The Road Not Taken

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Few poems are mentioned more often, in conversations about creativity and success, than Robert Frost’s wonderful meditation, The Road Not Taken.

Unfortunately, while the poem is often mentioned, the meaning is often lost in the rush to take the opening and closing lines as some sort of pithy statement about making brave, unconventional life choices, when in fact, the poem may well be trying to tell us something rather more profound and challenging.

The Road Not Taken

Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,
And sorry I could not travel both
And be one traveler, long I stood
And looked down one as far as I could
To where it bent in the undergrowth;

Then took the other, as just as fair,
And having perhaps the better claim
Because it was grassy and wanted wear,
Though as for that the passing there
Had worn them really about the same,

And both that morning equally lay
In leaves no step had trodden black.
Oh, I kept the first for another day!
Yet knowing how way leads on to way
I doubted if I should ever come back.

I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I,
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.

Three Key Elements

The traveller is faced with a decision, to take one path or another one. But, Frost makes clear both paths are “about the same” and that morning “equally lay” un-walked upon that day.

The real dilemma is not that one path is better than the other. Rather, it is that by taking one path, the traveller is unlikely to ever back to this fork again, unlikely to ever travel along the road not taken.

So, the poem’s focus is not so much on the decision, since it’s largely a meaningless one; the traveller has to make a choice, but it’s a choice between two equal options.

Rather, the problem for the traveller is how they will tell the story, “ages and ages hence.” If put ourselves in the traveller’s shoes, then Frost is not calling us to reflect upon our decisions, but to reflect upon how we explain our decisions.

The Sigh

Many commentators spend a lot of time on the “sigh” that opens the final stanza. Is this a sigh of regret, or a sigh of satisfaction?

I’m more inclined to focus on the comma that ends the third line of this stanza, since this is the point when the traveller, many years after they chose which road to follow, is faced with the really important decision – how do they tell the story,

“Two roads diverged in a wood, and I,”

Telling The Story – Exaggerating The Story

That comma is like a pause, a hesitation if you will. The traveller could tell the truth, could tell what we already know from the opening lines; that the choice was really not much of a choice at all, that choosing one path over another didn’t matter.

However, the traveller lies, or at the very least exaggerates, not only claiming one road was “less traveled by” rather than being “about the same” and then goes on to claim the decision to take this supposedly less travelled road somehow made “all the difference.”

We like to believe we are unique, special, living a life full of brave, creative choices. However, the reality is often rather more prosaic and mundane than we might care to admit.

The Road Not Taken is a great poem, not because it defends some kind of bohemian notion of making unconventional life choices but because Frost so eloquently and succulently challenges our need to make ourselves look impressive by subtly embossing and manipulating the facts of our biographical story.

Guthrie Govan Live At The Adelaide Guitar Festival

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Adelaide is often known as the city of festivals, such is the proliferation of seasonal arts’ events in this modestly sized city. This past weekend saw the (rather awesome) Adelaide International Guitar Festival, which brings players from around the world, representing a wide variety of styles and genres.

As a guitarist, I of course love this kind of festival, though I have to admit, sometimes through gritted teeth, that guitar does not have as central a role in popular music as it did in my younger years.

There was a time when many pop songs (and most rock songs) had an obligatory guitar solo. And, there was even a place for instrumental guitar music as well and many of the heroes of pop and rock music where guitarists, often loved just as much, if not more for their guitar playing as for their singing or songwriting.

During my youth, many of the players I aspired to emulate, like Joe Satriani and Steve Vai, where highly technical players, known as “shredders” for their ability to “rip” the guitar apart with a flurry of (often very fast) notes. But, after Grunge Rock changed the landscape of popular music, the virtuoso player slipped out of the popular consciousness and became a musical anachronism.

Guthrie Govan is a new generation of shredder, who came to prominence as an educator in the UK and writer for guitar magazines. In recent years he has become better known for his live and studio work (although he only has one album, 2006′s Erotic Cakes, to his name) and his collaborations with boutique guitar and amplifier makers.

I met Govan in Hong Kong, at a Suhr guitar clinic and he struck me as a really authentic and rather sharp guy. On stage his persona is almost totally devoid of rock-star pretension and he introduces each song with a wonderfully self-deprecating kind of British humour.

