“Without order nothing can exist - without chaos nothing can evolve.” Oscar Wilde
If you’ve ever attended an orchestra concert and arrived early enough, your ears will be witness to a chaotic experience known as “warming up”. There are several reasons this tradition is in place: musicians are getting the blood flowing, checking certain passages to be sure they’re solid, working on little technical aspects of playing, reminding themselves of the hall’s acoustics, and calming any before concert jitters. Then suddenly, a pre-arranged cue is given, all is quiet for the oboe to give a 440 A (the note musicians use to check their instrument’s tuning), and order is restored.
This is a great sonic representation of chaos, defined as “complete disorder and confusion”.
Humans (for the most part) don’t like chaos. We don’t like to not know, to feel uncertain. We want some reassurance that everything will turn out okay, that we’ll live to fight another day, and that we’ll do so along prescribed lines that we ourselves, or someone we trust, put in place. However, embracing the messiness of chaos is absolutely essential to the creative process, and presents a constant struggle in bringing something new into the world.
If you’re an artist, or composer, or writer, or anything to do with conjuring something out of nothing, chaos must be part of the process in order for you to be great at what you do. Chaos is the portal to something new, something that no one else has imagined, something beyond human expectation or experience, and it’s right up the creative alley. And since we’re all a little different inside, the chaotic mix that goes on in your particular mind and body is unique in the world.
This is one reason why we artists study technique so thoroughly early in our careers, to be ready to respond cogently when chaos strikes. If we get an idea for a sculpture, for instance, our idea won’t come out looking so great if we don’t have the artistic tools for translating it. It may seem easy nowadays to take a photograph with our phones or a camera, but in Ansel Adams words, “I don’t take a photograph, I make a photograph.” There’s a lot that happens after the chaos strikes, and we need to be ready with solid technique.
This journey, from disorder to order, is really what it means to be human. We are constantly striving to make sense out of our world, because there is so much that is senseless in it. The artist’s job is as vanguard, to show the way, to suggest something different, to move ahead to a better place and time, or at least one with more understanding.
This doesn’t mean that artists themselves know where the chaotic inspiration came from, and what, exactly, it means. As Elizabeth Gilbert says in her wonderful book on creativity, “Big Magic”, it’s all voodoo to a lot of us. Ideas are floating around out there, and for whatever reason choose someone as their vessel. If you’ve ever had a creative inspiration, you know that it's impossible to know where these things come from, or why they choose us, usually at the most inopportune moments. Maybe our ability to take chaos and shape it into something meaningful means we won the raffle on creating something. I don’t know….it’s a mystery.
Let’s face it, we live in two immense, complicated worlds, inner and outer, and we are constantly trying to keep both in a system of checks and balances. We can’t exist solely in one or the other, at least not in a way that our lives will be healthy and fulfilling. This is the brilliance of all great art: it depicts our outer world, but suggests and hints at what’s really going on inside of us.
There’s another way chaos shows up in orchestra concerts: a small change puts everyone on a different path than the expected one. This could be someone making a mistake, and throwing everyone else off. But often, it’s more complex than that, and is instigated by someone going with a sudden, chaotic inspiration. Suddenly, the concert is headed in a different direction than everyone had planned for, and the result is up for grabs.
I’ve played in concerts like these, and they often have been high points in my career. In one performance of the end of the last movement (subtitled “From Hell to Paradise”) of Mahler’s First Symphony, our conductor began jumping ecstatically to the beat of the timpani, a chaotically unexpected move if there ever was one. But it moved us to match his inspiration with our playing, and as a result, that concert was unforgettable. The audience was immediately on its feet, recognizing the brilliance of this anarchic, but gutsy, choice. To suddenly have an entire group of musicians “get” what the composer was really trying to say…well, it doesn’t get much better than that.
If you’ve been perfecting your technique and are still frustrated by your efforts to create, here’s a great, tried and true recipe for taming and/or channeling chaos and making a delicious piece of completely unique art. Adjust the seasonings as you see fit:
Take a half cup of memories
Mix in 1 tsp beliefs, 1 tbsp dreams, 1½ tsp imaginings
Slowly add 1 cup feelings, ½ cup fears, ¼ cup thoughts and a dash of experience
Stir and let sit for two hours
Stir and let sit for two more hours
Go to bed and wake up
Check to see if anything happened
If nothing happened, allow to marinate until something does happen, or save this one for later and move on to the next recipe.
Work on your technique, let chaos in, be alert and get your materials ready. I guarantee that something, at some point, will happen.