Category Archives: Ideas

Learning for Learning’s Sake

Short post this one. Feeling like having a quick rant today! Am I in a minority for thinking that learning should be an end in itself and not the means to something else?

I am thinking in particular of the distinction between vocational education and non-vocational education. My first degree was probably as close to being non-vocational as you can get – I studied English Literature and Philosophy. Did these subjects “train” me for a job? Of course they didn’t. Although many years later when I was given a project to set up a regional ethics committee for health research, there is no doubt that the Ethics part of my degree was helpful. There is also no doubt that the logical mind training of Philosophy was really useful in teaching me how to think. English Literature meanwhile taught me so much about the human condition, about life’s challenges and about how we think. It also made sure that I was widely read – you read a shed load of books when studying English! These subjects are called “Humanities” because they teach us about humanity.

And both subjects gave me a passion (some would say obsession) for learning, a limitless curiosity.

There’s a world of difference, in some ways, between subjects like English Literature and Philosophy, and subjects that train you to do a job.

One type of education is no better or worse than the other. And the world would be a much poorer place if we only saw education as a route to earning money as an adult. What an uncivilised and impoverished world that would be!

Experimental V – music with or without an audience

I have mentioned before on this blog that I am a huge fan of the work of David Sylvian and Richard Skelton. An initial google might lead you to think that these two have very little in common. Sylvian began his career in the last 70s and early 80s with Japan, a band that trod the New Romantic route even if that isn’t what they wanted to be called. He broke the band up just as they were becoming popular – and then set off on an eclectic solo career working with an incredibly wide range of musicians from the worlds of jazz, ambient, classical, avant-garde and modern music. His recent albums have been either entirely instrumental musical pieces for art installations or spoken word pieces with found sound backgrounds. All very obscure and truly beautiful (if you like that kind of thing, of course!)

Richard Skelton – Limnology

Meanwhile, Richard Skelton’s music uses drones and found sounds – hence, the connection with the work of Sylvian. In contrast, Skelton’s work has a singular vision – it is incredibly distinctive. His early work was in very limited editions, often with leaves of pieces of bark included to make the work unique. Skelton is a writer as well as a musician. His writing is also very focused – often drawing on the landscape around him – often poetic. His work is impressive for its purity of vision.

Another similarity between these two artists is the way in which they create music – or art – with a singular vision. One has the clear sense that they are creating what they want to because they are driven by a purpose from within. They are not playing to an audience at all. This driving sense of the need to create is at the heart of the experimental. It’s what often makes the product of experimenters hard to understand at first. Their outputs require effort, patience and a willingness on the part of the audience to suspend judgement whilst trying to understand what is going on.

And sometimes the work of the experimenter goes beyond rational understanding. Thus, Sylvian’s albums “When Loud Weather Buffeted Naoshima” which seems to be set in a stark and bleak landscape with strange falsetto voices (Arve Henriksen) and weather creaking and howling – is at times harrowing and at others beautiful. A more recent album, “there’s a light that enters houses with no other house in sight” takes the poetry of Franz Wright read by the poet, and drops it into a bleak soundscape that jars and resonates with the words.

It’s all powerful stuff – both musicians have created their own experimental worlds and developed them outwards to create their own musical vocabulary.

There is so much to inspire in what they do. At once I am inspired by their drive to experiment, and by the stripping away of anything familiar in a quest for the new and surprising. As often happens for me, this creates ideas in my head that jump out of music and into other media. And that is when experimental music is at its richest, its deepest and its most profound. Ah, wonderful!

Read anything you can get your hands on

Liverpool Central Libraries – The Atrium on Light Night 2017

Reading books, magazines, articles and blog posts across a truly diverse range of topics is a huge help to stimulate novel ideas. This is, I think, the heart of a creative approach.

To be stimulated to generate new ideas, we need to draw from a wide range of influences. To achieve this, we should always read in fields or disciplines that are not familiar to us. I often read books that stretch my thinking, with a limited understanding of the topic.

