My new recording Four Piano Music is now available here.
There is a man in my neighborhood who plays guitar on the street corner each evening in front of an optical shop, next to the Burger King. No one asked him to come here, but one day a few years ago he just appeared. He plays in all seasons—in blizzards, in rain, in the summer heat. He looks weathered. His hair is long and straggly, his face creased, sunburned and stubbled so that it looks like a totem mask, his limbs bony, and he smells of smoke. His almost tuned acoustic guitar is plugged into a small portable amplifier not loud enough to mask the sounds of his plastic pick on the strings; a cigarette is lanced onto one of the pointy string ends on the guitar neck making it look like the instrument itself is smoking. Evoking a lost Neil Young, the musician seems to have been carried forward by time without having advanced any ideas of his own.
The man is not much of a guitarist or a singer. He plays a small repertoire of now oldish rock songs like “Definitely Maybe” by Oasis and “Sweet Child O’ Mine” by Guns ’n Roses. His versions, with his strained singing and ragged strumming that reduces any song to four chords, has you wondering how it is that original songs survive their covers. The music doesn’t fit the neighborhood. Whenever a car with booming salsa or bachata drives by like a portable party—syncopated rhythms trumping classic rock chords—the guitarist’s songs are obliterated. For a moment while the party drives by the man looks like a mime imitating a musician. He makes no sound yet his gestures are intact and he keeps on singing, determined.
I see the guitarist on my way to work when the street is crowded, and then again late at night on my way home when the sidewalk is empty. Sometimes a drunk will stop and listen, cheering the musician on through first pumps and incoherent words: This is incredible! Go man! Great song! You’re performing and I’m listening! But mostly no one pays much attention. We step around the guitarist and walk right through his five by five foot sound world. Despite his intents and purposes and the smattering of change in his tip jar, the musician plays music mostly for himself.
Here and there along my city travels
I see musicians playing on the street,
offering their sounds
for whoever cares to listen.
There are guitar-playing singers
walking from subway car to car,
an accordionist at grand central,
the bucket drummer at 49th,
the kora bard,
and a child playing Beethoven loops
while his father looks on.
The sounds of these musicians
join the mix of ambient noise,
of moving people around them,
as if we potential listeners
Captive on the train, I listen.
Walking by on the street, I listen.
And as I listen I assess and consider.
No matter its particulars–a cover song, an improv, a riff or a ballad–
a musical performance always beckons,
always reaches out for our attention.
Musics speak in different idioms,
saying different things.
One–“I’m filled with heartbreak,”
another–“I’m filled with sunshine,”
one–“I hope you find this cool,”
another–“They said I was talented.”
As I assess and consider I notice
how few others have stopped.
The music could use a better place, a more suitable time,
less environmental competition.
But now it has all it needs:
an audience of a least one,
here and there, paying attention.
The other day I was texting a drummer friend of mine about the difference between touch and feel. We were talking about how touch refers to how a musician strikes an instrument and the kind of sound that striking elicits, while feel is one’s rhythmic sense of musical time.
My friend—a pretty marvelous drummer with a smooth touch and a great feel on the drum set—has an ongoing interest in what he calls “ease” as an aesthetic goal for musicians. What he means is that everything should look, sound, feel, and be easy. No rushing. Take your time. Give yourself space. Stay cool. As I understand it, his theory of ease is that easy playing tends to produce satisfying music.
Intrigued, I pointed out that to have a sense of musical touch is to have a sense of ease and control with one’s technique and grasp of music. And I suppose the same thing could be said about rhythmic feel. After our conversation it occurred to me that the word feel means to be aware of a person or thing through, all of things, touch. Even when we’re not feeling someone or something physically, we feel things like music’s effects emotionally when on some affective level we’re touched by them.
Then another thought blossomed: Can a musician have a great sense of touch, but a terrible rhythmic feel? Or a great rhythmic feel, but lousy touch? I couldn’t think of any examples. Touch and feel are qualities that seem to be tightly bound together.
On YouTube there is a video of the late jazz drummer Papa Jones (1911-1985). The video shows Jones playing a magnificent solo on the song “Caravan.” His touch is amazing, and so is his feel. As one comment describes the performance: “Effortless, transcendent.” Jones makes making music look and sound so easy.
In his book, Thinking Fast And Slow, the eminent psychologist Daniel Kahneman describes two modes of thinking that steer our judgements and decision-making. The first type, System 1, is fast, intuitive, and emotional: the second, System 2, is slower, more considered, and logical. I have talked about Kahneman’s book on my blog, here.
Recently I remembered Kahneman’s work as I thought about how I listen to music. For me, listening is initially always a System 1 engagement. I make assessments about what I’m hearing fast–maybe too fast–as if answering a series of questions I didn’t know I had. Does this music speak to me? What is it trying to say? What of its materials holds my attention? Is it presenting something for me to grapple with and figure out? Does it manage to contain mysteries within its sounds that will keep me coming back for more? As you can imagine, not a lot of music passes this System 1 test. For worse or better, I often dismiss what I hear before giving it a chance to prove itself.
When I find something that sounds interesting my System 2 kicks in. Now I do two things. First, I listen to the music a lot, coming back to it over and over again, listening at different times a day in different places (to see how it travels), listening in a way that could be called well, obsessive. The second way I listen is I hone in on different points of intrigue in the music. The obsessive listening foregrounds things I never noticed during my first System 1 encounter with the work. Things like an unusual chord (“the bass note isn’t a stable root, it’s a dissonance!”), a rhythmic instability (“Why can’t I find beat one?”), or a timbre (“that organ in the high register is super transparent”). As I listen, I try to figure out how it is that what I like in the music works.
Not so long ago music
was a relationship between a musician and an instrument,
a performance in front of an audience,
a sharing of a space through sound.
Then those spinning discs took music
from the musician, the instrument, and the space of performance,
bringing sound right into ears, minds, and hands as a commodity form.
The discs became larger,
then were joined by tape spooling
and digital discs promising perfect sound forever.
But forever turned out to be
about twenty years,
slipped into computers
found themselves further reduced
to bits, copied and shared, spun
We used to pay for music as a thing–
an LP, cassette, CD,
or downloadable chunk–
until its thingyness became a stream.
Now music lives on my phone,
in my pocket,
a flow of sound for a monthly fee.
Where music was once a relationship,
a concerted sharing,
it’s now a portable soundtrack
following me wherever I go
but without a body of its own.
“Experience, in the large, and in the small, is complex and manifold; it is always an encounter with hidden complexity. Experience is fractal in this sense. Perceptual experience extends to the hidden. In a way, for perception, everything is hidden. Nothing is given.”
-Alva Noë, Varieties Of Presence (2012, p. 19)
“Memory glimmers and hints, but shows nothing sharply or clearly. Memory does not narrate or render character. Memory has no regard for the reader. If an autobiography is to be even minimally readable, the autobiographer must step in and subdue what you could call memory’s autism, its passion for the tedious. He must not be afraid to invent. Above all, he must invent himself.”
-Janet Malcolm, Forty-One False Starts: Essays on Artists and Writers (2013), p. 297