Musical Doubt

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doubt – a feeling of uncertainty or lack of conviction

“While the theories come and go, the phenomenologies stay.”
– Nassim Taleb, Antifragile (2014)

When I’m playing music, composing it, or writing about it, a feeling of doubt repeatedly presents itself. Do I really buy what I’m doing? Whether we’re talking about making sounds or organizing words, I have my doubts: it sounds dumb, it lacks subtlety, it reads awkward, it doesn’t leave enough space, it has zero aura, it seems almost pointless—this sucks. Recently, I got more than a quizzical sideways glance at home when we were watching the Winter Olympics and as soon as the figure skater took an unexpected early tumble I exclaimed calmly while shaking my head, he’s done, it’s over, perfect routine ruined, what-a-waste. What’s wrong with me?

Lest this doubting mindset sound simply negative, here’s a recent musical example of how I have been mobilizing it towards more productive ends. I was revisiting a project that recasts my Four Piano Music, listening to one track’s six parts chug along. I furrowed my brow, realizing that almost everything I was hearing was irritating. Would I want to listen to this? No, no I wouldn’t. I then began muting parts one by one, until I was left with only the original remix material I had begun with. With these two parts exposed I realized that they were the problem. I had been having doubts about the parts from the get-go—they had questionable aura—so how did I expect to build something convincing on top of them? I had to begin again from the beginning, and this meant re-configuring my remix material until I found something that convinced me and that I could believe in. In the meantime, I kept of all of the other parts muted while I searched for something enchanting.

Now I wonder: How can doubt can be both a useful creative tool and an unstable intervention? In his book that keeps giving, Antifragile, Nassim Taleb speaks of the importance of making “sure your methodology is robust and can withstand the judgment of time.” For me, doubt forms a part of what I hope is a reliable—even antifragile—methodology for creative work in that it can be used for assessing what I think I’m trying to do and whether or not I’m actually doing it. In this way, doubt is a form of intuition, a short-cutting heuristic in the sense described by Gerd Gigerenzer: a judgment derived from paying attention to cues in one’s immediate environment while ignoring unnecessary information. In his book Gut Feelings, Gigerenzer describes a baseball outfielder running down a fly ball, timing his running speed by keeping his eyes focused on the trajectory of the falling ball. The outfielder doesn’t have to solve any equations on the fly (as it were)—he simply follows his intuitions, believing and not doubting that if he stays on his present trajectory he’ll make the catch. The example makes intuitive sense, but of course, we know now that intuitions can be misplaced. As Daniel Kahneman has convincingly shown in Thinking, Fast and Slow, we should be skeptical of our intuitions because they are unreliable, feel ‘natural’, and are susceptible to influence (Daniel Kahneman, Thinking Fast and Slow, pp. 153, 194).

My takeaway from Taleb, Gigerenzer, and Kahneman is that while my doubts about my own work may be unreliable, they are nevertheless fairly robust guides for action. It’s not bad to doubt. The important thing is figuring out how to productively mobilize the feeling.

Freestyle: Music Aphorisms 5

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Browsing through sound presets in soft synthesizers reminds us that sound designers
do not necessarily create sounds that are musical. (Are they musicians?)

Our ears relish relations and meaningful patterns in the music
more than (merely) attractive sounds.

It’s as if the busy hi hat patterns in contemporary hip hop are (desperately) trying to get free from the unchanging beats.

The predictive failure of Spotify’s “Related Artists” algorithm is to due to the fact that it relies on the supposed relevance of what others are listening to
as a way of categorizing music.
But our tastes don’t work this way.

The goal of editing music on a computer is the same as editing text:
you want to make what you have c l e a r e r.

Remember: the beat in beat-heavy music is making a statement
to guide how you’re supposed to interact with it.

Noise in music has clear points of diminishing returns,
beyond which the noise obliterates saying something.

