Category Archives: beautiful minds

That funny feeling

Jacob Collier talking to Eric Whitacre about creativity. (Everything that follows is a quote…)

How do children learn how to be funny? Well, a child doesn’t learn how to be funny by reading a book, or watching a tutorial, or even necessarily planning very much of it. I think that children learn to be funny by observation and experiment. And so you look around as a child and you think, “that makes me laugh – I don’t understand why but I’m gonna follow that because I like that feeling, I’m gonna follow it”.

I think that humour is one of the things that has lasted longest in the world without trying to be understood. It’s gone so far without people trying to understand it. Because you feel it and it’s difficult to understand humour because it’s so multilayered and it’s so ingrained in our past. And so I think that, when it comes to delivering a joke, for example, how you deliver the punchline, the amount of time you take before you deliver it, what you do with your body, where you’re looking, whether you’re looking the person in the eye, or whether you’re being sarcastic when you say it, or whether you’re being strong…all these nuances. It pains the brain to think about the amount of nuance in how to express something, but it’s so intuitive in children when they watch and learn.

And so I find myself in a place with music sometimes where I think, well, it’s a bit like that process of learning how to be funny or learning how to be effective, you have to know the extremes before you learn the nuance. You can’t skip to the nuance before…you know…so, it’s like, okay, you’ve got one note [plays middle C], and then you’ve got all the notes [plays all the notes]…okay, well that’s fine, so now what? Now what is there? Well there’s a triad [plays triad], and there’s a bunch of triads [plays bunch of triads] and we can explore them and they’re interesting…and once you’ve got a triad you have a dominant chord, so you add a seventh [plays seventh] and that resolves [plays resolution]. And what other notes can you add? Let’s add every single note [plays cluster chord] and then try and resolve them all just so we know what happens. So the first time you try and do it you’re kind of guessing in the dark and the second time you do it you’ve learnt from the last time you did it so you’re guessing not in the dark but you’ve got maybe black and white figured out and soon you figure out grey because grey is the choices that you make between black and white. And then there’s this whole other spectrum of colour which I think comes really from…[sighs]…

Emotions are so interesting when they’re compound emotions and choices are so interesting when they’re compound choices so it’s not necessarily “I’m going to add notes” or “I’m going to remove notes” it’s almost like “I’m going to intend to add notes” and then I’m gonna not add them or I’m going to add lots of notes and then take out the ones that remind… that are actually the ones that are important so that all that’s left is this skeleton of a chord. But your ear…

the expectation matters and the intention matters a lot I think to the process of learning and composing and so I think that I find myself defying and re-fying all of those kind of experiences and thinking “how can I outgrow this choice?”.


I’m starting a new set of categories for things that are ‘brilliant’. I thought about doing this after Susan Daly tweeted about Roddy Doyle’s short story of the same name (commissioned for this year’s St Patrick’s Day Festival). It’s a great wee story—have a read of it.

She reckoned it’d be a good way of sorting through life—things are either ‘brilliant’ or ‘not brilliant’. A rather pleasing dichotomy, I hope you’ll agree.

I thought more about the idea and decided that brilliance could be sub-divided into the following categories:

  • the Technically Brilliant
  • the Intellectually Brilliant
  • the Ethically Brilliant

I will blog again about what I mean by those but for now I just wanted to get them up on the site so I could demonstrate what I mean by them. (And the blog post I’d started got swallowed in an iPod app upgrade.)

I had a category called ‘beautiful minds’ that I used for things of this ilk before; this’ll bookend with that.


DADGAD, feminism & being artistic

These links are unconnected. But everything’s connected, right? Well, what connects them is that I found them all yesterday and I think they’re all worth sharing.

There is a connection between Sam West’s passionate speech at last week’s ‘March for the Alternative’ (he’s the son of Timothy West and Prunella Scales) and Austin Kleon’s empowering artistic manifesto, ‘How To Steal Like An Artist’. Kleon’s piece will rock your world if you want to create something—read and share.


I found Anita Sarkeesian’s Feminist Frequency video blogs via a competition the British Film Institute is running for women who are aspiring to write about film. Start with this one about ‘The Bechdel Test’. I was challenged and enlightened.

