Frank Perri is a keyboardist and arranger with a range of live performance, recording and arranging credits which reads like a who’s who of ‘been there and done it!’ If we mention that Frank has arranged for and led the Duke Ellington Orchestra, has guest conducted the Brooklyn Symphony Orchestra, is musical director of ‘Break The Floor Productions’, one of the world’s preeminent dance entertainment companies, AND has appeared in the US TV show “Pan Am” on ABC Television, you can see we’re not exaggerating.
Frank’s father still asks, “When is he giving up this music garbage and getting a real job?”
There’s an interesting quote attributed to Carl Sagan, “Somewhere, something incredible is waiting to be known.” All too often we lose sight of this in the daily struggles that we face in the perilous balance of making a living while still trying to maintain some kind of a creative presence.
We don’t start out that way. We are idealistic. I will do things the way I want! I will never compromise! I will never sleepwalk through a job! Oh, how reality loves to throw a wrench into our best laid plans. One time I was idealistic as well but as I got older I found that eating was a bit more important.
It’s not easy balancing the life of the creative. We still need to maintain a certain minimum level of creativity in order to function in our jobs whether it’s focused in music, the arts, or writing. That’s not the creativity I’m referring to. Yup, I’m referring to the big stuff – The dreams that fueled us as children. The giant, sweeping plans. Oh, how we would conquer new worlds! Our art would speak to millions! We would free minds and enlighten humanity and lead everyone to peace and harmony! Or maybe that was just me.
Exhaustion, client demands, bills, deadlines. These all have a way of slowly eroding away at our dreams. Not a fast moving acid but a very slow rusting. It isn’t that one day we wake up going through the motions. No, it’s far sneakier then that. Of course it is – if we could see it coming we could counteract it and continue on with our merry lives but more often than not I’ve found that the really satisfying moments in life pertain to losing my way on the road and then finding my way back, especially I’ve wandered a far distance off it. Seeing myself drift on the road and then correcting my heading so I never wander off isn’t half as fun.
And I still maintain that it’s rust rather than acid. When we take a closer look, the dreams are still there. They haven’t been dissolved and disseminated into atoms, scattered into the ether to be lost and gone forever. No, they’re still there waiting patiently for you to rediscover them. For you to sand them down with a fine grit sandpaper and paint them with primer and given a wonderfully glassy topcoat of lacquer paint. To be remade even better and more beautiful than they were before.
Of course the work hasn’t changed. The deadlines are still there. The clients still make demands that are completely opposite of what I had envisioned, replacing my creativity with their own. And the bills; I’ve come to realize these are more like a mighty ancient deity than a piece of paper. They always were and always will be. Instead I had to think outside the box if I wanted to reinvigorate my creativity and my dreams. In the end I found that it isn’t what you do when working that reawakens the dreams and pushes inspiration to the forefront. I found that it’s what I do when I’m not working.
But you have to think a bit more creatively than that, which itself might be a paradox considering the subject of this column. But here’s your first chance to take that first baby step back into the amazing world that started us on our way. It’s more than trying to be creative; if you want to remember the dreams that propelled you as a child, you should make the best attempt to think like a child.
When was the last time there was any mystery for you? When was the last time that you didn’t have a reasonable explanation for something so you had to concoct your own and it excited you!? This is what I mean.
I started thinking the way I did when I was a child. Sitting in a restaurant and looking at a strange door, I had to stop myself from writing it off as a broom closet. Maybe it was more than that; maybe the door opened into a whole other world. One that existed that very minute without my knowledge. Maybe the people there were peeking through the cracks in the door and wondered who I was. Maybe it led to another dimension? How far could I take this? How creative could I be? Was it a dimension that didn’t have color? Or even more; where everything existed as just outlines? I sat there trying to imagine everything I knew but only existing in outline and found this to be a fun mental challenge. Before I realized it I was having fun. More fun than I ever had before while staring at a door. But the bigger challenge was to keep it going. And I don’t mean in the manner of wasting away endless weeks in the name of improving my working conditions! I mean that when confronted with something that could be looked at in a more creative manner, would I still do it? And even better, would I be enthusiastic about it?
