Tradeoffs Part 2 supplement — Control vs. Loss of Control

Pete Townshend.  Image via .

Pete Townshend.  Image via


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?

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 supplement — Max Roach channels Papa Jo Jones

Papa Jo Jones.  Image via .

Papa Jo Jones.  Image via


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.

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 supplement — Tradeoffs as acknowledgement of creative constraint

Quincy Jones.  Image via .

Quincy Jones.  Image via


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.

Thank you for reading.

Tradeoffs Part 1 supplement —Using tradeoffs to enrich workshop discussions

James Baldwin.  Image via .

James Baldwin.  Image via


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 .

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.