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Category: phenomenology

On Presence And Perception

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“When I look at the world now, my posture is not one of focus but rather of attention.”
- Robert Irwin

At the heart of Seeing Is Forgetting the Name Of the Thing One Sees (1982/2009), Lawrence Weschler’s biography of the artist Robert Irwin, are two intertwined and reoccurring ideas: presence and perception. Irwin (1928-), an American conceptual/installation artist, began his art career in the 1950s with paintings of lines and dots, then, in the 1960s, moved to painting round aluminum discs. By the 1970s he had gone beyond what he felt were the arbitrary edges of canvas and art object to take on the museum spaces themselves as the subject matter of his installation art. Since the 1980s, Irwin has worked on permanent outdoor installations intended to enhance their environments. In the process, his work has become ever less material, and increasingly concerned with getting us to experience a perceptual state in which we notice ourselves noticing.

As Weschler meticulously documents his subject’s evolution through copious interviews, what happened was that Irwin, a self-taught artist, came to realize that art is not about the art thing as much as the experience such things (or spaces) can engender. “It’s about presence, phenomenological presence” (61) he says. Irwin came by his realization organically, early in his career. While working on paintings, he became frustrated by the tendency of his images to signify and the impossibility of a “neutral gesture” (60). Was there a way to escape this? A way to “maximize the energy or the physicality of the situation and minimize the identity or idea or imagery of the situation”? (90) What Irwin wanted was presence without representation, “a reduction of imagery to get at physicality, a reduction of metaphor to get at presence” (200). Presence as affect, as materiality, as spirit, as feeling, as structure.

Remarkably, Irwin came to his insight about the importance of presence by spending massive amounts of time just staring at his works in progress. In looking for extended periods he began noticing differently: “paying attention to my own sensibility and taking stock of it and deciding that too many things in there simply didn’t make sense” (67). Tweaking his work, removing material instead of adding it, Irwin developed a stance in relation to his work that could enlist boredom as “a very good tool” (73). In paying attention, he “just attended to the circumstances, and after weeks and weeks of observation, of hairline readjustments, the right situation would presently announce itself” (74).

Eventually, the right situation would entail jettisoning the conventional equipment of art making and taking on, literally, less material projects. Irwin tells Weschler that some of the inspiration for this shift towards installation art came from drives he took into the California desert. Here and there, Irwin would sense (“intuition is about sensing facts before they materialize” [143]) something powerful and stop the car to go investigate on foot. He realized that it would be pointless to artistically “mark” such spaces with his own designs, yet was nevertheless inspired by how a naturally occurring space could have such powerful affect. Ultimately, for Irwin presence and perception are a set of relations that constitute the real subject matter of art. “We’re not really aware of what takes place otherwise, the so-called incidentals, the information that takes place between things,” he says, “the kind of things that happen around, the multiple interactive relations” (148).

***

Reading as I often do with musical things in mind, I found Seeing Is Forgetting one of the more energizing books I’ve come across in a while. To start, it got me thinking about the idea that music is not in the musical object (e.g. score, performance, sounds) but in our perception of it. (True, musics have social lives too, but that’s another matter.) In other words, we pursue music in pursuit of various kinds of presences that give rise to various perceptual shifts. Second, the book also got me thinking through a sonic analog of its title, which might read: Hearing Is Forgetting The Name Of What One Hears. In other words, Irwin reminds us to focus on the what rather than the what does it mean aspect of creating. Lastly, Irwin’s work–not to mention Weschler’s elucidation of it–is a reminder of the vitality of the arts as a kind of intuitive, presence- and perception-oriented inquiry that is open-ended and without goals. As Irwin tantalizingly sums up the equation that implicates us all: “we are the question, and what we are is what we have to contribute” (120).

Notes On Another Kind of Wonder: A Phenomenology Of Remixing

wonders photo

“I confronted the tradition directly as a sound form and kinesthetic activity, and made it my own in an act of appropriation that transformed me, my self, into something I hadn’t been before, a person capable of playing in this tradition with at least minimal competence.” – Timothy Rice, “Toward a Mediation of Field Methods and Field Experience in Ethnomusicology” (G.F. Barz and T.J. Cooley, eds., Shadows in The Field, 2008, p. 110)

Introduction: An Invitation To Remix
One summer evening in 2003 while I was doing research on an experimental electronic music scene in New York City, I get talking with a musician at a bar on the Lower East Side. Around us, electronic music enthusiasts hunch over the glow of their laptops—playing sound files, making beats, trying out software, and talking to one another about their work. As I tell my acquaintance about my background as a percussionist and my CD of percussion music I had recorded a few years earlier he offers a bit of advice: “You know, you should just cut up your tracks into samples and dump them into Ableton Live!” Live is a software music sequencer that at the time of my research was fast becoming a ubiquitous tool for making electronic music. My acquaintance tells me that the best way to further my understanding of electronic music is to remix some of my own stuff—play with it, find its potential, and use the software to recycle the music into a new form. He’s trying to tell me something: my CD is not merely a document of composed pieces; it can also be the source of some new music. Ten years later I take the advice and begin remixing my material. This (long) post examines that remix process.

Sound Artifact: Wonders

wonders cd

Figure 1. Wonders CD

In 1998 I recorded Wonders, a CD of five works for keyboard percussion. Scored for multiple marimbas and vibraphones, the pieces are rhythmically and texturally dense: the music features three to six percussionists playing steady sixteenth-note patterns using two and four mallets in each hand, and the harmonies change slowly, lending the music a pulsating, minimalist sound. In some of the larger pieces, such as the first track, Splash (scored for four marimbas and two vibraphones), the multiple mallet parts create a thick sound—a humming halo of fundamentals and overtones.

