Freestyle: Music Aphorisms 3


Your resistance to a music is a measure of the music’s capacity
to destabilize notions you didn’t know you hold dear.

The singer of the pop song assumes that if she repeats the chorus enough
someone will believe her.

Classical music’s contemporary uses illustrate how the music has always been, among other things, an aspirational tool and badge—a way of making social class audible.

Music used in advertising prostitutes itself in the sense of misusing its talents
and sacrificing its self-respect for financial gain.

Music is not a way to “express oneself” but a window
onto understanding the mechanics of expression itself.

“Music” is the on-life-support thing that musicians practice all day in conservatories; “music” is the empty promise of every new product in the music store catalog; “music” is riffs strung together and improvised solos transcribed and learned; “music” is the abstract idea pondered by philosophers; “music” is the social presence observed and deconstructed by anthropologists.
And yet…music thrives!

One day at rehearsal the band played the music at 3/4 speed.
“It grooves more” declared the piano player.
“Fast tempos never really groove.”

Drumming for dancers teaches that articulations and accents
need to be exaggeratedly obvious
because your listeners are thirty feet away, not looking at you, and in constant motion.

One way to distinguish “relaxing” music from “contemplative” music
is to check if you’re getting drowsy.

On Spotify’s Vastness Versus Listening’s Smallness  


The other day I was browsing through Spotify’s seemingly endless genre categories (a subject for a future blog post), marveling at how the company’s algorithms manage to carve music into so many micro-genres. In case you haven’t noticed, it’s not just about rock, hip hop, EDM, and classical anymore: through Spotify’s eyes, there’s a musical niche for everyone, no matter how idiosyncratic you think your tastes might be. Scrolling through some classical music playlists (wondering why and how Rachmaninoff and Max Richter came together) I noticed a playlist called “Indian Classical Music For Studying.” And in case you’re wondering if this list has been carefully calibrated for studying, I would say probably not—it’s just a collection of some of the world’s finest Indian classical musicians including Ali Akbar Khan, Imrat Khan, Ravi Shankar, and others. The playing is so expressive and interesting I don’t know how anyone could study with this music on—unless of course you’re studying melodic improvisation, in which case this playlist is an encyclopedia. (Side note: Why isn’t Indian music required transcription material for western musicians? High school stage bands could be arranging these improvisations instead of playing “Birdland.”)

I decided to give the playlist a chance and started listening to Ustad Sultan Khan playing rag Shuddh Kalyan. Khan (1940-2011) was a prominent sarangi player and vocalist. The sarangi, one of many stringed instruments used in North Indian classical music (the most well-known of which is the sitar), is short-necked lute with many strings that produces a hollow, echoing sound. When a musician imitates vocal sounds on the sarangi using little shakes (gamaks) and sliding movements (meends) on the strings, it can sound eerily like singing. It’s for this reason that I like listening to this kind of music because it’s a change from my regular diet of sharp attack, short-decay percussive stuff. Khan plays the Kalyan raga, which is a set of pitches that sound somewhat like the western major scale, though not at all exactly. Khan explores the raga through a thirteen-minute alap, which is the slow and unmetered opening section of an improvisation that introduces the raga over a drone backdrop. I find alaps the most interesting parts of Indian classical music performances because they build so much tension and intrigue before the tabla drums enter and things get more regimented (i.e. a meter is introduced) and therefore predictable (i.e. phrases end in unison on beat one of the meter, etc.).

All of this is digression from my main point: as I listened to Khan’s spaciously expressive alap I thought about the disjuncture between the vastness of  Spotify’s algorithmically-organized content and smallness or specificity of how musicians actually create and listeners actually listen. Listening to Khan (several times now), I marveled at how many tiny details he incorporated into every beautiful phrase. One could spend hours on these ten minutes, finding lessons on phrasing, form, and affect. One could conceivably ignore all of Spotify’s other offerings and spend a year studying “Indian Classical Music for Studying.” I won’t do that, but one lesson from this encounter is that sometimes it’s worth thinking about what the music itself offers. What meaningful sense impression or insight can you extract from its sounds? Does the music leave memory traces? Does it contain moments that resonate with you? Having all the music choices in the world is wonderful, but one can also excavate endless interest within a single performance.

(parenthetical thoughts)

(Harold Budd is walking in sandals around the shrubs and weeds of his backyard in Pasadena, California. It’s mid-afternoon, hot and sunny out. He kicks a stone that triggers a tiny dust explosion on his feet. Over the backyard are two telephone wires, a white bird sitting still on one of them. Budd is thinking about his next project—a live collaboration with a painter friend with whom he has agreed to play piano. Walking around the weeds and shrubs he thinks about how little he cares about the piano and how much more interesting this backyard is. He looks up at the bird on the telephone wire, imagining for a second that the wire is an enormous piano string. How deep would its pitch be—could he even hear it, or would he feel it as a rumble, like thunder at a distance? That could be a whole piece right there. He wipes his brow. The painter will do her thing and Budd will just play…something. He has no idea what though, and prefers to not think about it until the moment arrives and there’s no turning around. Music is too intense to waste time practicing it, right? At least whatever happens will be true to the time and space in which everyone finds themselves.)

