pick the notes you really mean

While reading last week’s NY Times Book Review, I found a great essay by the novelist Haruki Murakami about his relationship to jazz music. Murakami is one of my favorite writers. The worlds he creates are deceptively simple, elegant creations, with massive geologic flaws running straight through them. In his stories, very normal people encounter very odd situations, but it all seems real and natural. In the article, he talked about how his style of writing was influenced directly by his love of jazz. This comment in particular struck me:

One of my all-time favorite jazz pianists is Thelonious Monk. Once, when someone asked him how he managed to get a certain special sound out of the piano, Monk pointed to the keyboard and said: “It can’t be any new note. When you look at the keyboard, all the notes are there already. But if you mean a note enough, it will sound different. You got to pick the notes you really mean!”

It occurred to me: is this what I am doing in my photography? The subjects of my photographs are simple and fixed. I only shoot photos of small objects found in nature, such as leaves, sticks, and seeds. Why I do this, I am not sure — it has just always felt like the right thing for me to do. But at times, I get frustrated and feel like I am limiting my art by only working with this tiny palette. I mean, let’s be honest: most of my subjects are just dead sticks or dried-up leaves! My studio looks like the aftermath of a wind storm, with the flotsam and jetsam of nature strew across every surface. Yet it seems that every time I get these waves of frustration, something happens. Something new and meaningful gets created. It’s the same notes, played again and again, but this time, they sound different. They mean something. It always takes me by surprise. One simple, dead and dried leaf that I picked up in my driveway, will tell a story or evoke an emotion beyond what I expect. And so, I keep at it, taking Monk’s advice, and try to mean each note enough.

Fallen Leaf ©Daniel Sroka
This is one of my first ‘fallen leaf’ photographs, which encouraged me to continue to pursue this series of ‘notes’.


I’m so glad you shared this quote, its fantastic…this is a post I wont soon forget. I can relate and I’ve yet to tire of reading about other artists processes.

I want to echo what Paula wrote. I like the quote and equally so how you applied it to your own philosophy of image making. I also find that I have become very interested in the process of artistic creation, regardless of the medium (writing, music, painting, photography).

“But if you mean a note enough, it will sound different. You got to pick the notes you really mean!”

That part just knocks my socks off!

And thanks Dan for such a thoughtful post about how this relates to your working process.

I’ve tried the “shotgun” approach and for me, all that does is make me “a jack of all trades and a master of none.” So I’ve been trying to narrow my focus. That is when I discovered how much nature, tree trunks and leaves in particular, were showing up in my work. When I put together an exhibit for an open house, there were all those birch trees and leaves staring at me and I wondered if it was too much, if I needed to move on to something else. Then I realized that as long as I was saying something new, something different with each piece, as long as working with those images were not boring me, there was no reason for me to abandon them just for the sake of variety. And because I was working with a relatively familiar image, I could concentrate more easily on what I was saying with it, if that makes sense.

So yes, if an image, an object continues to make you stop in your tracks and think something new, see something new, you should continue to work with it in your art. Only if you default to it because it’s easy, quick, familiar, there, should you rethink your use of it.

I, too, find myself picking up leaves – feathers too. Occasionally I laugh and think, well, just how many leaves do you need for reference and inspiration? Apparently quite a few. 😉 Keep focusing, don’t worry about limiting yourself. After all, a microscope has a very narrow focus, and look at the hidden world it opens up.

Very nice quote. 🙂 I have learned also that true artistic work is the reflection of your true self. You are very fortunate to have found your «thing»; seeing through your eyes the abstractions found in nature is very inspiring and authentic.

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