brettworks

thinking through music, sound and culture

Category: synesthesia

Notes On “Arvo Pärt: 24 Preludes For A Fugue”

“A composition comes as a single gesture which is already, in essence, music. (…) The compositional task is to find the appropriate system for the gesture.” – Arvo Pärt in Paul Hillier, Arvo Pärt (Oxford U. Press,1997), p.201

In the documentary “Arvo Pärt: 24 Preludes For A Fugue” there’s a remarkable seven minute scene (10:30-17:02) in which we see the composer explain his thinking about melody and his perception of musical affect. In the scene, Pärt is giving an informal masterclass for young musicians. He’s seated at a digital piano, his giant hands spread over the keyboard. “I’ll show you the beginning” he says, leaning over the keyboard to find the right preset sound. Then he begins to play “Für Alina” (1976), a brief piano solo considered to be Pärt’s first work in what he calls his minimalist “tintinnabuli” style.

“Listen to this voice” Part says as he very slowly and deliberately plays the right hand part. “Quite neutral.” Then Pärt plays the second, lower part with this left hand. “Also neutral” he says, describing its affect as a single melodic line. “Both together” he continues, combining the two hands. The sound is “a bit more serious or complicated. Like two people whose paths seem to cross, and then they don’t.” Part plays the two parts, listening to their blend. “There is some neutrality here.”

***

What is Pärt referring to when he speaks of “neutrality”? I don’t know. Then the composer changes course. He’s trying to explain to himself and for the students watching him at the keyboard what this piece of music–indeed, what the act of composing music–is fundamentally about. “I’d say that I had a need to…I wouldn’t call it neutrality.” Pärt describes the perceptual focus he’s trying to achieve through his music. As he describes this focus he shifts from one sensory modality to another–from heard sound to seen nature to the perception of time itself:

“A need to concentrate on each sound, so that every blade of grass would be as important as a flower.”

“This is actually…It could be like a break on the radio. Such signals sometimes sound as if they lasted an entire life. Or future, or past, outside time. Like I said, a blade of grass has the status of a flower. To see in this tiny phrase, something more than just the black and white key. And further…Hold that note…It’s not the tune that matters so much here. It’s the combination with this triad. It makes such a heart-rending union. The soul yearns to sing it endlessly. Listen…”

To explain how “Für Alina” is more than a matter of its tune, Pärt then compares the design of a composition to the gestures of a conductor which seem to contain the work’s dynamics:

“I imagine the conductor having an upbeat when the whole thing starts. We can’t hear anything yet. And the people in the concert hall don’t know what’s coming. Then the conductor makes the upbeat. The upbeat, the moment when he raises his hand actually contains the formula of the entire work. Its character, dynamics, and plenty of other things.”

For Pärt, the composer is like the conductor in having “knowledge or a perception of what’s coming when the hand goes down.”

He concludes by asking the students where exactly a piece of music begins. Is it the first moment of a sound, or does it start on the upbeat of the conductor’s silent gesture? “What is the first note? And what’s the second one? The first step is everything, decisive. This is a complicated story.”

The students smile.

“I don’t quite understand myself. But I have an idea of what I want to say. I’m always looking for it. Sometimes it comes easily, sometimes it doesn’t come at all. Every time I feel I have to start from scratch.”

To watch the scene, scroll to 10:30 in this video:

Notes On Magnus Nilsson’s “Faviken”

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In Bill Buford’s insightful essay that introduces Magnus Nilsson’s Faviken cookbook (Phaidon), Nilsson speaks of feeling, touch, and vibration when explaining the transcendent quality of French chef Michel Bras‘ cooking:

“I don’t think I can describe it. Or not in technical terms, because it has nothing to do with technique (…) It’s in an extra feeling that Bras has for the food (…) It’s a touch. He has a way of communicating with the dish. A plate comes alive when he makes it, and it vibrates. Do you understand? It actually vibrates, especially if you’re open to that kind of experience.”

On Finding Cross-Sensory Inspiration: The Spell Of Michel Bras

The Michelin-starred, self-taught French chef Michel Bras may as well be a music composer, such is his multi-sensory approach to his culinary craft. In the ambient and thoughtful documentary Inventing Cuisine: Michel Bras (2008), directed by Paul Lacoste, we see Bras at work on the kitchen–poaching fish, peeling veggies, brooding over his (fascinating) sketchbooks, and generally just looking concerned, lost in thought, and worried about the state of things in his kitchen. But we also see Bras outside in the blowing wind, under overcast skies, finding inspiration in the shifting play of light, wind, rocks, grassy hills, and whatever else he notices in the rugged environment near his restaurant in Laguiole, a remote area in southern France.

In one scene from the documentary (which begins at 4:57 in the YouTube clip below), we find Bras outside observing the sky and landscape through a piece of glass he’s set up on an easel. Like a painter, he’s trying to literally “frame” a piece of his environment by tracing what he sees directly onto what is essentially a translucent canvas. Later, Bras will use his glass tracing as the basis for designing the layout of a new dish on a dinner plate (which we actually saw Bras assembling just before this scene; so much for proper film chronology). “Everyone has their own reading and rewriting [of nature]” says Bras. “The plate is the most difficult part. It’s a sky on a stormy night. The backlit cloud bank captivates me, so maybe I’ll paint it on a plate.”

This scene reminded me of composers finding inspiration (or the idea/ideal that composers find inspiration) in their environments by turning their ears towards say, the rhythmic sound of city traffic and hearing music as with Steve Reich’s City Life (1995)

or maybe noticing the enchanted aura of an old cathedral and imagining out from there as with Claude Debussy’s La Cathédrale Engloutie (1910, performed here by the composer himself in 1913!)

or otherwise paying attention to something else that they want to translate from one medium into another.

And back to cooking, this is what is so fascinating about Bras in this scene: the cross-sensory nature of his creative process. As is the case with someone who experiences synesthesia (experiencing one sensory domain in terms of another–like hearing a chord and seeing the color purple, etc.), Bras is taking in something visual but funneling it through olfactory means: a sight becoming a taste (not to mention a texture, a set of relations and contrasts). It’s all about one of my favorite processes: transformation. And not only does Bras work cross-sensorially to transform elements from one sphere to another, he also gets deeply into the materials of his craft:

“For years, I’ve been interested in the abstract side of things. I get into them, I identify with them. In cooking, I often identify with the ingredient. I try to understand it, become one with it in order to recreate it.”

Finally, like a composer who knows how different rhythms and harmonies will interact to make an enchanting sum greater than its humdrum parts, so too does Bras knows his edible materials well. For instance, he attributes his interest in pastry to the fact that they have a structure that can be altered in a predictable way: “You put in flour, add sugar, you know the outcome.” Bras, then, is a materialist, but like good artists in other fields, he’s a materialist fueled by imagination and the sense(s) to change one kind of matter into another:

“I have a physio-chemical approach to food that helps me enormously. Because I learned on my own it was a real struggle. Today I can sense and predict the transformation process.”

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.

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