What is Creativity?


Brian Kai Chin is executive director of the Institute for Creativity. He offered me the opportunity to write music for the Common Tone Ensemble and planted a Torch on my Map of Miracles.

I thought that this Torch, would be ‘simply’ a piece of music. But Brian’s Torch turned out to be a  journey that started with studying creativity, followed by drawing illustrations and ended with my final thought that maybe, even my studio could be a mini-institute-for-creativity. Let’s just say, this was a long creative process with a lot of unexpected outcomes.

Now all the thinking has been done, the Torch planted on the Map of Miracles can solidify onto the paper into a piece of music.

An artwork is a treatise you write, after finishing a train of thought.

K. Ataman

The Music I will write:

Torch: A musical quilt made out of 5 – 7 – 5 haiku’s, inspired by ‘La Voz del Viento’ and ‘en la Estation’ the poetry of Alejandra Darriulat . I will write this set of pieces using Schönberg’s ‘Models for Beginners in Composition’, especially the notes used by Schönberg to teach Alban Berg. 

Below: My reflection on my creative journey contemplating the idea of an Institute for Creativity. 

The Institute for Creativity

After I tell people I’m a composer, people often ask: ‘What do you make?’ and ‘How do you do that?’ But people hardly ever ask: Why do you make that’? The people who do ask Why? are often creatives themselves. I decided to explore the idea of an Institute for Creativity, by studying the difference between the three basic questions: What? How? & Why? But before I do that, I will first explore my own brain, as an example of creative thinking. 

Pick my brain

My creative brain is associative. I connect new information with things I know from very different fields. I like to work top-down: I starting with visualising the bigger picture, then I zoom in on one detail, hyperfocus and then I zoom out again to overlook the whole abstract concept of what I’m working on. 

For example: I zoom out from a chord in a piece of Debussy, until I can see my own work in line with all the other works existing, including Debussy’s. This helps me start explore why Debussy wrote that chord, wonder why composers back then wrote what they did. This motivates me to understand music history. After learning enough about music history, I can Zoom in from the period of Impressionism, onto a chord in my own work and understand the historical implications of that chord.


In the evenings, I looked at Japanese art, because Debussy liked that. I watched video’s about kimono’s and discovered that I can paint with ink-pencils on textiles to make a kimono.

People asked me: “How did you think of that kimono?!”  It’s not magic.  It’s continous associative thinking that starts with a chord of Debussy.

My creative process is an itteration of chaos by association and decisive organisation through a self-made system. I think a good artist can organize creative chaos in such a meaningful way, that it expresses their individuality in such a particular way, that it becomes universal. 

My way of learning and working provides me with a deep inner motivation, but it only works if I can decide in complete freedom what to learn or do, when I need it. This is what makes a creative like me hard for an institute: you never know what is going to interest me. Planning an associative curriculum is hard for an institute, but easy for an individual. That’s why I have my own private teachers lined up and ask for help when I need it.

Though this all works wonderful, there is a downside to my brain:

I find it hard to:

  • do repetitive work, because with every new repetition there is a new association to explore. For example: Next time I play that chord of Debussy, I might explore the hammering system of the piano because of the dynamics.
  • learn something from small chunks of information that seem to have no connection, until I finished the whole book.
  • not visualize, before processing information. During tests, before doing a calculation, I already visualized the golfer’s clothes, his dog, his clubs, the ball, the green …..
  • not question anything taught. I motivate myself to study boring books by looking for mistakes. 

Personally, I never thought of institutes as creative environments. It never popped up in my mind as a possibility. At first, I considered an “Institute for Creativity” a contradictio in terminis. But the idea of an Institute for Creativity got stuck in my head, because of the word for. An institute that would serve creativity? What would that be?

This summer, I visited the Musik Akademie Marktoberdorf and experienced the power of that institute, a closet full of asian percussion instruments and their guest, the Scottisch composition teacher Keiron Anderson. After listening to the result of that week, how my music had improved, had gotten more meaning, I had a change of heart:

  • One could probably design an Institute for Creativity by redefining the Institute, rather than Creativity.
  • As a consequence: I had to consider me-in-my-studio a mini-institute-for-creativity.

I wondered whether I could (re)define creativity and institute in a way, that would help me consciously design my own studio. I wanted to know whether I could consciously design a work-flow in an environment that would help enhance my creativity and that of others. Maybe an insitute for creativity should be a cloud of individuals? A studio might be something completely different every time you visit? Or just a connecting point in space over time? Or a path to walk with others? I also hoped that studying creativity would help me explain, why I think people better ask me Why? instead of How? and What?

“How to what” gives you the advantage of craft

After these private thoughts about my own creative process and my studio, we can now start to explore the idea of an Institute for Creativity, by studying the difference between the three basic questions: What? How? & Why?

