Published 10/12/2017

By Miranda Mulholland

Classically trained on violin and in voice, Miranda Mulholland is in high demand as a fiddler and singer covering a wide range of styles. She’s a member of the duo Harrow Fair, and the fiddle trio Belle Starr, and makes select appearances in the violin show Bowfire. She runs a music label, Roaring Girl Records; founded the new Sawdust City Music Festival in Gravenhurst, ON; is a member of the Board of Governors of Massey Hall/Roy Thomson Hall; and sits on the board of the Canadian Independent Music Association (CIMA).

I love looking at drafts of artwork. I love early versions of novels, songs and poems. I love sketches of paintings. I recently saw an early oil sketch of John Constable’s “The Haywain” at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London.

You can see the skill, of course, but comparing it with the final version that hangs in the National Gallery, you can clearly see the thought, decision and composition that he worked through to arrive at the end result. I almost prefer the sketch.

There’s an art economist, David Galenson, who talks about the process of creation. He differentiates between the flash of lightning versus the arduous creative process. We hear a lot about the first type, what he calls “conceptual innovators”. The songwriters who wrote a song in minutes and it went to number one. The painters who sat at a canvas and with deft strokes completed a masterpiece. This idea goes back to ancient Greece, and the muse visiting with ideas of brilliance. But the notion that this is how it always transpires pays short shrift to the actual grueling and painstaking work and revisions that most artists’ work undergoes. These are the “experimental innovators”.

Leonard Cohen took six years to write “Hallelujah.” Bruce Springsteen took six months to work on the lyrics to “Born to Run.” Margaret Mitchell took 10 years to write Gone with the Wind and our own Alistair Macleod wrote his stunner No Great Mischief in 13 years.

Creating art is the use of skepticism for what’s come before, and the application of curiosity, which leads to the imagination arriving at something utterly new, through skill. In an increasingly hurried world, it’s important to use long-term thinking. Governments, funders, publishers and labels need to remember that most artists need time to develop, grow and realize their visions.

For instance, The Tipping Point author Malcolm Gladwell, when asked about the pressure the publishing industry puts on writers to write quickly, said, “Quality work takes time. As a writer, my principal observation about why other writers fail is that they are in too much of a hurry. I don’t think the problem with writing in America right now is a failure of output. I think it’s a failure of quality.”
Our current social climate has been moving further away from time and skill. The notion that anyone can record an album in their bedroom and upload it for free is in theory a democratizing one, but it begs the question: Just because you can, should you? There’s a whole “amateurizing” movement which is exactly the same concept – a democratizing idea, but put into practice, what does it amount to and how does it translate to the consumer?

When I was in Grade 7, I was in a string quartet that would play for weddings. The cellist had put the group together and managed the bookings. She was the most inexperienced member of the quartet musically, and didn’t practice enough. For the last wedding I played with that quartet, the bride had requested Pachelbel’s Canon – which is right at the top of the Wedding “hits package”; I’m sure you’ve heard it many times. The cello part has eight notes in it – the same pattern, over and over. She didn’t ever get through the sequence without a mistake, and the piece came off as pretty amateur affair. I tried to be diplomatic after the wedding and suggested that perhaps “we,” as a quartet, should practice more before we accepted any further payment for our services.

Her response was that the bridal party seemed perfectly fine with it and didn’t notice the mistakes. But this is my problem with that: we were hired to notice. We were hired to be the experts, the arbiters of taste and skill. When this contract gets fuzzy, quality suffers. Trusted tastemakers have been eradicated by shrinking budgets and replaced with algorithms.

I’ve had some wildly sub-par service with Uber and Airbnb, and read some pretty poorly written “news stories” and blogs that just regurgitate press releases – or what’s known as “citizen journalism” – and I wonder when we got so afraid of skill and expertise.

True tastemakers are becoming endangered. There has been a vast and exponential growth in output and content in the last 20 years. While reviewers and consumers are drowning in choice, paid arbiters of taste are being laid off and replaced by amateurs.

One of the purported benefits of the digital revolution, that we’re all by now very aware of, is targeting. Because of the vast amount of data collected from all of us, we can target our exact audiences. We can be precise, allowing niche-market music to find its consumers.
The trouble is, niche isn’t easy. Because the streaming system is built on market share, the miniscule fraction of a cent you get per stream decreases wildly if your music isn’t in the mainstream. The less it’s streamed, the less it finds its way into the playlist algorithms, and then the less it’s ever played again. Niche becomes an ourobouros, a worm swallowing its own tail. Not only that, but because it’s financially such a small part of the market, it’s sometimes erased altogether.

But fostering niche is important. Why? When you look at language, there are words that are rarely used. They’re not mainstream words. They are able, however, to capture a sentiment absolutely and completely. Did you know that the word groak means staring silently at someone while they eat? That’s not a word you use on a regular basis, but I’m glad it exists.

When we limit and hinder access to these words we actually limit thought. Remember Winston Smith in 1984, a novel that gets more timely by the day. His job was to get rid of words from the dictionary to limit and control thought, creating “newspeak.” Things like spell check and text predictors are speeding up this process.

I believe algorithms threaten to limit and control as well. The calculations are based on decisions you, and those with similar taste profiles, have already made. This is limiting to imagination, and to those surprise discoveries, and against-type choices, that radically change thoughts. And changing thought patterns is one of the most powerful things about art.

So, what key piece are we missing here? We can find it in the artistic process. It’s the key to creativity: imagination. Imagination leads to skepticism, not in doubt but in curiosity. It allows us to not accept absolutes and givens, and to envision new perspectives, solutions and realities. We can employ the tools “skepticism” and “curiosity” to take ownership of our decisions, and unlock new and exciting thoughts, discoveries and inspiration.

News, music, book suggestions, products we might like popping up in our targeted ads is easy. But easy isn’t always good. We need to be more skeptical than ever, and reclaim the power of being our own tastemakers.