Lessons From An Interview With John McPhee



In an interview with The Paris Review, John McPhee discusses ideas about writing process and structure. Here are some highlights:

 “The fundamental thing is that writing teaches writing.”

 “Structure is not a template. It’s not a cookie cutter.
It’s something that arises organically from the material once you have it.”

 “Ideas occur, but what I’m doing, basically, is looking for logical ways in which to subdivide the material. I’m looking for things that fit together, things that relate. For each of these components, I create a code…”

 “If you’ve got good juxtapositions, you don’t have to worry about what I regard as idiotic things, like a composed transition. If your structure really makes sense, you can make some jumps and your reader is going to go right with you.”

 McPhee has also written about process and structure here.

Notes On Richard Powers’ “Orfeo”


“The use of music is to remind us how short a time we have a body.”
-Richard Powers

Richard Powers’ recent Orfeo is a troubling yet inspiring study of the power of music to shape a person’s life for both good and bad. The novel is the story of Richard Els, an elderly composer. Though he attended a prestigious Midwestern music school during the heyday of the American avant-garde movement in the early 1960s, had some operatic success thirty years later, and spent several decades teaching music at a small liberal arts college, Els is somewhat of a professional failure. He’s highly trained and talented, hears deep meaning in music, yet the world has largely ignored his own creations.

When we first meet Els, he is all but retired, having recently turned to gene splicing as a hobby in his home microbiology lab. Without the acuity to feel music’s effects due to amusia and seeking a grand way to finally make good on his unrealized artistic ambitions, Els is tinkering towards composing music out of bacteria–the ultimate, mutating, and enduring bio-art. As Orfeo unfolds through the present and past, we follow Els as he flees federal authorities who have caught onto his home lab experiments. Meanwhile, through a series of flashbacks, we learn about Els’ life in music as he remembers it and also about exactly how he’s come to be at the center of what is becoming a global terror intrigue.

Powers is masterful at weaving the entire history of western music into Els’ story. Every few pages we encounter significant composers from the European tradition–that “holy society of small discord” (8)–whose music has influenced Els in some way. These composers–a bunch that includes Perotin, Bach, Olivier Messiaen, John Cage, and Steve Reich–have in common music that is both rigorously designed and also uncommonly expressive. Case in point: three-quarters of the way through the book, Powers describes the scene at a university campus coffee shop where Els is taking respite as he flees town. Over ten pages (245-255), Powers describes the moment by moment unfolding of Reich’s “Proverb” on the coffee shop’s sound system as Els understands and admires it and watches its effect on the twenty-something students around him. (Why this piece? Perhaps because its words–“How small a thought it takes to fill a whole life”–illustrate the importance of music in Els’ own life.) “How can simple, pulsing lines build to such tension, when they run nowhere at all?” (250) Els wonders. And this: “The sounds could be an elegy for those scant ten centuries when chant became melody, melody blossomed into harmony, and harmony pushed outward in ever more daring raids on the forbidden” (248).


What makes Orfeo daring and troubling for me are two things: first, its message that music is essentially a dangerous force, and second, the book’s questioning of music’s human social value and direct comparing of its workings to biology. For Els, music is a virus, a contagion, a weapon of “mass enchantment” (317). “Life is nothing but mutual infection” he says. “And every infecting message changes the message it infects” (95). And then this: “Life fills the world with copies of itself. Music and viruses both trick their hosts into copying them” (265). Why is all this troubling? Because it rings true. Just think for a moment about a tune you can’t get out of your head: Is it a melody or a virus?


By the end of the book, we learn that Els had begun to see music inscribed everywhere in the world–“deafening festivals of invention for anyone who cared to attend” (332). It’s all a matter of scale: listen close enough and there’s music on the most microscopic levels. Els is thinking about DNA on this zoom focus: “Somewhere in the billions of base pairs in those millions of species there must be encoded songs” (332) he says. All he needs to do is take the music dreams of his youth to their logical extreme–“to reverse the process, to inscribe a piece for safekeeping into the genetic material of the bacterium.” In other words, “put music files into living cells” (333). The music-bacteria would spread around the world and finally everyone would have to listen to this “living music” (346).

