Dub Stroganoff

The kitchen is a place where creativity often is necessary to solve problems of making the best possible meal of the ingredients available. Need is the mother of invention. There’s a lot to learn from that process. Too bad we spend so much time living in abundance.

Beef Stroganoff is a dish of Russian origin. It’s got its own entry on Wikipedia. There are different recipes. One of the famous is based on beef, onion, tomato and cream. Since beef was expensive in Sweden, people here exchanged the beef for a cheaper ingredient, falukorv – ”falu sausage” – a Swedish speciality, although in the lower price section. The resulting dish was pretty good and as a result the idea spread.

Meats aside, I think the principle is interesting as a creative technique. Keep the recipe of something established, but change the main ingredient and see what happens.

There’s a lot I’m fascinated by in Jamaican dub music. Dub is the result of a remix process in which the producer runs the separate instrument stems into a mixer, and by clever usage of the mixing board as well as outboard effects (spring reverb, tape-echo, phaser and filters) comes out with a new version – a dub plate of the original song.

The main ingredient in Jamaican dub is reggae music. Reggae is not what I do, so for a long time I’ve daydreamed about doing my own stroganoff version of dub. Feeding the mixer with other kinds of music. Folk, slow house and lazy beats.

For some reason, I never get around to it despite having all the equipment. Dub stroganoff remains a brilliant idea in theory. I’m not sure, but I believe abundance has something to do with my failure of putting it into practice.

Three tools in creative work

Taste, interest and intuition are powerful tools in creative work. They drive our decision-making as we create. Of course, there might be more tools, if I can think of any more I might return to this.

When I think about it, taste might be the compass that takes us home. Interest is the wanderlust, that make us leave the usual path and head out into new terrain. Intuition, well, it might be the feeling that something great is just around the corner if we just put in that extra effort.

Taste is a kind of reflex. It can be a great strength, but it can also make us repeat ourselves. I remember listening to Rick Rubin talking to Brian Eno, who told the story of a period when he was tired of his own taste. 

The importance of getting lost is a recurring thought that I might have written about before. There are a lot of ways to get lost on purpose. Abitrary constraints such as not being allowed to use your favourite tools could be one strategy. 

A creative prompt could be another. And as a guitar player I have the opportunity of tuning my strings to an alternate tuning. When no position or grip on the fretboard sounds like home, you have no choice but to try to find your way back. Trying out strange chords and slowly finding parts that fit together.

I think this is taste at work. Presented with this sonic mess, we start trying to get it homely again. Finding something to play that sounds neat and tidy, comprehensible – music that makes sense.

Interest and exploration might be the reflex that comes before the retuning. A kind of restlessness with the same old. A desire to challenge our routines, our current skill-set, a longing and a realization that there’s got to be more than this.

And last intuition. What about it? Maybe we can see it as some kind of trust? Having a hunch and trusting the process. Accepting that we can’t control or know everything, but finding the courage to go out on a limb, to try something new – because it might work!

And when it doesn’t. We’ll try again, in some other way.

5ive 4our

Every improvisation needs to start somewhere. And more often than not the trick is just to get started. There’s nothing to plan. Time will tell where you end up. If it’s any good the end destination might surprise you. After all, you wouldn’t be exploring if you end up in the same spot, with the same result as last time.

The power of prompts is an example of this. You just let any arbitrary starting point be the fuse to send you off. Somehow, I got it all wrong I figured that prompts were for beginners, for students. I’ve later realized that skilled writers and poets might use prompts too, just to get started.

Disquiet Junto is a weekly musical prompt that takes you out of the comfort zone very fast. I do these from time to time. Not because my end result is fantastic, it never is. But quite often, it turns out to be interesting. Because I wouldn’t go there on my own.

Yesterday was the deadline for Disquiet 0540.

Disquiet Junto Project 0540: 5ive 4our

The Assignment: Take back 5/4 for Jedi time masters Dave Brubeck and Paul Desmond

Step 1: The day before this project began was May 4, which has been claimed by a fantasy from a galaxy far far away. Prepare to reclaim the day for the late jazz pianist Dave Brubeck and saxophonist Paul Desmond.

