In 2010 I decided to take a break from music. I spent several years working as a visual artist, which was was a quiet and reflective time that I really needed. I'm still enormously grateful to the circumstances that allowed me to step into that space. That time I spent away from an active music career was so valuable: it helped me to redefine my relationship with music and to see it afresh, and a major part of what brought me back to music was a growing preoccupation with ideas of minimalism, transience and ephemerality. I believe that we urgently need to alter our thinking and our actions to help protect and care for the amazing planet we live on: by drastically reducing what we consume, and thinking very very carefully about anything we choose to make or manufacture. I think there's just way too much stuff in the world, and that we're allowing it to run our lives without questioning why. So... minimalism. What does that mean to me? Partly it means learning to let things go, and to let things be transient - and finding ways of putting those beliefs into action in my everyday life and my creative practice.
Towards the end of the period I spent working as a visual artist a lot of these ideas started to become a lot clearer, and a lot more important. I began to see that making more objects wasn't something that aligned with my minimalist aesthetic. In contrast, the transient nature of performance - creating a moment in time that can then be allowed to disappear, remaining only in the memory - was absolutely compatible with being a minimalist. As I slowly began to return to performance, I had a swirling cloud of ideas in my mind, and many questions. I was searching for a way of weaving together my diverse artistic explorations and interests into a single, cohesive practice. Might it be possible to take all those elements, examine them carefully, strip everything back to its most essential, bare-bones state… and then see what was left? It seemed like a really interesting thing to attempt, but I had no idea whether it was possible (or even desirable).
It's taken several years, but after much thought, time, and work, I do actually feel that I'm starting to find the space and clarity that I've been searching for. It's meant letting go of a lot of things - letting go of ideas and habits and objects. Learning to trust that the creative ideas I cherish are held within me, and don't necessarily need an outward object to represent them, or even to help me remember them. It's become vital to focus my time and energy on ephemeral experiences. Celebrating the beauty and sorrow of appearance and disappearance, gain and loss; and exploring the mysterious alchemy of memory.
"... things are left incomplete on purpose to let the person's imagination make that space complete."
-Naoki Numahata (writer/minimalist)
I love the challenge of seeing what I can create using only a minimum of equipment. I recently spent a week doing a creative development for a solo show which involved me, my violin, my laptop, and a small notebook. I find working within the parameters of minimalism enormously satisfying - and also very productive. By minimising my 'tools', I discover unexpected things. Reduced to a performing body in a space with an instrument, I find new ways of moving and making music and sound that I might not have contemplated previously. (I used to use a music stand, a score, an array of instruments, and a few formal classical performance conventions as a kind of armour between me and the audience.) I think - I hope - that I'm getting braver as a creator and performer.
In terms of the nitty-gritty of everyday work, minimalism has also helped me to develop a specificity of approach. I now try to be as realistic as possible with myself about what I have time and energy for - prioritising things; working out what is meaningful to me. For example: writing music now always comes before writing applications - I don’t deny the need to write applications at specific times, but I’m much more choosy and strategic about it now. Looking after my physical and mental well-being is absolutely essential. Even if I can't find the time to fit in a 10-minute meditation or do my stretches regularly (I’m working on it!) I almost always go for a walk every single day, regardless of the weather, or the seeming urgency of items on my to-do list.
It's meant learning to let things go, which was challenging at first. I'm pretty good at letting go of objects - I've been practicing that for a long time. But letting go of unhealthy ideas and habits is much more difficult. Like so many people, I've been trained to focus on certain concepts like ‘achievement’ and ‘goals’ and ‘success’, which I think can lead to thought processes that aren’t ultimately sustainable, healthy or rewarding. For a long time I had the weird idea that I should be able to juggle loads of different creative projects (in lots of different mediums) simultaneously - performer, composer, writer, visual artist - and it was hard to let go of the idea of doing everything at once, as I was a bit in love with the idea trying to be a sort of insane multi-tasking-virtuoso. But when I examined a lot of these things more closely, I started to whittle them down to what actually seemed useful - and enjoyable. I was a bit ruthless with myself, but in quite a kind, compassionate way. I was just trying to be really honest with myself: about what I’m actually good at, what I have time, energy and passion for, and what I was wasting time on.
