Tradeoffs Part 2 supplement — Control vs. Loss of Control

 
Pete Townshend.  Image via   www.morrisonhotelgallery.com .

Pete Townshend.  Image via www.morrisonhotelgallery.com.

 

One tradeoff that many artists make unconsciously is to take steps to seize control.  This might take the form of acquiring of special equipment that allows greater control over materials—a fancier loom, a synthesizer with more knobs, a digital audio rig, and so forth.

Another form of taking control comes by way of personnel changes.  Musicians, for example, often go solo to make the record that their band mates had resisted.  By striking out on her own, the leader has gained control.  She can pick and chose players who will carry out her ideas more competently and just as she requests.  No more resistance or squabbles—it’s a dream.

Yet the lack of resistance and improvement in competence are not pure gain.   What about the sense of difficulty and fight that may characterize the band’s performances?

Consider, for instance, some of the differences between . . .

“Going Mobile,” from Who’s Next by The Who.

 

and . . .

“Secondhand Love,” from Pete Townshend’s solo album White City: A Novel.

 

Townshend wrote and sings both songs.  One needn’t declare a preference in order to appreciate the tradeoffs inherent in recording as a member of a band versus recording as a solo artist.   

The groove of “Secondhand Love” is not only more polished, it breathes with the air of deference captured on solo records. “Going Mobile,” by contrast, is more contentious.  Note, for instance, how Keith Moon’s drum part and John Entwistle’s bassline speak of players in competition for the audience’s ear.  No element in “Secondhand Love,” beyond Townshend’s voice and guitar, makes such an overt bid for our attention. 

Players on a solo record aim to carry out the singular vision of the artist, whereas band mates exist in an ongoing contest for attention.  That competition is what charges band performances; it can also drive a singer/songwriter crazy. 

Townshend, famously aware of the ensemble around him, surely understood these tradeoffs and got what he wanted from “Secondhand Love.”  He also understood what he gave up in the process.  How many artists can claim to be so conscious of what they might gain by ceding control?


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Tradeoffs Part 2 — Is a ride pattern necessary?

 
"Trafalgar Square" by Piet Mondrian.  Image via  www.wikiart.org .  Here, Mondrian's minimalism serves as a visual analog to Ringo Starr's musical minimalism.  We can think of the boxes as beats which are either played (the boxes filled with color)  or omitted (the boxes that are blank white).    I am indebted to Bill Slichter for sharing with me his insight about the connection between Mondrian's art and rhythm in music.

"Trafalgar Square" by Piet Mondrian.  Image via www.wikiart.org.

Here, Mondrian's minimalism serves as a visual analog to Ringo Starr's musical minimalism.  We can think of the boxes as beats which are either played (the boxes filled with color)  or omitted (the boxes that are blank white).  

I am indebted to Bill Slichter for sharing with me his insight about the connection between Mondrian's art and rhythm in music.

 

One of Ringo Starr’s many contributions to drumming is his insight as an arranger.  His parts are often minimal, leaving lots of space for the voices and other instruments.

One method he employs is omission of what drummers call a ride-pattern—the constant ticking of the hi-hat or dinging of the ride cymbal.  A ride pattern provides subdivisions of the beats.  They are like little sonar blips that keep orienting the musicians.

“Here we are.”

“Here we are.”

“Here we are.”

“Here we are.”

“Here we are.”

Ride patterns are so useful as to be part of nearly every drumbeat.  Yet they come at a cost, one most drummers might overlook.  Ride patterns occupy a lot of sonic space, space you might not know existed until you hear  what is made possible by, for example, Ringo’s omission of a ride pattern in the verses of “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.”

 

 

Notice that the aural space conveyed by the absence of hi-hat or ride cymbal suggests physical space.  And the absence creates a vital contrast with the choruses, during which Ringo smashes away on his cymbals.  It’s as if we hear the verses from our seats in the theater and are then thrust up on stage for the choruses.

