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thinking through music, sound and culture

Category: ethnography

On Ken Dryden’s “The Game”

Ken Dryden

When my brother and I were kids, we spent a lot of time playing ball hockey in the driveway, taking shots at one another with a fluorescent orange “sting” ball that really did sting when it was frozen from the cold and hitting you in the face. One of our always followed conventions of the game was that we would announce which famous player we were that day, and both of us always wanted to be “Dryden”–as in Ken Dryden, the goalkeeper for the Montreal Canadians during the 1970s. Dryden was an iconic figure for us because of his great athletic skills and his mysterious identity hidden behind that tribal-looking protective mask he wore while playing. A superhero with precision reflexes who stopped pucks like no one else, Dryden captured our imagination.

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In his stellar sports memoir-ethnography, The Game (1983/2013), Dryden renders with lazer detail his experience playing his last season with the Canadians. It turns out that during all those games when his teammates were dominating their opponents at the other end of rink, Dryden, alone in his goal crease and leaning against his propped up stick, was observing and thinking about everything going on around him on the ice. In many ways, The Game reads like a micro-study about the performing artist and human behavior. Dryden conveys the mix of attention, anxiety, and flowing, in the moment thinking/non-thinking often felt by expert performers at one time or another in their work. But unlike many a memoir, Dryden backs up his personal observations and reflections with deep historical perspective on the past, present, and future of his sport. Most athletes and performers don’t have the ability or interest to get outside themselves like that–to see, describe, and analyze the contexts in which they work. In this way, The Game provides a masterful insider’s view of dozens of different people, situations, and dynamics, while maintaining a guiding authorial voice.

Speaking of voice, sparkling here and there in Dryden’s text like little gems are sentences that articulate new ideas, have affect, and provoke thought. Reading them as gems of advice, here are a few that I enjoyed:

Then the present slowed down and the future changed direction.

It had to do with what he did and what he didn’t have to do because of how he did it.

It is in free time that the special player develops.

He invents the game.

Insect Thrumming As Deep Music: On David Rothenberg’s “Bug Music”

9781250005212

“One sound can be enough if it repeats enough enough enough times so the meaning becomes subservient to the sound”–David Rothenberg, Bug Music (114)

There is a powerful idea behind David Rothenberg’s spirited recent book, Bug Music: How Insects Gave Us Rhythm And Noise, which is this: listening to the rhythmic and buzzing sounds of insects such as cicadas and crickets and katydids can teach us about music by helping us hear “beyond the scales and chords of human sense” (11). In fact, the complex, interlocking, and noisy sounds of insects may be the original model that inspired human musical practices in the first place. After all, these sounds are music-like–“immediately accessible, emotional, and interesting” (11). We just need to pay attention to their soundscape.

Bug Music is a timely book too because this summer is the time of a giant cicada emergence. Cicadas are periodical insects that emerge once every 17 years and this year’s emergence, known as Brood II, will take place along the Eastern seaboard  of the United States over the next few months. (For more information, see magicicada.org).

Through a half-dozen chapters, Rothenberg follows his insectoid muse, digging through scientific research, historical literature that mentions insect sound, philosophy, and finds connections with music theory, ethnomusicology, electronic music synthesis, and visual art. He also makes field recordings of insects, plays clarinet with them, remixes them, and even invites an overtone singing friend to make more music out in the field. Along the way we meet interesting bug researchers and bug music enthusiasts and get a sense of Rothenberg’s ongoing curiosity about the deep connections between human music and the sounds of the natural world. (Rothenberg has also written books about birdsong and whale music.) There’s so much probing stuff here that touches on serious musical issues, while the narrative is always playful and loose. It’s a perfect combination. Reading him, you feel like you’re along for a fun, interesting, and sometimes wacky road trip.

For me, one of the most compelling themes in the book is the rhythmic phenomenon of insect chorusing: how huge groups of insects like crickets make their collective thrum. Research has found that insect chorusing follows a simple response-mechanism that produces “interesting rhythms of astonishing complexity” (76). Each insect times their sound and its duration relative to what is going on around them, and the result is “the potential for thousands of rhythmic divisions at all levels of pulse and design” (92). What is interesting here is how each insect does its own independent thing, thereby contributing to the thick rhythmic texture of the mass chorusing. As Rothenberg suggests the “appeal of the insect model for in-phase, out-of-phase rhythms” (110), it’s hard not to think about those human musics that are organized along similar lines. Later in the book, Rothenberg describes the musical value of chorusing insects as “hundreds of independent, irregular rhythms, perhaps listening to each other, perhaps following their own internal drummers, all but part of a giant rhythmic surge…” (200). Insects help us “find ways of delving deeper into the periodic possibilities of repeating structures” (ibid.). Still he wonders: “How can it sound so much like it makes sense even though no one is in charge?” (192)

Which leads to a big question: Did we–humankind–learn our love of rhythm “from listening to the polyrhythmic swirls of the entomological soundscape” (99)? Rothenberg thinks so. “Nature is full of oscillators” (93) and insects “are our original teachers of rhythm” (173) he says. He can’t prove this, of course, but still urges us to “listen outward and expand our acoustic consciousness” (98), not to mention our consciousness of time itself. Chorusing insects present a model of multiple time scales sounding simultaneously, and Rothenberg observes that there “is a way to look at all of music as a hierarchy of levels in the experience of time” (85).

