Resonant Thoughts: On John Cage’s “Diary: How to Improve the World (You Will Only Make Matters Worse) 

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“Refuse value judgments” (21).

“all technology
must move toward way things were
before man began changing them:
identification with nature in her manner
of operation, complete mystery” (25).

“Proposal: take facts of
art seriously” (32).

“There’s a
temptation to do nothing simply because
there’s so much to do that one doesn’t
know where to begin. Begin anywhere” (32).

“What’s interesting about
minds is they work differently.
What’s interesting about one mind is that
it works in different ways. Hunting for
one thing, finding another” (32).

“Composer, who no longer
arranges sounds in a piece, simply
facilitates an enterprise” (46).

“What shall we
do with our emotions?” (46).

“Discover dialectics” (46).

“In music it was hopeless to
think in terms of the old structure
(tonality), to do things following old
methods (counterpoint, harmony), to use
the old materials (orchestral
instruments). We started from
scratch: sound, silence, time,
activity” (62).

“Two people
making the same kind of music is one
music too many” (72).

“We are not arranging
things in order (that’s the function of
the utilities): we are merely
facilitating processes so that anything can
happen” (75).

“Doing
something we don’t know how to do. No
technique” (77).

“Each sound to be a plurality of
vibratory circumstances known or not
known in nature. Impossible made
possible” (89).

Musical Mind Reading

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It’s hard to know what the musicians you’re playing with are thinking. Consider what you have to go on. First and foremost you have the sounds they make. Though some try, musicians can’t ever hide behind their sounds because their sounds reveal them—they give voice to their sound-producing capabilities and limits. Presumably, a musician’s sounds offer a good idea of what they’re thinking in the moment. But hold on: does one’s sound-making necessarily reveal one’s thinking? As with other performative arts (e.g. dance, acting, even some kinds of writing), a musician’s playing can sometimes be an empty spectacle built upon a learned repertoire of tried and true gestures that have worked in the past and you know what, maybe they’ll work right now. I’ve watched other musicians play the exact same phrases night after night, and I’ve done the same. What were they—and what was I—thinking? Were we thinking about the music or thinking about something else and letting our muscle memory take over, or some ratio of the two? It’s hard to know. When I play I’m usually thinking about the music and many other things simultaneously. Maybe music playing music encourages this experience of omni-thinking?

Another way to know what another musician is thinking is by watching them interact with you–or not. Sometimes you exchange glances and smiles at certain points, like when members of a string quartet hit the downbeat together, or pass back and forth those mutual head nods to begin or end a phrase. I’ve actually found myself nodding my head even when the musician across from me is never looking my way, which makes my nodding a kind of acknowledgment of a relationship that isn’t (but might have been) in an ideal world.

Trying to understand what other musicians are thinking brings us to two further points. The first relates to what John Cage once said about why he didn’t like improvising: he thought that when musicians improvise they play what they already know, and so improvising by definition can’t break new ground the way rolling dice or using the Chinese I-Ching to generate random musical decisions can. Cage’s point showed what appeared to be a distrust of musicians actually saying something and thinking through the performative moment unless it was constrained—under a kind of prior meta-control—by chance or other set-in-motion procedures. But contra Cage, isn’t one of the joys of music hearing how someone thinks in the moment, and how they think through moments? This brings me a second perhaps obvious point, which is that sounds on their own don’t think. No matter how inherently interesting a sound appears to be, its power derives from how it manifests human thinking by relating to other sounds and changing itself over time. It’s no wonder that what makes music making social—relating to others and continual evolution— is the mark of an interesting musician too.

Curating The Week: Music and Food, Brian Eno, Failed Artists

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• A brief video on a composer’s music and the intersection of music and food.

• Brian Eno’s lecture “The Recording Studio As Compositional Tool”:

A critic discusses his life as a failed artist.

“My work had something of the timeless beauty of older geometries and hermetic diagrams and illustration. The colors were pretty. But my art didn’t have the look and feel of my own time. Yet I meant it with all my heart. Which was another problem.”

Listening Over And From Afar

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“Hearing is like being touched and moved from a distance.”
– David Burrows, Time and the Warm Body, p. 89.

I’ve been trying out new ways of listening while performing, trying to get beyond the sounds of my percussion instruments and get closer to the other sounds around and beyond me. When I do this, an image comes to mind: my ear stretches to impossible lengths, as if made of silly putty, dragged away from my body, across the orchestra pit, and up over the lip of the stage. My ear stretches over a hundred feet to connect me directly to the sound sources I’m listening to. That’s what it feels like (touched and moved from a distance as Burrows says) but in reality I’m simply shifting my attention to foreground one set of sounds over another. If you’re familiar with the terminology of multitrack recording, it’s like lowering the volume fader on one track to better hear what is sounding on another. With my ear figuratively stretched, my listening feels like seeing with binoculars—looking over treetops to track a small bird from afar.

My experiments with listening began innocently enough: on some nights the sounds in my immediate vicinity (including my own instruments) seemed too busy—there was too much going on in the rhythm section, with the drums, bass, keyboards, guitar, and percussion hammering away their intricate parts. It’s not that these parts were problematic—they sounded fine—it’s that their overall composite texture was so dense that it was hard to hear beyond it: the music produced a kind of aural fog that was hard to hear through. My temporary solution to this perceptual dilemma was to see if I could keep playing my part while listening to something completely different, and each night I focused on one of the rhythm section instruments.

Then one day I turned my attention to the singing onstage. This is where things got interesting because singers tend to hold the music’s melodies, while rhythm section musicians provide support. I focused on the singer’s singing and played my part as usual but now zoomed in on which elements in my part were supporting her and which elements were extraneous, or potentially undermining her melody. Even though the rhythm section’s collective groove provides an energy wave for the singers onstage, so much of the little details of our parts serve the ends of our own instrumental idioms more than the overall flow of the music. That sounds critical, but it’s true: we’re a well-oiled musical machine, but a machine as much caught up in the pleasures of our instruments’ own machinations as we are devoted to the success of the show. Anyway, as I paid attention to the singers’ melody I began leaving out the little drumming fills and variations that had become habit, playing instead a simpler version of my part. I doubt anyone noticed the change, but even so, it was a difference that meant something for me because now I could lock into the singer, shaping my part to the contours of her held melody. My silly putty ear was stretched across my djembe, over the marimbas, over the guitar, bass, and keyboards, over the conductor, and onto the stage, placing itself right alongside the singer. Why had it taken me so long to try listening this way?

I don’t know if this orientation to listening to something different in the mix made my playing more “sensitive” besides encouraging me to dial back the busyness of my playing. But it did serve as a lesson on how music continually invites listening on different resolutions, from different distances, where you foreground this over that, where you listen over parts of the music from afar to bring closer what was once under-noticed. It’s in the varied perspectives afforded by our ever-changeable listening stances that half of music’s creativity lives.