brettworks

thinking through music, sound and culture

Category: perception

Haruki Murakami On Repetition


Haruki Murakami, master novelist and enthusiast of long distance running, makes this observation about the repetition of writing, and the experience of repetition itself as a perceptual tool for tweaking the senses:

“The repetition itself becomes the important thing; it’s a form of mesmerism.

I mesmerize myself to reach a deeper state of mind.”

On The Universal Sense: How Hearing Shapes The Mind

Seth Horowitz’s The Universal Sense is an exhaustive, lucid, and entertaining neuroscientific foray into the many ways hearing, listening, and sound shape the mind–how sound affects the way we think, feel, and act. Horowitz is a professor of neuroscience at Brown University who specializes in studies of comparative and human hearing. He’s also an enthusiastic sound generalist, driven by a conviction that “much of the inner life of sound dwells beneath conscious thought” and gleefully sharing story after story on a dizzying array of topics related to human and animal perception of sound and music. Among these topics: Horowitz explains why some sounds are irritating (nails scratching on blackboard) or ominous (buzzing wasps), the unsettling effects of subsonic and infrasonic sound, movie soundtracks and jingle music, and the vibratory phenomenon that causes us to fall asleep while driving on long and straight roads. In sum, The Universal Sense is an inspiring read that further confirmed my own conviction that music and sound-making are very special ways of knowing the world indeed.

The more Horowitz explains it, the more our sense of hearing and sound perception seems very remarkable. Sound is the swiftest of emotional triggers, and our hearing is a faster sense than vision (“vision maxes out a fifteen to twenty-five events per second, hearing is based on events that occur thousands of times per second”). And hearing outpowers taste, touch, and smell by allowing us to perceive the world around us at great distances. But with this speed and power come vulnerabilities as well. Horowitz explains the many ways sound can “hack” the brain, and how we can engage sound or silence to deliberately hack our own minds. We can, for instance, limit the sounds that reach us to increase our focus (hello noise canceling headphones!) or voluntarily expose ourselves to loud sounds to give up control–as if under the spell of a hypnotist. I don’t know about you, but by these measures I am most definitely a mind hacker.

Horowitz also explains how sound can have particularly powerful effects on us when it makes deep perceptual demands. In one passage that reminded me of the challenges of perceiving polyrhythms (more than one rhythm sounding simultaneously), Horowitz explains that a key to musical entrainment is having multiple sonic inputs that are diverse yet also acting together: “To get massive amounts of brain entrained to a single rhythm, you need complicated input from a number of sources all acting in concert. One method is to use binaural beating…”

From here, Horowitz details how we perceive two pitches that are tuned slightly different from one another–like the gongs in an Indonesian gamelan tuned closely but not exactly the same–as having a “beating” effect. As we are reminded over and over again in this book, sound, even though immaterial, has very physical effects: the acoustic has affect.

Finally, Horowitz reminds us that affect is all important in how we understand sounds–whether the sounds of our favorite music or the sounds our own voices. Indeed, “the emotional basis if communication relies not on what is said but on the acoustics of how we say something.” Consider saying, Horowitz tells us, the word ‘yes':

“Now say it as if you had just found out you won the lottery. Now say it as if someone had just asked you a question about something in your past that you thought no one knew about. Now say it as if this is the fortieth time you’ve answered ‘yes’ in a really boring human resources interview about how much you love your job [...] What you changed was how you said the words: overall pitch, loudness, and timing.”

Inspired by Horowitz’s discussion of “yes” I remembered a humorous video called “50 Shades Of Hey” in which an actor demonstrates dozens of different ways to say the word “hey.” The video demonstrates the musical and affective qualities of everyday speech and how easily we can discern shades of meaning out of slight variations of tone and delivery. From this perspective, making and listening to music is just one of the ways we make sense of the world through hearing sound.

On Flavors, Tastes, Sound And Perception: Thinking Through Ruhlman’s Twenty

“Clear your way. Always be thinking.” – Michael Ruhlman, Ruhlman’s Twenty

First, let me say the obvious: if you like to cook and want to know more about the science and craft of cooking, you’ll probably enjoy Michael Ruhlman’s Ruhlman’s Twenty. The book provides much to think about by explaining fundamental techniques and ingredients in a sensible and accessible way. Having said the obvious, there are other interesting things happening in Ruhlman’s Twenty. In the midst of the cooking theory, tips, instruction, and recipes, Ruhlman spends a fair amount of time talking about taste perception. Here are two examples:

“The complexity that comes from the intense sourness offset by a parallel sweetness goes especially well with…” (100).

