The Necessity of the Unnecessary — Sarah Ruhl and Cyrus Kabiru

Images via  and .

Images via and

Playwright Sarah Ruhl makes a crucial observation in “The Necessary,” an essay from her book (highly recommended!) 100 Essays I Don’t Have Time to Write.

“What seems like the least necessary thing in your play might be the most necessary thing.  What seems like the most necessary thing in your play might be the least necessary thing.  Maurice Maeterlinck elaborates on this point in his essay‘The Tragical in Daily Life’: ‘The only words that count in the play are those that at first seemed useless . . . Side by side with the necessary dialogue will you almost always find another dialogue that seems superfluous; but examine it carefully, and it will be borne home to you that this is the only one that the soul can listen to . . . for here alone is it the soul that is being addressed.’

Be suspicious of an expert who tells you to cut a seemingly unnecessary moment out of your play.  The soul of your play might reside there, quietly, inconspicuously, glorying in its unnecessariness, shining forth in its lack of necessity to be.  The word expert was invented after the Renaissance, a time when plays sallied forth in all their beautiful ignorance.”

Sarah Ruhl
“The Necessary”
100 Essays I Don’t Have Time to Write, pp. 40-41

Consider, for instance, the famous line from The Godfather, after two soldiers of the Corleone family have killed one of their associates.  The senior of those two, Peter Clemenza (portrayed by Richarad S. Castellano) instructs his underling, "Leave the gun . . . take the cannoli."  As it turns out, the second half of the line, "take the cannoli" was an ad lib from Castellano.  Even if it had not been improvised, in storytelling terms, it can be declared superfluous, unnecessary.  Yet many viewers might agree with Ruhl that the soul of the movie shines forth in that line. 

Tom Rosqui, left, as Rocco and Richard S. Castellano, right, as Peter Clememza. Image via .

Tom Rosqui, left, as Rocco and Richard S. Castellano, right, as Peter Clememza.
Image via


Another illustration of Ruhl's principle can be found in an anecdote about the writer Wilhelm Mach related by film director Krzysztof Kieślowski:

“This Mach was at some screening.  And Mach says, ‘I liked the film very much.  I liked it and especially that scene at the cemetery.’ He says, ‘I really liked the guy in the black suit at the funeral.’ The director says, ‘I’m very sorry but there wasn’t any guy in a black suit.’  Mach says, ‘How come?  He stood on the left-hand side of the frame, in the foreground, in a black suit, white shirt and black tie.  Then he walked across the right-hand side of the frame and moved off.’ The director says, ‘There wasn’t any guy like that.’ Mach says, ‘There was.  I saw him.  And that’s what I liked most in the film.’”

Kieślowski on Kieślowski
(translated and edited by Danusia Stok), pp. 158-159

So unnecessary was this character to the demands of storytelling that the director had no idea he was in the film!  And yet for the viewer, Mach, this unnecessary presence was everything.

A wonderful demonstration of Ruhl’s principle can be found in the artwork of sculptor and media artist Cyrus Kabiru (whose work is featured in the outstanding video project Afripedia).  One series of Kabiru’s artworks are presented as eyeglass frames.

"Africana Eyelashes," 2014
image via

"Zulu Mask," 2010
image via

"Istanbul Mask," 2013
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"Westgate," 2013
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Note how the power of these works is partly anchored in the absence of functionality.  In fact, Kabiru assembles his artwork out of trash, materials that the world has declared useless.  One might not imagine wearing these artworks except that one can’t resist imagining it.  They appear to bestow some mystical power, as if their wearer sees something that we don’t. 

These glasses are magic, our minds tell us, precisely because of how their  beauty emerges from superfluous ornaments and extravagantly impractical designs.  It is in these elements where the soul of Kabiru’s art, as Ruhl might say, shines forth “in its lack of necessity to be,” which is why Kabiru's wonderful creations are indeed most necessary. 

Thank you for reading.

Shadows and Blur Part 1 — Jun'ichirō Tanizaki

Image via

Image via

In his book In Praise of Shadows (published in 1933), novelist Jun'ichirō Tanizaki, sets forth observations about the aesthetics of traditional Japanese architecture.  Foremost in his mind is the vital role of shadows:

There are no doubt all sorts of reasons — climate, building materials — for the deep Japanese eaves.  The fact that we did not use glass, concrete, or bricks, for instance, made a low roof necessary to keep off the driving wind and rain.  A light room would no doubt have been more convenient for us, too, than a dark room.  The quality that we call beauty, however, must always grow from the realities of life, and our ancestors, forced to live in dark rooms, presently came to discover beauty in shadows, ultimately to guide shadows towards beauty’s ends.

