Dying and the art of creativity

I have completed and released a new album called “After, Life.” It’s an album of quite intense, serious pieces, mostly (I always have some whimsy in there). That’s for a very good reason, it’s a meditation on the feelings surrounding my own mortality. Written in the aftermath of serious illness, I’ve tried to encapsulate the variety of feelings that emerged when confronted with the reality of my non-existence.

The album is available on all streaming services (search for richard f adams). Or click here for Spotify, here for Apple Music, here for Google Play and here for Deezer – it’s also available on all other services.

The act of dying is one of the acts of life.

Marcus Aurelius

As humans, we are unique animals in that we are the only animals that are (to our knowledge) aware of our own mortality and death has been a major concern for our society for longer than recorded history. The wonder of why someone just stops moving must have been terrifying and bewildering for early humans and it is no surprise that their folk tales explaining it became religions and that death became a defining tenet of all human societies. It is such a profound loss when a loved one dies that we have to mourn, a process that is an evolutionary defence. In fact death is so profound that even some other animals have been known to mourn.

The way artists confront mortality is as varied as the work they produce. A great many pieces explore death through the eyes of others, producing great howls of anguish and examinations of the soul.

Do not go gentle into that good night,
Old age should burn and rave at close of day;
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

Dylan Thomas

I always recall being struck by the sadness in the eyes of Rembrandt in his late self-portraits, who was clearly very sad at this point in his life.  Those eyes affected me and his sense of impending death and waste of having to work for other people, patrons, was for me shining through them. It isn’t very often that artists tackle the reality of their own mortality in a direct way, as it’s an uncomfortable subject for the artist and audience alike, although some do address the issue and reality head-on, as can be seen in this 2016 exhibition.

https://www.smh.com.au/entertainment/art-and-design/death-and-the-artist-the-patient-exhibition-explores-illness-and-disease-death-and-life-20160602-gp9syo.html

Exhibiting and examining one’s own mortality is a hard thing to do as it exposes one to new and different forces that are largely out of one’s control and it is so personal it is often something people don’t want to do. Creating this album was hard, admitting here what its about is even harder. There is evidence though that a person’s mortality drives creativity, in fact it seems that, according to a study done by Clay Routledge, a professor of psychology at South Dakota State (quoted here)

People who were given a chance to be creative did not show increased worldview defense when death was salient. In other words, not only might death reminders fuel creativity, but creativity appears to protect people from mortality concerns. It is perhaps not surprising then that so many people have an increased need and desire for creativity when they are diagnosed with a terminal illness.

For me it was a way of tackling the most profound thing that has ever happened to me. I have had other life traumas and illnesses but this was the brick wall. Others react differently, each to their own. Having command of a number of artistic vocabularies though, did allow me to choose how to respond. Being a polymath by nature I was able to find the medium that suited the need. In this case, music called on something that was deep inside me and enabled me to hear my own howls of anguish in a way that made them comprehensible and manageable. Isn’t that what all art is about, making sense of the world in a way that enables us to experience it differently and fully? After forty years of making things and studying deeply the language of the arts, that’s what it comes back to for me. I’m convinced that, neuro-scientifically speaking, art is our brains’ way of looking at something from outside in order to get a full view of the world. Art is an echo of reality that enables us to navigate meaning, like a bat uses sound to navigate in the dark. That is why art and intelligence are an indivisible duo.

The fear of death is also instrumental in getting people to change their behaviour and to open up in ways they didn’t before. I’m writing this now, for example, something I never would have done before. One’s behaviour changes in other ways too. I can see it in my own psyche that a switch went off and I no longer tolerate half of the things I did before. I am now much more direct and to the point, and I am way less tolerant of people who ask me for things but never return the favour. I tend to use the cup of tea test; when someone can’t make time for 30 minutes of tea with you then they aren’t a supporter and it’s time to move on, and that applies to family and friends. Of course in doing this, it may turn out that one ends up with no friends at all and that’s another hurdle to cross. A big surprise was finding out that people had talked about me being ill but never contacted me (family and friends) also when I did contact people they replied politely and then nothing from them after that and so I ended up with not one visitor. The positive is that a few people who I hadn’t expected to, have made the effort. All those resultant emotions have gone into this album.

Recovering alone, and realising that you are totally on your own, is one of the most painful things to face and it becomes quite overwhelming but I suspect everyone deals with death differently.

Being told this news was in retrospect the actual day I died, as the old me switched off there and then.

So how can I represent that in my art? My visual art ( Richardfadams.com or Instagram.com/Richardfadams ) is much more about colour and how I see the world. When I look around I see a sort of enhanced landscape and that comes across in my pictures. My writing is quite sombre and focussed on tech and the impacts of tech on people. Music is the only place I could be emotional although the two things interlink. When I walk into the Rothko room, I hear a massive minor 9th chord /(doesn’t everyone?).

So to make sense of all this I buried myself in a creative act. The album is more emotional than my normal output, and more organic. Although it still sounds electronic and robotic in places, overall I think it shows much more open emotion. The opening piece, After, Life, Variations is, I feel, my most outwardly emotional piece so far, yet the album is phrases, feelings, patterns and algorithms in action, reflecting my feelings back out into the world and allowing me to triangulate emotions.

Every piece on this collection  of music is a response to, or an articulation of, a feeling inspired by recent events in my life. There is the rush of feelings as one’s worst fears overwhelm one. The claustrophobia of being in a tube being scanned. The abstract nature of the brain working overtime to process information and the memory of simple pleasures, the realisation that you’re on your own. The album is full of meaning but I will leave it the listener to interpret; ask me if you want, I am on Twitter (@dickyadams).

It is hard for me to express these feelings to people in words, but in music the inspiration flowed. Music, as an abstraction, helps to express complex feelings that in many ways are equally abstract thus avoiding the need to produce coherent, non sickly prose. Completing this was a both a labour of love and a form of therapy. It is called After, Life both as a pun on the term and as a way of saying life goes on.

Musically, I think it’s a step up in quality and my arrangements are fuller and more complex with a richness that is sometimes missing from my previous works. . It’s getting close to what I have in my head. The first track, After, Life is getting very close to a piece that inspired me to start writing “serious” music in the first place and I think it’s the piece I’m most proud of, so far, on my musical journey. I am hoping that like the music, things become richer for me now and that I can start to get rid of the people who have not helped and elevate the few that have bothered.

Although my next album will likely be very bitter or conversely, very happy; we shall see.

Having said all that, enjoy it and don’t take things too seriously and do share. Please let me know what you think of it — hell — write reviews if you can. You can hear it at the links below and I would love to bring this out as a concert/exhibition/digital happening, if anyone is interested in helping.


Search for “Richard F Adams” on all streaming and online services or click on a link below

Available on all major services, Spotify, iTunes, Google Play, Deezer, Amazon and others.

Just search for Richard F Adams

…and my other music can be found here.

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