“Does this sauce have the depth of texture and satisfying nature that I’m after? If not, fat may be the solution” (134).

Complexity. Sourness. Sweetness. Depth of texture. The overarching theme of this book is how we create and perceive specific tastes, and Ruhlman wants us to “always be thinking” about what affects what in the alchemical world of the kitchen. As it turns out, in the world of cooking, everything affects everything else. In the chapter “Acid” Ruhlman writes: “When you taste anything, ask yourself, What would make this better? Often the answer is acid.” He then discusses the effects of adding a drop of vinegar to a spoonful of soup. Ruhlman describes the taste as brighter: “Bright is an element of flavor that takes some imagination. I don’t mean literally brighter, but synesthetically brighter: vinegar has a brighter flavor–clear, clean, crisp” (92). Similar discussions ensue in chapters on salt, sweetness, and other tastes.

In the end, cooks work with essentially six distinct tastes: sweet, salty, sour, bitter, metallic, and umami–a Japanese word that roughly means “savoriness.” And while it may be difficult to put into words what these different tastes do and the complex ways they interact with one another, good cooking can’t happen without their presence in various ratios. Think about a favorite daily sauce: vinaigrette. Oil (fatty umami), vinegar or lemon juice (sharp sourness), a pinch of salt (saltiness), and maybe some honey (sweetness). That’s four of the six essential flavor components. No wonder salad is so tasty!

***

As in cooking, so too in music?

Just as food presents us with a range of tastes, music presents us with a range of heard and felt vibratory perceptions. In music, we speak of low-, medium-, and high-range pitches or registers. Low-pitched sounds vibrate at a slower rate than do high-pitched sounds. Moreover, low-pitched sounds are often considered to have a “dark” tone quality or timbre (think of a low note bowed on a double bass, or the sound of a deep gong softly struck) while high-pitched sounds have a “light” quality–or like Ruhlman’s vinegar taste, are “brighter” (think of a shrill piccolo sound). A musical instrument’s design, its mode of vibration, and the material it’s made out of also affect its timbre. It’s for this reason that a flute and a violin sound different and distinctive even when they play the same pitch. When composers score works for different instruments (violins and brass say, or electronic sine tones and pad sounds) they create new hybrid timbres that are more than the sum of their parts. In music as in cooking, one can mix and match to create new depths of perception.

I’ve been thinking about Ruhlman’s book as I’ve been working on some electronic music pieces. I’m in the mixing and balancing stages of a project, listening through to make sure all the sounds are sitting in the right proportion to one another to create a pleasing soundscape. As I listen it strikes me that sounds are like flavors–each one has a different taste. I don’t mean to say that there are six basic sounds that correspond to sweet, salty, and so on. But I do mean to say that different sounds, like different flavors, affect us in many different ways. Put another way, sounds have a feeling dimension just as flavors have a taste dimension.

The five electronic music pieces in my project each have over a dozen parts–including marimba samples, sine tones, Rhodes, glockenspiel and celeste, tom toms and cymbals.  There are a lot of layers and each layer has a distinctive pitch register and timbre profile. The parts were improvised and recorded many months ago: chord progressions were worked out, harmonies, basslines, and rhythmic counterpoint among the percussion added. Then everything was put into order so the pieces have a basic arc shape (each is some 20-plus minutes in length). Now I’m experimenting with different combinations of these layers, tweaking their volume, their tone, their pitch, and adding bits of delay and reverb effects to augment and change them. It’s a lot to think about and the possibilities for tweaking can feel endless.

But like Ruhlman’s story about the effect of a drop of vinegar on the taste of a spoonful of soup, I’m finding that small changes can have large effects on the overall feel of the music. For instance, tuning tom-toms to the tonic note of a section adds a deep euphony. Or pitching a hi hat sample up one octave makes it feel more metallic, crisp and brittle. Or maybe one part needs an EQ scoop (lowering the volume of its middle-range frequencies) to make it flatter, softer, and more transparent. Of course, the sound really isn’t any of those things–it’s basically a sawtooth wave sound–yet that’s how it feels as I listen and so I adjust parameters according to this imagined profile. All this tweaking is done intuitively, until the sound of the music feels right.