In my experience, too few drummers consider leaving such holes in their parts.   It’s an unconscious decision on their part.  They enter a song assuming that some form of ride pattern is necessary.  But what about all of the space they are trading away by way o that assumption?   

They might take note of what Ringo and the Beatles were able to accomplish when the drum parts let the space do the talking. 


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Tradeoffs Part 2 supplement — Max Roach channels Papa Jo Jones

 
Papa Jo Jones.  Image via   en.wikipedia.org .

Papa Jo Jones.  Image via en.wikipedia.org.

 

I once had the immense pleasure of seeing Max Roach play a solo show—just him and his drums.  Watching and listening was worth more than a hundred drum lessons.

At one point, he recalled a battle of the drummers held in Central Park.  He and other legends took turns wowing each other and the crowd with their solos around the kit.  And then came Papa Jo Jones, longtime drummer for Count Basie.  Jones, something of an elder statesman among the drummers that day, walked out on stage and sat down with nothing other than his sticks and a hi-hat.  According to Roach, the solo Jones played blew away his competition.

After telling the story, Roach recreated Jones’s hi-hat solo for the audience.  It was something like what he does in this video.

Jones had laid bare an assumption his fellow drummers had made: a drum solo uses the entire kit.  Not for Jones.  There are tradeoffs of soloing only with hi-hat, but the counter tradeoffs apply when using the full kit.  The constraint "hi-hat only" allowed Jones to go deep.  Until that day in Central Park, Roach and his fellow legends may not have considered such an approach.

And until hearing Roach tell the story and reproduce Jones’s solo, neither had I.


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Tradeoffs Part 2 — Becoming Aware of Unconscious Tradeoffs

 
Anna Deavere Smith, whose radical tradeoffs reveal a deeply conscious artistic mind.  Image via  users.humboldt.edu .

Anna Deavere Smith, whose radical tradeoffs reveal a deeply conscious artistic mind.  Image via users.humboldt.edu.

 

Artistic decisions flow from our intuitions, and for an artist to question every decision she makes would quickly prove overwhelming.  Once she has created a finished draft of her work, she can begin, perhaps with the help of fellow creators, to examine the tradeoffs she has made, perhaps without realizing it.  To do so opens up possibilities for her next steps. 

Sometimes, we become of these unconscious tradeoffs by encountering work by others who have made other choices.

For instance, I have my nonfiction students read Anna Deavere Smith’s Twilight: Los Angeles 1992.   Smith is an actor and playwright.  Two of her best-known works are one-woman shows in which she delivers character monologues based on interviews of people caught in civic traumas— Fires in the Mirror, which documents responses to the Crown Heights riot of 1991, and Twilight, which documents responses to the riots that followed the non-guilty verdict in the trial of the policemen whose beating of Rodney King was caught on videotape.  

Here is a video of Smith performing various characters she's met, including author Studs Terkel and, later in the video, Mrs. Young-Soon Han, one of the characters in Twilight.  

Note one type of tradeoff Smith makes: her characters sometimes take strange, confusing detours through their stories.  She might have streamlined the stories to omit these detours, but Smith knows that the detours sometimes reveal something important about the workings of her characters' minds, something that would be lost by way of streamlining.  

The book form of Twilight is an edited version of her stage show—all of it monologue.  Other than a few basic details about each character and the setting and a few stage directions such as “pounds fist,” the pages are filled with the words of the various characters.   This is a revelation to the students.  As they first encounter Smith’s monologues, they might regard Smith’s book and its lack of narration as presenting an interesting alternative to the standard nonfiction approach.  

Upon further reflection, however, they come to see that Twilight reveals some large assumptions they’ve made about their own writing.  Narration and narrative description may characterize most nonfiction they've encountered, but now they see that they've been making an unconscious choice, one that comes with tradeoffs.  Narration may allow the writer to communicate things that can’t come out of the mouths of her characters, but it comes at a price.  Allowing the characters speak for themselves provides the reader with a more direct, unmediated connection with them.

The success of Smith’s rich portrait of LA testifies to what many nonfiction writers might be unconsciously trading away.  Whether or not my students adopt the approach Smith developed for her striking theatrical work, they are now more likely to consider the tradeoffs made between narration and pure dialogue and all points between.