And so it has come to be that the beauty of a Japanese room depends on a variation of shadows, heavy shadows against light shadows — it has nothing else.  Westerners are amazed at the simplicity of Japanese rooms, perceiving in them nothing more than ashen walls bereft of ornament.  Their reaction is understandable, but it betrays a failure to comprehend the mystery of shadows . . .

. . . Of course the Japanese room does have its picture alcove, and in it a hanging scroll and a flower arrangement.  But the scroll and the flowers serve not as ornament but rather to give depth to the shadows . . .

In Praise of Shadows, p. 18 - 19
(Translated by Thomas J. Harper and Edward G. Seidensticker)

Note Tanizaki’s focus.  While we might be tempted to view the shadows as important only inasmuch as they provide contrast to some featured element, Tanizaki's attention is absorbed by the shadows themselves.  (His book is not titled The Usefulness of Shadows.)

Here, he speaks of the Sumiya teahouse in Kyoto.  Note how precisely he captures the darkness.

On the far side of the screen, at the edge of the little circle of light, the darkness seemed to fall from the ceiling, lofty, intense, monolithic, the fragile light of the candle unable to pierce its thickness, turned back as from a black wall.  I wonder if my readers know the color of that“darkness seen by candlelight.”  It was different in quality from darkness on the road at night.  It was a repletion, a pregnancy of tiny particles like fine ashes, each particle luminous as a rainbow.  I blinked in spite of myself, as though to keep it out of my eyes.

— page 34

Elsewhere he lingers over a related element —grime:

Glassmaking has long been known in the Orient, but the craft never developed as in the West.  Great progress has been made, however, in the manufacture of pottery.  Surely this has something to do with our national character.  We do not dislike everything that shines, but we do prefer a pensive luster to a shallow brilliance, a murky light that, whether in a stone or an artifact, bespeaks a sheen of antiquity.

Of course this “sheen of antiquity” of which we hear so much is in fact the glow of grime.  In both Chinese and Japanese the words denoting this glow describe a polish thatcomes of being touched over and over again, a sheen produced by the oils that naturally permeate an object over long years of handling — which is to say grime.  If indeed “elegance is frigid,” it can as well be described as filthy.  There is not denying, at any rate, that among the elements of the elegance in which we take delight is a measure of the unclean, the unsanitary.

page 11

In his embrace of these neglected aesthetic elements, Tanizaki finds parallels in literary technique:

One of the oldest and most deeply ingrained of Japanese attitudes to literary style holds that too obvious a structure is a contrivance, that too orderly an exposition falsifies the ruminations of the heart, that the truest representation of the searching mind is just to “follow the brush.”  Indeed, it would not be far wrong to say that the narrative technique we call “stream of consciousness” has an ancient history in Japanese letters.  It is not that Japanese writers have been ignorant of the powers of concision and articulation.  Rather, they have felt that certain subjects — the vicissitudes of the emotions, the fleeting perceptions of the mind — are best couched in a style that conveys something of the uncertainty of the mental process and not just its neatly packaged conclusions.

— page 45

When speaking of craft, experts generally stress the virtues of clarity, probably because the first obstacle facing any artist is being understood.  Tanizaki, however, stresses the danger of creating work that pretends all is clear, as in transparent.  He seems to insist that we include in our art what we don’t understand, the shadows and smudges of mystery, and that we learn to render our unknowing in all of its strange beauty.

Flaubert was an advocate of clarity, but note how well this observation resonates with Tanizaki:

Ineptitude consists in wanting to reach conclusions . . . What mind worthy of the name, beginning with Homer, ever reached a conclusion?

The Letters of Gustave Flaubert 1830-1857, p. xiii
(Translated by Francis Steegmuller)

And here, Flaubert captures the larger point.