Finally, I’m surprised at how different the pieces sound as I return to them day after day. Same headphone volume, but a slightly different listening me, I guess. Taste is like that: it’s not entirely in the flavor, the ingredient, or the sound, but neither is it entirely in our perception of these phenomena either. It’s a combination of the two and that’s what makes the intersection of flavor, taste, and perception so interesting: it’s an unstable and ever-changing encounter for our senses.

On Our Din And Roar II: How Noise Is Not Always Bad And Quiet Not Always Good

On my last blog post, I may have inadvertently given readers the impression that I wear earplugs wherever I go, so intent I am in the pursuit of some kind of urban quiet. (One worried family member even weighed in: “When you wear the earplugs, do you miss any cautionary sounds–like the sound of an oncoming car?”) Not so! In fact, as I sat in a Uruguayan bakery this morning, it occurred to me that I often flee silence in a deliberate pursuit of noise. And like I said about choosing to be a percussionist–it’s complicated!

But not that complicated. I go to this bakery regularly not because the hot beverages are relatively cheap (though they are, as are the pastries) but because the space offers a level of noise that’s conducive to writing. (Kind of like the subway, where I’m typing these words on a phone.) At the bakery there’s always ambient noise in the form of espresso machines, patrons talking among themselves (in Spanish) and several large screen TVs showing music videos and football matches (also in Spanish). For some reason–including the fact that I don’t speak Spanish, for one thing–all of this ambient sound adds up to just the right degree of din that I can easily tune out. In other words, being surrounded by a mix of different noises helps me concentrate on something else entirely.

And this is what was perhaps misleading about the ear plugs post. Plugging one’s ears means shutting out the sounding world around you. And I do this sometimes–though the shutting out is really just reducing the world by about 33 decibels (if we’re to believe Heroes Earplugs’ health claims). But what’s even more interesting to me is how we shut out or filter the sounds of the noisy world around us simply by concentrating–entering a state of focus that itself benefits from that same noisy world. It’s as if the noises let one part of you know that you’re ensconced in conviviality (noise indexing the lively embrace of social life), which then frees another part of you to relegate the sounds to a background hum and just coast on them.

Moving Serenity: On The Resonances Of Scott Jurek’s Eat and Run

At first glance, ultrarunner Scott Jurek is an odd bird: he enjoys running astonishingly long and punishing distances like 100+ miles. But at a second, longer glance by way of his lucid autobiography Eat and Run, Jurek seems to be motivated less by extremes as ends in themselves and more as means to help him achieve altered states of consciousness. Okay, maybe that’s still unusual, but it’s interesting too. The athlete as seeker: Jurek is a runner in search of something more.

Eat and Run explores a number of themes that pertain to this something more–this quest to explore the contours of consciousness and depths of perception through physical activity. These themes include discipline, training and physical limits, instinct and intuition, egolessness, meditation and mindfulness, tuning in, and transcendence. What follows are some passages that illustrate these themes.

In a passage on discipline, Jurek touches on Bushido, the culture of ancient Japanese samurai warriors that espoused an empty mindset, “letting go of the past and the future and focusing on the moment.”

Here is Jurek discussing limits: “I wanted to know more about that space between exhaustion and breaking.”

On intuition:
“The more I measured and adjusted, the more I trusted my instincts.”

Here is Jurek on egolessness and mindfulness: “I wanted to lose myself, to connect with something larger.” And this: “I did want to find that place of egolessness and mindfulness that only the monotony of a 24-hour race can produce.” And also this: “running had turned into something other than training. It had turned into a kind of meditation…” And finally, this: “I stayed plugged in.”

In one passage, Jurek recounts a conversation with a seasoned ultrarunner who spoke in almost musical terms about connecting with the resonances of the natural world through running: “he spoke of vibrations and wavelengths and signs from the hidden world, and while I knew what he meant–the sensation of losing oneself, of entering a zone at once connected to the earth and separated from earthly concerns–I wasn’t sure how to achieve it on a regular, predictable basis.”

