Alan Watts On Resonance As Consciousness

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In his book The Tao of Philosophy, Alan Watts (1915-1973) talks about resonance as a form of consciousness:

“when I tap on this crystal, which is glass, it makes a noise. Now that resonance is an extremely primitive form of consciousness…when you hit a bell it rings, or you touch a crystal and it responds, inside itself it has a very simple reaction. It goes “jangle” inside, whereas we go “jangle” with all sorts of colors and lights and intelligence, ideas, and thoughts…” (8-9).

A Spontaneous Conversation About The Pragmatics Of Creativity

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“How did you make this?”

“I made it through making a series of small decisions, one after the other.”

“Oh. But how did you know which direction to go in?”

“Each moment prompted a small decision in need of making, which in turn suggested a path forward along which to travel.”

“Did it take a while to travel along the path?”

“It did actually. A fairly long time. After all, there were a lot of decisions to make.”

“When you finished traveling along the path, had you arrived at a place that you expected?”

“No.”

“Were you expecting anything in particular?”

“Not really.”

“So how then did you know you were finally done with your making?”

“It felt done. Plus I had a deadline and I just ran out of time.”

On Creative Constraints: Inhabiting The Midrange In Music

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A few years ago I bought a pair of monitors for my computer for working on music. Since limited desk space was a consideration, I chose a small size: the woofer speaker on each monitor is only about 4 inches in diameter. The sound of the monitors is uncommonly rich and powerful though, with a capacity to reach volume levels higher than I’ll ever need. Overall, they’re great.

But as I worked on various projects I realized that as I descended into the lower range of my keyboard controller, notes would start disappearing. I’d press the key but there’d be no sound. It turns out that my monitors don’t have the extended frequency response necessary to reproduce low notes. In other words, the small woofers aren’t very good with bass–an element of music that is becoming more and more important for listeners. (Read more about this topic here.)

And so I simply stopped working with bass. It wasn’t a conscious decision, but rather a wanting to make music that sounds decent emanating from these particular monitors despite their limitations. As I think about it now, a lack of bass became a constraint that steered me towards a higher-pitched musical register.

Maybe one day I’ll have huge monitors and be way into bass tones. For the moment though, I’m inhabiting the midrange.

Curating The Week: Music-Related Stuff On The Internet

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1. An article about editing in electronic music.

“For me, making an edit is like going on vacation. It’s a way of getting out of your head, your usual creative process, and just doing something totally different.”

2. A brief article about why we listen to sad music when we’re sad.

“Listeners identify with the emotions expressed by the music or the meaning of the lyrics. They seek this kind of identification when they want to re-experience those same emotions.”

3. A six-part documentary about Japanese video game music. Here is episode one:

Notes On Tiger C. Roholt’s “Groove: a phenomenology of rhythmic nuance”

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Tiger C. Roholt’s Groove: a phenomenology of rhythmic nuance is a splendid, rigorous, and brief (140 pp) book that makes a compelling case for something many musicians already know something about: groove. Groove is the feel of a rhythm–that quality of musical time that can make it seem as though the music is pushing ahead or laying back. How a single musician, let alone an entire ensemble, has groove is somewhat mysterious. In a way, the ability to produce and perceive groove is a kind of body knowledge and its feel aspect “is a musician’s datum” (105). Roholt designs his book around four propositions: first, grooves have a feel; second, grooves somehow involve the body and its movement; third, to understand a groove is to feel it; and finally, feeling and understanding a groove does not occur in thought or in listening, but through the body (2).

Roholt introduces his topic through a fascinating account of an early Beatles recording session and two versions of the drum track for the song “All My Lovin’.” The example serves to illustrate how an identical rhythm can sound radically different when played by different drummers with different grooves. Feel in music is the result of numerous nuances that musicians bring to their performances. In the case of grooves, small timing differences can make all the difference between whether a music sounds right or sounds off.

One of the most satisfying aspects of Groove is how Roholt draws on the work of other philosophers and music scholars to make his case that understanding how groove works is best approached not as an analytical project but as an experiential one. In particular, Roholt astutely draws on the phenomenology of Maurice Merleau-Ponty (1908-1961), a French philosopher who wrote compellingly about the role of the body in perception. Here is Merleau-Ponty in his Phenomenology of Perception in a passage that could be describing how we respond to groove:

“A movement is learned when the body has understood it, that is, when it has incorporated it into its ‘world’, and to move one’s body is to aim at the things through it, or to allow one’s body to respond to their solicitation, which is exerted upon the body without any representation” (Merleau-Ponty in Roholt, 95).

To build his argument for how we perceive groove through “a practical, prereflective, non cognitive sort of understanding” (99), Roholt cites Merleau-Ponty’s concept of motor intentionality, which describes a non-cognitive way of knowing, a bodily understanding. Motor intentionality is “a kind of bodily feeling that informs our body’s practical grasp of its environment” (103). Though it may seem obvious, when we perceive and enjoy a groove we do so by grasping its feel through our bodies.

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In a way, Groove is part of a larger academic project over the past thirty-five years aimed at explaining, and more importantly, validating, groove across a range of musics. Some other books concerned with groove include John Chernoff’s African Rhythm and African Sensibility (1978)Steven Feld and Charles Keil’s Music Grooves (1994), Anne Danielsen’s Presence and Pleasure (2006) and Musical Rhythm in the Age of Digital Reproduction (2010), among others. John Collins’s video Listening To The Silence: African cross rhythms also adds to this conversation. Groove–as much as melody, harmony, timbre, or song lyrics–conveys a lot information that we process on an almost unconscious level. Groove is the trace left by music as it moves through time, and it’s also a deep and reliable marker of both musical style and musical competence. It’s for these reasons that Roholt’s book is essential groovology reading for guidance on how to systematically think through musical time–to understand why groove is so groovy. Next time you’re listening to a musician or band play, pay attention to their groove. It will tell you a lot about things your body might have already begun to figure out.

Curating The Week: Music-Related Stuff On The Internet

1. An article about fade-outs in popular music.

“…the fade-out allows a song to live on beyond its physical self; the listener senses that it never truly ends.”

2. A video of a musician using an Elektron Octarack to improvise electronic music.

3. A video about a drummer who imitates machine-made patterns.

“People started to program things that a drummer could no longer do. They came purely out of the syntax of programming vocabulary.”