“Memory glimmers and hints, but shows nothing sharply or clearly. Memory does not narrate or render character. Memory has no regard for the reader. If an autobiography is to be even minimally readable, the autobiographer must step in and subdue what you could call memory’s autism, its passion for the tedious. He must not be afraid to invent. Above all, he must invent himself.”
-Janet Malcolm, Forty-One False Starts: Essays on Artists and Writers (2013), p. 297
“The musician’s power of expression is founded upon a prior obedience. To what? To her teacher, perhaps, but this isn’t the main thing–there is such thing as the self-taught musician. Her obedience rather is to the mechanical realities of her instrument.”
-Matthew B. Crawford, The World Beyond Your Head (2015), p. 128
If, as the composer Steve Reich once said in the liner notes for his Desert Music, the evolution of tonality can be imagined as a raft bearing a flickering flame floating slowly downriver towards unknown waters, then the modern composer’s use of harmony is always worth thinking through. Pay attention to the colors and shades of light elicited in the tone combinations of say, Debussy, Erik Satie, Olivier Messiaen, Toru Takemitsu, Reich, and Arvo Pärt (to name just a few bright lights among my list of favorites) and it’s as if you’re hearing that floating raft of flickering tonality sailing out to uncharted waters, bobbing on the currents the those composing imaginations.
Rachel Grimes’ beautiful piano music strikes me as doing compelling harmonic things too, building itself up and down through simple chord cluster dissonances that shift and evolve and hold their tensions, one small interval at a time. I like all of the pieces on her recording Book Of Leaves, but here are two especially moving ones:
“Mossgrove” plays swiftly pulsating chords in a slow descent from high registers to low ones, texture thickening while fading in volume like dying light, just in time for a harmonic resolution that brings the music to a close. (The version below has strings added–not quite the same version I heard on Book Of Leaves.)
“Bed Of Moss” is a slow climb, playing quarter and half note arpeggiating chords, root bass in the left hand, colors in the falling right, both hands moving inwards until they meet and the middle and the music has spoken. (This video also introduced me to the stunning visuals of Kurtis Hough.)
“But how the paths sounded to me was deeply linked to how I was making them. There wasn’t one me listening, and another one playing along paths. I listened-in-order-to-make-my-way.”
-David Sudnow, Ways of the Hand (MIT Press 2001, p. 40)
Every once in a while warming up before a show I noodle around by playing a bit of Steve Reich’s Drumming on the marimba. Composed in 1971, Drumming is over an hour of continuous percussion music entirely built on just a few pitches arranged in a constellation of eight beats over twelve pulses. This is the core melo-rhythmic pattern:
As I played Reich’s pattern I thought about what makes it so idiomatic for the drummer’s hands. First, there its short-short-long-long rhythm whose composite sounding has the feel of a three against two polyrhythm. Next, the truncated scale: four notes of a minor one, but without the other three notes that would tell us more about specifics. Finally, Reich’s pattern on these four notes bring my left hand on an out-in-out motor pattern, moving from the g-sharp (out or away from me), up to the b-natural (in or towards me), and then from the b-natural down a semitone to the a-sharp (in to out). Simply put, while the right hand stays perched up on the c-sharp, the left hand motor pattern traverses a small in-out path that flows like crazy!
As I played and enjoyed the flow of the pattern I wondered how it would sound and feel in different keys, so I transposed it downwards one semitone at a time to try it out on eleven other starting pitches. But none of these transpositions felt nearly as natural as playing the pattern on g-sharp. Interesting. In fact, some of the transpositions–starting on b-natural, for instance–were seriously awkward to play. Now I wondered: Would Drumming have worked had it been done in a different key? Had it been tried in different keys? Was motor pattern flow a factor in deciding on its key? (So many questions.)
Playing the core pattern of Drumming had me thinking about some other matters related to composing and playing musical instruments. Had the pathways of this pattern, in this key, on this instrument (and not the tuned bongo drums that are featured in the piece’s opening movement), been the impetus for Drumming? I also reflected on how it is that a piece of music that works so well–that sits so well in the hands–can help define a lexicon of movements that are possible along the terrain of an instrument. If you write music for marimba, it’s difficult to ignore the enduring influence of Reich’s distinctive syncopated patterns on your understanding of the instrument’s idiomatic potentials and expressive sweet spots. Even if you’re just noodling around, warming up before a show by playing bits of Drumming, the fact that the piece continues to sound and feel as good as it does as ergonomic percussion music is enough to make you reflect anew on how closely writing and performing music are connected.
Here is part two of Drumming:
1. A conversation between electronic musician Robert Henke and musical instrument designer Tom Oberheim.
Henke: “A lot of successful artists I admire know surprisingly little about technology, and this allows them to use the technology with innocence, but also with informed, artistic ideas. This is extremely powerful. This is not a working path because I understand what’s going on. The type of resonance I need to seek between the machine and me is a different one. I need to find the fascination among the things I know, or on the edge of the things I know. I’m not fascinated anymore by turning the cut of the frequency of the filter.”
2. An article about thinking and complexity.
“Even if we are not scientists, every day we are challenged to make judgments and decisions about technical matters like vaccinations, financial investments, diet supplements and, of course, global warming. If our discourse on such topics is to be intelligent and productive, we need to dip below the surface and grapple with the complex underlying issues. The myths can seduce one into believing there is an easier path, one that doesn’t require such hard work.”
3. A 1966 interview with saxophonist John Coltrane, animated.
“It’s only when something is trying to come through that I really practice.”