And finally, Jurek touches on transcendence by discussing the need to run “with abandon and animal freedom…if I wanted to lose myself, to break into another dimension”; by quoting the Greek Spartathalon champion Yiannis Kouros who says that ultra running is a “test of ‘metaphysical characteristics'”; and describing the great native Mexican runners, the Tarahumara: “while the Tarahumara run to get from point to point, in the process they travel into a zone beyond geography and beyond even the five senses.”

***

As a distance sports enthusiast myself as well as a musician, I have an interest in activities that go on for a while and in so doing change my perceptions. In sport or in music making, this is not a state of mind one goes after deliberately–at least initially–but rather something revealed in the course of expending energy and exercising attention over a chunk of time. So, generally speaking, Energy spent over Time = Cool Perceptual Changes.

But the conditions need to be right too. In sport, a steady-state pace, repeated mile after mile is a must. In music, a steady groove, repeated over and over can certainly help. It’s with these similarities in mind that I think about how sport is a physical workout while music is a virtual one. One of the only analytical accounts of musical activity that describes it as a virtual workout is musicologist David Burrows’ work on music and dynamical systems theory. (See his articles “Music and the Biology of Time” (1972), “A Dynamical Systems Perspective of Music” (1997), and his book Time and the Warm Body (2007). Proceeding by analogy, Burrows proposes that pieces of music model our experiences as living beings–constantly maintaining a steady-state, dynamic equilibrium through constant change. (“Music takes place in its own almost total sonic absence.”) Burrows’ view of music addresses the old question of what music is actually for: Is it for self-expression? Mobilizing large groups of people in coordinated behavior? Is it for the mind or the body, or both? If music’s primary purpose is in fact as a kind of technology for reflecting back to us the experience of being alive and sensate and time-bound, then that helps explain why there are such a staggering variety of musical styles floating around: there are, after all, a lot of different ways of being in the world.

Similarly, distance sports are distinctive ways of being in the world. And as the excerpts from Jurek’s book illustrate, the experience of long distance running is not unlike the experience of making and listening to certain kinds of repetition-heavy music in that in altering our perceptions it paves the way for new ways of experiencing the world. This, most of all, is the reason why some of us keep listening and keep moving.

On Perception And Playing A Polyrhythm

A polyrhythm is the simultaneous sounding of more than one rhythm. I find polyrhythms endlessly interesting, mainly because they play with our perceptions, especially our sense of what is foreground and what is background. In this way, polyrhythms are the aural equivalent of those optical illusions you may remember from Psychology 101, such as the faces/vase illusion

and the young woman/old woman illusion.

These optical illusions come to life to the degree that you can bend your perception through them. If there is a “trick” to seeing them the “right” way, it’s to allow yourself to perceptually move among multiple viewing perspectives. Similarly, you can learn to hear the aural illusions of polyrhythms with the same perceptual flexibility. So if you hear a so-called “two against three” beat polyrhythm that superimposes a three beat pattern over a two beat pattern, in your mind’s ear you can foreground the two or the three, or even hear both of them–their rhythmic gestalt as it were–at the same time.  And the best way to learn how to hear something is to learn to play it.

***

To play a two against three beat polyrhythm here’s what you do. Place your hands on a table top or your thighs and play the following six beat rhythm (“T” = hands together; “R” = right hand only; “L” = left hand only; “-” = a silent count or rest):

Hands Play:  T  –  R   L   R   -
Beat:              1  2  3   4   5   6

Another way to think about the rhythm is:

Long (T) – short (R) short (L) long (R) – [repeat]

If it helps you stay in time, you can count the beats out loud as your hands play the gestalt T – R L R – pattern.

Play this rhythm very slowly over and over again until it feels comfortable in your hands. Next, speed it up, but make sure you keep the six beat structure intact by observing the rests (on beats 2 and 6 of the pattern). You’re playing a polyrhythm! It’s a polyrhythm with a three beat pattern in your right hand and a two beat pattern in your left.

Once you’re comfortable playing the pattern continuously, you can start playing with your perception of it. One way to induce a perceptual shift is to change the loudness of your hand tapping. While playing the pattern, try making your right hand’s dynamic very soft. As you do this, you’ll notice that the “three” of your two against three pattern fades to the background while your left hand’s “two” pattern is foregrounded because it’s louder. Now bring the right hand’s dynamic back up and then try diminishing the volume of your left hand. As you do this, you’ll notice that the “two” of your pattern is now background, foregrounding your right hand’s “three” pattern. The tricky part of this is keeping your hands steady while you play with changing their dynamics. It’s tricky because what your ear hears conflicts with what your hands feel.

