Less Is More…Or Is It? The Sophistication Of Simplicity

Originally posted 4/23/12

I have recently been reading Walter Isaacson’s biography of Steve Jobs. As a musician and meditator, I’ve always identified with Jobs’s Zen side and his fondness for an artistic aesthetic that stems from that philosophy. When Jobs hooked up with designer Jonathan Ive in the late ’90s, a great collaborative partnership was born, due to the fact that they both shared a similar design style–a style manifested in most of Apple’s products of the past 10-15 years, such as the iMac, various MacBooks, the iPod, iPhone and iPad. I’ll be honest too: I designed this website with a similar Zen-like feel in mind (I agonized for weeks over the background color!). Ive describes his aesthetic this way:

Simplicity isn’t…just minimalism or the absence of clutter. It involves digging through the depth of complexity. To be truly simple, you have to go really deep. For example, to have no screws on something, you can end up having a product that is so convoluted and complex. The better way is to go deeper with the simplicity, to understand everthing about it and how it’s manufactured. You have to deeply understand the essence of a product in order to be able to get rid of the parts that are not essential.

That’s exactly the same way I feel about playing music. Truly simple playing comes from two things: a well-developed technical command, and a thorough understanding of music and how it’s constructed. It has a lot of thought and preparation underneath its surface. There’s great subtlety and character; it’s not just simple for the sake of simple. The old maxim “Less Is More” has always bothered me; not because it’s not true, but because people often use the term without understanding the nuances of elegant simplicity. Simple playing is vastly different from simplistic playing.

We must dig through complexity and sophistication in order to strip our playing of the parts that aren’t essential.

Here’s a classic story that illustrates this point:

The engine of a giant ship failed. The ship’s owners tried one expert after another, but none of them could figure how to fix the engine. Then they brought in an old man who had been fixing ships since he was a youngster. When he arrived, he immediately went to work.

After looking things over, the old man reached into his bag and pulled out a small hammer. He gently tapped something. Instantly, the engine lurched into life. The engine was fixed! A week later, the owners received a bill from the old man for ten thousand dollars. Livid at being charged so much money for such a seemingly simple task as tapping with a hammer, the owners asked the man to send an itemized bill. The bill read:

Tapping with a hammer ……………………. $ 2.00
Knowing where to tap …………………$ 9,998.00

The “knowing where to tap” part is what I strive for as a musician. It’s a never-ending process of constant refinement. The task of tapping was simple and seemed mundane to the ship’s owners, yet below its surface there’s a tremendous depth gained from years of experience and practice. Likewise, the audible difference between a mediocre musician and a great one playing the most simple beat, line or melody can sometimes be subtle, but within that subtlety there’s a wide gulf. We must dig deeply, develop our technique, listen, play, practice, and go beyond complexity in order to arrive back at true simplicity.

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