On Music Performance As Epistemological Journey

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An idea that has influenced me this past year comes from the writer Geoff Dyer:

All the best essays are epistemological journeys from ignorance or curiosity to knowledge.

I have mentioned Dyer numerous times on this blog. He’s the author of a remarkable fictionalized non-fiction book about jazz, But Beautiful, and a classic set of essays on photography, The Ongoing Moment. He also recently wrote a luminous piece in The New York Times on the jazz trio, The Necks. Dyer’s work introduced me to the writing of the late John Berger (who I have written about here), another influence on how I think about and through music. I’m such a fan of Dyer and Berger that I suggest you stop reading this blog and just read them instead!

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Dyer’s idea of “epistemological journeys from ignorance or curiosity to knowledge” reminds me of what I find most compelling in music: following the line of a musician’s thinking over time. This line can be manifest in a melody or a rhythm, or more generally in one’s sense of phrasing—how one groups together and articulates a collection of notes to suggest a larger unit.* Following the line in music is a very old idea, but in a lot of music these days, it’s hard to hear the line. Much pop and electronic music, for example, is deeply Gridded: all of its parts are digitally synced with one another, loops and clips in lockstep, sections unfolding in 4 or 8 or 16 or 32 bar units, and beats quantified or randomized to a master 4/4 clock. There isn’t much “air” in this kind of music, and consequently it’s hard to hear—for me, anyway—any nuanced thinking over time. Is this one of the trade offs for the astonishing level of control made possible by our digital musical tools? Does it illustrate how we have less and less to “say” in the old-fashioned, linear and wavy, this now that way? I blame Grid controllers, Grid sequencing, and Grid mindset for this state of affairs, but once you get off machine-synced music’s matrix the air clear a bit.

Dyer’s essay as epistemological journey strikes me as having musical applications. Consider a scene: a musician picks up an instrument and begins to play. Maybe there’s an audience, maybe not, but the essential thing is that the musician is playing off the Grid, keeping their own time through their body, not through an external clock (or conductor). Imagine you’re eavesdropping on this person: you hear them begin slowly, getting reacquainted with their instrument again, moving from tentative not knowing towards knowing more about the situation in which they find themselves today. The musician is improvising, following the line of his own devising.

You might also notice that when the musician follows the line of the their music making, you can hear them exploring its implications, noting the good bits as they arise and circling around them, repeating them for further interaction. You hear them going down dead ends (a chord that goes nowhere or doesn’t do enough to set up the next moment). You hear them get lucky and find what they weren’t expecting, saying something neither you nor they thought they would say. You hear them relying on, and trying to break free of, tried and true techniques that have worked in the past. You hear them trying to maintain the music’s energy level, or otherwise modulate it along different intensities. You hear their technical limitations. You hear the ergonomics of their interactions with their instrument—the composite shape of their body fitting itself to the axe. You hear them trying to spin a narrative out of a few threads. You hear them passing by perfectly good motifs deserving of another go around. You hear them quoting others. You hear them eager to resolve the music and bring it to some kind of sensible end. You hear them stop playing.

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When Dyer speaks of an epistemological journey, recall that epistemology means the theory of knowledge, specifically the ways and validity of how we come to know what we know, and that a journey is an act of traveling from one place to another. Yet a journey also has deeper connotations relating to personal change and development— as in, for example, the way John Coltrane’s music was said to articulate a spiritual journey. What I most like about Dyer’s epistemological journey is its sense of the writer or musician moving towards a kind of mini-enlightenment right in front of us, in real time, sharing the elements powering his or her transformation as objects for scrutiny. It’s as if the essay or musical performance questions, queries, and productively undermines its own processes over time—“breaking good” on itself as Anthony Brandt and the David Eagleman put it in their recent book about creativity, The Runaway Species.

A few times a week I see a young boy playing classical musical excerpts on an electric piano in the subway station. Playing Mozart, he’s really good: his fingers know the notes so well that he can look around while he plays. But the boy looks bored to me and although he owns his dexterity, his phrasing is frantic—there’s no sense of him following the music’s line—as he races through the piece so more people will stop and give money. Dyer’s epistemological journey idea urges us to reflect: How do we know what we know and come by that knowing? I think about these questions now when I encounter anyone playing music. And from here more questions flow: What is the musician doing, or trying to do? Is the music a memorized piece (or formulae or pattern), or improvised according to a set of conventions? Does the music’s sound fit with the musician’s gestures? How does spectacle impact the music? Is there feeling I can feel? How does the music keep itself aloft on its own energies? What makes it special? Is the musician following a line through the music? Do I believe what they are saying and on what grounds?

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* I first learned about following the line through my percussion teacher, Russell Hartenberger, who told me he learned it from one of his teachers, Alan Abel. (You can learn more about Hartenberger’s writing here.)

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