Stories, Musings & The Vision Thing

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Ed Sheeran & Friends Shape a Song

Shaping the Creative Process

The creative process fascinates me – how artists and musicians can start with a blank slate and then make something out of nothing. Usually, all we get to see or hear is the finished piece and, if it’s good, it glows like a polished gem.

But creators shape their work bit by bit. As it flows, the creative process brings together many little moments of inspiration and discovery. Some pieces fit easily like hand in glove, others fall away to be replaced by something better. How it all comes together often remains a mystery.

So, I was excited to see a NYT video that takes us behind the scenes to explore how singer/songwriter Ed Sheeran and his music collaborators created what would become the biggest pop song of 2017.

Ed Sheeran performs “Shape of You” at the 2017 Grammy Awards (Photo by Matt Sayles/Invision/AP)

From a NYT article describing the Shape of You recording session:

“Shape of You” was written in a brainstorming session where ideas are developed or discarded fast, with computers and instruments close at hand and recorders running. “The best songs that I’ve ever written, I don’t really remember writing,” Mr. Sheeran said. “They take like 20 minutes and then they’re just done. And then you move on to the next thing.”

Visualizing Creativity

What makes the NYT video unusual is how it uses music, graphic imagery and text to enhance the interviews. It helps us visualize all the little moments of discovery and inspiration that were pieced together to create the song. The graphics not only give the video a unique look, they also help tie everything together.

As the musicians play a little music riff or talk about working together to build the song,  you’ll see visual representations of the music’s rhythm, its melodic ramblings and little word bubbles mirroring the birth of lyrics.

The graphic elements kick your understanding up to the next level, as the musicians’ sensitivity to each other, their creative energy and the music’s pulse all beat together in delicious harmony.

Here’s the video. I apologize for the ad at the beginning. When it finishes playing you’ll need to click the pause button or else it will continue playing other random videos. 

(If the video doesn’t display correctly, you can click on this link)

Putting the Pieces Together

On the face of it, the video seems fairly simple, like the song. Bring the musicians into the studio, interview them individually, shoot them in black and white against a white background, edit and shape their comments and, seemingly, you’re done. But, adding the music and graphics makes the presentation much more fun and engaging.

The music riffs in the background add energy and help illustrate and counterpoint the commentary. The graphic touches – a music bar that pulses with the beat, dots of melody or rhythm that come and go, little graphic grids to breakup the visual space, text bubbles with lyrics and comments, all hold up a mirror to the creative process.

from the NYT video

The result is a complex, carefully-timed and layered video inspired by a complex, carefully-timed and layered song.

I know from my own experience, when creativity flows, you’re totally present within the moments of inspiration. Time disappears, it’s an exhilarating, empowering feeling. It’s nice to see how much of that was captured in the video.

You can read the NYT article about the making of the song here. You can poke around animator Taylor Beldy’s site here.

So, did you like the video as much as I did? Is the creative process the same for a pop singer/songwriter as with any other artist? What’s your take away? Please leave a comment and let me know.

Carolina Eyck’s Theremin – The Music’s in the Air

I’m often drawn to music that surprises – either by interesting harmonies, a syncopated rhythm or melodies that soar beyond the frame of the familiar. Strange sounds perk up my ears… and then there’s the joy of just focusing on the music as new soundscapes appear. Still, music is so insubstantial – it calls up a host of feelings and memories as it dances around in the air. And then it’s gone.

Carolina Eyck’s Theremin

photo by Ananda Costa

Carolina Eyck’s Theremin is all in the air, literally. She weaves haunting musical tapestries but never touches her instrument. Here’s what you see – she sits erect in front of a strange electronic device with two antennas. Like a magician’s sleight of hand, she squinches and pokes her fingers to conjure familiar yet strangely etherial notes from the very air.

I think the Theremin is very pure and it shows all the emotions you have. I like the purity of the sound because it’s honest.


#1 Painting for Theremin and Voice

In this piece and the next, she loops her voice and her Theremin to create lyrical harmonies with a mix of natural and electronic sounds.

The Theremin

Leon Theremin

Her instrument was one of the first electronic music devices, created by Russian physicist and musician Leon Theremin almost 100 years ago. Carolina’s parents also play electronic music. For them, the Theremin was just another cool instrument for their daughter to explore. Carolina started playing when she was just seven years old. The one she plays now was built by electronic music pioneer Robert Moog.

From the Moog music site:

photo by Christian Huller


It is a wonderful feeling to just play in the air without touching anything.  Especially when I play with an orchestra and the volume is quite high, I feel all this energy which I have in my hands.  I love the bass notes which can make the whole concert hall shake…


#2 Delphic

This selection is a little more complex than the first. It’s called Delphic and maybe you can hear within it the oracle’s voice.