And, the music he plays is not easy – much of it written in odd times signatures and employing lightning fast volleys of notes and throughly modern, complex harmonies.

Not that the sell-out crowd minded. In fact, it was a warm, receptive audience who seemed to tune in well to the at times challenging, at times fun and throughly entertaining set.

Govan ended, as is increasingly becoming the custom, by eschewing an encore and just encouraging the audience to applaud loudly before the final song. Not that it really mattered, because by the time he and his band took a bow, we had been treated to a thoroughly masterful showcase of all the reasons why Govan is considered by many to be the supreme “guitarist’s guitarist” a player others, myself included, look to for inspiration.

Trends in music are often cyclical and given the directions music has gone in recent years, it might well be time for the virtuoso guitar styles to come back into prominence.

Whether or not that happens, it was nice for one night to be transported back to the days when instrumental rock was a more popular thing, appearing everywhere from TV themes, to films, to video games and of course, on car stereos and home HiFi’s.

Govan is a brilliant player and a thoroughly likeable fellow. I do hope he graces us with another solo album soon.

Postcard From The Adelaide Hills (FujiFilm x100s)

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It’s winter in Adelaide and remarkably cold for this part of the world, with several days since I’ve been here struggling to get into double figures.

On Monday I took a drive into the Adelaide Hills with my FujiFilm x100s in tow. My fondness for this camera has not waned and these two images reflect the kind of photos I created on the day.

The Adelaide Hills mark the western edge of Adelaide, where suburbia meets farm country and are home to some very quaint villages and excellent food and wine companies. I got my days wrong, so the shop at Skara Smallgoods was closed, but I did have a great time visiting Beerenburg, who make some awesome jams and sauces known all across Asia.

It was also great to visit Hahndorf Farm Barn, who run some great programmes to give kids a taste of life on a working farm (complete with milking cows, grooming and feeding animals).

The first photo was taken on an abandoned road and reflects the approach to HDR I’ve been working on for a few years now (and featured in Piet van Den Eydne’s book Pushing Light). It’s a multilayer process in Photoshop (using Nik plugins), where I’m trying to draw out the complex details you find in these sort of scenes, without (hopefully) making the image look too over-processed.

The second image below, is the kind of Black & White style regular readers of this blog will be familiar with. I first started using this kind of process in Oaxaca in 2011 and I really find the x100s is incredibly well suited to creating these kinds of images.

I grew up with the Australian countryside on my doorstep and still adore the way this kind of scenery looks deceptively simple, almost plain at first, yet reveals so much detail and subtlety as you look more closely. It’s a wonderful challenge as a photographer to try and capture this within the limited frame of a photograph.

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Why I’m Tweeting This Week From @WeAreADL

Fernando Gros on @WeAreADL
All this week, I’m tweeting from Adelaide “Rotation Curation” account, @WeAreADL. I’m hoping it will be a fun experience.

What Is Rotation Curation?

Rotation Curation came into prominence thanks to the @Sweden account, where every week a different Swede would post their views and experiences, with the composite creating a rich and varied impression of life in Sweden.

Pretty soon the concept caught on, with many countries and cities spawning their own rotation curation accounts, with varied degrees of success.

They can be a mixed bag. I’ve followed @WeAreADL for a while now and it is usually good.  I’ve enjoyed watching some friends take turns on @hellofrmsg, Singapore’s version, but I’ve also had to block the account at times, when the resident curator seemed hell-bent on courting controversy for controversy’s sake.

Why Adelaide?

I didn’t grow up in Adelaide. I grew up in Sydney and while I adored that city in my youth, I fell out of love with Sydney once I entered adulthood.

After I left Australia in 1999, my parents settled in Adelaide and pretty soon I was visiting them on a regular basis. I really feel Adelaide still had a lot of what I had enjoyed about living in Australia combined with a much more pleasant and satisfying vibe than Sydney (here’s something I wrote about Adelaide in 2013 and another piece from 2012).

On top of that, Adelaide was a great change of pace from the crowded, frantic cities I had called home since becoming an expat; London, Delhi, Hong Kong, Singapore and now Tokyo.

