, , , , , , , , , ,

There are many approaches to making art, and each artist has his or her personal philosophy and process from concept to conclusion. These approaches tend, with some small variation, to be common to all arts disciplines. Thus a painter may take a similar approach to making art as does a musician or a novelist with only small adjustments to suit the discipline and media in play.

As an artist who works across disciplines and who knows other artists in every discipline, I thought it might be interesting to describe my own process when creating. To make this more specific, and because I’ve been thinking about this recently, I’ll describe specifically my process in creating works for spoken word performance with music. I’ll begin with a definition of what is perhaps the core of my process.

“Every one of [Bob MacKenzie‘s] performances is a happening.” – Richard Gold, painter

“A happening is a performance, event or situation meant to be considered art, usually as performance art. Happenings occur anywhere and are often multi-disciplinary, with a nonlinear narrative and the active participation of the audience. Key elements of happenings are planned but artists sometimes retain room for improvisation.” – http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Happening

While my process may not be common in the mainstream, it does fall within a set of long-term traditions which may be applied to all the arts disciplines within which I work. I’ll start with a bit of history. For half a century, I’ve been performing words, mostly poetry, with music. In doing so, I place myself in a tradition that predates the written or printed word, one that began as soon as humans gained the ability to speak and has existed in all cultures ever since. Even in the most ancient times, spoken word was accompanied by makeshift musical instruments and responsive chants. This was the way that news, faith, and so much else was communicated in any one place and across distance and time.

As soon as I discovered it during my mid-teens, I’ve loved the concept of art with minimal structure to restrict it. From birth, I lived with the art of my father, a professional photographer and musician, and my mother, a photo-colourist and sometime painter, so I already had a sense of the variation and spontaneity that can occur when making art. As a teen, I was enthralled by free verse, experimental music, visual art ranging from Pollock to Dali with many stops between, and especially The Happening (an art-form dating back to the mid-Fifties of the last century).

I quit high-school to become a writer. I polished and improved my poetry through some excellent writers’ workshops, the public library, and other resources available in the community. In the process, I began to attend readings in cafés, at festivals, and on the occasional university campus. Readers often presented their work with flat-affect, as though the words were enough. On paper they might have been. Read aloud with no emotion and little inflection, they were not.  My background in theatre, broadcasting, and music told me that poetry should not be read flat but performed.

I began performing my poems with one or two musicians, and others at the readings seemed surprised but also pleased by my performances. In 1993, two musicians and I formed Poem de Terre, a group that fit the definition of a big band*, and spent the next 18 years performing my words spoken and sung over original music. At the end of 2011, I felt Poem de Terre had lost its creative edge. I went back to my roots, performing with one or two different musicians each time I went on stage. Throughout my career, I have also performed my poems without music but encouraged audience participation. While there has always been some sort of plan or wire-frame for my performances, spontaneity and improvisation have always been important elements.

My process as it has developed over five decades doesn’t include elaborate or detailed planning ahead of time. A certain amount of spontaneity and on-the spot-innovation is included in the process and, as in the finest jazz music, a certain amount of improvisation is included in the performance. My work, both written and performed, is very organic. It takes time for me to write a long poem and work with the available musicians and other potential participants to establish an appropriate musical ambiance with the goal to perform the finished work and possibly capture it as audio, video and still photographs.

I begin by thinking the project through, taking notes, and making some of the decisions to be applied during the program. My work tends to be created around current matters, so until well into this preparatory stage I’m usually unable to suggest precisely what will be the content of the piece. Because what is at first an indeterminate number of musicians and possibly other artists may be important elements in development and production of the finished project, it’s difficult for me to predict just what will result in the end.

My expectation at the beginning is only to create work which will be interesting and informative and which is able to evolve and grow depending on what happens during the creation process. While I do begin with a general concept of what the overall project may become, I also start with something which is very open to growth and which develops as I move through it. Rarely is any piece performed exactly the same twice. I don’t write outlines and I never map out a project from beginning to end, but I believe my end result is as complete as any executed with careful planning by another artist. In my 50 years as an artist, I’ve grown to feel this process works pretty well.

* “big band noun: a band that is larger than a combo and that usually features a mixture of ensemble playing and solo improvisation typical of jazz or swing” – http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/big band