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← Boredom, the real secret behind innovation | Mark Applebaum | TEDxStanford

Mark Applebaum writes music that breaks the rules in fantastic ways, composing a concerto for a florist and crafting a musical instrument from junk and found objects. This quirky talk might just inspire you to shake up the “rules” of your own creative work.

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Showing Revision 7 created 08/06/2015 by Ivana Korom.

  1. I thought if I skipped
    it might help my nerves,
  2. but I'm actually having
    a paradoxical reaction to that,
  3. so that was a bad idea. (Laughter)
  4. Thank you for that introduction,
  5. I was really delighted
    to receive the invitation
  6. to present to you some of my music
    and some of my work
  7. as a composer, presumably
    because it appeals
  8. to my well-known and abundant narcissism.
  9. (Laughter)
  10. And I'm not kidding,
    I just think we should just say that
  11. and move forward. (Laughter)
  12. So, but the thing is,
    a dilemma quickly arose,
  13. and that is that I'm really bored
    with music,
  14. and I'm really bored
    with the role of the composer,
  15. and so I decided to put
    that idea, boredom,
  16. as the focus of my presentation
    to you today.
  17. And I'm going to share
    my music with you, but I hope
  18. that I'm going to do so
    in a way that tells a story,
  19. tells a story about how I used boredom
    as a catalyst
  20. for creativity and invention,
    and how boredom
  21. actually forced me to change
    the fundamental question
  22. that I was asking in my discipline,
  23. and how boredom also, in a sense,
  24. pushed me towards taking
    on roles beyond the sort of
  25. most traditional, narrow definition
    of a composer.
  26. What I'd like to do today
    is to start with an excerpt
  27. of a piece of music at the piano.
  28. (Music)
  29. Okay, I wrote that. (Laughter)
  30. No, it's not - (Applause)
    Oh, why thank you.
  31. No, no, I didn't write that.
  32. In fact, that was a piece by Beethoven,
  33. and so I was not functioning
    as a composer.
  34. Just now I was functioning
    in the role of the interpreter,
  35. and there I am, interpreter.
  36. So, an interpreter of what?
    Of a piece of music, right?
  37. But we can ask the question,
    "But is it music?"
  38. And I say this rhetorically,
    because of course
  39. by just about any standard
    we would have to concede
  40. that this is, of course, a piece of music,
  41. but I put this here now because,
  42. just to set it in your brains
    for the moment,
  43. because we're going to return
    to this question.
  44. It's going to be a kind of a refrain
  45. as we go through the presentation.
  46. So here we have this piece
    of music by Beethoven,
  47. and my problem with it is, it's boring.
  48. I mean - I'm just like, a hush,
    huh - It's like - (Laughter)
  49. It's Beethoven, how can you say that?
  50. No, well, I don't know,
    it's very familiar to me.
  51. I had to practice it as a kid,
    and I'm really sick of it. (Laughter)
  52. So what I might like to try to do
    is to change it,
  53. to transform it in some ways,
    to personalize it,
  54. so I might take the opening,
    like this idea -
  55. (Music)
  56. and then I might substitute - (Music)
  57. and then I might improvise on that melody
  58. that goes forward from there - (Music)
  59. (Music)
  60. So that might be the kind of thing -
    Why thank you.
  61. (Applause)
  62. That would be the kind
    of thing that I would do,
  63. and it's not necessarily
    better than the Beethoven.
  64. In fact, I think it's not better than it.
    The thing is - (Laughter) -
  65. it's more interesting to me,
    it's less boring for me.
  66. I'm really leaning into me, because I,
    because I have to think
  67. about what decisions
    I'm going to make on the fly
  68. as that Beethoven text is running
    in time through my head
  69. and I'm trying to figure out
    what kinds of transformations
  70. I'm going to make to it.
  71. So this is an engaging enterprise for me,
  72. and I've really leaned into
    that first person pronoun thing there,
  73. and now my face appears twice,
    so I think we can agree
  74. that this is a fundamentally
    solipsistic enterprise. (Laughter)
  75. But it's an engaging one,
    and it's interesting to me for a while,
  76. but then I get bored with it, and by it,
  77. I actually mean, the piano,
    because it becomes,
  78. it's this familiar instrument,
    it's timbral range is actually
  79. pretty compressed, at least
    when you play on the keyboard,
  80. and if you're not doing things
    like listening to it
  81. after you've lit it on fire
    or something like that, you know.
  82. It gets a little bit boring,
    and so pretty soon
  83. I go through other instruments,
    they become familiar,
  84. and eventually I find myself
    designing and constructing
  85. my own instrument,
    and I brought one with me today,
  86. and I thought I would play
    a little bit on it for you
  87. so you can hear what it sounds like.