What seems to me the highest and most difficult achievement of Art is not to make us laugh or cry, nor to arouse our lust or rage, but to do what nature does—that is, to set us dreaming.

p. xi

Dreams.  Their power to transport and haunt us relies not so much the magic that may unfold within them as much as the sense that some vital element has eluded our understanding. We wake up trying to figure them out.  Likewise, the art that calls us back makes use of shadows and other obscuring elements so that the questions eclipse the answers.

Thank you for reading.


Opposites part 4 — Bill Yates's "Sweetheart Roller Skating Rink" photos

This is not the photo one might expect to see in a documentary series about a roller-skating rink, and yet everything here that is unexpected is exactly what deepens the sense of reality.  Part of an amazing documentary series by photographer Bill Yates.  Image via .

This is not the photo one might expect to see in a documentary series about a roller-skating rink, and yet everything here that is unexpected is exactly what deepens the sense of reality.  Part of an amazing documentary series by photographer Bill Yates.  Image via

From the Orlando Weekly:

“In September 1972, photographer Bill Yates was wandering the back roads of Florida when he stumbled across the Sweetheart Roller Skating Rink in Hillsborough County.

Every weekend, for the next 7 months, Yates documented the skaters, the go-go girls, the booze, the humidity, everything. He shot over 600 photographs, but the negatives were packed away and forgotten when Yates moved to Providence to go to school at the Rhode Island School of Design. 40 years later, the photographer unearthed this amazing time capsule.”

Note the expressions on the faces of the onlookers, who feel something other than swept up by the moves of the dancers in front of them.  Their detachment and, in some cases, defiance opens up and deepens our sense of what is happening in the room.  Photo by Bill Yates.  Image via  .

Note the expressions on the faces of the onlookers, who feel something other than swept up by the moves of the dancers in front of them.  Their detachment and, in some cases, defiance opens up and deepens our sense of what is happening in the room.  Photo by Bill Yates.  Image via

In Lens Scratch, Yates describes the undertaking:

I had just purchased a Yashica Mat at a pawnshop and as usual I was out riding around looking for something to shoot. I happened upon an old wooden structure built in the 30’s in rural southern Hillsborough County (Tampa, FL) – the sign read Sweetheart Roller Skating Rink. That weekend in September 1972, I ran 8 rolls through the camera. After that I photographed nearly every weekend until late spring of 1973. I was 26 years old. That first weekend I was met with curiosity and suspicion by the skaters. The next weekend I returned with proof sheets which I stapled to the wooden siding of the rink’s interior. For some, complete disinterest in the images. For others, it was as if they were staring at themselves in the mirror – they couldn’t get enough. The skaters became like actors parading their bodies, confronting one another for an audience – the camera. Though the roller skaters may not have thought of themselves on a stage, they were no less explicit and physical in their stagecraft. Some of the scenes were unapologetically theatrical. Young men aggressively wrapping arms around their girlfriends’ necks, gesturing uncomfortably for the camera – a sexual come-on, an uncensored performance. Yet others were deadpan. I soon became wallpaper – I was there, but I wasn’t – just snapping the shutter.”

Here are a few more of Yates’s stunning photographs of the roller rink scene.

Photo by Bill Yates.  Image via   .

Photo by Bill Yates.  Image via

Photo by Bill Yates.  Image via   .

Photo by Bill Yates.  Image via

Photo by Bill Yates.  Image via   .

Photo by Bill Yates.  Image via

Photo by Bill Yates.  Image via   .

Photo by Bill Yates.  Image via

Notice how the photos themselves capture emotions that are both opposed to and yet an essential element of this milieu.   Somehow, the idea of sweethearts roller skating together is deepened by glimpses of alienation, fatigue, defiant anger, booze, and cigarettes. 

A photo series that captured innocent hand-holding skaters with fawning smiles would have missed out on the deeper liveliness of adolescence, so deftly captured here where innocence collides with its opposite. 

Thank you for reading.

Opposites part 3 — Harpo

Harpo Marx.  Image via .

Harpo Marx.  Image via


That clowns have a scary edge to them is well known.  The observation, however, is less frequently made of comics, where it is equally true.  The best comics inspire laughter that draws upon delight but also fear.  (Think of how Shakespeare's fools not only entertain but deliver frightening truths.)  One of Richard Pryor's most famous routines was a reenactment of a heart attack.  

This all points back to the principle of Opposites, one of twelve 'guideposts for actors' identified by Michael Shurtleff in his book, Audition. Harpo Marx's performances routinely bring together opposites—joy and anger, libidinal aggression and prepubescent innocence, and more.