I could go for long walks or bike rides, or nestle down to writing with almost no distractions. Once I realised a lot of my best thinking (and photography) was happening during the visits, I slowly increased the amount of time I spent each year in this city, along the way building up a rich portfolio of landscape images taken on Adelaide’s beaches.

Why Do The Adelaide Rotation Curation?

If I was a really strategic type, a personal branding obsessed freak, I’d probably play this opportunity purely for my ends. Of course, I’m not that guy.

I love Adelaide and I really want to understand the city better. Doing a Rotation Curation will introduce me to a lot of people and give me a little insight into their likes and lives.

Also, I really want to share what Adelaide has going for it with my friends across the world and especially, across Asia. I hope doing the week will pull a little more interest towards this very cool (and often under-rated) city.

And, of course, I think it will be fun.

Lucky Photos

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I believe in luck. OK, I don’t believe in the sense that I build my life around luck. But, I do believe luck plays a role in many of our achievements.

It fascinates me how just about all of the really successful people I’ve met also believe in luck. They’ll admit (at least privately), how good fortune & chance played some part in getting them where they are.

But, there’s another band of folks who visibly bristle at the mention of luck in connection to their success. They typically have some achievements, but not of the depth & distinction we associate with greatness.

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The two photos in this post are what I would call lucky photos. The first I took while out riding this afternoon.

We’ve had unusually heavy rain recently here in Adelaide & the water was pooling in a local jetty. I didn’t put the water there & if my day had gone according plan I would not have been in that spot at sunset. I happened to spot the pool of water & thought this image was possible. Luckily it was.

The second was a tree lined street I spotted out of the corner of my eye in a part of town I was exploring. It was pure chance I spotted this & unusually (for me) the rental car I’m driving has sattelite navigation, so I’ve a little more adventurous with exploring new areas on this trip.

Believing in luck is not a cop out. Creating decent images (or any kind of craft) takes effort & application. But, seeing the role of chance is really about appreciating the gifts all around us, the myriad of things outside our control that we draw upon for inspiration every day.

Multi-Output With Logic Pro And EZdrummer2

A few years ago I wrote a little guide for using EZdrummer, in multi-output mode, with Logic. Since then, Logic has been updated, from version 9 to version X and Toontrack have released a huge update to EZdrummer, in the form of EZdrummer 2. So, it’s time for a new guide, to handle the changes.

A Quick Note On EZdrummer2

First of all, let me say EZdrummer is a fantastic upgrade to what was already a great product. EZdrummer 2 is designed to be your go to tool for songwriting and beat production in styles that mimic what a real drummer might play (especially rock, pop, blues, jazz, folk and country). The easiest way to use EZdrummer 2 is as a stereo-output instrument, utilising the built-in effects and settings.

You can get a great sound working just from the presets. But, this guide is written for those who want to integrate EZdrummer 2 into a larger project setting and work with more detailed control of the sounds from each part of the EZdrummer 2 kit.

Create Your Instrument And Mix

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First, you need to create your EZdrummer 2 instrument. Logic gives you the option to either create a stereo instrument or a 16 channel multi output instrument. This is an expansion over the original EZdrummer, which only had the ability for 8 outputs. However, not all EZdrummer 2 kits and presets utilise all the possible outputs (more on that later).

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Then, you’ll want to go into EZdrummer 2′s interface and open the mixer. There’s a drop down menu that allows you to assign each track in the mixer to a specific output in Logic as well as a multichannel option, which automatically assigns the outputs, based on the EZdrummer 2 preset you have loaded. However, these assignments may be a little confusing a first.

A Note About Output Presets

When using the multichannel option to set your outputs, the results may not make immediate sense, depending on the preset you have loaded. This is because EZdrummer 2 tries to impose some consistency on which bits of the kit go to which output, despite the face not all kits and presets use all available outputs. The more you use EZdrummer 2, the more you’ll understand how this works.

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For example, you’ll see Kicks are sent to 1, Snare to 2, High Hats to 6, Ambient Mono Mic to 8, Shaker to 12, Tambourine to 13 and Ambient Percussion Mic to 14. But, you’ll also see effects being sent at times to the same outputs as some of the instruments, like Compression to 8 and Rever, Phaser or Tape, for example, to 1.