Does it matter that I don’t understand? I don’t think so. I remember, for example, reading “Small is Beautiful” by E F Schumacher and only having the slightest grasp of the economic theories he was describing. I pushed on through and finished the book because it opened up the world of new ecology thinking and a whole way of thinking that I knew very little about when I read it in the 1990s. It set me off in many new directions, reading Fritjof Capra, for example – who I wouldn’t otherwise have come across.

Stretching our understanding, being open to ideas and letting them in so that we can absorb them to grasp them at a later date – like mental gymnastics. It doesn’t just happen when we read. A few years ago I asked an old school friend of mine, now a university lecturer in Mathematics, to explain String Theory to me. His description was beautifully clear and concise. I think I understood the concepts there and then – for about an hour or so, then it faded. But the clarity at the time was stunning.

There is a thought with Buddhist teachings, that as we receive the transmission from a great teacher, even if we don’t understand what we are hearing at a conscious and logical level, there will still be a shift at a deeper lever. This is a great way of describing this phenomenon. It’s always worth keeping our minds open to ideas, no matter how far removed from our current thinking they are. An open mind is a rigorous mind!

Advice to my three sons – read anything you can get your hands on. Oh, but do bear in mind that we have limited time in our lives, so don’t waste it reading things that don’t stretch us and show us something new. See reading as a sense of constant wonder. And enjoy.

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Whilst you are here: have you seen my two books released this year?

Values Count is available from Amazon or directly from my website. It’s a book about values based approaches to work. Essential for anyone who wants to work with a strong sense of purpose.

Blue: Experiments in Sound is my latest collection of poetry with illustrations, the latest stories about Blue, the misanthropic 21st century man in search of a meaning. It is available in a limited edition from my website.

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Experimental IV – photos

In the last post I mentioned that I worked as a Community Artist in the 1980s. This involved teachings skills in photography as well as creative writing. It must be said that my photographic skills were pretty basic. This was in the days of rolls of film, black and white moody photos and dark rooms with chemicals for developing each photo.

The world of photography has changed so much. These days millions of photos are taken from our smart phones and shared online every day. The technology that supports are photo taking has improved so much that many of the technical skills of the photographer are now done by the phone rather than the operator. But there is still so much that is in the hands of the person who points and shoots.

How we frame the photo and what we take as the subject is key. Then the editing of the photos that we take can lift the images to a whole new level.

Recently I took a batch of photos whilst walking with friends in the Wirral. One of the photos was an unremarkable photo of birds in the sky. I took the photo, cropped it and then added various filters.

Here is the original photograph before it was cropped:

Nothing remarkable in this photo. But once a crop is applied to focus on the four photos on the left of the image – and then some filters and effects are added…

The result is four images that could be a series of paintings. Experimenting with an image, a glass of wine (it helps apparently) and a simple app (snapseed) produces something which I really like.

Bird in Sky I
Birds in Sky II
Birds in Sky III
Birds in Sky IV

 

 

Experimental II

I didn’t get what was meant to be happening with John Cage’s 4:33 when I first heard about it. This was a piece of “music” that lasted for 4 minutes and 33 seconds. Except it wasn’t a piece of music because the musician would sit at the piano (or any other instrument) and not play anything for that amount of time. It seemed like Cage was laughing at us – playing the ultimate con trick. Except, when you sit in the space and there is no music, you are forced into a zen-like experience of hearing everything else that is going on around you. There isn’t complete silence at all. You become aware of the sounds that the audience are making, noises coming from outside, the sound of your own breath. Perhaps, even the sound of your own thoughts distracting you. A truly powerful idea!

Simple, abstract and minimalist are all ideas in music and word that have intrigued me over the years. I bought the Gavin Bryars album “Sinking of the Titanic / Jesus’ Blood” when it was first released on vinyl in 1975. Not because I had heard of Gavin Bryars, but because it was on Brian Eno’s experimental label, and I trusted his judgement. I was only 14 at the time – it was an easy thing to do. This album was comprised of two pieces of music each spanning the full side. The first piece was inspired by the idea that the concert band on the Titanic continued to play as the ship sank. This idea is combined  with the idea that sound gradually decays and would be still present after the ship has gone down. Using recorded footage of interviews with survivors and treating the music as though it is echoing and distorting – the result is a beautiful piece of music. But it was the second side which really gripped me. Called “Jesus’ Blood Never Failed Me Yet” this piece begins with the recording of an unknown homeless man who Bryars had recorded for another project. The recording is looped and plays over and over for the 25 minutes of the piece. Instruments gradually join the singer, build and then fade away to just the singer’s voice. It’s a fragile and deeply moving recording.