Rothenberg is adept at making analogical connections too. Levels of time scales find their analog in vertical layers of a sonogram of an insect soundscape that Rothenberg includes in the book. Here, Rothenberg compares a sonogram of a recording of singing by BaBenzele forest-dwelling people from Central African Republic that includes the sounds of crickets, cicadas, katydids and frogs (“every creature has its place amid the sonic frequencies”, p.157) with a musical transcription of a performance by a choir and drum ensemble in Ghana. It’s an interesting comparison in that both feature

“repeating simple patterns, overlapping, each at distinct places on the sonic sphere, independent, but fitting together in a way that makes the whole greater than the sum of its parts, the key property of any polyrhythmic, emergent musical order” (160).

Polyrhythms and emergent musical orders lead to another interesting thread in the book: the connection between insect sound and electronic music aesthetics. Or rather, how electronic music can help us understand insect sound. Rothenberg is particularly interested in the technology known as granular synthesis that enables musicians “to work fluently with insect-type noises and make music out of them” (86). He cites the electronic musician Curtis Roads, author of the granular synthesis manual, Microsound (MIT Press, 2004), who writes that granular synthesis helps us shift our idea of music “away from sharply defined intervals towards curvilinear and fuzzy morphologies” (90). In some of the most engaging passages of the book, Rothenberg describes his ongoing experiments with software synthesizers to make “complex thrumming textural”, insect-like sounds (187). Instruments such as the Zebra synth can make evolving soundscapes that behave like chorusing insects. As Rothenberg plays with the software he muses that so “little is written on the power of texture and timbre in the history and theory of music” (192-193). Perhaps it is through texture and timbre (and rhythm) that we can “go deeper into these edge-musics we can barely explain” (196).

By the book’s end, Rothenberg is playing clarinet with cicadas (while his son contributes a little iPad), trying to insert himself right into nature’s sound mix by contributing his own tones. The meta-lesson here has an ecological edge: that we’re all part of the same soundscape, each of us contributing our voice to the whole. In sum, Bug Music urges us to take seriously the “swirling and complicated sound textures” of insect soundscapes because doing so will change how we listen and how we think about what music is and its role in our lives. At the very least, insect sounds serve as a reminder that if there could be such thing as a universal kind of music, it might well be a densely layered, rhythmic, repeating, and communal kind of thing.

On Teaching Music: Visiting A Friend’s College And Elementary School Classrooms

A few weeks ago I traveled to Boston to visit my friend Fred at his college and elementary school music classes. Fred is an ethnomusicologist, musician, and craftsman (primarily an instrument builder) who spends his mornings teaching college students and his afternoons teaching kids at a Montessori elementary and middle school. Teaching the two different groups five days a week has Fred drawing on all his musical and social skills to keep everyone in the zone–listening, thinking and talking about music, as well as playing and singing it.

On Monday morning, we were up at the crack of dawn to beat the traffic and make our way out to the University Of Massachusetts-Boston. On the leisurely drive we discussed what I might teach as guest lecturer for the day. I had decided the week before that I would speak to the college students about some of the musical remix work I’ve been doing on my laptop, re-fashioning some older music of mine into new pieces. As Fred negotiated the south Boston traffic, he asked me what relationship my composing work might have to his class–an ethnomusicology theory and methods class as it turns out. I thought about it for a moment and then told him that I could present my material as a kind of auto-ethnography. After all, I said, not only was I working on a remix project, but I was writing about it too in an effort to document and better understand the creative process. I told Fred that I wanted to bring the class through the steps I had taken so far to transform an old piece of music into something new, as well as demonstrate how the computer software (Ableton Live) was shaping and enabling my work. But beyond that, in the spirit of Fred’s interest in improvisation, we agreed to keep things loose. Besides, we were basically out of time anyhow. “Cheer up Tom, it’ll be great!” Fred said exuberantly, staring at the road in front of him as I watched the traffic around us inch ahead.


When we arrived at the school, Fred brought me into the windowless classroom and we connected my laptop to a large video screen. Students tricked in as we got set up, and by the time I began 15 minutes later the class would be about half full. I improvised my 45-minute presentation, playing my original music, explaining how I sampled parts of it, and then playing excerpts from the new tracks in progress. Fred sat off to the side and listened.

It struck me as I was talking–and my ideas usually occur to me while writing or talking–that the project was an opportunity to revisit and recycle my own musical past. I also told the class that the most challenging part of making music with a computer is somehow limiting the staggering number of possibilities the machine makes available. “I’m always looking for constraints” I told them a few times, as the students looked up at my piece’s Ableton Live file projected onto the screen behind me. Near the end of the presentation, after I had spent some time pointing to the various parts of my virtual mixer, I grew frustrated. I wanted to convey some sense of the keyboard improvisation underlying these new pieces, but pointing to waveforms on the screen felt clinical and it was hard to gauge student interest in my pointing to what may as well have been an x-ray. “What I usually do” I said as I opened the lid of the grand piano sitting at the front of the classroom, “is just play the looped samples and then improvise on top of them until I find something that sounds good.” Then, just before the class ended, I improvised a descending sequence of piano chord clusters to let everyone hear what I meant. It felt good to have a real instrument in the room–though I realize that saying that says something about my view of computers in music.

