Boredom – the Real Secret Behind Innovation: Mark Applebaum at TEDxStanford (Transcript)

Mark Applebaum – American composer

I thought if I skipped it might help my nerves, but I’m actually having a paradoxical reaction to that, so that was a bad idea. Thank you for that introduction, I was really delighted to receive the invitation to present to you some of my music and some of my work as a composer, presumably because it appeals to my well-known and abundant narcissism.

And I’m not kidding, I just think we should just say that and move forward. So, but the thing is, a dilemma quickly arose, and that is that I’m really bored with music, and I’m really bored with the role of the composer, and so I decided to put that idea, boredom, as the focus of my presentation to you today. And I’m going to share my music with you, but I hope that I’m going to do so in a way that tells a story, tells a story about how I used boredom as a catalyst for creativity and invention, and how boredom actually forced me to change the fundamental question that I was asking in my discipline, and how boredom also, in a sense, pushed me towards taking on roles beyond the sort of most traditional, narrow definition of a composer.

What I’d like to do today is to start with an excerpt of a piece of music at the piano. (Music) Okay, I wrote that. No, it’s not – Oh, why thank you. No, no, I didn’t write that. In fact, that was a piece by Beethoven, and so I was not functioning as a composer. Just now I was functioning in the role of the interpreter, and there I am, interpreter. So, an interpreter of what? Of a piece of music, right? But we can ask the question, “But is it music?” And I say this rhetorically, because of course by just about any standard we would have to concede that this is, of course, a piece of music, but I put this here now because, just to set it in your brains for the moment, because we’re going to return to this question. It’s going to be a kind of a refrain as we go through the presentation.

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So here we have this piece of music by Beethoven, and my problem with it is, it’s boring. I mean – I’m just like, a hush, huh – It’s like – It’s Beethoven, how can you say that? No, well, I don’t know, it’s very familiar to me. I had to practice it as a kid, and I’m really sick of it. So what I might like to try to do is to change it, to transform it in some ways, to personalize it, so I might take the opening, like this idea – (Music) and then I might substitute – (Music) and then I might improvise on that melody that goes forward from there – (Music) So that might be the kind of thing – Why thank you. That would be the kind of thing that I would do, and it’s not necessarily better than the Beethoven.

In fact, I think it’s not better than it. The thing is – it’s more interesting to me, it’s less boring for me. I’m really leaning into me, because I, because I have to think about what decisions I’m going to make on the fly as that Beethoven text is running in time through my head and I’m trying to figure out what kinds of transformations I’m going to make to it. So this is an engaging enterprise for me, and I’ve really leaned into that first person pronoun thing there, and now my face appears twice, so I think we can agree that this is a fundamentally solipsistic enterprise.

But it’s an engaging one, and it’s interesting to me for a while, but then I get bored with it, and by it, I actually mean, the piano, because it becomes, it’s this familiar instrument, it’s timbral range is actually pretty compressed, at least when you play on the keyboard, and if you’re not doing things like listening to it after you’ve lit it on fire or something like that, you know. It gets a little bit boring, and so pretty soon I go through other instruments, they become familiar, and eventually I find myself designing and constructing my own instrument, and I brought one with me today, and I thought I would play a little bit on it for you so you can hear what it sounds like. (Music) You’ve got to have doorstops, that’s important. I’ve got combs. They’re the only combs that I own. (Music) They’re all mounted on my instruments. (Music) I can actually do all sorts of things. I can play with a violin bow. I don’t have to use the chopsticks.

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So we have this sound. (Music) And with a bank of live electronics, I can change the sounds radically. (Music) (Music) Like that, and like this. (Music) And so forth. So this gives you a little bit of an idea of the sound world of this instrument, which I think is quite interesting and it puts me in the role of the inventor, and the nice thing about – This instrument is called the Mouseketeer… and the cool thing about it is I’m the world’s greatest Mouseketeer player. Okay?

So in that regard, this is one of the things, this is one of the privileges of being, and here’s another role, the inventor, and by the way, when I told you that I’m the world’s greatest, if you’re keeping score, we’ve had narcissism and solipsism and now a healthy dose of egocentricism. I know some of you are just, you know – bingo! Anyway, so this is also a really enjoyable role. I should concede also that I’m the world’s worst Mouseketeer player, and it was this distinction that I was most worried about when I was on that prior side of the tenure divide. I’m glad I’m past that. We’re not going to go into that. I’m crying on the inside. There are still scars.

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