Sometimes the deepest experiments begin with very little material – silence in one case, a short loop of a recorded voice. This gives the boundaries within which the experiment can take life.

How can you place simple boundaries to enable you to experiment?


Have you seen my two books released this year?

Values Count is available from Amazon or directly from my website. It’s a book about values based approaches to work. Essential for anyone who wants to work with a strong sense of purpose.

Blue: Experiments in Sound is my latest collection of poetry with illustrations, the latest stories about Blue, the misanthropic 21st century man in search of a meaning. It is available in a limited edition from my website.

 

Experimental I

This is the first of a series of posts on the experimental. This will be a set of blog posts, which feature ideas and experiments. Different approaches.

What is “Experimental”?

There are two distinct definitions for the word. When aimed at science, (of a new invention or product), based on untested ideas or techniques and not yet established or finalised e.g. “an experimental drug”.

When focused on the arts (of art or an artistic technique), involving a radically new and innovative style, e.g. “experimental music”.

Experimental – to take something and test it, try something new, be innovative. Put the two approaches together…

Are these two so different? What is the common ground between them? Why do we always want to separate out arts and science – and then further stratify with humanities and social sciences? Does division diminish?

In the background I can hear “4D Music” by Brian Eno. This is a simple drone, with a pulsing that creates a simple rhythm. A whispered voice repeats and layers the words “Behold the child, in front of me”. The piece – hypnotic and mesmerising, but also unsettling. Shifting slowly, imperceptibly.

Rain persists in the sky. Falling on silent wishes.

Disruption caused by change, new routines, new patterns – all to create different thoughts.

A blog post by Doug Shaw about Patterning – experimenting. Working out Loud – finding a space to share his journey of learning, self teaching…

John Kannenberg, curator of a wonderful web-based record label called Stasisfield which ran from 2002 to 2015. Avant garden, minimalist, micro-tonal. Thought-provoking and stimulating. I loved the music that appeared on this label – all of it free.  A labour of love. Something happened last week, prompted me to go searching – found that Stasisfield has stopped but John continues to experiment with a beautifully crafted site and a blog called Phonomnesis about silent memories of sound, art, time, museums, philosophy, and culture. Experiments.

Graham Shaw showing us all, that contrary to the Art Teacher at secondary school who told us otherwise, we can actually draw.

… and the journey of a year’s worth of Skype calls in 2013 with Andrew Dubber where his role was to persuade me that I could shift from someone who wrote a bit, to a published author. Technical ability making up 20% and confidence and battling the inner critic making the remaining 80%. He did more than I suspect he realised to push me forwards.

Poetry – the experimental. Taking an image and crashing it into something else. Loving the work of Frank O’Hara (writing about him in the new book, “The Journey to Wonder”) and obsessing over the writings of Lawrence Ferlinghetti. How to write with elegance and effortlessness.

Reading the latest issue of “The Wire” experimental music magazine – adventures in sound. Marvelling at the number of experimental magazines that exist at the margins these days. Sampling, trying – pushing the imagination to explore.

Street Wisdom – wandering streets with a loosely structured process to interrogate the surroundings, see it anew and find solutions to linear questions with non-linear approaches. Months later and still absorbing the learning.

And returning to Brian Eno: his oblique strategies cards were created with artist Peter Schmidt as a way to disrupt thinking. Two random examples:

“Be extravagant”

“You can only make one dot at a time”

… the journey to wonder continues.

 

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Have you seen my two books released this year?

Values Count is available from Amazon or directly from my website. It’s a book about values based approaches to work. Essential for anyone who wants to work with a strong sense of purpose.

