The Creative Process

It’s been a pretty creative period for me lately. A new play, a new film, some music, etc. And, I must say, that I love creating. Not only art, but almost anything. Creating, for me, is the best approach to anything in life, cooking, working with clients, writing blogs.

The reason I mention this is that I want to share a good thing. But, we are not talking about a simple thing. In fact, the creative process works on several levels simultaneously. Of course, at its most basic level it is understanding what it is you want to create. But it is also being aware of where you are in the process, the desired state in relationship to the actual state. In other words, structural tension. That is only the beginning of the process. It sets up the framework for further development. Structural tension motivates action. And the action is not a shotgun approach in which you try everything in sight, but rather target a strategy in which there is an economy of means, a type of mathematical elegance.

Forging elegant strategies is not something that usually happens when you are a beginner. It takes a level of experience over time. The more you create, the more elegant the process becomes. At first, there will be lots of false starts, dead ends, missteps. Later, your skill develops, and there comes a level of mastery with most things in which your ability and capacity to create grows and develops. As you create more and more of what you want, your aspirations go up. The new aspirations evoke the need for more and more technique, and learning how to accomplish that new level becomes the norm. One thing that is mastered is how to learn.

Some creations are solo flights, but many of them are working with others. Often, working with others is my favorite form of creating. Of course, this is when they too are in a generative/creative orientation, where we can join together to bring about the outcome we want. Solo or with others, creating is so different from anything else.

What else is there? For many people, their lives are filled with problem solving. Rather than create, they are busy trying to fix what is wrong. There is no shortage of problems, so, if you happen to solve one, there is always another one ready to take over. You can solve all of your problems and still not have what you want. There is a difference between getting rid of what you don’t want, and creating what you did want.

Another approach to life is, what I described in my book The Path of Least Resistance, the reactive/responsive orientation. Here, circumstances drive your actions. In the responsive side of the coin, you look for the right way to behave. In the self-help world, you will find a lot of prescriptions of how to behave. Be more this way, be less that way. Be kind, gentle, non-judgmental. Be less critical, selfish, neurotic. It is easy to tell people how to behave. It is much more complex to understand why they behave the ways they do. Next time you see a list of proper behavior, realize it comes from the “here’s how to respond” ideal. You’ll notice there is little if any understanding of why people do what they do. That is the realm of structural dynamics in which we understand that the underlying structure of anything will determine its behavior.

If you don’t want to fall into the party line by responding “properly,” you may find yourself reacting. This takes many forms. You may seem to have a chip on your shoulder, and life feels unjust and against you. Or you may have a more subtle approach, using wit and sarcasm to give extreme contempt for what seems like an unfair game.

React or respond is not creating. Nor is creating the right way to react or respond. It is just a great thing to do in life. The world will be as it is. Most of us are not in positions to impact that directly. But there are things we want to bring into being. Our human spirit, no matter what the circumstances, is to create. Too often, we get the wrong impression from our society, which makes life about adopting the right behavior, the right belief, the right purpose, the right defense against harm, the right tribe with which to belong, the right politics, the right things to eat, the right clothes to wear, the right way to cut your hair, and on and on it goes.

The creative process is the most successful process for accomplishment in history. And when you are in the process, easy or hard, inspired or frustrating, you have a level of involvement in life that is magnificent.

(Painting by Anneli Curnock)

Russian Piano Technique

There are two major techniques for classical piano. One is the French school in which you simply push down the keys. This is the most common technique and has been used by many of the world’s greatest pianists. The other is the Russian technique. In this technique, the pianist creates tension in his or her fingers before striking the key. Then, the actual striking of the key becomes the resolution to the tension. This technique produces the most beautiful bell like tones coming from the piano.

There is more to this technique than this principle, such as weightless of the arms, etc. But the structural principle is that the tension created in the fingers comes before the activation of the note. Tension first, and then the action becomes the resolution.

I learned about this technique from the very famous piano teacher Madame Chaloff. This was while I was going to the Boston Conservatory, and while I am not a pianist, my composition teacher had studied with her. So had Leonard Bernstein, Keith Jarrett, Chick Corea, George Shearing, and so many more great musicians.