Listening For Loops
Thirteen years after recording Wonders, I sit in front of my laptop with headphones on, looking at the screen. I load Splash into Live, my software sequencer, and see the 15-minute track’s waveform laid out before me. How to begin?

waveform of splash complete

Figure 2. Waveform for “Splash”

Remembering the advice of my acquaintance from the lower East Side all those years ago, I’m listening for audio samples that I can turn into loops. With a few movements of the cursor over Splash’s waveform, I zoom in and focus my attention on one small section at a time. I activate the loop brace function of the software and move the brace around the waveform, selecting small sections of the piece and listen to them loop. I listen in search of a sound that is interesting and mysterious when repeated: I notice the loop’s timbral profile, assess how well it grooves, and get a sense of the feelingful space it inhabits and creates—its musical life force. As I move the loop brace around, tentatively at first, each section I listen to has a distinct affecting presence as a “perpetual and perpetuating action, complete within itself” (Robert Plant Armstrong, The Affecting Presence, 1971, p. 24). This presence strikes me immediately as a visceral response: either the loop sounds appealing and makes sense, or it is unremarkable and lacks some essential logic. I listen to each loop candidate for just a few moments, moving the loop brace along in search of something else, something more compelling.

Moving the loop brace, I notice small qualities within the audio samples that emerge through repetition. Repetition is a revealing, helping me notice magical moments; it draws me inwards towards the loop, focusing my attention on its presence through its characteristic contours and textures. The musician Lee Patterson describes sampling as “an exploration of specific material properties of things… It’s kind of an alchemical process, because not only does the [sampled] object become transformed, but your understanding of the world and these objects becomes transformed as well” (Lee Patterson, “Plink, plink, fizz”, Wire 303, 2009, p. 18.). Moreover, what was once audio background becomes audio foreground—a symmetry is revealed, a fleeting mood made tactile. In his evocative article on the aesthetics of laptop music making, Glenn Bach captures the perceptual pleasure of working with digital audio:

“What happens is a re-examination of the sacrosanct figure–ground relationship of western art and music. By focusing on the ground, by mining the substrate, the laptop alchemist discovers new figures hidden there and brings them to the fore, only to discover altogether new grounds upon which these new figures appear. These new grounds are isolated and the ritual repeats itself” (Glenn Bach, “The Extra-Digital Axis Mundi: Myth, Magic and Metaphor in Laptop Music”, Contemporary Music Review, 22/4, 2003, p. 7).

Listening to the brief sections of Splash under the loop brace renders the original percussion music strangely unfamiliar, the repetition revealing micro- and macro-patterns that would be otherwise hidden within the sample. The sound of some loops reminds of me of the repetition and figure-ground relationships in other percussion musics I have heard such as Ugandan akadinda xylophone music and mbira music from Zimbabwe. In the 1960s, the ethnomusicologist Gerhard Kubik described what he called “inherent rhythms” as perceptual gestalt by-products of the akadinda’s fast-paced, repeating patterns (Gerhard Kubik, “The Phenomenon of Inherent Rhythms In East And Central African Instrumental Music”, African Music 3/1, 1962, pp. 33); inherent rhythms can also be heard in the hypnotic and polyrhythmic sounds of mbira music (Paul F. Berliner, The Soul Of Mbira, 1978, p. 90). In a fashion similar to akadinda and mbira patterns, the looped sections of Splash have inherent rhythms of their own, the samples circling around and around to create a melo-harmonic-rhythmic drone. I’m grooving on them. And then I find my first loop:

first splash loop

Figure 3. First loop from Splash

The Persistence Of Music-Triggered Memories
Much as I wish I could explore the audio of Splash as if I have never heard the piece before, as I move the loop brace around my memory of the original composition guides my listening. One section prompts memories of details of the composing process twenty years ago in which I worked out a chord progression and a sticking pattern that made bodily sense on the marimba. The memories then scattershot themselves: from listening to the sample to ever more amorphous associations, in a feedback loop—composing the piece, notating it, rehearsing it with other musicians, performing it at concerts, and recording it in a studio. As John Berger notes, memory “works radially…with an enormous number of associations all leading to the same event” (John Berger, About Looking, 1980, p. 64). Listening to a single sound sample under the loop brace triggers and re-triggers memories of the original percussion music, and my recollection of its history keeps reasserting itself, over and over again. I try circumventing this sound-memory feedback loop by positioning the loop brace into unusual rhythmic positions such as off beats instead of downbeats. This catches the sampled sound mid-phrase and re-frames my listening; I want to be surprised by what I hear, not reminded of the original piece.

Being Systematic
I listen to one-, two-, and four-measure sections of Splash to hear how they loop. At first, I am systematic about how I locate each loop candidate, nudging the loop brace further along the audio waveform a few beats at a time, trying off beats as well as downbeats. But out of curiosity I skip around too, moving the brace now forward, now backward again by arbitrary amounts—nudging it a half beat, or leaping ahead by seven. Not knowing exactly what to listen for beyond a sound that is interesting and mysterious creates a tension that resists my desire to search for loops in a systematic way. I want to listen to every sample-able moment in Splash—leave no moment of audio un-listened to!—but realize that will not happen. Surely I have already missed many good loops?

splash edit window

Figure 4. Splash sample edit window. The transpose knob on left is set at -14 semitones

Re-Pitching
My systematic searching is further disrupted by the editing possibilities in my software’s sample edit window. On a whim to explore what might happen to the sound, I turn a knob that controls the pitch of the sample and shift it downwards by one, two, four, seven, and twenty-four semitones, and then back up again to the sample’s original pitch level. As the loop’s pitch is lowered its affect changes dramatically: the sound becomes more wooden and resonates in a hollow, ghostlier way. The lowered pitch also brings out hidden inner voices and harmonies not perceptible at the original pitch level. Then I pitch the loop upward, moving one semitone at a time until it has been transposed by one octave: in this register, the intensity of the loop grows with each upward step and begins to sound like frantic, squelching metallic bells. I like the loop detuned by fourteen semitones the best and save it (Figure 4). But this control over re-pitching loops raises a question that reframes my listening: Should I listen through all of the Splash loop candidates at various different pitch levels? The sonic possibilities raised by this thought are so vast—leave no audio sample un-detuned!—that I instead return to the task of moving around the loop brace. Here and there I will experiment with detuning a loop by fourteen semitones because this remixing move, while discovered on a whim, is now part of my remixing toolkit.

A Delay Effect, Extending The Moment
While searching for loops I experiment with adding effects processing to the marimba samples I have already found and saved. I try EQ’ing them, boosting some of the high frequencies to add articulation and cutting low frequencies to reduce the murky hum of the multiple marimbas; I add compression to make them louder and more focused; and I add delays and reverbs to add a new murky hum I cut out with the EQ’ing. I scroll through the delay effect presets in my software and try out a few, noting that one of the presets turns my marimba loops into rhythmically cascading, waterfall-like streams of sound. The effected loop catches my attention and I listen to it for a while. The delay preset transforms the marimbas by multiplying them and providing further rhythmic motion by adding little melo-harmonic artifacts that ricochet around the stereo field in a way that is polyrhythmic and textured. The sound is unexpected and now I wonder: Could I use this effected loop as a pulsating chordal drone? And how might I build on this pulsating drone?

