Flickrs of talent

One of the reasons I stopped playing in a band (other than the obvious ones: geography, a face only a mother could love and the increasing feeling that once you’re over 30, you’re too old to rock) was frustration: while a lot of the stuff we did was really, really good, I never felt it was good enough.

To me, there was always a yawning chasm between the stuff I was writing and the stuff I was listening to, so while I could easily write a 1,000 word forensic analysis of, say, Red Dress by Sugababes, There There by Radiohead or (yes!) Biology by Girls Aloud that tells you exactly why they’re great, what sneaky musical tricks they use and what particular moments elevate them from ordinary tunes into something special (in Red Dress it’s the chaotic “woah woah woah” bit before the second part of the chorus; in There There it’s the chord change underneath the line “just ’cause you feel it / doesn’t mean it’s there”; in Biology it’s the spooky backing vocals that come in halfway through the chorus), no matter how hard I tried (or how talented my fellow band members) I could never reach the same heights myself.

I feel the same thing on Flickr when I browse other people’s photos. Sure, I know a bit about composition and photography so I can tell a good pic from a bad one; I can also tell when a pic’s benefited from professional lighting or from sneaky Photoshopping. But the really good ones aren’t just about technique: the really good stuff comes from people who could take better shots on a crappy cameraphone than I could ever manage with ten grand of camera kit. There’s things I can do – I can (and did) upgrade from a basic compact camera to a pseudo-SLR, I could learn about shutter speeds and other technical stuff (if anyone can recommend a good book for digital camera owners who’ve no idea beyond autofocus and pre-defined picture modes, I’m all ears)… but while those things would certainly help me take better photographs, they can only help with the technical stuff. What differentiates the really good pics from the quite good ones isn’t equipment or technique, but talent.

The best example I can think of is in my day job. I’m not suggesting I’m some literary giant, but I do think that there’s something going on that means unlike many people, I find writing easy. The something is this: 99% of the time I have absolutely no recollection of writing an article. One day it’s a blank page and I’m howling with frustration, then something clicks in my head and the words start flowing. Before I know it I’ve got a finished piece, but my involvement is a bit like when you drive somewhere and arrive with no recollection of actually driving.

I’m reminded of a comment by a musician (I can’t remember who): the songs are just floating through the air, and it’s your job to catch them before some bastard like Mick Hucknall gets his hands on them. But that’s not just the case in music; I reckon it’s the case with writing and photography too.

Writing, then: there’s technique in there – planning out a structure, editing and refining, editing again, particular word choices, deciding the whole thing’s shite and starting again from a different angle – but the bit that matters to me, the process of turning a bunch of ideas or facts into a feature, or story, or book, happens on a subconscious level. It doesn’t matter whether you’re using Notepad, Word or some amazingly clever document editor: if you don’t have that subconscious thing going on, then no matter how good your software (or your pen and paper) the process of writing is bloody hard work. The tools you use can make things easier, but they can’t write the words for you.

And that’s the big lie behind a lot of tech marketing at the moment. Sure, programs such as GarageBand put amazing power in the hands of would-be musicians (when I started playing in bands, the only way to get even a crappy recording was to spend hundreds on kit and then hundreds or even thousands of pounds on studio time), but if you want to create a Red Dress, There There or Biology you’ll need to bring the same alchemy to GarageBand that those songs’ creators brought to the studio. Yes, upgrading from a crappy cameraphone to a digital SLR will enable you to take better photographs, but it won’t make you a better photographer. And using a state-of-the-art word processor or blogging system will make the nuts and bolts easier, but it can’t help with the actual writing. Technology firms can sell you the tools, but they can’t sell you the talent.

12 thoughts on “Flickrs of talent

  1. Professor Batty says:

    …Thought provoking post. There is a lot to be said for the use of paper and pencil as a word processor (don’t leave home without your #2 and moleskin!) Photos are a bit trickier, in that they require some equipment and technique (although not as much of the latter, modern cameras are pretty amazing.) The subconscious aspect of it is crucial, all the training in the world won’t help if you don’t have that spark (although it will help immensely if you do…)

  2. Tony Kiernan says:

    Technology is just another tool. There are some great photos taken with a pinhole in a toilet tube. I’d rather listen to someone with a stretched piece of hide over a log than endure anything involving Neil Peart. Beeethoven just had a piano, have you seen any footage of Rick Wakeman fron the seventies…?

    Much as I agree with most of your points, I can’t help feel that you’re missing something. Unfortunately, I’m completely failing to articualte what that is. Maybe that’s the point (ha! ambiguity! Gets you out of anything)

    I think with the music thing you need too feel that you’re not quite hitting it. I imagine that the mentioned acursed Mick H thinks his stuff is great – consistently.

  3. Gary says:

    > I can’t help feel that you’re missing something.

    I’m sure I am, but I don’t know what. It was an early morning post, so I wasn’t as coherent as I might be.

    > I think with the music thing you need too feel that you’re not quite hitting it.

    Oh, I agree, and not just in music: If you do something and you reckon it’s a work of unalloyed genius that can never be bettered, you might as well retire or top yourself depending on how gloomy the prospect makes you. It’d be nice, though, if that ambition manifested itself in ways other than believing everything you do is complete and utter shit :(

  4. Squander Two says:

    Every musical instrument is an obstacle between the music in your mind and sounds in the real world. So far, so is all music technology. And it will be until someone invents a mind-reading synth that literally plays what you’re thinking. Then we’ll finally know who the really talented musicians are.

  5. tm says:

    >Then we’ll finally know who the really talented musicians are.

