The perceptual key to effective writing—words or music, it doesn’t matter—is getting into a space of concentration. I call this the Quieting process: a narrowing of attention where the present is felt as a fully enveloping perpetual now. Yesterday’s work is gone—you can barely recall it!—and tomorrow remains a question mark. You’re left with only this sentence-in-progress in whose tensioned midst you’re ensconced, wondering how it will resolve, or this melody’s trajectory, singing just like so at this micro-moment as you listen to it dissipate, and only then, once it has faded, do you consider your next move. The Quieting process’s narrowing of attention also effortlessly silences naysaying’s resistance. Which brings up an ironic fact about it: Quieting is less something you try to do and more a by-product of doing the work itself. As the words or sounds draw you into their spaces, the “right” direction seems so beside the point. You can proofread or proof-listen for sense later, but right now it’s an adventure. When you’re Quiet, the sound of meaning is clear.
Golf Course, Zen Garden
Cymbal, Water Wavelets
Artwork (Piet Mondrian, “Composition with Grid IX”), Ableton Push Controller
• A six-part podcast, Ways of Hearing.
“Digital time is not lived time–it’s machine time.”
• An article on how magic exploits the quirks of perception.
“My team’s work reveals that the art of magic also relies on an analogous, but opposite grand illusion, in which we are blind to the prodigious clairvoyance of our visual system – which makes us see hidden things. Exploiting either of these grand illusions not only requires skill and knowledge on the part of the magician, but also chutzpah, because he or she must place absolute faith in the counterintuitive quirks of the spectators’ visual systems, and allow them to produce the real magic.”
• An article on playing the piano music of Chopin.
“Chopin forces you to think of time sensually, forces the pianist to acknowledge the connection between the body and duration.”
The thing to do
says the artist,
is to begin anywhere—
so get going
and make something up.
That’s how it starts.
But there are two keys to ongoingness.
The first key
is withholding judgment
about your beginning,
going and making.
The second key
is moving it forward
by asking “Why not this?”
over and over again.
Though it may not be the most accurate way to describe what I mean, willy-nilly listening captures the random element of how I often encounter music as it accompanies other things. It’s overheard in that loud car that zooms past, it’s background for those TV shows, it’s keeping strangers on the subway at bay by filling headphones, it’s the latest pop hit soundtracking the moment that is this week. Most of the music I notice I can’t really control (which is the number one reason why I compose).
Willy-nilly Listening also describes some of my deliberate listening as I keep up with trends or re-visit agreed upon old gems. I skip around from one music to another, sometimes listening to just a few seconds as if taunting the music, come on, let’s see if you can hold my attention. (I’m somewhat ruthless about not giving musics the benefit of the doubt. It has to prove itself on its own terms.) Sometimes after skipping around for days or weeks I’ll return to one piece and obsess on it, playing it over and over again, trying to figure out how it works–or not figure it out and just bask in its workings. If a music has made it this far up my attentional ladder, I might then see how it fares when I play it in juxtaposition with say, Messiaen or Autechre–just to mess with it a bit. The point of this exercise is to ask: What is this music doing that other music’s don’t do? But now I notice how those other (older) musics are still working their respective magics. What were those musics trying to do that hadn’t been done? All of a sudden my willy-nilly listening reveals itself to having more goals that I realized.
“Music is a machine for producing anticipation” notes the critic Dave Barry in his book The Music of the Future (118). Barry’s idea strikes me as a fundamental insight about how all musics work—from the mood music in TV ads, to Bach’s fugues, to pop and jazz and EDM, to West African dance drumming, to even ambient music. In generating perpetual anticipation, music brings a method to our attentional madness, giving us a series of cues for what to attend to and how to attend for as long as the sounds last. (“Music” said one of my teachers, David Burrows, “is a hypothesis that works for a while.”) When we listen we’re always comparing what we’re hearing to what just happened and what might be around the corner, suspended in a state that, for me anyway, is halfway between dreaming and perfect lucidity. Whether our listening is willy-nilly or not, there are few better ways to spend our time.