Down At The Crossroads...Structure and Creativity 

August 25, 2012 

Photography and music appear to be different languages. However, the same question underpins both: Why learn and speak the language? It is not about having something to say. Words are available for that. To me it is something more. 

Time is crucial in music. Sloppy timing isn’t satisfying. Good exposure (recording the light) is important in photography. Both require a level of technique. Let’s call technique facility. Having facility means being free to express, not being stuck or hindered by technique. 

Both photography and music have structure. Facility through technique requires structure. The rules of harmony allow certain types of soloing as expression. Some sound pleasing, some don’t. The rules of exposure and framing create a certain order as opposed to randomness. 

Structure is an aid to gaining facility. At a certain level though, structure acts as a constraint on personal expression. Stuck in the same patterns, playing the same phrases, taking the same kinds of photographs. 

The opposite of structure is no structure; a randomness, a meandering. Randomness in life is generally difficult. Structure enables the progress in finding something to eat, having somewhere to live, earning enough to eat and live in that place, and in not making the same mistakes again and again. Structure in daily life helps the flow of energy. Meandering day to day without structure tends to result in a stagnation of energy. 

Music without structure can be excellent, like ambient sounds. But for other styles, the results are generally messy, confused, chaotic or just undifferentiated endless noodling. Randomness in photography is similarly aimless or purposeless. There is no development beyond a certain point. 

This implies that music or photography has a purpose or an aim. 

What is the purpose of playing music, of taking photographs? To me, photography is first and foremost, a personal expression. What is expressed is of secondary importance to me. It is not so much about expressing my personality, or a point of view, or documenting life, or even my life. These things don’t concern me that much. It is the same for music: a personal expression through playing an instrument. 

This expression is not to sound like someone else, or to rehash songs. It is something else. 

Expression that is repeated loses its vitality. Instead of being fresh, it becomes mechanical. It becomes structure (routine) without expression. Being mechanical, it is not creative. A repetitive personal expression is reaching a limit on creativity. Having acquired facility, but feeling stifled by structure, is a cross roads in the creative process. 

How can I move beyond that limit. At the crossroads, which way do I turn? In any serious creative endeavour, the crossroads can be represented by conformity this way, originality that way. Conformity can mean acceptance by others, but the price can be a rejection of self. Originality can be gratifying, but a lonely path fraught with confusion. To put out the same type of music that sells, to take the same kinds of photographs that sell or get recognition, is to pursue a narrow groove. This path leads to repetition, which leads to mechanical output, going through the motions, painting by numbers. 

To go the other path, that of the creative wilderness of originality, goes against the grain of all things. Life has structure, in that the sun comes up every day, and the patterns of the seasons repeat. Even the phases of one’s life are predictable as a kind of structure: birth, youth, middle age, old age, death. To go the original path goes against our instinct for survival. To conform is to survive. To be original, courage is the crucial element. 

This feeling of being stifled by structure is also deeply ingrained in the psyche. We all feel frustrated at times with our personality, our ego, our rigid perceptions, our inability to move beyond our vexations. Do we lack the courage to change? 

It appears that the material (structure) and the non-material (lack of structure) hamper each other, but this cannot be the case. 

 Without material phenomena, there would be nothing but an endless dark soup of vagaries. There would be no communication, nothing to express. Without the non-material, the life force, there would be nothing but dust. So structure is necessary. 

In creativity, we have seen that structure allows the development of facility. At a certain point, facility wants to rise out of the limitations of structure, to transcend it, to move into the realms of creative freedom. To me, this is the essence of personal expression. It is the creative freedom that I enjoy in taking photographs and playing music. 

It is also a necessary act for me. To move beyond the inner rigid psychic structures that frustrate me. To break free of the routines of working for a living. Is this because I am 45 years old? Yes it could be, but there are many people much older than me who have gone through this point and reached a sense of creative freedom. 

Structure needs to be transcended, not abandoned. The “do-anything-you-feel-like” approach to Zen is not Zen. It is a spiral into hedonism, with diminishing returns. The antidote becomes the poison, and so more antidote is required. The do-anything-you-feel-like approach to creativity also had diminishing returns. 

Text copyright 2012 Darren J Harris

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