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Tradeoffs Part 1 supplement — Tradeoffs as acknowledgement of creative constraint

 
Quincy Jones.  Image via   jazzinphoto.wordpress.com .

Quincy Jones.  Image via jazzinphoto.wordpress.com.

 

I once heard Quincy Jones discuss the art of composing.  He said something to the effect that until he could impose a creative constraint on himself, he had no freedom to compose.  In the case of his film score for In Cold Blood, all kinds of possibilities emerged once he committed to centering the music around two string basses, musical representations of the two killers at the center of the story.  

Noam Chomsky, in broader terms but also in resonance with Jones’s reflection on composing, has observed that the rules of syntax are what unleash the creative potential of human language, the means by which we think.  It’s a familiar paradox: Where anything is possible, creativity shuts down, but when the range of possibility narrows, we face choices and engage our imagination.  Furthermore, the narrower our choices, the further we can push within the range of options.  

To speak about art in terms of tradeoffs acknowledges this reality.  For instance, a choice that nonfiction writers entertain (now more openly than ever) is whether or not to embellish their stories with fictionalized details. 

Let’s set aside any moral objections one might have with such embellishment, and for the sake of discussion let’s assume that the fictionalized details would have no bearing on the larger meaning at stake in the story and also that the reader will not be able to discern truth from fiction.

 What are the tradeoffs?

Embellishing by way of fictionalized details gives the writer more options.  For instance, she gains access to sharper contrasts and smoother transitions.  The embellishments allow her to solve problems that the truthful details of the story might disallow.

What might she be trading away?  One answer is that sometimes the more interesting aspects of a story lurk behind inconvenient details. 

For example, when I sat down to write my memoir about playing drums, I faced an inconvenient aspect of the story: Though my band had achieved significant success, I myself was not a quite a rock star.  Should I skew the story by rounding myself up to rock star?  Should I overstate the story’s disappointing end to create a crash and burn narrative?

Only by staying within the constraints of the story’s reality did I push myself to realize that the story of becoming a near rock star was unexpected and full of details that might be new to readers.  In my life as a drummer, I regularly imagined stardom.   Sometimes the show-biz planets aligned to convince me I had made it, when in fact I had not.  My favorite details of the book were those that captured the sense of being in showbiz purgatory, neither damned to failure nor granted access to full-blown glory.  And telling that story would not have been possible had I skewed the facts to ease my initial storytelling anxieties. 

And mulling those anxieties slowed the start of my writing.  Only when I realized that I wanted to tell the truth, with all of its storytelling complications, did I find the freedom to write. 

Quincy Jones comes through again.


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Tradeoffs Part 1 supplement —Using tradeoffs to enrich workshop discussions

 
James Baldwin.  Image via  newyorklivearts.org .

James Baldwin.  Image via newyorklivearts.org.

 

In my brief career as a teacher of creative writing, I’ve already learned that no group of students will ever agree on whether they like a particular piece of writing, even if that writing is by someone as exemplary as James Baldwin.

Thus, when a workshop conversation takes up a piece of writing by one of the students, I find that talking about a piece’s merits, a matter of opinion, draws our attention away from the work, which is why I invite students to report their experience of reading.

The other thing I ask them to do is to talk in terms of tradeoffs, so that we develop a way of talking about a piece on which all can agree. 

“I like present tense here.  It’s exciting.” 

A statement such as this, which is really all about the reader and not the work, presents an opportunity to push for a richer understanding of the tradeoffs made by the artist.  Conversations that push the students’ understanding will result in more thoughtful responses . . .

“Why did I like the present tense here?  Well, present tense lends the writing immediacy because you get the sense things are happening now.  On the other hand, it sacrifices perspective because the events are not recalled after the narrator has had time to consider her surroundings.  Still, because this scene was relatively short and I had received some perspective on what led up to this point of the story, I enjoyed the change of tempo provided by the rush of the present tense.”