To be sure, it’s a crazy idea–Els is grandiose and clearly disturbed about his last-ditch hopes for his creative work: “I wanted music to be the antidote to the familiar. That’s how I became a terrorist” (186) he says in one of the many brief aphorisms speckled throughout the book that in the end turn out to be Tweets from the composer. At the same time, Els’ grandiosity is the perfect excuse for Powers to offer observations on the relentless flow and evolution of musical style: “Now contagion was at the gates, the return of the repressed. Multiple resistant toxic strains were rising up like angry colonial subjects to swamp the imperial outposts” (194).

There’s so much to think through here in the depths to which Powers goes to explore musical experience is such a comprehensive way. Yet, there’s a sense in Orfeo that music is suspect–nothing more than a kind of sonic informational puzzle that tricks “the body into thinking it had a soul” (330), and that the crime of classical music in particular was its “ancient dream of control” (327). Transposed from art onto science, this is a dangerous idea indeed.

On Web Searches That Brought You Here

This post is an exercise in reflexivity and feedback loops.

My WordPress blog homepage provides me with various statistics on total page views, most popular posts (yes, top post honor is still held, by a country mile, by an entry on M.C. Escher), and so on. One interesting statistic is something called “Search Engine Terms.” This reveals the top search queries that led users, in one way or another, to my blog. The queries are interesting because they provide some sense of what readers are thinking about and obsessing over. Here, then, are a few search queries from this past week, along with some commentary:

How did j dilla create his drum sounds?
J. Dilla (1974-2006) was an influential hip hop producer renowned for his beat-making. I don’t know exactly how Dilla composed, but he did sample extensively using an Akai MPC machine. Read more here.

How high is the high note on titanium?
Titanium is a 2011 hit song collaboration by DJ David Guetta and vocalist/songwriter Sia Furler. I believe the highest note sung by Sia is a high e-flat (a 10th above middle C). Read more here.

Proprioception exercises.
Well, this query got me thinking about balance and posture at a musical instrument–crucial things, if like me, you play an instrument that requires you to stand. There are many online tips for developing one’s sense of balance, though none at this blog. Read more about kinesthetic sense here.

How has African music influenced electronic music?
The main influence seems to be the notion of a rhythmic timeline. In African drumming traditions, this timeline pattern is often played on a bell. In electronic dance music, the timeline idea is manifest in the four-on-the-floor kick drum and some type of off-beat hi hat or cymbal part. But it can also be heard in other percolating parts. The key is to make the music have a forward momentum through a steady pulsation. Read more here and here.

On The Paths Of Spirit Music: Ken Hyder’s “How To Know”

“It’s not the music which creates the magic, it’s the magic sitting over, under and all through the music.” – Ken Hyder

Ken Hyder is a Scottish percussionist and shaman. His brief but sparkling e-book, How To Know, is a story about his journey through percussion, shamanism in Tuva, and what he calls Spirit Music. Along the way, Hyder touches on issues of teaching, energy, musical time, listening, and perception. For a sixty-five page book, there’s depth here.

One of Hyder’s first drum teachers, John Stevens, once told him “Go where the energy is.” And so he did, finding energy or Spirit in disparate places. One early path was the Gaelic psalm singing tradition of the Western Isles of Scotland. Here is a clip about that tradition:

Hyder also hears energy in some jazz music. In particular, he cites two “classic Spirit Music” recordings: John Colltrane’s A Love Supreme (with Elvin Jones on drums) and Albert Ayler’s Spiritual Unity (with Sunny Murray on drums). Building on these examples, Hyder describes good jazz drumming as having everything to do with musical time: “There is a tension between precision and looseness…The paradox is that the tempic differences which create the swing are also in fact very precise, and this tension between strict-tempo and loose swing is something which goes throughout music-making.” Hyder describes Jones’ drumming as a flurry of polyrhythm, while Murray’s drumming is “more polytempic than polyrhythmic. He disoriented the listener by speeding up and slowing down.”

