Innovating Through Artistry

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Seeing what might be there

In Author: Michael Gold on October 9, 2009 at 10:36 am

I’m looking at a photograph of Oliver. Oliver lives in Brooklyn NY. In the photograph Oliver is lying on his back in a shady spot in Prospect Park. The sun is dappling the tree limbs that hang above his head and he is staring upward in utter fascination and amazement at the light and trees above him. His arms are spread wide as if to allow the enormity of what he is seeing to encompass his senses.

Oliver is seeing the world for the first time and embracing it with a sense of wonder and joy that is natural to him as a newcomer to the game.

As I look at Oliver in this state I imagine that images he perceives are generating many new ideas. Actually the thought of “an idea” may be pretty new to young Oliver. Yet I can see by his amazed expression that there is a world of evolution happening behind that face. A billion neurons firing over synapses creating new memories of now that instantly become reference for defining the next stimulus- perhaps a bird or an airplane that flies through his line of vision.

Is this process frightening to Oliver? His eyes wide with wonder his mouth slightly opened, his arms splayed wide, I would say he looks pretty comfortable.

As an artist I recognize Oliver’s state of mind as one of direct engagement. One in which his mind rather than buffering the internal world of assumption expectation and judgment is engaging the totality of everything he sees and because what he sees is so new to him his mind does not try to filter only what he understands.

The cognitive psychologist might argue this point with me and would surely win. This is what I imagine Oliver to be thinking because this type of “seeing” this type of “being” is so difficult for me as a mature adult to achieve. And yet as an artist- a practicing improviser – my success depends upon achieving this state.

To say that Oliver is improvising would be a gross overstatement. But Oliver is doing something that is an essential aspect to improvisation. He is “embracing uncertainty with deep interest and trust.”

What does the word improvise mean? Its technical definition is the act of “bricolage.” Using whatever materials are available in the moment to create something new. And that is one aspect of what happens when we improvise.

But this definition gives me nothing to help me explain or understand how fundamental improvisation is to our daily existence and every task related to our existence that we deem important for any reason whatsoever.

Does the word improvisation seem threatening ?  And if so then why?

To improvise means to repurpose meaning. It does not mean to create something totally new from scratch- that is something altogether different.

To improvise means to literally improve upon what is. Improvisation is at the core of our thinking process and at the core of every interaction we have – unless of course you are reading a script that defines your words and motions. In that case you’ve eliminated any margin of uncertainty and it becomes unnecessary to even consider improvising.

Think about any normal conversation. You encounter someone- your next door neighbor with whom you have no invested relationship other than a desire to remain neutral. You exchange superficial banter regarding weather, the kids, general climate. There’s no script for this dialogue and yet there is a shared vision that you both tacitly agree on. Let’s make nice and keep it simple. But then your daughter comes bounding out of the house and announces that she saw her neighbor’s daughter out with a guy in a nightclub the night before which clearly surprises your neighbor. An element of uncertainty has just been added to the social improvisation and things immediately take on a different pace.

What price do we pay for the instinctual (some might say learned ) reaction to uncertainty?

What price would Oliver pay if instead of allowing all of the new images to flood into his mind he shut his eyes tight against the world and saw only what he could be sure about- only what was certain. What would that be for a child of his age? Not much.

Do we really take in so much in our years between childhood and the onset of adulthood that we can afford to block out possibility by eliminating what we think causes uncertainty?

We have learned to subconsciously avoid uncertainty by categorizing all that is unfamiliar into categories that we recognize. That is an essential cognitive pattern in the way we understand our world.

But to what extent to we bypass new possibility in the unconscious rush to quiet uncertainty as it begins to emerge?

If you can recognize the emergence of uncertainty before you shift your perception to “fit” the unrecognizable into a place of certainty, try and hold yourself there for a few moments to see what emerges.

What does that place feel like?

For Oliver it is a place of wonder and ecstasy.

Can we really afford to stem the flow of ideas?

Watching Oliver I understand how fundamental to the pleasure of our existence that flow is.

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To “Be” Autonomous

In Author: Michael Gold on September 22, 2009 at 5:39 am

What has always fascinated me about jazz is that my identity as an improviser is unconditionally bound to the identity of those I am improvising with. By identity I mean what Heidegger would refer to as Dasein- the manifestation of my potential to “be” in the world.