This second response explores tradeoffs made by the writer and the reading experience that followed.  It takes the students to a deeper understanding of what they do as writers and readers.


Thank you for reading.

 

Tradeoffs Part 1 — Tradeoffs as shared points of reference.

 
Producer/engineer Young Guru, mulling tradeoffs at the mixing console.  Image via  massappeal.com .

Producer/engineer Young Guru, mulling tradeoffs at the mixing console.  Image via massappeal.com.

 

When we discuss art, it’s natural for us to employ evaluative language.  Doing so, however, often overlooks the fact that evaluative language only points back at us, the audience.  It doesn’t point at the work.  We can argue about the best Ella Fitzgerald performance or Joni Mitchell song, but those arguments only establish the taste of those in conversation.  It does little to illuminate what the artists themselves are up to.  

Nevertheless, we need language with which to talk about art.  For example, when I read a student work, and it’s not working for me, I need to be able to talk about why in terms that are concrete, beyond dispute.  One way to do that is to describe my experience of the work.  “I was confused on page four because . . . .”  A writer can hardly disagree with such a statement from a reader.  She can’t say, “No, you weren’t confused.”  The objective nature of the conversation helps keep things clear for all.

Another way to talk in concrete terms is to discuss the tradeoffs made by the artist.   Even when two people disagree on a work’s success or failure, they can agree on the tradeoffs that were made and what resulted from those tradeoffs. 

For instance, in my posts about musical time, I listed some tradeoffs that are made when drumming becomes rounder (more even) or less round (more uneven).

Whether or not I can persuade you that Ringo Starr’s sense of time is better than a drum machine’s (which is really a conversation about my listening), we can agree that Ringo’s imperfect time-keeping infuses the Beatles with a certain vulnerability that a drum machine cannot.  Likewise, we can agree that if the Beatles had used a drum machine that rendered perfectly even time, the result might have been something less vulnerable and more invincible.

Tradeoffs, thus

  • Provide concrete points of reference for people who may disagree as to a work’s success or failure.
     
  • Help us remember that creativity is all about choices.
     

The language of tradeoffs thus help us distinguish between conversations about the artist’s choices from conversations about our response to those choices.   The different tradeoffs each of us might make reflect differences of intuition and taste. 

The language of tradeoffs therefore helps us take responsibility for how we receive the work.


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Roughness Part 4 supplement — Revealing the Errors of Making

 
Nina Simone.  Image via   jazzinphoto.wordpress.com .

Nina Simone.  Image via jazzinphoto.wordpress.com.

 

At the beginning of this recording of “I Shall Be Released,” Nina Simone can be heard stopping the band and exhorting them not to push.  The false start and the brief correction she gives to the musicians were preserved as part of the recording. 

 

All of that might have been cut, but its inclusion provides a window into the making of the song and the difficulties of recording and performing.  Simone’s dialogue enlivens the recording not only because it’s interesting to hear a performer at work in the studio, but also because we then listen to the song knowing that the question of not pushing is in the minds of the musicians.  Even as the song progresses and we let go of that concern, the rough and tumble moment at the start has infused the performance with a little more life. 

Simone in the studio.  Image via  ninasimone.com .

Simone in the studio.  Image via ninasimone.com.

 

We have heard something more like the whole truth of the recording, and it feels more alive as a result. 


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Roughness Part 4 supplement — “Roxanne”

 
Image via  45cat.com .

Image via 45cat.com.

 

The story goes that Sting accidentally sat on a keyboard in the studio as the Police were recording “Roxanne.”  You can hear it at the 0:04 second mark, followed by his laughter.

 

 Consider how the discord and ensuing laughter enliven the performance.  They give the song a comic dimension, something that within the context of the song’s subject matter might evoke drunkenness and the street.  This moment of comedy makes the song feel more lifelike and complete.


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Roughness Part 4 supplement — “Honour Thy Mistake”

 
John Masefield.  Image via poetryfoundation.org.

John Masefield.  Image via poetryfoundation.org.

