I first met entrepreneur and video-maker Gaspard Bonnefoy while we were finishing our master’s studies in Montpellier. Back then, I remember rushing off to find an internship in a big company that would provide me the opportunity to start my career. Gaspard, meanwhile, was turning down a permanent job offer from the company where he had completed an apprenticeship, and was planning to set off on an exciting quest to understand how culture influences musical creativity. Within a year, this adventure would take him to 15 different countries across four continents where he would meet, play with, and record more than 100 musicians. What made him choose a path different from 99.9% of his master’s class?
A music enthusiast at heart, both as an amateur musician, and as a musicology researcher. During workshops organized in Paris, Gaspard had started experimenting with musical creativity using a looper – a tool that enables the musician to record, sample, and play music repetitively. Conscious that the looper was a compelling enabler to create music from scratch, Gaspard wondered: how would musicians around the world use a looper to create music? Would the creative process differ from one culture to another? “The objective is to see if in other countries and cultures, musicians have the same creative process and if there are any universal standards for musical creativity.”
Additionally, when composing music, Gaspard felt limited and realised that his creative process was deeply rooted in music he usually listened to, so the trip became an opportunity to break free from this legacy. “I feel somewhat limited when composing music by what I know and what I usually listen to […] I am wondering if musicians around the world also feel this, and are also limited by their knowledge and culture. Has culture an influence on their creative process or, on the contrary, are they able to create beyond it thanks to their technique?”
Such research can seem difficult to put in place as a looper normally requires a microphone, a pedal, and a station to record and sample sounds. However, that’s where technology sometimes provides an answer for such challenges: a tool was, at the time, newly available in the form of an App, and so, Gaspard had his solution. Leveraging various means to connect with local artists, Gaspard organized over 100+ “loop sessions”. Regardless of whether the sessions were planned or ad hoc, the first question that came to my mind was “Did any musicians experience the blank page syndrome or could they just get started on the spot?”
“Musicians I met often had ideas in mind, chords they liked to play, or melodies stuck in their head, and they were waiting for one thing: to have an opportunity to play it. When a random person like me arrives and says “so what’s your song?”, they just get on with it. It’s impressive. Usually they play a couple of chords […], and once they get their first chords right, they start experimenting around, and they iterate depending on the outcome”. Or, in other words, for Gaspard it became apparent that composing Music was mostly about an initial inspiration and constant improvisation.
Prior to his trip, Gaspard had also planned to test the same approach on non-musicians to find out how culture could influence individuals in such settings. During such sessions, it was found that it was more difficult for the neophytes to improvise. If the lack of technique and understanding of musical processing were two natural blockers, another factor came to light: their inability to overcome “the fear of producing something that did not sound right”, preventing them from getting started.
To seasoned musicians, on the other hand, introducing the looper was a catalyst for playful exploration. It allowed them to create the songs they had inside of them but, for which, they had lacked the means to express, be it with different instruments or a capella. One example was a musician from Chile, Francisco. In the heart of the Atacama desert, Gaspard witnessed Francisco reach a moment of flow, performing a song involving guitar and flute, and singing at the same time. “This was a magical moment […] It was the first time that he could play both instruments at the same time, and create like this”.
In different settings and different locations, whether instruments were involved or not, the process seemed to remain similar and successful. A striking example of how the creative process is rooted in experimentation was with singer Velemseni in Swaziland. Using the looper enabled the Swazi artist to build a song using multiple vocal techniques at the same time and to perform a song without any instruments. “When you deconstruct the song, you have counterpoints, on-beats and off-beats. It’s extremely technical and complete. […] It was the first time she was using a looper, but it seemed obvious for her, in the sense that she did not need to think to create. She was just waiting to try and experiment those ideas”.
In some instances, however, there were limitations in the design of the research caused by the usage of a tool – the looper – to create music, that biased the results. The case of a traditional Nepalese musician who had limited access and knowledge about technology illustrate this bias: “showing him an App to sample and deconstruct the song electronically, it’s not natural, and there was a struggle to create with it, compared to another Nepali musician, in the same conditions, but who is connected, and who already listens to electronic music for example,” who did not have the same struggle. In such cases, differences in the creative process were “not necessarily related to culture or countries, but rather due to open-mindedness and access (and interest) in technology”.
Nonetheless, during the sessions all musicians were able to create and to record from scratch a prototype of a song or even a finished product with curiosity, spontaneity, and playfulness even when being confronted with challenges: “Recording in the studio is very expensive, so when I came by [with a microphone and a looper] and told them we could record a prototype and a video, they seized the opportunity fully”.
Looking back at the journey, Gaspard found that no matter the locations and the instruments played, the eagerness to get started playing, experimenting, and creating from musicians remained the same. Artists also displayed the same attitude towards the experience: curiosity about the process and passion to play, to create something new during the sessions. Likewise, non-musicians in all places showed the same universal fear of getting started. What Gaspard’s research illustrates is the fact that the creative process does not differ from one culture to another, and is universal amongst artists. In all instances, the creative process involved very similar creative patterns, where musicians would explore the tool, deconstruct their ideas, start experimenting, reframe their ideas, experiment again, improvise; all in a non-linear and iterative manner. What changed, however, as Gaspard puts it is the outcome: “Everyone has a different Creativity”. Although the creative process remains the same, the outcome of each loop session was always as unique as the individuals creating them: the musician’s personal experiences, memories, and stream of consciousness all influence the outcome.