Why this technique should be interesting to those of us who are not pianists is that it illustrates one of the most important principles of the creative process, and that is tension comes before action. As in archery, tension comes before releasing the arrow.

The basic structure in the creative process is structural tension, the relationship between your desired state and the actual state in relationship to the desired state. Two critical data points: know what you want to create; know where you are in relationship to that outcome. And remember, this tension is not psychological. It is not stress, anxiety or pressure. It is structural.

Most people do not use this structure. Instead, they react or respond to circumstances they find themselves in, or, in the future, might find themselves in. This often means a lot of problem solving. One problem after another. As we’ve said, you can solve all of your problems and still not have what you want. Problem solving is not creating, and creating is not problem solving.

A few weeks ago, I led my annual workshop for artists, The Art of the Creative Process. This is one of my favorite courses to teach because it is about creating art, and using structural dynamics to increase the artist’s ability to further master his or her approach. The artists in the course are consummate professionals. They work in various mediums: film, music, visual art, writing, dance, etc. They all go through the same set of projects we set up for them. They all write, do photography, do other visual exercises, structure plots for screenplays, and so on.

One of the major principles is Russian piano technique, as least as a principle, first the tension, and then the creative process is the resolution to the tension. They structure a dialogue, but are not allowed to write it for a while. This space between constructing the form and actually writing the piece consolidates the tension. It is like putting tension in the fingers before striking the keys. Then they have a very short time in which to write the piece. 7 minutes. They write very fast and very well indeed.

The results are amazing. Many of them have never written before, but everyone, experienced or not, creates a wonderful piece. Before this exercise, most of them would have thought this was impossible. But, once they have experienced this and several other examples of “Russian piano technique” they begin to experience one of the great secrets of the creative process, tension before creating.

Now, these people were experienced and masterful creators to begin with. Many of them at the top of their art and craft. But still, there was this one missing piece to the puzzle.

Structural tension is THE most powerful form for creating anything, including your own life. When in doubt, remember Russian piano technique, and firmly establish structural tension before you act.

A Lesson That Won’t Be Learned

David Mamet, in his book On Directing Film, describes modern architecture that was in vogue in the 60’s, with its flat roofs, being put all over New England. After a few years, these houses began to have major problems because they were not designed to handle the weight of the snow. Most of those houses are gone now because the designs didn’t take into consideration how nature worked.

Why is Mamet, the great director, playwright, screenwriter, and artist talking about houses? His point was about structure. He went on to say how the old New England builders understood weather, and structured their houses with the right pitch of the roofs so that snow will fall off them. He then went on to make the same point about the structure of film, and how it must understand the forces in play to make it workable.

Here in Vermont, where we live, there are people who know how water flows, and just where to build a house and just where to put ditches to route the flows of water from storms away from the house. Without this knowledge, you will end up with water in your cellar or worse.

So now we come to the tragedy in Houston. Without a sense of how land and weather work, entire towns and cities, factories and refineries, were build in places that were below the flood levels. Of course, our hearts go out to the millions of people who will suffer, some of whom have lost their lives, because of a terrible hurricane. You may think that this was something that couldn’t have been anticipated, but in the 1930’s, a similar hurricane hit that area with similar devastation. Then, however, the land was not built up. There was some damage but not the type we see today.

It can sound almost childish to ask why build buildings in places where they are subject to danger? In New Orleans, there had been wetlands to accommodate for the amount of water they would get from a hurricane, but someone had the idea of paving over the wetlands. A similar mentality drove Texas to rid the state of regulations designed to protect the population from exactly this type of event.

Those who want to rid the world of government, are against regulations as if they were somehow the enemies of freedom. These people put their societies in danger. Of course, we can talk about over regulation, etc. But that misses the point. To generalize about all regulations is ridiculous. A society has a right to protect itself. And without some guidelines and controls, short-term exploitive gain will lead to long-term harm. The folks that build the houses that flooded are long gone, but they made their money. They will not be held responsible for the outcome. Nor will the state of Texas when they changed the laws to permit such development.