I spend days, weeks, and then months moving the loop brace around the waveform of Splash, making loops as my thoughts oscillate between past and present, extending radially out towards other experiments by other musicians whose music I have listened to. I think about the 12th-century composer Pérotin who used Church hymn melodies as stretched out and slow-moving basslines for his polyphonic compositions; the musique concrète tape experiments of Pierre Schaeffer, the sound engineer at Radio France in the 1940s who stitched together different train sound samples in his “Étude aux chemins de fer”; the 1960s tape experiments of Steve Reich who played two field recordings of spoken voice samples out of sync with one another to make a phasing, polyrhythmic sound; and of course, the DJ practices of Jamaican dub, disco, and electronic dance musicians over the past forty years who isolate, foreground, and extend the rhythmic break sections of songs to make new groove music. In other words, the only new thing about this is my source of samples. But back to the present: by the time I have cut and saved dozens of marimba loops for Splash, I turn my attention to building on these sounds. If I don’t move on, I could spend forever on this.

Adding Other Sounds: Improvising On A Rhodes
With the marimba loops put into a sequence that makes harmonic sense, I begin adding other sounds. The possibilities offered by my software are bewilderingly large and each sound is stimulating in some way, suggesting a feeling and a musical direction, and I spend hours wandering through soundbanks, playing a single note and just listening to its timbre. The sound possibilities are exponentially increased as I consider how each sound can be altered: I can begin with any sound—a kick drum, a sine wave, a gong, or a marimba sample—and shape it into something different. The sounds in my laptop are endlessly elastic and fungible, but most of these sounds do not fit with my marimba samples so I begin with a sound I already know: a Rhodes electric piano. I let the marimba loops play as a melo-harmonic rhythmic drone and begin playing along with them on the Rhodes, picking out notes and chords, improvising.

Improvising with the Rhodes sound, my goal is to impose some kind of structure onto the marimba loop, but first I need to examine it for clues as to what that structure might be. Fumbling around the keyboard I locate the loop’s main pitch. Depending on the loop, this pitch may or may not be immediately clear. In some cases, it oscillates between two pitches a semitone apart—a sonic ambivalence I enjoy hearing (and one of the reasons I saved the loop in the first place); in other cases, the loop’s pitch level falls between the cracks of the tempered tuning of my MIDI sounds and I need to finesse the loop up or down until is sounds right. With the loop playing, I experiment with intervals and chords: triads, fourths and fifths, and octaves. I keep the intervals open, using them as a way to foreground the consonance of the loop. The sound of the pulsating marimbas creates the sensation that they carry my Rhodes chords high through the air as I arrive at a chord progression that complements the loop: a sequence of triads, or a bass line that slowly moves stepwise up and down. Playing the progression over and over, I refine it, hit record and improvise around it.

Playing long slow tones over the loop, I notice how the affect of the marimbas changes as I shift one note at a time. My perception of the time is shifting: the piece is starting to move at a slower rate, with 60-bar chord progressions on the Rhodes that don’t hem the piece in, but rather open it up. The notes and chords on the Rhodes ring out and decay slowly, suggesting space and a feeling that the time of the music is stretching out. In his meditation on the connections between seeing, feeling, and drawing, John Berger observes “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, Bento’s Sketchbook, 2011, p. 8). Berger’s observation could describe the sensation of listening to the marimba loops and the slow-moving chord progressions.

The improvisations are equally guided by practical goals: to move from the upper range of the keyboard to the lower, to move from consonance to dissonance, to expand or contract the pacing of the chord sequence. Theoretically I can always edit, cut, and paste my improvisations later on in the process, and the software offers to take over my musical labor: Why play something over and over when you can just loop it (the way you looped the marimba samples)? The software offers help, yet I resist: I want to play all of the parts in the remixes, improvising and capturing a performance. Even parts that repeat a single note I will play through from beginning to end; the parts may sound looped, but they feel different when performed. The Rhodes chord progression holds my attention by changing my perception of the marimba loop. I save it, moving on to play along with another loop and begin the process again. I spend days, weeks, and then months playing along to the loops.

Filling In Other Sounds, Soundsets
With a Rhodes part for each looping marimba section of the remix, I have something to build on and respond to. Just as the marimba loops suggested a direction for the Rhodes improvisations, now the Rhodes parts suggest a direction for other sounds. Listening to the chords and marimba loops, I load a glockenspiel, celeste, sine tone sub bass, a steel pan-like sound I made called Lead, a sawtooth wave sound I made called Treble, and a lush, echoing-dubby synth sound. Some of these sounds are preset sounds that I have found through chance, trial and error, while others have their own stories of discovery. For example, Treble is the default sound in one of my software synthesizers. I take this plain and unadorned sawtooth wave and EQ its frequency profile, removing bass frequencies to make it brittle, lowering mid frequencies make it flatter, and boosting its high frequencies to make it crisp—like a potato chip. Other sounds, like the sine tone sub bass preset, I simply like for their purity. After searching through the hundreds of drum sounds in my software, I choose an old-fashioned percussion soundset: kick drum, hi hat, ride cymbals, tom toms, and a clave-like sound I call Pulse. In all, I decide on a soundset of thirteen different melodic and percussive sounds for the remix. The choice of soundsets is a self-imposed constraint, “encapsulating a defined space for potential expression” (Thor Magnusson, “Designing Constraints: Composing and Performing with Digital Musical Systems”, Computer Music Journal 34, 2010, p. 62). While many other sounds could have worked with my marimba loops, these particular sounds do work and should provide me with plenty of musical options.

Listening to the Rhodes improvisations over the marimba loop, I select one of my other melodic or percussion sounds, and begin improvising with it on the keyboard. I play along to both the Rhodes and the loop, responding to this two-part texture. Sometimes the parts I record take the form of counter melodies; other times they are much simpler, such as a single note or two that repeats—a bell tone or a drum hit, filling in the spaces.

