On David Esterly’s “The Lost Carving”

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“On go the hands.” – David Esterly

In his book The Lost Carving, David Esterly describes in luminous detail his experiences in the art of decorative wood carving. In the mid-1980s, Esterly, a self-taught carver, worked on a year-long restoration project at Hampton Court Palace, a royal estate in England, to repair and re-carve some decorative carvings by Grinling Gibbons (1648-1721) that had been damaged in a fire. Gibbons is widely considered England’s most skilled wood sculptor and carver, famous for his elaborately filigreed reliefs of flowers carved in limewood.

Esterly kept detailed journals of his restoration work at Hampton Court, and The Lost Carving is a memoir about this experience and how it led the author to a deeper understanding of Gibbons’ techniques and artistry. Part craftsman, part naturalist, part artist, part writer, part art historian, and part phenomenologist, Esterly effortlessly assumes many interpretive stances and brings together a dizzying array of thematic strands in a literary way to shape a story that itself seems carved, so deliberate are its threads. His writing is a deep pleasure to read.

What interests me most in The Lost Carving are its finely wrought descriptions of what it feels like to carve and the complex decision-making in the activity “where the body hypnotizes the mind and vice versa.” There is a lot here about the two-way relationship between action and theory–between doing something and simultaneously asking questions about that doing. The work requires tools and know-how and also creativity and continuous problem-solving–the results of which only appear over time. As Esterly observes simply about this ongoing learning process: “The quality of my errors improved.”

In some ways, wood itself is the star of this book. It’s wood’s materiality, after all, that guides the author in his pursuits and keeps him coming back to keep improving his craft. “The wood is teaching you about itself, configuring your mind and muscles to the tasks required of them (…) The wood instructs the tool in its motions.” The complexities of the wood requires the carver to work “from the bottom up, not the top down.”

I also appreciated how Esterly gets at the underside of what makes compelling sculpture work. Literally speaking, “What you don’t see influences what you see” he says. And a “crucial part of the appearance of an object is the point at which it disappears from the observer’s view.” Reading as I usually do with musical things in mind, I thought about all those hidden parts of musical practice that we don’t necessarily hear per se, but whose presence can be felt by an attuned listener. After all, both music and sculpture are three-dimensional–each with a depth that’s there even if you don’t think you hear it or see it.

In sum, Esterly shows that it is possible to both practice a craft and write seriously and compellingly about it, without one activity compromising the other. The author went looking for Gibbons and found something bigger–the craft of carving itself. “The golden key to the carving was the carving” he tells us. “Gibbons wasn’t the giant whose shoulder I was riding on. The giant was the act of carving, the profession itself: the making of a carving, the making of anything. Making itself.”

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On Salvador Dali’s “The Disintegration of the Persistence of Memory”

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There is something unsettling about Salvador Dali’s The Disintegration of the Persistence of Memory (1954).

On the face of it, it looks like an outdoor scene composed of water, sky, and mountains.

But what about those rectangular blocks and melting clocks?

The blocks convey one time sense moving forward in an orderly way. But the blocks encounter several melted clocks along their path, suggesting perhaps that time is not as “straightforward” as the blocks’ orderliness might suggest. (Melting clocks first appeared in Dali’s earlier 1931 painting, The Persistence of Memory.)

The image also depicts underwater and above water scenes. Yet a glance to the far left of the image reveals that what appeared to be a water line is in fact just a cloaked surface pinned up to some trees that are themselves without grounding.

So what is holding everything together?

Behind the rectangular blocks moving in an orderly way, behind the underwater and above water scenes, and behind the mountains, is a blank field of being. Sky and water now seem like apparitions.

There’s nothing holding this together.

Surreal? Certainly. And thought-provoking too.

On Using Repetition As A Generative Tool: Yu Yamauchi’s “Dawn”

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For five straight months, four years in a row, for a total of 600 days, the Japanese artist Yu Yamauchi lived in a hut near the summit of Mt. Fuji. Every morning at dawn he took photographs of the rising sun, sky and clouds. If you ask me, that’s a cool project.

And the photographs are magnificent.

Yamauchi describes his vantage point at 10,000 feet above sea level as “the threshold between Earth and outer space.” The view, he says in a statement accompanying the photographs, is

“Constantly shifting,
the clouds look like a membrane encapsulating the Earth.
When the Sun rises behind a cloud-forming horizon,
the world that was painted in blue just a moment before
suddenly looks completely different.
I witnessed this magical transformation many times.”

What I find interesting about Yamauchi’s work–notwithstanding the breathtaking photographs themselves–is how it uses repetition as a generative tool. The art maintains a single vantage point and lets the weather of the passing days shape the content of what’s captured in Yamauchi’s lens. The photographer didn’t wait for the perfect day to shoot. Rather, each day he went to see what the rising sun, sky and clouds had to offer. The repetition and variations that mark time’s passing were their own kind of filter–stage one of a process.

You can view Yamauchi’s work here.