One particularly striking set of opposites in his work is that between slapstick and the sublime, especially evident when he pauses to play a harp solo.

Note how these instantaneous shifts in and out the sublime do not negate the slapstick that precedes it.  To the contrary, these moments deepen both the slapstick and the entire performance.  

The sublime is a crucial element of the Marx Brothers' humor at large.  Without it, Groucho's wagging eyebrows are merely waggish.

Thank you for reading.

Practice Part 5 — The Value of Tracking Work

Hemingway is said to have aimed for 500 words a day.  Image via

Hemingway is said to have aimed for 500 words a day.  Image via


One of the biggest obstacles to creativity is a lack of self-entitlement.  “Who am I to be here” in front of the computer, canvas, or on the stage?  “I haven’t worked hard enough.”

A few years ago, I started logging my hours of writing and drumming.  Here was some of what I learned:

  • I was surprised to find how much work I actually do.  My lazy self-image might say less my work ethic and more about my method of self-motivation. 
  • At times when I didn’t work, it helped to have a concrete sense of what a productive week can look like (which I had, thanks to my work logs).
  • As a writer, I felt most free when I was most conscious of meeting my minimal work targets.
  • As a drummer, I felt most confident on stage when I knew I had met my practice targets in the time leading up to the show.
  • I always use a timer, which I stop during breaks so that the measurement has integrity.  (On my computer, I use a program called Active Timer that tells me how much time I spent in any particular document (as opposed to time spent checking email, etc.)
  • I set modest goals in order to build a rhythm of success instead of failure.   (If you are wondering about the power of a regular modest output, consider that John Irving stops his writing day at three pages; Hemingway’s daily target is said to be 500 words.  Multiply these small doses by 250 days and you can see that they add up.)
  • I find that in weeks during which I work consistently, even when I fell short of daily targets, I end up producing better work.  Working every day leaves me more limber.  The hardest thing is to come back to work after an extended absence.
  • The accumulation of the work logs whets my appetite for doing more work.  I’m open to considering that this testifies to my twisted artist’s conscience, but I also know that we artists often need to find ways to trick ourselves into working.  If keeping track of my work is one such trick, why not keep doing it?

Thank you for reading.

Practice part 1 — Practice to Remove Effort

Jimi Hendrix, who was said to have had his guitar slung around him at all times, allowing the constant practice that produced the effortless virtuosity with which he changed rock and roll.  Image via .

Jimi Hendrix, who was said to have had his guitar slung around him at all times, allowing the constant practice that produced the effortless virtuosity with which he changed rock and roll.  Image via


This series on practice is aimed at exploring not only the practice of performance (musical instruments, voice, dance, acting, and so forth) but also the practice of making (writing, composing, painting and sculpting, choreographing, and so forth).  In both realms of activity, practice might be viewed as a gateway to more fluid creativity.

When a beginning drummer enters a practice space, her first impulses (like those of the beginning writer, dancer, painter) are to 'let it out,' though what it is may not yet be known to her.  The thrill of doing something with this newfound medium is foremost in her mind, and this inevitably leads her to go for it, to smash and crash and rock out.  Doing so, she hopes to find expression.

And then this goes nowhere.  The drummer is disheartened.  She doesn’t feel she is quite letting it out, perhaps because she has not yet realized how much effort she has inserted between herself and her ideas.  She’s gripping her sticks tightly, making faces, hitting loudly.  What awaits her is the discovery that progress will come with the removal of effort.

The point is made brilliantly in this Ted Talk from classical pianist Benjamin Zander.   The relevant segment is found from 1:15 to 4:15 in his presentation.

Thus, whenever we creators are in our practice room, writing desk, or art studio, we might constantly ask ourselves, “Where am I feeling effort, and what happens when I remove it?”  Answering those questions illuminates the way forward.

The point of practicing any creative activity is to align one's output with one's intuition.  And too often, what stands between those two is effort and all of the inefficiency it interposes between the artist and her intuition.  Effort seduces us into thinking we are smashing through some wall.  Too rarely do we realize that this wall is the effort we are injecting into the process.  By removing it, we learn to get out of our own way.  We find that our deepest expression is within us and that we access it not through effort but through relaxation.

