human not machine,
now count it off:
ah one (two) three (four) five six (seven) eight (nine) ten (eleven) twelve…
machined not human,
now count it off:
ah one two three four…
“English choral music was originally meant for worship and would be heard in a state of quiet meditation. Indeed, this music would have been performed (and often still is) by a choir divided in half — facing one another, rather than the congregation. In my own practice writing this sort of music, this is an important distinction: It is an observed private ritual. Nobody is meant to clap, and the music is not presented to an audience for approval; rather, it is meant to guide the mind out of the building into unseen heights and depths.”
“The music ‘seemed to stir in me a vague memory, something that might have come from a dream,’ Mr. Sarno wrote in a memoir, “Song From the Forest” (1993), ‘voices blending into a subtle polyphony, weaving a melody that rose and fell in endless repetition, as hypnotic as waves breaking on a shore.’”
“The rhythms Mr. Alorwoyie plays and teaches belong to a language that has been stored in generations of memory, rarely recorded or preserved. Ewe songs are forms of communication; in some cases, phrases like ‘the lion is coming’ are reinterpreted as drum patterns, part of an alarm system that existed among villages. (Some songs, Mr. Alorwoyie says, routinely contained criticism of different families in a community.) Without a written history, traditional Ghanaian drumming (of which there are thousands of tiny variations) is part of a family of African song forms that don’t fit easily into Western pedagogical models.
“Baseball on the radio also requires sustained concentration. To really understand what’s happening in the game, you need to have followed every pitch in the inning that led to the current moment…This requires that you to hold your attention on a single target for an extended period of time: another effective exercise to sharpen your ability to focus.”
We often think about physical fitness and creative work as completely separate and unrelated domains, but training principles can be applied outside of exercise. Here are a few I have been applying from endurance sports:
The 80/20 Rule
The 80/20 rule suggests that 80 percent of your training should take place at a relaxed and easy or conversational pace. In other words, if you’re running or riding bike, you should be able to hold a conversation while doing so. The thinking behind this go easy strategy is that it gives you a chance to log miles while simultaneously recovering from harder efforts.
The Tempo Workout
A tempo workout (and I like the rhythmic resonances here) brings you up to an effortful level, just below an all-out racing pace. Tempo workouts train you to be comfortable with an uncomfortable and sustained level of activity. If you’re running or riding a bike, you can’t talk much at a tempo pace. You just grunt.
Going long is a workout where you move at a moderate pace for an extended period. If you don’t mind repetition, this is perhaps the most rewarding kind of exercise for the perceptual surprises it brings: a lot can happen after one hour or more of continuous activity.
Maximal efforts are relatively brief bouts of very intense exertion interspersed with rest or walking. What is interesting about this workout type is how it kicks your body into new mechanical gears. When you go this hard your body stretches into new postures, remembering the fluid ergonomics that accompany high speed and intensity.
Fartlek is a Swedish term for “speed play” which refers to a training that mixes up steady-paced activity with intervals of higher intensity. This workout type is fun because you can improvise on the fly.
In my experience, all of these workout types can be applied to creative work fairly directly. The 80/20 rule, for example, can mean that you do most of your work at an easy intensity. Tempo and maximal effort workouts can be applied by giving yourself a tight time constraint in which to get something done (like 10 minutes to generate a new paragraph, or 25 minutes to improvise your way into a musical theme). Going Long can mean staying with a single project for an extended period (like a few hours) without a break, to facilitate what Cal Newport calls “deep work.” And fartlek workouts can be a chance to mix everything up within a single work session–moving among different levels of intensities as you see fit.
The takeaway from applying these training principles to creative pursuits is that different levels of intensity bring with them different kinds of focus. And when you’re trying to make something new, focus is everything.
The cover for my most recent recording, Piano And Metals Music, is a composite of two images: a metallic surface, and fireflies. The metallic idea was mine–I was trying to represent the metal instruments in the music (gongs, kalimba, and finger cymbals, if you were wondering). The firefly idea was inspired by a comment made by my friend Alain, who mastered the music: when he heard those metallic sounds around the piano he pictured forest sprites.
The image of fireflies in a jar has been coming to mind as I’ve been reflecting on (optimal) ways of working. The oft-heard cliché is that projects begin with a seed or kernel that grows into something more refined. But the fireflies in a jar idea conveys something a bit different. First, it conveys this idea of the fireflies as being out there somewhere (imagine a meadow), acting somewhat chaotically, glowing with fluorescent energy, and being indifferent to you. Second, it conveys the idea of your having to actively capture a few of these flying, glowing beauties, acting swiftly to get them inside your jar in hand.