The promise to restore the towns and cities that have been destroyed seems impractical at best, and inane at worst. Why restore something that was built in the wrong place to begin with? This is a lesson that will not be learned.

In our work is structural dynamics; we understand that the underlying structure of anything will determine its behavior. In our work, we have seen that self-organizing systems, much glorified a few years ago in some management circles, always lead to structural conflicts in which elements are pitted against other elements. This leads to an oscillating pattern of short-term Vs long term, a competition for the same resource base, and a drift to low performance. The glorification of the “free market” is such a self-organizing system. The market will not take care of itself when left to its own devices. In the case of Texas, many of the policy makers thought that great good would come from freeing up regulations and letting the marketplace do its thing. Well, it did its thing.

This is not a slam against free enterprise, which is a great system when proper and sensible controls assure its overall positive benefits and avoid its potentially destructive dangers.

As David Mamet teaches in On Directing Film, there are some structures that are better than others, and it is with folly that nature is not taken into consideration.


It is the essence of irony that white supremacists are not the most gifted among us. I suppose that is why they hang onto identity to make up for their actual inadequacies. For them, there is great synthetic comfort in holding on to a straw of false pride, and, hating other groups they see as less than them. That’s all their lives have become. And, when hate migrates into terrorism, as it did in Charlottesville, the pretense of anything good or noble that they would like to claim dissolves into the reality it is: a cult of evil.

What happened yesterday was just one event that dramatized a sickness in America. Actually it is a sickness that is finding pockets of malignant cells throughout the West these days. It is easier to seethe with hate than develop, work hard, build, create, and join together with others to build a better world.

To think that in 2017, after the history of the Twentieth Century, with millions upon millions dying because of National Socialism, that Nazi flags could fly in America is surreal. But there it is. History can seem lost to a world that, in its past, had sacrificed so much to overcome evil, only to see it reappear.

What can we learn? That nothing is ever fixed. That social order to guarantee such values as freedom and justice can be so easily undermined, and that progress is not assured in a steady state simply because at one point it had its victories. The human condition is the same as it was over 2000 years ago, and while there has been dramatic progress in technology and science, the structural makeup of humanity remains unchanged. That means that society has a choice it may not know it has. For it to make that choice, it has to always move ahead in the direction of freedom and justice for all. If it becomes complacent, it will lose ground, and the cancer of that which is lowest and most base in the human condition will have its day.

The Passing of Sam Shepard

It hurts to think of Sam Shepard, gone.

The cause of his death was complications of amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, or Lou Gehrig’s disease.

One of the greatest artists of his generation, Shepard was a true original. His plays have become classics of the theater, and, along with Bob Dylan, he was worthy of winning a Nobel Prize in Literature (even though he didn’t.)

He changed theater, experimented with form and structure, went way beyond the theater of the absurd which was in fashion in the late 50s and early 60s, and created powerful, unforgettable characters. Bruce Willis said that it took him years of acting experience to finally be prepared to play a Sam Shepard role because of the emotional complexity and dramatic depth it demands.

Shepard was also powerful actor. Memorable are his roles as Chuck Yeager in the Right Stuff and as Eddie in Fool For Love based on his play and directed for film by Robert Altman. His performances were always alive with a natural feeling, emotional truth, both down to earth and charismatic. When he was on the screen, you couldn’t take your eyes off of him. He could be doing nothing it seemed, and yet, the screen was filled with drama. Of course, he wasn’t doing “nothing.“ He was filling the space with his presence and imagination.

A true great has passed. Always a sad event that seems to change the world.

From his website:

Sam Shepard’s plays are performed on and off Broadway and in all the major regional American theatres. They are also widely performed and studied in Europe, particularly in Britain, Germany and France, finding both a popular and scholarly audience. A leader of the avant-garde in contemporary American theatre since his earliest work. Sam’s plays are not easy to categorize. They combine wild humor, grotesque satire, myth and a sparse, haunting language to present a subversive view of American life.

His settings are often a kind of nowhere, notionally grounded in the dusty heart of the vast American Plains; his characters are typically loners, drifters caught between a mythical past and the mechanized present; his work often concerns deeply troubled families.