Here is Coltrane’s “Resolution” (part 2 of A Love Supreme):

Here is Ayler’s “The Wizard” (track two on Spiritual Unity):


Eventually, Hyder’s own Spirit Music-oriented jazz trio ends up performing in Tuva where Hyder learned that the art of shamanism was there waiting for him to learn. Shamans in Tuva are healers who use frame drums called dungars as their musical/therapeutic tools. “You know, you can heal people from a distance” says one of Hyder’s Tuvan teachers, Kungaa. Hyder learns their craft mostly by osmosis and is on his own when it comes to both the shaman’s way and specific drumming techniques. “None of the shamans who taught me” he says, “ever gave me even a hint of a lesson on how to use the drum. It’s more that they facilitate how you can learn for yourself. Giving you the answers is not the answer.” Hyder learns a lot from his teachers though:

“Everything you do can be part of your spiritual knowledge”;

“a question of how you access what’s inside of you as much as how you access the spirit outside of you”;

“Energy is all around us and we can access and use it in different ways”;

“Getting information through light trance is a complex kind of transmission.”

What, then, is Spirit Music? Hyder says that sometimes it’s difficult to say. Ultimately, determination of the spiritual, “is analogue, and not digital. Spirit is very hard to define, and pin down. You must recognize what you recognize, and go with your feeling.” Still, Hyder is weary of the whole enterprise, even while apprenticing as a shaman in Tuva. “I was very, very skeptical. It was important not to fool myself.”

Despite Hyder’s skepticism about his pursuits, he passes along to us some interesting observations about drumming. Hyder describes the sound of the dungar drum as being “spectacular” at a very close distance. This is the kind of observation only a musician could make–after all, what we hear is never exactly the same as what listeners hear out there (in the audience, on the recording). And the experience of drumming “becomes a part of the psychic state of the shaman. It’s an audible reflection of the unseen psychic state.” Not only this, but the drum itself can function as “a kind of guidance system” for the shaman/musician/mystician.


Reading Hyder as someone with a fairly active musical life myself, what I found most to the book’s point were two passages near its end. In the first, Hyder describes a thought process familiar to anyone who has performed–especially improvised–music: “Decisions. Decisions. Decisions. Based on what? Spiritual considerations or musical considerations?” Here, Hyder articulates the magnitude of what it is musicians grapple with in their evanescent, time-bound work. By what means do we “think” as we play music? One can make a strong case that the best performers tap into some flow zone that resembles what Hyder has experienced in his shamanism studies. Still, there are so many ways to go about making music. You can read the notes, play the patterns, rely on muscle memory, draw on tradition, make it up as you go along…There are many paths.

In the second passage near the book’s end, Hyder has some useful advice for us: simplify. When you feel yourself “nearer to accessing spiritual energy, you make a decision to strip everything down. It is at that point you might consider narrowing your path.”

Here is a short documentary on contemporary Tuva, Tuvan music, and shamanistic practice that’s worth watching. One of the featured shamans, Dugar Suron, says that the twenty-first century “will depend on people coming to understand that we’ve become over-civilized.” At 10:25 we see him perform a healing ceremony for the son of the film’s host.


Literary Distillation: Notes on John Coates’ “Between The Hour Of Dog And Wolf”

John Coates’ Between The Hour Of Dog And Wolf (2012) proposes that our thinking and decision-making are inseparable from our bodily experience, and more specifically, dependent on the various chemicals (testosterone, cortisol, dopamine, etc.) that course through our brains and literally alter our perceptions. His case studies revolve around Wall Street traders (Coates worked in finance before going into neuroscience–how interesting is that bifurcated career?) and their experiences as they go about their jobs.

