Constraining Creativity

Lissa and I went to the New Mexico State Fair Saturday night, which got me thinking about art and creative constraints.

In addition to cows and clydesdales and midway carnival attractions, the fair is a sort of egalitarian melting pot of our best and sometimes worst creative output as a community. My favorite spot is always the Building of Goofy Hobbies, in which coin collectors and wood carvers and kids building with Lego put their best work on display. This year there was a crossstitch of a Frank Lloyd Wright stained glass window and a bobbinlace image of a ’70s-era Corvette sitting beneath a tree. It was magnificent.

We also arrived on the right night to see the local N-scale model railroad club’s display. They do fabulous work. There was Hoover Dam, and an amusement park, a lumber mill, an oil refinery, all to scale, all in modules that plug in one to the next so the trains can circle the room through an endless succession of imagined worlds. The N scale people are wildly creative, but in a perfectly constrained way. It has to be to scale, and match some real-world environment, real or imagined. And each module has to have the same three sets of rails spaced exactly right to match the modules to the left and right.

This is part of why I cannot write fiction. I am terrified by the completely blank slate. Your character can say and do anything. It’s frightening. Ah, but journalism – the real world provides constraints, and there I can flourish. The potentially story space for me to traverse is immense, with many dimensions, but it is usefully constrained. That’s what frames are for in painting, and the strictures of the French Academy of the 19th century.

I’ve been listening to Dave Brubeck of late. Music is helpfully constrained, especially by the standard strictures of the 3 or 4 beat measure. Brubeck poked his way out of that just a bit, with pleasant result, but never strayed far from the constraint. Ditto the Allman Brothers with that riveting 3/3/3/2 introduction to Whipping Post. But again, they couldn’t keep it up for long. It’s scary out beyond the constraints.


  1. Ah, but you are only referring to constraints that are defined by your own experiences (or the experiences of a large group of people like “Westerners”)

    In the case of music the tonal structure of Eastern music can sound very far out of the normal contraints to the Western ear – but when analized are well within the contraints set by their tonal constructs. Early music can also provide similar reactions for the modern listener.

    There are times when I find myself listening to decidedly unconstrained music and I always enjoy listening for the play on normal contraints. Like e.e. cummings said (paraphrase) “one must first learn the rules so that they may then break them.”

  2. But even the Eastern music has constraints, right, just ones I’m not accustomed to. So it might sound unconstrained to me, but to an ear used to it, it is every bit as constrained.

    So is there such a thing as completely unconstrained music, either rhythmically or in tonality?

  3. Yes indeed there are constraints with Eastern music. My thought process right now is that there is probably no such thing as totally unconstrained music. For example, if one chooses to play a particular instrument there are physical contraints to what can be played and how it will sound. That is just one of many constraints the musician places upon his/herself.

    Its sort of like when W. Eugene Smith would get crap for doing so much work on a photo in the darkroom (photoshopping nowadays) – he would always say that when he pointed the camera it was his first edit – the darkroom edits were no different.

    Not to get to “far out, man” but perhaps the only unconstrained moment in any music is the silence.

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