Before he was thirty, Shepard had over thirty plays produced in New York. In his works Shepard has repeatedly examined the moral anomie and spiritual starvation that characterize the world of his drama.”

Sam began his career as a playwright in New York in 1964 with the Theatre Genesis production of two one-act plays, COWBOYS and THE ROCK GARDEN at St. Mark’s Church-in-the Bowery. Their lack of conventional structure and the manic language of their long monologues offend critics from uptown papers. Some find the plays derivative of Samuel Beckett and other European dramatists. But Michael Smith of THE VILLAGE VOICE hails them as “distinctly American” and “genuinely original,” and declares their author full of promise.”

By 1980, he was the most produced playwright in America after Tennessee Williams.

Over the past forty years, Sam has written over 45 plays, eleven of which have won Obie Awards. In 1979 he was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Drama for BURIED CHILD. In 1986 he was elected to the American Academy of Arts and Letters, and in 1992 he received the Gold Medal for Drama from the Academy. He was inducted into the Theatre Hall of Fame in 1994.

“No one knows better than Sam Shepard that the true American West is gone forever, but there may be no writer alive more gifted at reinventing it out of pure literary air.”
…Frank Rich, The New York Times
“Mr. Shepard is the most deeply serious humorist of the American theatre, and a poet with no use whatsoever for the ‘poetic.’ He brings fresh news of love, here and now, in all its potency and deviousness and foolishness, and of many other matters as well.” …Edith Oliver, The New Yorker
“If plays were put in time capsules, future generations would get a sharp-toothed profile of life in the U.S. in the past decade and a half from the works of Sam Shepard.” …Time Magazine
“Sam Shepard is one of the most gifted writers ever to work on the American stage.” …Marsha Norman, Pulitzer-Award-winning author
“One of our best and most challenging playwrights… His plays are a form of exorcism: magical, sometimes surreal rituals that grapple with the demonic forces in the American landscape.” …Newsweek
“His plays are stunning in their originality, defiant and inscrutable.” ..Esquire
“Sam Shepard is phenomenal…. The best practicing American playwright.” …The New Republic

Sam Shepard was 73 years old.

The Chair

…….a little fable…
Once upon a time, there was a big chair sitting in a big room. The chair was very proud of itself because important people would sit in the chair and say important things. The chair began to think that it was important because these people where sitting in it, that important thoughts were thought that led to important things being said.

But over time, some of the people who sat in the chair said very silly and stupid things. Those listening to these silly and stupid things didn’t know that they were silly and stupid, nor did the people who sat in the chair know that what they were saying was silly and stupid.

The chair was getting on in years, and it thought that perhaps it was because of its age that those who sat in the chair were getting more silly and far more stupid that ever. It remembered all the brilliant minds and brilliant bottoms that sat in that chair, and then it dawned on the chair. “It must not be me if I can tell the difference between the smart and important words and the silly and stupid words. It must be the actual people who sat in the chair.”

“That means,” the chair thought, “that I have had nothing to do with how smart or stupid the people who sit in me are.” This was quite a revelation for the proud chair to have. After all, the chair couldn’t argue against the thought that it was the people and not the chair that caused the quality of thinking and saying. “That means,” it thought, “that I never had any influence of those who sat in me.” The chair felt both sad and a relief all at once.

And so the chair came to understand its role in life, to support people whether or not they were smart or stupid. Gone was the pride. In its place was the comfort of doing the job it was meant to do, which was to happily bear the burden that came its way.

The End.

Science March


April 22, Earth Day 2017, saw a march for science around the world. In a way, it is strange to think that people have to march in support of one of humanities highest achievements. But, sadly, that is the case. Science has become politicized.

On the one hand, that is natural because, as scientific research becomes more complex, science needs funding to realize its full potential.

It is hard to understand why science has enemies. Science, which has eradicated diseases, created technology, helped bring the Renaissance out of the dark ages, and that gave us levels of communication and helped build civilization, is under attack.

There are two major human inventions that drive the highest in the human spirit. One is science, the other is the arts.