Musical Resonances: On Nate Silver’s The Signal And The Noise

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The gist of Nate Silver’s excellent The Signal and the Noise (2012) is that in order to make good predictions about the world we need to learn to think probabilistically. Delving into a range of rigorous case studies ranging from baseball and presidential elections to the stock market, poker playing, global warming and terrorism, Silver observes that in any data-rich environment “we perceive far more inputs than we can consciously consider, and we handle this problem by breaking them into regularities and patterns” (449). The key to clear thinking about the world we live in is “determining whether the patterns represent noise or signal” (240).

Reading as I often do loosely and by thinking analogically, I found the musical resonances of Silver’s book delightful. I was thinking about the components of musical style and how as listeners we seek “ideas and information” (106) in the musics we encounter. Silver defines signal as “an indication of the underlying truth behind a statistical or predictive problem” while noise is “random patterns that may be easily mistaken for signals” (416). For me, these definitions trigger questions about music: What is important in music and how do we know it when we hear it? One difficulty about music as an experience is that is has both signal and noise as integral parts of its fabric. Consider, for example, how many musical instruments–from distorted electric guitars to buzzing African mbiras–have a noise component built into their very sound. Noise is often a major part of the attractiveness of an instrument’s or a music’s timbre.

But thinking about it loosely, there are other, less literal kinds of noise in music too. There is, for instance, the noise of the conventions of a particular musical style, the noise of the cultural assumptions that underly those conventions, the noise of what is popular at this very moment, the noise of nostalgia and references to music’s past in today’s sounds, the noise of musical repetition, the noise of musical technologies and their questing after the ever-new, to name a few varieties.

As for the notion of the “underlying truth” or signal in music though, this just isn’t something we can ever get at conclusively let alone prove. (Does music ever prove anything besides its own existence over time?) But that doesn’t mean that some kind of truth-like essence isn’t empirically real–or at least, real enough that we can feel this essence’s presence. The signal, I suggest, is when a musician (or composer) is able to say something that meaningfully resonates–sometimes across the ages and across cultures and geographies–and cuts through the noise. The signal reminds me of what the art anthropologist Robert Plant Armstrong calls an “affecting presence” (The Affecting Presence: an essay in humanistic anthropology, 1971). When the signal is there, it’s there–we just need to be able to perceive its affect.

This leads us to another theme of The Signal and the Noise: that our thinking is often loose and rife with assumptions that often aren’t well grounded. And it gets worse over time too. Silver: “The blind spots on our thinking are usually of our own making and thy can grow worse as we age” (288) Surely then, we also have “deaf spots” in our music listening habits and practices? If so, how can we become more aware of them and their sources? Come to think of it, is musical “taste” in fact just a deaf spot we mistake for what we deem interesting? Can we tighten the quality of perception we lend to our listening? Could each of us, one day, like and understand all musics?

Notes On A Talk By W.S. Merwin

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When I was in graduate school at NYU, I occasionally spent time wandering the stacks of Bobst Library. With only a subject matter and a range of Dewey Decimal numbers in mind, I’d take to the shelves intuitively–looking for interesting book titles to crack open. One afternoon, while scanning a long and deserted isle of poetry under the indifferent hum of the library’s fluorescent lights I found a book of verse whose title offered the possibility that its contents may have some connection to musical or sonic things. The book was The River Sound and its author was W. S. Merwin.

Flipping through the book I found a poem called “Remembering” that seemed to be about the relationship between music and memory–about how bits of sound can continue to resonate inside us free from their original moments of hearing. Here is the poem:

There are threads of old sound heard over and over
phrases of Shakespeare or Mozart the slender
wands of the auroras playing out from them
into dark time the passing of a few
migrants high in the night far from the ancient flocks
far from the rest of the words far from the instruments

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I thought about this poem recently as I watched a video of Merwin giving a talk (available somewhere on the Authors and Poets Podcast on iTunes). Merwin had quiet sparkle to him as he spoke about the imagination and its links to other distinctively human attributes such as making mistakes, the importance of asking questions, and the value of ignorance. Here are some extended excerpts that I transcribed from the talk:

“Everything happens once. You’re born once. You learn to talk once. You fall in love once. You make every mistake once. It’s a different mistake the second time even if it seems to be the same one. Your mistakes are very important and you should pay very close attention to them.

One of the things that I can tell you….is that you’re very interested in getting from here to there. You’re very interested in finding the answer to the question. You forget about the question in looking for the answer. But the question is really much more interesting than the answer. One you get to the answer you think you’re there, but you’re never there …The fascination with the answer should not ever obliterate the deep respect—endless respect—for the question itself. The question is the thing that goes on opening out, teaching you things.

Your knowledge is wonderful…But in the long run it’s a delusion. It makes you feel like you really know it.

The other thing your ignorance may lead you to is a sense that you are a great paradox. That you are only yourself and that you are connected to everything else at the same time…I believe that respect for your ignorance may lead to you to a sense that everything is connected.

The thing that makes us distinct…is something that on the one side is compassion, and on the other side imagination. Compassion and imagination are part of one another.

Whatever you’re doing, what you want to be watching for is to be doing what only you can be doing. If you’re not doing what only you can be doing—and your ignorance is terribly important in this—you’re going to feel miserable.

