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.


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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. 


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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.


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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. 


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Roughness Part 1 — Roughness as Life-Affirming Element

 
Image via  onekind.org .

Image via onekind.org.

 

(I am indebted to Donald Schell for introducing me to Christopher Alexander, and to Tom Kubla, who has posted extensively about Alexander’s theories on tkwa.com, where I found some of the following quotes from Alexander.)


The architect/theorist/philosopher Christopher Alexander postulates that life comes from wholeness.  In his schema, wholeness has fifteen basic properties.  One of them is roughness:

“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

An example of roughness and its place within Alexander’s schema of wholeness might be the stripes on a zebra, as Shierry Weber Nicholsen explains:

A zebra’s stripes may be regular in their tendency, but they must fit around the various parts of the zebra’s body, which are only roughly symmetrical.  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

And thus, the irregularity of the stripes are what give us the sense of the zebra’s aliveness.  As Alexander explains . . .

“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

So for instance, one can consider the difference between a handmade bookshelf and one purchased from Ikea.  The handmade shelf—by way of its roughness, its inexact cuts and its acute/obtuse angles—speaks of life, especially when contrasted with the mechanized, soulless precision of Ikea. 

Musical examples abound.

 

Stevie Wonder’s groove is irresistible, but it is important to note that it is also inexact.  Furthermore, the inexact nature of the groove is essential to the liveliness of his sound.  His drumming exudes a slightly warped sense of time, as if we are hearing a drumbeat that was left out in the sun, and the result is something that sounds more alive.  As Shierry Weber Nicholsen’s noted about wholeness . . .

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

This description captures an essential quality of Stevie Wonder’s solo albums of the early 1970s, the way in which the handmade sound of the performances with their various quirks and imperfections all point towards a larger and integrated whole, one that overflows with life.


Thank you for reading.