I don’t like to use the multichannel auto assigning feature for two reasons. First, I don’t want to route effects on the same outputs as parts of the kit if I can avoid doing so. Second, as we shall see in a moment, taking control of the outputs can, depending the kit being used, allow us to open fewer tracks in Logic’s mixer (which may, or may not matter to you, depending on how obsessive you are about project tidiness).

Setting Your Mixer

Next, you’ll want to look in the EZdrummer 2 mixer settings and adjust the output levels and panning to your taste. As I did with the original EZdrummer, I set all my outputs to -4.8dB, with no panning. Though I do find myself leaving the panning for the Toms in place more often than I used to.

Open Your Logic Auxillary Tracks

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Now it’s time to look for that little “+” sign on the EZdrummer track in Logic’s mixer (keyboard shortcut X to open) and open up auxiliary tracks for the EZdrummer 2 outputs. By default you can open up to 16 outputs in total, though as we’ve already mentioned, not every kit and preset uses them all.

This raises an issue you might want to think about if you’d like to avoid staring at unused tracks in Logic’s mixer. If you preview and decide on your EZdrummer 2 kit before opening the auxiliary tracks in Logic, you can keep your assignment tight and only open the number of auxiliary tracks you need. So, if EZdrummer 2 preset only uses X then open X.

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The drawback in this approach is of course, if you opt for another kit further along in the production, you mate either need to open more auxiliary tracks if the kit needs them (which may require changes to track naming) or be faced with staring at unused tracks anyway.

Either way, it’s a good idea to label and if it takes you fancy, colour code your tracks before you get too far into the project. And, before you get going, also check your levels in Logic’s mixer and make sure you are not hitting your output too hard. If you are up near the red with just the drums playing and no other instruments, then you have no chance of creating a good mix once all the other instruments come it. Start with your levels low and you can always bring them up later.

Final Thoughts

EZdrummer 2 is right at heart of my musical process and I’m loving the new features. It sounds great in stereo with internal effects, but run the way I’ve described above, through my studio setup, it is the drum machine of my dreams.

Below are two tracks for you to compare. The first is a loop in stereo output mode, with EZdrummer 2 presets and effects in tact. The second is the same loop, in multi-output mode, run out of Logic into a Rupert Neve Designs 5059 Summing Mixer, Shadow Hills Mastering Compressor and Kush Clarifonic EQ.

Look Up – The Digital Backlash Will Not Be Live-Streamed


Just in case you are not one of the multitudes that have contributed to this video reaching 42 Million views in the space of a little over two months, then take a few minutes to watch Gary Turk’s spoken word film, Look Up.

Watching this video for the first time with my daughter (who brought it to my attention), it was pretty clear this speaks to far more than just the so-called “digital generation.” There’s a challenge here for all of us to engage more with our physical environment and depend less on the often illusory emotional appeal of our online spaces.

In fact, it’s pretty clear for those willing to look, that a backlash of sorts, against many of the frustrations and false promises of social media is well underway. Whether people really spending less time online, or simply expressing a wish that they could unplug more often is, of course, another matter.

I’ve been pushing myself to rely less and less on map and location apps while here in Tokyo. These apps are wonderfully helpful at times. But, I find depending on them actually weakens my ability to create a map in my mind (as Borges would say) and build the connections that help me understand my new home town. Moreover, they tempt me to rely on online sources in English to find my way, rather than asking locals and in turn, reinforcing my nascent Japanese language skills.

Apps and digital devices are fantastically powerful. I love having a camera in my pocket & yes, maps can be great when one is really lost. But, it feels like many of us have outsourced vast swathes of emotional and cognitive energy into the tiny hand held screen. Anything that inspires us to claw some of that back – to literally stop and smell the flowers, rather than just walk past them with our head buried in a device, has my vote of thanks.

Pete Escovedo and Sheila E Live In Tokyo

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Tonight I had the chance to see a living legend of Latin Jazz, Pete Escovedo and his daughter, pop/funk star Sheila E, live at the Blue Note Tokyo, together with a six piece backing band in an entertaining, high energy set.

Escovedo is an acclaimed percussionist, known for his work with Santana and Tito Puente and also as a big band leader in his own right. Despite being on the cusp of turning 79, he was sprightly on stage and his chops, cuts and fills on percussion, especially timbales, were everything one would expect from a player of his stature.

