Classic Computer Magazine Archive COMPUTE! ISSUE 95 / APRIL 1988 / PAGE 46

Computers and Society

David D. Thornburg, Contributing Editor

Creativity With Constraints

As someone who spends most of his professional life in creative pursuits, I'm used to using computers as support tools in the creative process. Graphic design tools, idea processors, text layout programs and music programs are used in my office almost every day.

Because I'm so familiar with these tools and their value in supporting my creative process, I'm occasionally puzzled when one of my friends tells me that he or she feels intimidated by a creativity tool that starts with a blank screen. Whether the blank screen is associated with a word processor, graphics program, or music composition tool, many people would rather have tools that guide them in their creative process.

I remember that when the Macintosh first came out, it was shipped with both a word processor and a graphics program. While almost all Mac users found the word processor to be easy to use, many failed to master the graphics program. The sample graphics supplied by Apple were of such high quality that most users had a hard time even coming close to this level of graphic quality so gave up trying. Many Mac users were frustrated because they wanted to incorporate graphics into their documents, but felt they lacked the patience or experience needed to create their own drawings.

Within a few months, a brisk market in disk-based clip art rose to meet the needs of those of us who lacked the skill to draw in any medium, let alone the computer screen.

Clip Art Creativity

The availablity of clip art allowed a wide range of creative expression by anyone adept at using the computer without requiring a high level of artistic skill. Pictures could be copied and pasted into place to create new images. While the user was constrained in the breadth of available pictures from which to start, the myriad possible arrangements and combinations of pictures allowed a tremendous freedom of creative expression.

This ability to support creativity in the absence of highly refined skills is a major feature of computers. It not only supports the needs of a large market, but also encourages those who want to develop their skills to the point where products like clip art aren't needed so much. It turns a major step (from zero skill to artiste) into a gentle ramp, providing some freedom of expression while skills are being developed and refined.

Music For The Rest Of Us

I was reminded of this recently when I visited my local computer store and noticed that Brøderbund's product, Jam Session, was in the hands of most people standing by the cash register. Jam Session is a Mac-based music program that allows the user to play along with the computer using the keyboard to accompany background passages played by the computer itself. Because the computer knows what key it is in, and where the music is going, the user's keys only play tones appropriate for that portion of the music. People who would love to create their own music but who lack proficiency with an instrument have found that tools like Jam Session open the door to their own creative expression.

My first exposure to a program like this came a few years back with Dancin' Feats on the Atari 800. I have no idea if the folks who did that product are still in business, but it was one of the most wonderful Atari programs I've ever seen. Dancin' Feats was set up to allow jamming in the blues, jazz, and swing styles with user control over tempo and other stylistic variables. The performer played with the joystick, which played notes from a scale appropriate to the chord progression of the piece.

A background scene for country music jamming with Jam Session.

About two years ago at a multimedia show, I had a member of the audience play with Dancin' Feats while I filled in from a separate synthesizer. In the beginning, my helper was timid and just worked the joystick between two or three notes. Within a minute she was wailing away at the blues and the audience was clapping in rhythm to the music. She could have gone on all afternoon, but we stopped the piece after a few minutes.

This experience is not uncommon. People who are too timid to play music are skeptical when they start working with a computer program that does the hard part for them. But, once started, the music hiding in the player starts to emerge through the joystick, and the result is invigorating for all concerned.

Jam Session

Jam Session has the same effect on people as Dancin' Feats. A "backup band" (shown in animation on the display screen) establishes the progression for the jamming in almost any style you want. For example, you can jam with anything from a walking bass or country music to Chopin or heavy metal. Each style of music has its own display screen. Once the background music gets started, most people start playing with a few of the keys to see what they do. Since dissonance is blocked, all notes sound good. After a while, the user is playing away at complex passages that sound exceptionally good.

Music Minus 1

Because I don't play with a group, I've been using Jam Session to work on my ensemble skills. For example, I set up a walking bass progression from which I can then play my own melodies on my piano. This ability to jam along with a tireless backup group is wonderful.

It also shows that products like this can support the user from the beginning of musical interest to the development of independent performance skills on traditional instruments. Again, the giant step is replaced by a gentle slope.

But Is It Creative?

Some purists might argue that clip art disks and music programs of the sort I've described are just training wheels that sugar coat the creative process and act to inhibit the true development of the skills needed to be truly creative.

My perspective is a bit more gentle than that. For one thing, I don't think that creativity needs to have a rigid definition. Inventions that build on existing ideas can be as valuable as those that start from nothing. For every major idea like the laser or transistor, there have been thousands of wonderful inventions based on improvements in existing technologies. I'm a firm believer in the idea that creative activities should be fun.

Yes, skills need to be developed, and that can be a painful process. But training wheels can ease the pain, keeping the creative spirit alive while basic skills are developed.

Dr. Thornburg welcomes letters from readers and can be reached at P.O. Box 1317, Los Altos, CA 94023.