  88. (Music)
  89. You've got to have doorstops,
    that's important. (Laughter)
  90. I've got combs.
    They're the only combs that I own. (Music)
  91. They're all mounted on my instruments.
  92. (Music)
  93. I can actually do all sorts of things.
  94. I can play with a violin bow.
  95. I don't have to use the chopsticks.
  96. So we have this sound. (Music)
  97. And with a bank of live electronics,
  98. I can change the sounds radically. (Music)
  99. (Music)
  100. Like that, and like this. (Music)
  101. And so forth.
  102. So this gives you a little bit
    of an idea of the sound world
  103. of this instrument, which I think
    is quite interesting
  104. and it puts me in the role
    of the inventor,
  105. and the nice thing about -
  106. This instrument is called
    the Mouseketeer... (Laughter)
  107. and the cool thing about it is
  108. I'm the world's greatest
    Mouseketeer player. (Laughter)
  109. Okay? (Applause)
  110. So in that regard,
    this is one of the things,
  111. this is one of the privileges of being,
  112. and here's another role,
    the inventor, and by the way,
  113. when I told you
    that I'm the world's greatest,
  114. if you're keeping score,
    we've had narcissism and solipsism
  115. and now a healthy dose of egocentricism.
  116. I know some of you are just, you know -
    bingo! (Laughter)
  117. Anyway, so this is also
    a really enjoyable role.
  118. I should concede also that I'm
    the world's worst Mouseketeer player,
  119. and it was this distinction
    that I was most worried about
  120. when I was on that prior side
    of the tenure divide.
  121. I'm glad I'm past that.
    We're not going to go into that.
  122. I'm crying on the inside.
    There are still scars.
  123. Anyway, but I guess my point
    is that all of these enterprises
  124. are engaging to me in their multiplicity,
    but as I've presented them
  125. to you today, they're actually
    solitary enterprises,
  126. and so pretty soon I want to commune
    with other people,
  127. and so I'm delighted that in fact
    I get to compose works for them.
  128. I get to write, sometimes for soloists
    and I get to work with one person,
  129. sometimes full orchestras,
    and I work with a lot of people,
  130. and this is probably the capacity,
    the role creatively
  131. for which I'm probably
    best known professionally.
  132. Now, some of my scores
    as a composer look like this,
  133. and others look like this,
  134. and some look like this,
  135. and I make all of these by hand,
    and it's really tedious.
  136. It takes a long, long time
    to make these scores,
  137. and right now I'm working on a piece
  138. that's 180 pages in length,
  139. and it's just a big chunk of my life,
    and I'm just pulling out hair.
  140. I have a lot of it, and that's
    a good thing I suppose. (Laughter)
  141. So this gets really boring
    and really tiresome for me,
  142. so after a while the process
    of notating is not only boring,
  143. but I actually want the notation
    to be more interesting,
  144. and so that's pushed me to do
    other projects like this one.
  145. This is an excerpt from a score called
  146. "The Metaphysics of Notation."
  147. The full score is 72 feet wide.
  148. It's a bunch of crazy
    pictographic notation.
  149. Let's zoom in on one section
    of it right here.
  150. You can see it's rather detailed.
  151. I do all of this with drafting templates,
  152. with straight edges,
    with French curves, and by freehand,
  153. and the 72 feet was actually split
  154. into 12 six-foot-wide panels
    that were installed
  155. around the Cantor Arts Center Museum
    lobby balcony,
  156. and it appeared
    for one year in the museum,
  157. and during that year,
    it was experienced as visual art
  158. most of the week, except,
    as you can see in these pictures,
  159. on Fridays, from noon til one,
    and only during that time,
  160. various performers came
    and interpreted these strange
  161. and undefined pictographic glyphs.
  162. Now this was a really
    exciting experience for me.
  163. It was gratifying musically,
    but I think the more important thing
  164. is it was exciting because
    I got to take on another role,
  165. especially given that it appeared
    in a museum,
  166. and that is as visual artist. (Laughter)
  167. We're going to fill up the whole thing,
    don't worry. (Laughter)
  168. I am multitudes. (Laughter)
  169. So one of the things is that,
    I mean, some people would say,
  170. like, "Oh, you're being a dilettante,"
    and maybe that's true.
  171. I can understand how, I mean,
  172. because I don't have a pedigree
    in visual art
  173. and I don't have any training,
    but it's just something
  174. that I wanted to do as an extension
    of my composition,
  175. as an extension
    of a kind of creative impulse.
  176. I can understand the question, though.
    "But is it music?"
  177. I mean, there's not
    any traditional notation.
  178. I can also understand
    that sort of implicit criticism
  179. in this piece, "S-tog," which I made
    when I was living in Copenhagen.
  180. I took the Copenhagen subway map
  181. and I renamed all the stations
    to abstract musical provocations,
  182. and the players, who are synchronized
    with stopwatches,
  183. follow the timetables, which are listed
    in minutes past the hour.
  184. So this is a case of actually
    adapting something,
  185. or maybe stealing something,
  186. and then turning it
    into a musical notation.
  187. You folks have been neglected,
    I'll stand here for a couple of minutes.
  188. (Applause)
  189. Another adaptation would be this piece.
  190. The wristwatch, I should say.
  191. I took the idea of the wristwatch,
    and I turned it into a musical score.
  192. I made my own faces, and had
    a company fabricate them,
  193. and the players follow these scores.
  194. They follow the second hands,
  195. and as they pass over the various symbols,
    the players respond musically.
  196. Here's another example from another piece,
  197. and then its realization.
