I noticed a simple thing the other day while working on some music. The sounds I was working with were long tones with slow attacks and long decays. (Can you guess the instrument?) What I noticed was how instantaneously the shape of the sounds shaped me. The sounds literally slowed me down–making me feel as if I was resonating along with their contours and slow rhythms. I’m somewhat astonished that I had never noticed and articulated this perceptual phenomenon in my own musical experience until now, but there you go.
To re-phrase that Ralph Waldo Emerson quote: Be careful what sounds you make, for surely you shall become one with them!
1. It doesn’t feel great at the beginning.
2. Take it slow at first.
3. Have a plan of action.
4. Add a little each week.
5. Allow time between sessions to recover.
6. The activity itself is discipline.
7. If possible, use the activity as an opportunity for exploration and adventure.
8. Alter your plan of action depending on the specific circumstances of the day. Conditions are never optimal.
9. The longer the activity, the more your mind changes: new thoughts just…appear.
10. Fatigue makes clear the adage “mind over matter.” But still–it hurts.
11. Today sets up tomorrow and another plan of action.
12. Timing things is useful. But so is going by feel.
13. Steady rhythmic movement is fun.
14. Places feel different when you’re moving through them.
15. There is always something more to say, but that something hasn’t arrived yet!
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.
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.
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.
It is not down in any map; true places never are. – Herman Melville
At the core of Robin Harvie’s The Lure Of Long Distances: Why We Run (2011) is a disturbing yet intoxicating idea: that you’re not really free in any endeavor until you no longer feel the gravitational pull of wanting to return to the safety of “home”–however you may define it. In this page-turning, literary memoir, Harvie, a fluid writer and adept runner of ultra-long distances, explores the experience of endurance exercise, its pains, and its transcendences. Along the way he learns about himself, his family’s histories, and the appeal of long distance running.
The book is powered by a simple question: Why do we run? If you’re a runner of considerable distances you probably have your reasons: maybe to stay trim and license generous eating habits, to escape, or to generate those feel-good endorphins. But there are other, slightly more intangible–and for me, more important–reasons to run too. There’s the joy of motion, of turning your body into a playful vehicle of kinetic energy. There’s also the mystery of what happens to your mind as you run–all those little (endorphin-induced?) perceptual shifts, how your thinking moves into another gear as if in an exercise-induced critical trance. If you go long enough and conditions outside and in are just right, you can lose yourself through motion. Running, like good repetitive music, affects all kinds of cognitive changes. As you get lost in an ergonomic flow, your body, your mind, and the landscape around you all fuse into one.
Harvie explores the sources of long distance runners’ “deep visceral need” (146) to do what they do and experience “the power of liberation through movement” (168). He comes by his subject matter honestly too. He ran his first marathon in 2000 and then spent years training to race faster only to find that his times weren’t improving. The solution? Run further. Harvie entered the extreme sporting world of ultra running, running races more than twice the length of the 26 mile marathon. The Lure Of Long Distances chronicles his preparation for the biggest race of them all: The Spartathlon, a 152-mile race in Greece, from Athens to Sparta. Harvie doesn’t quite finish the run, quitting at the 85 mile mark. But the story he tells about his journey reveals much about the human condition.
Throughout his narrative, Harvie returns often the subject of mapping, topologies, and cartographies. Running allows us to explore physical landscapes, sure, but what it really does is tell us about ourselves–the geography of our psychologies, our thoughts, our imaginations, our strengths and frailties. In the course of revisiting the place of his childhood summer cottage on the coast of Denmark or running along the river Thames, Harvie excavates a web of memories and life stories.
Yet as much as running triggers thoughts, Harvie is equally interested in its tendency towards autonomy, its capacity to represent nothing but itself–a one step at a time, rhythmic locomotion. We need to “rid ourselves of all the symbolism and metaphor” he says, “to become pure kinetic energy” (77). Harvie is interested in motion. Motion, he notes, ” has a meditative quality, an ability to slow down the rhythm of our lives” (187), sometimes gracing us with what feels like an awareness “of the world right down to the atomic level” (198). In running great distances, ultra runners are graced with a transformation of awareness that “involves a merging of consciousness and landscape” (198). What transforms them is the motion of running itself.
Part of this transformation is really a breaking down of body and mind and this fact leads Harvie to discuss creativity. He compares running ultras and the disintegration they wreak on body and mind where “the mind empties itself of all habits” (223) to the creative process as described by Arthur Koestler in his 1964 book The Act Of Creation. Koestler coined the term “bisociation” to describe how the mind links disparate ideas to create new hybrid forms. Out of the creative act–or running long distances, as Harvie argues–”is generated a new topography of the individual, and, by extension, the world” (223). This is an elaborate way of explaining how new ideas frequently appear to us while running.
But what, you ask, has all this running business to do with music? (This is after all a music blog.) Harvie draws on sound and silence to describe the experience of running, noting how “there would always be a gap between what it sounded like and what it felt like” (224). Interestingly for me, running has no outer soundtrack, unless you count the sound of shuffling feet over pavement.* But this relative outer silence masks a rich inner world of triggered thoughts, memories, and affect. And the way to access these sensations is through silence. As Harvie notes, the key is “to learn to be silent in a world of noise, and to discover that silence has no narrative. Silence intensifies sensation–by turning the body inward” (227).
Where running really resembles music though, is in how difficult it is to actually talk about it. Not about what it means, but about the elements of its unfolding–its processes, its presence, and its capacity to seemingly be a world unto itself. So it is in this book that running remains an invisible presence: where are those thousands of evanescent miles Harvie ran in training? And this is precisely the point: like musical experience, running is something you can only “get” by throwing yourself into its unfolding over time. No “theory” of running or music ever adequately renders their energized lives as energized “affecting presences” (to quote anthropologist Robert Plant Armstrong). To experience affect–whether in running or musicking–you have to participate in real-time in their presences.
In sum, The Lure Of Long Distances is an absorbing study of perception. It’s about the feeling of consciousness and what it means to go further physically than you thought you ever could. Through his Spartathlon effort, Harvie manages to exceed all his prior limits of endurance, and his hope was that this colossal, running-induced state of “self-obliteration” would remain with him permanently, lifting him “above the grubby banalities of everyday life. That didn’t happen” (252). Harvie may or may not have become truly free. But lucky for us, he’s written a narrative that renders his transformation into a Runner through repeated, perpetual motion.
*Equally interesting is how the tempo marked by my shuffling feet will occasionally trigger phantom playback of music in my mind’s ear. The rhythm of my feet, in other words, becomes a metronome that sets the tempo for the imagined music. Sometimes the running tempo is a tad too fast and I notice that the music has sped up to match my stride. Who needs an iPod when you have such seamless body-synced music playback!
There is an iPhone app called Countdown Pro which is a backwards moving digital clock that counts down from any duration in days, hours, minutes and seconds, allowing you to input multiple events on far off dates and then keep tabs on their impending arrival. I suppose the app is one way to grasp time’s ongoing flow and the metamessage here is that you don’t have all the time in the world.
On a related note, a regular forward moving clock can take on new meanings when there’s text instructions directly underneath it. Chef Thomas Keller has harnessed the power of this juxtaposition on the kitchen walls of his restaurants The French Laundry and Per Se where one sees this:
No matter how it’s counted, time is fleeting.