Since the Institute for Creativity encourages the connection of all arts, I wondered what a composer can learn about creativity from visual artists. Would ‘composing a drawing’ be like ‘composing music’? I decided to make an illustrated music book and have these two creative processes in one project. I took lessons to learn how to illustrate books with Xandra Schipperheijn

Combining workflows from different arts did help coming up with more Hows? to Whats? to choose from. It helped create more associative chaos. And in that sense, knowing and combining a lot of workflows did help finding the right one for a project. But after a while of comparing the creative workflows, I noticed that I researched How? to make a What?

My How? and What? questions motivated me to study and immitate the thoughts, behavior and results of others. These questions helped me become a better Crafts-woman. I also noticed that the What? in my experiment was defined as a result: an illustrated music book. Thinking of a What? as a result, had narrowed the creative flow down to that result: a paper book. Meanwhile, the questions How? to What? had not challenged me to consider any change of heart.

Had I initially narrowed the Torch assignment down to the requested result: a piece of music, I would never have designed an illustrated music book, let alone had a change of heart about the Institute for Creativity. Still, all of that was a result of my creative process. Because instead of starting with the expected result, a piece of music, I had zoomed out and started with researching the idea of an Institute for Creativity and associated from there. My creative brain had visualized the conceptual image of Brain’s great project, and from there zoomed in on comparing workflows.

I ended up without any sheetmusic for Brain, but I learned something important: To light the Torch of Creativity, answering How? to What? wasn’t going to do that magic trick. There sounded no music….nowhere…. The key to unleashed Creativity was not a special kind of workflow. Knowing How? to What? wasn’t enough. 

In that period I started working on Three matches to light the Torch of Creativity. The ‘Three matches’ helped me formulate the difference between Craft and Art, using my three basic questions:

  • Craft is How? to What? without a Why?
  • Craft is a How? & What?– driven route to a result.
  • Craft offers solutions. 
  • Art is How? to What? that started with Why?
  • Art is a Why?-driven process that explores unknown territories.
  • Art creates problems.

I found that starting with Why? helps broaden many horizons before you start creating. A Why? – driven project cannot be easily be narrowed down to a result-driven route, because you have to formulate and answer Why? before the you can start asking What? and How? I think it’s best to work your way through Why? What? & How? in that order. Starting with Why? helps create something that makes people have a change of heart. 

“Why” gives you the advantage of conviction

Though crafting itself feels very fulfilling, the end-result often doesn’t fulfill the creator, because there was no personal Why? answered. This happens when you copy a workflow: a How? to What? By immitating other works, you re-create the answer to some-one else’s Why? It won’t give the deep satisfacion, nor emotional connection with the work crafted. Craft alone is not enough to make a work of art.

Art offers a few moments of deep connection with reality.


Doing counterpoint exercises is all about learning the Craft, but they don’t start with a Why? Schönberg writes that it’s better to start creating your own idea from the beginning, even though it’s just 2 measures with 1 chord. It’s better to start creating from the beginning, than filling out pre-thought exercises. Being a composer will never be ‘filling out prescribed lines’. You want to be trained to create something new, not the expected. Traditional counterpoint exercises never answer a personal Why?

For me personally, creative and learning processes both need to start with Why? I need to know my inner drive: my own Why? to search for my How? to make my What? When I start asking Why? while being a skilled crafts-woman, I will end up with beautiful Art. I think that this works because Why? is an uncomfortable question.

Every uncomfortable moment is a creative moment.

Ai Wei Wei

Why? is uncomfortable

Asking Why? provides an opportunity to be uncomfortable. Why? connects with the root of the desire to create and the creative process starts from there. Why? explains the need behind the want to learn How? to make What? You will have an inner drive to create instead of a need for discipline to work. Knowing Why? gives artists the power of personal conviction. 


Textile artists about Art and Craft.

Why? can take you from here to there to everywhere. The risk you take, is the freedom to create anything, to explore anything, to create any problem imaginable. Why? always leads to more, without any judgement, evaluation or measurement of a result. Why? never disrupts the creative workflow in a destructive way. 

At the same time

Why? saves you from getting stuck in complete chaos, because there is only one answer to create. If you start with Why? you will have to start choosing consciously the Craft you need to create your honest answer to your sincere Why? To organise the artwork from the creative mess, you will start choosing consciously How? to What? The end result will be much more focussed and impactful if you start with Why? You will know the artwork is ‘finished’, because it satisfies as the anwer to your Why?. You will intuitively feel it’s getting ready. 

Authenticity of an artist is sincerity. It is a road that makes us feel comfortable.

Ai Wei Wei

In music there is no right nor wrong, but you have to accept what you sound like. After asking Why? this might be very confronting, especially the first time you hear your own music played by others. Apart from the fact that you have to learn to listen, especially as a composer, I think that this is what people refer to when they say music makes you a better (feeling) person. Your music starts anwering your personal Why?

