Can our path to learning or discovery be framed by our desire for a specific answer? Politics is famous for starting with the answer and backing into a justification framework built upon marginally believable and even utterly misappropriated information. Approaching discovery this way will tend to lean the vessel ever so slightly toward the course of a tragically flawed chart and an even more treacherous destination. While objectivity is more common in the field of science, even there it can be prone to the subjective lens of the researchers or those funding the research. With egos present in all iterations of the human experience, even the scientific peer review process can be transformed into a zero-sum battle instead of a mission of pure truth-seeking. The latter is open to failure, ridicule and the drudgery of uncertainty. It involves experimentation without expectation. Each participant releases control to an emergent force rewarding diligence and commitment along with a small fleck of potential hidden in the inordinate amount of noise.
I wasn’t seeking success, but only to create the conditions for an experiment.Pierre Schaeffer – In Search of a Concrete Music
Pierre Schaeffer was a man difficult to define by traditional, single-threaded labels. If we had to craft a moniker, he was a musicologist, composer, acoustician, professor, inventor, broadcaster, researcher and ultimately someone who embraced uncertainty in the pursuit of innovation. This is not to say that his journey wasn’t marred by frustration and maddening setbacks. In fact, his journals share a glimpse of his experience as a man existing between the two worlds of traditional music and the physics of sound. He was in the place between things. Schaeffer describes this place of undefined potential through relationships in general. More specifically, he presents the writing of poet Paul Valery pondering the origins of objects to illustrate the point of innovating in a world of traditionalists.
This is the “way”, indicated by Valery, which leads, like a strait or an isthmus from one world to another, from the world of found objects to the world of intended objects.Pierre Schaeffer – In Search of a Concrete Music
a seashell in a world of marbles
Schaeffer presents the relationship between a seashell and marbles. If you’ve been playing with marbles, you are familiar with their construction and their ability to line up or roll across the floor. When someone introduces a seashell to you with your only reference point of marbles, the new innovation does not match the tradition. It’s up to you to either find inspiration in the difference or discard it because it doesn’t fit the mold.
Among other things, Schaeffer was most known for creating a version of avant-garde music called musique concrete. It is built by extracting sounds from the natural environment and shaping them into new music. These sounds were transformed into new objects that could rarely be traced back to their original identity. Scoffed at by traditionalists, Schaeffer stayed true to his mission, and musique concrete became the basis for the electronic music that we all know today. In the 1940s, his groundbreaking work blurred the boundary between traditional music and the physics of sound. While working at his radio station, he fell enamored with the musical possibilities that existed within the sound effects libraries. He wanted to transform these sounds into beautiful musical building blocks. The hiss of a train releasing pressure, the rhythmic clack of the wheels on the track and the oscillating hum of a steel carriage gaining momentum across the countryside were all instruments in the orchestra of musique concrete.
Isn’t experimentation the root of all things worth doing? It’s the moment where uncertainty breeds a tug of war between the potential and the understood. This place is excitingly nerve-racking, and the ultimate experience is based on your choice in how to participate. On one hand, is it an all in bet that not only predefines success but stamps a permanent imprint on your psyche? Or is it an attempt to do something nobody has done before with the mindset of acquiring answers independent of the outcome? An answer is valuable no matter its relationship to the question. Instead of fixed points on a linear timeline, wouldn’t a less defined approach yield a more positive view of progress?
The path to truth-seeking begins with a crazy idea coupled with a willingness to enter a state of relative vulnerability resigning to the fact that you don’t know the answer but have the desire to search for it. Experiments must not be driven by ego and fixed mindsets. New information synthesizes with our foundational knowledge into a cocktail of undefined potential. Without steering our results to the benefit of corroborating a projected solution, the accretive nature of the interdisciplinary creative process can bring those crazy ideas to life in unexpected ways.
Like Schaeffer, don’t chase a predefined answer.
Start something with curiosity.
Feed it with intensity and focus.
Explore it with limitless possibility.
Deliver it fearlessly.
Pick up a copy of In Search of a Concrete Music:
Listen to Pierre Schaeffer’s “Etude Aux Chemins De Fur”: