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Creativity lessons from David Bowie

Creativity lessons from David Bowie and Brian Eno. I recently recorded an album of music soundscapes in my studio, inspired by the time and space I found under lockdown.  Please listen and download the album at Non-Stop Lockdown Tracks. One of the pieces was inspired by my love of the music of David Bowie and Brian Eno. “Unfulfilled Desires” features some significant quotations from these artists with transferable lessons for anyone seeking to develop their creativity. Listen to the track at Unfulfilled Desires.   

Lessons from Bowie and Eno

  1. Know what you really want

“It’s terribly dangerous for an artist to fulfil other people’s expectations”

David Bowie

When composing music for its own value (art for arts’ sake), this is a terribly important principle. In my basement, freedom from having a ‘customer’ for my output allows me to explore sound ideas without the need to consider whether an audience might like my work. This is important for unfettered creativity.  

However, it is not a principle I adhere to when delivering corporate music experiences, as the opposite is true. Your audience’s needs and wants are paramount when delivering on agreed promises as this example from a recent event for an HR Recruitment Awards ceremony aftershow shows:

When working on complex business consulting projects, the balance is a bit more nuanced. I find it useful to obsessively prioritise needs first and manage expectations on what it is that people say they want. To quote a song “You can’t always get what you want”. For example, if we are working on innovation, we must be prepared to let go of creative ideas at the ‘editing’ stage, either by improving them, synthesising them with other ideas or putting them on the cutting room floor. The divergent and convergent thinking processes are bedfellows if you want to profit from innovation.

The important point here is to know what you really really want for a given pursuit, be it work, leisure or play. There can be no ‘one size fits all’ formula for this. It is all about thinking and deciding for yourself.

  1. Simplicity

“Complexity emerges from simplicity. All this beauty, all this art, comes from the bottom up, not from the top down”

Brian Eno

One can overcomplicate anything. Albert Einstein pointed out that he had one bar of soap for washing and shaving. I regularly assemble lots of random fragments within a piece of music and then begin the process of simplifying and editing out randomness to the point that the piece has what I call resonant simplicity. 

In the case of “Unfulfilled Desires” I decided that the motif did eventually deserve to be more commercial than the original sonic ornament would have initially suggested. So I added a very simple four chord structure to the piece (The 1st, 3rd, 2nd and 5th in musical speak), adding a middle section with a major lift at 2 minutes and 09 seconds (1st and 2nd) to provide some different colouration and lift to the piece.  

Bass notation
Bass notation for Unfulfilled Desires – Peter Cook

Simplicity matters a great deal in business. If your product or service is too complex, it will either fail to become a viable innovation, be resisted or perhaps not reach full diffusion in its chosen markets.

How did I apply the lessons to the song construction?

Unfulfilled Desires began with a random keyboard motif created on my favourite piece of random technology – My Native Instruments Maschine Mikro. This motif is the first thing you hear on the track. Eno discusses the value of randomness as a spur to creativity and I use the principle often in music production and business consulting with clients seeking to do new things. Although I was drawn to the inherent beauty of the cascade, I had no idea what to do with it, or whether it would turn into something listenable at the outset. I often work with discomfort as a principle of action and then let things ferment until they either develop or die. It is just as important to know when to rest and reflect rather than to keep producing.

“Randomness is a way of finding out”

Brian Eno
The Maschine Mikro
The Maschine Mikro – a tool for structuring randomness

Once I had developed a rhythm pattern, things began to lock together. Sampling some very Eno-esque swirling synths and then building some layers, the piece began to take shape.  It was at this point that I began to think of making the piece an homage to Bowie and Eno.  I set about finding some appropriate audio samples. At this point I opted for simplicity to carry the unusual sonic ornaments forward. Here is a screen shot of the production.  Although there are many tracks, there is a simple structure and not so much complication though spreading out the various instruments through the track and careful mixing.

Structure is very important if you want to be creative

I wanted the piece to be very understated, so there are some very lazy backward guitars in the piece with the motif turning up at different times using different musical colours and a number of swirling Eno-esque synths decorating the landscape. There can be a tendency in digital music to crowd a mix out just because you have unlimited tracks at your disposal.  Sometimes, more is less.

How do the lessons apply to life in general?

  1. Working at the edge of your comfort envelope applies in many contexts if you seek creativity and innovation within your chosen profession.
  1. Use difference where it adds value but also use simplicity to reach others.
  1. Use randomness to generate great ideas but then also apply the edit function to harvest the best ideas.

We use a suite of more than 120 divergent and convergent thinking techniques to help companies leverage creativity in pursuit of innovation in strategy, products, services and processes. 

Peter Cook
Peter Cookhttp://www.humdyn.co.uk/aboutus/
Peter Cook leads Human Dynamics, offering Business and Organisation Development. He also delivers keynotes around the world that blend business intelligence with parallel lessons from music via The Academy of Rock. Author of and contributor to eleven books on business leadership, acclaimed by Tom Peters, Professors Charles Handy, Adrian Furnham and Harvey Goldsmith CBE. His three passions are science, business and music, having led innovation teams for 18 years to develop life-saving drugs including the first treatments for AIDS, Herpes and the development of Human Insulin. 18 years in academia and 18 + years running his businesses. All his life since the age of four playing music.

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