Blue: Experiments in Sound is my latest collection of poetry with illustrations, the latest stories about Blue, the misanthropic 21st century man in search of a meaning. It is available in a limited edition from my website.

——

Saying Thank You

When did you last say thank you and really mean it? When did you last send a note or an email to someone just to say thank you?

It’s interesting how we can so often feel unappreciated in life, and yet we take so little time to show our appreciation of others.

Perhaps we could make sure that the next person who serves us our coffee or our lunch, gets a real thank you with eye contact that has meaning to it.

Perhaps we could say a real thank you with eye contact to the person who puts our food through the checkout at the supermarket.

Perhaps we could say thank you at the end of the working day to those with whom we have spent the day, and really mean that we are grateful for the time they have spent with us.

Perhaps we could send a note to someone to thank them for something they have done for us that has had an impact on our life – it could be a small thing, something that just helped to move us forwards, or it could be something that seemed small at the time, but had an enormous impact on the direction our life took as a result.

Gratitude helps us to find happiness. It is at the heart of one of the many contradictions of life. We find happiness through our contribution to and appreciation of others.

Phones and Control

There seems to be a general agreement that 2016 was an awful year for the planet and for the people in it. That doesn’t, of course, mean that it was bad for you and I – although some of the big national and global things that happened probably impacted how it turned out for each of us.

What does this all mean for our ability to feel in control? And how does that even matter?

Well, try as we might, it is built into us to need to feel some sense of control over things. Depending on the scale at which we are working, and depending on where we are feeling most vulnerable, we will attempt to impose some control in some way so that we can feel comfortable with what is happening. Or at least feel that we can cope with what is going on around us.

Oddly, this is why we see so many people walking around with phones in their hands or headphones stuffed in their ears. Years ago this feeling of control and comfort was probably provided by smoking a cigarette. As that has become less acceptable, the phone has replaced the cigarette as an adult “comfort blanket”. I’m not intending to be patronising or superior about this. I do it too! When bored, or distracted, or between things, or uncomfortably alone – we get out our phone to see if we have any new messages or content to give us a nice endorphin rush.

Here’s a spontaneous thought. If we left our phone at home and went out – what would we do instead of getting our phone out to check it? Where would we feel most out of control and most vulnerable? And what would we gain or lose from not having the phone with us?

OK, I can hear you breathing very shallowly at the thought (or is that me I can hear?) A first step would be to take the phone with you, but not take it out of your pocket or bag. Don’t check it for at least an hour. Be conscious of the times when you are tempted to check it. What is happening? Why do you feel the need to do it? What is the next thing that comes to mind to allay that response?

Food for thought.

Are we living in a smart phone addicted world? Answers welcome in the comments.

Another Bad News Day

The team had some bad news yesterday. We weren’t successful bidding competitively for a piece of work which we have been developing for three years. When I was told the news I went through the whole Kubler-Ross cycle in a matter of minutes: denial; anger; bargaining; depression and then grudging acceptance.

It was the second bid we failed to get in a week. Tough times! I know we need to pull together as a team at times like this. And I also know that we need to dig deep into our Core Values and connect with Optimism.

Two things struck me as I go through the process of accepting this news.

First, it’s really important to be clear that the end of the telescope that we look through is not the same as everyone else. To us, the news feels catastrophic. It’s a big deal! It’s so easy to generalise this and think that everyone else sees it the same way. Of course, they don’t. Outside of the team this is a tiny decision and doesn’t have the significance it has for us. We need to be clear about perspective.

Second, again this is all about perspective. As I walked to the railway station this morning I walked past a pickup truck with two newly crafted runs of stairs. They were unpainted and they were beautiful. I thought about all the times I walk on handcrafted staircases and so many other things that are made by people with immense talent. It must be amazing to craft something that is then used by countless people even long after we die.

And in that thought came the realisation that the work we are doing isn’t about a single bid or any particular moment. It’s the longer term impact we are having. It’s the stories we hear from people who tell us how our work has had a long term impact. It’s the transformations that we create.

That is why we “Do the Work”.