Polyrhythms!

You can read more about aural illusions in music here.

Strange Mechanisms: On Entrainment And Running To Music


“…the music, the words of the mottoes, the steps of the dance, trigger the strange mechanism.”
— Jean Rouch in Gilbert Rouget, Music and Trance (1985:181)

Yesterday I ran the NYC Half Marathon (in a time that qualified me for the NYC Marathon–yes!). One of the things I noticed along the route was the presence of live musicians and DJs playing music every few miles or so. I’ve never run with portable music players, because I’ve never bothered trying and because the sound of the music “shaking” with my body movement doesn’t sound right to me. Maybe talk radio would work, but wobbling music? No thanks.

But if the music comes from somewhere outside a set of headphones–and I have no choice whether to listen to it or not–I’m open to it. On the 13.1-mile course that took us from Central Park down through Times Square, over to the West Side Highway, down to Battery Park, and then finishing at South Street Seaport, there was music all over the place. A number of race fans had these little cowbells–the real cowbells that I assume cows wear, complete with little strikers inside–that they shook to create a mighty racket as we went by. In any other context the cowbells could get on your nerves, but on the course they sonically signified fan support and enthusiasm, as if saying: “We see you and feel your pain. Keep it up. You’re doing great.”

There were also lone musicians along the course, all of them men with acoustic guitars, most of them seeming a little “off” in one way or another. Their enthusiastic strumming didn’t carry very far in the open air, and none of them seemed to be playing anything recognizable as music anyway—they just strummed away. But like the sound from the cowbell folks, the strumming came across as welcome enthusiasm, as if to signify: “I don’t know why you’re running, but I shall play my guitar in solidarity with your effort.” As strange as it was, I appreciated the strumming.

On the open expanse of the West End Highway (highways are surprisingly calm places to be when there aren’t any cars around), there were a few bands too. Two guys looking like a 1980s-era Beastie Boys tribute band (complete with oversized gold chains and sunglasses) did some awfully bad rapping. And a few miles down the road was some kind of vintage punk rock trio. As I ran by trying to get Gatorade down my throat without choking it occurred to me how gentle punk has become in the context of the 2012 musical landscape. It still signifies punk-ness, I guess, only it doesn’t shock anymore. Running by the punk trio with Gatorade running down my shirt, I actually got a sad for a moment as I thought about it. This happens with almost every musical idiom: what was once cutting edge becomes assimilated, just another style for musicians to draw on, to be put to yet further tasks of cultural signification. (Maybe that punk trio, like the Beastie Boys-ish rappers, was being ironic? But how could I know for sure?)

***

But the real stars of the NYC Half Marathon sonic landscape were the DJs. Not because they were so good, but because they were so loud. At various points I heard the Lynyrd Skynyrd’s “Sweet Home Alabama”, Biggie Smalls’ groovy “Hypnotize”, and at the race’s beginning and end, Usher’s electronic 4/4 thumper “DJ Got Us Falling In Love Again.”*

Interestingly and shockingly to me, I ran in sync to both Skynyrd and Biggie. As soon as I heard their respective songs, I instinctively locked into the tempo by adjusted my gait a little—my stride rate becoming quicker for Skynyrd and then slower for Biggie. I was happy too, because for those brief moments I was perfectly distracted from the physical task at hand, my attention pleasurably consumed by the experience of being physically in sync with songs with which I’m casually well acquainted. It was fun, through the thought (not to mention the sight!) of me smiling while running in sync to Lynyrd Skynyrd is still really disturbing.

What I was experiencing for those brief blissful moments could be called a kind of entrainment, the experience of a person syncing to an external pulse, usually one produced by others with whom one is interacting socially. You could say we do this in a mild way when we tap our feet to music, and in a more intense way when the music compels us to dance (or run) in time to it. Taken to its extreme, entrainment can set the stage for altered states of consciousness such as possession–the rhythm of an external stimulus prompting us to groove with it and ultimately enter into some kind of transcendent state.

