It could never be said that I am a good guitar player. When you have the gift, it is evident….
Still, I like playing and it periodically opens me up to epiphanies about art. Lately, I’ve been learning to play Neil Young’s “Out of the Blue and Into the Black” (My My Hey Hey) from a youtube video, and despite the opening being only two chords, both of which I actually know and can easily play, I’m having a hard time of it.
All because of the unexpected note.
Here you can see what’s going on in the very beginning of the song:
Video by EricDMyers, available at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZlRocH6ohPM&feature=related
The technicality of it is simple. Most people understand there are six strings on your average guitar. Chords are formed by pressing on various strings on the fret bars, and you then strum or pick the chord, starting with the base note. Some chords (G’s and E’s) have their base notes on the 6th string, while others (A’s and C’s) start on the 5th string. Guitar playing 101.
So here’s this song that goes from an A7 chord to a regular old G, and where do the base notes go? From the 5th to the 4th string! My fingers and my mind want to go down to the 6th, and Neil Young forms the G chord and then plays the 4th string—which is completely open. Truly, I was discombobulated. If you’re not even pressing on the string you play, then why would you even bother to form a chord? [IMPORTANT-WRITERS AND PAINTERS, STICK WITH THIS–YOU’LL LIKE IT!]
The note, which is part of the G chord, is not one that is often featured when you play the G. So why now, Neil? Well, it seems you roll backwards from that unexpected “D” note on the 4th string—which is buried in the middle of G chord—into that old G chord itself. And guess what? It’s way beyond cool! And here’s Neil showing you how he does it.
Now I know why Neil Young is who he is and Herman Schlegger and I can only play A’s and D’s and C’s the guitar teacher down the street taught us.
The genius is in the unexpected note. That’s creativity. You don’t have to create something that doesn’t exist to be creative—you need only see (or hear) something new in what’s already there.
There’s more to the picture than meets the eye
When you paint, you need to look beyond the blue of the sky or the shape of an object to see what makes it so interesting at this moment in time. It could be a shadow, or the subject matter itself, or the surprise in the rendering as with abstract art. Maxfield Parrish developed a color for the sky that was not real even in the tube. He underpainted and then put coats of varnish on to get just that surprising color that attracted millions over the years to a notion of a sky that blue. Andrew Wyeth was a master of the unexpected. He knew to draw your eye either to or from something unusual. In his most famous piece, Christina’s World, we’re drawn first to the figure, which is unusually placed facing away from us. Wyeth deliberated for some time on the color of the dress, that special pink he wanted, which represented a flower, set in a field that is otherwise devoid of color variation. That too, is suprising, because when you move in close, you can see that the seemingly neutral color of the brown grassy field is achieved through the overlayment of many colors.
Now we come to my home ground: writing. Fiction uses words to tell a story. The more words, the more you are supposed to be saying. Ideally, this is so. In fact, it is often the opposite. What is unsaid can be the most important idea in the piece. Years ago, when I was first reading The World According to Garp by John Irving (a very gifted writer given to verbosity), I had to stop reading when I reached a section in the middle where Garp has a car accident in his own driveway with his two sons in the car.
It wasn’t because of anything written on the first page of the next chapter, or the subsequent pages. Something was omitted and that drove me crazy. No mention of little Walt, the delightful little boy who was afraid of the “undertoad” (foreshadowing, which we’ll deal with in another post). On one page, little Walt was there, and then suddenly not. It was beyond surprising, it was shocking! And it literally brought my world to a halt. I spent two weeks obsessing about the next pages in the book, afraid to look, but knowing I just had to find out what happened. I actually remember the days reading that book and the sudden understanding it gave me of the frailty of life.
This is the impact of the unexpected note…the most creative little space in any work of art. It removes the predictability from the structure of any piece, and takes the audience down a new road, where new thoughts are born. It zags when the rest of the world zigs. It makes stars of the people who can find one in their work—the rarest of artistic experiences.
Look carefully at whatever you are working on, and then keep looking, beyond the surface that you have so faithfully captured, beyond the realism you have mirrored, beyond the dark underbelly everybody knows is there, and then…stand still…wait…and you will hear it…the unexpected note.
And BTW, READ “The World According to Garp,” if you haven’t recently. It is a book full of surprises. Here’s an excerpt from the Publisher (Random House).
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