Finally, if you’re looking for something to do with your eight precious hours of leisure time, why not go along to ‘An Introduction to DADGAD Guitar‘, taught by Sarah McQuaid, in Walton’s New School of Music on Thursday 7 April? DADGAD is the onomatopoeic word used to denote a system of guitar tuning that is much used by traditional musicians. It is a beautiful sound—jangly and resonant—and it’s easy to pick out pleasing passages, even if you’re a beginner. (It actually helps to be a beginner, as you aren’t ‘stuck’ in thinking of the fretboard in a certain way.) Sarah McQuaid literally wrote the book on this, so she’s the one to give you a great start.


New albums!!

I hope record stores never disappear, just like I hope books never become extinct. I got a voucher to spend in Liffey Valley shopping centre from my in-laws for my birthday. It’s so long since I bought a CD, so that was my single aim when I arrived at the centre the day after my birthday. (Vouchers are always better spent as soon as possible. Apart from the fact that stores make a lot of money from unspent vouchers, there’s little more depressing than finding an expired voucher. Well, that’s not true, but it’s pretty frustrating…)

I hovered over Elbow’s new album, but it’s still selling for top dollar. Looking forward to hearing it, though. Still remember first listening to ‘The Seldom Seen Kid’ while reading the lyrics in the beautifully illustrated album booklet PDF thing.

I wandered over to the jazz section and thought about getting Kurt Elling’s latest album ‘The Gate’. He’s someone I’m really intrigued by, although I don’t have any of his albums. Still, too expensive—I’ll get it on iTunes.

I keep a note of music recommendations and stuff I want to hear in a Google tasklist. Most of it’s from people I follow on Twitter; a track rated here, an album raved about there. A lot of it’s classical (including lots of recommendations from @WrenAmok).

My three choices were:

  • ‘My Dark Twisted Fantasy’ – Kanye West
  • ‘Teen Dream’ – Beach House
  • ‘The Suburbs’ – Arcade Fire

So far I’ve listened to Kanye’s album in the car once and, as I write this, I’m listening to it again through my nice Bose headphones. One thing I’m noticing is that I’m not really listening at all this time because I’m writing… I used to think I could have music in the background while I worked, but now I realise that I cannot attend to both at the same time. You know those brain scans that show how your brain lights up when it’s ‘on’ music? Yeah, that means you can’t do much else while still even pretending to listen to it. Driving is eminently possible, maybe because it’s largely visual…dunno… I think it’s one reason why it’s going to be *very* difficult to persuade folks to abandon motorised vehicles as their primary transport. Things sound good on car stereos these days.

click through to an interesting article...

Anyway, Kanye’s album is staggeringly good and a real piece of artistry. You all know this, of course, because it’s been out for ages 🙂

I’m loving Beach House, too. Fascinating to learn that it’s just two people. Very inspiring.

Haven’t listened to Arcade Fire yet at all.

01 and 10

I’m listening to the Radiohead 01 and 10 playlist. The conspiracy theory behind the mashup between OK Computer and In Rainbows is an internet legend and actually rather compelling. I don’t really buy it, though. It’s not really amazing that the earlier album complements the latter in sound and message. I do accept the rather pleasing decaphilia that seems to pervade In Rainbows but I simply don’t believe that the two albums were ever meant to be heard together. The fact that they sound awesome together is all the more wonderful, then.

I first listened to the playlist without the 10-second crossfade recommended by some of the initiated. I figured that a band like Radiohead, who famously eschewed their record label and feel ambivalent at best towards the idea of corporations etc., would design something that required an iTunes feature to be fully appreciated. (Insert your preferred proprietary software if you like, but you get my point.) I’m listening to the crossfaded version as I write this. Alarm bells ring for me when the lovely, fitting, shudder-to-a-halt ending of ‘Paranoid Android’ is obliterated by the next track starting. It’s just not an enhancement of the art. Other segues between the tracks just sound like crossfades to me. Adjacent songs are in different keys and my ear recoils a little when they’re mashed together.

It’s a great, great idea, however, and I’m looking forward to a day when a band releases an album that does sound coherent when the tracks are rearranged and crossfaded in a particular way. That’ll be exciting; this playlist ain’t it, though.

What the 01 and 10 playlist does demonstrate, though, is the remarkable music of the Oxford band called Radiohead. Listening to the tracks in an unfamiliar order, harkening closely to the ending of one track and the beginning of another, attending to the lyrics, amazed me anew at the gift to the world that their music represents. Complex, yet often irresistably danceable (yes, I’m listening to Weird Fishes/Arpeggi at this moment…), sometimes heartbreaking, sometimes joyous.