On Writing About Music and Making Music


I spend about equal time writing about music and making music and these experiences are quite different from one another. When I’m writing about music I’m on the outside of it, listening in. It feels like the music is far away—as if it’s a foreign craft practiced by a different kind of person than me sitting here deleting words and reordering sentences and trying to get a few ideas clear. Because the music feels far away I keep trying to conjure it up mentally—by remembering a sound, or imagining how it feels to play an instrument, and so on. But even though the music is far away, the flow of writing becomes its own kind of associative music: ideas emerge mid-phrase, concepts connect, and I’ll find myself growing ever more excited about some small thing. In the best moments, writing about music feels like flying at 40,000 feet and seeing the lay of the landscape below. When I’m playing music—improvising myself towards what will eventually be “composed” pieces—the writerly need to define and explain is all but extinguished by my conviction that the sounds are “saying” all I need to say at this moment. If we define music as a special modality of knowing ourselves and the world, then maybe that explains why when I’m playing music my senses feel supercharged—as if memory, perception, and anticipation have found their ideal feedback loop. In the best moments playing music is an ideal mind-body flow experience.

Both writing about music and playing it have their unsettling aspects though. Writing about music is in constant need of reality checks—it has to remember to keep referring to the original sounding sonic sign or else the described signified will float off into irrelevance. At the same time, writing about music has to achieve more than simply enumerating what’s happening over the music’s time. It has to somehow deploy focused thinking on a massive scale to engage and capture some of music’s grand magic. Having good case studies to riff off of helps, but the key is imaginatively conveying one’s deep reading of a music’s significance and implications. In an ideal situation, this kind of writing would be, well, musical. (Which reminds me of Haruki Murakami’s discussion of rhythm in writing.) Though I haven’t figured out how to write like this, I have explored it though my reading of remarkable writers such as Kodwo Eshun, Paul Morley, and David Sudnow. You can learn more about them in my Popular Music article here. Also: go buy their books!

An unsettling aspect of playing music is how easily it co-opts my emotions and entangles me in a polyphony of feelings. (This is why I loathe like TV commercials—the music is telling me what to feel!) As a composer, I’m suspicious of music’s emotional power because that power can be misused, trivialized, or even over-interpreted. To illustrate: I’ll work on twenty pieces, then come back to them a year later (or more), only to realize that twelve of them really suck. They suck in the sense that they haven’t retained the emotional power I thought they once had. I blame my playing ability here, but also my judgment: what state was I in to think that those pieces were any good? Somehow the process of getting into the musical moment back then dulled my critical thinking skills. Fortunately I have an after the fact corrective: throw out all the sucky pieces, leaving only the ones that still sound good. Even so, it’s unsettling to know that I’m frequently wrong about the affect of my own music.

While neither writing about music nor playing music are substitutes for one another, they do have one thing in common: they’re all about affect. Playing music is living the urtext and becoming one with the experience itself, while writing about music describes its meanings and uses, its potentials and ambiguities. Music is the endurance animal, while writing chases after it over a distance, always one step behind where neither one thought it could go.


(parenthetical thoughts)


(One of the most beautiful musical moments that happens from time to time: I’m listening to something and a single tone, moving from a lower pitch to one higher, sends me towards revelation, into a thought cloud realization that I may have music all wrong. It’s not the sound that’s beautiful (the piano is nice enough), it’s not the speakers reproducing that sound that sound good (they sound good enough), it’s not even the uniqueness of the sound (not so unique) that compels me. What makes the music beautiful is more immaterial: its capacity to send my imagination soaring just long enough to notice the moment that has happened and is now gone.)

Resonant Thoughts: On Pascal Quignard’s “The Hatred Of Music”



“Music is what man owes to time” (85).

“It is possible that listening to music consists less in distracting be mind from ‘acoustic suffering’ than in struggling to reestablish animal alert. What characterizes harmony is that it resuscitates the acoustic curiosity that is lost as soon as articulated and semantic language spreads within us” (7-8).

“Music is like panicked smiles” (32).

“Sounds also form chains as days pass. We are also the object of an ‘acoustic narration’ that in our language has not been given a name, like ‘dreams.’ I will here name them surging hums. Hums surging unexpectedly when we walk, surging suddenly, according to the rhythm of our gait” (33).

– Pascal Quignard, The Hatred Of Music (2016)

On Music Performance As Epistemological Journey


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!


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.


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?


* 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.)

Curating The Week: Alan Watts, Jonathan Gold, Kelela


• Alan Watts makes a musical analogy.

A food critic interviews himself about how he came by his views of a restaurant.

“Because [chef] Jordan Kahn is playing with modes of dining that have never before been articulated. Because months after your meal, images and juxtapositions will flash through your thoughts, as vivid as they were the evening of your dinner. Because Verspertine is in its way perfect.”

An interview with Kelela.

“There are no black women geniuses that are being named in canons. I could name a bunch but it’s not part of common knowledge. It’s not how the world is taught to think about black women.”