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Stravinsky’s Secret and the Art of Saying No

There’s a story they tell—I don’t know if it’s exactly true—about a bet between a publisher and a writer. The publisher, Bennett Cerf of Random House, bet the writer, Theodore Geisel, 50 bucks that he couldn’t write a kids’ book using these ­50 really short words:

a, am, and, anywhere, are, be, boat, box, car, could, dark, do, eat, eggs, fox, goat, good, green, ham, here, house, I, if, in, let, like, may, me, mouse, not, on, or, rain, Sam, say, see, so, thank, that, the, them, there, they, train, tree, try, will, with, would, you

Geisel wrote the book. It’s about a cat (is he a cat? He looks like a cat) who wants his friend to eat some food. The friend won’t. “I do not like green eggs and ham. I do not like them, Sam-I-Am,” the friend (not unreasonably) says. Sam-I-am, however, is beyond stubborn. He pesters. Pesters more. Pesters so much, he finally convinces. The book ends. And sells 200 million copies. You know the author by his pen name, Dr. Seuss.

I’m not saying that Andrew Huang is that good. No one can top Dr. Seuss. But Huang, I’d argue, is in the Seuss mold. He’s a young composer, musician, and filmmaker living in Toronto. He’s got a crazy sense of silly, and his methods are definitely Seussian. He too works with arbitrary, self imposed constraints. To give you a taste, in this video, all his musical instruments are dental tools. He’s covering a famous pop song, The Weeknd’s “Can’t Feel My Face,” using drills, picks, dentures, all provided by his actual dentist, Dr. Ronald Nazon at United Smiles in Kensington, Ontario. Why? It doesn’t matter why. Just look.

Huang has made a bunch of these arbitrarily constrained videos. He likes a challenge. He did one mostly with automobile tires, called “Wheels, ” the theme from Breaking Bad using only methamphetamine lab equipment, a German song using only red balloons to create melody, bass, drums, and snare on “99 Luftballoons,” and he performed Bach’s Air On The G-String using actual G-strings (“underwear has a range over octives”, he says), plus he rapped for 3 minutes without once using a vowel other than “e”, but the one I most want you to see is him performing a tune by shaking, shaving, biting, and eating a single apple.

What’s cool about these videos—and the reason I want to mention them here, where you come (supposedly) to think about science—is that Huang is doing what scientists are supposed to do: He subtracts. When you want to figure out how something works, when it’s time to design your experiment, it’s absolutely necessary to zero in on your core problem, eliminate distractions, and focus. Get rid of what doesn’t matter. Concentrate.

Huang does that. His self-imposed limits both hold him down and (I hear myself giggling) set him free. He has to work narrowly, but that forces him to experiment, to play, to dare, to go where he hasn’t been before. I’d say the same about cartoonist Gary Larson, who makes fun of science and scientists and does it, each time up, in one box. Just one. Most cartoonists work in panels. Gary, in choosing to stay “inside the box” has to hit us with one punch. So it has to be sharp. That’s his limitation. That’s his joy.

Picture of composer Igor Stravinsky conducting with a speech bubble coming out that reads ''Constrain me!''
Photograph by ITAR-TASS Photo Agency, Alamy

There are some artists—haiku poets, abstract expressionists, composers—who call these artistically imposed constraints the heart of their art. I don’t know if I’d go as far as Igor Stravinsky does here:

My freedom thus consists in my moving about within the narrow frame that I have assigned myself for each one of my undertakings. I shall go even further: my freedom will be so much the greater and more meaningful the more narrowly I limit my field of action and the more I surround myself with obstacles. Whatever diminishes constraint, diminishes strength. The more constraints one imposes, the more one frees one’s self of the chains that shackle the spirit.—Igor Stravinsky, Poetics of Music in the Form of Six Lessons

Maybe so. But I’ve listened to music (or looked at paintings or stared at poems) so painstakingly constrained I haven’t a clue what they’re about—or why I should care. I imagine there are science experiments that go so narrow or so broad that they don’t take us anywhere either. But with Huang, I know what he’s up to, and I’m tickled to watch him try.

Here, as my last example, is Huang working with his pal Boyinaband, doing a short, costumed salute to 26 different musical forms, from a cappella to zydeco. In this one they use real instruments, but their salute—for no apparent reason—is alphabetical. Look at the lower right-hand corner if you have no idea what they’re doing.



If you’d like to see how he turns ordinary sounds (by stretching, reverbing, pitch-changing and chopping them) into music, Andrew does a little show and tell
here in the middle of a video tune performed entirely by an hotel air conditioner.

There are so many examples of artists subtracting to find beauty, before I finish, I just wanted to mention one last new-ish one, (which could be inspired by the FBI or NSA because it’s mostly about blacking things out). Austin Kleon begins with a newspaper and a black marker, and ends with what he calls “Newspaper Blackout Poems.” They’re very pleasing.

5 thoughts on “Stravinsky’s Secret and the Art of Saying No

  1. I love this concept. Constraints force us to be resourceful. They give us a starting point. I think even in daily life having constraints (within reason) helps us make decisions and alleviates feelings of being overwhelmed so we can get down to whatever business we have. Thanks for sharing this concept. I’ll never think of a dentist office the same way again.

  2. “I don’t know if it’s exactly true”, could be the headline for almost any of the posts Krulwich has written here [lignin.] Doesn’t he get enough time for his semi-researched Gladwell fan-fic on RadioLab? Why would you give him that space somewhere that it can be confused for science writing?

  3. Thank you for the insights into Stravinsky.. a radical composer in his time and one I still enjoy. And Huang’s brilliance and creativity almost defy description.

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