Your ignorance is a great gift to you. It’s the link with your imaginations, with your compassion–with all the things that really matter.

It’s the thing that you may hear in Mozart and Mozart may be telling you, and that you may be able to see in Vermeer and that girl pouring a pitcher of milk. The most startling image in painting to me is that milk pouring out of the pitcher.

Why is that so? I don’t know.

Strange Mechanisms II: On Exercise And Musical Tempo

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Last week I found myself thinking about the effects of listening to music while exercising. I run a lot but have never listened to music while doing so. The reason I guess is that I want to listen to the cadence of my feet and hear ambient sounds around me for safety reasons. My attention is diffuse enough as it is–I don’t need more distraction!

Anyway, I was wondering specifically about syncing one’s athletic movements to the tempo of music. (I wrote about music and entrainment a while back here.) What would be my ideal running music? I thought about how I take between 180 and 190 steps per minute, my feet functioning like a steady metronome click. But 180 beats per minute (bpm) is a super fast musical tempo. Here’s a classic drum ‘n’ bass track by A Guy Called Gerald called “Fever” that clocks in at a mere 162 bpm. It’s really fast:

Maybe music with a half-time, 90-95 bpm tempo would be my ideal running soundtrack? (BTW: You can hear a half-time, 81 bpm feel in the Guy Called Gerald Track too: drum ‘n’ bass always had those two layers of musical time going on.) The music would have a lot of delay effects thrown in too to up the dub quotient. By the way, my walking pace is just slightly faster than this half-time pace, falling in the 105-108 bpm range.

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A recent Wall Street Journal article discusses research on the optimal tempo for workout music as being between 125 and 140 bpm “when people aren’t trying to time their movements to the music.” Music with this tempo–such as a lot of contemporary pop–has been found to reduce one’s sense of fatigue as well as boost motivation. And when we do synchronize our movements with the tempo of the music (whether fast or slow), the sounds can increase endurance–our wherewithal to keep going– by altering our emotions and attitude just like any stimulant. The findings of this research, says David-Lee Priest of the University of East Anglia in England, is that music is well-designed to divert our attention away from whatever “unpleasant feedback” exercise presents us with by way of a neurological mechanism. Music interferes with transmission of unpleasant sensations from exercising, such as having difficulty breathing, sweating or stiff and tired muscles.

The full article is here.

On The Influence Of One’s Musical Teachers

In his New Yorker piece “Every Good Boy Does Fine”, pianist Jeremy Denk reflects on taking piano lessons from the time he first took up the instrument at the age five through his college years. Denk’s teachers helped him learn to better practice, interpret and think musically. “Learning to play the piano” says Denk, “is learning to reason with your muscles.” Denk’s most influential teacher was the great Hungarian pianist György Sebők (1922-1999) who spent many years teaching at Indiana University. Sebők was a master who made “the concepts behind the notes” come alive. Sebők could conjure worlds from the piano that felt “like music was escaping from the boring necessity of sound.”

Sebők’s playing a dual role of “spirit guide and physics teacher” in Denk’s life is something that any of us who have closely worked with a music teacher will recognize. Sebők aimed to “bridge the gap between boring technical detail and the mysteries of the universe.” Denk expands on the subtleties of Sebők’s approach as it relates to the complexities of the piano:

“He would make you focus on the myriad hinges of the arm and wrist, sometimes looking for the arm to resemble a sewing machine, with up-and-down linear simplicity, other times looking or curves, circles, spirals. The mechanism of bone and muscle brought to bear on the piano is very complex; the hidden responding mechanism inside the piano is also very complex; and the interaction of the two is a lifetime’s study.”

Particularly interesting for me is Sebők’s belief “that matching one’s motions to the gestures within the music was essential to unlocking the emotions of the piece.” Sebők considered it perverse “to play a phrase with body language that was opposed to the musical idea itself.” Denk’s essay also conjures the deep value of masterclass sessions with Sebők, describing them as “beautiful acts of attention, in which the revelatory detail is cherished for its own sake, freed from the narrative necessities of performance.” Reading this I recalled some of my own practicing during college, but also realized that there are everywhere opportunities for beautiful acts of attention. The  key, I suppose, is learning how to really notice things.

After Denk had finished his studies with Sebők and moved to New York, he did some teaching himself and got some sense of what Sebők may have experienced with his pupils. “When you give ideas to students, they tend either to ignore them or to exaggerate them. The first is distilled futility, but the second is grotesque.” Which leads Denk to reflect on the nature of one’s identity–musical or otherwise: “what if this really is you, and that only through the imitation of the struggling student do you see what you’re really about.” Whatever the case, Sebők’s teachings have remained with Denk. Having dinner with another one of his former teachers at, of all places, an Applebee’s in Florida and reminiscing about Sebők, Denk is surprised that twenty years after his lessons with the Hungarian master he still carries with him memories of how Sebők played Bach and made it feel like music was escaping from the boring necessity of sound.

Here is a video of Sebők discussing the relationship between feeling and music followed by a riveting performance of Bach: