At once it struck me, what quality went to form a Man of Achievement, especially in literature, and which Shakespeare possessed so enormously – I mean Negative Capability, that is when one is capable of being in uncertainties. Mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason. – Keats
Having recently returned to Montreal from touring in Europe with my band (Vesuvio Solo), I thought it would be a good time for me to discuss my life as a musician – especially since, as I see it, it relates so much to my life as an educator with children. I find myself always returning to the understanding that art and play are deeply related, and that the play-based work I do with children relates so much and so easily to my work as a musician.
I grew up in a musical family, love making music, and was always conscious of wanting to compose music and write songs. That I was so conscious of this fact, though, actually made it very difficult to compose freely – for a very long time, in fact! I was always searching for a vital source of inspiration – one that would allude me because I was so preoccupied with finding it. After seriously studying and playing guitar from a young age, in my teens I turned to trying to hone my skills as a lyricist. I wanted to be a songwriter, and becoming a skilled lyricist seemed the logical next step. I constantly tried to write from personal experience, seeking to shed light on my own feelings. Some of what I wrote at the time seemed good enough that I kept going, but I was aware of the fact that I wasn’t getting where I wanted to go in the pursuit.
Finally, in my late teens, I befriended a young singer-songwriter a few years older than me. He took me under his wing, and wanted me to play some shows with him. I was captivated by my friend’s lyrics in particular – the way he strung beautiful images together so fluidly. Finally, one day during a rehearsal I asked him how he’d written the lyrics to a particular song of his that was my favourite. I asked, ‘what were you trying to say there?’
He told me that he didn’t know at all what he’d been ‘trying to say’ with the song – and that he never quite did, when he wrote. He went on to explain that usually he wrote when he was really inspired by the strong feeling of something in particular – often just music that he loved, but sometimes other art or things in his life that he found beautiful or captivating – and that he could find himself writing for its own sake, very easily and playfully if he was lucky enough to be able to ride some of these feelings out… being in this kind of state of presence long enough to be able to compose a song.
The next morning I took my 18-year-old self into the sunny front room of my family’s childhood home, with a guitar and with paper and pencil. I had my friend’s song from the day before and his words running through my head and I began to play something on the guitar that was something like what he played in his song. Then I started to sing something, channeling his voice for a while – until something of my own voice began to emerge, and then I was writing freely… I suppose in a state of negative capability. I wrote vigorously for the next few moments – both melody and words that came from no place of conscious struggle. And when I was through with writing, I could tell that the song was both uniquely my own, and also the product of my influences (especially that of this particular friend who ended up teaching me so much). He gave me the starting place, and the the objects, as it were, to play with… and the creative mind plays with the objects it loves, as Carl Jung said, to piece together something original. Being able to embrace this playful and imaginative state of negative capability would inform my future life both as a composer of music, and in my play-centred work with children and adults in our L&M community and beyond. Being passionate about unstructured play relates to my experience of what it is to write music, to be creative, and to pursue creativity and imaginative exploration for its own sake.