Why? provides authenticity

Though the Why?-process is uncomfortable, emotionally painfull, you will feel completely at ease within yourself when you reach for your own Why? You will intuitively know you are doing the ‘right’ thing. I think, you will personally grow from creating your Art this way. I have always been convinced that you hear honesty in a work of music, whether you like that particular truth of that composer or not. When art anwers a Why? it will sound authentic and on top of that: it will start teaching. Art is great at challenging people to grow on a personal level. I have always believed that:

An artist is authentic when he grows by his art.


Most inspiration and inner motivation starts with Why? Those who start with Why? have ability to inspire others, because knowing why you do, what you do, how you do it, gives you the advantage of conviction.

Curiosity: Why ask Why? 

Why?-questions originate from a deep personal curiosity. I find curiosity the source of all my creative forces. Wondering about everything is one of my most broadening sources of inspiration. I think that my own little Institute for Creativity should above all enhance and inspire curiosity. It should invite people to do what creatively gifted people are good at by nature: associate, maybe even dissociate. 

People working with Artificial Intelligence, add randomness to enhance creative programms. Adding digital randomness acts like human curiosity: it creates associations, dissociations, chaos, problems that didn’t exist before. Only when you create a completely new problem, you have to come up with a completely new answer. The chaotic randomness of curiosity helps you think the impossible

We have to keep childlike curiosity in mind, when we consider enhancing creativity. My recent adventures with illustrating and writing a book for children helped me see this:

A brown bear sees a white snow-owl. He asks the owl: “Why so white?” And the owl answers: “Because that makes me invisible in the snow.” Had the bear instead asked: “How do you become so white?” He would have learned more about feathers. Had the bear asked: “What are you?” He would have learned the name of the species. But those questions would not have given a deeper sense of curiosity, nor inspired the bear to set out to explore. Only after asking Why? the bear gets really curious and wants to see that for himself:  An invisible owl! Asking Why created a lot of new problems for this bear. 

Putting curiosity in the centre of creativity, supports the idea that creativity is more about creating problems than solving them. My father said: ‘Once you found the question, you already have the answer.’ Curiosity is not about finding the right answer, curiosity is about finding the right question, the best Why? imaginable. 

Curiosity, which may or may not eventuate in something useful, is probably the most outstanding characteristic of modern thinking … Institutions of learning should be devoted to the cultivation of curiosity, and the less they are deflected by the consideration of immediacy of application (the result, A.W), the more likely they are to contribute not only to human welfare, but to the equally important satisfaction of intellectual interest, which may indeed be said to have become the ruling passion of intellectual life in modern times.

Adam Flexner

What helped me a lot, is a scientific approach: It keeps you curious what the next problem will be. All the things you researched before, become part of the things you do now. It helps connect research and works of art. I always look forward to starting a new project: I have a lot of ‘old’ problems still lying around some-where.

Scientists have a good work-flow that deals with ‘failure’ in a constructive way. It’s called Discussion, because failure always leads to more interesting problems than success. Success and perfection are extremely boring. Imagine the most successful perfect human being. Now, aren’t the problems the things you are secretely looking for? 


Institutes are embedded in some kind of value-system. A value system can be anything: Grades, social opportinities, political standpoints, current fashions or financial constructions. Institutes (like schools, museums and government agencies) need to define creativity in a way that can be ‘evaluated’. Some way or other, the level of playing or the creation of a composer has to be ‘measured’ in order to graduate, get funding or a job in an orchestra. In such an institute, you are trained to fit in a system. 

We are trained to talk about every detail of notation and technique, but not feeling. Music Education has approached music as a technical discipline, but has left the most important part of music, its ability to communicate emotions and feelings, as an impenetrable mystery. David Whitwell”

I think that institutes can be very good in teaching Craft: the How? to do the What? But it’s hard to measure how much some-one moves an audience. It’s hard to measure Why. Measurements will influence the performance: Creative musicians will perform less inspired, because of the stress induced. I find judgement in any form, more poisonous for creativity, than perfectionism. 

Personal expression becomes inhibited with music making as teacher imposed directions consume most of our time and study with either conducting or playing an instrument. This perhaps is a factor that suppresses our natural expressice opportunities. A. Copland.

Measuring exact performance of the notes written is much easier to assess than Artistry. You can judge playing exactly what is written on a paper, but not what can be heard behind the notes. I think you can’t grade Artistry.

In general, it is easier to train people to re-create, than to create. Seymour Bernstein, concert pianist & composer, explains the difference between creating and re-creating in a very encouraging manner.

