Monday, November 30, 2009



A new CD demonstrates creativity under constraints

A new CD illustrates creativity under constraints.

Howard Gardner is known for many things (such as his theory of multiple intelligence), but he's done quite a bit of interesting work. In a chapter for a book I edited (with John Baer; Creativity and Reason in Cognitive Development), Mia Keinänen, Kim Sheridan, and Howard Gardner discuss the idea of axis, which focuses on the constraints in a creative task. There are vertical and horizontal orientations. Vertical orientations have restrictive constraints; think about being creative in programming computer code or singing an opera aria. There are specific ways of how something is done, and the creativity comes in the slight variations. Horizontal orientations have few constraints; think of a slapstick comedian or an abstract painter. When I cook, I cook in a particularly horizontal way. Granted, I'm using the word "cooking" quite loosely (it mostly consists of making instant mashed potatoes, much to my wife's dismay). But I toss in everything - meat powder seasoning, sliced almonds, cinnamon, grated cheese, hot sauce, and so on (often in the same dish). In contrast, really good sushi is made in a vertical way. There are specific rules for how sushi is made and presented, and the creativity in cooking comes from how the chef can work within those rules.

 usually have to think for a perfect example of creativity with a horizontal axis - but this past month I have discovered my new favorite example (along with one of my favorite CD's). Donna Lynne Champlin is an accomplished Broadway actress. She may be best known for playing the rival barber Pirelli in the recent revival of Sweeney Todd (in the role that Sasha Baron Cohen played in the film). As part of the revival's controversial style, all the actors also played instruments, so Champlin also played the accordion, flute, and piano as she sang and cut her throat sliced by Sweeney. She's done extensive off-Broadway work, along with film and television. Despite her success, her dream of recording a solo CD was no closer to reality than when she began. Champlin decided to pursue the dream and finance it herself - for a thousand dollars.

For those not familiar with the realities of recording a professional-sounding (and looking) album, this task is not an easy one. It's not as simple as just being cheap (such as, let's say, you took a semester in college and tried to only spend $3 a day on good with Ramen, corned beef hash, and Diet Mountain Dew...let's just say). The CD had to look good, sound good, and stand alongside other efforts by Broadway-type singers. So what did she do?

Using an unexpected chunk of time resulting from an injury, Champlin recorded the CD in her bathroom on her computer. She arranged the music. She recorded all vocals (including background) and played most of the instruments (two other musicians appear on the CD). She mixed and mastered the CD and then served as her own PR agent. Champlin also kept a hilarious and honest blog about the creation of the CD. Lamenting her inability to play string instruments, she writes on her blog:

"Because I think strings are made of unicorns and fairy dust- I have absolutely no ability to play them myself. So...this is a constraint. However...I DO love constraints as I find I'm the most creative when I have really strict parameters. So, maybe my lack of string playing prowess will be good. Maybe if I just stick to the acoustic instruments I know, I might just have a real cool ‘unique' sound."

With some helps from her friends (such as a top-notch graphic designer), Champlin finished the CD at budget, with money for additional expenses (like PR) being donated by well-wishers (full disclosure: including myself). I snapped up a copy and it's great. If you didn't know the budget and the story behind it, there would be no way of knowing the budgetary constraints.

Champlin's CD, Old Friends, is available via CD Baby and her website, and it features some very obscure musical theatre songs (perhaps the best known is Jason Robert Brown's delectable "Still Hurting" from The Last Five Years) alongside country (including the haunting "Where've you been") and some better-known material ("When She Loved Me," from Toy Story 2; my three year old son Jacob perked up at hearing it and confided to my wife, "I know that song!"). I recommend it wholeheartedly to anyone who likes Broadway, strong yet understated female vocals, as well as supporting an independent artist.

Champlin is far from the only artist to create something wonderful under harsh financial constraints. The recent box office smash Paranormal Activity was made for $11,000. In these days of recessions, depressions, and concessions, the horizontal axis may be even more essential to the creation of art. Just as a Haiku may be admired for both its beautyand its ability to make the most of a small space, so to may Donna Lynne Champlin and other artists of her caliber be admired for their beautiful artistry and their practical acumen.


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