And, Escovedo senior was clearly delighted to be sharing the limelight with his daughter Sheila E, who played almost all of the set behind the drums and was a commanding presence on stage throughout the show. Most know her from a long and successful collaboration with Prince during the Purple Rain, Sign “O” the Times, and Lovesexy period, when Sheila E was a percussionist and drummer in Prince’s band, and later the tour music director whilst also launching her own chart-topping pop career.

While Shelia E has continued to collaborate from time to time with Prince, she also played with other pop and jazz stars (like Gloria Estefan, Beyoncé Knowles, George Duke, Abe Laboriel) and performed and recorded regularly with her father and other members of her musical family. There’s a real joy to watching the interplay between her and her father as they trade licks, swap parts in the groove and then come together on fills and hooks with almost supernatural precision.

Father and daughter were joined on stage by Michael Alvarado on guitar (taking some great searing solos), horn players Arturo Velasco on trombone, Louis Fasman on trumpet, Melecio Magdaluyo on ssax and flute, Joe Rotondi on keyboards and Marc Van Wageningen on bass; all ably and tightly supporting and soloing through a range of tunes, covering the funky end of latin jazz and even a little brat pock era vocal jazz as well.

A personal favourite moment was when Sheila E took a walk through the crowd to hand out a few CDs. Spotting my daughter waving her arms around madly Sheila E made her way across the room and handed her a CD. The moment seemed to round out the evening watching a father-daughter combination play through the kind of music I had grown up listening to and hoped to pass onto my own daughter.

When Decisions Look Like Failures

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Let me tell you a story,

From 1999-2003 I was enrolled in the PhD programme at King’s College London. It was the pinnacle of a journey that started in 1991 when I went back to university, part-time at first and then full-time two years later. I enrolled to study Theology, though my focus was always on Philosophy of Religion. I loved being surrounded by books and ancient wisdom. I rekindled my passion for Latin and picked up some Ancient Greek and a little Hebrew along the way. I found essay writing difficult at first, but soon started to do well and soon opportunities to teach and lecture came my way.

By the time I boarded a plane to London I had given a few conference lectures and been published in some academic journals. My first years in London were some of the most productive and enjoyable seasons of work I have experienced. My research and writing had focus and I felt like a supported and respected part of my academic community.

Then, in 2003 I boarded another flight, to start a new life in Delhi. My wife had been offered what I believed (rightly as it turned out) might be a career-defining opportunity. I felt I could finish what was left of my PhD from a distance, with the odd commute back to London.

I was wrong. Life in Delhi was a lot harder than I expected and being the stay at home parent for my then young daughter was a much bigger responsibility than I had imagined. Pretty soon it became clear that I had to choose the PhD or my family and I chose my family. Much to the surprise of everyone around me I withdrew from the PhD programme.

Pretty soon, my world fell apart. I was convinced I had failed and that I had let down everyone in my life. It was a low time.

How We Tell A Story

This story is the prelude to how I came back to being a full-time musician. It’s the start of the ten year creative journey I’ve been on since 2004. But, so often when I tell this story, I tell it like a story of failure. Which is really, only part of the truth.

Back in the mid 90s I had taken a day job. It felt like the responsible thing to do while I poured all my spare time and emotional energy into volunteering with churches and community groups and playing music, particularly Gospel music.

Before I filled out my application forms to study theology I had filled out another set of forms, for the Jazz programme at the Sydney Conservatory of Music.

But, my upbringing, especially my school experience was one that made a career in the arts seem impossible. Sure some people got “discovered.” But, you couldn’t choose to work in the arts like a you chose to work in a trade or profession.

However, you can’t suppress your passions for long and by the time I was in my PhD programme (ethics and culture) I was looking for anyway possible to focus on the arts, often writing papers on film and music, which were not central to my research. I started a formal film society at King’s and in my spare time started to write songs again and tinker seriously with music technology.

I wasn’t looking to stay in academia once I finished the PhD either; even though opportunities were presenting themselves. I keep dreaming about setting up a think-tank of some kind, maybe supported by something more practical, like a business building guitars and guitar effects.

