On Presence And Perception


“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).

On The Nature Of Blogs III


I have written before (here and here) about the nature of blogs and blogging. To add to that discussion, here’s four more ideas to add to the pile. This blog may be more for me than for you (though you’re welcome to it) because it’s an opportunity to:

practice writing publicly,

exercise efforts at inquiry and invention,

document links with previous writing (as the posts accumulate, the possibilities for linkages expand),

and re-align alleged interests with true interests (the cumulative theme of accumulated blog posts is what it is).

On The Wisdom Of Online Listeners: Thinking Through A Performance Of Steve Reich’s “Music For Pieces Of Wood”


Sometimes a piece of music and an exceptional performance of it seem to telegraph to us some of the information we would need to know about what it is, how it works, and its presence in the world. Such may be the case with a rendition of Steve Reich’s “Music For Pieces Of Wood” by the esteemed percussion ensemble Nexus.

Composed in 1973, “Music For Pieces Of Wood” is scored for five sets of tuned claves. One percussionist plays a steady timeline to establish the tempo grid for the piece and keep the other musicians in sync. A second player adds a repeating 12-pulse pattern. The other three players then add to the texture by playing the same yet rhythmically displaced pattern as the second player, building their parts up one note at a time. As the piece unfolds through different variations on this idea, the effect is hypnotic–like a slowly unfolding musical puzzle.

The Nexus performance of “Pieces Of Wood” is from a 1984 concert in Japan and has been viewed on YouTube over 140,000 times. It’s a masterful performance that is seriously unified, controlled, and ritualistic. What I found equally interesting though, were all the viewer comments about the clip. By turns insightful, humorous, analytic, and impressionistic, the comments reflect something of music’s ability to create order, conjure feeling, and embody ideas. Sifting through them, harnessing the collective perception of online listener-viewers, we get a picture of Reich’s music and Nexus’s performance of it as they are responded to by their global audience. Take them or leave them, here are some of the comments:

“Being in the now.”

“This is what white guy rhythm looks and sounds like.”

“The gentleman in the middle is almost superhuman in holding the rhythm.”

“Concentration at the highest level.”

“It works!”

“Amazing rhythmic exercise.”

“Why wood anyone want to listen to this?”

“Wonderful and inspiring how such simple things can create such beauty.”

“There are layers being made gradually, creating a significant shape.”

“Static arrangement gets upside down with a single accent moved.”

“This music makes you wanna dance to it.”

“And finally techno was invented.”

“Sounds like African music.”

“This must take so much concentration.”

“This song is a bit repetitive and a little hypnotic.”

“The guy in the middle is a machine.”

“This is confusing to listen to, trying to keep track of all the rhythms and the different wood sounds.”

“God has truly given humans extraordinary abilities to create extraordinary works […] of direct expression of the vast capability of the human mind.”

“What happens if one of them has to sneeze?”

“I thought I was hearing delay in this…I had to open it in two windows.”

“The concentration required for Reich’s music is cray awesome.”

“The way each [musician] builds the rhythm gives so many interpretations.”

“It seems music but it’s meditation in disguise.”

Richard Powers On Divisions In Music


“Music doesn’t mean things. It is things.” – Richard Powers

In a recent interview on Radio Open Source with Christopher Lydon, novelist Richard Powers spoke about his new music-saturated novel, Orfeo. Powers makes a probing–and somewhat problematic–observation about the source of what he calls “the real division in music.” What he’s referring to, I think, is the reason why some people have a fascination with some types of music and loathing for others. Here is Powers:

“The real division in music is not highbrow-lowbrow. The real division, it seems to me, is music that appeals instantly through sonority and a reduction in complexity and using repetition as a way of creating the propulsion and the hook and the forward motion. Versus music that’s developmental and needs to change the way narrative changes. And that requires memory to know how far that theme is traveling.”

On the one hand, Powers’ observation is probing because it gets at one of the signal differences between classical and popular musics. Classical music–much of it anyway–is often built on elaborate and extended chord progressions. As we listen to a symphony, the sequence of chords lead us, metaphorically speaking, on a journey that could be likened to a narrative. Popular music–much of it anyway–is often built on a much shorter sequence of chords. (Some popular music today just hovers with presence around a single chord.) When we listen to say, Beyoncé’s latest, we listen for the groove, the sound, a voice, or maybe a repeating chorus that’s so catchy. True, speaking of “classical” and “popular” like this is painting with broad strokes, but in general these differences between the different idioms have been, and remain, quite real.

On the other hand, Powers’ observation is problematic because it hints at a judgement leveled at all those musics that don’t adhere to the classical idiom’s narrative mold. Look again at some of his language. He speaks of a music that “appeals instantly through sonority,” involves a “reduction of complexity,” and uses repetition to create propulsion, hook and forward motion–as if these are bad things! But they’re good things, are they not?

In fact, even a cursory glance through late 20th- and early 21st-century music reveals that developments in the sonorities of timbre (think electronic music), the reduction of complexity (think minimalist art), and the propulsion and forward motion of repetition (think African American popular musics) have been paramount to music’s ongoing story. In other words, they’ve been very good things! Some of this development has been inspired, in one way or another, by electronic music technologies such as the synthesizer, the drum machine, software sequencers, and other interfaces. That’s also a good thing.

Which brings us back to Powers’ point about how music that appeals instantly through its sonics and its rhythmics doesn’t require memory the way music that harmonically unfolds over time does. He’s probably right. But then again, maybe our perception about what is good and interesting music is itself shifting. If music, as the musicologist David Burrows suggests, is a virtual model of our experience in the world (“the urgencies and the passions of living are among the things that music models”), maybe our go-to musics tell us something about our changing capacities to pay attention to, engage with, and remember with music.