This process helped me to appreciate my existing strengths and see how I might continue to expand those; rather than yearning after the illusion of something new, or feeling inadequate because I couldn't do ten different things at once. I also realised that some of things I'd been spending a lot of time on - writing applications for example - had just become a way of procrastinating. They gave an illusion of being productive, but actually what I was really doing was continually projecting my goals onto an imagined future scenario. So, for example, I’d put off beginning a new creative project because I still hadn’t got the right funding/support/time/space - instead of just getting down to work NOW with the creative material and resources I already have. And despite being pretty good at whittling down my physical possessions, I admit that I did go through a phase of collecting instruments! I love the challenge of learning a new instrument, but this became another way of procrastinating as well. It actually confused me creatively as I'd spend ages rearranging one work for multiple different combinations of instruments, and then spend even longer try to decide which version was better.
Too many choices! Given that I mainly perform as a soloist, I’ve now committed to travelling light - and you just can't do that lugging around seven or eight string instruments. And of course I didn't play all those instruments all the time, or even that regularly. So I asked myself some questions: What are my real strengths as a musician? What do I enjoy the most? Realistically, how much time do I have to learn new instruments when I also want to write new music and practice it and perform it - and try to do all those things well? Which instruments make the most sense in terms of portability, flexibility, and a high standard of performance?
I've now donated two guitars, a lyre-harp, and a violin to a local instrument library. I don't miss them at all - in fact I'm happy to think of others using them. I'm now playing my remaining instruments much more regularly, and with far more affection! (If you find yourself in the same position as I was regarding excess instruments, please consider donating instruments to Music Broth - www.musicbroth.org - a fantastic Glasgow-based organisation who are aiming to establish a catalogue of music instruments and musical equipment within the community that people that can access for any musical venture. It's still one of only a few instrument libraries around the world, so if you don't live in Scotland perhaps consider starting up your own instrument library if you feel inspired!)
Choosing and staying with limits or parameters can, of course, be hard, and for me it requires constant mindfulness. It's always challenging to attempt to keep a balance. Of course it’s hugely important to me to stay open to new things, new ideas, new inspirations… but I think it’s possible to do this and still be a minimalist. To stay open to new things, but also to protect my current vision enough that I have the time and focus to get things done. To use technology, but to use it mindfully; to consider very carefully whether I really need that new tool/programme/recording device; and to stay focused on the music, not the peripheral equipment. In the past it's been seductive to imagine that maybe there's a perfect medium or instrument waiting somewhere out there, and if I just manage to find it it'll magically bring everything into focus. But deep down, I know that really only consistent hard work over time really brings a sense of creative satisfaction. So I'm slowly learning to focus on a slower, deeper exploration of the what I already have. To aim for an ever-expanding breadth and depth; to find the unfamiliar in what I thought was known. What has been really rewarding is finding ways to channel my love of visual art in different ways - instead of making art objects to hang on a wall, I'm now creating a few simple, lightweight costumes and masks to use in performance. I've digitalised my collection of drawings, and now use them as a resource to generate ideas for songs, stories, characters, and as a visual database for movement and costume inspiration. They are a little library of ideas.
So with all this in mind... after some careful thought I've made the decision to postpone releasing my new solo album until early next year. I've recorded three new albums over the last 12 months, and they all require a little bit of breathing space before they go out into the world! I really look forward to sharing them with you when the time is right, but over the next two months I also have a major new string work to write and perform, several solo concerts and talks to present, and new projects to nurture. It's important to me to consider carefully how I put my work out into the world - it needs to feel true to my minimalist aesthetic, and to my beliefs in creating a sustainable and environmentally friendly practice. And I want to enjoy the process!