A Most Peculiar Thing: The Role of Play in Creating Art

Musician Paul Roe reflects on his experience as part of the ensemble that created festive music show 'A Most Peculiar Wintry Thing' which is about to embark on a tour of venues in Northern Ireland.

Musician Paul Roe reflects on his experience as part of the ensemble that created festive music show 'A Most Peculiar Wintry Thing' which is about to embark on a tour of venues in Northern Ireland.

"Making art is a serious business-be it performing or composing music, writing poetry or literature or any of the other art forms.

That said, seriousness can be stifling and oppressive, hence the importance of play. However play, is often deemed to be somewhat frivolous and peripheral. The reality is that some of the best creative work happens when there is a sense of play, of having fun. We know this instinctively as children, however somehow we lose our natural sense of playfulness as we get older, so as adults we have to find ways to reclaim it. Typically play is a completely absorbing activity that has a certain mindful radiance about it. We need to find ways to allow ourselves be playful, to dabble, to splash the paint around, to be excited about the journey and to outlaw the concepts of 'wrong' and 'right' as meaningless inhibitors.

“As in play, it rests on a common willingness of the participants … to lend themselves to the emergence of something else”
― Hans-Georg Gadamer, Truth and Method

Often in professional music making the art of play is completely lost, as the focus on getting it right can impede imagination.There is of course a practical logic to this because musicians (by which I mean all involved in making music-performers, composers, conductors etc) need competence to fulfil their roles in a variety of contexts. However we do need to find a space for playful exploration, to give our imaginations free rein and let go of the idea that we need to control the media in which we work all the time. It is a truism that if we always do what we’ve always done then we will continue to get the same results. Often the best creative activity comes about when we don’t know, when we are willing to yield up to the universal flow of creativity. Perhaps Morton Feldman was touching on this when he advised Stockhausen to ‘leave the notes alone, Karlheinz; don’t push them around’. I suppose one could add to that the notes will find their own best place if we keep out of their way.

It is with these thoughts in mind that I was musing on a recent project I was involved in. During November and December 2014 The Ark in Dublin (Ireland's only cultural centre for children) and Music Network brought together a diverse range of Artists to work on a wonderful 50 minute piece of music and theatre aimed at children called A Most Peculiar Wintry Thing. The artists involved were Brian Irvine (composer), John McIlduff (writer), Matthew Robins (visuals), Matthew Bourne (piano), Matthew Sharp (voice & cello), Alex Petcu (percussion), Paul Roe (clarinets) and Emma Fisher (visuals). It was a pleasure to be a part of this production which was a tremendous success with 38 performances throughout the country. Almost all the performances were fully attended and the level of engagement between audiences and artists was a joy to experience. Now, almost a year later we are excited to be taking the show back out onto the road for a short tour of Northern Ireland with Moving on Music and Dumbworld.

To continue with my original point on the importance of play and its impact on creative work, this production had a feeling of playfulness right from the beginning of rehearsals (and I’m sure long before rehearsals began during the composition, writing and planning phases). What really gave space for play was the completely collaborative nature of the working environment. Right from the outset there was a sense that everybody was on the same level in contributing to the emergence of this production. Neither the composer, the writer nor the animator were remotely precious or protective of the work they had created-literally everything was up for grabs to be changed, developed or deleted. The creative decisions were arrived at through play-trying things out, improvising, chatting and playing around in order to get the feeling of a band, a collective. The most important objective was to have fun and look as though we were ‘having the best time of our lives’-[Brian Irvine]. That way the hope was that audiences would be drawn into that anarchic energy and joyfulness.

I have been very fortunate in my career to have played with many ensembles from large groups such as-the National Symphony Orchestra to small Duos. Often I have found there can be an overt seriousness to proceedings that makes the process of creating music needlessly weighty and arduous. This in turn can have the knock on effect of creating a stiffness and a lack of flow that audiences pick up on that can leave them feeling not fully included in the beautiful ephemeral experience of live performance. In productions and performances where there is a creative free flow and spontaneous energy, ego is the unspoken bête noire, the ultimate inhibitor to creative risk taking. In an ideal world hierarchical ideologies with control and command methods would be relinquished in favour of a more spacious and collaborative view of working. However whilst I believe this world is emerging, we still have some way to go. Therefore to develop a more engaged and creative approach to working together it is so important to manage communication and human relations. It is important to realise that people are naturally creative given an environment that allows for people making mistakes, having fun and ultimately according play its crucial role in our imaginative worlds. Great credit is due to The Ark, Music Network, Brian, John and all those on the team who understood the importance of play in making this such a fun and successful production."

If we could get the hang of it entirely
It would take too long;
All we know is the splash of words in passing
And falling twigs of song,
And when we try to eavesdrop on the great
Presences it is rarely
That by a stroke of luck we can appropriate
Even a phrase entirely

-Louis MacNeice

The 2015 tour of A Most Peculiar Wintry Thing in Northern Ireland runs from 23-28 November.
Mon 23 Nov @ 11am An Coire, Maghera
http://www.ancarn.org / +44(0)28 7954 9978

Tue 24 Nov @ 10.30am Burnavon Theatre, Cookstown
http://www.burnavon.com / +44(0)28 8676 9949

Wed 25 Nov @ 10:30am Roe Valley Arts & Cultural Centre, Limavady
http://www.roevalleyarts.com / +44(0)28 7776 0650

Thu 26 Nov @ 11am Strule Arts Centre, Omagh
http://www.struleartscentre.co.uk / +44(0)28 8224 7831

Sat 28 Nov @ 2.30pm & 6.30pm The MAC, Belfast
themaclive.com / +44(0)28 9023 5053

About Paul Roe
Paul is a musician with particular interests in performance, education and coaching/mentoring. He has a PhD in Performance Practice from the University of York, a Masters Degree in Community Music from the University of Limerick and is a Fellow of Trinity College, London. He has an Advanced Diploma in Executive Coaching and as a member of the International Coaching Federation he works with a wide range of individuals as coach/mentor. He is a performer (clarinet and bass clarinet) of international repute and was Associate Principal Clarinet of the National Symphony Orchestra of Ireland from 1987-2000. He has been a member of Concorde Contemporary Music Ensemble since 1989 and has given solo, ensemble and orchestral performances throughout Europe, Asia and America.

Paul's career profile in music is broad based with ongoing commitments in performance, teaching, examining and community music. He is a member of the teaching staff at the Royal Irish Academy of Music in Dublin and the Dublin Institute of Technology Conservatory of Music and Drama. He also works in the area of collaborative arts practice for a variety of organizations including Dublin City Council, Music Network, the National Youth Orchestra and the Arts Council of Ireland.

Paul's career is distinguished by an ongoing interest in creative development. He has a variety of performance and education projects developing on a continuous basis with support regularly provided by the Arts Council of Ireland. Paul is Ireland's National Chairperson for the International Clarinet Association for whom he regularly writes music reviews. You can find out more at www.paulroe.org or you can follow him on Twitter @dolcewalrus