Jazz is a music that is phenomenological in this regard. It is always a manifestation of the moment. We begin with a simple shared construct that is fully defined- an event that has been completed and stands in the present as a link to the past. A tune- a logic of melody, harmony and rhythm that is fixed. Through its aesthetic its implications reach in both directions. Its design and logic evoke the essence of the time in which it was constructed by engaging us (who reside in the future) in some degree of the “truth” of what it meant to “be” at the time of its creation. Take for example the lyric to the jazz standard These Foolish Things Remind Me Of You the line “The winds of march that make my heart a dancer, a telephone that rings but whose to answer, a playgrounds painted swings, these foolish things remind me of you.” This lyric is so filled with the suggestion of change- winds of March, an unanswered phone call, the image of childhood lost- all culminating in the remembrance of lost love. There is a sense of the naïveté, innocence, optimism in the dancing heart. But it is also a powerful vector that projects us as improvisers into the immediate moment as we strive to actualize the potential that exists in the melody.

The great Tenor Saxophonist Ben Webster who played with Duke Ellington once stood to take a solo during a performance. His playing wasn’t particularly coherent and as he sat down his colleague sitting next to him in the sax section asked “what happened, man?” Webster said “I forgot the words.”

We in the present come to this work of art and use it as our point of departure- as a set of guidelines for our improvisation. Engaging the tune we engage with the truth of the past and translate it through ourselves into artistic meaning in the present. Each of us strive to achieve self actualization- what I call Autonomy. But it is not the autonomy one finds in Webster’s Dictionary. What is unique about jazz is the autonomy of each individual in the ensemble will always be an expression of the autonomy of the whole as expressed through that individual. This dynamic is more tangible with the art of jazz than most others because jazz is being collectively created in the moment.

The “score” for that creative process (the tune) resides in the imagination of each individual in the ensemble. It sits in their recollection of the tune, which speaks to each one from the past.

While the physical parameters of the harmonic landscape and it’s defining melody are immutable the potential that each improviser is able to pull from the tune is infinite and will emerge only through the struggle with its meaning.

The co creation of meaning through the language of music transcends the physical and psychological barriers between us. To swing means to find entrainment with one another in the expression of time. To the extent that it can sustain itself, that entrainment will, in itself, become an expression of ontological truth. We move in and out of entrainment in jazz- each time understanding more about the nature of the instant of now.

In the course of a single performance each member participates in an ontologically significant event – manifesting their potential in a collaborative effort to make meaning of human sentience through the logic of rhythm, tonality, sonic texture and space.

Each has the responsibility of actualizing to their fullest potential- to become autonomous with the tune, with the materials they are using and with the tool of their instrument. But to achieve collaborative autonomy there must be an equity of empathy. Each individual action radically affects the ecology of the whole.

To manifest autonomy in jazz means to “be” with and for the other. This dynamic can only be fully comprehended through somatic intelligence- the intelligence of intuition- the intelligence that encompasses the intellect, the body and the spirit.

Listening with intentionality

In Author: Michael Gold, ENTREPRENEUR THE ARTS on July 31, 2009 at 6:46 am

“IT AIN’T WHAT YOU DON’T KNOW THAT GETS YOU IN TROUBLE.
IT’S WHAT YOU KNOW FOR SURE THAT JUST AIN’T SO.”
-Mark Twain

Jazz is predicated on a very unique type of listening. It’s a listening style that isn’t new but one that requires some explanation. It is kind of listening that is open rather than closed. Closed listening? That seems like an oxymoron but actually most of the listening we do is listening for what we think we know and once that notion is satisfied we stop listening. But the type of listening in which we are willing to suspend our own way of looking at the world in order to try on someone else’s perspective … is listening with intentionality. This is listening with the purpose of examining, understanding and living in someone else’s world — without trying to pass judgment on that world.

Listening with intentionality is listening with the purpose of learning what we don’t already know. This isn’t necessarily what’s going on when most people say “I’m listening.” But it is what’s happening when great jazz players improvise together.

Listening with intentionality draws the other four elements of the APRIL sequences into action. It’s the verb that transforms Autonomy, Passion, Risk, and Innovation into processes you can use in the workplace – or anywhere else.

Listening with intentionality is not the same as hearing, although it begins with hearing. All of the information we use to create the world comes through the sensual experiences of touch, sight, smell, taste, and, perhaps most interesting of all, sound. I find sound to be unique for two overlapping reasons. First, we can’t close our ears the way we do with our eyes or refrain from the act of touch or taste. Hearing happens constantly. The act of hearing is so deeply embedded in our psyches that most of the time it is a sense that we are at best, subconsciously aware of and, at worst, unconscious about. The second reason this sense is different is due to the nature of the stimulus of sound itself. Sound is ephemeral. A sound occurs in time, perhaps slowly or quickly — but either way it happens and then it is gone. Visual stimulae occur in time as well, but much of what we see is fixed; we can scan it over and over again, giving us the luxury of multiple “takes” in order to perceive the deepest and most accurate meaning of what we see. With hearing, it is very different. If we wish to perceive deepest and most accurate meaning of a sound, we have only the moment of engagement to move beyond hearing and actually listen to what is happening. To really listen is an action that requires practice, discipline and awareness. To really listen means to understand the we are predisposed to a “default setting” in our minds that filters out a great deal of what we hear. We are programmed to recognize that which is already familiar. There are valid evolutionary reasons for this default setting but unfortunately in a world of nuance, change and complexity this kind of “defensive” listening often works against us. The challenge is to listen for what we don’t yet understand … and that can give rise to both dissonance and uncertainty.

