What would you do if you met someone who had avoided a state execution? Would you start a conversation with them and, if you did, what would you discuss? This friend of mine met a fellow who had been on death row. She was an artist and so was he. The thing is that while she had spent her whole life making art, he had only taken it up while he awaiting his execution. The reason for his incarceration was never broached. The topic of conversation was art, in particular his art. His skill with pencil and paper was astounding.
So here’s this chap believing that some point in his near future he will die and what does he do about it? He learns to draw. Why this fascinated me is because around the same time I was reading a book called ‘The World in Six Songs: How the Musical Brain Created Human Nature’ by Daniel J. Levitn. Daniel Levitin is a musician, has been a record producer and studies cognitive neuroscience in an attempt to understand the connection between music and the mind. He is also the author of ‘This Is Your Brain on Music’ and if you are a musician, composer or artist I’d say both books are must reads.
In the beginning of ‘The World in Six Songs’, Levitin tries to pin down the one thing that makes humans a unique animal. In the process he rules out language, tool usage, the construction of societies, that we are bipedal with opposable thumbs and that we practice deception. We are, according to Levitin, the only animal that makes art. Levitin cites Victor Frankl’s observations that prisoners held in concentration camps during the Second World War would spontaneously write poetry, compose songs or paint. Is the need for humans to be creative, and express it, of the same biological importance as eating and sleeping? Levitin hints that this may be the case, reminding the reader that in the throes of creativity the artist often ignores both food and rest.
What makes the human brain unique and inherently creative claims Levitin is a combination of three of its abilities. The first is what is known as theory of mind. This is the brain’s ability to think about its own thoughts and realize that other human brains might have different thoughts (what Levitin calls perspective-taking). The second is abstraction. This is the brain’s ability to think about things that are not right in front of us. The third one is the ability to rearrange that is the ability to combine, recombine and impose hierarchical order on elements in the world. The combination of these three abilities is what allows humans to share their inner world with others via art.
Sigríður Níelsdóttir is no longer alive. Grandma Lo-Fi is a documentary about this extraordinary Icelandic citizen. Ignoring social convention, Sigríður Níelsdóttir was 70 years of age when she decided to become a musician. Over a seven-year period she recorded enough material for 59 CDs and is considered one of Iceland’s underground cultural icons. Her formal musical training was three years of piano when she was a child. Although in the documentary she admits that any formal musical knowledge from then had been forgotten. Her recording studio was the kitchen and lounge room. Her recording equipment was a standard modern stereo, with a dual tape deck, that you could buy from any retail store. Her main instrument was a cheap generic keyboard. Once again something available from a standard retail store. Sigríður Níelsdóttir sung her own original lyrics and her recordings incorporated manipulated sounds that she generated from kitchen implements and sounds that she recorded from found sources.
Apart from operating a tape deck, Sigríður Níelsdóttir had no technical skill regarding the use of recording equipment. Everything went straight to tape: no computers, no effects racks, and no mixing desk. She would take the tapes to a small business which would transfer the material to CD. Later in the film we see her leaving the same business with her little shopping cart filled with her CDs and making her way back down the street to her basement flat. Sigríður Níelsdóttir also made her own CD covers: collages done with scissors and glue. These proved to be so popular that when she stopped being a musician to become a visual artist, all the works displayed in her first public show sold within the first ten minutes.
So why create? Is it because evolution has wired our brains in a unique way? Is it an innate desire to share our inner world with others? Or maybe it’s, as Sigríður Níelsdóttir put it, ‘correcting mistakes’. What if creativity is a defining point of humanity, despite attempts by governments, education systems and society in general to constrain and convince us otherwise? If Dr Levitin, Sigríður Níelsdóttir, Victor Frankl and others like them are right then creativity is everyone’s birth right and to remain silent is to never know the unique beauty of your own voice.