trace – a mark, object, or other indication of the existence or passing of something
Music is a space-generator, and one of the unexpected gifts of being a musician is that making music generates a space in which to think about it. When I play I’m usually thinking about several things at once, including moment-to-moment information generated by the music (e.g. what just happened and what’s to come), the state of my body, and also extra-musical things. Ideas seem to just float around when I’m inside the music’s motion and I can’t stop them.
One such floating idea is the notion of traces—those faint outlines of an experience that remain after the experience itself has passed. Traces are a redeeming quality of both live and recorded musical performances because they save the music from oblivion. As the music comes and goes so quickly that the entire experience can seem to be, in the moment of performance, like a sleight of hand, traces are subjective impressions that for some reason stay with us after the performance is over. I imagine traces as distillations of the essential qualities of a dissipated act—they’re what you remember as being important about the music (or the conversation, or the meal, or the book read) after it has stopped being.
Different kinds of musics leave different kinds of traces. Pop music’s hooks and short phrases leave traces that are like little freestanding photographs taken out of context. I can never remember what comes before or after the catchy parts (does it even matter?), but that doesn’t stop these catchy parts from leaving behind their energized paths to nowhere. Music you heard when you were a teenager can leave deeply etched traces, though we rarely interrogate these traces, choosing instead to revel in how familiar the music still is after all these years. Music that is layered and complex—like say, a Bach invention or fugue, or African drum ensemble music—can leave more amorphous traces (probably much less so for those who have played the music). I recall a theme, but its trace is more of a key than a tune per se—for example, more a C minor ambience than a C minor melody. Some music can leave massive traces, perhaps because it invites us to “fill in” its spaces. Arvo Part’s cavernous music comes to mind here because of its space and its slow tempo: maybe I can recall some of his chord progressions because their walking speeds don’t outpace my recalling! It’s as if the stillness of his music invites me to bring it back to life—at my own convenience.
One way to apply the traces concept in your own listening is to pay attention to what remains of your listening experience after your very first encounter with a piece of music. Sure, you haven’t yet had time to get to know the sounds, but this first encounter still may leave its marks that will guide you on your future returns. Here is the question to ask: What of the music has stayed with you? What traces has it left once it has finished sounding?
I love those listening to music moments when I hear something between what I already know and what I don’t yet know that surprises and invigorates me. These moments can happen anywhere, but often than not I find them in polyrhythms:
in inherent rhythms
or in dazzling chords and harmonic strata
With electronic music, moments of surprise invigoration happen when I have difficulty identifying sounds that inhabit a grey space in the midst of sounds I know I know (from experience playing or making them), sounds I think I know (from my previous listening), and sounds I don’t yet know. The timbral transformations in a recent piece by Autechre (which I wrote about here) fit this bill:
Another example of sounds in a grey space is a track called “Another World” by the French musician Colleen. I find this piece beautiful because it sounds harmonically familiar, yet strange, because it has hard to classify percussive timbres, and because its rhythms aren’t obviously drumming-centered. (How did Colleen create it?) It holds something back from me and so I keep returning to it.
Reflecting on what I like to listen to has gradually altered the direction of my own music making. Where I used to compose pieces for a single sampled acoustic sound, now I combine acoustic sounds with more amorphous electronic ones. I hope the music sounds “natural” (whatever that entails)—but not predictably so. I have an idea of what the music would sound like if it were performed, but I de-stabilize that sound just enough to keep myself guessing. Is this live? Is it through composed? Is it improvised? How was it edited? What instrument is that? Which part was done first? Are all the patterns from a single source? Is it theme and variations? Or variations without a theme?
Once in a while I fool myself—I can’t figure out through listening how the music got from here to there and then over there. (Fooling oneself may be a useful short-term creative strategy.) The grey spaces between knowing and not knowing remind us that music knows many ways to hold our attention.
“The theoretical act involves ‘observing the self observing the music’ (37).