Listening with intentionality means opening up and tapping into the wide realm of our own, and other peoples’, creative capacity. If we learn to “listen” as the artist listens, our businesses, our organizations, and our societies can meet the challenge of solving critical problems by developing solutions that can only be developed by means of the collaborative intelligence made possible through listening with intentionality.

Listening with intentionality means putting the other person’s mind at ease by connecting with that person for long enough to respectfully “inhabit” his or her point of view. When we are listening in this way, we are not prompting a defensive response by interrogating, demanding, judging, or disengaging. The human brain cannot proactively learn if there’s an orientation towards threat or fear. It can only reactively respond by trying to reinforce everything it already knows to counteract the threat.

Listening with intentionality means getting beyond our own operational reality for long enough to discover someone else’s operational reality — and that takes patience and practice. “Through Listening” – the kind of listening that inspires movement beyond core operating assumptions from all parties — requires that we move past old, outdated reactions we may have been replaying in self-defense since childhood … and lay the groundwork for mature, collaborative, peer-to-peer responses that make it possible for us to uncover new realities, new assumptions, and new working principles. Creating mature, collaborative responses almost always requires the ability to pose courageous questions … and then follow those questions in unpredictable directions. THIS LISTENING IS RISKY, BECAUSE IT REQURES ACCEPTING VULNERABILITY TO THE NEW.

Listening with intentionality means being ready to be curious. Curiosity is how we navigate this type of explorational listening. Curiosity taps our intuition, points us in new directions and helps us to pose intelligent questions.

Listening with intentionality means building bridges among diverse interest, and laying the groundwork for community to arise.

Polyrhythms of organizational improvisation

In Author: Michael Gold, ENTREPRENEUR THE ARTS on July 26, 2009 at 2:44 am

Using Jazz music as a platform for conversations about organizational improvisation has the power to bring about a fusion in “ways of knowing.”

In much the same way that the polyrhythm combines two rhythmic entities sustaining the integrity of each identity while forming a new entity of richer complexity and possibility, the jazz ensemble engages its process in a similar fashion.

At the level of the individual there is a constant shift of awareness between intellectual understanding and somatic understanding resulting in the integration of both states. This fusion creates a third way of knowing that allows for response to change that is not limited to the boundaries of our “intellectual constructs.” We are able to tap into the deeper knowing of our somatic experience as well.

In the collaborative context of the jazz ensemble this discipline allows individuals to transition spontaneously between the role of leadership of the soloist as they probe and search for new ideas and develop existing possibilities and the role of “comping”- supporting the soloist and creating a context for the soloist to develop their ideas.

As in the jazz ensemble the effectiveness of organizational leadership is deeply interconnected with the context in which it exists. Leadership in both worlds is most effective when it understands the synergy between leading, implementing leadership and supporting the very foundation upon which that leadership is based.

The dynamics of jazz provide a platform for conversations that uncover these possibilities.

You Are Jazz

In Author: Michael Gold, Emotional Intelligence on June 5, 2009 at 8:34 am

Improvisation . . .
What do you imagine?
Jazz? Stand up comedy? Experimental theater? Modern dance?
If you were asked to improvise in the moment what would you think?
Probably your first thought would be fear, ooooh no- not me. I’m not going there.

A lot of us imagine improvisation to be some sort of magical talent that one is born with. The ability to manifest something out of nothing; to act with great purpose and spontaneity at the same time; to embrace and manage change with no prior preparation.
That set of circumstances couldn’t be further from the truth, especially in such art forms as jazz, dance and theater.
These art forms that have interactive improvisation at their core are representations of a human condition fundamental to every single one of us. That condition is simply that we do not know for certain what will happen as we move from the present into the future.

However we choose to define our lives we all live in a flow of time that can only move in one direction- from what we know to have happened in the past into an future that we do not know. And that means that, like the improvisers in jazz, movement and drama, every one of us is always improvising their way from a state of relative certainty into a future of relative uncertainty.