On The Music Making Of Jon Hopkins

“My general view is just to have absolutely no planning in place at all and just to let my instinct kind of run wild a bit.” – Jon Hopkins

Lately I’ve been enjoying the music of English composer Jon Hopkins. His recording Immunity (2013), shortlisted for last year’s Mercury Prize, is a tour de force in affect, groove, and sound design. Hopkins has his own organic techno-ish sound as well as a kinetic way of performing his intricately crafted music live.

One of the pieces that captured my attention was “Abandon Window,” a decidedly beatless five-minute ambient piano piece. The music is built on a sequence of nine chords that move glacially and repeat. After a few repetitions the piano begins developing a tail of ghostly reverbed resonance behind it. This tail gradually grows in thickness, becoming a chordal wash. By 3:30 the piano is all but gone and only the reverbed resonance remains, repeating and fading, the nine chords of “Abandon Window” having left their trace. There is a clarity to this music–its process is simple to discern, yet its sound still engaging to behold.


There’s also a clarity to Hopkins’ thoughts about how he makes his music. In one documentary video we learn about his views on improvisation, making his own sounds, synesthesia, and music-induced altered states of mind:


In another video we see Hopkins performing his music. What is noticeable here is how kinetic Hopkins is while interacting with his tools. His musical system incorporates several touchscreen Korg Kaoss Pads that allow him to improvise changes to the music in real time. Seeing this lively physical interaction–Hopkins throwing his fingers down like darts onto the pads–gives us the sense that the music is truly in the moment. Above all, Hopkins is deeply into his material and this is what holds our attention:

On A.R. Ammons: “A Poem Is A Walk”

“Poetry is a mode of discourse that differs from logical exposition. Poetry is a verbal means to a nonverbal source. It is a motion to no-motion, to the still point of contemplation and deep realization. Its knowledges are all negative and, therefore, more positive than any knowledge. Nothing that can be said about it in words is worth saying.” – A.R. Ammons

For a stretch of a few years I forgot how much I enjoyed the poetry and artistic stance of A.R. Ammons, until recently when I came across an interview with him in the Paris Review. In 1967 Ammons wrote a remarkable essay, “A Poem Is A Walk,” that explores the phenomenology of poetry. The piece takes a formalist approach, claiming that poetry isn’t “about” anything but its own working out of form through space and time. In fact, there is nothing we can say about poetry that it can’t say better itself. As Ammons notes, “Nothing that can be said about it in words is worth saying.”

Ammons illustrates his argument by comparing a poem to a walk. How, he asks, would one teach a class about walks? What is there to teach? You could ask what they’re good for, or what they mean (to various walkers, to history), but that would miss the point of their essential four experiential qualities–qualities that they share with poems. First, they make use of the whole body. Second, they are unreproducible. Third, they turn, one or more times, then return home. Finally, they have their own kind of internal and external motion that can only be experienced by entering into them.

What I find intriguing about “A Poem Is A Walk” is how deeply it speaks to the experience of music. Both music and poetry are constantly studied and analyzed, but never to their deaths. Both are modalities of knowing that seem to elude full explanation. They don’t argue, they’re just themselves. Even as we try to explain them, they keep going about their expressive work, unfettered. There’s something wonderful about this fact.

You can read the essay here.


Now back to that Paris Review interview. Ammons elaborates on some of the themes he expressed in “A Poem Is A Walk.” He speaks of the impetus for writing and the creative process:

“The invention of a poem frequently is how to find a way to resolve the complications that you’ve gotten yourself into.”

He speaks of the need for a poem to be autonomous and self-directed:

“What we want to see a poem do is to become itself, to reach as nearly perfect a state of self-direction and self-responsibility as can be believably represented. We want that for people too.”

And intriguingly for those of us thinking through music as we read Ammons thinking through poetry, he speaks of ignoring the Western tradition, trying to make poems that inhabit their own “bare space”:

“I have tried to get rid of the Western tradition as much as possible. You notice I don’t mention anything in my poetry having to do with Europe or where we come from. I never allude to persons or places or events in history. I really do want to begin with a bare space with streams and rocks and trees. I have a little, a tiny poem that says something about the only way you can do anything at all about all of Western culture is to fail to refer to it. And that’s what I do.”

You can read the interview here.

On The Drumming Of Tony Allen


In his memoir Tony Allen: An Autobiography of the Master Drummer of Afrobeat (co-authored with Michael Veal, Duke University Press, 2013), the eminent Nigerian drummer recalls the influence of American jazz innovators on his own musicianship. It was in the playing of the African Americans such as Elvin Jones, Art Blakey, and Max Roach that Allen heard a familiar sound:

“The way they were drumming, it had all the spirituality and all the celebration in it. It wasn’t English. It wasn’t Western. It wasn’t what Gene Krupa was doing. It was a whole different language. We should have been playing the drum set like that in Nigeria. After all, it originally came from here. They took it, went there to the Americas, polished it, and sent it back to us in Africa.”

“Guys like Max and Elvin and Blakey and Philly Joe [Jones], they were telling a story on the drums. Krupa wasn’t doing that. These guys were telling a story by playing different rhythms, and they were doing it with independent coordination. That’s the way the drums should be played, man” (46).

Intriguingly, part of Allen’s inspiration for his polyrhythmic Afrobeat style came from his initial misunderstanding of what he heard the American jazz drummers doing on their recordings. “To me it was impossible” he said, “that it was only one guy playing all this stuff” (50). Allen recreated the sound of what he thought was more than one drummer playing at once.

Here is Allen drumming Afrobeat in the recording studio. Notice how supremely light and relaxed his touch is:

My full review of the book is here.