Ventrilo-Dialogue: Theorist Versus Pragmatist


Theorist: To compose music is to engage philosophically with music. Music is always about other things–about a bigger picture.

Pragmatist: Not at all–to compose music is to engage tactilely with putting sounds together.
Music is always about just music.

T: But surely you want to know to what end you’re doing the organizing?

P: I know my ends–I’m composing according to the sounds I have and the demands of the gig, the style, the context.
What other ends are there?

T: Well, one end is the bigger picture.

P: That’s vague. Isn’t music’s sound the picture–the picture that your ear takes in?

T: Yes but there’s more. I have the sense that anyone working in music–be they composer or performer or even listener–are in fact trying to do something else or be somewhere else. The picture is elsewhere as it were.

P: I don’t understand. You mean a string quartet playing together or a listener lost in headphone reverie are trying to achieve something outside of music?

T: Exactly! I think we use music as escape, as a way of imagining other states and ways of being, even as a way of experiencing virtual transgression.

P: Hmm. That last bit sounds somewhat radical. It brings to mind Jacques Attali who in his book Noise (1985) said that music is “forecast” and “prophecy” (21)–that music is like a crystal ball of sorts, anticipating future social change.

T: I like that formulation. But I’m convinced that the change music heralds or helps bring about is mostly internal.
What I’m saying is that music is a way to be virtually in several places at once.
In this way it teaches us about ourselves, about how we think and feel.

P: So this is what you mean when you say that music has a bigger picture and that music is always about other things?

T: Yes.

P: Interesting. Okay, now this reminds me of a passage in Ben Ratliff’s Every Song Ever (2016).
Ratliff wonders whether music may be “actually necessary to consciousness.”
He asks: “What if music teaches you qualities of motion, ethics, ambition, in the most basic sense?” (88)

T: I could get behind that formulation.

P: So tell me, Theorist, what is it that you’re trying to do in your work?

T: I’m trying to connect music outwards to so many other realms of experience to show music’s bigger picture.
And what about you, Pragmatist?

P: I simply love making music–the smaller picture, if you will.
As an end to itself, there’s nothing else like it.

T: Now that, my friend, is most resoundingly true!

Curating The Week: On Music Fandom, Aristocracy In Popular Music, And Reggae Drumming Intros


An article about music fandom.

“My fandom is obsessive, possessive and largely static. When I am lucky enough to identify with a piece of music, I cling to it like a relic. There’s no use trying to convince me that my artifact is something other than my own personal Dead Sea Scrolls, something to help me parse or articulate where I fit in the world.”

An article about aristocracy in popular music.

“Pop culture has been firmly overtaken by corporations. Instead of a natural rotation of power, we now have lifetime dictators such as the Rolling Stones and AC/DC, for whom the audience pay for the ‘privilege’ of watching formerly great individuals being propped-up in stadiums or on polo-fields long past their prime, still pretending that they remain the best the world has to offer.”

A history of the evolution of reggae drumming through the drum introductions of Wailers musician Carlton Barrett.

Notes On Kyna Leski’s “The Storm Of Creativity”


“The principal consequence of the creative process is transformation.”
-Kyna Leski, The Storm of Creativity, p.4.

There is a reassuring and distilled clarity about Kyna Leski’s excellent recent book, The Storm of Creativity (MIT Press, 2015). Leski (, an architect, designer, and teacher at the Rhode Island School Of Design, takes you by the hand and brings you to the edge of a lookout point onto the horizon of your consciousness. In the distance a storm is forming. This storm, she tells you, as you watch the swirling clouds against the sky, is a metaphor for the dynamics of your own creativity. Hearing her talk about it, you feel connected to larger forces–weather patterns and air currents, the flow of time, tides of energy. If you understand creativity as embedded in the world around you, you might see yourself and your agency in an altogether new way. “Analogies have their uses” Leski says. “The creative process is bigger than you. It is like a storm that slowly begins to gather and take form until it overtakes you” (x).

Following its title, this book progresses storm-like through a series of brief chapters that swirl around their theme, assembling little bits into a broader argument: “Creativity per se has no formal output; rather, it is an ongoing process” (xxiii). The chapters work in succession, but can also be read out of order, as each one explores a different facet and stage of the creativity as storm analogy. As I read I underlined here and there to remember the bits that spoke to me most.