A few years ago, I wrote this blog entitled “Oil Vs Science.” I republish it here because it is still relevant. Here is a fact: within the next 30 years, renewable energy can totally replace energy from fossil fuels. Think of what that means to the planet. Think of what that may mean politically in the world. It is science, and only science, that can lead to that positive development.

I support science as one of the most remarkable human achievements the world has ever seen.

Oil Vs Science

Science MarchOver 60 years ago, my father had one of his lungs removed by the leading pioneer in that type of operation. This was the 1950s, and everyone smoked. My father’s doctor insisted that my father quit smoking, which he did. Many of the other patients didn’t, and therefore, many of them didn’t last long. Only the ones that quit smoking lived much longer. My father went on for decades after his surgery. He did not have lung cancer or emphysema as did most of the other patients. He had scar tissue on one of his lungs caused by a childhood disease that was destroying the lung and his ability to breath.

In the early 50s, this doctor and his colleagues knew that there was a direct relationship between smoking and lung disease. No question about it for them. But they were up against an industry that sold cigarettes. There were “tobacco states” in which the politicians from those areas were dependent on the big tobacco companies. As far as they were concerned, there was no connection between smoking and illness. It was just a theory a few doctors and scientists had. What do they know? Let’s find some doctors who disagree. Let’s fund some research that proves how healthy smoking is.

It is amazing how little things change. The overwhelming scientific evidence is that global warming is real and there are human causes. That understanding goes against the interests of big oil. So, many politicians, who happen to create laws, regulations and fund agencies, are happy to deny the obvious.

I suppose there are those who still argue against the germ theory. Louis Pasteur had to suffer from the medical establishment when he asked them to wash their hands. How could something so small cause so much trouble? It didn’t make and sense, at least to them.

Any politician from right to left who wants to argue that there is still some disagreement about global warming and its human contribution to it is either an idiot or an opportunist. Given the vested interests of the oil companies and how they contribute to political campaigns, I would guess its opportunism. That means they have to be smart enough to know the truth that they are so ready to argue against. There is something more honorable in being an idiot given that comparison.

Science is an intellectual discipline. It is not a belief system the same way math and music are not belief systems. And when people say things like, “They have their own vested interests because they get funding to do their work,” they miss what science is. Imagine you could buy off science. Who has more money, the funding agencies for scientific research or oil companies? If it were just a matter of money, the oil companies could buy off science, and there would be a lot of research showing how there is no human hand in global warming.

But I don’t need to ask a scientist. My wife, as an avid gardener, knows what’s going on. She can tell from the calendar when various plants are supposed to bloom. And, over the years, they have bloomed sooner and sooner in the season.

I suppose the politicians can say something like, “Yes, the planet is warming, but we don’t really know if it has anything to do with CO2.” Yes, we do know. The fact is, they could know. They don’t want to know, because if they admitted the truth, they would need to vote in favor of human beings and against the interests of the bosses at the oil companies.

I suppose I sound cynical. Notwithstanding, to myself, I sound realistic because how can people argue against 90% of the science. I suggest everyone read my friend and colleague Peter Senge’s book about this called The Necessary Revolution: How Individuals and Organizations Are Working Together to Create a Sustainable World. This is a book that verifies science, and goes further to discuss how to address it.

I can understand the oil companies. They are amoral (not immoral) and have little value driven objectives. This is a question of leadership. Given every corporation is amoral because they are not people but institutions, those who lead the companies must insist that higher values drive decisions rather than simple opportunism from a short-term perspective. I can’t understand the obvious lack of intellectual honesty of the politicians and ideologues that claim science has not proven its case. You can look this up. It is not one or two data points that show the patterns. There are hundreds of data points, all confirming each other, all aligned and consistent.

My advice is this: do not support or vote for any politician, no matter where they stand politically, who denies scientific fact and points to the most obscure fringe scientist who question the data. Also don’t vote for politicians who think Elvis is still alive or who think the moon landing was a fake.

Living In A Bubble

Let’s begin with the Principle of Increasing Returns: Here it is in a nutshell: the more you have, the more you have.

Example: keyboards. Most computer keyboards are set up like the earliest mechanical typewriters. When typewriters were first introduced, typists typed too fast and the machines keys would get stuck. In order to show the typists down, the keyboard was laid out to be less intuitive, and more difficult.