 

The Oblique Strategies are the creation of musician Brian Eno and artist Peter Schmidt.  The strategies are a collection of statements, commands, principles, and questions designed to help artists break through creative logjams. 

They originally existed as a deck of cards, so an artist working on a project could, if stuck, reach for the deck, draw a card, and act upon what the card offered.

Examples include . . .

Reverse.
Use an old idea.
State the problem in words as clearly as possible.
Only one element of each kind.
Cascades.

What would your closest friend do?
What to increase? What to reduce?
Are there sections? Consider transitions.
Try faking it!

Ask your body.
Work at a different speed.

One of the cards has particular relevance to roughness: “Honour thy error as a hidden intention.”

Consider the case of “Sea Fever,” a poem by John Masefield.  The opening line may well have been written . . .

I must go down to the seas again, to the lonely sea and the sky

But in various versions, the line appears . . .

I must down to the seas again, to the lonely sea and the sky

This may have been the result of a printing error.  Here is a proof of an early printing.

But later printings restore "go down," as Masefield himself reads the poem in this recording.

 

Some people know this poem in the first version, and others know it in the second.   Whichever version one prefers, one can hear that the strangeness of the mistake takes on intention and mystery

“I must down to the seas again, to the lonely sea and the sky.”


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Roughness Part 4 — Mistakes

 
Sun Ra.  Image via  waxpoetics.com .

Sun Ra.  Image via waxpoetics.com.

 

While roughness is an important intention, it often arises by way of mistake.  What can transform the appearance of a mistake from something accidental to something intentional?

Sun Ra has an answer.

 

 

You made a mistake
You did something wrong
You made a mistake
You did something wrong
Now make another mistake
And do something right
Make another mistake
And do something right

Note how the song encodes grace and groove.  Repeating her mistake allows an artist to enter into her accident and turn wrong to right.  And the song’s groove evokes the creative flow that is recovered by way of repeating a stumble.  The stumble may thereby be examined and mined for its insight.

Make another mistake, and do something right. 


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Roughness Part 3 supplement — The Temptations of Technology

 
Some of the great singers featured in  20 Feet from Stardom . From left: Darlene Love, Tata Vega, Merry Clayton, Judith Hill, and Lisa Fischer.  Image via  billboard.com .

Some of the great singers featured in 20 Feet from Stardom. From left: Darlene Love, Tata Vega, Merry Clayton, Judith Hill, and Lisa Fischer.  Image via billboard.com.

 

Last year, I saw Twenty Feet from Stardom, a wonderful documentary that tells the story of some of the foremost background vocalists of the 1960s and 70s.  (Little did I know that some of them sang lead on tracks attributed to others.)

At one point, a producer from that era remarks on how none of the singers in the movie needed autotune or any of the other technology of the digital recording age.

True, but I wondered if the salient observation might be slightly different:  Engineers and producers have now been conditioned by autotune and don’t accept what they might have before the digital age.  Autotune and the trappings of digital recording are hard to resist.   Had they been available in the era documented in the film, who’s to say producers wouldn’t have used them? 

And what a loss that would have been!

 

Listening to “I Want You Back,” consider that young Michael Jackson’s less-than-perfect tuning is absolutely essential to the power of the performance, one of the greatest in the history of pop.  How many engineers of today can honestly say they would have left these tuning irregularities untouched by autotune?

When the technology for tidiness is available, it requires more than great restraint not to use it.  It requires something more than a commitment to authenticity.  It requires the knowledge and savoring of roughness, wholeness, and life.


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Roughness Part 3 supplement — Practice Roughness

 
Micky Waller.  Image via  vickibrennerent.com .

Micky Waller.  Image via vickibrennerent.com.

 

As artists, we become what we practice.  That much seems obvious, but what might be overlooked is that rough playing, which has its place, must be practiced.  It is not necessarily available to a dexterous player.

Thus, jazz drummers who sit in with rock bands might be impatient with the music they are asked to play, but their rock colleagues might be even more impatient with the jazzer’s inability to convey authentic rock swagger, because swagger must be practiced.  The stumbles and slop that go with that swagger are essential elements of the rock and roll musical vernacular. 

