Johann’s Pachelbel’s Canon in D is my favourite piece of classical music. The canon was originally scored for three violins as a gigue, a universal style from the Baroque era, providing the harmonic structure underpinned by chord progression. Both movements in the piece are in the key of D major.
It’s easy to be distracted by the harmonies and the three violin tunes, but Pachelbel’s approach to writing music was almost mathematical. He uses an ostinato – the same bass line repeated – and a canon – the same music repeated by the violin parts, in a round.
Like his other works, Pachelbel’s Canon went out of style, and remained in obscurity until the 1970s, when the piece began to be recorded by ensembles. By the early 1980s its presence as background music was inescapable, and its chord progression were used in a variety of pop songs. Latterly, it has also been integral to wedding ceremonies.
But this blog isn’t about Pachelbel’s Canon, rather about the reaction from a friend, Rose, who I bought tickets as a birthday present for a performance of Schubert’s Unfinished Symphony. I thought she may enjoy a classical music concert. She is very analytical, and I hoped like me, she would enjoy understanding and analysing musical construction besides the emotion that comes over you at such events. The morning after the concert, Rose emailed me, and made the following comments.
Thanks for the tickets to the concert last night. It was quite enjoyable, but I didn’t get into the emotion of the event like others seemed to, rather I was taken by some gross inefficiencies in the performance! That’s just me hey! It’s obvious there are lots of aspects of the performance that can be improved. I have thrown together a few thoughts with recommendations.
For considerable periods, the four oboe players had nothing to do. Their number should be reduced, and their work should be spread over the whole orchestra, thus eliminating unwarranted resources and peaks of inactivity.
Automate where possible
All of the twelve violins were playing identical notes. This seemed unnecessary duplication and the staff of this section should be cut drastically. If a large sound is really required, this could be obtained through an electronic amplifier.
Reduce skills required
Much effort was absorbed in the playing of demi-quavers. This seems an excessive refinement and it is recommended that all notes should be rounded up to the nearest semi-quaver in my view. If this were done, it would be possible to use trainees and lower grade players and also reduce the time taken to complete the entire symphony.
Finally, no real purpose is served by repeating with horns the passage that has already been played by the strings. If all such redundant passages were eliminated the concert could be reduced from two hours to twenty minutes.
Was Schubert any good?
If Schubert had attended to these matters, he would probably have been able to finish his symphony after all. Maybe there is an AI application to be developed here?
I was surprised by her thinking. We can all jump to wrong conclusions too quickly by taking our own blinkered view, but this seemed to be a particular skewed and a prejudiced judgement. A blind man on a galloping horse can surely appreciate the context of Schubert’s Unfinished Symphony? It was a strange response from Rose. She’d reduced all the fuzzy emotional experience of a concert to neat digits, objectifying Schubert’s composition into analytics, suggesting this was the conventional wisdom, rather than following her heart in the emotion of the music, letting the mysterious cocktails of oxytocin and pheromones flow.
Rose is a management consultant, so very analytical, and was seeking to optimise the performance with her own opinions and analysis. Optimisation is applied everywhere today, in exercise, sleep, and diet for example. If these can now be tracked, quantified, and streamlined, perhaps creative performances can be too, and become more efficient and less prone to friction? Before taking the axe to Schubert, let’s reflect that artists see things that we mortals don’t. Each of us has our own singularity and we don’t all find the works in a gallery equally appealing. We like different music too.
Brian Eno – one of my favourite musicians and composers, who has worked with John Cale, Bowie, Talking Heads Ultravox, Devo and Harold Budd – has codified elements of creativity which I think can be applied to a founder’s startup’s creative process. Best known by the mononym Eno, he is an English musician, composer, producer, and visual artist, making pioneering contributions to ambient and electronic genres of music.
Outside of his own music, he first came to the attention of many when he created the iconic Windows 95 startup sound. The brief that Microsoft gave to Eno was absurd: A piece of music that is inspiring, universal, futuristic, sentimental, emotional…and only 3.25 seconds long. Eno created 84 versions of the sound. Microsoft paid him $35k for the work, which is an incredible deal considering it has probably been heard by several billion people.
In 1975, he co-developed Oblique Strategies, a deck of cards featuring aphorisms intended to spur creative thinking. From this, and other Eno innovative outputs, here’s five signposts that have shaped Eno’s creative thinking that I’ve curated over the years, which I think would have helped Rose in her understanding of Schubert, and certainly help startup founders with their creative endeavours.
