I first brought this idea up publicly last year at the Agile Vancouver conference with a promise that I would share more of my thoughts. What follows is an attempt to fulfill that promise. This has turned out to be rather long, so it will appear as a blog series.
I grew up in an environment with a lot of music. My grandfather had a rare mastery over a wide variety of musical instruments, and family gatherings were full of singing and impromptu jams. At home, my father had a very eclectic taste in music, and I had a steady diet of gospel, classical, big band, bluegrass, traditional German and Celtic music. One of my babysitters had spent most of her life in India, and introduced me to all kinds of wonderful forms of Indian classical music when I was very small. I was exposed to popular music on the radio, and I took part in various music groups in school bands, choirs and at church. By the time I was in high school, I had a wide exposure to many different kinds of music, and enjoyed any sort of music that moved me, no matter what the style. I could enjoy a common thread in music that was composed and performed in a way that appealed to me, even if the styles were very different. In some cases, my classical friends couldn’t stand some of the popular music I enjoyed, and some of my gospel music friends would refuse to listen to secular music. Enjoying a wide variety of music styles could be controversial, depending on who I was talking to.
In the late 80s, I was in a choir that was in a competition in Toronto. I was billeted with a family who introduced me to a Canadian band called “Manteca.” My new friends introduced me to a style of music called “fusion,” and Manteca were well-known for their mastery of that style. There were elements of improvisational jazz, popular music and world music in their work. Because of Manteca, I decided to learn more about the history of this style. It didn’t take long before I discovered Miles Davis recordings from the ’60s and ’70s that pioneered a combination of musical styles. I then checked out work by Larry Coryell, and jazzy popular bands like Chicago and Blood Sweat & Tears. From Miles Davis, I followed some of his former band members works such as John McLaughlin, Herbie Hancock, Chick Corea and Joe Zawinul. I also checked out groups like the Crusaders, Weather Report and anything with bassist Jaco Pastorius. Some of the music was highly experimental, sometimes it was hard to listen to. One of my favorite bands in that style was Mahavishnu Orchestra, founded by wizard guitarist John McLaughlin. McLaughlin also founded a band called Shakti that utilized a different style of fusion. Shakti was a highly improvisational band utilizing master musicians from India, and McLaughlin on guitar.
From this musical journey, I discovered progressive music from the ’70s, with bands like Yes, King Crimson, Emerson Lake and Palmer, and Genesis. These were all groups with highly talented musicians who brought other musical styles into popular music forms. As with fusion, this style of music was highly experimental – some of it made popular charts, and others remained obscure. What these styles of music share is a demanding level of skill for the performers, an experimental, pushing the envelope attitude, often utilizing collective improvisation (particularly in live concerts.) They were also controversial when they first came out, but many “wild in their time” elements have become enmeshed in mainstream music today. However, in the pioneering days of fusion, it was not uncommon for critics to pan albums and for purists to cry fowl.
One musician who has had an enormous influence on popular music is former Genesis front-man Peter Gabriel. By the late 1990s, the style of music that Peter Gabriel made accessible to a huge audience in the 1980s emanated from airwaves and stereos everywhere you went. I heard Jesse Cook talk (a guitarist who fuses flamenco guitar with many different styles) about the impact Peter Gabriel has had on modern music, particularly with his ability to fuse popular music with traditional music from other parts of the world (“world music”.) Jesse Cook mused at the time that anything we heard on the radio could probably be traced back to Gabriel. When we were discussing the different styles that had an impact on everyday popular music, we wondered what it was like for the musical pioneers when their ideas were new, and how little most of us know about the history of music we take for granted.
I still listen to music that combines different styles. One of my recent discoveries is Harry Manx, a blues guitarist who plays slide guitar on a Mohan Vina, an Indian slide guitar. He deftly fuses traditional Indian music with traditional blues. I find that I am moved by too many styles of music to merely just choose one, and sometimes the weird combinations do something for me that just one style on its own can’t do. I still love classical music, and find that a particular period or style of music suits my mood. Music can touch us in ways other things can’t. Music also evolves, and musicians draw on many influences – yesterday’s “pure” style becomes influenced by something else, and we co-opt other ideas and change. I suppose we expect that in the arts. For example, the Canadian artist Emily Carr’s work is called “post-impressionist” because she came after the famous impressionist painters, and developed a unique style that doesn’t quite fit in that category. Like the fusion musicians, Carr’s artistry has many influences and changed a good deal over her life. Carr had a special ability to fuse disparate themes together in a painting. She might combine everyday objects we might see in our homes with a nature scene, or combine two different scenes together.
In software development, we don’t have a long and rich history to draw from like our artistic counterparts. That doesn’t stop me from approaching software development from the same angle as I do anything else though. Brian Marick in his “Process and Personality” article says: “…my methodological prescriptions and approach match my personality.” This is also true with me. I like to fuse different ideas together and see if I can create something new from the combination. There may be stark lines drawn between the fields where the ideas come from, but that doesn’t bother me too much. It gets me into trouble sometimes, but the ideas are what are important to me. When it comes to software development, I don’t really care if an idea is “Agile”, “waterfall” or has no label at all. If it’s a good idea to me, it’s a good idea. Sometimes on software development projects, I weave together combinations of these ideas in a way that may seem strange to some. I’ve started calling this style that I and others are exploring: “software development process fusion.”