After the class there were a few questions from two students who were also budding electronic musicians. One student asked me about why his music sounded so strange on his headphones. “What do you use?” I asked, and he pulled out his tiny earbuds to show me. “You”ll probably want to get some neutral phones that don’t accentuate any frequencies too much” I said upon seeing the buds. Another student asked me whether he should master his music himself. After all, he said, “all these great mastering plug-ins come with my software.” “You’ll probably want to get a professional to do it” I told him. “It’s good to have another set of ears listen to your stuff.”

After the two budding electronic musicians thanked me and left I waited for Fred downstairs in the coffee lounge. Sipping my drink it occurred to me that all the questions for me after class had been gear-related. And that’s the somewhat frustrating thing about playing in the electronic music universe: there are so many nuts and bolts, so many moving parts, so much gear–from headphones to mastering software– to potentially distract us from the more essential questions of whether or not the music conjures emotion, fascinates and holds our attention, and maybe even speaks to others. After a few minutes Fred emerged to break my reverie and we headed for his car and a quick lunch on the way home.

***

After lunch we headed over to Fred’s other job–teaching music to children at a Montessori elementary school. Fred’s classroom at the school is pretty scenic, its large windows opening out onto the school’s tree-filled yard. Today Fred would be teaching second and third graders and I would be watching. One of the tenets of Montessori education (founded in the early 20th-century by the Italian physician and educator Maria Montessori) is that children and young adults are given opportunities to develop a sense of self through meaningful sensory interaction with their environments. With this in mind I suspected that Fred would use his classroom to create some kind of environment for the second and third graders to explore, though I really had no idea what he was going to do.

“What are you going to do?” I asked him, imagining that the answer would probably have something to do with improvising or creating opportunities for it to flower. As a musician, Fred is a veteran performer of a Turkish end-blown flute called the ney, and great players excel at making extended melodic improvisations called taksim. Not surprisingly, Fred brings his interest in taksim wherever he goes, choosing a few topics for the hour and treating them like melodic tones on which to improvise an entire class. “Well Tom” he answered my question of what was on the afternoon’s agenda, “I thought today we might organize the kids into these little instrumental sections.” As he spoke he began moving wooden benches and instrument stands into formations. “Let’s make a triangle shape for the kotos here” he said as we moved the furniture around the quiet room. “Did you make these benches Fred?” I asked. “But of course Tom!” Fred had also built the wooden kotos (Japanese plucked zithers) and the stands that we were placing them on. Off in the corner we then set up three more Fred-made instruments: a Chinese erhu two-stringed fiddle, a violin, and an acoustic guitar. “And Tom, why don’t you put that little marimba over on the other side.” In a few minutes we had set up a small chamber ensemble for seven young musicians:

Fred decided on a D pentatonic scale and we checked the tuning of all the instruments against the marimba. I detuned a few strings on the guitar and removed a few keys on the marimba (the F and B keys) while Fred made last-minute adjustments to the violin:


Soon the kids were arriving, one by one, breathless and excited. Fred greeted them individually and asked a few of the more winded ones a question: “Did you just run here?” (A quiet assenting head nod.) “Okay, I would like you to go back out, get a drink of water, and walk back into the room calmly. I need you to be focused like an arrow.” Once everyone was in, accounted for, and as focused as they could be, Fred introduced me (“Today I brought my friend Tom to watch our class. Tom is a professional musician and he might even play with us today”) and then got down to business. Each child chose an instrument and then waited for further instructions. Fred picked up his homemade acoustic bass, and then, like a Charles Mingus of his Montessori band, explained in simple terms what he wanted to try today. “I’m going to introduce a three-note pattern” he said, “and you can play your own version on that…If you feel the need to change your pattern after a time, you can do that too if you wish.”

With that the class was off and running, each student playing a repeating pentatonic pattern on his or her instrument with focused concentration while Fred plucked out low tones on his bass to mark time. The resultant sound was like a slightly unsteady old watch with layers of gears interlocking, sometimes clean, sometimes clunky-squeaky, yet it all held together. After a while, Fred stopped the class and asked the kids what they thought of the music. One girl said she couldn’t hear her koto. Fred used this as an opportunity to make a suggestion to his band: “I would like us all to play softly enough so that we can hear everyone around us.” The children thought about this advice for a moment and then Fred invited further layers of musical participation. “If the music so moves you, you can even raise your voice to sing a song to go overtop of the music if you feel to do so.”

Then the pentatonic music started up again, and this time I joined a girl on the small marimba. Our hands went out of phase a few times, but each time they did she snapped to focus, slowed down, and regained sync with me. After another few minutes, another girl who had been playing guitar began to sing softly over the music. I couldn’t make out her words and none of the other six children seemed to mind, focused as they were on playing their repeating patterns. After another interval, Fred asked the girl what her song was about. She told him it was about a bunny and explained the bunny’s back story as the other students listened while sitting at their instruments. “Putting our emotions into song is one of the most magical things we can do” Fred said as the girl who sang the bunny song beamed.