Consider the art of conversation. What happens when, by chance, you encounter someone you’ve known since childhood but haven’t seen or spoken with in a decade. Before the conversation even begins the recognition of the event transforms the context of your inner dialogue almost like shifting from watching one movie to watching a completely different movie. You experience a reorientation. a torrent of experiential memories and emotions that trigger assumptions and judgments perhaps leading to expectations about new possibilities. Amidst all of that, you begin to converse. Wordless ideas that form in your imagination (Noam Chomsky notwithstanding) that you spontaneously translate into creative language. You give sound and wings to your ideas intending the other person to understand them in a very particular way. All of this happens with no script, no score. It happens with the skills of linguistic improvisation, gained only through trial and error, acquired over the course of hundreds of thousands of past conversations.

This is improvisation. It’s sort of an existential technology. It happens on a circular continuum that transcends the medium of spoken word, music, dance or drama.

It begins with an idea. Some form of agreed upon common ground. Each party uses their particular skills and knowledge to create a structural foundation around that idea that will support its meaning and value- protect it so to speak- for the interaction that is to come. But at the same time, in order to hopefully achieve innovation- prepare that idea for transformation as well. Each party also uses those same skills to lead the exploration, the probing and the development of the idea. At its best this continuum of improvisation yields transformational results that the participants call innovative- an improvement for both in the meaning and value of the ideas they started with. At its worst this continuum yields chaos, confusion and alienation.

Think of the family structure. When two people decide to have a family they share the idea of the child. But it is hypothetical because until that child is a reality there is no real improvisation- it is all theoretical- even the planning purchasing and physical transformation. Once the child is born those parents, for better or worse, begin improvising. The duo becomes a trio- each parent using every skill and bit of experiential knowledge to work together to create a structure of safety and support for that child. The child is improvising as well, exploring their reality, making discoveries, formulating ideas and constantly feeding back a stream of behavioral information to the parents. Hopefully the parents integrate these responses in ways that expand their capacity to provide the framework of safety and support for the child. For better or for worse, the family is the ultimate improvisational organization

But what is the relationship between improvisation- and the realization of results that all would agree are innovative- an improvement in value and meaning?

How does improvisation lead to innovation?

In one regard the answer to that question would depend on who is asking and what they are asking about. But that approach to the question is quantitative. One that assumes the value of innovation to be based on very specific qualities of past outcomes that can and should be measured and adhered to.  In other words if we were building a jet engine or a nuclear power plant where the allowable margin of risk was very slight this approach to the question would be appropriate.

The question is more interesting, though, if asked in the qualitative sense. How does the action of improvisation begin to yield innovative results? Where and when, in that process of parents observing the child, do their responses change the world of the child in a way that allows the child to move beyond what he or she is familiar with, to risk, trust, explore and grow? And how can parents recognize and interpret the qualities that child will discover and manifest in a way that transforms the parents’ behavior so that they can continue to grow as well?

The jazz ensemble is an amazing microcosm of this process. We can observe how the improvising soloist feeds back to the supporting members of the rhythm section (also improvising) so that they can expand their support in the way the soloist needs to continue their exploration. More on this to come in future blogging.

But what can be gleaned from the way improvisation leads to innovation in jazz is that the process is always uncertain. Improvisation is always an uncertain process and does not in and of itself imply an innovative outcome.

But when innovation does occur it means that the within the process of improvisation there has been an alignment in understanding between roles of exploration and support – in jazz the interplay between the improvisation of both the soloist and the supporting rhythm section. That alignment allows for the release of the old to allow for the new. It also implies a consensus about what knowledge and truth from the past shall continue to support the meaning of what is emerging in the present.

This is the constant edge of improvisation leading to innovation. It is a state that is ephemeral, elusive and extremely vulnerable. And yet it is where all positive change begins.

The dynamics that jazz improvisers practice on a daily basis are musical. But they are also linguistic and empathic in a deeply humanistic sense. These dynamics begin and end with listening- an act that many of us have become very subconscious about. To really listen means to be aware of our position on this continuum of improvisation-to understand that our smallest actions and decisions contribute to the equation of improvisation manifesting innovation. . . or not.

Art is a reflection of fundamental aspects of how we perceive and relate to each other and the world.
Jazz is a unique art form that captures and musifies certain interpersonal dynamics that are fundamental in the improvisation of life.

Because life is improvised there is the art of jazz.

It’s about you.

The Nature of Creativity

In Author: Michael Gold, Creativity and Innovation, ENTREPRENEUR THE ARTS on April 20, 2009 at 3:56 am

In 1975 the Sociologist Rollo May published a series of essays about the nature of creativity.

