On Your Way to Brilliance

It’s the opening weeks of classes here at Visible Music College, and it’s my favorite time of year. Students come in with such sparks of brilliance, and I’m excited to lead them to the work—and in exchange, I’ll learn a ton from them.
Students are grabbing the important lesson of trying everything at once, and, at the same time, learning to say “no”.
We are all starting somewhere; some on our way to brilliance.
But we’re not there yet.
If you do not breathe through writing, if you do not cry out in writing, or sing in writing, then don’t write, because our culture has no use for it. ~Anaïs Nin
Some are artists, pushing genres and creative boundaries to their limits. They add beauty and wonder to the world, stretching our possibilities and our lenses. Art sparks our imaginations to ask, “What else could it be?”
 
EXAMPLE.
One of my heroes, James Murphy (Ex-LCD Soundsystem) is working on reformatting the NYC subway turnstiles to generate a harmonious cacophony of joy, called “Subway Symphony”. He’s got a corporate sponsor and moving forward with the Transit Authority. The video below outlines his vision and sets a high bar for his music-making. You don’t have to think of something ambitious as this—just ask yourself the question:

What else could it be?



But.
Some “content creators” don’t care at all, and are just adding noise.

Dave Allen talks about this in his (now legendary) article, “The Internet Doesn’t Care About Your Mediocre Band”. Maybe a more descriptive title might be: “Be Amazing or Get Out of the Way” (ht Never Was Podcast).
Allen encourages artists to make a decision to be great by doing great work.

It may sound like I’m speaking out of both sides of my mouth, as this blog has emphasized the necessary reality of putting in the hours in the woodshed, and just doing the work. I’ve written a lot about the noticeable gap between the work we’re doing and the quality of work we want to be doing. This can be an intimidating Law of Greatness to follow and give up. Yes, the Internet could not care less about your mediocre band. I know I’m the worst offender. If a song doesn’t grab me, I’ll not make it 30 sec into a song without turning it off. Many times even a poorly-staged or over-earnest promo pic will prompt me to just say, “Pass!”

Yes, we’re not there yet.

But.

On your way to brilliance.

Keep taking steps.

Decide on the front-end to make your voice rise above the noise.

Close that excellence gap.

Go for it. blow it up. the internet is the great democratizer. Rise above the noise.


Listening: Low – Ones and Sixes
Reading: Huck Magazine’s insightful interview with Ian Mackaye
Watching: The League – S6
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The Hulk, Wearing Purple Pants Everyday, and Decision Fatigue


Cartoon characters–from Daffy Duck to Pooh–wear the same thing every day, right? My son smashes the day away with an Incredible Hulk action figure, and recently I found myself scrutinizing Hulk’s signature tattered purple pants. I realized that Bruce Banner must be wearing purple pants everyday when he turns into the Hulk in order for the Hulk ALWAYS to wear the aforementioned eggplant slacks.  Maybe they’re his most hated pair of pants, and since Banner knows he’s gonna hulk-out after brunch, he doesn’t care if they get destroyed, and thus purposely wears them. Maybe Banner is a genius—(he IS the world’s most leading scientist on Gamma radiation, after all). Or perhaps Banner is familiar with “decision fatigue”, and with only so many usable hours in the day to do research-y stuff, he is going to stick to the purple slacks and white lab coat.


“Hulk smash below belt!”


With our limited amount of creativity and willpower, let’s conserve it for the things that matter—your creative work, your relationships. This idea of “decision fatigue” haunted Madame Bovary writer Gustave Flaubert, who said,

“Be regular and orderly in your life, so that you may be violent and original in your work.”

In one of my favorite books, Daily Rituals: How Artists Work, Mason Currey outlines Flaubert’s austere schedule which he used while he wrote Bovary. 

The president does the same thing. Interviewing President Obama for Vanity Fair, Michael Lewis records Obama saying,

“You’ll see I wear only gray or blue suits. I’m trying to pare down decisions. I don’t want to make decisions about what I’m eating or wearing. Because I have too many other decisions to make.’ He mentioned research that shows the simple act of making decisions degrades one’s ability to make further decisions.”
We can think of other creative “greats” who have latched onto a similar idea. Steve Jobs’ signature black mock-turtleneck, blue jeans and white sneaks.

Mark Zuckerburg, (while not lauded for the choices) commits to a daily grey tee.

One of my favorite comedians, Jason Mantzoukas (aka “Dirty Randy” on The League), has a whole Tumblr devoted to his uniform of white BDCO’s and blue jeans.


I drink the same coffee every morning at 8:45. Gone are the days of experimenting with alchemic variations of shot and syrup ratios. During a recent summer, ago I ate a Cobb salad every day for lunch from the little bistro counter that occupied the lobby of the First Tennessee Bank on Third St. What daily decisions can I establish as sacrosanct so that I don’t have to decide? I’ve started using templates as I demo songs in Logic X, that has saved me a lot of time. I mainly stick to the same drum, guitar, and keyboard sounds at first, and let’s me focus on writing and arranging the actual song.
The fall of 2001 I didn’t get to go away for school, and I was flipping carpets at a Persian Rug department at a furniture store. I wore a size small (yeeeesh) black Hanes tee everyday. I did like it at those times. But now, opening a closet to one outfit feels a little soul-killing–“variety is the spice of life”, they say. I’ll think about it.

Listening: Gasoline Heart, Thanks for Everything
Watching: House of Cards, S3
Reading: Blood Meridian, Cormac McCarthy (trying to finish the last 40 pages)
Playing: Battlefield for Xbox