Copy, Transform, Combine

Dec 08, 2015

You need something to open up a new door
To show you something you seen before
But overlooked a hundred times or more.
(Bob Dylan, from Last Thoughts on Woody Guthrie)

The task of an artist, much like that of a scientist, is to re-combine or edit existing materials in order to create something new.  Ideas are adapted, extended or improved upon based upon the needs and circumstances of the time.  Every work of art contains a recognizable reference to another work and this can be traced historically throughout the development of the arts and sciences.

Kirby Ferguson, a New York based filmmaker who popularized the trope: “copy, transform, combine,” proposes that we all build from the same materials, that creativity is not magic and that everything is a remix. In his web series, entitled Everything is a Remix, he cites examples from the historical development of musical forms, scientific and artistic advances, and technological breakthroughs to show that the formula for innovation is united in a consistent pattern of copying, transforming and combining. Copying materials, transforming them and combining them are the same techniques used at any level of creation. Rock and roll, for example, was a result of copying, transforming, and combining the American blues.  The typewriter a transformation modeled upon a piano.  “The task of the artist,” he says, “is simply to apply ordinary tools of thought to existing materials.”

I agree that the quest for originality is vastly overrated and that the creative act does not happen in a vacuum.  I also know in my bones that to copy, transform and combine requires not only openness to the substantial influences of the past, but also the consistent heat of curiosity and the stubborn persistence of work. The willingness to learn and an appetite for study fueled by vigorous and genuine curiosity can lead to real creative innovation. While it is true that ideas are everywhere, it is the act of processing and connecting ideas together that produces the kind of creative leaps that have impact in the world.  It is not enough to copy, transform and combine, it is also necessary to be open to influence, to apply one’s personal heat of interest and curiosity to the chosen material, to bring a point of view to the content and to experiment with endless variations.

Generally, creativity does not come from within; rather it originates from without and is the consequence of internalizing outside influences. The first step in Ferguson’s equation, to copy, requires me to be open to disparate influences, to choose the ones that feel most promising and unfamiliar, and to study them. Copying is how I learn. Rather than sticking with what I already know, I select influences that are attractive and also that feel unfamiliar. Copying is an action wherein I practice and derive experience in the realm of unfamiliar territory. I filter what I am studying through the uniqueness of my own experiences and my taste. I gather raw material, absorb it and digest it. The process of copying and imitation is similar to learning a new language and then taking the first steps to putting the words into an order to create new personal meanings.

The composers Max Richter and John Adams both recently released two albums in which they plunder, indeed copy, older works in order to reclaim them, reify them for the present moment. Max Richter’s album Recomposed re-imagined Vivaldi’s Four Seasons. He described his process as “throwing molecules of the original Vivaldi into a test tube with a bunch of other things, and waiting for an explosion.” John Adam’s more recent Absolute Jest reworked Beethoven’s late string quartets and provides great examples of copy, transform and combine.  “I wanted to put them through a ‘John Adams machine,’” Adams said in a recent interview about the Beethoven quartets.  The idea for Absolute Jest arose during a performance of Stravinsky’s Pulcinella. Stimulated by the way that Stravinsky absorbed musical artifacts from the past and worked them into his own highly personal language, Adams decided to follow his own obsession with late Beethoven to create a new work.  To get under the skin of the composer he took small harmonic fragments from Beethoven, not unlike fractals in mathematics, and put them through the black box of his imagination: an act that, according to him, stimulated his invention.

I feel fortunate that my own work as a theater director has been informed, indeed shaped by many individuals who immediately preceded me, including Joseph Chaikin, Richard Schechner, Richard Forman, Martha Graham, Peter Stein, Ariane Mnouchkine, Klaus Michael Gruber, Irene Fornes, Andre Gregory, Robert Wilson, JoAnne Akalaitis and many others, all who made their indelible marks upon my own work. Perhaps my work can be considered, in the best sense of the word, a “mash-up.”

My mind is a pattern-making machine, always trying to impose order upon chaos and making links between disparate entities. The process of transformation requires me to create variations upon the influences that I have copied. Transformation is gradual modification. In order to succeed, I try to welcome the associative process, embrace the resistances that naturally arise, and make creative leaps. Transformation allows me to deviate through experimentation and to express in ways that I have not done before.