This strategy worked, and more and more typists learned the keyboard. The more typists learned the keyboard, the more manufactures used them in their products. Now that there is no reason to slow a typist down, we still have the original keyboard because, the more people know how to use it, the more keyboards will conform to the original.

The more you have, the more you have.

More iPads, more apps that are designed for iPads. The more people use Facebook, the more Facebook expands. The more people watch Netfilx, the more Netflix is able to increase its programming. When it does, more people watch.

In some ways, this principle is pretty obvious. Think about the success and spread of Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, and other popular tech offerings. The more you have the more you have. The growth can be exponential.

But there is a dark side of the principle of increasing returns. It is how groups of people get their information. The popular term is the “bubble.” Many people live in a bubble in which the only data they have access to conforms to their own concepts and belief systems.

This is the famous reinforcing loop. If your belief system included that Martians have taken over the government in a plot to control humanity, the more you read about it, the more you tend to think its true. The more you think its true, the more you will want to read about it.

This is why conspiracy theories are so popular. The more people agree with the theory, the less objective facts can penetrate the bubble. The more the case is made that Martians are to blame for all of the ills of the world, the more people, with their torches, are out looking for Martians.

Even otherwise sane people, who should know better, can fall into crazy conspiracy theories. Evidence and reality, as it is in cults, lose their credibility. As in the old saying, no amount of facts will get in the way of a good story.

It is easy to see the bubble in the extreme. It takes a truly strange person to believe that Martians have taken over, or that Muzak is a plot to dull the minds of the masses by forcing them to listen to inane music. (This last one makes actually makes sense to me… JUST KIDDING!!)

And, now, in political life, the fringe conspiracy theories have made it to mainstream. I suppose it begins with doubting science as a credible source. If you are to be against understanding global warming is real and is caused by human beings polluting the planet, you have to discredit science.

Not that science has all the answers. But it does have something better than all the answers, which is a way of seeking reality. First we have to contrast real science with what we all learned in high school. We learned that the so-called scientific method was to begin with a hypothesis, then look for evidence, and then confirm or deny the theory. This is not how the true pioneers of science actually think.

Professor Stuart Firestein, a neuroscientist and Chairman of the Department of Biology at Columbia University in his book Ignorance – how it drives science, writes that most people have a false impression of science. Rather than what most of us learned in school as the “scientific method,” Firestein says, “…it’s mostly a tale woven by newspaper reports, television documentaries, and high school lesson plans.” He goes on to describe the true scientific process as pursuing understanding of the unknown. In fact, he created a course entitled Ignorance in which guest scientists speak for a few hours about what they don’t know.

Rather than rely on categorizing, the students learn how to better observe and reason. In fact, Sir Isaac Newton said, “Hypotheses has no place in science.” Rene Descartes said, “To understand any set of phenomena, first rid yourself of preconceptions.”

Here are two pictures: You live in a bubble of your own concepts, and accept or reject information based on how it conforms to your preconceived beliefs; or you live in a world in which everything can be re-considered and rethought, and observation and evidence is critical, independent of belief.

Of course, I am making the difference seem like black and white. Usually it is not. Usually there is a mixture of the two pictures. But these approaches are not equal, especially if you are to create more of the life you want to create. Over the years, our research and experience in structural dynamics have shown how the concepts people have, when built into their structures, lead to an oscillating pattern in which success is finally reversed and, like a rocking chair, movement forward leads to movement backwards. When concepts are not part of the structure, then the two critical factors are the outcomes you want to create, and a clear and accurate understanding of reality as it truly is in relationship to this outcome. From that, structural tension is formed, and the tendency is for the structure to resolve in favor of the desired outcome, especially because you are working towards that end.

People often talk about “limiting beliefs.” They think that some beliefs are limiting and some are not. ALL beliefs are limiting. What is revolutionary in our work is this simple principle: it doesn’t matter what you believe to be an effective creator.