In his book Music and Trance: a theory of the relation between music and possession (1985), French ethnomusicologist Gilbert Rouget examines the relationships among music, trance, and possession around the world through case studies ranging from the ancient Greeks to Western opera, shamanistic and ritual drumming practices in Africa and the Black Atlantic, to Islamic dhikr ceremonies in the Middle East. Rouget contends that music itself doesn’t cause trance, only helps create the conditions that might trigger it. It’s in this sense that music and its varied ritual contexts, says Rouget, can function as a perceptual launch pad that the French ethnographic filmmaker Jean Rouch once labeled a “strange mechanism.”

The music on the course—yes, even the Skynyrd–probably didn’t put anyone into a trance but was nevertheless my strange mechanism, energizing me because it provided a stimulus that was at once a kind of aural clock and something to focus on, giving structure and helping me make sense of a few minutes here and there as I was consumed by listening. Without music, I tend to search for sounding things to focus on anyway—things like the sound of my breathing or the regular rhythmic “swish” of my arms moving under my jacket. If you pay attention, there’s always something there to either focus on or sync to.

***

After the race, in the midst of the cheering crowd and the booming music that echoed off the buildings around South Street Seaport, I thought about two possibilities for designing a race day soundscape. The first would be a completely silent race. There were brief moments of this as we ran through Central Park where the crowd was sparse and all you could hear was the sound of feet hitting the pavement. We sounded like a herd of buffalo, and because all you could hear was feet, as a runner it felt like being in a herd too—the sensation of being swept along in an animal wave. But okay, I agree with you, a silent race would be a real downer of a race in a place like NYC. So, the second soundscape possibility would be to wire the course with one huge set of connected speakers playing a single piece of music for several hours. But I leave you with questions: What would this music be? Would it be highly rhythmic, like an extended DJ set? And would its tempo correspond to the supposedly ideal running pace of 180 strides per minute, with songs clocking in fast at 180 BPM or with a half-time feel of 90 BPM? Most importantly, what would be experience of running to such an extended soundtrack feel like?

Below are those three songs I heard on the course. It’s a DJ “set” that could probably never happen anywhere else!

*I actually didn’t know it was Usher singing this song until I tried singing it myself—or at least what I remembered of the hook’s melody: “Baby tonight, na-na-na-na-na-na-na-na-na-nah”—into the Soundhound app on my iphone, and voilà: Usher!  (What can’t cellphones do again?)

Representing Time: On Christian Marclay’s “The Clock”


While I was in Ottawa last week, timing would have it that Christian Marclay’s epic video installation piece The Clock was showing at the National Gallery. I of course made a point of going to see it.

The Clock is a 24-hour video collage composed of thousands of film clips (culled from the entire history of global cinema, not just Hollywood), each of which makes visual reference to time via glimpses of all manner of clocks and watches. At any given minute in the 1,440 minutes that make up its twenty-four hour length, The Clock shows one or several visual representations of that precise moment in time. And here’s the best part: the work is synced to the real world time zone you happen to be in as you’re watching. So as I wandered in the National Gallery with a friend at 2:45pm on a Friday afternoon, Marclay’s movie was showing clips of time pieces showing 2:45pm. Very cool.

Marclay creates in a variety of media, but is particularly well-known for his pioneering sound work as a turntable artist, manipulating records and record players in live performances since the late 1970s. One of the pleasures of The Clock is that Marclay brings a DJ’s sensibility to the film’s soundtrack. You can hear it as one clip segueways to another, the incidental sounds from one scene dovetailing seamlessly with the next in endlessly inventive ways. The soundtrack never cuts, only flows, which lends the visuals an enhanced coherence. And while The Clock as a whole may not mean anything specific–aside, I suppose, from chronicling the passing of time itself and documenting its representation in film–as you watch you can’t help but search for meaning and connections through its endless stream of clips. It’s quite the immersive experience too: sitting on the couches in the pitch dark room watching the large screen, you sense the real minutes effortlessly ticking away. Watching The Clock feels like watching a clock, only it’s a clock that is constantly metamorphosing and superimposed with multiple visual and sonic narratives.

By the way, I watched The Clock with a somewhat impatient friend for about 15 minutes. Ironically enough, he kept looking distractedly at his phone to check . . . the time!

Here is a short BBC news report on the work:

And a fascinating profile of Marclay in The New Yorker is here.

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.

***

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.

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