Greater wholes and what produces and binds them are hard to define. The synergy of, say, the media and the events being reported by them remains vague and peripheral as we keep them separated into their constituent parts. We never think we are looking through a camera lens or through the mind of a journalist, who the cameraperson or writer is and how they came to be there, what their affiliations or biases are; only what we view through their lens as if their camera or words are our own senses. Our own biases, of course, are just as hidden, and what we see is reality – that’s it.
We generally define things according to their differences from other things, not in the ways they combine and interact. We seek answers through breaking things down rather than looking at wholes. To gain a clear understanding we need to do both. Everything has a greater whole, including being a magician. It cannot just be the sum of the parts of tricks, technique, patter and presentation.
What the bleep is this?
Music must have some basic elements in order to be defined as such. Or does it? A single tone played continuously isn’t music, nor is a siren varying the tone or a series of constant tones or bleeps. A discontinuous series of bleeps as in Morse code isn’t music – unless – such elements are recorded and presented for listening to, to evoke certain ideas or feelings. But there still has to be something else – even if it’s only an imaginative title for the recording such as ‘Emergency’ or ‘Code Breaker’ – to combine with the bleeps or noises, to give them context and meaning, to somehow bring it to organic life beyond mere mechanicality.
That’s where it gets difficult: defining the ghost in the music or the moment when sound becomes symbolic and evocative. Hence we could even have silence recorded or ‘played’ for listening to and evoking feelings as in John Cage’s ‘4’33”’. You can think of this as a pretentious joke, but when listened to it becomes a sort of cross between a minute’s silence and a meditative focusing on the ambient sounds of the room or place of listening. You might giggle nervously, feel awkward or even burst into tears. You could argue it’s an attempt to capture the ghost in the music without the music.
The Japanese national flag is not just a red dot stuck on a white background. The circle has proportion, position and hue. It has a name – Hinomaru (‘sun circle’) – which relates to the name of the country (Nippon, ‘where the sun rises’), and a mythology (the divine status of the emperor descended from the sun goddess). It has a history and it appears on national flags which are seen in certain places or at certain times. It has a designer and an approval committee.
Most importantly, a flag (or art) needs mental and emotional associations provoked in those who associate or feel a connection with it. People are willing to die for so-called red dots on white backgrounds (and similar) because of what they represent and evoke. This representation/evocation is the ghost within the symbol. Anyone who hasn’t studied a symbol just sees, like the Trojans, the outside of the wooden horse.
This is supposed to be an art form, not just a manufacturing establishment. – Marilyn Monroe
You could look at fashion or style, recipes, military pageants, certain clever logos, even the way nature designs things (and produces life itself) to see that they require some form of intelligent combination of elements to produce a greater whole or alchemy; a ‘certain something’. The result takes your breath away or produces a feeling of ‘how do they do that?’
What is this certain something? As with the story of the boy who dismantled a fly into a pile of pieces and wondered where the fly was, we can’t find the answer by intellectual analysis of the parts alone. Sole reliance on intellect is psychological ‘idolatry’, a worshipping of clearly definable parameters and the brain process that identifies them. We are searching for the ghost, the god, within or beyond the whole, which requires another way of looking or thinking.
Coming back to music, there are certain individual elements needed, for sure, to create something that is even theoretically music. But what that ‘x’ factor is that results in music, and especially great music, is a mystery; likewise what makes great magicians. But there are still great magicians and still wonderful music being made and played. With art or talent, is it deliberate or does it always take someone else to feel the effect or sign up the act? There’s surely no doubt that this ‘x’ factor, as with the flag, the greater whole, is both within and without.
One thing is for sure: copying other people’s formulas cannot be the solution. This is doing the same as the cargo cultists, building pretend airstrips and hoping the gods will deliver food. (People do the same in modern life, lining up all the logically perfect ingredients and then wondering why the ghost of happiness doesn’t descend.)
