Tag Archives: music

Lonely Open Country

Cool glass presses against the side of my forehead. There are so many stars out there in the North, all around us. We’re driving along a ridge between rolling hills and valleys. The land is dark. Headlights are the only artificial light I can see, ghosting off reflectors on the sides of the road. I stiffen my neck, try to change position so that my head doesn’t wallop the window. Little success, but no matter. I’m determined to watch the stars and the empty landscape pass.

It’s a chilly Autumn night, and it’s so alone out here. It feels that way after leaving the dance, but it’s a pleasant, full feeling. The dark woods and the memories of whirling skirts and smiling faces remind me of past times I never knew.

Enter the barn in the twilight, yellow Christmas lights strung up under the eaves. Farm folks and others, but mostly farm folks, have gathered from miles around to this barn in the middle of nowhere. They’re gussied up in their overalls and old-fashioned dresses. Everyone’s talking, and slowly, everyone finds a partner. That’s the hardest part. Once paired, we walk out onto the cement dance floor. It’s an open-sided barn with yesteryear’s hay still scattered around in clumps. The dancers wait for music, some patiently, some impatiently. Finally, the MC grabs the mic. The band is tuned up and ready. The music begins, and boy is it lively.

My flats slip on the concrete as I skip around the outside of the square. I nearly fall a couple times that night. Dumb shoes. It’s great fun. After a few dances my feet hurt from pounding the concrete floor, but I never sit out if I can help it. I came here to dance, and dance I shall.

Music echoes in my head on the ride home, head bumping against the glass, riding through lonely open country.

Lessons from Design: Foreshadowing

What do graphic design, music composition, and writing all have in common? A lot more than I thought . . . a whole lot more.

In graphic design class last fall, my professor said this to me:

Put a few photos on your title page. Not full photos, not so I can actually tell what they are. Just give me a glimpse of what’s to come beyond the cover.”

Foreshadow, in other words. Give your audience a clue about what’s going to happen. I didn’t realize it then, but this principle is central to every type of communication—visual, musical, and textual. It’s key to telling a story, to pulling the audience forward by tantalizing them with the promise of withheld details.

Take music, for example. Oftentimes, a theme will appear early in a less developed form, and grow into something more later on. The song Love Drunk by Boys Like Girls is a great example of this – the intro is a quiet foreshadowing of a section which appears later, at about 3:00. This foreshadowing and return to the intro pulls the song full circle.

Similarly, foreshadowing is a key part of good writing. Readers love the feeling of realization when an early element continues to thread its way through the story. Any book that includes fulfilled prophecy incorporates this principle, though there are many different ways to foreshadow.

So whether you’re designing visuals, or trying your hand at music, or writing any story at all, remember to include a whisper of what is to come.

Play with Your Tools

5 years ago I bought my little Fujifilm camera for under $100. Its lens is small and its capabilities limited, but it is waterproof and portable. When I got that camera I was so excited that I ran out to play with it immediately. I took pictures of early March ladybugs, of driveway gravel, of old rose hips from past seasons—anything that caught my eye.

Through experimentation, I learned how to trick the autofocus and autoexposure into doing exactly what I wanted by first focusing on my hand before taking a photo. I learned what range the little camera performed best at—when the subject is 3”-5” away. Through 5 years of exuberant play with my cheap equipment, and tens of thousands of photos, I became one with my tool.

A camera is an instrument that captures visual music. Learning to use a camera is the same as learning to play guitar or piano—you haven’t really got it until your body can do it without you.

After five fun years, I bought a new camera. It’s a canon, with a great black eye to suck in the light of the world. It’s capable of so much more, but not yet—not in my inexperienced hands. So I’m starting the process all over again, to play with the tool until I know it so well that my fingers find the buttons on their own, and I’ll intuitively know what images the camera can capture beautifully and what isn’t worth trying for. The learning will begin when I put down the manual and venture out into the world with my trusty camera sidekick.

If there’s something you love to do and you allow yourself to play with it, you will become a master. The time will pass unnoticed. And the process of discovery will go on forever. For me and my camera, there are as many experiments as there are images in the world, and then some.

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Creative Unconscious

I picked up my guitar, ready to play, but soon realized that one of the chords to Dust in the Wind was eluding me. I started once, twice and again, but always got stuck on this one chord. After trying a few more times (and not wanting to give up), I decided to use a trick I’d learned from years of playing piano to retrieve this “forgotten” chord: play the song faster, and think about it less.

PianistSo I played the song faster, and tried not to think about it—and that’s when the magic happened. Sure enough, my fingers found the chord right on time without missing a beat. I stopped to stare at them. Wonder of wonders, my fingers had placed themselves perfectly without my direction—this chord had been lodged somewhere in unconscious memory, effectively out of reach.

Artists dance with their unconscious minds every day (don’t we all); creative people in particular can benefit from understanding how their creative unconscious works, and doesn’t work. If you concentrate on a task, do it slowly and deliberately, you encourage your unconscious mind to take a nap (or rather, to occupy itself doing who knows what else). This isn’t a good thing if it turns out that your subconscious mind is smarter than you.

So, are you having trouble thinking through your story? Stop thinking. Take a break or better yet, just barrel through and let intuition take over. The answer will appear as if by magic, but it’s not really magic—not really—just invisible, intangible, subconscious you.