On Play

by Thomas Brett

Play, I’ve come to realize, is a favorite word of mine.  In no particular order, here are some possible contexts for it:

He plays that piano well.

The book’s title was a play on words.

My dog is playful.

No worries: we were just playing around.

You just got played.

The musicians were playing off of one another.

Play with the ideas until they fit and make sense.

Play is a favorite word because good things tend to grow out of play, and by “good things” I mean interesting and useful things. Play is usually fun, too.

I wrote about play in an earlier post on this blog, but lately I’ve been thinking about it again in the context of composing.  You see, my process is usually to sit down at the computer and just start playing around–in the sense of randomly listening through and trying out sounds.  Simple.  The mindset feels like that of a young child grappling with different-shaped blocks, trying to figure out what goes with what.  Are there rules to this play?  No, not really.  Whatever catches my ear (as if my ears might fly away like butterflies if not so caught) becomes sufficient reason to jump into capture mode (now the potential musical idea is the butterfly liable to get away if I don’t act fast), quickly experiment with some patterns and then hit record and improvise.  At this point, I’m still in a play state, only it’s kind of like I’m under self-surveillance too–observed by my own critical ear.  It remains play though because I feel as if I don’t know what I’m doing: I’m in new territory and don’t know where I’m going.  It’s fun in a slightly scary kind of way.

After this moment of recording under self-surveillance I often lose that sense of play as I begin judging what I’ve done.  First thoughts to materialize in my mind: “That’s kind of lame.”  Or a shrug: “Whatever.”  Or sometimes I like what I’ve done because it sounds vital: “I really like this!”  But whatever its tenor, self-judgement is corrosive, at least at this stage of the game.  At later stages, though, it’s a useful tool.

In his novel Television, Jean-Philippe Toussaint articulates two distinct stages of artistic process:

“The first, subterranean, is a gestational process, demanding looseness and flexibility, a game and open mind, in order to fuel the handling of new ideas and new materials, while the second is soberer, more orderly, requiring method and discipline, austerity and rigor; this is the process that takes over when it comes time to put the [work] into its definitive form” (100).

For me, play is part of what Toussaint calls the “subterranean” and “gestational” process.  The trick, if that is the right word, is to forestall the “soberer” self-critiquing stage long enough for ideas to flower.  So I improvise–play–with an open mind.  Who knows where this is going?  Maybe nowhere.  The important thing is that for this very moment it feels new and holds my attention.

I have a lot of these musical beginnings (trapped butterflies!) stored as files on my computer’s hard drive.  They’re blueprints for full pieces to be completed down the road, but they also serve other, vaguer purposes.  Sometimes, when I’m doing something mundane like changing the water in the fish tank I listen to the sketches on loop mode, as if they’re already finished.  I’m listening, believe it or not, to try to get to know them.  They’re still strange to me and I’m trying to understand what essential feeling they embody.  Put in the form of a question: What is this thing?  Put in the form of a statement: I’m trying to let the music socialize and teach me something.  It strikes me that even as I generate these ideas I’m not all that well equipped to make sense of them.

So I take my time, listening and mulling things over.  It’s possible that this process–this trying to get a sense of what the sounds are all about–is as interesting as the compulsion to one day get the things finished.

And then, just when my listening starts moving away from play, I hit stop.

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