 

Micky Waller’s drum groove on Maggie May is a thing of beauty, and roughness—its swagger and slop—is an essential element of that beauty.  In order to pull off such swagger, a more sophisticated drummer than Waller must take a break from perfecting her rudiments and dexterity around the kit and devote some time to hearing and reproducing the rough attitude behind this kind of performance—the particular way Waller’s sticks flail onto the drums, the caveman simplicity of his fills, the sense that his kick drum is held in place by ropes tied to his drum throne.  It will not be easy for her.  Waller's drumming is awesomely messy, and the mess cannot be reproduced by someone whose practice time is devoted to tidiness.


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Roughness Part 3 — Roughness as Intention, the quilts of Mary Lee Bendolph

 
Gee's Bend quilter par excellence, Mary Lee Bendolph.  Image via  soulsgrowndeep.org .

Gee's Bend quilter par excellence, Mary Lee Bendolph.  Image via soulsgrowndeep.org.

 

Roughness reflects an artistic intention.  Without the intention, roughness will be airbrushed away and replaced with something lacking in depth.

The stunning work of quilters such as Mary Lee Bendolph stems in part from her operating within constraints—what materials are available—but much more from her artistic choices. 

"Lonnie Holley's Freedom" by Mary Lee Bendolph.  Image via  a rtsy.net.

"Lonnie Holley's Freedom" by Mary Lee Bendolph.  Image via artsy.net.

 
"Strip Quilt" by Mary Lee Bendolph.  Image via  artsy.net .

"Strip Quilt" by Mary Lee Bendolph.  Image via artsy.net.

 
"Blocks, Strips, Strings and Half Squares" by Mary Lee Bendolph.  Image via  whyquiltsmatter.org .

"Blocks, Strips, Strings and Half Squares" by Mary Lee Bendolph.  Image via whyquiltsmatter.org.

 

For instance, she surely has the skills to make her quilts perfectly rectilinear, but doing so would deprive these quilts of their magic, which relies on what architect Christopher Alexander might term their roughness.

As I mentioned in Part 1 of this series, Alexander believes that . . .

“Things which have real life always have a certain ease, a morphological roughness. This is not an accidental property.”  

“The seemingly rough arrangement is more precise because it comes from a much more careful guarding of the essential centers of the design.”

Christopher Alexander, Book One, The Nature of Order, p. 210, 211

One of Bendolph’s artistic strengths is her valorization of roughness.  She intends it and understands its necessity.  Craftspeople, painters, writers, music producers, and filmmakers might learn from her work if they wish to produce work of similar depth, so overflowing with life.


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Roughness Part 2 supplement — Demo Recordings

 
Singer songwriter Ruthann Friedman.  Image via  theartsdesk.com .

Singer songwriter Ruthann Friedman.  Image via theartsdesk.com.

 

Demo recordings often capture something lost in the final version, and that something might be synonymous with what architect and theorist Christopher Alexander means by roughness. 

The rough edges of a demo recording can suggest completeness (and thus aliveness) in ways that a polished rerecording might not.  

For example, compare the snappy polish of the Association’s “Windy” . . . 

 

with the roughness of songwriter Ruthann Friedman’s original demo. 

 

Note the sparseness of Friedman’s demo arrangement, her bluesier singing, the texture of her guitar strings, the warp of the band’s groove and less-steady tempo.  The Association's much more professional recording presents an ode to a beautiful girl; Friedman sounds as if she is singing of someone whose eyes "flash at the sound of lies."  

While it lacks the Technicolor glory of the familiar Association version, the character marks in Friedman’s demo imbue it with a complete humanness that conveys life in a way the Association’s stellar version cannot.  


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Roughness Part 2 supplement — Robert McKee’s Solar System

 
Screenwriting teacher Robert McKee, whose lectures and writing on story design have influenced a generation of screenwriters and novelists.  Image via  designersnotebook.com .