My main aural observation was that the guitar lines are absolutely vital to what makes the songs brilliant. (More so in OK Computer – the interim period of experimentation saw the band explore a wider palette of instrumental possibilities.) The music, especially on the later album, is often truly contrapuntal, instruments and voice(s) twisting together without a reliance on chordal parts to underpin the texture. (It’s interesting that one of their most chordal songs, ‘Karma Police’, disintegrates into the unforgettably chilling ‘Fitter Happier’, almost as if they already knew at that stage that such songs were no longer going to be possible as their musical horizons expanded.) I’ve always especially loved ‘Electioneering’ from OK Computer, and it was listening to the fretboard-spanning guitar line that runs through the chorus that really alerted me to how important such discernable, often singable parts were to the band’s sound and musical vision.

So, my recommendation: read (a bit) about the idea behind it, put together the 01 and 10 playlist (sans crossfade), plug in a good pair of headphones and enjoy the music of one of the world’s very best bands from a fresh perspective. Then let me know what you heard.


My subscription to the New York Times crossword app expired today so, rather than furrowing my brow over that on the train today, I thought I’d use the time to blog. The NYT crossword is published every day – Monday is the easiest and they get more difficult each day until Sunday’s larger, themed puzzle. I can usually do Monday and Tuesday without help, but the later part of the week usually leads to a good deal of head-scratching on my part. Couldn’t recommend it highly enough. After all, who doesn’t like having their head scratched?!

So, if you enjoy crosswords and have an iSomething, go get the app. And when you get stuck, go and find Rex Parker – a terribly clever person whose blog about the crossword is what I turn to in times of extreme trichotilomania.

“…just purse your lips and whistle, that’s the thing…”

I saw ‘West Side Story’ a few weeks ago here in Sydney. I first experienced the show, enthralled, from the orchestra pit in the 2000 Edinburgh University Footlights show. At one point in the Sydney production, members of ‘The Sharks’ exit whistling a tune that I recognised as the British national anthem. I thought that this was a satirical reminder of Australia’s colonial heritage, perhaps to get a laugh from the home audience, but that seemed out of place in the play’s New York setting. I felt I was missing a vital part of the joke. Today I finally got it.

I have just finished reading Christopher Hitchens’ memoir, ‘Hitch-22′. It’s difficult not to be impressed by his remarkable intellect and riveting ability to recount some of the fascinating journeys he’s undertaken, both physical and idealogical. (He recalls Oscar Wilde’s pronouncement that unless one’s map has Utopia marked on it, it is not worth navigating by. Hitchens declares himself unconvinced of the wisdom of this idea now, having seen some of the shipwrecks and prison islands.)

Hitchens describes himself as unmusical, as opposed to some of his good friends, whose ability to discuss music he finds enviable. His observation that it is those friends who possess this faculty who also compose the finest poetry and fiction is intriguing.

I was delighted, then, to find music dominating the first few pages of Hitchens’ 2006 book on Thomas Paine’s ‘Rights of Man’. Doubly satisfying was finding the answer to my West Side Story conundrum, which was of course that the tune I recognised as ‘God Save The Queen’ is taught to every American school child to the words of the hymn ‘My Country, ’tis of thee’.

My Country, ’tis of thee
Sweet land of liberty
Of thee I sing
Land where my fathers died
Land of the Pilgrims’ pride
From every mountainside –
Let freedom ring!

The disparity between the sentiment of those words and the reality faced by many of those who came in search of liberty is what gives The Sharks’ ironic choice of tune its bite.

OK Go marching band video

I just found this video for OK Go’s song, ‘This Too Shall Pass’, via Graham Linehan’s feast of a blog, ‘Why That’s Delightful’. There’s something about the surprise elements of this video (and the other, amazing domino-machine one) that takes my breath away. For some reason, too, the song itself appealed to me much more in the context of the marching band video than it did in the domino one. Live performance…especially when we can see those lovely glockenspiel breaks…and the gradual expansion of the cast (creating, like in the domino video, a continual sense of delight). Great stuff. Truly important, bar-raising art for an internet age of living, loving human beings.

Read the band’s guitarist’s piece in the NY Times, too, about the short-sightedness of record companies. Specifically EMI in this case. If we enjoy watching videos on YouTube, and we love music, then we should know about this stuff.