Into New Orbits
My soundset leads me to think about alternate musical roles for each sound and I experiment with bringing the melodic parts into orbits they do not usually inhabit. For example, many sections are harmonically anchored by chord progressions on the Rhodes that range from eight to eighty measures, while the glockenspiel, celeste, lead, treble, and echoing-dubby parts typically “decorate” these progressions with shorter patterns of their own. But mixing up the musical roles of each sound opens up the texture of the remix. Thus, in some sections the Rhodes part sounds long ringing tones in a high register usually occupied by the glockenspiel or celeste. This leaves space in the middle register of the music to be filled in a number of ways: it can be left empty to become a space in which the other melodic sounds are foregrounded; or a chord sequence normally played on the Rhodes can be sounded instead on the bubbly steel-pan like Lead, or the brittle sawtooth Treble sound. Alternately, if the Rhodes moves into a very low register, momentarily functioning like the sub bass, the bass is free to move to a higher one. As I try out numerous combinations, swapping parts and pushing each sound into new orbits and roles, the remix process reveals itself as a kind of puzzle: How many ways can these materials be combined? Whatever I choose to do, changing the role of one sound simultaneously opens up spaces for the other sounds to do something different too. In representing my remix as horizontal strips stacked upon one another like an arrangement of Lego blocks, my music software encourages me to think in such modular terms. As Roger Linn notes, “People don’t play traditional instruments so much anymore, but rather, they play computers […] manipulating objects that they found the same way they do in the art world. I like to call it OOC—object-oriented composition—where the art is in your combination of objects’ (Roger Linn, “Mr. MPC: Roger Linn”, Remix 9/1, 2007, p.51).

Finger Drumming
I play all of the percussion sounds by finger drumming on the keyboard.

drumming on keyboard

Figure 5. Finger drumming on a MIDI keyboard controller

The photo in Figure 5 is of me finger drumming while experimenting with different tom-tom patterns for one section of Splash. As a percussionist, I hear music through the skill set and sensibilities I have at acoustic instruments that I can strike, and when I listen to percussion parts I imagine the physical moves required to play the rhythms on an instrument such as a drum set or hand drum. I hear rhythms as physical possibilities, resonating in sympathy with them, trying to feel their patterns as I might play them myself, and I rely on my embodied memory of how acoustic instruments channel and resist my actions. The notion of musical resistance is discussed by the percussionist Fred Hinger in his book Technique for the Virtuoso Timpanist. Hinger observes that every musician must overcome the resistance of his or her instrument in order to get it vibrating, but percussionists face a uniquely difficult situation in that their instruments “are the only ones not in contact with the player before the instruments are vibrated” (Fred D. Hinger, Technique for the Virtuoso Timpanist, 1975, p. 2). Hinger’s observation about the challenges faced by percussionists also pertains to the electronic musician who works with software. Like the percussionist, the electronic musician is necessarily at a distance from the physical life of sound. Despite this limitation, stimulating discoveries that may arise out of points of contact between the musician and his/her software and MIDI controller need not depend on previous experience with acoustic instruments. As Tara Rodgers observes, “digital music tools have their own accompanying sets of gestures and skills that musicians are continually exploring to maximize sonic creativity and efficiency in performance” (Tara Rodgers, “On the process and aesthetics of sampling in electronic music production”, Organised Sound 8/3, 2003, p. 315).

Indeed, finger drumming on a keyboard reframes my existing skill set and drumming sensibility, allowing me to access ways of putting together rhythms that have little to do with the physical experience of conventional drumming. With drum sounds mapped out along the twelve semitones of the keyboard, my fingers find patterns and sound juxtapositions that would not occur to me on a drum set. Listening back to some of the patterns I have recorded, I realize that I am unable to air drum to them since there is too much happening simultaneously; to play all the parts together would require additional limbs. Finger drumming opens up an approach to conceptualizing rhythm independent of particular assemblages of acoustic percussion instruments (such as the drum set) that is similar to programming drum machine parts. As Andrew Goodwin observes, the drum pattern programmer (or finger drummer) may “avoid the tried and tested conventions that the body unthinkingly repeats” (Andrew Goodwin, “Drumming and Memory: scholarship, technology and music-making.” In Mapping The Beat: Popular Music and Contemporary Theory, A. Herman, J.M. Sloop, and T. Swiss, eds., 1998, p. 125).

Editing I: Tuning For Euphony
Having played melodic and percussion parts for all sections of the remix, I convert the MIDI to audio files and begin editing. Returning to the sample edit window, I experiment with moving the pitch of the percussion parts up or down a few semitones. I notice how the hi hat sounds more defined when pitched up 13 semitones. This pitched-up sound surprises me and I make this editing change to all but a few of the hi hat parts. The new hi hat sound encourages me to re-pitch the cymbals, tom-toms, kick drum, and clave/Pulse parts so that they too work melodically with each section of the piece. This audio tweaking makes a substantial difference to how the remix sounds overall: now there is more euphony between the percussion and the keyboard parts. Each change of pitch up or down a few semitones also affords an opportunity to re-listen to each section from that re-tuned perspective.

Editing II: Finessing Transitions
While the sections of Splash are arranged in an order that makes harmonic sense, many of the transitions between them are abrupt because all fourteen parts change at the same instant, creating a sense of information overload. To smooth out the transitions, I mute parts here and there, staggering the entrances of each part (with the exception of the marimba loops which continue throughout as chordal drones). The more I mute parts the clearer the sections sound. Clicking on an audio sequence and dragging it to the right or left, I introduce the sounds gradually, one at a time—like voices entering a communal conversation. In this way, I use the music software to set up musical change through addition and subtraction.

splash muting parts 2

Figure 6. Adding and subtracting parts, one at a time

Adding or subtracting parts, one at a time, in dozens of different combinations, radically changes the texture and feel of each section of the remix. My heuristic for deciding which parts to add or subtract depends on which combination of sounds is most dramatic. The longer I wait to bring in a part, the more interesting the total sound; holding back a part creates a sense of anticipation that keeps the listening engaging—as if the music offers an answer to the question, What will happen next? Even though many of the parts repeat short patterns (especially the cymbals, hi hat, and tom-toms), the overall texture of the music is continuously changing in small ways. As I mute parts here and there I keep the marimba loops and a few other sounds from the previous section (often the hi hat) to maintain an element of continuity. At the end of sections, once the parts have entered, the addition process is reversed and they are gradually removed, one by one. This gradual building up and building back down structure provides momentum to the remix. As with tweaking the pitch of the percussion parts, listening to each section repeatedly to hear how parts enter the conversation affords an opportunity to assess the music from the perspective of the texture of the arrangement.