Screenwriting teacher Robert McKee, whose lectures and writing on story design have influenced a generation of screenwriters and novelists.  Image via designersnotebook.com.

 

In his famous book on screenwriting, Robert McKee lays out a convincing picture of what a story’s cast of characters might accomplish:

Imagine a cast as a kind of solar system with the protagonist as the sun, supporting roles as the planets around the sun, bit players as satellites around the planets — all held in orbit by the gravitational pull of the star at the center, each pulling at the tides of the others’ nature. 

Consider this hypothetical protagonist: He’s amusing and optimistic, then morose and cynical; he’s compassionate, then cruel; fearless, then fearful.  This four-dimensional role needs a cast around him to delineate his contradictions, characters towards whom he can act and react in different ways at different times and places.  These supporting characters must round him out so that his complexity is both consistent and credible.

Character A, for example, provokes the protagonist’s sadness and cynicism, while Character B brings out his witty, hopeful side.  Character C inspires his loving and courageous emotions, while Character D forces him first to cower in fear, then to strike out in fury.  The creation and design of Characters A, B, C, and D is dictated by the needs of the protagonist.  They are what they are principally to make clear and believable, through action and reaction, the complexity of the central role.

Robert McKee, Story: Substance, Structure, Style, and The Principles of Screenwriting, p. 379 

Consider, for instance, how The Mary Tyler Moore Show evokes this principle.  The show’s central character, Mary Richards, is the sun around which all other characters revolve.

Clockwise from upper left: Valerie Harper, Ed Asner, Cloris Leachman, Ted Knight, Mary Tyler Moore, Gavin McCloud.  Image via  abcnews.go.com .

Clockwise from upper left: Valerie Harper, Ed Asner, Cloris Leachman, Ted Knight, Mary Tyler Moore, Gavin McCloud.  Image via abcnews.go.com.

 
  • Her best friend and neighbor, Rhoda Morgenstern (Valerie Harper), brings out the side of Mary that is cynical about life in a male-dominated culture.
     
  • Her other neighbor, Phyllis Lindstrom (Cloris Leachman) creates a point of contrast for Mary’s down-to-earth side, her rejection of shallow, bourgeois mores. 
     
  • New writer Murray Slaughter (Gavin McCloud) brings out Mary’s idealism. 
     
  • Newsroom boss Lou Grant (Ed Asner) activates her striving and desire for recognition.
     
  • Anchorman Ted Baxter (Ted Knight) brings out her principles.

And so forth. 

Notice how roughness and comic exaggeration characterize these supporting roles.  Their obsessions, their actions, their facial expressions reach extremes that Mary’s never do.  As in many sit-coms, the main character plays straight against everyone else in the cast.  Yet without the roughness, the flaws, embodied in the various supporting roles, the show does not feel complete.  Indeed Mary herself, per McKee’s insights, requires all of these characters orbiting around her to appear whole.


Thank you for reading.

Roughness Part 2 supplement —Three versions of Anne Sexton’s “Moon Song”

 
Anne Sexton.  Image via  poetryfoundation.org .

Anne Sexton.  Image via poetryfoundation.org.

 

Consider these three presentations of the opening lines of Anne Sexton’s poem “Moon Song.”

 

Version #1

 

Moon Song

 

I am alive at night

I am dead in the morning—

an old vessel who used up her oil,

bleak and pale-boned.

No miracle.  No dazzle

I'm out of repair, 

but you are tall in your battle dress

and I must arrange for your journey.

I was always a virgin,

old and pitted.

Before the world was, I was,

. . .

 

Version #2

Moon Song typed.JPG

 Version #3

   image via  theatlantic.com .

 

image via theatlantic.com.

Note how with each step, the presentation takes on more personality and arouses interest.

The presentation of version #1, rendered through flawless on-screen lettering, feels almost without personality.  Such perfection suggests something nameless, at best institutional, “The Internet.”