  198. So in these two capacities,
    I've been scavenger,
  199. in the sense of taking, like,
    the subway map, right,
  200. or thief maybe,
    and I've also been designer,
  201. in the case of making the wristwatches.
  202. And once again, this is,
    for me, interesting.
  203. Another role that I like to take on
    is that of the performance artist.
  204. Some of my pieces have these
    kind of weird theatric elements,
  205. and I often perform them.
  206. I want to show you a clip
    from a piece called "Echolalia."
  207. This is actually being performed
    by Brian McWhorter,
  208. who is an extraordinary performer.
  209. Let's watch a little bit of this,
    and please notice the instrumentation.
  210. (Music)
  211. Okay, I hear you were laughing nervously
  212. because you too could hear that the drill
    was a little bit sharp,
  213. the intonation was a little questionable.
  214. Let's watch just another clip.
  215. (Music)
  216. Okay, that's enough.
  217. You can see the mayhem continues,
    and there's, you know,
  218. there were no clarinets and trumpets
    and flutes and violins.
  219. Here's a piece that has
    an even more unusual,
  220. more peculiar instrumentation.
  221. This is "Tlön," for three conductors
    and no players. (Laughter)
  222. This was based on the experience
    of actually watching
  223. two people having a virulent
    argument in sign language,
  224. which produced no decibels to speak of,
  225. but affectively, psychologically,
    was a very loud experience.
  226. So, yeah, I get it, with,
    like, the weird appliances
  227. and then the total absence
    of conventional instruments
  228. and this glut of conductors,
    people might, you know,
  229. wonder, yeah, "Is this music?"
  230. But let's move on to a piece where
    clearly I'm behaving myself,
  231. and that is my "Concerto for Orchestra."
  232. You're going to notice a lot
    of conventional instruments in this clip.
  233. (Music)
  234. Are you bored? I'm a little bored.
  235. This, in fact, is not
    the title of this piece.
  236. I was a bit mischievous.
    In fact, to make it more interesting,
  237. I put a space right in here,
    and this is the actual title of the piece.
  238. Let's continue with that same excerpt.
  239. (Music)
  240. It's better with a florist, right?
    (Laughter) (Music)
  241. Or at least it's less boring.
    Let's watch a couple more clips.
  242. (Music)
  243. So with all these theatric elements,
    this pushes me in another role,
  244. and that would be,
    possibly, the dramaturge.
  245. I was playing nice. I had to write
    the orchestra bits, right?
  246. Okay? But then there was
    this other stuff, right?
  247. There was the florist,
    and I can understand that,
  248. once again, we're putting
    pressure on the ontology of music
  249. as we know it conventionally,
  250. but let's look at one last piece
    today I'm going to share with you.
  251. This is going to be
    a piece called "Aphasia,"
  252. and it's for hand gestures
    synchronized to sound,
  253. and this invites yet another role,
    and final one I'll share with you,
  254. which is that of the choreographer.
  255. And the score for the piece
    looks like this,
  256. and it instructs me,
    the performer, to make
  257. various hand gestures
    at very specific times
  258. synchronized with an audio tape,
  259. and that audio tape
    is made up exclusively of vocal samples.
  260. I recorded an awesome singer,
  261. and I took the sound
    of his voice in my computer,
  262. and I warped it in countless ways
  263. to come up with the soundtrack
    that you're about to hear.
  264. And I'll perform just an excerpt
    of "Aphasia" for you here. Okay?
  265. (Music)
  266. So that gives you a little taste
    of that piece. (Applause)
  267. Thank you. When this ovation dies down,
    I shall continue.
  268. Yeah, okay, that's kind of weird stuff.
  269. Is it music?
    Here's how I want to conclude.
  270. I've decided, ultimately,
    that this is the wrong question,
  271. that this is not the important question.
  272. The important question
    is, "Is it interesting?"
  273. And I follow this question,
    not worrying about "Is it music?" -
  274. not worrying about the definition
    of the thing that I'm making.
  275. I allow my creativity to push me
  276. in directions that are simply
    interesting to me,
  277. and I don't worry
    about the likeness of the result
  278. to some notion, some paradigm,
  279. of what music composition
    is supposed to be,
  280. and that has actually
    urged me, in a sense,
  281. to take on a whole bunch
    of different roles,
  282. and so what I want you to think about is,
  283. to what extent might you change
    the fundamental question
  284. in your discipline, and, okay,
  285. I'm going to put one extra
    little footnote in here,
  286. because, like, I realized I mentioned
  287. some psychological defects
    earlier, and we also,
  288. along the way, had a fair amount
    of obsessive behavior,
  289. and there was some delusional
    behavior and things like that,
  290. and here I think we could say
    that this is an argument
  291. for self-loathing
    and a kind of schizophrenia,
  292. at least in the popular use of the term,
  293. and I really mean dissociative
    identity disorder, okay. (Laughter)
  294. Anyway, despite those perils,
    I would urge you
  295. to think about the possibility
    that you might take on roles
  296. in your own work,
    whether they are neighboring
  297. or far-flung
    from your professional definition.
  298. And with that, I thank you very much.