1. Control versus Surrender
Here is an Eno thought experiment. Imagine you are surfing. There are periods of control and surrender:
- Control: You paddle past the breakers to find a good place to catch a wave.
- Surrender: When the right wave comes, you let it take you
Eno uses this analogy to explain everyday life. What I mean by surrender is a sort of active choice not to take control. It’s an active choice to be part of the flow of something.
The perfect analogy is surfing, which I don’t do by the way, but I have watched with some interest. What you see when you watch surfers is that they take control momentarily to situate themselves on a wave, and then they surrender. They’re carried along by it, and then they take control again and then they surrender.
I think that’s a good analogy of what we do throughout our startup lives. We are constantly moving between the control and the surrender phases. The only thing is that we tend to dignify the control side of the spectrum more than the surrender phase. We tend to dignify these moments, when really we should surrender sometimes to see where it takes us, ‘going with the flow’ is just as much of a skill as being in control.
2. Beginnings are easy, endings are hard
It is easy to start something new. Ideas are plentiful, but the act of completing a project – which we can relate too – is hard.
There are a lot of ways of getting something pretty respectable going quite early on, but to quote Picasso, There’s nothing worse than a brilliant beginning. But then there is that feeling of terror when you’ve done something that you know is good and you just don’t know how not to ruin it. You think everything you try on will make it worse and yet you know it’s not finished.
The fear that Eno explains isn’t some abstract concept. He has over 2,800 incomplete works himself. One method that he has found to try and finish these pieces is to simply play them on random shuffle and surrender to a serendipitous moment of creative breakthrough. Maybe a certain song is meant to be finished at a specific time and place – Eno interview worth watching.
But I think you should think about this control and surrender thing. That’s what I think this question is about. It’s about where am I allowing myself to be on this spectrum. A truth for many founders – stop building and release.
3. The importance of deadlines
Eno also shared some thoughts on how to apply the control mindset to his unfinished catalogue. My daughter was in my studio, and she was looking at my archive where I have 2,809 unreleased pieces of music. And she said, ‘Dad, how do you actually finish any of these?’ And I said, ‘When there’s a deadline.’ And that’s really true, but I’ll tell you why that’s true.
When there’s a deadline, there’s also a destination, a context, a reason for something. And that’s what makes me finish it. Up until that point, it’s an experiment. It’s sitting on my shelf, and I can take it down again as I often do, work on it again, put it back on. Then I can take it out and work on it some more. So, everything’s in progress until there’s a reason to finish it.
Founders often become procrastinators – one more feature – instead a better practice is to develop and follow a product roadmap, run it for a planned number of sprints to deliver a set of features, and then release to the market against your sprint-based deadline.
4. Rawness versus polish
Increasingly, the work that stand out will be rawer and more incomplete because, by definition, new ideas haven’t been optimised because they are new. Eno explains
On one end, you have auto-tune that perfectly puts music into tune, which is sort of flawless and faultless. In contrast, the other side is clumsy, awkward, crude, and unfinished things that we all actually like in the right context.
The reason we like startups is not for their gloss, it’s for their edginess, their roughness. For the feeling we have that this is just breaking out. Because when something is new, you don’t know how to make it better. In fact, you don’t even consider that you could make it better. Eno also cautions against introducing polish too early in the process. He calls it premature sheen. You can basically take any raw music and make it sound good right away. But if you do that too early, you’re short-circuiting the exploration process of what you are actually trying to create
You can make anything look really good really quickly. Suddenly, you think ‘wow I’ve got something here.’ But you’ve got away from the actual original soul and purpose of the work. You can’t be successful in an early-stage startup venture if you are a slave to perfectionism, do not stymied by it. Don’t worry about mistakes. Making things out of mistakes, that’s creativity.
5. The anchor of success
Never be satisfied with your previous work. Don’t get pigeon-holed. If you do, Eno believes that you won’t have the creative space to explore new ideas and you’ll just be re-hashing old work
Success can create an anchorage of satisfaction that can breed complacency. Eno is eaten up by this: People are always congratulating me for the album I made twenty years ago, and it introduces three thoughts: Was it better? Have I deteriorated since then? Do I have any better ideas? The thrill is to go to the edge of what you can do instead of doing the same work over and over. If I feel the anchorage too much and the sense of looking backwards, it just holds me back.
Ask yourself, What does success look like? My answer is always simple: To do work that feels meaningful. Learn and discover new things. To be present with life and to create things with purpose. This definition of success grounds me and puts me at ease. It feels deeply personal. This is something within me, waiting to be expressed, not something out there to chase after.