Twelve Notes To Creativity: Haven't I Heard That Before?
Intellectuals around us may dwell on a long accepted conclusion that our perception in the world is driven by a cerebral battle: “left brain” vs. “right brain”. The left brain is thought to be our realistic, analytical, practical, organized, and logical side, while the right brain is our creative, passionate, sensual, tasteful, colorful, vivid, and poetic side.
A million years ago—OK less than that but far more years than I’d care to recount—I traveled to New York on a high school class trip. Flying from Milwaukee to New York was in and of itself a stimulating experience. Of course there were a few must-see tourist stops including the Statue of Liberty and the Empire State Building. At Radio City Music Hall I witnessed a performance by the world-famous Rockettes. These were (and are) talented women who can probably out-dance most men. If that claim is surprising to some, remember Bob Thaves classic 1982 quote about Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers: "Sure he was great, but don't forget that Ginger Rogers did everything he did, backwards . . . and in high heels.”
Beyond talent, what hormonally-challenged high school senior boy or girl then (or even now) wouldn’t remember a chorus line made up of thirty beautiful long-legged women? Thinking about the Rockettes is not simply to revisit a teenage fantasy. The reality is that the beauty, talent, physical strength, and the choreography that created their routine then—and now—is not to be taken lightly.
The arts—dance, theater, graphic art, music, film, prose, poetry, etc—stimulate. Creativity is all around us, appealing to our individual and collective humanity, and penetrating that left-brain/right brain battle in a variety of aural, visual, and emotional layers. Within every human being there is a creative receptor—we take in external stimuli; creativity to simultaneously evaluate and appreciate. And we possess a creative generator which enables us to export our creativity for others. The receptor is that internal recognition of like, love, dislike, or antipathy. The generator is our ability to share our creativity with others. None of this is to suggest that everyone has a creative talent that can result in commercial success. We wish.
Herb Alpert (with his partner Jerry Moss) was the co-founder of A&M Records. I’ve known Herb and his wife Lani Hall for forty years. We’re not close friends or even social friends, but nevertheless, we are friends. After the sale of A&M Records in 1990 I moved to New York to work for another label. Quite unexpectedly in the mid-1990s I ran into Herb and Lani at London’s Heathrow Airport. It turned out we were all flying to New York on the same British Airways flight. Herb always strikes me as a shy person with a successful public persona wrapped around his outside. And to be certain, whether in private or in public his inherent integrity comes through. I’d add that a conversation with Herb—even a chance encounter—offers an opportunity to renew the friendship, and to learn something from an old friend.
That evening at Heathrow we had a conversation that, duh, touched on the creative process. One of the topics was the 1976 copyright infringement lawsuit brought against the late George Harrison by the songwriter of the 1960s hit single by the Chiffons, “He’s So Fine”. (Harrison lost the suit.) The question for Herb was “with millions of songs under copyright, just how much is distinctly (or distinctively) new in any new musical composition, in any new song? His response, as I recall, went something like this:
“Listen. Think about a piano keyboard. There may be 88 keys, but there are just 12 notes; that is, 12 in each octave, including sharps and flats. So almost all “new” music is derivative to some extent because songwriters have just 12 notes to work with.” Herb was not suggesting that all, many, or even some new songs may be ripping off songs that came before them. Just like the multitude of simple three and four-chord hits of the 1950s and 1960s, if one listens closely enough a connection can often be made between any number of songs, but that doesn't lead to a conclusion that there was a theft of intellectual property.
When we think of art, we enter another realm of original thought and outside influence. If your taste is in oils, chalks, acrylics, and watercolors, you might consider the Campbell Soup can. Designed in 1902, it became iconic on the shelves of grocery stores and yet became new again sixty years later when Andy Warhol created a painting of the Campbell Soup can as art. To many, Warhol wasn’t being original, or cutting edge but was lazy, “copying” an instantly recognizable image. The blog Food Republic put it this way: “While Andy Warhol can be credited for establishing the classic Campbell's soup can as an iconographic pop art emblem, he never would have appropriated its imagery had it not already been iconic in its own right.” Appropriating (borrowing, copying, taking, etc.) an idea and remaking it is old stuff.
We take in information—all of those worldly influences—and what comes out is our view of the world, or a tree, or a dog, or a pop song. But was it simply left brain vs right? An article in Scientific American took aim at the creativity:
. . . the entire creative process—from preparation to incubation to illumination to verification—consists of many interacting cognitive processes (both conscious and unconscious) and emotions. Depending on the stage of the creative process, and what you’re actually attempting to create, different brain regions are recruited to handle the task. Importantly, many of these brain regions work as a team to get the job done, and many recruit structures from both the left and right side of the brain.
So whether it’s the Rockettes, George Harrison, the Chiffons, or Andy Warhol, we might do well to remember T.S. Elliot reflecting on poetry:
“One of the surest of tests is the way in which a poet borrows. Immature poets imitate; mature poets steal; bad poets deface what they take, and good poets make it into something better, or at least something different.”
That’s my take on popular music in all genres and forms. If you were influenced by a composition and made something better, even wonderful, you’re borrowing and no harm, no foul. If you were influenced and “defaced” what you borrowed, well that's another matter altogether. My only caveat is to always credit the source of the inspiration.