I’ve always been intrigued by the creative possibilities of mistakes. So many medical and scientific discoveries, after all, have come about through the combination of chance or error with painstaking research and experimentation. The key is to see the possibilities created by that chance or error, and to follow them through.
Tacita Dean spoke of the magic of mistakes in relation to her Turbine Hall installation – asked whether, if she could rewind, there was anything she would do differently, she said:
No. They are mistakes in the film, there are some shots misregistered that I use deliberately. Mistakes don’t exist in our digital world anymore. An effects man I spoke to in Germany said, “Analogue mistakes can sometimes be magical. Digital ones never are.” You know, the magic of mistakes and the magic of not knowing what you are going to get, these things are important.
When she talked to Michael Berkeley on Radio 3’s Private Passions, she chose as one of her pieces of music Allegri’s wonderful Miserere, a piece that never fails to make me want to weep. But the moment that does that most powerfully is the famous top C, which, according to some historians, is the result of a transcription error. If so, there have been few more marvellous mistakes in the arts.
There’s a difference between using creatively the mistakes that occur through chance or human error, and deliberately creating an environment where ‘mistakes’ are always potentially a note away.
Jimi Hendrix improvised constantly, whether he had an audience or not. He never played the same song exactly the same way twice, and given the chance (i.e. without an audience shrieking to hear ‘Wild Thing’ or ‘Hey Joe’) he’d mess around with the song, take it somewhere different and bring it back home again – the challenge for anyone else was to keep up.
But after his death the self-appointed keeper of his flame decided that we didn’t need to hear what he regarded as Jimi’s ‘mistakes’ and that we instead should hear doctored versions of his late unreleased work with other session musicians drafted in to cover the gaps and the glitches. Even when those musicians were of the calibre of the late lamented Bob Babbitt, this was a wretched way to treat the rich legacy of such an inventive and risk-taking artist. And not all of the musicians were of that calibre.
Greg Tate, in his fascinating book on Hendrix and the black experience (an oddly neglected area of study), says that Hendrix ‘took the odd pleasurable accident as not just serendipity but as a way to embark upon a new line of inquiry, the intent being not merely to duplicate the shock-of-the-new aspect of the thing but to intensely lyricize it. Like Jackson Pollock … Hendrix lived to transmute the accident into intention.’
Postwar composers such as Boulez, and Michel Butor’s collaborator Henri Pousseur, used what Boulez called ‘controlled chance’, where the possibilities are predefined by the composer, within parameters. The performer has choices to make, which leaves the audience – and fellow performers – faced with the unexpected. This does give the possibility that one performer’s choice will wrong-foot others, but this would still clearly be, in the composer’s terms, a mistake rather than a new line of flight. The overall course is fixed, only the ordering of the elements can be tinkered with. John Cage’s use of the I Ching in composition and in performance was far from random, but brought in an arbiter other than the composer or the performer, in line with his wish to take the preferences of composer and performer out of the music. But he did incorporate improvisation in some later works, in ways which did introduce elements of real chance. Could the performer in such works be permitted to ‘transmute accident into intention’ ? One suspects not.
Even where that Hendrixian alchemy is not encouraged, the possibility of mistakes, the risk of them, is part of the joy of live music, where the artists are confident enough to respond positively – like Ensemble 360 who responded to one member contributing a repetition too many or too few, thus throwing them all off track, by pausing, laughing uproariously, and then resuming the piece with their usual panache. Back to Hendrix again (always), and a gorgeous acoustic version of his blues ‘Hear my Train a Comin”, where he plays it one way during the intro, stops because he’s been thrown off track by the cameras (not that anyone listening would hear that) and restarts it in a completely different version.
For those of us not so gifted mistakes are to be feared, to be remembered with hideous shame and self-flagellation, to be avoided either by careful preparation or by shunning activities where risks are high.
But we admire those who go ahead anyway – I always loved Paul Scott’s Daphne Manners: ‘She had to make her own marvelous mistakes. She didn‘t ever shrink from getting grubby. She flung herself into everything with zest. The more afraid she was of something, the more determined she was not to shrink from experiencing it. She had us all by the ears finally. We were all afraid for her, even of her, but more of what she seemed to have unlocked, like Pandora who bashed off to the attic and prised the lid of the box open.” (The Jewel in the Crown, pp. 104 – 105).
And artistically, we often respond emotionally to the imperfect rather than to the inhumanly perfect. (Some people illustrate that distinction using Billie Holiday and Ella Fitzgerald, which I can’t accept – Ella’s voice doesn’t have Billie’s fragility but it has such incredible warmth that it is never merely a perfect instrument, it’s full of emotion.)
I had been trying to finish this post for months, and then read this wonderful and moving blog which says so much that I will leave Gerry (and Leonard) with the last words:
- Greg Tate, Midnight Lightning: Jimi Hendrix and the Black Experience (Chicago: Lawrence Hill Books, 2003)
#1 by Gerry on December 5, 2012 - 10:51 am
A fascinating post, Cath, that extends my small contribution into a deeper exploration of the significance of imperfection. I seem to recall reading or hearing a discussion of how mistakes or paths wrongly taken have led to scientific breakthroughs, too. And spiralling outwards a little further, I think you might like a book I have just finished reading – Rebecca Solnit’s ‘A Field Guide to Getting Lost’ which explores many dimensions of being lost, losing one’s way, losing yourself, and so on.
#2 by cathannabel on December 5, 2012 - 11:28 am
That sounds absolutely something I must read. I did mean to extend my post into talking about losing one’s way, which is so pertinent to the Butor novel that I’m studying, but decided to keep that for a follow-up post – will read the Solnit before I do that! Many thanks for your feedback and support – your blog has been a delight and an inspiration to me.