For years, it was assumed that some traders had an almost magical intuition that led them to be able to read the markets expertly, avoid bad decisions, and make lots of money. Coates doesn’t so much disprove this notion of gut feelings as pattern recognition as much as unpack its biological underpinnings, showing step by step how small bits of information not consciously processed inform traders’ decision-making. What’s fascinating here is how Coates describes the feedback loops that arise: a bit of information hits us, literally changing the chemical state of our body-minds, thus altering our perceptions and ultimately our decision-making and capacity to notice other informational bits. Around and around it goes, and before you know it folks under stress are making bad decisions. As Coates describes the lesson of these feedback loops, we should not be asking whether we should trust our intuitions, but rather “how we can train ourselves to possess a skill that can be relied on” (96). In sum, the book suggests that we re-think the fragility of our thinking and the degree to which body and brain depend on one another.


I found plenty of compelling ideas in this book. Coates’ expertise makes for succinct and engaging writing as he explains the ABCs of neuroscience matters in a clear manner. (Another good book for that is David Eagleman’s Incognito.) I also zoned in on passages on the nature of information. Here is one rich with musical resonance:

“information manifests itself in the shape of novelty. When the world sends us a message it does so through the language of surprise and discrepancy; and our ears have been tuned to its cadences” (132).

As I read, I of course thought about music: about how music that interests us manages to introduce sonic (melodic, harmonic, rhythmic, timbral, dynamic, or otherwise performative) novelty in the form of change or variation or what Coates calls “the language of surprise and discrepancy.” In music, too much novelty or change can be chaotic or overwhelming, and too little can be boring. Usually the music we like has just the right ratio of novelty and repetition or stasis. But it’s interesting how we typically frame our preferences for one musical style or another in terms of unquestioned personal choices (“I just like what I like”) or socio-culturally-shaped interests (“This is what my friends and I listen to”). Reading Coates, I wonder if our tastes aren’t equally a matter of sonics triggering chemical messages deep within us.

On The Trickle-Down Of Electronic Dance Music Aesthetics V: Coldplay’s “A Sky Full Of Stars”

Though it has been fashionable to criticize the English band Coldplay for one reason or another–they’ve been too popular, their music is too sentimental, their singer Chris Martin overuses his falsetto voice–they do what they do well. Their music uses pop materials precisely, and for many listeners, Martin’s concise and catchy vocal melodies are worth the price of admission. As my wife pointed out the other night as we watched the band play two new songs on SNL, while publicly disliking Coldplay has become a kind of meme (see here and here), the band is tight. They do what they do well.

Like other guitar-bass-keyboard-drums bands, Coldplay is also not immune to the changing fashions of popular music. In fact, their recent single, “A Sky Full Of Stars” could be mistaken for a bona fide piece of electronic dance music. A few observations in this regard. First, the tempo of the song is a sprightly 122 bpm–just a few clicks below dance music’s optimal pace range. Second, the song’s harmonic glue is a syncopated, repeating keyboard ostinato that cycles through four chords, each for one measure. (In fact, the ostinato is identical to a well-known African bell timeline pattern: long-short-long-long-short.) Third, the keyboard part undergoes a series of filter sweeps that alter its timbre and adds a sense of tension and forward motion. Fourth, the drumset part is reduced down to a four-on-the-flour kick drum that seems designed for DJ sound systems. (Good luck finding tom-tom fills and cymbal crashes on this track.) Finally, the guitar and bass parts are relegated to secondary roles, effectively decorating that pulsating keyboard part and floating above the kick drum. And the vocals? They’re pared down too–emphasizing a few short, repeated phrases. All in all, there’s constant variation that makes the song build and build.

What I find interesting here is how rock band instrumentation is adapting to the different aesthetic needs of electronic dance music. Coldplay do their adapting well enough that one hardly notices it happening. Still though, there are concessions to the exigencies of pop songwriting. “A Sky Full Of Stars” ends with the band moving to four new chords, as if to provide a sense of song going finally somewhere, at least for its rousing conclusion–in effect saying, We’re not completely dance music yet!