Editing III: Effects As Musical Change
My final editing step is to experiment with two delays and a reverb I have set up as effects busses. I listen through Splash for moments and parts that might benefit from the effects. For example, a reverb applied to the glockenspiel part makes its high-pitched notes shine and ring long over the other un-reverbed sounds in the mix. In one section I add a delay to the clave/Pulse part, automating the effect so that it gradually increases in volume over one minute. The effect makes the clave part increase in rhythmic complexity as echoes of itself grow in volume and bounce around the stereo field, polyrhythmicizing the notes into new forms. I draw in the automation effect and listen to the results:

effects automation2

Figure 7. Effects automation: adding delay to clave Pulse part

It would be easy to add these and many other effects everywhere in the remix, but I resist. If a part seems to need effects, I add it. Otherwise, the part is left as it is. In this way, the application of effects has its own set of constraints: less is more.

Conclusion: Adapting To The Space Of Making Electronic Music
With the marimba loops in place, improvised other parts filled in, transitions between sections smoothed out, and effects added here and there, the remix as a whole begins to speak and assert itself. Berger describes this experience of realizing that the object created has taken on an affective life of its own:

“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. You stare at the drawing…at what is radiating from [it], at [its] energy” (John Berger, Bento’s Sketchbook, 2011, p. 8).

As with looking at art objects, so too with listening to sound objects. Listening to what for the moment is a finished remix, my attention is directed onto three layers. First, I hear rhythmic interaction between the parts. On this layer I notice the cycling marimba loops, the Rhodes, the call and response dialogue between the glockenspiel, celeste, Lead, Treble, the echoing-dubby sound, and the polyrhythms of the percussion parts. A second layer I hear is the timbral profile of the piece as a thick sound mass that spans the low tones of the sine tone sub bass and the kick drum up to the high-pitched and sparkling hi hats and cymbals. This sound mass is a kaleidoscope buzz of activity and shifting variation. Finally, I hear the remix as a musical clock slow-ticking through its twenty-nine minute duration: the length of the piece is integral to how it feels and how it opens up my perception. Indeed, it takes a while for textures in Splash to unfold: a chord or a single note by one of the melodic sounds is struck and rings for a long time, its sound slowly decaying and fading to nothing; parts entering gradually, one by one. These long sounds and their gradual addition and subtraction contrast with the fast, rhythmically swirling marimba loops. Seconds turn into minutes and the loops take on a different quality, sounding oceanic:

My acquaintance from ten years ago from the Lower East Side was right: remixing one’s own music is a dynamic way to understand the possibilities of electronic music and sound generally. But the experience of working with music software has its own tensions. On the one hand, I am intrigued by the sonic possibilities of looping audio, finding or creating sounds from scratch, and playing and arranging these sounds into sequences. The software allows me to be sound designer, composer, performer, and arranger for a virtual music ensemble of any kind I can imagine. It feels like a route towards a kind of supercharged musicianship, whereby, as Virgil Moorefield observes, “the producer is the artist is the composer is the producer”(Virgil Moorefield, The Producer As Composer, 2005, p. 111). On the other hand, I also notice a gap between my notion of making music by playing an instrument and the more passive experience of interacting with software by looking at a screen and touching virtual buttons, knobs, and faders. (There are, of course, many electronic music hardware controllers that make the experience of interacting with music software more physically engaging. Hardware such as Native Instruments’ Maschine, Ableton’s Push, Livid Instruments’ Ohm64 and Base, and Novation’s Launchpad function as MIDI and effects controllers, drum machines, sequencers, sample triggering and playback devices. Some electronic musicians have also used videogame controllers, smartphones, as well as other homemade devices as interfaces with which to interact with music software.)

And yet, despite these tensions, I have made discoveries through both approaches to making music. For instance, I improvised parts on my keyboard, trying to capture mistakes-and-all performances and make musical decisions in the passing moment. But in listening to and looking at my sounds and performances as objects in my software, I embraced additional techniques simply by experimenting ad hoc—turning knobs and faders to adjust sound parameters, soloing, muting, or dragging a part somewhere else, adding effects, re-pitching and editing, and listening to how this experimentation affects the sound. In some cases—as when I re-pitched some marimba loops downwards by fourteen semitones—this experimenting proved to be crucial to the overall sound of the music. Thus, the space between my improvising a part and my subsequent interaction with it after the fact demonstrates that the making of electronic music never ends with its composition or performance. One action is always a potential starting point for a next step.

In his phenomenology of the natural world, philosopher-ecologist David Abram notes that our bodies “subtly adapt themselves to every phenomena they experience” (David Abram, Becoming Animal: An Earthly Cosmology, 2010, p. 251). In my experience as an amateur electronic musician, this phenomenological stance also speaks to the ecology of making music using software. Indeed, the most surprising aspect of my remixing project was realizing the extent to which I had begun to adapt to the experience of making music on a computer. By paying attention to the sounds and structures opened up by the software—by the marimba loops and other sounds, and by the effects and editing possibilities—I felt myself developing what Abram calls a “keener perception” of their “manifold depth and dimensionality” (ibid.: 217). Sitting in front of my laptop with headphones on, staring at the screen, I listen repeatedly to the remix as it develops, searching for the hidden worlds within the sounds and paying attention to the possibilities for them to always become something else, forever changing.

splash full arrangement

Figure 8. Full arrangement of Splash remix

Listen to Splash here:

On Leanne Shapton’s “Swimming Studies”

“Swimming is my disembodied youth, yet I am rapidly becoming the embodied present.”
Swimming Studies, (187)

Swimming Studies by Leanne Shapton is one of the more poetically precise and evocative non-fiction books I’ve read in a while. It’s a meditative memoir consisting of a series of autobiographical vignettes, illustrations, and photographs that explore the author’s experience swimming competitively as a child and recreationally as an adult in pools around the world.  Shapton, an illustrator and author, qualified for the Canadian Olympic trials as a teenager, and much of her book looks back on this time in her life through its textures of experience. Over the course of thirty brief (6- to 15-page) chapters–”Practice”, “Etobicoke”, “Goggles”, Swimming Pool”–she dissects a personal past and present in and around swimming and water, chronicling a life by remembering an old self through the prism of the present.

