• Another interview with Harold Budd.
“‘My preferred way of working at the moment is improvisation, but not just anything,’ Budd says. ‘I want it to be grounded in something that’s feasible, organic and personal. I try to direct it towards specific goals. To make it sound pretty, frankly – if I can use that word in modern music, these days.’”
• An essay by Jonathan Franzen.
“One of the mysteries of literature is that personal substance, as perceived by both the writer and the reader, is situated outside the body of either of them, on some kind of page. How can I feel realer to myself in a thing I’m writing than I do inside my body? How can I feel closer to another person when I’m reading her words than I do when I’m sitting next to her? The answer, in part, is that both writing and reading demand full attentiveness. But it surely also has to do with the kind of ordering that is possible only on the page.”
• An article about a very realistic sounding artificial voice.
“The method uses a particular type of neural-network architecture to create sound, and is said to represent a significant leap forward in artificial-voice technology. It also raises difficult questions about how close to ‘human’ we want our artificial voices to sound.”
Play for a while—
nothing sounds good,
this isn’t working
Try again, play for a while—
a few moments sounds ok,
but this still isn’t working
Realize you’re not listening to what you’re doing—
so play again, this time listening to what is, not what isn’t:
now you head in a different direction
which wasn’t what was expected,
but maybe it can work
Is there a way out?
It’s such an obviously known fact to us that we never talk about it, but musicians have intimate relationships with vibration. Singers vibrate themselves, string and horn players vibrate their intricate wood and metal contraptions through bowing or blowing, pianists press keys that strike the piano’s tuned strings, and so on. Even electronic musicians are attuned to vibration, though in this case, it’s a speaker that’s vibrating, not the musician, which can make the music feel a little more removed from the musician’s body. (This is compensated for by two facts: 1) electronic music has developed a huge repertoire of strange and otherworldly and larger than life sounds and 2) is often performed at punishingly high volumes that literally vibrate the listener.) It doesn’t matter what instrument you play, what matters is that you know how to get it vibrating in the ways that make the sounds you want to hear.
Percussionists (and I include here drum set-playing drummers) mostly strike various kinds of objects—from hand drums to tuned idiophones to cymbals and brake drums—to get them vibrating. They use their hands and fingers (e.g. on the Indian tabla drums), sticks and mallets (e.g. on marimbas and vibraphones), and even their feet to control drum pedals with beaters or other mechanisms attached to them (e.g. to play bass drums or hi hat cymbals). Today, playing percussion has been democratized through the “finger drumming” that musicians do with varying levels of skill on the little rubber pads on hardware sequencers. In this way, now anyone can be a drummer.
Another known fact rarely spoken of is the joy the percussionist derives from the fundamental act that sets vibrations in motion: striking. Whether you’re playing a hand drum, a snare drum, or a marimba, the joy of striking derives from transforming yourself into a kind of complex living lever, a fluid arm-hand-finger contraption that moves in a 3D space, piston-like, to transmit energy from you to the instrument to get it vibrating. While it’s true that percussion instruments are the easiest ones for a beginner to get a sound out of by hitting, it’s also true that they are the most difficult instruments to strike well (as opposed to hit) and make sing. There are many approaches to playing percussion, but they all share a common goal, which is reliably striking to make beautiful vibrations in time. Masterful percussionists can make their striking look effortless, magically conjuring smooth rolls or round tones. But sometimes a percussionist’s deliberateness is another kind of mastery on display, drawing you into their sound-production workflow, hinting at its deeper sources. Something about whole enterprise is mesmerizing when done with requisite skill and aplomb.
I rank the joy of striking right alongside the joy of running because of its transformative effects on consciousness. In striking (or running) you become one with the process you’ve set in motion—a process that only continues as long as you continue keeping it going. And in keeping it going you get feedback from your playing—a continuous stream of information about what you’re doing, how you’re doing it, your tone production and timing, and how your thinking and feeling are changing via the striking. Another similarity between striking and running: neither one has a goal besides marking time. Like vibration itself, percussive striking and running in their purest states are oscillations that just want to keep on keeping on. Isn’t that beautiful?