At the end of the class, the students excitedly lined up at the door to play a quick round of Exit Games before they left for the day. One by one, Fred asked them a skill testing musical question: “How many quarter notes on a whole note?” The boy thought for a moment, then responded “Four?” before dashing out the door. “The note between Mi and So?” asked Fred. “Fa” said the girl, grinning, and one by one the seven children disappeared and class was over.

***

As we walked out to the school parking lot and I prepared to get back to New York, Fred and I discussed the day’s events. I told him that after attending both classes it struck me that a major difference between the two groups of students (besides their age differences, of course) was how open they seemed to be to new ideas, to doing new things in the moment, to embracing the special ways of being that music makes possible. The college students were always polite, but also visibly reserved and reticent. Teaching them–and I say this having spent time over the years watching Fred teach as well–sometimes seems like a matter of convincing them that the musical topic of the day is inherently fascinating. In other words, there is always a bit of inertia in the college students that needs to be overcome. In contrast, the second and third graders seemed to find everything in their school music room fascinating, eagerly embracing whatever it was they were asked to try (even singing a song about bunnies in front of one another if they felt so moved). No reservedness, no reticence, just unselfconsciously going with the musical flow. “I’m glad you noticed those qualities in the young ones, Tom” Fred told me. “They’re amazing in that way.” With that, Fred and I made our goodbyes and I was off, racing towards the I-95 to head back to New York.

I’m always glad to have made the 190-mile trip to visit Fred’s music classes. Not only do I get to see his ever-changing groups of students, but my trips are also opportunities for us to continue our Long Conversation about music (we started talking in 1996)–what’s essential about it, what’s at stake in its various styles, and how it can help us live our lives more, well, soundly. The main thing I bring away from my visits is a renewed sense that all of Fred’s classes, his musical activities, and even our conversations are essentially all part of a single educational-investigative cloth. In Fred’s world, there’s minimal differences between teaching at a college, grooving on pentatonic riffs with second and third graders, playing a taksim on his ney with a band of Turkish music aficionados, or talking about music with me on the phone. It’s all about music. Music, in the end, may not be a universal language, but talking about it and making it has a way of tying everything together.

Intangible Things: On Victor L. Wooten’s “The Music Lesson”

New Age : “an eclectic group of cultural attitudes arising in late 20th century Western society that are adapted from those of a variety of ancient and modern cultures, that emphasize beliefs (as reincarnation, holism, pantheism, and occultism) outside the mainstream, and that advance alternative approaches to spirituality, right living, and health

Victor L. Wooten’s book The Music Lesson (Berkley Trade 2008) caught me off guard. I came across the book entirely by accident and after having read its first few pages didn’t know if I felt quite compelled to keep at it. So I put it down. And then picked it up again, kept reading a bit. And then put it down again, back and forth, oscillating on how I felt about it. The Music Lesson was speaking in common tones, asking me to forget thick theory for a moment to follow an invented story about what it means to understand music and being musical, making music with meaning—or, as the cliché goes, with heart and soul. Hmm. I put the book down, and then picked it up again. I kept at it. If I stumbled upon the book I should at least have the patience to stay a while and listen, right?

Wooten is a distinctive musician. A bassist since he was a toddler, he’s well-known for his work with the banjo player Bela Fleck. Here is a clip of Wooten playing a virtuosic rendition of “Amazing Grace”:

As if musical skills on their own weren’t enough, Wooten is also a naturalist and animal tracker, directing a one of a kind music camp in Tennessee that teaches musicianship by way of not just musical instruction but also nature exploration.

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In The Music Lesson, a fictional account of a set of music lessons, we first encounter Wooten at time in his life when nothing seems to be working. He wants to improve his musicianship, but seems stuck in a rut of old practice habits that aren’t paying dividends. Then, as if by magic, a series of music teachers appear in Wooten’s life to guide him on his spiritual quest through a number of musical concepts. The main teacher is Michael, a mysterious trickster-like figure with eyes that change color on occasion and who comes across a little like a Native American sage and Zorro with a skateboard in tow. But there’s also Uncle Clyde, a homeless old man who plays a mean harmonica, Sam, a precocious boy wonder of a eleven-year old drummer who is wise beyond his years, and Isis, a quirky Russian fortune-teller with an intense interest in connection between numbers and music. Michael, Clyde, Sam, and Isis lead Wooten through a series of lessons on groove, notes, articulation, technique, emotion/feel, dynamics, rhythm/tempo, tone, phrasing, space/rest, and listening. By the end of the book, Wooten’s senses have been thoroughly reoriented, his musical life focused and energized.

Scattered through the text are a number of interesting ideas about music and musicianship. Below are a few of them that struck me.

First, music is inside the musician, not the musical instrument. There are many instances in the book where Michael admonishes Wooten for merely thinking of himself as a bassist rather than as a musician who happens to play the bass. The idea here is that musicality is more an orientation towards the field of the sonic rather than a technical competence on a particular musical instrument.

Second, dissonance in music is contextual. For instance, while two notes a semitone apart sounded together produce a “tense” sound when heard on their own (e.g. try playing the adjacent notes C and C-sharp at the same time), when surrounded by additional tones (e.g. try adding the notes F-sharp and A above to the C and C-sharp) the dissonance can sound quite different and in fact, consonant.

