It’s no secret that I love structure.
That might not be obvious if you saw my desk, my refrigerator, my closet or my computer filing system. But I’m not talking about ‘organization’ – I’m talking about internal structure.
This, for example, is the structure or blueprint of my concerto “Baroque Flamenco”.
Just play it, from left to right.
Not sure how to do that?
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I trace this fascination with structure back to two books I had as a child:
Book #1: The 3-Part Flip Book
They’re now called “Flip the Flap” books: cartoon drawings of familiar figures, like a postman, a fireman, a belly dancer, a crocodile. Each has basically the same pose: standing on hind legs, face forward or semi-profile. Each has basically the same dimensions:
- Top 3rd: Head & Shoulders
- Middle 3rd: Arms and torso
- Bottom 3rd: From the waist down
And each page is cut into 3 sections. So you can have a postman head with crocodile arms and ballet dancer legs. The characteristics change, but the basic shape and function of each body segment stays the same.
My takeaway as a 5-year old? My body is arbitrary. Someday I might wake up with Alligator legs and a Fireman head. Flip a few pages and I’d be back to ‘me’ – but ‘me’ has interchangeable parts.
The number of combinations seemed infinite. What might a combo-being like that DO or experience? How might it dance – or deliver the mail? The sheer number of possibilities was mind-boggling. And yet the basic underlying structure remained the same.
It was the same thing. Just completely different.
Book #2: The Superlative Horse.
This was a story of ancient China that I heard before I could read. It’s the story of a boy who is chosen to select the finest horses for the Emperor’s stables. Yet this boy is oblivious to all external characteristics of a horse, such as gender, color, height. He can only see its superlative nature.
My favorite part was the ending, after the boy returns from choosing a horse, which he has described as a tan mare of a certain height*. When it arrives it’s a grey stallion of a different height – at which the retiring stablemaster stammers in awe something like: “This boy has a far greater eye than I knew. He can see nothing but the essential.”
*Disclaimer: I don’t actually remember how the boy described the horse or what it looked like. Case in point.
Well, I wanted to be that boy, with that ability – a boy who was SEEN for who he innately was, not for how he appeared or the external accuracy of his observations. I already had an innate cluelessness and an uncanny ability to miss the obvious, so I figured I had a head start.
I also wanted to be the retiring stable-master, the man who had trained the boy – because it was his story, too – his ability to see a superlative boy.
At the heart of both books was one idea: characteristics are arbitrary and interchangeable – but there is an internal something that holds it all together – some structure that grounds all creative possibility.
I didn’t know I was falling in love with structure.
And then my mother remarried
My new stepfather was a child psychologist, studying to get his PhD. He gave me Rorschach blots to play with and one night sat me down at the kitchen table with a glass of warm water, a cup of sugar, a spoon, pencil and a bit of string.
He told me to spoon sugar into the glass and stir it with the spoon to dissolve it. Over and over, more and more sugar until the glass was swirling with sugar.
Then he tied the string to the pencil and balanced it over the glass, with the string hanging down. And we went to bed.
In the morning, the string was encrusted with crystals. Like jewels from nothingness, in a glass of clear water. I turned to him with the amazement I suspect he hoped for. “Sugars will always crystalize,” he said. “It’s their nature. But the string gives them something to crystalize around. “
So that was it. I could look for the string in the sugar water – the organizing principle inside of anything, the simplest, most elegant way for things to crystalize in their own unique way, always different … but always around that simple ‘something’.
(Above: The structure of my song “The Nightingale” – with the essential part of the song in the red box)
As I journeyed through music: from folk songs and musicals to classical training, to jazz training, to writing original music for symphony, I began to see similar internal structures. Contra dance sets were like jazz sets were like Suites – but not like them. Rondeaus were like songs with choruses … but not really.
But you could chart them out, in simple drawings that let you easily remember ‘what kind of thing happens next’ and ‘how this fits with that’ and gave you options when ‘that didn’t exactly work the way I’d planned.’
Without knowing it, I started collecting these structures and using them over and over in different ways in my shows and compositions.
I didn’t realize I was collecting Blueprints for Creativity
A Blueprint can generate an infinite number of ‘pieces’, an infinite series of improvisations, infinite variations. It’s not the ‘thing’ – it’s the pattern for ‘the thing.’ The beauty of knowing a structure and the function of any part of the structure is that it then becomes a way to generate infinite creative expression.
It’s not the piece itself, it’s the basic structure of the piece, not tied to specifics, but the string in the sugar-water that brings the natural formation of crystals into a relationship that holds them together.
I’ve collected 8 of these forms or ‘Blueprints’ together and I’m teaching them in a series of “Blueprints for Creativity”. Right now they’re only open to the members of the Academy but I’ll be opening them for everyone in March.
Come to my FREE training “Structure IS Freedom” where I’ll explain WHAT my “Blueprints for Creativity” ARE and how ANYONE can use them. Join me LIVE on Sun. Feb. 28, 2021 at 3:30 pm EST or watch the REPLAY later. Sign up for that webinar here.