    Only if they try it though. Only when someone invents a mind reading synth that seeks out every person one by one and gives them a shot will we know who the really talented musicains are.

    We may know befere that who the great musicians are though, since we could easily make a case for a great musician being someone with the talent *and* the desire to make something truly interesting.

  6. Squander Two says:

    True enough.

    Instruments annoy me, is what I was saying, though. You spend years practising and practising, in the hope that one day you’ll be able to play the instrument so fluently that it’ll be just like speaking and you’ll just be able to play whatever’s in your head, and at the end of it all you discover that the instrument forces you to play it in a certain way, simply because that’s it nature. No matter how good I might hypothetically get at piano, it will always be literally impossible to play the music in my head unless I grow a third arm.

    And then, sometimes, the very physical limitations of an instrument force you into happy accidents and you discover a sublime bit of music that never was in your head. A lot of musical talent, I think, lies in recognising the potential in those accidents.

  7. Gary says:

    > Every musical instrument is an obstacle between the music in your mind and sounds in the real world.

    Again, that applies to more than just music – so for example I’ve taken lots of absolutely stunning shots *in my head*, but unfortunately I haven’t been able to capture them with a camera. Sometimes it’s the technology, sometimes it’s not actually having a camera at the time, sometimes it’s not moving fast enough to capture the moment, or whatever.

    I always found making music a thoroughly frustrating experience, whether it was trying to overcome my fairly rudimentary guitar playing, trying to overcome the natural limits of my vocal range or just knowing that there was something interesting just out of my reach and being utterly unable to articulate what it was, let alone capture it.

    > A lot of musical talent, I think, lies in recognising the potential in those accidents.

    I think that’s why in many cases, musicians can’t work in isolation. The more people you have involved, the more accidents there are. Certainly the musical stuff I like best from my own back pages started as accidents, whether that was someone playing the “wrong” thing or just noodling along and stumbling on something interesting.

    The other thing about music, I reckon, is that (most) musicians need a producer in much the same way writers need editors – as a musician you often can’t see the wood for the trees, and outside input can help turn something OK into something superb. Which is why in many cases, when an individual musician starts to believe they’re a genius, sacks the band and has enough clout to surround him or herself with yes-men, the music goes down the poop chute. And conversely, the presence of multiple inputs is probably why I find a lot of production-line pop so thrilling.

  8. Gary says:

    Oh, and tom – you’re bang on about determination. Sure, there are people out there with raw talent and in some cases, that talent means they can pretty much pick up anything and work magic with it (so if they’re a musician, they could get a note out of a plank of wood; if they’re a photographer, they could do wonders with a cameraphone). But I think in many, many cases it’s not just the raw talent, but the combination of raw talent and hard graft.

    To take the Flickr example: I’ve known various pro photographers over the years, and they all had/have raw talent, the undefinable thing that means they can spot a good photo from space. But they’ve taken that talent and worked and worked on technique, to the point where it’s automatic: not only can they spot the shot, but they’re so familiar with the workings of their instrument that it’s already primed and ready – so when the shot appears, they can draw the camera like a cowboy draws a gun. Whereas with me, I spot the shot and spent so much time dicking about with camera settings I barely understand that by the time I’m ready to shoot, the moment hasn’t so much gone as run away, jumped in a Ferrari, barrelled down the motorway and crossed the border.

    Er…

  9. Gary says:

    Sorry, me again :)

    I was thinking about the whole subconscious thing again, and it struck me that there’s maybe a connection between perspiration and inspiration. So for example if I have horrific writer’s block, just writing any old shite is often enough to boot the block and kick-start the creative bit of the brain. Same with music: just noodling along is often enough to get the musical stuff flowing. Anyone else experience that? Have I just booked into the Obvious Hotel, Obvious Street, Obvioustown?

  10. tm says:

    So instruments are filters bewteen musicians and the notes and then tunes they want to create. Which is often the source of frustration. And occaisonally the source of inspiration.

    What if we really did have the synthisier that could make any sound we wanted? Would we choose to make all the many sounds we have ended up with through insturments? Would the people who make the stunning sounds with that be the same as the popel who make the stunning sounds with the instruments? If two disticnt gorups emerged how would we treat them? Two different types of musical genius?

    To tie this together with Garys reasoning, would the former group tend to work better alone creating their unique sounds, while the ‘instrument’ musicians work in groups? Or would in fact the ablilty to create whatever we like whenever we like actually stifle the perspiration/instipration connection – when you don’t have to work at it will the truly motivated actually be interested?

    And on a slightly depressing note will those people who could actually use such a device properly be able to be heard amongst the large numbers of people who presumably will be using it despite their lack of talent – all of them actually ending up literally ‘buzzing like a fridge’ I guess. And is this actually any different to the current situation?

    Hmmm. I Don’t have answers to any of those questions. In fact I might be talking rubbish. But still…

  11. Gary says:

    > And on a slightly depressing note will those people who could actually use such a device properly be able to be heard amongst the large numbers of people who presumably will be using it despite their lack of talent – all of them actually ending up literally ‘buzzing like a fridge’ I guess. And is this actually any different to the current situation?

    Well, judging by unsigned music in general, blogs, the various arty things people do online… you’d have the same signal to noise ratio as that, with a tiny minority of interesting things floating in a vast sea of crap. I’ll save the details for another post but very quickly: I think as we get surrounded by more and more content, much of it worthless (to us at least), we’ll need some sort of “shit filter” to help us find the good stuff. Sites such as Digg et al are very basic, very flawed versions of such a filter.

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