Creative Comfort Zones


I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the concept of creative comfort zones. What I mean by this is when a creative individual (be it an artist, musician, or any “artistic” profession) develops a certain ability, and gets comfortable using it. The problem is, they are so comfortable that they use this specific technique or ability and do not think beyond it. Like it or not, anyone can (and most likely will) fall into this trap.

I speak about this because I have been experiencing this in my own creative endeavors. As you know, I study ethnomusicology/composition at UCLA. Lately I have been taking an intensive individual instruction course (first in a series) with my composition advisor (jazz flutist and avant-garde composer James Newton). He is honestly one of the most intriguing people to work with, both compassionate and very demanding (in an “I want the very best from you” kind of way, not the bad way). He tailored the subject material with the intent on pushing me outside of my boundaries. He even told me before the courses began “It is imperative that you expand beyond your current compositional language (all composers must). I am always putting myself in compositional environments that challenge me and make me uncomfortable, thus forcing me to grow. One will not grow if they are telling the same story without variation all of the time. I am not in any way implying that that is what you have been doing, but I am asking you to focus on expanding your language by adding new techniques and refinement of your skills in orchestration.”

What I didn’t realize was how these lessons would offer a light into my own psyche. I came to realize how I have a comfort zone artistically in a manner that I was truly not conscious of. I always figured that I was an open guy artistically since I write so many styles of music (electronic/downtempo, Jiangnan sizhu music of China, court/religious ritual music of Japan, rock/metal, minimalist and many more). What I realized though is that I have a boundary, namely with tonality, that I prefer not to cross. Many of the exercises/pieces in this course focus on polytonality/polymodality (in essence where various scales interact simultaneously whilst maintaining the same tonic) much like that of Bartók (his String Quartet No. 4 is a great example of this). In all honesty, when I first began, I found such a disagreement in my ears with this seemingly dissonant interaction of notes. The music that I was writing depressed me, as I couldn’t make an emotional connection with it (which is paramount to me).

I realized I had to alter my mental approach entirely to grow into this new creative mold. As time went on, however, I grew to understand and enjoy what I was doing. I realized that my boundaries had been destroyed, and had yet to be created again. This led me to ask, “Why was I so resistant to musical change?” The truth is it is probably a mix of things, including arrogance. Whether we like it or not, we artists need confidence to face the inevitable rejection that comes with putting out new work. The reality is, however, this confidence can lead to arrogance, as we become so certain that our modalities never need to be placed under a microscope.

It seems cliché to say, “don’t be afraid to go out of your comfort zone,” but I am not certain we actually practice that ideology as creative minds. We should not be comfortable necessarily when painting, writing a symphony, sculpting an abstract work and the like. Sometimes we need our creativity to hold us by the collar over the cliff of uncertainty and let us go. We may go kicking and screaming, but we may surprise ourselves at the same time.

ad altiora tendo (I strive towards higher things)


3 thoughts on “Creative Comfort Zones

  1. I’ve been through all these phases myself and know how you feel.

    Part of the problem of expanding out of the comfort zone lies in the tendency of people, especially music observers, to compartmentalize music, which results partly from commercial (branding) considerations.

    All endeavours follow a pattern: initial progress, success and then the plateau phase, which is difficult to grow out of. The methods you have used are the way to go. As you know, I dealt with this in the book in a limited way. The book attempted to cram a lot into a confined space so that more intense study of each individual aspect (specialization) becomes necessary.

    Composing is a lonely pursuit and I often have to force myself to persevere. The results can sometimes be depressing, especially if there are no time constraints, as there are when producing a commissioned work. There’s nothing like a deadline for sharpening the wits. Having said that, composing is what I do and I sometimes feel that it might be a waste of time if no one will ever perform what I’m writing.

    But then, people who sit in the outdoors painting a landscape are just doing it because they enjoy it. The difference is, they can hang it on the wall and enjoy it (or not) each time they enter the room. There are other differences of course. For one thing, music is a temporal medium.

    It can be a mistake to wait around for ‘inspiration’. A composition can emerge from musical materials.

    1. Yeah absolutely. I have always kept Philip Glass’ analogy about composing as words of comfort. He compared composing to looking at thick fog. Eventually, bit by bit, the fog clears and you may see some flowers or a tree, and eventually a hill with grass. You can’t expect inspiration to carry you, especially if you want to WORK as a composer (work sometimes is toil, is it not?). I learn more and more about myself as a composer in these private lessons with my mentor, and most importantly the power of simply trudging forward musically.

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