Thank you for reading.

Endings Part 3 supplement — Interruptions

The final shot of  Thelma and Louise .  Image via

The final shot of Thelma and Louise.  Image via

Some endings present the sense of ending midair.


The final shot of Thelma & Louise stops with their car in midair. Sure, Thelma and Louise are about to die, but for interrupting this ending to freeze on this last moment of freedom evokes a sense of triumph.


Another example—the end of Finnegans Wake:

Yes. Carry me along, taddy, like you done through the toy fair! If I seen him bearing down on me now under whitespread wings like he'd come from Arkangels, I sink I'd die down over his feet, humbly dumbly, only to washup. Yes, tid. There's where. First. We pass through grass behush the bush to. Whish! A gull. Gulls. Far calls. Coming, far! End here. Us then. Finn, again! Take. Bussoftlhee, mememormee! Till thousendsthee. Lps. The keys to. Given! A way a lone a last a loved a long the

The final lines of Finnegan’s Wake by James Joyce.

Difficult as Joyce's prose may be, one can get a sense of what ending mid-sentence does.  It conveys the sense of motion with a vividness that a concluded thought cannot equal.

Two musical analogs to these include . . .


The razor cut at the end of “I Want You / She’s So Heavy” evokes desperation, and this builds through the lengthy outro.  Interrupting the song brings home the sense that for this singer, everything is beyond his control.


Meshell Ndegeocello’s “Wasted Time” also ends with a hard cut, and this interruption gives weight to the song’s theme.  If time is a precious resource that must not be wasted, it may be gone before we have a chance to ready ourselves.

Thank you for reading.

Endings 2 — The Wide Shot

Isaac Hayes.  Image via .

Isaac Hayes.  Image via


The final movement of Mozart’s Symphony #41, the Jupiter Symphony, cascades with counterpoint. 


One needn’t understand the mysteries of fugue to hear how Mozart’s melodies answer and wind around each other.  They pull apart and then collide to spectacular effect. By the end of this final movement, one has witnessed a vast fireworks show, a panorama of sorts.   As the symphony’s conclusion, it has the effect of leaving us with the sense that now we’ve seen it all.


The cinematic scope of Isaac Hayes’s “Theme from Shaft” befits its original purpose as a film soundtrack.  In the context of a discussion about endings, consider that the song builds on it self.  Notice how the slow introduction of elements suggest tiers . . .

Guitar note via wah-wah pedal
Low notes on piano
Organ and brass
and so forth until the arrival of the vocals (lead and background). 

All of which takes us to the songs final moments, when the orchestral breaks expose, once again, the hi-hat and wah-wah pedal guitar.   One way to view these breaks is to hear them as highlighting the first elements of the arrangement.  Consider that if it does that, it also highlights all of the other elements, too, because we are jumping down from the highest tier, where all of the instruments play, to the 2nd lowest tier, where the guitar sits atop the hi-hat. 

Or, to rotate from an image of verticality to one of horizontality, the arrangement cuts between wide shots of the whole orchestra to tight shots on the hi-hat and guitar.  That contrast gives us a sense of all that has come before, as if we look back on the knowledge we have accumulated over the past four and a half minutes.

Thank you for reading.

Endings Part 1 supplement — Ending by reentering

Zero Mostel and Gene Wilder in  The Producers .  Image via .

Zero Mostel and Gene Wilder in The Producers.  Image via


The Mel Brooks film The Producers tells the story of a Broadway hustler, Max Bialystock (played by Zero Mostel), and his accountant, Leopold Bloom (played by Gene Wilder), who decide to stage a flop and keep their investors’ money.  They get their hands on an awful musical, Springtime for Hitler: A Gay Romp with Adolf and Eva at Berchtesgaden, and oversell shares to investors, confident they will never have to pay them back.  Little did they expect that the show’s awfulness is misread by the audience as brilliant irony.  The show is a success, and now the two, who now owe the play's profits many times over, are in trouble.

The story ends with the two sent off to jail.  As the credits roll, the two are seen selling shares of a new show, Prisoners of Love, to their fellow inmates and the warden.  The story thus ends by reentering the building it just left.  It as if the front door is a revolving door, and those attempting to exit are simply thrown back in.

This is a familiar comic device, one that plays on the idea of people’s inability to learn their lessons, a riff repeated several times in this Abbot & Costello routine.