Ventrilo-Dialogue: A Conversation With A Popular Singer

T: Rihanna, thank you for talking with me today.

R: My pleasure, Tom. It’s nice to have this conversational break.

T: I agree. So, lets begin with the obvious. You’re omnipresent in the pop culturescape: it seems that every few weeks one hears your voice on a new song, and your image is everywhere—on TV, in the pages of magazines, on billboards, and so on. One has to ask: Is there a real you behind all the mediated reproductions of you?

R: Well Tom, when I started out in music as a teenager in the Barbados, I wanted to be discovered and “make it” like any other aspiring pop star. Back then, there was a real me. But that soon changed. Once I was discovered, the music industry transformed me into a desire-machine, a voice for hire to sell music and market products to you, the listener.

T: Interesting. I have written before on desiring machines.

R: To answer your question about whether or not there’s a real me: my sense of self these days has been subsumed into the desiring-machine that is the popular music industry.

T: I appreciate your candidness—few performers would reveal so much about the mechanics of the business in which they work. Now, if you don’t mind, I would love to turn now to your voice, since it’s your voice that we hear everywhere.

R: Sure.

T: To start, your voice is odd. I say that because while there’s something appealing about it, it also has a kind of emptiness. In fact, one critic described it as having a “dead-eyed quality.” Your voice doesn’t seem to signify anything or anyone; it doesn’t even seem attached to anything or anyone. It’s almost as if it doesn’t even belong to you. Do you know what I mean?

R: Sure. But remember, people seem to be able to find emotion in my voice even though, as you say, sometimes it seems as if there’s no there there. Sure, my voice could be said to have an empty quality. I’ve thought about this, and started reading up on what various writers have said about voice in general.

T: That sounds fascinating! What did you learn about voice?

R: Well, it turns out that there’s an extensive literature on the topic. For example, the French critic Roland Barthes has a piece, written in the nineteen seventies, called “The Grain Of The Voice” in which he explores the voice’s timbral aspect. Barthes says “the grain is the body in the voice as it sings.” I found this a beautiful formulation and I like idea that our voices encapsulate the rest of our bodies.

T: Yes me too.

R: Barthes also says that the voice is not personal or original, though at the same time it’s always individual.

T: A lot to think through in his work, for sure.

R: Yeah. Other critics have written about the role of the singing voice in operatic contexts and how it constructs desire.

T: That’s interesting, though opera isn’t your scene.

R: Well, no it isn’t. But I do think there are continuities between opera and pop.

T: Such as?

R: Well, one continuity is the notion of being a diva. The more I think about my career the more I understand myself as a kind of diva, and that my voice might somehow sonically construct this sense of diva-ness.

T: The diva as desiring machine! Fascinating!

R: It is! The take away from this is that now I have renewed appreciation for myself as a performer who constructs desire and voices sentiments for consumption on a massive scale.

T: In that sense, maybe the empty quality of your voice has a point, then?

R: Right. And besides, if it wasn’t me, it would be someone else’s voice, right? Plus, it’s fun. Pop music is fun—an experience of pleasure that sounds the ever-expiring moment.

T: Well put. And the money…?

R: …It’s good. Remember, for a few years there, back when people were downloading music rather than streaming it? I had, literally, millions of downloads!

T: True. But tell me, Rihanna, when people criticize your voice, or your perceived lack of stage presence, how do you respond?

R: I don’t worry about it because I know that on a basic level, the sheer presence of my voice on all those songs circulating around is presence enough. In a way, I inhabit anyone who cares enough to listen and remember one of my songs. You may find my voice lacking in affect, but it still affects you as you listen and project your own narratives onto its sound. And so in this way I think my voice works on a quite subliminal level.

T: Popular music is fascinating that way, isn’t it?

R: Yes, Tom, yes it is. We pop singer-divas may come and go, but our knowledge is real: we understand how to voice the musical moment, how to connect listeners to their own experiences through shared song.

T: Well said. Thanks again for taking the time, Rihanna.

R: Anytime.