strategy (for the Creative Enterprise), part 2

Structure follows strategy.  As you might expect, not everything in the real world is so neat and causally related.  In fact, there is a reciprocal relationship here.

Now that you’ve defined where you want to go after startup – and taken a rest to recharge – you can develop a structure for your enterprise that best meets your strategy.  Your strategy comes out of tackling the priorities you’ve developed based on your vision.  You’ve considered your environmental and contextual factors, as well as your capabilities, both as an individual and with your ‘support’ group, which can be any members of your organization or community of helpers.

Typically, to move beyond startup you will need to enlist the help of others in various roles.  You’ve likely already done so to get things off the ground.  To proceed efficiently from this point – you don’t want to waste anyone’s time, including your own –  you will need some sort of organizational structure.  Again, the structure that is best suited to your enterprise depends on your strategy.

The objective of organizational structure is to balance the economic advantages of specialization – essentially, your artistic vision – with the problems and costs of coordination and motivation – essentially, your administrative costs.

Administrative needs arise from such murky waters as supervisory monitoring, motivation problems, coordination activities, opportunism and information distortions.

Things have gotten complicated.  Don’t despair.  Much help is available.  Personally, while I know all this helpful, insightful stuff now, it all still makes my head swim.  But even knowing that there are many resources available and people who are truly willing to help, mitigates the feeling that you’ve gotten yourself into an encroaching quagmire.

Time to look at examples of typical organization structures that serve the creative enterprise and, hopefully, will allow you to continue focusing on the things that matter to you most as an artist.  Oh, by “time” I mean next time.

Structure and Strategy (for the Creative Enterprise), part 1

Since taking the Creative Entrepreneurship course, I’ve been thinking a lot about my past “failures.”  I realized early on in the course that I really didn’t know what to do once I got things off the ground.  Also, I often succumbed to feelings of burnout and I’d only just begun!  We dealt with some of these issues in Class #6.

In the “life cycle” of any enterprise there are several phases.  In preparing to move forward beyond the “startup” phase – phase two, after the initial “idea” stage – you need to seriously consider structure and strategy.  To do so, it is useful to analyze the nature of “startup” and the “growth” phase that follows.  We can analyze the phases under the categories of characteristics, challenges and resources needed.

  1. Startup phase:

Characteristics – Energy/passion is high, but systems are lacking; Simple experimental programs emerge; Most experienced member emerges as leader; Low budget; Financial and administration systems are weak and often outsourced.

Challenges – Sharing the mission and responsibility with staff; Support from community and board (if there is one); Knowing when to say ‘no’; Turning sweat equity into external support; Living within means.

Resources Needed – Defined structure and systems.

2. Growth phase:

Characteristics – Demand exceeds availability and resources; Programs/services differentiate in sector; Management sees infinite potential, Governance structure appears; More resources demand greater accounting/compliance complexities; Weak systems need to be significantly improved to meet demands/growth.

Challenges – Aligning demand with resources; Developing governance; Establishing strategic focus that allows vision to flourish within structure; formalizing organizational structure; Adapting to change; Diversifying revenues.

Resources Needed – Governance, strategic planning; system development.

The axiom is “Structure Follows Strategy.”  Given what we can know about startup and growth we can focus on developing a strategy that is based primarily on refining our vision or mission statement.  The various aspects outlined above can provide some parameters for shaping the mission.  Certainly, defining core values is key to this shaping and refinement.  Defining priorities is also paramount, not only for focusing goals but also for avoiding burnout.  Delegating responsibilities is also crucial to avoiding burnout.

So, you’ve decided what you really want to accomplish once you’ve gotten things off the ground.  In my experience, I’ve failed to really define this for myself.  I managed to get an ensemble together, write a bunch of new music and do the first concert.  Then what?

Take a nap, for starters.  But come back to your mission.  Not like me.  I woke up and moved on to something else, failing to keep the momentum going.

Standing Wave Ensemble – Sonic Boom 2016


This is an amazing group of Vancouver chamber musicians specializing in new music.  I missed their workshop for composers this past weekend but I’m excited to check them out again this season. Standing Wave is a sextet featuring flute, clarinet, violin, cello, piano and percussion.  The group is ensemble-in-residence for the 2016 Sonic Boom Festival presented by Vancouver Pro Musica. VPM organized a workshop on Sunday to help prepare composers for score submissions to Sonic Boom.  The deadline for submissions is December 11th.