Even before I left for India I was on my way out of academia. Circumstances didn’t force me to fail, they forced me to make a decision earlier than I had anticipated doing so.

The Value Of Quitting

The truth is I didn’t fail. I quit. In fact, I quit on my own terms, which is quite a long way from failure.

At the time I think I confused the two largely because I was very alone. I made the decision with friends and family thousands of miles away and so much of what I wanted to say didn’t feel like the kind of stuff for phone conversations. In my three years in Delhi I had no friends or family come and visit, which I’m sure played a part in me being unable to put the negative feelings about perhaps having wasted a chuck of my life (and a big chunk of cash) on the PhD.

I have to give thanks to Chase Jarvis for the way he has openly talked about his decision to quit a PhD and how he sees quitting as part of his creative development (he mentions it in his latest interview, with the brilliant Tina Roth Eisenberg and Brené Brown and see this article, Why Quitting Is Sometimes The Best Thing You Can Do).

Framing Our Story

The kind of frame we put around a picture (or the very act of framing it at all) says a lot about the value we place on it. Putting an image in a cheap black plastic frame is not the same as mounting inside a frame made recycled wood harvested from Japanese fishing boats.

The same is true of stories. When we choose to tell a story in a certain way we put a frame around it, we shape it to fit our assumptions. And, if the story is our story, our biography, it becomes our reality.

“We are the stories we tell ourselves…”
Shekhar Kapur

For so long I chose to tell this story, to myself as much as to anyone else, as a story of failure in a relentlessly male, vision-driven, careerist way. It seems odd to me know, because this isn’t the way I see the world. Telling the story as one of love, of understanding the circumstances and knowing oneself seems to make a lot more sense.

What Is A Photographer Anyway?

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This morning I was reading a fascinating review essay by Jörg M. Colberg of Mark Durden’s new book, Photography Today. In the essay, Colberg made some pretty bold claims, starting with,

“We’re all photographers now. Or are we? Certainly, it has its uses to paint with a brush wide enough to turn everybody who takes photographers under whatever circumstances into a photographer. It makes writing nicely populist, feel-good pieces easy, pieces that crop up on the internet like weeds.”

At the risk of sowing more “weeds,” I had issue with pretty much everything Colberg had to say. I certainly do agree that limiting one’s artistic education to just what’s available online (and maybe by extension, just what is available for free online) is dangerous. But, everything else in this essay felt unhelpful to me, as a photographer and as a creative soul.

Colberg writes, “Let’s assume that we are not all photographers.” Why? This is a huge rhetorical assumption. Especially if our goal is, as Colberg claims, to have a non-ideological conversation. And, starting a definition with a person’s “ambition,” with their aspirations, feels to me to be a very culturally-laden, dare I say it, very American way of looking at art and creativity.

Who Is A Photographer

I believe a photographer is someone who creates photos. That’s it; nothing more. Anything else we add to the definition, any restrictions we load into the word will always say more about us than they say about the field of photography.

Besides, we have an ample array of adjectives – professional, hobbyist, fashion, sports, fine-art, mobile – with which to define photographers if we feel the need to do so. Though, again, our very need to narrow the definitions, restrict the debate and exclude people from the fold may well say far more about our motivations than they say about that photographers and photographs we want to discuss.

Definitions Matter Less Than Ever

Part of me feels like this whole debate belongs to a different era. Most of the people I know who do creative work don’t fit a straightforward singular career description and don’t really care to try and do so. We are, after all, the slash generation.

One of my favourite examples in this is Bryan Adams, whom many people know as a Rock singer/songwriter, famous for hits like Summer of ’69 and (Everything I Do) I Do It for You. But many don’t know Adams is also a highly successful, award-winning fashion photographer, perhaps best know for his campaign work with Guess Jeans.

Sometimes we hear people like Adams described a “renaissance types” because their ability to succeed in multiple fields reminds us of a simpler, pre-industrial age. But, what if our recent history is actually the exception, rather that the rule? What if the apex of the modern age into which we were born was really the aberration, forcing people to specialise to an alarming degree?

Well, if so, wouldn’t we need to make our definitions a little more open and flexible?  Wouldn’t we worry less about who is “in” and how is “out” and focus more on what the art has to say to us?