Thank you for reading.

Endings Part 1 — Leaving Through the Front Entrance

Randall Wong.  Image via .

Randall Wong.  Image via


Some art works as a chapel in which to reflect.  We enter, lose ourself in listening or viewing or reading, and then leave by way of the door through which we entered. 

The labyrinth at Chartres Cathedral.  Image via .

The labyrinth at Chartres Cathedral.  Image via

It is not a puzzle to be solved, like a maze.  It is more like a labyrinth, a vehicle for meditation.  It differs from a maze in that a labyrinth walker doesn’t need to decide whether to turn left or right.  She simply follows a carefully marked path that winds around to the innermost point, at which point she turns and retraces her steps.  The point is not finding the destination—she'll end where she started—but the walking.


“The Blue Bird,” (music by Charles Villiers Stanford and text by Mary Coleridge) rendered here to stunning effect by the San Francisco vocal group Chanticleer and soprano Randall Wong, might be heard this way.   In the final notes, one recognizes the beginning, and that recognition sharpens our sense of the space contained between the beginning and the end.

Thank you for reading.

Beginnings Part 4 supplement — An Invocation from Matana Roberts

Matana Roberts.  Image via .

Matana Roberts.  Image via

Jazz saxophonist and composer Matana Roberts creates music she describes as Panoramic Sound Quilting.  “I have a deep interest in American history and old oral traditions developed, deconstructed, merged together often times through profoundly contradictory means.” 

Her music “aims to expose the mystical roots and channel the intuitive spirit-raising traditions of American creative expression while maintaining a deep and substantive engagement with narrativity, history, community and political expression within improvisatory musical structures.”

The second chapter in her Coin Coin series, Mississippi Moonchile, is indexed by tracks, but is in fact one continuous take.   The performance is both composed and improvised.  It’s worth noting here that the opening of this 50-minute work is titled “Invocation.”  (The final piece is titled “Benediction.”)

Note how this invocation clears out space.  The rattling percussion and vocal swells suggest a moment of ritual purification.  The space in which the musicians are about to perform must first be claimed by them.  That purification in turn readies the audience, driving out distractions and settling them into the sacred space of listening.

Thank you for reading.

Beginnings Part 4 supplement — The Great Gatsby

At left, the narthex at Hagia Sophia, and above, the vast room awaiting inside.  Images via  and .

At left, the narthex at Hagia Sophia, and above, the vast room awaiting inside.  Images via and

The opening of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby feels like a pause taken by a tour guide, who stops us tourists in the antechamber of some magnificent structure, a church narthex perhaps, and tells us just enough about himself for us to understand what we are about experience through his telling:

In my younger and more vulnerable years my father gave me some advice that I've been turning over in my mind ever since.

"Whenever you feel like criticizing any one," he told me, "just remember that all the people in this world haven't had the advantages that you've had."

He didn't say any more, but we've always been unusually communicative in a reserved way, and I understood that he meant a great deal more than that. In consequence, I'm inclined to reserve all judgments, a habit that has opened up many curious natures to me and also made me the victim of not a few veteran bores. The abnormal mind is quick to detect and attach itself to this quality when it appears in a normal person, and so it came about that in college I was unjustly accused of being a politician, because I was privy to the secret griefs of wild, unknown men. Most of the confidences were unsought-frequently I have feigned sleep, preoccupation, or a hostile levity when I realized by some unmistakable sign that an intimate revelation was quivering on the horizon; for the intimate revelations of young men, or at least the terms in which they express them, are usually plagiaristic and marred by obvious suppressions. Reserving judgments is a matter of infinite hope. I am still a little afraid of missing something if I forget that, as my father snobbishly suggested, and I snobbishly repeat, a sense of the fundamental decencies is parcelled out unequally at birth.