Starting from the outside and going in to find the key element is going in the wrong direction. This is the formulaic method for success, of ‘copying someone else’s success’. ‘Warren Buffet did it, so why can’t I?’ It can’t work in and of itself, because one is attributing success to too few elements which themselves – even if you possessed all of them – lack the key ingredients. These ingredients include context, personality and temperament, experience, instinct, timing; many intangible elements.
When I was small we left a relative in charge of our three goldfish. The fish were each very distinctive but also looked like a sort of team or three of a kind. On returning home, three fish were still there… but something wasn’t right. They bore the same appearance and markings (black spots and white flashes) as before, but me and my brother knew instinctively: they weren’t the same team of fish! On interrogation, our poor relative had decanted them into a metal pot to clean out the tank, and the metal had poisoned them; followed by a frantic search for three identical fish.
It’s the same when they remake ‘The Dukes of Hazzard’ or some other old show. ‘The fish just ain’t the same.’ This is why one-hit wonders try to come up with a follow-up hit that is just a sort of remix of the first one. Either it flops, or people buy it only because it reminds them of the first record. The new record has no special qualities other than cynicism, greed or desperation. When a plane makes an emergency landing on a makeshift airstrip, the cultists use this as proof that it works; a gambler always remembers the two or three times they won. But we mustn’t be misled by false positives. You can’t glue the bits of fly back together and expect to breathe life into them.
Carving a wooden walnut shell, even one that is stunningly beautiful, won’t make a walnut appear inside. We need to learn where nuts actually come from and start by planting seeds, doing things properly and aiming to carefully cultivate something small but real, rather than somehow trying to mimic somebody else’s end result and expecting it to work.
You may want a book about jumping; you may want a book about whist; you may want a book about cheating at whist. But you cannot want a book about Success. – GK Chesterton
Liza with an ‘x’
Undoubtedly stars who have the ‘x’ factor (real stars, not reality-TV competition winners) have something in common: charisma. Why does Liza Minnelli have charisma and some average pop singer (singing the same songs even) doesn’t? We can’t define this charisma, or what truly makes a great musician, artist, dancer or magician. But maybe if we look at masters of their art or craft we can learn to recognise their special, undefinable something intuitively. It might even connect with a part of us on some deep level and help inspire us to achieve our own mastery. Maybe ghosts can beget other ghosts?
If you know anything about slow cooking you will know that at some point there is a sort of chemical reaction that transforms the separate ingredients into a single, homogeneous entity. By combining different effects and methods, in particular on different levels of effect, a magician can give the overall impression of magic beyond a mere routine of tricks. Doug Henning and David Copperfield captured this feeling. If they ‘suddenly realised’ they needed a pen for a trick, they would produce it from thin air, even though this effect bears no relation to the rest of the routine.
The normal parameters of an effect are the props and effects with those props; say, a deck of cards. If a pen is needed to sign a card then, clearly, producing the pen from the air is completely outside the parameters of any card trick. The spectator signs their card and then the pen vanishes again. At the end, after producing the signed card from some impossible location (the spectator verifying their signature), the magician peels the spectator’s signature off the card in a thin, black strip of ‘solid ink’.
The Devil’s salad
This routine is like a Waldorf salad. Who could ever have imagined that such disparate ingredients as apple, celery, walnut and mayonnaise could produce such an amazing result? Talk about breaking out of known parameters of salad making! An equivalent kind of homogenising can capture the essence of real magic when disparate elements belonging to different sets of parameters are combined harmoniously. The overall result somehow goes beyond expectations. It’s like in The Devil Rides Out when Tanith comes back from the dead. It presses a button in you.
This isn’t the whole answer, though. A star doesn’t have charisma without her audience of adoring fans. The bits of hard and disparate ingredients and the watery liquid need something else, something coming from outside the pot, to end up as stew. They need heat and knowledge. In performance, the heat comes from the spectators and our interaction with them and the magic, and the knowledge of how to combine these elements, a sort of organic, everchanging recipe, comes from us.