David Corney

Constrained creativity

“Don’t play the butter notes”

I recently stumbled across a fascinating talk by Herbie Hancock. Apparently, back when he was playing in Miles Davis’ sublime quintet, he got stuck in a rut: he felt he was always playing the same notes, the same patterns, expressing the same ideas. Then, mid-gig, Davis leaned over to him and said “Don’t play the butter notes!” This obviously confused Hancock who eventually guessed that Davis meant “don’t play the obvious, easy notes”1.

In the video, Hancock then gives a nice explanation of scales and the importance of the 3rd and 7th to really identify the scale. They define whether it’s major or minor, blues or whatever. So in some ways, that makes them the obvious, easy notes. So Hancock experimented with… not playing them! Of course, he still had to express the music, play the tunes, fit in with the rest of the band and entertain the audience, but he could no longer do it the obvious way. So, being a musical genius, he came up with new ways of playing.

Constrained writing

This then reminded me of Georges Perec’s novel “A Void”, notorious for being written without using the letter “e”. Even writing one paragraph without it is hard, let alone a 300-page novel (and a million bonus points for Gilbert Adair’s translation).

I’ll try writing with that constraint, without promising that any output will contain insight but only that it will contain just four non-consonant symbols. Hard work but fun, or possibly fun owing to its difficulty? Writing this is slightly akin to Hancock’s piano playing with his fatty constraints, but thankfully without Davis or a crowd asking for rapidity or much quality. Anyway, lots of discussion of similar writing is found at this location.

Constrained problem solving

Sometimes, being unconstrained can be overwhelming: if you can go in any direction, how on earth do you choose one? Constraints can force you to explore avenues that might otherwise get overlooked, and so kick start something more creative. When I worked at Signal, it was a very small tech startup with very big plans. Often, we discussed ambitious plans for new features, supported by a very open company culture that encouraged debate. But we were also very constrained, with limited people, time and money. So we figured out what we could do within those constraints, and did that (rather well, on the whole).

Now when faced with large open-ended problems (my favourite kind) instead of thinking, “If only I had a roomful of data scientists or endless cloud credits, this would be easy!”, instead I try and think: how would I solve this if I could only use pencil and paper? Or if I only had one day to finish? Or if I wanted to end my blog post on a really strong note2?

  1. Turns out he actually meant “bottom notes”, but never mind. 

  2. This doesn’t always work as I’d hope…