In 1979 I was invited to join the faculty of the Experimental Theater Wing (ETW) at New York University where I remained as an adjunct for seven years. In many ways, teaching undergraduates at ETW became my own degreeless graduate school. At first I was unsure of what to teach. Still in my mid-twenties, my work up until then had been hardscrabble inventions, mostly on the streets and rough spaces of downtown New York. Ron Argelander, the founder of ETW who invited me to teach at NYU, encouraged me to engage the students with the kind of work that he had seen me create in the downtown theater scene. It was at ETW that I met fellow faculty member Mary Overlie, the choreographer and the inventor of what she in those days called The Six View Points. We became good friends and we worked together on several productions with our students. We co-directed a site-specific piece entitled Artourist and together we choreographed the dances for my production of South Pacific.  

Mary introduced me to her Six View Points and I was galvanized, hooked. The students, empowered by the parameters of Mary’s View Points (Space, Shape, Time, Emotion, Movement and Story), relished the freedom to make things up themselves rather than wait for a leader to tell them what to do.  

Much of the theater at that time felt staid, literal and conservative with the exception of some courageous downtown artists and companies including the Performance Group, Mabou Mines, and Richard Foreman.  But the dominant means of theater-making felt patriarchal and hierarchical, an approach that simply did not sit well with me.  I yearned for effective ways to collaborate with actors rather than using the role of director as a means of domination and control.  Mary’s work directly addressed fundamental issues that I felt were sorely missing from the theater world.

Mary’s own discoveries were influenced by her contact with significant dance-makers of the time. She had studied the techniques of the American pioneers including Martha Graham, Jose Limon and Merce Cunningham. She worked directly with Barbara Dilley and Yvonne Rainer, Steve Paxton, Suzanna Linke, Jean Hamilton and Beth Goren. She performed with companies as disparate as the San Francisco Mime Troupe, the Judy Padow Dance Company and perhaps most significantly the Natural History of the American Dancer, founded by Barbara Dilley. In 1978 she formed her own company, the Mary Overlie Dance Company.  She also co-founded Danspace and Movement Research and both became institutions in support of the work of other dancers. The innovations of the Judson Church dancers seemed particularly galvanizing for her. These were radical experiments involving structure and space made up by choreographers who rejected the more dramatically oriented dances of their predecessors.

My work with the Viewpoints over the years since I met Mary happened within the context of directing plays, conducting workshops, teaching and, in general, working with hundreds of actors in the heat of creation.  The basic principles that I learned from Mary underwent changes in the form of the stages of “copy, transform, combine” and morphed eventually into something other than what she originated.  In time and with constant adjustment to what I was absorbing and testing, Mary’s “Space, Shape, Time, Emotion, Movement and Story” drifted away from me.  Eventually I found it practical and useful in working with actors to differentiate “Spatial Relationship, Shape, Architecture, Kinesthetic Response, Repetition, Tempo, Floor Pattern, Duration and Gesture.”  And then, in numerous explorations in the art of speaking, arrived at the Vocal Viewpoints:  “Pitch, Tempo, Silence, Repetition, Timbre and Silence.”  

Looking back now, I can clearly see that my own work with the Viewpoints underwent a process of copy, transform, combine. When different ideas are combined together, one idea can broadside the other and result in new and dramatic results. I was not only influenced by Mary Overlie’s innovations but also by those of a myriad other external inputs that were consistently moving in and out of my sphere of experience. Connecting ideas together and merging multiple, unrelated ideas in new and creative ways require an ability to spot the potential for creative leaps.

Combining knowledge, synthesizing information and fitting things together that do not normally go together can lead to new perspectives on a subject. By fitting things together in unexpected ways that do not normally go together I am allowing for new things to happen.

Generally it feels good to borrow or copy but it feels lousy to be copied. Steve Jobs admitted to stealing all of his original Apple innovations, at first saying, “creativity is just connecting things,” but in later decades he spent millions on legal procedures against those who copied or stole from him. “I’m willing to go thermonuclear war on this,” he vowed about of the patent lawsuit Apple filed against cell phone manufacturer HTC.

In a letter to Helen Keller, who had been accused of plagiarism for her short story The Frost King, Mark Twain wrote:  “All ideas are second-hand, consciously and unconsciously drawn from a million outside sources …. When a great orator makes a great speech you are listening to ten centuries and ten thousand men – but we call it his speech, and really some exceedingly small portion of it is his.”

As we arrive at the end of 2015, please allow me to encourage you to make a contribution to SITI Company at  Even if you cannot give much, we will treasure your support and put your contribution to the best possible uses in the New Year.  Thank you in advance.