Being A Polymath: Does All That Math Add Up To Anything?

I often think of people who have concentrated solely on one artistic career – the writer who only writes, the musician who only plays – and wonder if they ever get a hankering for doing something different. Trying a new form or genre?

I’ve met very few people in my time who like to try their hand at a different art form than the one they normally do. Of course, having the time to do other things is hard to find.

I remember an interview with Roger Hodgson – the guy with the high voice in Supertramp – where he said: ‘Kids and music, they just don’t go together’, and he didn’t mean the racket they make when they’re practising the clarinet, though that is unholy, but rather  he was referring to the childcare; it’s the looking after them that saps all your energy, and usually your creative energy is the first to go (and the last to return). And of course, the older we get the less productive we are – unless your name is Elliott Carter, who was still composing contemporary music well into his 90s.

Screen shot 2018-04-06 at 16.52.07

“I can see you in the morning when you go to school…” (and now I can get some fekin’ work done!)

But we look back and see Da Vinci, Galileo, Hildegard von Bingen etc. etc. and find that it is possible to knock about in other forms – and be good at it (though I think Da Vinci’s helicopter design didn’t quite take off… literally) .

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Hildegard Von Bingen: plays, poems, medicinal and botanical texts… and what have you done?

However, if we consider more up to date versions of this in popular culture things tend to get a bit ugly…

Remember Sting doing lute song? Or how about Keith Jarrett’s Bach? Nah, rock or jazz musicians playing classical music seldom sounds convincing and this was no exception.

How about Bowie’s art? Joni Mitchell’s painting? Beefheart’s paintings? Dylan’s? I dunno, were they any good? An artist might be able to say, but I would imagine that they’re not held in high esteem by the cognescenti, and ultimately considered the bored ramblings of the rich.


Beefheart… you like?

So maybe the ‘Jack-Of-All-Trades’ thing is correct. Can you be good at two disciplines? Or even three, or four? William Shakespeare – as an actor turned writer – was called a JOAT by the writer Robert Greene in 1592, and I guess he regretted it later.

I’m quite interested in what motivates someone to dabble in other areas. Is it arrogance? Or the absolute need for total expression? It could just be liking a lot of different things and having the guts (foolishness) to have a go yourself. Sure, things that are somewhat related, these are possible: Artists who do their own sound for installations. Illustrators who write. Writers who illustrate. But you don’t often see viola players who design helicopters (no matter whether they fly or not!) 🙂

                            A helicopter designer                                                                     A viola player

Looking back on my own experience, I see a distinct pattern of about 10-15 years doing one thing, then changing tack. It’s suicide for your public profile, but in the end, a much more successful way of going about learning who you are.

I played the classical guitar for about 10 years, in all. Starting with lessons in 1980 and stopping playing in 1990, after my Post-Graduate year. I’d lost interest in guitar music; I was bored with it. And I had begun to question whether it was worth spending my time playing someone else’s stuff, particularly when that stuff did not move me in any way.

Anyway, after the guitar I turned my attention to composition. I enrolled in a PhD course at Edinburgh Uni and almost got kicked out after a year, save for a last minute repreive from the composer Edward Harper, rescuing me from ignominy. I realised pretty early on that being interested in something is not the same as understanding something, and I found it to be a huge learning curve that lasted well beyond my doctorate award in 1999.

And throughout all this, I was also composing music for theatre, beginning in 1991 with Andy Farrell’s production of ‘Struggle of the Dogs and the Black’ at the Traverse, and ending (again) 15 years later with ‘A Taste Of Honey’ at the Citz with Guy Hollands.

It was the early noughties, and I was fed up – with all of it.

It wasn’t until I was in contact with the Chicago-based musician Nick Macri, in 2009, that I realised: All this diversity was creating issues with my output. I was stopping one thing, carrying on with another, never settling enough to draw the double barlines. You see, when he asked to swap a couple of his band’s CDs (the slowcore gods ‘C-Clamp’) for some of mine – I had nothing except ramshackle recordings of classical works on CD-R – I realised I’d got nothing to trade (read: nothing to show for myself). This was a kick in the proverbial.

Nick Macri and C-Clamp – ‘Longer Waves’ – a slowcore classic

So, I set out to rectify that, I needed to not chop and change too much, and finish what I started…

And now, 2 albums of jazz-rock, 3 sci-fi novels, 15 published poems and 1 published short-story later, I finally do have something to prove my worth in the world. Meagre though that is…

But I now find myself, once again, in a period of transition. Perhaps having polymath tendencies is a curse? Creative work is slow going and, to make matters worse, I read recently that your output decreases with testosterone level.

So perhaps a trip to the clinic may be in order…



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