Swimming Studies is a celebration of many small yet acute observations–such as noticing tile designs on a pool floor, the look on someone’s face, a frozen landscape seen from a moving bus, the feeling of hearing a piece of music while being driven to early morning swim practice, or the sensation of moving through water. Here, for example, is Shapton explaining what it means to have a “feel” for the water: “It’s a knowledge of watery space, being able to sense exactly where my body is a what it’s affecting, an animal empathy for contact with an element–the springing shudder a cat makes when you touch its back” (210). Elsewhere, Shapton elaborates on what she calls the “metaphysical” aspect of swimming. “The body immersed” she says, “feels amplified, heavier and lighter at the same time. Weightless yet stronger” (188).

In celebrating small observations, much of Swimming Studies examines how memory–that force that links the past with the present–can be triggered by sights, sounds, and especially, scents. In the chapter “Fourteen Odors”, Shapton provides an inventory of over a dozen different odors through thumb-sized watercolor designs and short text descriptions. For example, number 13 (an orange-ish blot) reads all of seven words: “Fingernail: Chlorine, barbecue potato chip, wool mitten.” At first glance, such brief observations seem pithy. But then you find yourself trying to recreate the nexus of scents in your mind as you read. (I do remember wool mitten scents, actually.) A good deal of Swimming Studies‘ minimalist approach works like this: revealing just enough to get the reader imagining along.

Shapton’s inventories pop up again in “Size”, a chapter that features a series of photographs of bathing suits the author has purchased and used over the years in various places. The suits are displayed, one by one, on a mannequin torso–photo of the suit on one page, detailed description of the circumstances of its acquisition on the facing page. It’s here that Shapton’s artistic approach is felt in how she systematically dissects a physical artifact taken from her life. After fifteen pages or so, the photos and descriptions begin their work, drawing you into Shapton’s lived history while maintaining a kind detached objectivity. The catalog-like layout works precisely because it’s at once personal yet distant. Kind of like an art exhibit.

***

I enjoy books that grow out of a writer’s deeply felt understanding of an activity, a process, a craft, or way of experiencing the world. (For example, see Scott Jurek’s Eat and Run, Matthew B. Crawford’s practical-philosophical Shop Class as Soul Craft: An Inquiry Into the Value of Work, and David Abram’s ecstatic phenomenology of perception and the senses, Becoming Animal: An Earthly Cosmology.) For me, the key in these kinds of autobiographical non-fiction works is how the author renders his or her experiences on the page as well as the clarity of the descriptions, reflections, and analyses. By these measures, Shapton’s Swimming Studies is pitch perfect, its content matching its form and vice versa. I came away from it not only feeling that I gotten to know a thoughtful stranger with interesting things to say (“You can’t choose what you’re good at, but does that mean you should do it?”, p.252), but that I had also learned something about our potential for understanding with all of our senses the worlds we live in. Meaning: if you can’t write it, draw it, or take a photograph. Just capture it, somehow. In sum, Swimming Studies conveys the sensibility of someone well attuned to the resonances of her own life and that’s what makes the book well worth reading.

And oh yeah: What exactly, you ask, is the music connection here? Well, I thought that with a title so tantalizingly close to Drumming Studies (just substitute “dru” for “swi”) and a book cover image (of a blue swim cap) that looks, to my biased eye, like a drum head already, how could this book not be musical in some way?

Real/Fake Drumming On A Fake/Real Keyboard: Thinking About Virtual Musicianship

The photo is me–playing a percussion part on the keyboard. This is one of the stranger wonders of the digital turn in music over the past quarter century: triggering sounds with instruments or controllers that themselves have nothing to do with those sounds. I don’t mind playing drums on the keyboard though. In fact, I’ve become pretty adept at it–learning to play snares, kicks, tom toms and cymbals by switching among those plastic black and white keys. Sure, I could get a fancy controller with squishy rubber pads to drum on (and maybe I just will and report back to you on that), but squishy rubber pads are still not real drums now are they?

I took this photo while in the middle of working on a project precisely because I was so immersed in the moment, experimenting with different tom-tom patterns. Like a deep sea diver coming up for air, I suddenly gasped at the strangeness of me drumming away on a plastic MIDI keyboard and not really caring about it one way or another, so focused I was on the sounds and the patterns. How far I’ve come in my electronic music enculturation! Or should I say: How low I’ve fallen! Whichever it is, how did I get to this musical place and is it a good thing or a bad thing or a neutral thing that I’m here?

Having been a percussionist for a fairly long time now, I still filter any music I hear or make through whatever skills and sensibilities I have at acoustic instruments that I can strike. Here’s a simple example: When I listen to the drum/percussion part of a song, I imagine the physical moves required to play this rhythmic pattern on an instrument like a drum set. It makes little difference if the part I’m hearing is human- or machine-generated–either way I hear it as a physical possibility. In this sense, I resonate as if in sympathy to the pattern, trying to feel it as I might execute it.

This is as it should be: acquired music making skills shape how we listen to music. But there are limitations here too. Indeed, how hard it is to free ourselves of thinking through our existing musical skill sets to imagining worlds beyond them! This, of course, is one of the reasons why musicians practice all the time: to keep expanding the range of what is possible to do at an instrument (and therefore imagine at an instrument). Practice is one way to expand. But what my plastic MIDI keyboard points towards is ways of accessing putting together rhythms that have nothing to do with the experience of drumming.

I find this prospect both fascinating and dismal. Fascinating because just about anything is theoretically possible when patterns can be programmed instead of played. Dismal because I wonder if the Royal Order Of Musicianship is ultimately under long-term threat from the programmers. I’m kind of joking with all that haughty capitalization, of course, but I’m serious about some kind of oral tradition lineage ultimately being endangered. (Seriously: What are the stakes for our using electronic simulacra of acoustic musical instruments?)