Third, when we say we dislike a music we are admitting a failure to perceive it adequately. In a passage about Wooten’s dislike of bluegrass, Michael tells him: “You are talking about you but blaming your lack of perception on this particular style of Music” (56).

Fourth, “beauty is something you experience, not something you prove” (73). This, to me, is a pure phenomenological stance, and probably what music does best: putting out an experience in time that may not mean anything specific or prove an argument, while at the same time bringing us on a virtual ride that feels important somehow.

Fifth, the idea that emotions are stored as a kind of infinite potential within a musical instrument (116). Admittedly, I had not thought much about this possibility, probably because I know myself to be more interested in what I’m feeling than what emotions may or may not be latent in the instrument. But each musical instrument certainly seems to have its own range of affective potential.

Sixth, a listener’s musical attention can be shaped and directed by playing fewer rather than more notes. Here, Michael explains to Wooten a strategy for accompanying a soloist in a way that his or her solo can shine: “We were creating a hole right in the middle of the music that allowed the soloist to stand there out in the open. We also simplified the music, directing all of the attention to the soloist. . .” (140). The lesson here is that by saying less, you can not only listen more, but also give other musical speakers room to breathe.

Seventh, “music is played from the mind, not the body” (158). This almost seems counter-intuitive, since musicians spend so much time refining their bodily relationship to their instruments. And yet, as listeners we’ve often had the experience of witnessing a musician who manages to hold our attention and compel us not so much through virtuosity per se but through sheer presence. The lesson here is that presence and focus are themselves kinds of musicality that transcend what the musical body can pull off.

Eighth, “you need to get your thoughts out of the way so that your true feelings can speak” (216). This idea relates to point number four above. If music is not about proving anything, but rather a tool for exercising perception, then we are best ready for it when we stop worrying about what it all means. From this perspective, music just is.

Finally, here’s Wooten on listening, perception and synesthesia: “What difference does it make who it is? What does it sound like and how does it make you feel? That is what is important. […] Allow your whole body to pick up the vibrations, using the whole body as an eardrum. […] We think that music stops at the ears. That is a mistake. Vibrations can be felt in all places and all times, even with the eyes. Music can be seen if your awareness is broad enough” (239-240). To illustrate this holistic approach to listening, there’s a striking passage at the end of the book where Wooten and Michael are out in the forest taking in its soundscape. As Michael learns to model his listening acuity on Michael’s, all of a sudden he’s having a full-blown synesthesia experience—seeing sound as color flowing through the forest creatures around him. (It’s pretty psychedelic actually and the image stayed with me for a while, even inspiring my own dream in which everyday objects began speaking in tones. But that’s for another blog post!) The lesson here is that there is potentially no end to listening as a full body—and even out of body—experience.

***

In sum, The Music Lesson is an idealized account of the musician as a kind of deeply knowing, in-tune seer, healer, and phenomenologist. Michael and the other teachers in Wooten’s life are voiceboxes for the author’s own musical philosophy, and while these at times cartoonish characters are a writerly conceit, it’s a conceit that works well to get Wooten’s many thought-provoking points across. Moreover, it perhaps goes without saying that it’s difficult to talk about philosophical aspects of musical experience without risking sounding cliché or even New-Agey. So hats off to Wooten for trying. I’m glad that I stuck with his zany story to its end.

Last but not least, The Music Lesson is ultimately about the importance of oral tradition to how musical traditions survive and evolve. By the book’s end the narrative circles around on itself, Wooten having taken the place of Michael as a teacher himself, appearing in the life of young musician—a musician that bears a striking resemblance to Wooten himself at the beginning of the book—just at the very moment the young man needs guidance. And so Music—that presence Wooten characterizes as feminine and always worthy of a capital M—lives on as a teachable perceptual power, helping us understand both ourselves and the worlds we live in.

On Perception, Presence, And The Creative Process: John Berger’s “Bento’s Sketchbook”


“I’m taking my time, as if I had all the time in the world. I do have all the time in the world.” – John Berger

John Berger’s Bento’s Sketchbook (2011) is a meditation on the connections between seeing, feeling, and drawing, and how these connections shape how we perceive and make sense of the world. The book takes its inspiration from the writings of the 17th-century philosopher Baruch Spinoza (1632-1677). Spinoza worked as an optical lens grinder by day, and in his free time wrote monumental philosophical tracts on rationality that helped pave the way for the Enlightenment. (Is there is a better argument for having a humble day job so you’re set up to do serious work in your spare hours?) Among Spinoza’s assertions: that God and Nature are one and the same, that body and mind are unified, and that there are three kinds of knowledge–opinion, reason, and intuition (only the intuitive type is “eternal”). Spinoza is widely considered to have made significant (and early) contributions to our understanding of how the mind works.

