Wednesday 10 February 2016

Paperweight: Virgil Thomson on Creativity

This morning I used A Virgil Thomson Reader as a paperweight to keep another book open as I took notes. I chose it for another reader, too: so I could mine it for blog-friendly insights on creativity.

Through a sizable portion of the 20th century, Virgil Thomson (1896-1989) promoted modernism through his activities as  composer, critic, writer, and all-around impresario. I first came across him in a course about Gertrude Stein. After that course, I kept running into his name in all kinds of contexts, to the point that I stopped being surprised when I ran into him, including, for example, during my search through the Banff Centre library bookstack for a suitable paperweight. Here are three excerpts, which I picked for their interest, not because I agree with them necessarily, from my gleaning:

"Every profession is a secret society. The musical profession is more secret that most, on account of the nature of music itself. No other field of human activity is quite so hermetic, so isolated. Literature is made out of words, which are ethnic values and which everybody in a given ethnic group understands. Painting and sculpture deal with recognizable images that all who have eyes can see. Architecture makes perfectly good sense to anybody who has ever built a chicken coop or lived in a house. Scholarship, science, and philosophy, which are all verbalizations of general ideas, are practiced humbly by all, the highest achievements of these being for the most part verifiable objectively by anyone with access to facts. As for politics, religion, government, and sexuality, every loafer in a pub or club has his opinions, his passions, his inalienable orientation about them. Even the classical ballet is not very different from any other stylized muscular spectacle, be that diving or tennis or bullfighting or horseracing or simply a military parade.

"Among the great techniques, music is all by itself, an auditory thing, the only purely auditory thing there is.  It is comprehensible only to persons who can remember sounds. Trained or untrained in the practice of the art, these persons are correctly called 'musical.' And their common faculty gives them access to a secret civilization completely impenetrable by outsiders." (from "Our Island Home, or What It Feels Like to Be A Musician")

"My literary method, then as now, was to seek out the precise adjective. Nouns are names and can be libellous; the verbs, though sometimes picturesque, are few in number and tend toward alleging motivations. It is the specific adjectives that really describe and that do so neither in sorrow nor in anger." (from "The Paper" [the New York Herald Tribune]

"Laymen are likely to think that the poets are just being fanciful when they talk about magic and sorcery. This is not so. They are talking very good sense indeed, though their terminology may be antiquated. As a matter of fact, they are the only group of men in the world that has any profound prescience about the unchaining of the dark forces that has taken place in our century. Their chief utility to us all is that they help us to fight those dark forces by the only effective means there is or ever has been. I mean the light of reason, the repetition of sage precept, and the continual application to all the dilemmas of human life of the ancient and unalterable principles of disinterested thought." (from "Survivals of an Earlier Civilization, or Shades of Poets Dead and Gone")

Tuesday 9 February 2016


Scrapetool is an artist's book by Carolyn Leith in the collection of the Banff Centre's Paul D. Fleck Library and Archives. It is a board game with one die, one token, scorecards and a cardstock game board. The game aims to instruct about media representation of complex social issues. Players roll the die and move around the game board, whose spaces (numbered like TV channels) are images of monitors with news clichés. Players fill out the scorecard (a monthly calendar) with the clichés they land on, one cliché per day. Channel 48's text, for example is "Sexism charged in controversial case," while Channel 60's text is "Health care plan gains support." Scores are determined by how closely a cliché matches a new story delivered on the calendar day on the scorecard (more points if the cliché appears exactly).

I found of interest a discussion of the role of games in the game's instruction manual section "Reasons to Play." Art might be a kind of play (as the instruction state) so these reasons apply to the creation of art objects. Below is the text of this section:

In fun and play we recover the integral person, who in the workaday world or in professional life can use only a small sector of his being.

Games are popular art, collective, social reductions to the main drive or action of any culture.

Games are a way of adjusting to the specialized actions that occur in any social group.

As extensions of the popular response to the workaday stress, games become a faithful model of a culture.

Games are dramatic models of our psychological lives providing release of particular tensions.

Art, like games, became a mimetic echo of, and relief from, the old magic of total involvement.

For more on Scrapetool, see here.

Sunday 7 February 2016

Creative Cafeteria in Alberta

Can a place be a locus of creativity? I think so. Thanks to my one of my employers, I am attending a writing retreat at the Banff Centre in Banff, Alberta.

View from the Kinnear Centre for Creativity and Innovation
I have been thinking about Black Mountain College, the relatively short-lived utopia for learning and creative conjuncture. Banff Centre is in part a business conference centre and corporate retreat resort at the too-trendy townsite in Banff National Park near Calgary. Nevertheless, Banff Centre has lasted much longer than Black Mountain, partially because corporate money has supported the buildings and salaries of its employees.

While I am at my writing retreat, I have access to the fruits of this corporate infusion. I have an Artist Card (a debit card-rec centre-style swipe card) that grants me access to the following:

Battle Abbey: Jakob Koranyi and Heather Ware

I will be attending a performance by Ballet Jazz Montreal, a group I have always wanted to see. I will likely see some of the above events as well.

Creativity is a head-space, a way of thinking, not a place-place, but the inputs of the physical world provide the materiel for the outputs of creativity. For someone who, like Allen Ginsberg, is "shopping for images," the Banff Centre is a cafeteria, if not a supermarket.

Update: The subject of a previous post, McLuhan House has been renovated and is open for tours.

Writing and Retreating


View from my room at the Banff Centre
The Writers Guild of Alberta Annual Banff Retreat gives writers a chance to withdraw from the demands of daily life and advance towards writing. A writer-in-residence organizes occasional group meetings and readings and sits with each retreat member one-on-one to discuss their writing. This year's writer-in-residence, Stephen Ross Smith, is one of more personable people I have met: even battling a cold, he was relaxed and cheerful.
I am here for nine days. A few people have attended the retreat before; others, including me, are here for the first time. Talking and interacting with this group has revealed to me the variety of activities and  experiences that constitute the creative life. Prose, poetry, photography, journalism, translation and music are among their products. Several people are members of Borderlines, an Edmonton-based writing circle sponsored by the WGA and consisting of recent immigrants to Canada: among the group are poets, journalists, a blogger and a screenwriter from countries such as Chile, Nepal, Russia, and Egypt.

I sit in my room and work on my novel (and this blog) without having to grade assignments or walk the dog. The campus consists of several buildings, large and small, with gravel-strewn paths up and down and around, winding their way around like the mind winds itself when directing its energies to a particular writing problem (what are the names of some bars in Montreal?) or to the waxing and waning of confidence and stamina. The food is good (maybe too good)--I am most grateful that I don't have to cook.