Creativity begins with problem-making, a kind of stirring, a process that “comes from displacing, disturbing, and destabilizing what you (think you) know” (13). Almost paradoxically, this stirring in turn depends on accepting “the thoughtless and immediate ‘knowing’ of intuition without the support of facts” (11), “dwelling in the uncertain” (28), and having an empty mind in that Zen sense, “a readiness to have no ideas, a true tabula rasa, a genuine blank slate” (16). This allows you to sense “momentary alignment” between you, your materials, or a set of conditions. Leski vividly compares this sensing to seeing a rainbow emerging against sky as water droplets refract light. Creativity also involves a kind of coiled, tensile energy. Among her examples Leski includes photos of expandable and extractable wire structures (24) to illustrate how ideas or art can be a gathered object–“something that holds itself…by its own forces that define it” (52); “the material arranged in an elegant geometry” (53). Whether a building, a story, a painting, or a piece of music, a “creative work is a condensation of its making” (58). As tensile structures, different ideas have different tolerances too. “Some ideas are tight, and others have a loose fit, with wide margins of error” (66).

Two of my favorite parts of The Storm of Creativity are Leski’s discussion of the dynamics of play and, elsewhere, perspective in art. She explains how suspending the need for meaning through a playful approach to one’s materials creates an energy:

“Suspend control of meaning and concentrate on the language’s pattern, and that kind of play generates momentum…Relinquish a correspondence of cause and effect, or where the process will lead (intention), and unburden the play with language from solving a problem (purpose), and you generate further momentum. In other words, work the language itself, not with what the language necessarily represents” (74).

A little later Leski turns to the work of Paolo Uccello (1397-1475), an Italian painter and mathematician. She considers Uccello’s “The Battle of San Romano” as a case study for an unusual multiple vanishing point perspective that was significant in the development of linear perspective in Italian Renaissance art. Here is the one part of the three-panel work:


And here is Leski on it:

“Uccello’s perspective is based…on a vanishing point wherever the viewer looks. He doesn’t place objects within a gridded architectural field that vanishes to these points; instead, he focuses on the perspectival construction of the floating objects themselves…Unlike the perspective systems of the time that were based on a convergent infinity, Uccello’s perspective was based on a dynamic immensity. Wherever you look is the trajectory of perspective” (99).

Reading this passage I was struck by this idea of dynamic immensity because it seems to encapsulate the creativity as storm idea. Wherever you look, ideas are connecting to one another like the air and water in cloud formations, forming masses of energy. Like Uccello’s trajectory of perspective, our job in all creative work is essentially to be flexible in our own perceiving–to find the most productive trajectories for our problem-solving. “Really, really good observation…is how discoveries are made” says Liski (95), and this book convincingly shows in dozens of ways how discovery has its own logics. But let us not forget how storms are also apt metaphors for creativity because of the chaotic and unpredictable ways they form, surge, and dissipate without regard for boundaries. So too with the wild force of creativity. “Discovery and invention” says Leski, “happen outside the existing tracks or matrices of thought within a discipline” (161).

Curating The Week: On Time, Tape Loops, And Harmonica Playing


An article about time.

“Is our experience of time’s flow akin to watching a live play, where things occur in the moment but not before or after, a flickering in and out of existence around the ‘now’? Or, is it like watching a movie, where all eternity is already in the can, and we are watching a discrete sequence of static images, fooled by our limited perceptual apparatus into thinking the action flows smoothly?”

An interview with composer William Basinski.

“I’d tune the radio in to this station, wait until something really string-y came up, either an introduction or an end or an interlude on one of these muzak numbers and I would grab a bit like a measure. Then I’d slow it down and see what I’d got. And it was really interesting because back then there was no Prozac, there were no anti-depressants, there was muzak and it was everywhere. But when you took a little piece of it and slowed it down, like looking at something under the microscope, this rich well of melancholy was exposed. And that really resonated with me.

So I found that these were the kind of textures I was interested in working with, making a tapestry with them, creating cyclic rhythms with them. And the fact that this stuff was leaking out of the airwaves, meant it felt like I was creating something out of nothing. It was one wild, mad experiment. I would set up loops, get them going, put on the tape recorder and let it go for the length of the cassette because if it was going, it captured this eternal moment.”

• A skilled harmonica player improvises over a drone in the style of Indian classical music.