Friday, June 28

How Working in a Box Works.

As well as picking up electrifying performances in all manner of venues, Under Great White Northern Lights, a tour video following The White Stripes across Canada in 2007, is compelling because Jack and ex-wife, stage-sister, Meg are so unguarded at times. And Jack particularly is full of insights on making music and what works for him creatively. 

He tell us that in the early days, his ambition simply to get a chance to perform on-stage used to inspire his work; the hunger keened the edge. But obviously, success has dulled that ache. "I don't have those inspirations now anymore." So now White forces himself to "work in a box", setting strict limitations and restrictions within which he has to operate. Like he'll book a studio for just four or five days and "force yourself to record and album in that time".

It extends to live performances too he admits. So he puts his spare guitar picks way at the back of the stage, making life deliberately difficult if he needs one. Plays guitars that go out of tune easily. Keeps instruments just out of reach. No set list. Hundreds of little difficulties that add a tension, mixing in an extra channel of risk to the on-stage energy.

Of course, anyone who knows The White Stripes will be familiar with the strict visual template they followed rigorously too: wearing only red, black and white. Voice, guitar, drums. It's all about just Three. Less choices make for better ideas. Constrictions to create he calls it at one point.

Brian Eno agrees: "the act of feeling frustration is an essential part of the creative process". The electronicist/producer/collaborator suggests the endless possibilities of digital tools in the studio, all the electronics, the samplers, sequencers and editors, can limit inspiration rather than spark it. There are too many routes to explore. So Eno also introduces difficulties or as he calls them, "option cancelling devices"(See around 26:45 in)

Lecture: Brian Eno (New York, 2013) from Red Bull Music Academy on Vimeo.

For example, a recording session in which there can be no artificial multiplication or duplication - so no echoing, no reverb, no sampling. If he wants a sound repeated, he plays it again. And again. Or he'll only allow instruments on one side of the studio space to be used. "Before there is a breakthrough, there has to be a block."

It's an element of Jonah Lehrer's thesis too, in his now discredited examination of where ideas come from, Imagine: How Creativity Works. He took little too much creative licence when it came to quoting others, but on the importance of creating a challenge to trigger inspiration, he's on the same page. “You break out of the box by stepping into shackles,” he writes, reflecting for example, on the constraints poets put themselves under, the scanning, the rhymes. The 17 Japanese on of the haiku.

Swedish painter, Anders Zorn has had the limited palette of colours he's credited as working with named after him. This turn of century artist, probably best known for his nudes, used only 4 colours: Yellow Ochre, Cadmium Red, Ivory Black and White. Out of these he summoned up a seemingly limitless spectrum. These basic colour building blocks can flavour any subject, but it requires discipline, trial and error, inspiration. It's not hard to imagine the tension when Zorn was looking to evoke a subtle skin tone and needed to find it among his frugal four blobs of paint.

Just as Eno admires the musician who can master every corner of their instrument and explore it right to the margins, unlike the digital composer who can never exhaust the reconfiguring of ones and zeros, Zorn knew that restricting his palette forced him to be more creative. "Inspiration and the work ethic ride beside each other" is how Jack White sees it.

Setting ourselves parameters can force the best out of us creatively. Sure, there's a time to dream untethered, but putting one's self in the box, cancelling the options fires up a powerful creative energy that can make a difference.

Tuesday, April 16

Telling the story of Avoca

The Mill at Avoca Village is Ireland's oldest weaving mill, going since 1723. Here's a short film I made with Hilary and Donald Pratt, who have seen it become what's arguably the country's most interesting brand. It was all very different back in the mid-70s when the place was falling down, the looms were largely idle and a young lawyer and his teacher wife went to see it in the pouring rain. "When I think about buying the Mill... it gives me vertigo. It was so crazy."

The Story of Avoca from Avoca Ireland on Vimeo.

Thursday, March 28

Haiti Revisited: Glimmers of Hope.

I was back filming in Haiti last month for Digicel again, having previously visited it in 2009. Haiti shares the island of Hispaniola with the Dominican Republic, but in having the western third, it often has the misfortune to face the fierce brunt of Caribbean hurricanes stirred up in the Gulf of Mexico, like the one that battered it in 2008. On January 24, 2010, it'd also been struck by a massive earthquake that killed perhaps 200,000 people and affected upwards of 3 million. The hotel we'd stayed in the previous year was destroyed and everyone in it lost.

When they eventually put the terrifying political heritage of the despotic Papa Doc behind them, one might have hoped for a better future the Haitian people, but its rank poverty exacerbated by this relentlessly unforgiving climate and geology has kept them on the back foot. It's the poorest country in the West and is ranked 168 countries on the Human Development Index. For all of that, the capital, Port au Prince, even recovering from the '08 hurricane had been an exciting, vibrant, colourful city in 2009 with a bustling street economy and a real sense of danger - and not just in the imagination. So what would face us in 2013?

Well, three years after the earthquake, the devastation is still monumentally evident. And this is despite much of the rubble having been cleared. Whole streets are simply empty lots of wasteland. The cathedral, a crumpled shell of concrete angles and cameos. Nothing is properly familiar as landmarks have been erased; the cityscape smudged.

Undiminished though, is the spirit of the people, who trade away furiously in front of what would be promoted as a "prime development site" in another western capital. And weaving through the throng, women carry everything on their heads, impossibly balanced, in an unmistakable African inheritance. Kids skip over the precariously ruptured pavements on their way to school, impeccably turned out, with gleaming white socks and shirts, the girls' hair in intricate braids.

It can seem though, that there's little escape though from the terse economic reality of the place. But there are surprises. As dusk slips off to darkness, we visit an isolated site far out of the city, down a track, off a track, off a road to God knows where. It's beyond the boonies. Digicel customers are so constrained here, although they've phones to run their lives and businesses, they've no electricity to charge them. Infrastructure is a luxury. (But why would they have mobiles at all you might reasonably ask: every 10% of mobile penetration in the developing world can boost GDP by .8%. Each phone is a catalyst for growth.)

At a clearing, there's a small gathering. A solar panel on a tall pylon feeds a junction box of recharging points managed by a local village woman. Everyone's coming miles on foot to pay a token fee to get powered up. Phones begin to glimmer in the half-light. And hope springs eternal.

Wednesday, January 9

Living in the moment

Even a big brand like The North Face can get to the heart of it. Good film here from TNF about what Mihály Csíkszentmihályi calls Flow.

Here's his talk on the idea of Flow, the secret to happiness at TED.

Here's to a new year of moments.