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.

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