This image analogy can mislead us though, into forgetting that the fireflies are ideas of our own creation. That’s the catch: there are no flying beauties besides what we might conjure ourselves. The creating spirit depends on our learning how to be both the conjurer and the capturer of those conjurations.
(Birds over the parking lot at Ikea.)
Music has many practical uses, among them: it organizes us into communities, soundtracks our rituals and every day routines, accompanies our films, sells our products, and so on.
But perhaps music’s most fundamental purpose is perceptual: music exercises our attention this way and that, stretching our body-minds in multiple dimensions, urging us to feel as we think and think as we feel, to hear emotions in the sounds, inherent rhythms in the rhythms, traces of harmonies in the melodies, making us wonder how it is exactly that foreground and background interpenetrate so. When it’s firing on all cylinders, music is like a virtual workout for our senses.
Each week as I plow through new releases on Spotify—and I do mean plow: sometimes I only last fifteen seconds with a new piece of music (sigh)—I think about what keeps my attention in music. At the risk of circular reasoning, I would say that what keeps my attention is music that makes considerable perceptual demands. Specifically, I like music that is not necessarily difficult but nevertheless creates some kind of perceptual magic. This isn’t magic in a mystical sense, but in the sense described by Stephen Macknik and Susana Martinez-Conde in their book, Sleights of Mind: What the Neuroscience of Magic Reveals about Our Everyday Deceptions: magic as a practice that orients our attention in controlled ways, “creating ‘frames’ or windows of space to localize where and what we attend to” (66). (Read more about their book here.)
As I listen to new music I’m hoping to hear a track that creates a unique frame for my attention, something that enchants and makes me go, Oh, what’s this? How does that work? What’s going on? I move through the micro-style of the moment (e.g. double-time hip hop hi hats, EDM-esque breakdowns, hyper-tuned vocals), the most streamed releases of the week, the re-issues, the new classical interpretations, and the endless new spins on established pop and rock and classical moves. I listen while waiting, trying to be patient, trying to take in more than fifteen seconds, hoping to hear something that works on me like a magician’s baffling sleight of hand.
In the second stanza of his poem “Peter Quince at the Clavier”, Wallace Stevens makes a simple observation about the nature of music with an acuity that exceeds the findings of the most sophisticated music theorists:
“Music is feeling, then, not sound.”
Stevens brings our attention to one of music’s central curiosities: how it’s built from one thing (sounding vibrations) but is about another (felt feeling).
I keep returning to this line whenever I’m assessing music I’m listening to or when I’m working on something of my own. What Stevens understands is the many ways music can do its emotional work not only through its sound, but despite its sound, or in contrast to its sound. Keeping Stevens’ line in mind, I’ll ask myself how the music is working on a feeling level. What is it doing (to me)? What is it trying to achieve? How does it push or pull me along? How the music is working as sound is usually audibly transparent, but its feeling quality is a more complicated matter. A music can trigger multiple sensations simultaneously, like a mallet striking five bells at once: there’s an initial klang, but then you hear all those individual pitches overlapping into a chord and dissipating as they go their separate harmonic ways over time. How do all of us non-scientist listeners unpack this as we go along?
Stevens’ line also emboldens me to be a critical listener: as I listen I want evidence of some kind of emotional stance and if that stance doesn’t materialize sooner rather than later, which is to say that if the music seems to be more about sound than about feeling—I’ll jump ship. Maybe it’s for this reason that I’m weary of virtuosos or those who have pursued a technique to some exaggerated end. Musicians keep your attention through the feelings they generate, not their sounds per se.
The most useful application of Stevens’ line though, is to use it as a creative compass. The next time you’re inside that song, or at the concert, or playing an instrument, ask yourself whether or not the music is about the feeling or about the sound.
When we listen to music
we hear what’s happening in the sounds—
the tempo, the beat,
the timbres, the chord sequence,
the singing, the words sung.
But we also hear what we want to hear:
how the music relates
to musics we’ve already heard,
and to the gaps in our attention—
meaning that there are qualities in the music we don’t hear
because we aren’t attuned to them.
In this way, listening to music
reveals our pre- and mis-conceptions.
You can’t fully trust yourself as a listener
because your listening is always so partial,
so stacked against you,
You could be a more ideal listener
by being better informed about musical things
but that’s a destination never quite reached.
If you were an ideal listener
you wouldn’t need music in the first place.