Step 2: Now, in honor of Dave Brubeck’s classic recording of the Paul Desmond composition “Take Five,” record something original in 5/4 time.

This is what I did:
Playing music in 5/4 is definitely outside the comfort zone of my musicianship. I started with programming a simple drum beat. Then I generated some electric piano. Added some chords on top, a bass synth playing long notes and an 808 drum machine playing hihat-patterns. I tried a while to solo on guitar over it all, but it sounded like crap. All in all, it was an hour of fun.

Here’s what I ended up with:

The importance of letting go

My kids are growing. With every year the leash gets a little bit longer. Staying out in the evenings, going into the city on their own. Step by step, after sharing all our advice, we have no choice but to put our trust in their ability to make sound judgement.

Releasing art into the world is not without similarities. It’s scary. Which is why I have postponed it for a long time. Hiding in preparation, in exploring new ideas. Trying to make something that is more clever, more impressive. More bulletproof from criticism or ridicule.

Which it never will be. I have finally come to the conclusion that if ever anybody is going to take my music to heart it’s more likely it will be because of its vulnerability and imperfection rather than my ability to impress – which I frankly don’t put my hope into.

In a week or so, I will put my first track up on all streaming platforms. Not just on Soundcloud, which I’ve found is a good place to hide. It won’t be my best or biggest tune, not the most clever lyric. But it will be good enough to ship. I don’t have any hopes of it achieving anything more than getting me over the threshold of shipping. Once, it’s out there. I can start shipping more – continually.

It will feel good to see that song take the bus into town on a Friday night. All on its own. It’s only scary if we want it to be.

Bigger art with a smaller palette?

Winsor & Newton aquarelles are available in 79 different single-pigment colours. That’s a lot more than a normal aquarell box can hold. In my aquarelle-beginners book it’s recommended you start with no more than five.

After all, aquarelles can be dilluted and blended in thin layers. And just a few colours will allow for a multitude of hues. 

Painting with audio is no different. There’s an infinite amount of instruments, effect pedals, outboard gear, and plug-ins available to take your sounds and songs in any direction. But if you settle with a limited palette there’s a lot to be won. 

Less time wasted on deciding what to use, increased skills on your selected tools and last but not least a distinct, idiosyncratic sound that comes from your particular combination of sounds. Allowing a collection of songs to share a mood, tone, flavour – giving your EP or album a sound all its own.

Seth Godin had a blog-post on this some years ago called Leave stones unturned. Because infinity of choice is a trap.

What is skill?

A few years ago I was a voluntary football (soccer) coach for my son’s team. Together with some other parents I was educated for a few days by staff from the Swedish Football Federation. The head coaches recommended drills in which the kids formed small teams, playing 3 against 3, 4 against 4 etc.

The reason was naturally that every kid would get more ball contact. But even more important. In smaller teams all players are forced to make more decisions. Should I pass the boll or try to score, pass or dribble, run or stay?

Maybe it sounds like common sense? Well, when hearing this I got an insight that made a big impression on me. I realized that this logic is applicable to I believe any area in life.

It’s all about decision making. If you’re making pottery and press with too much force at the wrong spot you end up with a lump of clay instead of a bowl. Wrong decision. Likewise, a chef in a kitchen will make a decision if the dish she’s cooking needs more salt or not.

And still most decisions probably aren’t rational. We’re not weighing for and against. We act on gut feeling, intuition and reflexes. Just like in a game of soccer.

Thinking about this yesterday I arrived at the conclusion:

Skill is knowing what to do next.

A finish is a commencement

Passing a finish line can hold more than one emotion. There’s ”We did it!”, but also ”And now what?”. All the hard work. Are you where you intended? Or have you but discovered there’s a new level, a new boss. A plateau before it goes uphill again.

Tonight was the commencement for the 100-day workshop I’ve been doing since January 24th. And here I am, on my own, with all these tools and principles. A fledgling baby bird, a little afraid of heights.

On May 21th I’ll be taking part in a half-marathon around Gothenburg. It will be a different kind of challenge. It might hurt but it will feel great to pass that finish line.

In life there is only one. And few are in a hurry to get there.