People in the belief business hate this idea, because what they have to sell is their belief systems. But successful creators have believed all types of things, and it didn’t matter. In our new book IDENTITY, Dr. Wayne Andersen and I write that what you think about yourself doesn’t matter at all. Of course, to those in the belief business, that idea is pure blasphemy. As we have said, have they never read a biography of successful people? If they had, they would have found out that hardly any of these successful people had high self-esteem. What they thought about themselves was irrelevant in their creative process.

You can live in a bubble of your own making. Or you can break out of it by learning the disciplines of observation and reason. You may change your mind from time to time. Life will become vastly more interesting and involving.

In our flagship course Fundamentals of Structural Thinking, step one is to begin with nothing, that means without a concept, belief, past experience, model, or theory. As Rene Descartes said, “..rid yourself of preconceptions.”

This is a true discipline that takes learning and practice. But it pays off in discernment and understanding. The world opens, and sometimes, new and original insights unlock the beauty of reality.

What we can learn from music

Back in 2007, the writer/neurologist Oliver Sacks wrote a book describing a disease he terms musicophillia. It is when the brain cannot process music. Most people do not suffer from musicophillia. In fact, music is one of the most universally loved art forms throughout the world.

What is it about music to which human beings so relate and respond? Is it about sound, rhythm, form, melody, texture, sonic relationships, the combinations of all of those things, or perhaps something else?

To Sacks, it was a matter of how the brain functions. In a PBS special, they hooked him up to a MRI brain scan and played him a piece by Bach and one by Beethoven. As it happened, Sacks liked Bach better than Beethoven, and his explanation was that his brain activity during the Bach was more stimulated than it was during the Beethoven. He suggested a few questionable conclusions from this. One was that somehow Bach was a better composer than Beethoven, and his brain waves were simply proving his point.

To think that one can claim that Bach was a greater composer than Beethoven, or the reverse of that seems the height of folly, and Sacks was too smart a guy to put his name on that declaration. But, after all his qualifiers, that’s exactly what he thought.

Taste is a personal matter. Some of us like sweet flavors, some of us prefer sour. Some of us like the combo of sweet and sour together, and some of us don’t. There is no right or wrong when it comes to taste. But, and here is the more interesting question, are those neurologists working on brain research today really understanding what came first, the preference or the brain activity?

In Sacks’ case of liking Bach over Beethoven, I would guess, and it’s only a guess, that his taste in music came first, his brain waves followed suit. Because he preferred Bach, his brain sort of said, “Mmm, Bach! How nice!” And then, his brain lit up like a young girl at a Justin Bieber concert. For me, while I love the Bach, the piece he was listening to by Beethoven was more interesting, more expressively powerful, and, if I had to chose between to two masterpieces, it would be the Beethoven hands down. I’m sure my brain would become more active with the Beethoven than the Bach, the opposite of Dr. Sacks.

I think that the late Oliver Sacks’ research over the years was brilliant. And he had a masterful ability to write about his findings. I’m a fan. But, music, that’s a realm that many neurologists have tried to explain without much success. The book This Is Your Brain On Music by McGill University neuroscientist Daniel J. Levitin, while popular, was a very silly book. His understanding of music is limited to that of an uneducated fan, and he had little knowledge of how music works structurally, something that all composers learn in music school their first year. McGill has a world class music school, and I’m sure he could have gotten a little help from his friends there, or maybe, better yet, taken a few classes in harmony, counterpoint, and form and analysis. If he had, he wouldn’t have ended up saying some of the childish things he said. Again, like Sacks, he tried to link his personal tastes to brain activity and neuroscience, and that weakness discredited his claims and demonstrated his lack of understanding.

Musical tastes develop over time. The 1913 premiere of Igor Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring caused near-riots in the audience. Now it seems tame and mainstream. This tends to be the way new trends in music develop. Beethoven’s Third Symphony was a breakthrough that took getting used to by the audience of that day. Elvis’s first appearances were met with controversy and a storm of protest. The history of music shows that taste in music is often acquired. But, if, as some neuroscientists claim, that somehow the brain will gravitate toward structures that are predetermined by the neurological disposition, how can they explain the ongoing invention of new styles of music, and the fact that the pattern of audience response is often rejection followed by appreciation. Think of the development of reggae, techno rock, rap, minimalism, atonality and electronic music now heard in most Hollywood suspense films?

