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.