Did you notice how she positions her fingers in the air to find the notes she wants. There’s nothing in that space to guide her except all the hours of practice and muscle memory. I like the way she uses her voice to create a melodic rhythm and frame for the piece and the Theremin to swoop and soar above it all.

#3 Jazz Improv – The Carolina Eyck Band

The piece takes a different direction. It’s an improv with her jazz group, The Carolina Eyck Band. For Carolina and her band, this improv requires deep listening and being sensitive to what she and her fellow musicians are doing as they ride along with the music’s flow.

From the Theremin World site:

photo by Christian Huller

I love modern music and jazz, so I am improvising a lot. There is so much that is unique to the Theremin. For example I have found out, that I can make pictures audible by ‘painting’ in the air. The effect of combining these two completely diverse kinds of art, music and painting, is amazing.



Her “Song for Birds, Theremin and Band” has a haunting, spacey quality that’s still lyrical as it floats through different musical landscapes and rhythms. Plus, it’s fun to see something created on the spot.

So what do you think? Leave a comment and let me know.

Ok Go and the Whimsical Moment

As performance artists, Ok Go are masters of the whimsical moment.

This eclectic band has a bunch of cool videos that are simultaneously playful, silly, chaotic and amazing – and very carefully choreographed. Even so, part of their charm is how off-handed and spontaneous they appear. More like, “hey, let’s all make a movie” than “oh, lets spend months carefully planning and shaping our next Ok Go video/art project.” With OK Go, it’s all about performance art – and sharing a bit of fun.

okgo photo

OK Go photo

My nephew Brendan introduced me to the band a few years ago with this video, Here It Goes Again, which has over 50 million views on YouTube and a 2007 Grammy award for Best Short-Form Music Video. It was created and choreographed by Trish Sie, sister of OK Go’s lead singer and guitarist Damian Kulash:

I’d like to share a few more with you. Their latest is an Internet sensation, but I’m saving the best for last.

Here’s a wonderfully goofy one called White Knuckles, combining kooky choreography from Trish Sie with a little help from some four-legged friends:

White Knuckles was shot in a single take with a stationary camera, the next one is also one take with the camera following the action. It brings me back to my high school days playing drums in the marching band. This video, called This Too Shall Pass, has the same deadpan, whimsical qualities that personify OK Go – plus it sends us to new heights:

Also in one take, with split second timing, is The Writing’s On the Wall. It’s full of optical illusions, watch to the end and you’ll see all the people behind the scenes that made it come together.

And finally, the one you’ve been waiting for, an amazing tour de force that raises the bar to a new level. You can see elements of all the previous videos in this one, called I Won’t Let You Down, shot in Japan with a drone-powered video camera.

As Matt Kamen describes it in Wired:

The brainchild of creative director Morihiro Harano, the video was shot on location in Chiba, Japan and serves as a showcase for the country’s technological and pop culture strengths. The unicycles are the beta version of Honda’s new UNI-CUB, a “personal transportation device” that features an omni-directional driving wheel and looks altogether too much fun to not want one. Japanese girl group Perfume also cameo in the vid, no strangers to interesting music videos themselves.

I Won’t Let You Down took over 50 takes with 2300 extras riding Honda’s Uni-CUBs.


OK Go photo

Damian Kulash describes his approach to making a video, from the site digital trends:

“Making videos is a lot like writing a song,” Kulash says. “But when you get a riff, you can’t just ride that for three minutes. You want to be able to turn a corner and have different emotional experiences, to really follow an arc of emotions. One of the challenges of making a video is keeping it simple and having very clear boundaries, but in a way that also allows you to keep on having moments of surprise and wonder. And for us, the videos are just fun.”


OK Go photo

Here’s a behind the scenes video about the process of making I Won’t Let You Down:

From Japan Times:

A special unit was responsible for the drone: one person to fly it like a remote-controlled plane, another to program GPS sequences and complicated moves, someone to manually operate those sequences, plus someone else to control the drone’s camera, which is able to spin a full 360 degrees.


The drone, camera stabilizer and video camera

You can read about the gear and cinematography here.

Photo by Zen Sekizawa

Photo by Zen Sekizawa

Another Japan Times article by Mio Yamada offers great insight into where OK Go is headed – more as an evolving art project that’s redefining what it means to band together. Damian:

“Pretend for a second we’re not a rock band and what we make are not music videos. If you look at them as just art projects, they’re free to the whole universe. Everyone gets to watch it, everyone gets to enjoy it the same way. There’s no way to collect it. There’s no way to make any money off it. It’s bad for the art world, but I think it’s good for art. People get a sense of joy from it, or inspiration. It makes your day better, or makes you think a different way. It gives you faith in humans that we can do something.”