“The logic and sense of music are different from the logic of propositions” (71-72).
“Before becoming a cultural artifact, a style,
or an object of study, music is a presence” (80).
“But to inhabit the world of music, it is necessary to be able to identify that world and refer to it, not its representative. And the only way to refer to it is by reflecting on it as a phenomenal object which one’s abilities recognize to be expressive” (298).
Think of a song
as a mind-expander,
a drug for losing yourself
through its insistent propositions
maybe that’s the thinking
of the subway guitar guy
who plays “Fast Car” each night
choosing just the first bit
that sounds like African kora
looping around and around
setting up what’s to come
it’s so catchy
but he never goes beyond it
to tell Ms Chapman’s blues story
using music for hypnosis
instead of a drive towards change.
“Listening to music on a smartphone is not like listening to music on a Walkman. Again, the phone’s functions undermines one another. We are perennially subject to interruptions and temptations. Dead time—waiting for the bus, waiting in line, and so on—is filled by checking Facebook instead of letting our minds wander. While the Walkman fended off boredom during those same kinds of moments, its effect on our minds could not have been more different. It was a machine for daydreaming.”
-Rebecca Tuhus-Dubrow, Portable Stereo, p. 106.
aim—[verb] point or direct at a target; from the Latin aestimare ‘assess, estimate’
When I’m playing music I’m continually aiming and re-aiming my attention as the music goes along, and my aiming happens on different levels of perception. Since I play mallet percussion, there’s a spatial aiming of my mallet-holding hands along the marimba keys, where the keys are like small targets I need to accurately and reliably locate and hit over and over again. When the tempo is slow or my part is sparse, I have time to make sure my mallets meet every note where and when I need them to. But when the tempo is fast and my part is denser (e.g. chromatic runs up and down the keyboard), I have little time to think through mallet landing points. My aiming relies on a muscle memory that is practiced and quite reliable, though not infallible. Sometimes somewhere along a difficult passage I notice a glitch in my body recall—I’ll slightly overshoot a semitone distance say, or overestimate how fast the fast tempo requires me to play (it’s fast but not that fast). I can practice the difficult passage slowly (which I do from time to time), but I can’t practice aiming for its notes in the charged moment of performance: there’s the aiming one practices in practice, and then there’s the aiming that one pulls off (or not) in performance. Since I perform the same music each week and I have repeated opportunities to practice merging my practice and performing aiming, my goal has become how to more consciously make performing an ongoing practicing.
Another kind of aiming I do when I’m playing music is to latch onto extra-musical ideas that seem to be by-products of the music itself. In contrast to the aiming I do with a musical instrument, this aiming is fuzzier in execution and is best described as being like a radio receiver tuning in to faint signals from various extra-musical realms. Something about playing music seems to facilitate this mystical-sounding stance. These “signals” include memories (personal ones, as well as noticed connections to other musics you’ve encountered over the years), body feedback (e.g. my energy level, posture, tension and relaxation points), information from and on fellow musicians (e.g. I ask questions: Why are they playing just like that? What does that gesture right here and now mean? Are they on auto-pilot, or are they responding to the music as it unfolds? Are they listening to me or just playing in sync with me?), and emotions that arise in the course of playing music.
Of all these signals, it’s music’s emotional effects that are the central target in my aiming. My memories, my body feedback, and my information from and on fellow musicians are all peripheral to music’s power to conjure feeling. When I’m performing, my conjuring goal is to figure out how to make the music as emotionally expressive as it can be. Usually this involves me trying not to get in music’s way by doing only as much as it seems to require. As with many things, less often works out to be more. (Encountering a musician getting in music’s way by doing too much—by overplaying—is a distressing, un-musical experience.) When I’m composing, my conjuring goal is to find sounds, patterns, and juxtapositions that feel like something powerful, something moving. Here too, less is often more. Whether you’re a musician or not, you aim yourself in the direction of life’s faint emotional signals as a grasping after what really matters: Is this experience doing anything to you?