Resonant Thoughts: Deckle Edge’s “Cræft: An Inquiry Into the Origins and True Meaning of Traditional Crafts

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“Against a rising tide of automation and increasing digital complexity, we are becoming further divorced from the very thing that defines us: we are makers, crafters of things. When our lives once comprised an almost unbroken chain of movements and actions as we interacted physically with the material requirements of our existence, today we stare at screens and we press buttons. When we made things, we accumulated a certain kind of knowledge, we had an awareness and an understanding of how materials worked and how the human form has evolved to create from them. With the severance of this ability we’re in danger of losing touch with a knowledge base that allows us to convert raw materials into useful objects, a hand-eye-head-heart-body co-ordination that furnishes us with a meaningful understanding of the materiality of our world. Some people call this knowledge know-how to distinguish it from formal knowledge, the knowledge of principles. But you could call it cræft.
It is a wisdom that furnishes the practitioner with a certain power.”

“We must never lose sight of the fact that the most intelligently designed, the most versatile and the most complex piece of kit we have at our disposal is our own body.”

– Deckle Edge, Cræft (2018), pp. 22, 24.

The Problem Of Exactitude

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exactitude – not approximate in any way;
precise, from the Latin verb exigere – to thoroughly perform

The phrase the problem of exactitude occurs to me to describe a kind of left-field situation I encounter regularly when I’m working on music or writing about it. The situation can be described as a tension between my trying to be precise—to know where I’m going with a project, to make sense of the space I’m in—and the reality that I’m not so in control of all of the elements. The problem is this: trying to be precise about an artistic/aesthetic situation I don’t yet understand.

So working on a project becomes a process of precisely inhabiting a situation of inexactitude simply by responding to it. A John Cage quote from my blog comes to mind. “Doing something we don’t know how to do” he says. “No technique” (John Cage, Diary, p. 77). I like Cage’s no technique idea because it sounds nonchalant, but let’s refine it a little: there is technique, except that it’s not a musical technique. Instead it’s a conceptual move away from having the need for knowing—a misdirected precision—ruin the beauty of the still strange and not yet understood creative moment. In this left-field situation, the problem of exactitude suggests that I keep my precision, just aim it differently.

 

Searches That Brought You Here

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Russell Hartenberger Steve Reich. This search brought you to my post on Hartenberger’s stellar book, Performance Practice in the Music Of Steve Reich. In my post I wrote:

“As I read Performance Practice I was struck by the similarities between its flow and the gradual unfolding of Reich’s music. The smooth surface of Hartenberger’s writing belies the layers of experiential, theoretical, and anecdotal analysis that lie underneath. Like the percussionist drumming out resultant patterns heard in the polyrhythm mix, one phrase at a time, Hartenberger makes a case for the ways in which music ‘with rhythm as one of its primary structural components can be spine-tingling and beautiful’ (239). Performance Practice is a systematic and nuanced unpacking of the thinking, structures, and playing techniques involved in Reich’s early works, leading us ‘beneath the surface of the music to the joy of rhythmic beauty’ (ibid.).”

does the power of habit help musicians. This search brought you to my post on Charles Duhigg’s The Power Of Habit. In my post I wrote about applying lessons from the book to music (specifically to an ill-conceived but experimentally intentioned attempt to get into country music):

“Reading Duhigg’s book it struck me that as music listeners we often approach our favorite musics as kinds of habits with their own cues, routines, and rewards. Music can give us a kind of ‘fix’ of our favorite sound combinations. What’s more, it’s also excellent at creating desire within its own structures–setting up stimulus cues through melody, harmony, and rhythm and then prolonging our wait for the reward—like that huge chorus, the cathartic chord cadence, the infectious hook, or the massive beat.”

michel bras. This search brought you to my post on a documentary about the (self-taught) French chef Michel Bras. In my post I wrote:

“As is the case with someone who experiences synesthesia (experiencing one sensory domain in terms of another–like hearing a chord and seeing the color purple, etc.), Bras is taking in something visual but funneling it through olfactory means: a sight becoming a taste (not to mention a texture, a set of relations and contrasts). It’s all about one of my favorite processes: transformation. And not only does Bras work cross-sensorially to transform elements from one sphere to another, he also gets deeply into the materials of his craft…”