Photo by Dimitrios Kambouris/Getty Images

It’s cool OK Go has an abundance of creative energy and the means to realize it. Plus they still have that little kid quality of adventure and derring do that makes their work fun. They’re not afraid to look silly, or even be silly and they let us in on the joke. We can all learn something from that – their ability to “go for it” full out and still see it all as a big goof. They just don’t take themselves too seriously. Now that’s refreshing.

Exploring the Creative Process – Zoë Keating

Music is so ephemeral it’s hard to capture in words, but I like Zoë Keating‘s music so much I’m going to give it a try. She’s a mesmerizing live performer and improviser, and I’ve found some great web media to help you see what I find so appealing.

photo by Lane Hartwell

Zoë Keating photo by Lane Hartwell

Zoë Keating’s music is rich with emotion, color and light. She’s a passionate performer, reaching deep within to find the confidence and strength that powers her phrases – at times delicate as dew, then gently drifting like a burbling stream, then dark and brooding as a gathering storm.

photo by Jerry Dodrill

photo by Jerry Dodrill

Unlike most classical musicians, Zoë improvises her compositions on the spot, using her acoustic cello and computer looping technology that she controls with her foot. She’ll typically start with a phrase, capture it in the computer, play it back and accompany herself as she builds her intricately layered pieces. Note upon note, she weaves a tapestry of sound with lush melodies, pulsing rhythms and haunting atmospherics.

Her move from San Francisco to make her home in a Northern California forest inspired her latest CD, Into the Trees.  Zoë describes the creative process that sparked the CD on the website:


CD cover for “Into the Trees”

I think of this album as moving into an unknown world. Having been an urbanite for so long, the forest sort of represents that. 

When I lived in San Francisco, 75 percent of the pieces I wrote came from me riding my bicycle through the city while singing to myself. Cycling itself is a repetitive motion, so the melodic segments I would improvise would also be repetitive. Here in the woods, I experience something similar when walking. It’s hard for me to walk by myself and not sing at the same time, so that’s where some bits come from now. I also dream some musical phrases. I’ll come up with them in my head during the night. 

I “discovered” her as I was revisiting Intel’s Visual Life series on creative artists. Their agency’s production team crafted a fine documentary about Zoë and her music:

Like her music, the video is very textured, with images that reflect and amplify her creative spirit. As the video opens we hear Zoë playing as we see closeup images of her studio, revealing little fragments from her life, creative space and work. Then we hear a few brief memories from her early days, punctuated by closeup snippets of Zoë playing her cello. In this sequence the filmmakers give you a sense of her development as an artist and performer, with imagery that is personal and intimate. It draws you in, making her music less abstract and more accessible.

Later, when she talks about what the sound of her cello looks and feels like, we see images of nature, the forest and water with the natural sounds mixed in. The intercutting of sounds and images echo nicely with what she’s talking about and remind us of the source of her inspiration.

Jeffery Rusch2

photo by Jeffry Rusch

You also see her briefly in rehearsal and performance, so by the time the video shifts to exploring the nature of her music, you’re ready to understand what Zoë means as she describes what she’s doing as “creating a world of feeling, motion, color and light.”

Then they use a highly effective technique to portray her description of music as a captured moment of time. As she describes how each note comes and goes, you see superimposed images of her moving through the same space. It becomes a beautiful metaphor and visualization of how she layers her music – how it lingers in the same space for an instant and then vanishes into memory. I liked that section very much and, overall, found the video well-designed, lyrical and visually engaging.

photo by Mark Trammell

photo by Mark Trammell

In the interview below, NPR takes a more journalistic approach as it explores Zoë’s creative process and how she used improvisation to free herself from the rigid confines of perfectionism:

Finally, here is a complete performance of her piece, “Escape Artist”

Zoë Keating produces her own work, books her own concerts, serves as her own agent, record company and distribution network. She’s an example of how an enterprising artist, with just a few thousand devoted fans, can sustain themselves financially.

photo by Jeffery Rusch

photo by Jeffery Rusch

I think it’s a great time to be an artist. My recording studio consists of a laptop and a microphone. I can sell music directly to listeners on the web. I can talk to them on Twiter and Facebook. It’s a marvelous democratization of the arts and I can’t imagine that I would be able to have had this career a decade ago. I’m not going to become a multi-millionaire, but I can make a living and I can reach people.

As for me, I guess I’m one of those people. I’ve been listening to her latest CD and highly recommend it. You can find it here.

A final thought:

photo by Chase Jarvis

photo by Chase Jarvis


I’m compelled to do what I do. I think that’s true for a lot of artists. There are things we have to express. Creating cello music is the thing I’m driven to do. It makes me very satisfied. If I’ve worked for a couple of hours in the studio, I feel really good. It’s like therapy. It helps me be okay with the world.


Does her music speak to you? Add a comment and share your thoughts.

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