He begins with these words:

We are living at a time when one age is dying and the new age is not yet born.

A choice confronts us. Shall we, as we feel our foundations shaking, withdraw in anxiety and panic? Frightened by a loss of our familiar mooring places, shall we become paralyzed and cover our inaction with apathy?

If we do those things we will have surrendered our chance to participate in the forming of the future. We will have forfeited the distinctive characteristic of human beings- namely to influence our evolution through our own awareness. We will have capitulated to the blind juggernaut of history and lost the chance to mold the future into a society more equitable and humane.

Or shall we seize the courage necessary to preserve our sensitivity, awareness and responsibility in the face of radical change?

We are called upon to do something new, to confront a no man’s land, to push into a forest where there are no well worn paths and from which no one has returned to guide us.

To live into the future means to leap into the unknown, and this requires a degree of courage for which there is no immediate precedent and which few people realize.

The name of his book is The Courage to Create.

His ideas from 40 years ago are perhaps even more meaningful in the world we find ourselves in today.

40 years ago May was speaking to artists, psychologists, philosophers and academics. Today his words are an imperative for every one of us.

For the past ten years I have been involved in an emerging field that uses the arts to help people in the realm of business, education and organizations understand and appreciate the creative process.

What is it about the artistic perspective that makes it so relevant to these supposedly non-artistic fields? Particularly at this point in time?

The world of art and the world business are two of the oldest human disciplines and they emerged at roughly the same time in the history of the human race. It wasn’t until about 300 years ago that an artificial separation occurred. The world of “the arts” became this rarefied domain where only the artistically gifted could venture.

The rest of us were to be the audience the appreciators.

That separation has had negative implications for our culture that were not immediately apparent. Separating the world of arts from the world of commerce and everyday life was like separating the heart from the brain and deprived both realms of essential perspectives that we need to sustain the balance between the spiritual and the worldly aspects of human being.

What do we think of as Art?

Paintings, Sculptures, Orchestral Scores

Wonderful objects that bring to a stand certain ontological truths that the artist “knew” about the time and the world in which they lived.

One aspect often overlooked  about “art” and it’s purpose in the world is is the idea that the “how” of art has something important to teach people who may not think of themselves as artists.

As beautiful and valuable our “objects de art” are to us they sit on display in museums or are produced in magnificent halls at specific times and places for which we need to step out of our normal lives to engage.

This is the “what” of art

But have you ever wondered about how that object came to be?

I call this process the how of art and while it’s true that not everyone is capable of or interested in making art or music there is a great deal that can be learned about improving human relationships from the “how” of the artistic process that process through which we connect with and give expression to our deepest human nature in forms other than words.

Most business people I work with are taken aback when I suggest that they are artists. But think about it- the “what” of business may be a contract, a product, or a transfer of value but each of those things came to be through the relationship of people to one another. And it is that “how”- the way people interrelate in business that creates, shapes and defines the quality of the world we all live in together.

The creative imagination that invents micro financing for individuals in India or develops wind and solar energy technology that can deliver at the scale we need or discovers new designs in bio-technonlogy to cure disease or strengthen the food chain is the same creative imagination that creates the paintings, sculptures music and dance we define as art

But the organizational behavior of Business does not take place in the nurturing environments of artists studios or the concert halls. It happens in social arenas that are usually insensitive at best and at worst destructive to the dynamics that enhance and nurture collaborative creative thinking.

 Fifty years ago visionaries like Rollo May began to sense that our creative capacity was not keeping up with the complex problems that were rapidly beginning to emerge. He knew these problems would require unprecedented collaboration of creative thinking in order to solve.

What we find at this intersection of the world of art and the world of commerce are the very resources we need to take that creative leap May was talking about. To open wide the realm of our creative capacity and feeling in order to solve problems for which solutions will only come from exploring the deepest levels of our imagination. And that is the realm of the artist from which we separated centuries ago.   

thoughts from banff

In Author: Michael Gold, ENTREPRENEUR THE ARTS on April 3, 2009 at 9:08 am

in this space

time has texture

my thoughts do not rush

I notice my heart

 

in this space

I am able to reason

and to tease apart

the strands of epiphany

 

in this space

I feel the momentum of others

in balance with the trees, the grass, the rain

 

on the first day coyote came to check me out

he hung about for a long time

he wasn’t afraid

but curious

 

so I learned from coyote

and remembered how wonderful it feels

to allow curiosity

 

on the last day

I am sad to leave

but know that the wonder of this place

will always be in my heart

 

michael gold

valentine studio leighton artist colony, banff centre for creativity september 2008