Spinoza–“Bento” to his friends–apparently kept a sketchbook, but it was lost to history and no one seems to know what was in it. Berger (1926-), an eminent English art critic (author of the classic Ways Of Seeing, among many other works of criticism and fiction) and a painter himself, was inspired to use Spinoza as his muse when a friend gave him a beautiful leather-bound sketchbook. This sketchbook got him wondering: What did Spinoza’s sketchbook look like? Bento’s Sketchbook dovetails around excerpts from Spinoza’s writings, and Berger’s own included sketches–of plants, people, paintings in galleries–are a kind of reply to Spinoza’s missing ones. These drawings are the starting point for Berger’s engagement with Spinoza’s thought through the reflections, inquiries and stories that comprise this brief book.

There are many amazing little ethnographic vignettes in Bento’s Sketchbook that demonstrate Berger’s wizardly powers of observation and writing. But my favorite sections are those that zoom in on the creative process–and I don’t use that phrase as a cliché either. Berger can really unpack things as only a practitioner (who can write) can. For example, near the beginning of the book he describes, and shows sketches of, a small flower in front of him that he’s in the process of drawing–a series of lines that question what is observed, accumulating “the answers” (8). And here is the fulcrum of the process: “At a certain moment…the accumulation becomes an image–that’s to say stops being a heap of signs and becomes a presence…This is when your looking changes. You start questioning the presence as much as the model” (ibid.). Then the refining begins. “You stare at the drawing…at what is radiating from [it], at [its] energy” (ibid.). You take in, in other words, its presence. The accumulative process continues as you add and subtract bits until the work feels finished and right.

No matter what artistic field you work in, there are a lot of sound observations in Bento’s Sketchbook to mull over. The challenge, as any artist/composer/writer/Maker of Things knows, is getting to that point where the thing’s presence starts to assert its energy back at you. You know when this is happening (“this is where the looking changes”): the music starts to play in your head when you’re somewhere else, or the ideas from the page keep repeating themselves silently. That’s presence asserting itself.

Berger also articulates some of the more ineffable aspects of artistic craft. In this passage he describes the intuitive naturalness (for lack of a better phrase) of his craft: “When I’m drawing…I have the impression at certain moments of participating in something like a visceral function…a function that is independent of the conscious will…in something prototypical and anterior to logical reasoning” (149).

And even though this is primarily a book about seeing and drawing, in synesthesia moments Berger uses tactile and sonic metaphors when describing the search for the right color: “You search touch by touch for a timbre…and then you discover whether or not when applied…the color matches the ‘voice’ you were searching for” (22; italics added).

In sum, there’s a quiet magic to Berger’s writing–the way he says the right thing with the least amount of fuss and filigree, leaving clear prose that rings in your mind like a bell long after it’s struck. By noticing the things that count–and making things count by noticing them–Bento’s Sketchbook invests simple gestures, everyday transactions, and common moments with massive grace and resonance.

On Blowing Zen: Finding An Authentic Life

“Listening is the gateway to liberation.” – On Blowing Zen

In his book Blowing Zen: Finding An Authentic Life (HJ Kramer, 2000), Englishman Ray Brooks tells a story about discovering the shakuhachi flute while living abroad in Japan with his wife, finding a series of shakuhachi master teachers with whom to study, and finally, through dedicated practice and direction, becoming a master player himself.  Through a series of clearly written accounts of his music lessons, practicing, interactions with his teachers and performing, Brooks creates a neatly delineated world that allows the reader to map his progress from novice cultural outsider to learned practitioner of a sacred musical instrument with a centuries old association with Zen Buddhism as a tool for self-enlightenment.

The book quite deftly combines musical ethnography and memoir to have the reader see how musical experience can focus, give meaning to, and transform what was formerly an unexamined–and remarkably, given the difficulties of learning a musical instrument from outside one’s own cultural tradition–and unmusical life.  Despite some of my initial reservations about the New Agey, self-help premise of Blowing Zen (and the self-help ethos of its publisher), I found myself liking the book as well as appreciating the author’s frank self-assessments at every stage of his journey; indeed, Brook tells a good, true-life story while staying reflective and reflexive about his social encounters through music making. So, okay, I’ll say it: this is a book of self-help through music, gosh darn it, and there’s nothing wrong with that, is there?

One of the refreshing things about Blowing Zen is how Brooks is drawn into the shakuhachi world organically–driven, it seems, only by curiosity to learn more about the instrument.  (He is in Japan, after all, to teach English, not study music.)  He sees in the instrument a way to focus his attention and a reason for sustained work, but he has no goals save to deepen his understanding.  Very cool if you ask me.  “This was a chance” Brooks says, “to study the discipline of working at something everyday without expecting instant gratification” (32).  Once again, very cool.

Yamada-San, Brooks’ first shakuhachi teacher, supports his interest, observing that if the instrument is “played with passion and without motive, it can become much more than a musical instrument” (58).  For Yamada-San, the key is to just “practice for its own sake, and let progress take care if itself.  Don’t corrupt the beauty of learning by becoming attached to an end goal” (59).  How different this approach is from musicians’ typical goals of learning as many pieces as they can as if stockpiling their arsenal of musical artillery!  And yet, Brooks does learn (and memorize) numerous pieces in the course of his practice and lessons.  As he presents his progress, the right stuff just seems to happen at the right time.  As Brooks renders his learning journey, everything just flows like those long, breathy single tones blown on the shakuhachi.