And, after boasting this way of my tolerance, I come to the admission that it has a limit. Conduct may be founded on the hard rock or the wet marshes, but after a certain point I don't care what it's founded on. When I came back from the East last autumn I felt that I wanted the world to be in uniform and at a sort of moral attention forever; I wanted no more riotous excursions with privileged glimpses into the human heart. Only Gatsby, the man who gives his name to this book, was exempt from my reaction-Gatsby, who represented everything for which I have an unaffected scorn. If personality is an unbroken series of successful gestures, then there was something gorgeous about him, some heightened sensitivity to the promises of life, as if he were related to one of those intricate machines that register earthquakes ten thousand miles away. This responsiveness had nothing to do with that flabby impressionability which is dignified under the name of the "creative temperament"-it was an extraordinary gift for hope, a romantic readiness such as I have never found in any other person and which it is not likely I shall ever find again. No-Gatsby turned out all right at the end; it is what preyed on Gatsby, what foul dust floated in the wake of his dreams that temporarily closed out my interest in the abortive sorrows and short-winded elations of men.

— F. Scott Fitzgerald, opening lines of The Great Gatsby


Note the quiet that descends over this introductory moment of reflection and the moral and romantic energy that gathers, ready to charge the readers’ subsequent entry into the narrative.

Thank you for reading.

Beginnings Part 3 supplement — Opacity and the Artwork of David Hammons

David Hammons.  Image via .

David Hammons.  Image via


One way of engaging an audience is to occlude their ability to perceive.

For instance, consider “Made in Hong Kong,” the opening song on Christian Fennesz’s album Endless Summer


Notice how the static becomes a mist, and we lean forward, for instance, just after the 0:30 mark when we hear what sounds like fragments of a song emerging from the misted shroud.  We get more fragments as the piece continues, and a natural response is to wonder what it might become. 

The album emerges out of this static mist so that, several tracks later, we hear something as clearly presented as “Shisheido,” a piece to which we have free access.


It is as if “Made In Hong Kong” told us, “I’m going to keep it from you,” which teases us into listening forward.

This principle of opacity arousing intrigue informs the artwork of David Hammons. 

I once saw a show of his, "Concerto in Black and Blue," in which the viewers were each handed penlights, which they used to navigate a series of dark rooms.

Viewers exploring David Hammons's "Concerto in Black and Blue."  Image via .

Viewers exploring David Hammons's "Concerto in Black and Blue."  Image via



“How big is this room?”  “Where is the next room?”  The penlights provided only limited information.  By hiding everything, the piece aroused a viewer’s desire to explore.

These paintings, wrapped in plastic tarps and trash bags, arouse curiosity by similar means. 

Images via .

Images via

These coverings aren’t coming off the paintings, and soon enough the viewer will recognize the covering of the art as part of, perhaps the main aspect of the art in question.  Nevertheless, note the importance of the little bits of painting that peek through the gaps and holes in the covering.  Hammons leverages our reflexive curiosity about what is hidden to bring us face with something else.

Thank you for reading.

Beginnings Part 2 supplement — Prokofiev’s "Peter and the Wolf"

A young Carlina Codina, who grew up to take the stage name Lina Llubera.  She later met and married Sergei Prokofiev.  Image via .

A young Carlina Codina, who grew up to take the stage name Lina Llubera.  She later met and married Sergei Prokofiev.  Image via


Sergei Prokofiev's Peter and the Wolf is famous orchestral work for children, where a narrator reads over an orchestration of the story.  It begins with an introduction of the characters and the musical motif and instrumentation associated with each.  Here is a version narrated by Lina Prokofiev.


Though the introduction (from 0:00-0:25) may have been written with the mission of introducing children to orchestral music in mind, it accomplishes more than that. 

  • It tells listeners how many characters to expect and what emotional associations come with each—excitement (the bird), playfulness (the cat), sternness (the grandfather), and so forth. 
  • The previews of the character motifs allows listeners to anticipate the scope and tone of what follows.  They’ll know to anticipate danger (the wolf), and conflict (gunfire).   

All of this sets a young listener’s imagination in motion before the action has started, and by establishing these limits, the introduction frees her to enjoy the story. 

Thank you for reading.

Tradeoffs Part 2 — Is a ride pattern necessary?

"Trafalgar Square" by Piet Mondrian.  Image via .  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

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. 

Thank you for reading.

Tradeoffs Part 2 — Becoming Aware of Unconscious Tradeoffs

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

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


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.

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 .

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


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.

Thank you for reading.

Roughness Part 4 supplement — Revealing the Errors of Making

Nina Simone.  Image via .

Nina Simone.  Image via


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 .

Simone in the studio.  Image via


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

Thank you for reading.

Roughness Part 4 supplement — “Roxanne”

Image via .

Image via


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.

Thank you for reading.