Ken Carbone’s Wonderlust: Minding My Music

Posted inCreative Voices

Like two powerful magnetic poles, art and music are the creative forces that shape my world. They pull me in different, but never opposing directions, and are always there to inspire. It’s unclear how I was genetically imprinted to make art, but music was present in our house as far back as I can remember. My mother was a self-taught pianist who liked to sing and collected records. Ravel’s “Boléro” and Elvis’ “Love Me Tender” were favorites.

I was encouraged to take piano lessons at age ten, but John, Paul, George, and Ringo later inspired me to switch to electric guitar. My hair grew longer, my playing improved, my musical tastes expanded, and I became a performer. Along with a few high school friends, my career as a “semi-professional” lead guitarist playing rock & roll “covers” in clubs and on college campuses flourished, but ultimately lasted only a few years.

During this time, I was also in art college, learning about graphic design, European Modernism, color theory, grid systems, and typography while playing “gigs” on weekends. However, visual expression’s pull on my creative compass led me to make the tough decision to silo music as my favorite avocation. While this decision led to a long and successful career as a designer and artist, playing music remains a joyful part of my daily routine.

I feel blessed to have been born in a golden age of popular music. Thanks to programs like the Ed Sullivan Show, millions of people witnessed the birth of pop music in real-time every Sunday night on the nascent medium of black & white TV.

My appetite for music spans multiple decades and genres. Although my love of blues, rock, jazz, soul, funk, and hip-hop ground my listening preferences and inform my playing, I can go for weeks listening to classical, bluegrass, bossa nova, opera, country, and the American Songbook. It’s all good!

I often pay posthumous tribute to musicians I love in my journals. As I created portraits of Pete Seeger, Prince, and Pavarotti, I listened to their music, reflected on how they have enriched my life, and thanked them for sharing their gifts.

I have vivid memories of historic performances, which include seeing Delta blues legend Son House, B.B. King, the Rolling Stones, Les Paul, Jimi Hendrix (thrice), Joe Pass, the Four Tops, Little Richard, Led Zeppelin, Talking Heads, Oscar Peterson, Cream, Charles Mingus, and James Brown. Then there are the divas, such as Lena Horne, Liza Minnelli, Tina Turner, Norah Jones, Beyoncé, and Shakira. I also remember seeing Bonnie Raitt and Linda Ronstadt in their early 20s. The evolution of music is relentless, so I keep my perspective fresh by listening to newer artists like St. Vincent, Jacob Collier, Kendrick Lamar, Billie Eilish, and Gogol Bordello.

My one regret is that I never saw a live performance by the iconoclastic genius of jazz piano, Thelonious Monk. This pioneer of Bebop and “musician’s musician” appeared on the cover of Time Magazine in 1964, and was praised by Duke Ellington and Leonard Bernstein alike. Monk’s recordings synthesize all that I love about music’s multi-sensory, life-affirming joy. His compositions are harmonically complex and sonically adventurous, yet possess a melodic innocence that I find irresistible.

Playing music is the perfect complement to my pursuits in art and design. Even jamming on my guitar for ten minutes helps when I’m stuck on a painting or design because my ears take charge, and my eyes can take a break. My formal music training is not deep, but I have a good ear, play intuitively, and compose many original songs. Perhaps the key difference between music and art is the degree of spontaneity and freedom my guitar affords me. Improvisation dominates my playing, since I’m always searching for novel melodies that build into rich compositions.

Over decades, I’ve assembled a collection of 15 uniquely beautiful vintage guitars, and I love them all. Together, they span nearly 100 years of instrument design, and are marvelous examples of American ingenuity, innovation, and manufacturing.

For example, my 1956 Fender Telecaster, shown in the banner photo, is lightweight and stripped down to its essence, like the hot rods of the same era. It may be the most versatile instrument in my collection, producing a tonal range perfect for a searing solo or a mellow ballad.

This short video clip shows my “Tele” in action on my composition, “Si, Mojito!”

There’s a wonderfully poetic quote about music and art by Leopold Stokowski, one of the leading conductors of the mid-20th century. He said, “A painter paints pictures on canvas. But musicians paint their pictures on silence.”

The transcendent gifts of music and art make the world better, and anyone who shares my passion for them shares my good fortune.

Next month: “Seeing the Forest and the Trees.”

Ken Carbone is an artist, designer, and Co-Founder of the Carbone Smolan Agency, a design company he built with Leslie Smolan over 40 years ago. He is the author of two books, including Dialog: What Makes a Great Design Partnership, a visiting lecturer at numerous design schools, and TED X speaker. A recipient of the 2012 AIGA medal, he is currently a Senior Advisor to the Chicago-based strategic branding firm 50,000feet.