Brooks provides a fairly detailed account of his music lessons with another shakuhachi teacher named Yokoyama-San (115-120), and explains the initial stress of those lessons where “I alone was the self-consumer of my own nervousness” (118).  He also learns about the aesthetic concept of “ma” or space, and, from yet another teacher, how to circular breathe (or make a continuous tone by inhaling through the nose while exhaling through the mouth) on the shakuhachi.  Eventually, the author quits his teaching job and begins earning good money busking in parks.  And, rather remarkably, he even takes up shugyo–a repeated process of spiritual training.  Brooks’ shugyo involves hiking up Mount Takeo, playing shakuhachi for six hours, then hiking back down for sixty consecutive days.  As a result of this self-imposed regimen of physical exertion, solitude and practice, Brooks grows stronger and develops immensely as a musician.

In fact, through his devoted work Brooks eventually becomes a recognized shakuhachi player and his story inspires the reader for its simplicity: do the work and good things will happen.  By the end of Blowing Zen, he’s still talking about discipline too–not as a means to an end, but as an end in itself:

“I was still learning about discipline that isn’t motivated by success or failure and where effort and hard work are their own reward and come naturally, without resistance” (231).

On The Beyond Digital Morocco Project

Over the past few weeks I discussed two examples of sound collecting in West Africa.  The first was the Digging 4 Gold project, the second was the Music From Saharan Cellphones project.  While these projects are not without their problems–foremost among which is the question of whether or not any of recorded musicians will ever be compensated for their work–they do go some way to circulate sounds from one part of our big world to other parts.  Clearly, new ways to “release” music are evolving all the time.

Over at DJ Jace Clayton’s mudd up! blog, we learn about an interesting fieldwork project that is slated to happen this summer.  Clayton and a small crew are headed to Marrakesh, Morocco, to explore how “creative adaptations of global digital technologies. . . are helping to transform youth culture and suggesting powerful alternatives to Western concepts of digital literacy.  One focus will be the use of technologies such as Auto-Tune in Berber folk music.  The goal of the Beyond Digital: Morocco project is to engage in a month-long art project with Marrakesh youth through teaching, collaboration, and documentation.

It will be interesting to watch what happens with this project as it looks like it could be a dialogue between musicians rather than just a taking of music . . .

You can watch a video about the project here.

C.Wright Mills: On Intellectual Craftsmanship

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Thinking is a struggle for order and at the same time for comprehensiveness.”
– C. Wright Mills

Charles Wright Mills (1916-1962) was an American sociologist best remembered for his 1959 book The Sociological Imagination (which is still in print). For me, one remarkable aspect of the book is its Appendix, “On Intellectual Craftsmanship.” Here Mills does something I have never really seen other social scientists do: discuss the nature of the research craft, particularly the creative process of linking intuition with idea generation. This is important because, after all, generating ideas is what scholars do.

Mills begins with the suggestion that one set up a file or journal in which to record ideas–ideas about stuff, about the world, about what you’re reading, about what excites you, and about that which stimulates your curiosity. This lays the groundwork for what he calls “systematic reflection.” The file or journal is a space you can unite “what you are doing professionally and what you are experiencing as a person.”  Or put another way: your personal interests are in fact linked to your professional research interests. The journal is also a place to capture “fringe thoughts”–bits of information such as overheard conversations, something you read, or even a feeling revealed to you in a dream (!). Very cool stuff to read in an Appendix, right? Keeping a journal keeps your inner life awake and allows you to develop powers of expression and the discipline of “controlled expression” by which I think Mills simply means the process of capturing those aspects of your inner life in order to study and consider them. Once the journal is up and running, its individual entries can be periodically re-arranged, cross-referenced, and so forth. All of this serves to loosen your imagination by revealing to you connections and larger themes. The most important point to remember about the journal is this: “The maintenance of such a file is intellectual production.”

Later on the Appendix. Mills suggests ways to stimulate one’s imagination, and many of these suggestions revolve around a sense of play. Playing with words, phrases, concepts and definitions is one way to start. Or you can pursue insight by considering extremes such as “thinking of the opposite of that with which you are directly concerned.” In suggesting forms of intellectual play, Mills advocates for a constant shifting of one’s attention from one level to another–kind of like playing with the zoom function on a camera. To use a musical analogy, Mills almost seems to be describing what could be called composing with ideas.

The Appendix ends with a set of suggestions for good craftsmanship. These include the importance of writing simply and clearly, the importance of grounding your writing in clear examples, and the importance of thinking broadly about the relevance of your work to your time, or in Mills’ words: “orient [your work] to the central and continuing task of understanding the structure and the drift, the shape and the meanings, of your own period . . . ” Finally, and perhaps most incisively, Mills suggests that we maintain our autonomy as scholars when it comes to deciding the kinds of projects we take on and which ideas are in fact important to us:

“Do not allow public issues as they are officially formulated, or troubles as they are privately felt, to determine the problems that you take up for study. Above all, do not give up your moral and political autonomy by accepting in someone else’s terms the illiberal practicality of the bureaucratic ethos or the liberal practicality of the moral scatter.”

You can read the Appendix here.

