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  • Writer's pictureDavid Knell

Everything Stems from Simplicity

Updated: Dec 12, 2022

I love the ancient game of Go. I love the freeform nature of the game. The binary black and white. The simple and inviting wooden board as a canvas for play. The strategy and tactics. The need for both calculation and intuition. The war waged on multiple fronts simultaneously. The three-act story that is played out over the course of an hour or so. The flow state you fall into when you play. Earlier this week, I watched a documentary that told the story of how the small group of engineers at DeepMind created a computer program that played a world champion Go player and beat him. It's something that IBM did in the 80s in the game of chess. But Go eluded computer-dominance for decades because of the game's sheer complexity. There are more possible board positions in Go than atoms in the universe. It has always amazed me that such profound richness and complexity is generated from just a board, one type of game piece, and just three or four simple rules. In fact, I believe it's this very simplicity that allows Go to give rise to its complexity. I'm reminded of DNA, which is made of just four nucleobases (GCAT). Or, you know, all of creation, which is made of just a few dozen (known) elements, each of which are just various combinations of three atomic particles (protons, neutrons, and electrons). It's all so simple! And yet everything you've ever seen, heard, felt, smelled, or tasted comes from those three particles in different combinations. ​ It gets me thinking. What else works like this? Music is just notes (pitches, frequencies) played at different volumes (dynamics) by instruments (each giving the notes a different sound or timbre) across time (the duration of a song). If you had a very big 4-dimensional grid with each of these three aspects of music as its axes, you could chart every song ever played.

A chart with 4 axes: Instrument, Volume, Time, Note
Every possible song

What else? Here were some that came to mind:

I can't quite explain why, but looking at art forms this way relieves some of the anxiety of the proverbial blank page. It invites the joy and whimsy of experimentation. It puts all songs, all paintings, all stories on a level playing field. Sure, some songs are preferred over others when myriad aesthetic considerations are applied, but in at least this basic respect--perhaps the most basic respect--they are all just variations on the same primary elements. You, a mere beginner, an enthusiast, a wannabe have access to those same elements and can place them on that canvas however you choose. No matter how your gingerbread house turns out, it's a gingerbread house. No matter the "quality" of your song, it's a song. And there's something beautiful about that. Since the seventh grade, when I play on my drum set, more than any other medium, I actually play. The wonderful thing about performance arts is there is no artifact (unless you record it). You produce a sound and it vanishes into thin air. If you make an error, you simply try again--all past moves disappear into the past, leaving nothing for insecurity to latch onto. It makes it so much easier to experiment with rhythms. Even as a 35-year-old, I find more satisfaction playing with sounds on the palette of a drum set, like a toddler with a crayon and paper, trying this and that and simply observing what comes of it, than by playing along to a song. Do I have the courage to do that with other art forms? With stories, with words and thoughts? I feel more at ease experimenting with music because, ultimately, I don't care profoundly and deeply about music. It's fun, therapeutic even. But I have never strongly defined myself by it. Not so with writing. I care, therefore I scare easily. The stakes are higher because I make them higher. (Though if your deepest heart and intuition and spirit declares it to be your truest interest, who's setting up those stakes? I guess there are stakes and then there is the anxiety and fear about meeting those stakes. The one comes from down deep, the other from pre-frontal cortex thinker guy.) But at heart, whether we aspire to make great art or have fun finger painting a soundscape on a piano, it all--all creation--is the same act with the same materials on the same canvas. The pupil and the professional, the struggling craftsman and the Creator Himself, all have the capacity to take the raw elements of nature and combine them into infinite forms that make the world richer for their being added to it. ​ What will you create? Thanks for reading. 

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