Constraint and Creativity

One thing I’ve learned repeatedly, especially working in a public institution, is that success almost always arises from constraint. Artists have known this for a long time: say, a sculpture begins with a certain amount of stone; not only is that the total amount of material available, but the finished product will, by definition, become even less with each effort to shape the result. You deliberately use or employ “less” as a possibility for success or beauty. 

That has been my experience in higher education. Accepting this truth, especially in leadership, leads to a positive and supportive mindset regarding those around you. And I’m not talking “Apollo 13” or “The Martian” where people throw things on a table and say, “this is what we have and we just have to make do!” While that may be appropriate at times, you can often use and exceed constraints to reach outcomes you didn’t think possible. 

For those not interested in a personal project of mine, you can stop reading here!

While on vacation (which I needed) I decided to “make things” again. The result is a constraint-driven album that sets canonical poetry to music (warning: it’s definitely not rock or classical music in feel). I wanted to take traditional art and begin blending it with artificial intelligence and other electronic influences. The result is a 26 poem album, one for each letter of the alphabet. 

This album is a constraint-driven experiment infuenced by the French movement known as “Oulipo,” which seeks to create works of art while operating under self-enforced constraints (like writing an entire novel and not using the letter “e”).

How does that work in this playlist?

1. This playlist consists of 26 songs, one for each letter of the English alphabet

2.. All songs were made in GarageBand; therefore, each song could only use loops that started with the same, single letter of the alphabet. For example, “Susie Asado” only uses loops whose name begin with the letter “Q.” The loops for “Cut” could only use loops that begin with the letter “C.” Etc.

3. One exception: there are no loops in GarageBand that begin with the letter “x.” To accommodate the letter “x,” which is the poem “She Had Some Horses” by Joy Harjo, I selected loops where there first or second word of the loop name included the letter “x,” for example “Vortex Beat.” I did not count common GarageBand designations such as “mix,” “vox,” or “FX” as available for use. The “x” had to be present in an uncommon word in the loop title.

4. Each song had to use the words of a published poem for its lyrics. In almost all cases, I selected poems and/or poets that would be immediately recognizable (or canonical) by most people familiar with western poetry. And just because I created this playlist, I used one of my own poems, “Liketown,” which only uses loops that start with “a.”

5. All of the voices in the songs had to be created by AI (artificial intelligence/algorithms)and be alterable (pitch, speed, style, etc.). All of the voices in the songs were created using Note: There are four exceptions where I used original audio of the poet reading, as they are electronic versions of analog audio recordings–Sylvia Plath, Gwendolyn Brooks, Adrienne Rich, and Lucille Clifton. Also, their voices were too good and musical not to use. (Check out Lucille Clifton.)

6. The artwork for each song had to be generated by an AI image maker. The image for each song was produced by Midjourney, where I used the full (of sometimes partial) text of each poem as the prompt to generate the images. Note: The image that represents the playlist as a whole was generated in Midjourney using lines fror Eliot’s “Prufrock,” specifically, “I shall wear the bottoms of my trousers rolled.” Why the algorithm produced this particular image, I do not know.

One image returned by Midjourney for “I am old, I am old, I shall wear the bottoms of my trousers rolled.”

7. Some of the songs also deviate from the additional text. Any deviations (other than song choruses) were generated by AI (I used “WriteSonic AI Writer“). In these instances, I entered the beginnings of the original poems (including my own) and asked WriteSonic to generate the rest. The best, and most easily recognizable example is Robert Frost’s “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening.”

8. The playlist had to be spread out as evenly as possible in terms of “beats per minute.” There is one song in the 70’s range, as well as one topping 130, and those single songs are the margins of where I am comfortable. The breakdown for this playlist’s bpm is:

71-79 bpm: 1 poem
80-89 bpm: 4 poems
90-99 bpm: 5 poems
100-110 bpm: 5 poems
111-119 bpm: 6 poems
120-129 bpm: 4 poems
130-139: 1 poem

9. Because I did all of this on my laptop, the playlist is alphabetically organized by the left to right order designated by the “qwerty” keyboard.

So there you have it. A weird, musical experiment that was meant to set poety to music, operate under constraint as a condition of creation, and to produce in each instance some form of human and AI collaboration. A lot of beauty in the world in produced under constraint, so I thought I would honor that mode of creation.

Finally, whatever this project “means,” it is dedicated to Doug Jankowski. Do not go gentle, my friend.

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