Feedback On African Feedback

In 2004, Italian composer and sound artist Alessandro Bosetti traveled to villages in Mali and Burkina Faso and asked villagers to listen to recordings of Western experimental, minimal, electronic, and improvised music.  As they listened through headphones to randomly selected pieces, Bosetti recorded their real-time reactions–“comments, breaths, attempts to imitate what was heard”–with a stereo microphone.  He later transcribed these reactions and compiled them into a short book called African Feedback (Errant Bodies Press, 2006).  The book also includes a CD of Bosetti’s own sound composition that uses his interviews as source material.

Bosetti talked to over two dozen different people, young and old, and a typical encounter takes up about a page or two of dialogue in the text.  What is immediately apparent upon reading the interviewees’ reactions is how they try to make sense of Bosetti’s recordings at face value–reacting to the sounds as they come, without necessarily having any interest in who composed them (and in some cases, in the sounds themselves).  Some listening sessions lead to conversations about the nature of music and role of music in one’s society; other sessions do very little to elicit strong reactions from the African listener.

For me, this little book (all of 64 pages) is worth its price of admission for a few reasons.  First, I think it was a creative idea on Bosetti’s part to venture out and engage directly with different communities of people through the medium of music recordings and conversation.  I imagine that with this project he got out of his comfort space as a composer to seek dialogue with others.  Even though Bosetti’s original idea was to gather source material for his own creative work, his ethnographic encounters quickly became the main event, and I liked how he was able to go with the flow and let  his work to grow out a shared experience.

Second, the book is, inadvertently perhaps, a powerful refutation of the notion of cultural universals and that musics have universal appeal.  It only takes a few blank stares as a reaction to a recording of music by Olivier Messiaen, Harry Partch, Ryoji Ikeda, or John Cage to remind us that music only makes its best sense to its community of makers/users/fans/consumers/participants, etc.  In other words, there are real limits to what a music can mean, and sometimes the easiest way to explore this idea is to physically bring the music to a new place and see what happens!  (Messiaen in a Malian village is not the same as Messiaen in a concert hall in France . . .)  I’m reminded here of something that I think the ethnomusicologist John Blacking once said about how Westerners make a big deal about being able to distinguish between the intervals of say, a Perfect 4th and a Perfect 5th, but that for other communities of listeners (I believe Blacking was referring to the Venda people of South Africa) these distinctions could very well be rather inconsequential.

A third reason I like Bosetti’s book is that it’s full of little gems of insight.  Some of the gems arise in the responses of the African listeners, like Soulemane, who described Bosetti’s own piece “Zona” as sound made by a white man “to make a profile of illnesses.”  Other gems lie in Bosetti’s extensive footnotes that are incorporated right into the dialogues themselves where he digests his fieldwork encounters, discusses his research strategies, explains how he has been changed by his experiences, and muses on various topics such as the unnaturalness of headphones and the difference between socialized and individual listening.

So what kind of book is this?  It’s not a conventional musical ethnography, and yet it does contain a number of interesting encounters between the author and the people he interviews.  For Bosetti, his field experiences in West Africa were “a crash course on cultural differences, misunderstandings, myth and reality of globalized creativity.”  I don’t really know what Bosetti means by “globalized creativity” but nevertheless, I appreciate how he is not bogged down in theory or the necessity of being in dialogue with an academic discipline.  He just goes for it.

Ordinary Affects and The Ethnography of Everyday Experience

If you are interested in ethnography, a remarkable study that might interest you is Kathleen Stewart’s Ordinary Affects (Duke U. Press, 2007).  Stewart is an anthropologist who teaches at the U of Texas, Austin, and her book is finely tuned ethnographic study of everyday life–her life, in fact.  One aim of the book is to render in detail the many small things that we observe (and that happen to us) over the course of a typical day to show the reader how “the reeling present is composed out of heterogeneous and nonchoherent singularities.”  In this regard, the book is about illuminating “a tangle of trajectories, connections, and disjunctures.”

But what exactly is an “ordinary affect”?  It’s all the little stuff that makes up our intimate lives, and also the public stuff that circulates and is widely shared.  Ordinary affects are an “animate circuit” of energy, something like Raymond Williams’ structures of feeling.  Yet another way to think about ordinary affects is to think about your own everyday experience, especially in terms of those moments when you suddenly realize something is happening (or just happened): a micro-turning point, a significance emerging, a time made present, a potential revealed, a feeling made palpable.

If this all seems abstract (and it is somewhat), then you have some idea of the challenges that ethnographers face when trying to represent, capture, inscribe, or translate their experiences doing field research.  But Stewart reminds us of how powerful ethnography is as a critically attuned yet also (to my eyes and ears at least)poetic rendering of the stuff of culture.  Ethnomusicologists and sound-oriented anthropologists who face the additional challenge of taking about ever-slippery music and sound might really enjoy reading Stewart’s book.  Why?  Because it’s a model of clarity and open-endedness–the right stance, I think, for exploring the ever-shifting contours of human experience.  Stewart’s “vignette” approach to presenting her material faithfully represents how our experiences feel rather than neatly explaining what our experiences mean.  And I like that because it seems like a honest and grounded stance to take.

Or as Stewart puts it in the book’s first sentence: “Ordinary Affects is an experiment, not a judgment.”

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