Note, by contrast, the personality already detectable in version #2, the typewritten version.  Here, the unevenness of the ink saturation, the typewriter's clumsy kerning of the letters (the lack of adjustments of space between individual letters) and the slight skew of the horizontal and vertical lines instantly lend the poem a clearer sense of human authorship, even as this same shift in presentation also makes the poem more difficult to read. 

That tradeoff is most pronounced in version #3, which is in Sexton's own handwriting.  Whether or not one would want to read an entire book of handwritten poems, Christopher Alexander’s principle of Roughness can be seen here in the fact that of these examples the third is both the roughest in appearance and by far the most alive. 


Thank you for reading.

Roughness Part 2 — Character and the Genius of Michael K. Williams

 
Michael K. Williams.  Image via  bet.com .

Michael K. Williams.  Image via bet.com.

 

Those lucky enough to have seen the series The Wire will never forget the character Omar, brought to life by the brilliant Michael K. Williams

Omar stood outside of the cops-and-robbers dynamic of the main storyline because he robbed drug dealers.  His alliances shifted constantly, and the sense that he lived by a strict, if unorthodox, moral code of his own allowed his character to lay bare the sham moralities of the everyone else on the landscape, as he does in the following scene.

In a cast filled with some of the most talented character actors of a generation, Williams stood out for various reasons—the restraint of his portrayal and the truth of his performance (likely informed by his youth on the streets of East Flatbush), a surprising combination of warmth, humor, and cold-blooded clarity. 

He might also be recognized by the low, resonant rasp of his voice and the scar that slices down his beautiful face.  Though show-biz culture might reduce such traits either to disqualifiers (“I can’t cast anyone with a scar”) or the be-all of his on-screen presence (“Get me the guy with the scar!”), for Williams, these traits are merely elements of who he is as an actor.  His work neither dwells on nor eschews these traits; they are elements of his physical beauty and the larger truth of his artistry.  His acting thus exemplifies what a creator in any medium might aim to produce—work that accommodates one's whole self.  This is how Williams creates characters who feel complete and thus more lifelike.

And pulling back the lens, The Wire at large felt whole, more alive, because viewers felt they had seen all of the story.  The heroes of the show, Omar among them, were not the shallow, airbrushed fantasies of the street found on lesser dramas.  The intersection of their rough edges and beauty revealed something profound, something that felt complete and alive.  The truth is never the whole truth without all of its surprising detail.


Thank you for reading.

Roughness Part 1 supplement — Bob Dylan

 
Bob Dylan.  Image via   sinistersaladmusikal.wordpress.com .

Bob Dylan.  Image via sinistersaladmusikal.wordpress.com.

 

In the previous post, we considered architect and theorist Christopher Alexander’s concept of Roughness, an element of wholeness in his schema.   The irregularities and imperfections that produce roughness help imbue a design with a sense of life.

“It is certainly noticeable that all great buildings do have various small irregularities in them, even though they often conform to approximate overall symmetries and configurations. By contrast, buildings which are perfectly regular seem dead.”

Christopher Alexander, Book One, The Nature of Order, p.214

Rock and roll abounds with examples of how roughness suggests the life force at work in the music.  For example . . .

 

Bob Dylan’s voice has been derided as toneless and out of tune.  These complaints miss the point.  Note how much more alive the words sound precisely because of his growling tone and sour tuning, which actually enliven the words.

As Shierry Weber Nicholsen notes . . .

The resulting combination of local symmetry and roughness, Alexander suggests, is the product of forces tending toward a larger order and integration . . .  

Shierry Weber Nicholsen
The Love of Nature and the End of the World p. 191

An intuitive listener knows not to hear Dylan’s gritty tone and tuning as shortcomings.  To her ears, the song comes to life through its rough presentation.

Another great version of the song, by the Byrds, has less in the way of roughness.

 

Whichever rendition of the song one prefers, and there are good arguments for both, we can hear the tradeoffs when Dylan’s grit and twisted tuning is replaced by the more pleasing chorale of the Byrds’ harmonies.  The Byrds by no means abandon roughness, but note that as the singing gains tuning and tone, the words lose some of their bite. 


Thank you for reading.