What is ironic is that I’m negotiating this landscape of worry myself as I make music on my computer, thinking about how my musical skills are simultaneously atrophying in some ways while truly expanding in others. And I can feel the tension as I cling to older ways of making music. For example, I still build my patterns “by hand” as it were, playing them one note at a time on the keyboard, because it’s only in the process of playing that I feel like I can exercise my musical sensibility. I could draw the notes in or cut and paste them around, I suppose, but these processes don’t feel real enough for me. It’s easier to just play and see what I can come up with on the spot. Playing also encourages me improvise and build phrases that lean towards longer than shorter.

This, finally, is why I took the photo of my finger drumming on the keyboard. It’s just a lot more fun to play something than to turn a knob, or tweak, filter, or process a sound. And so that’s what I was doing in that musical moment: playing a pattern, one note at a time.

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.

On Motion, Repetition, and Transformation: Robin Harvie’s “The Lure Of Long Distances”

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!

On Practicing Wonder: David Abram’s Becoming Animal

“This whole terrain is talking to our animal body; our actions are the steady reply.”
- David Abram

David Abram is a phenomenologist and ecologist who is interested in “the qualitative language of direct experience” (289).  And since his 1996 book The Spell Of The Sensuous, he’s been on a mission to get his readers to tune/re-tune their animal senses “to the sensible terrain” (3) of earth in order to become more deeply connected with its powers. This “sensible terrain” includes the “more-than-human community of beings that surrounds and sustains the human hub-bub” (9)–you know: insects, animals, trees, rocks, dirt, air, flowing water, mountains, sun, clouds, wind, rain, and snow. In other words, Abram is asking us to pay close attention to nature wherever we might encounter it, to attune ourselves to all its non-human inhabitants, their moods, their rhythms, and their affect–as if we’re being spoken to. And he wants us to not only listen with our whole beings but also listen to ourselves listening. It’s an approach Abram associates with many indigenous communities, for whom “everything is animate, everything moves” (269). This kind of body-listening–being aware of our “animistic inclinations…underneath all our literate logics” (276)–is a step towards valuing the earth’s fragile (and ever threatened) ecology as well as a way of releasing in ourselves powers we never knew we had.

Becoming Human: An Earthly Cosmology (2011) is a remarkable and passionate book whose power derives from how it “attends closely to the sensuous play of the world” (298). In fact, the book is largely about the experience of perception and its texture. Drawing inspiration from the phenomenological approaches of Edmund Husserl (1859-1938) and Maurice Merleau-Ponty (1908-1961), Abram grounds his writing in his ongoing, open-ended and always changing relationship with the world. As I suppose other writers do too, except that few of us take the time to capture our perceptions so vividly. The book is structured around a series of topics that Abram explores and unpacks, ranging widely from shadows and depth to the materiality of things, language, reciprocity, mood, mind, and magic. There’s so many engaging perceptions thrown at us in the course of these chapters that it’s difficult to know where to begin a summary. What follows, then, are some highlights.

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In his chapter “Wood and Stone”  Abram elaborates on the power of a large mountain to literally knock us off our feet, then later shifts gears to explain the power of Van Gogh’s painting to stir us. Two very different presences, to be sure, but they both “beckon to us from behind the cloud of words, speaking instead with gestures and subtle rhythms, calling out to our animal bodies, tempting out skin with their varied textures and coaxing our muscles with their grace, inviting out thoughts to remember and rejoin the wider community of intelligence” (40). In the chapter “Mind” Abram urges us to loosen our conception of mind in order to locate it out in the world rather than merely inside us. “Sentience” he says, “was never our private possession. We live immersed in intelligence, enveloped and informed by a creativity we cannot fathom” (129). Recounting his first extended stay camping alone in the woods as a college student many years ago, Abram describes the texture of partaking in a non-verbal, more-than-human creativity:

“I was thinking, yes, but in shifting shapes and rhythms and dimly colored vectors, thinking with my senses, feeling my way toward insights and understandings that had more the form of feelings blooming in my belly than of statements being spoken within my skull” (112).

In the chapter “Moods”, Abram wants us to realize how deeply our moods or feeling states are embodied and triggered by the weather, exploring torpor, lucidity, stillness, wind and rain. Our moods are not internal things, he says, but rather “passions granted to us by the capricious terrain” (50). Neuroscientists would no doubt have a field day with Abram, vehemently disagreeing with his locating of mind outside the human brain. But Abram speaks from deep experience of directing his attention “toward the odd otherness of things–holding our thoughts open to the unexpected and sometimes unnerving shock of the real” (153). This is hilariously illustrated in Abram’s account of how he once used fear-induced singing to stun a large group of seals into curious submission.

The most compelling part of Becoming Animal is the chapter “Sleight of Hand” where the author recounts his adventures studying with tribal magicians and medicine persons in southeast Asia. Abram, a sleight of hand artist himself while in college, travelled to Asia to study magic but ends up learning about perception–which begins as soon as he encounters powerful teachers for the first time and immediately feels physically ill–only to realize that “I was misinterpreting sensations that simply were very new to my organism” (207). Magic is all about perception, of course, and Abram notices that his teachers–mediators as they are between the human and non-human worlds–are diligent students of other creatures. Magicians and healers study other animals in order to more fully identify with them, bringing their honed powers of empathy to bear on their therapeutic work with other humans.  As Abram observes:

“The more studiously an apprentice magician watches the other creature from a stance of humility, learning to mimic its cries and to dance its various movements, the more thoroughly his nervous system is joined to another set of senses–thereby gaining a kind of stereoscopic access to the works, a keener perception of the biosphere’s manifold depth and dimensionally” (217).

One of Abram’s teachers in Nepal, a man named Sonam, asks him to spend time focusing his visual attention on a rock, as if trying to get inside the rock’s presence. Next, Sonam adds listening to the mix, asking his student “to gather both of my listening ears into that small point in the air where my eyes were focused. What?!? (…) Sonam was simply asking me to concentrate my listening upon the very location where my two eyes were already focused” (242-243). After working with rocks, Abram is asked to focus on a raven perched at a distance–to look right at the raven just below its eyes for an extended period. Then the ante is upped again as Abram is asked to bring his tactile sense to bear on his attention exercises with ravens. Can he try feeling with his body what the bird is feeling?