The funny thing is that I didn’t have to try hard. It became natural to be this curious and creative. It was like putting on an extremely old pair of pants that still fit. One time I found myself in a restroom that had a mirror on each side of me. As some of us who were around in the 70s when this was considered classy décor would know, this results in thousands of reflections of our self that stretch off into some unknown dimension of glass, each doppelganger gradually fading more than the previous one until there were none left. Watching this synchronized choreography of thousands of myself lead me to wonder if just beyond the last fading one, was there something different? Even better, I found myself moving my arms back and forth in quick, darting and deliberate motions. Before I knew it I realized I was trying to find the one reflection I could fool. Eventually I convinced myself that if I had kept it up, one of the reflections would have made a mistake. I walked out the restroom a bit more cheerful than when I went in.
Of course staring at your reflection in mirrors and wondering what’s behind strange doors can equally terrify us as well if we allow our mind to go in that direction. In our modern climate of trashy, exploitive horror films and cheap looking computer generated monsters there is no shortage of horrible things to fill our psyches, always waiting to pounce on us when we try to open our minds. Don’t allow yourself to fall into this trap and dissuade you from being more curious. There is no monster behind that closet door just as there isn’t anything frightening about trying to catch a reflection that moved differently. I always found it most interesting that humans, for the most part, when given absolute freedom to dream up things will inevitably choose to conjure up things that will terrify them. Don’t do that and possibly deprive yourself from letting your mind open you up to new and creative situations.
Eventually I found that this practice extended past the typical childhood fantasies of secret worlds behind doors and in mirrors and found myself listening more creatively to music as well. Certain instruments evoked certain situations to me. What color did I think of when I heard it? If that sound existed in a tangible form, what would it look like? What would the world it lived in be like? It sounds almost absurd but it led me to a much more creative level of interacting with music and gave me different experiences every time I listened to it.
I found myself turning up music when it faded out at the end. It wasn’t some vain attempt judge someone else’s engineering skills or ability to taper a fade, it was to see if there was a world hiding just at that moment when the song disappeared into the murky hiss of the metal oxide. There was another song where I could swear that between two chords there was a universe begging me to discover it. I’m convinced if I could figure out how to unlock that universe from between the two chords of that song I can figure out what it’s all about. Even though I convinced myself of this twenty years ago and I’m still no closer to unraveling the secret of the universe trapped where that suspended chord resolves to a major, I still can’t stop myself from trying to unravel it. And I love every minute of it.
Again, it sounds extreme, but extreme situations need extreme solutions. I had lost enthusiasm for working in music. I had become a human player piano, spitting out the music but not listening to it. In order to revive myself I had to shock myself with 500 volts from a mental defibrillator. Clear! Zap! Doctor, we have a pulse, it appears he’s dreaming again!
In the end how did this translate to my working environment? Well, the aforementioned universe between the chords? Does in exist in any other songs? When I’m playing can I create a situation where I think I’ve trapped a universe in a song? All those sounds and timbres that I made tangible and set them in worlds, how could I find a way to recreate those same worlds I loved in my own music?
Now you understand. It’s not about trying to come up with something that’s more creative than my client. It’s not about going head to head with them trying to convince them that my vision is better because I have experience. Instead it’s lot more subtle than that. It’s about me taking my client’s vision and injecting these very little mysteries into it. Let the client have the big picture. It’s the hidden details that excite and fuel me now.
Are you an engineer? Can you create little secrets in your client’s mix? Secrets that are small enough to hide from your client but big enough that you can hide away in them if you wanted every time you hear the mix played? Are you a designer? What was it about design that excited you? I don’t mean the bold swaths of vivacious color or trend-setting style choices. I mean have you ever looked at someone’s design and wondered if there was something magical about it that no one could see but you, and could you bring that quality to your designs for a client? This extends to all the arts – writing, painting, photography and all their siblings and cousins. As creative creators we need to be allowed to be creative in order to flourish and be enthusiastic. I just found a much more interesting way to do so. Some say the devil is in the details, but I never found one – just magic.
Next time you see a door, try wondering what’s on the other side of it because behind that door; and more importantly, in your work, something incredible is waiting to be known. Carl Sagan had a point and as I journey toward that door I don’t know where I’m going but I’m on my way.