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Clapton on Robert Johnson: In the flow
Submitted by Peter Cresswell on Tue, 2005-12-20 18:42
What an odd mix is Eric Clapton. A reserved, almost donnish Englishman, and still one of the world's great guitar heroes. Born and raised far from Mississippi or Chicago, yet he wields unquestionably one of the finest blues guitars the world has heard.
And he understands the psychology of creativity too, about which more below.
Clapton however has always been constrained by genre. Listening to much of his music over the years, his blues solos are the moments which are clearly and majestically him, the moments when he really stretches out, and his guitar gently aches and weeps -- at these moments he seems to be playing from and expressing his soul. But over the course of many years the number of solos has been too few, and the song structure within which those solos are contained has too often been too constraining, and to my ear often just too insipid to allow his soul to sing. Most of his albums -- including his latest dreary offering 'Back Down' -- have not unfortunately been crammed full of emotionally and technically challenging blues music, but too often have been mostly featureless terrains of musically- and emotionally-shallow mush-- stretching neither him nor his audience. They have however paid for an awful lot of fine living.
But just occasionally it's possible to hear the real Clapton -- and boy can he play when he wants to! A recent DVD/CD set in which Clapton plays songs from blues legend Robert Johnson (pictured right) is one recent and brilliant example: this captures the real Clapton, playing beautifully, expressively, and from the heart. The blues, it's sometimes said, ain't nothin' but the sound of a good man feelin' bad -- Johnson's songs are the real thing: they ache with emotion; Clapton clearly feels it, and when he does feel it you can hear it in his guitar.
He points out however in an interview on the DVD that playing these songs is by no means easy -- Johnson's seemingly simple songs are a mare's nest of difficulties and complexity. Clapton the guitar hero confesses he's not entirely able to play what Johnson played and recorded seventy years ago. Like pianist Art Tatum, listening to Johnson's recordings makes you convinced there's two people playing.
Clapton describes his struggle trying to get just one song right, and concludes that getting it exactly right, "I think to do that would be a life's work. I mean, it seriously would be a life's work for any musician." He has problems with one song in particular, Stones in My Passway, and despite never really mastering it, he's clearly relishing the artistic and technical challenge.
"Pretty difficult" for Eric Clapton means well-nigh impossible for ordinary mortals --- this simple-sounding music is in fact fiendishly difficult to play, which is part of what offers Clapton his reward for playing it. In an interview for the DVD, Clapton describes what he feels when he's playing this difficult music; his description makes fascinating reading for anyone interested in the psychology of creativity, and of what makes people truly happy, satisfied and fulfilled:
Anyone who's ever been fully absorbed in that creative moment will know exactly what he's talking about -- and we don't have to be a world class guitar hero to feel it. Hungarian-US psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi describes that state as one of "optimal experice, or flow," a state in which you are:
being completely involved in an activity for its own sake. The ego falls away. Time flies. Every action, movement, and thought follows inevitably from the previous one, like playing jazz. Your whole being is involved, and you're using your skills to the utmost.
Csikszentmihalyi has studied creative and high-achieving individuals, and he describes the phenomenon of their 'being in the flow' in their work as both their defining attribute, and their reward. 'Flow' itself is a function of a person's skills and the challenge before them. "Optimal experience, or flow, occurs when both variables are high," says Csikszentmihalyi. Too simple a challenge for our skills and we feel bored; too much of a challenge and we feel anxiety. But like Red Riding Hood eating Baby Bear's porridge, if things are 'just right' and our skills are being challenged to the right degree, then we too find ourselves in 'flow' in just the way Clapton describes.
Ayn Rand described "productive work [as] the central purpose of a rational man's life, the central value that integrates and determines the hierarchy of all his other values. Reason is the source, the precondition of his productive work – pride is the result." If our work is what integrates us, then being in 'flow' through our work is our psychological reward for doing it well.
There are a number of implications of Csikszentmihalyi's research, including important implications for career choice, for artistic creativity, for education, and even for how we choose to relax (see image at right). Productive and creative work can be seen not just as important existentially, but also psychologically, and selfishly.
Once we understand what 'flow' is and its importance to us, we can seek to maximise our time 'in the flow' rather than simply existing in a drone-lie manner, or engaging in mindless pleasure-seeking. Csikszentmihalyi for example contrasts enjoyment and pleasure, explaining "that the difference was that pleasure lacked a sense of achievement or active contribution to the result." Work or pleasure done 'in flow' need not be tiring; if done properly, it might instead be galvanising!
The North American Montessori Teachers Association have been working with Csikszentmihalyi to apply his model for education with children -- Montessorian David Kahn (who introduced me to the concept of flow in a lecture here in Auckland a few years back) lists eight conditions of "the flow experience," all of which he maintains are found in the Montessori classroom. His introduction to Montessori and Optimal Experience Research (PDF download) is a good place to start understanding the concept of flow, and one example of its concrete application. The 'Brain Channels Thinker of the Year Award - 2000' site also has some great links to find out more.
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