Where are these exercises going?  Sonam wants his student to grasp a kind of ESP-like interspecies deep kinesthetic empathy. Abram’s break-through happens one day when he watches a raven struggle to move a rock and then feels this straining inside his own body. Remarkable! It’s through these kinds of perceptual exercises with Sonam that Abram realizes “the astonishing malleability of my animal senses” (251). Moreover, each sense is informed by the others and “as we explore the terrain around us, our separate senses flow together in ever-shifting ways” (ibid.). This sets the stage for a frankly awesome descriptive investigation of shapeshifting in which Abram describes witnessing Sinam metamorphose into a raven and then back again into human form.

Abram eventually unpacks how this (probably) happened (237-241). Yet, even with this explanation, the links between the magician’s “kinetic invocations” (239) of the raven and their deep impact on Abram’s recalibrated senses are fascinating to ponder. And Abram, ever attuned to mysteries beyond his comprehension, leaves open the possibility that perhaps his teacher really did turn into a bird. The enduring truth about human perception, he says, “is that our bodies subtly bend themselves to every phenomena they experience (251). The question for all of us is: How far can we take our perceptual bending?

As a musician and someone interested in the phenomenology of making and listening to music, I found  much of interest in Becoming Animal. First, the book is a manual about human perception and how we experience the worlds we inhabit. Perception includes, of course, what we can touch, see, smell, and hear. Perception is “the sensory craft of listening” (289) with our bodies says Abram–listening to our environment closely, to one another, and to “the sonorous qualities of our voice and audible sound-spell of our speaking”(ibid.). As cliché as it may sound, Abram has helped me listen more closely–to the whooshing trees in my neighborhood and even the quiet hum of my computer’s hard drive. Once you read Abram a lot of things seem more alive.

Second, as a manual about perception Becoming Animal is also a treatise on attuned, phenomenological writing. Page after page Abram models a wizardly ability to conjure the life force and energy of whatever it is he’s describing–whether it be a rock, a bird, a person, a feeling, the voluminous depth of a shadow, the stars or sky. This is very fine descriptive writing that reveals and resonates far beyond its subject matter to bring the reader deep into the insides of things and experiences that we didn’t know had an inside. Required reading, I would say, for aspiring ethnographers.

Finally, Becoming Animal dares to cross all kinds of boundaries–including the human/animal, technology/nature, and sacred/secular binaries–in a search of a level of experience common to all animate beings. The implicit guiding question here is: What does it feel like to really be alive to the world in all its complexity? Abram’s writing explores this question by intimately chronicling his own life and bringing us along on an engaging and often trippy ride of discovery and transformation:

“Reality shapeshifts. Underneath our definitions, prior to all our ready explanations, the world disclosed by our bodily senses is a breathing cosmos–tranced, animate, and trickster-struck” (298).

On Wonderment And Scripts In Electronic Music Making

I always say to myself, what is the most important thing we can think about at this extraordinary moment?”—Buckminster Fuller

There’s a feeling I’m getting used to by now as I make electronic music: a sense of wonderment regarding all the sonic possibilities I’m not exploring at this very (extraordinary) moment. Once upon a time that sense of wonder would stymie me, freezing my progress in the humble here and now with thoughts shaped like question marks circling around the prospect of what could be.

It’s easy for an electronic musician to fall under the spell of what could be. One reason for this is that even the most humdrum of software tools offer a staggering number of  possibilities for shaping sound.  Where shall we go and how will we get there? You’re not limited by your musical-kinesthetic technique as much as your intuitive decision-making skills. In my case, vast worlds seem to open up with a cursory–and sometimes quite accidental–twist of a virtual knob or click on a virtual button. Oh, that sounds cool! (I think to myself) Searching for cool sonics, I spend a lot of time just listening and making little adjustments and gauging their effects. (I don’t remember ever doing enough of this when I was studying music at university–too focused I was on acquiring technique or perhaps learning some piece?) Here I’m reminded of that quote from the composer John Cage about how he never imagined anything before he experienced it.  This has been my experience as well.  As a phenomenologist sitting at the computer, I try this and that until the sensual rightness of something catches my ear and gives me a means by which to imagine.

Moreover, what is in the state of electronic music technology–computers, software, hardware–is constantly evolving, pushing musicians one way or another.  In her article “The De-Scription of Technical Objects”, Madeleine Akrich argues that technical objects have “scripts” or possible “scenarios” inscribed into them by their designers who “attempt to predetermine the settings that users are asked to imagine for a particular piece of technology…” At the same time though, users “may define quite different roles of their own” in their quest for finding new ways of working not intended by the technology’s designers (Shaping Technology/Building Society, MIT Press, 1992, p.208).

So it’s a negotiation between musician and technical object–the “script” of the encounter co-written as it were.

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But back to wonderment. Because the possibilities feel endless, we have to rein wonder in by deliberately limiting our scope, narrowing our focus, paring things down. One strategy that has served me well in my “current” project–begun in 2009!–is to decide on a set of sounds and stick with them and only them. For my project, these sounds include a few not so exotic staples (a sub bass, a bell, a harp, a pad, an organ) plus about six different drum machines (including replicas of Roland TR-808, 606, and CR-78 machines for you gear heads out there). Everything is set up and ready to go so I can work quickly and preserve a sense of play. Also–and this is important–if I can’t find an interesting sound from among these sources . . . then tough luck for me. But I also keep in mind that these sounds are also just a starting point. Indeed, they may well be morphed into new forms later on in the composition/production process.

A second strategy is to build symmetry and cohesiveness into the pieces by moving  parts around from one section to another. It’s a little like the concept of a “common tone” where a note from one chord continues into the following one, acting like a sonic glue. Similarly, a repeating hi hat pattern or a marimba drone can be moved around and used as connective tissue. Of course, the very design of my digital audio software program with its “clips” and “scenes” layout is an example of Akrich’s script that guides my way of working and thinking about musical parts as moveable common tones.

A final strategy I use involves building into each part a sense of directionality: moving from a pattern that is sparse (few notes per measure) to one that is more dense (more notes per measure). In this way, each part develops over the course of its duration (which can be anywhere from 4 to over 100 measures). When several parts of different lengths with different rates of moving from sparseness to density are running simultaneously, the overlapping directionalities can make for interesting listening.

These strategies have served me well.  And I’m always on the lookout for new ones that will focus my work by keeping wonderment about what I’m not doing in check for the moment.

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