Seymour Bernstein on the difference between creating and re-creating

Creative definitions

People who consider themselves to be non-creatives, come up with a lot of definitions of creativity. Interestingly, policy makers turn to people like Ken Robinson, not artists, for a definition of creativity. Let’s look at one from a renowned document. Let’s look at Ken Robinson’s All our futures .



There is a lot more to this report, but I want to discuss only this definition as an example. The words that annoyed me are bold:

It’s important to recognize four characteristics of creative processes: 

First, these always involve thinking or behaving imaginatively

Second, overall this imaginative activity is purposeful: that is,
it is directed to achieving an objective.

Third, these processes
must generate something original.

Fourth, the outcome must
be of value in relation to the objective.

We therefore define
creativity as:

Imaginative activity fashioned so as to
produce outcomes that are both original and
of value

When I think about his definition I wonder:

  • Why exactly 4 characteristics?
  • How can a creative process be directed?
  • How can thinking imaginatively be purposeful? 
  • What creative value can be measured?
  • Can Art be actively produced?
  • To whom must the creativity be original? 

Now compare this definition of creativity with Busoni on music:

This child, it floats on air. It touches not the earth with its feet. It knows no law of gravitation. It is wellnigh incorporeal. Its material is transparent. It is sonorous air. It is almost Nature herself. It is free. Busoni

Reading the words of Busoni makes me understand creativity in an intuitive way, but it can never be part of an instruction for a school inspection. It feels disconnected from reality because Busoni answers the ‘How? to What?’ questions of a school-board with the Why? of an artist. This explains why policy makers don’t ask artists for a definition of creativity, the outcome won’t be measurable.

Recall the start of this blog: Nobody asks me Why? Mr. Robinson also doesn’t do that with this definition. mr. Robinson doesn’t define creativity itself as a state of being, as a state of great curiosity. Instead he describes processes of creativity (What? and How?) and summarizes those. His definition of creativity is not interested in Why? people are creative, but How? they are creative. Since he wants to facilitate schools, that sounds logical, but he is missing an important Why? in creative education.

At no period of [Michael Faraday’s] unmatched career was he interested in utility. He was absorbed in disentangling the riddles of the universe, at first chemical riddles, in later periods, physical riddles. As far as he cared, the question of utility was never raised. Any suspicion of utility would have restricted his restless curiosity. In the end, utility resulted, but it was never a criterion to which his ceaseless experimentation could be subjected.

Adam Flexner

Often policy definitions are a summary of all there can be found on the subject. It’s all that has been done, has been accepted as describing creative. A definition of creativity made up this way will never create an original new vision on creativity in school or other institutes.

For a composer it’s the same: Knowing the existing tonal systems, doing all the counterpoint books, doens’t mean you can create a new tonal system. It means you can do what every-one before you has done, you can re-create that. It will sound great, you can push the boundaries and have success. Why? on earth, would you design a new tonal system? Like Schönberg did?

I think, because the all previous historical answers combined, were not the answer to his Why? Art is about creating problems by asking Why? questions. And Schönberg did not make it easy for himself. It shows again, that Art creates problems, not anwers, nor does it set out to produce results. It originates from a personal wish for truth.

My idea is that creating Art, every answer creates more problems, than you can ever solve in your whole life. There is no goal oriented strategy, other than some things you want to learn by the process. That is what makes Art, and probably Science too, bigger than yourself. 

Science, in the very act of solving problems, creates more of them.

Adam Flexner


Now let’s come back to my studio: I am going to call it ‘mini-institute-for-curiosity’. I think that promoting childlike curiosity is the most important thing for creativity. I know that this challenges 1. the Seriousness of my institute and 2. the idea of me as a lone creative Genius.

Ad 1. An institute is often about prestige, leadership, producing the next fashionable talent. I think an institute for curiosity will challenge this authority in many ways, because curiosity questions everything. 

Ad 2. If I want to excell in associative thinking, it’s good to be in contact with a lot of different people from all kinds of fields. This will democratize my art, all will be connected. 

A Mahler symphony challenged people to built a huge music hall, invent policies and definitions. But Busoni’s child that floats on air? It’s more a connection of creative minds and ideas of all times and places. A process of communication between art-works, people, ideas, books and performances. I think my mini-institute-for-curiosity should facilitate combining people and ideas, because it enhances associative thinking. But most importantly, I should ask myself again and again: Why? How? What? Why have an institute? How to organize it? What should it consist of?

An institute for curiosity should:

  • encourage change.
  • have a changing set of values.
  • limit until the absurd and then invite chaos.
  • create problems.
  • provide an environment where problem-inventors commnicate.
  • not facilitate easy ways to ‘get to the top’. 
  • help asking Why? from the beginning
  • teach the Craft, How? to What?, starting with Why? 
  • offer a search for unthinkable questions. 
  • explain people why they better ask Why? instead of How? and What?


By Anneloes Wolters


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