In 1863, German physicist Hermann Von Helmholtz published his groundbreaking book On The Sensations of Tone in which he explains how the overtone series creates its own built-in tension-resolution systems, the underlying structure of tonal harmony. From what we’ve seen from neuroscience, it is hard to imagine those who work in that field know much about Helmholtz’s work. If they did, they would begin to study why the overtone series generates the harmonic structures it does, and why throughout the 20th Century, music has moved from lower to higher aspects of the series, in other words, became more complex and dissonant. The inventions of Debussy and Ravel, followed by the discoveries of Schoenberg, Boulez, and Stockhausen created new systems of harmony and counterpoint. These new methods were directly consistent with Helmholtz’s descriptions of the physics of music.

The brain learns. The brain changes with new experiences over time. That observation leads to this question: is it the brain that dictates what you want, or does what you want dictate to the brain, instructing it to develop whatever connections it needs to accommodate your wishes?

There is a lot of interesting research going on in neuroscience right now. There are a lot of claims being made, often by people who sell programs that assert validity through neuroscience. I have yet to see anything compelling that explains how structure works within people’s lives. Music, one of the most structural of art forms, has yet to be explained by the wonders of neuroscience. Your brain may be waiting for your direction, and after a while, will do what it needs to do to comply to your wishes as much as it can. Perhaps this is art over science.

The Passing of Fidel

Before Fidel there was Fulgencio Batista, a corrupt dictator who used his military to control the country. He had overthrown Gerado Machado, another dictator. I was a kid when Castro took over Cuba. At first, most Americans were for him. They thought he was a democrat fighting for freedom and justice and they hated Batista who was close to the American Mafia. Soon, though, the truth became known. Even before he announced he was a Marxist-Leninist, he was killing his enemies in grotesque public firing squads. Then things got worse.

There is a tragedy of Shakespearean proportions here, for Fidel had special qualities that could have served something positive and creative. Seems that in our world, you can only have one of two opinions of him: he was a despot; he was a revolutionary hero. The facts support the first opinion more than the second. I had known his chief architect who had built many of the modern public buildings in the early 60’s before escaping to America for his life. Fidel liked to kill people, put them in prison and lose the keys, control the press, intimidate the population, give the longest winded speeches in history, and he almost guided the world into a nuclear war. He tried to export his type of revolution to the third world, mostly in Africa.

Yet he created a fairly good medical system, produced the highest literacy rate in the world, and created other social benefits. Of course, the Cuba’s with their high literacy rate could only read what Fidel approved. I think he had a brilliant mind. But that only made matters worse given he was a total ideologue.

My co-author for our book IDENTITY, Dr. Wayne Andersen, had been on a fact-finding trip to Cuba, and had met with Castro. Dr. A said, “My experience with him confirms he was long winded, prone to talking in the abstract, and although he used physicians as ambassadors of health to different countries, the medical delivery system in Havana was quite dated and not close to our standards. He was brilliant but also twisted! A presence yet a threat to mankind. Suppression is what I felt while I was in Cuba.”

Castro’s worldview was so abstract, theoretical, dogged, and entrenched, with all his intelligence; he was self-defeating in his claim for a better world. This is the problem with true believers. They must make the world in their own image, ignoring reality whenever it contradicted the party line.

In little Havana, the Cuban part of Florida, the news was greeted with celebrations on the streets, Champaign bottles popping, and wild dancing, hugging, and breathing a sigh of relief. In the real Havana, things are quite different. Some people are saying it feels like they’ve lost their father.

Here was a man who could have been great. Was it his megalomania that turned him into a ruthless despot who trampled rights and freedoms? Reminds me of what Robert Frost taught us in his poem: A Semi-Revolution…

A Semi-Revolution
Robert Frost
I advocate a semi-revolution
The trouble with a total revolution
(Ask any reputable Rosicrucian)
Is that it brings the same class up on top.
Executives of skillful execution
Will therefore plan to go half-way and stop.
Yes, revolutions are the only salves,
But they’re one thing that should be done by halves