wander – to move in a leisurely, causal, or aimless way

I wander all the time when I’m running which is to say that for a part of each day, most days of the week, I’m outside wandering somewhere—going up and down back streets, over fields (such as they are in New York), past airports, between parked cars, around dogs, through skate parks, over bridges, by rivers, down alleyways and paths, on the grass and paved road and concrete sidewalks, past the churches and mosques and supermarkets, and always, always moving against the traffic to see what’s hurtling in my direction. It’s the wandering component of running that makes it fun and a kind of psychogeography because I don’t know where I’ll be until I make the decision in the moment to try to be there and then, here I am.

When I’m making music I’m also wandering, usually through improvising at an instrument, or tinkering with the instrumental results at the computer. Sometimes I sit down with a vague goal already in mind—a goal such as make music with these four sounds—and then I try to flesh something out. In my experience, the key is finding a balance between adhering to my plan (or what I thought was my plan) and allowing for the play of serendipity and surprise. One fact about creative work is that ideally, wandering is woven into the process, which means that I don’t know ahead of time where I’ll be wandering. For instance, the other day I was listening through a piece from last summer: a spare piano melody atop a kind of rhythmicized drone. I found myself wishing the piano part had more action in it, wondering whether or not it was even a melody per se. (Question: What are the minimal requirements for a melody to be melodic?) At the same time, I didn’t want to alter or re-record the piano part because the music evoked something that I wanted to keep. The best option seem to be to experiment with manipulating the part. I chose a delay effect. Some of the melody’s notes already seemed like points of arrival and so I added the delay to just those notes, bringing the effect’s level quickly up and down to leave the other notes un-effected. Now I heard the space of the piano MIDI sequence as a physical space in which substantial wandering could transpire. The delay effect created a new topography—a listening sensation that individual notes were lingering and dissipating in a space, as if floating upwards like clouds atop the melody’s horizontal progress.

So one creative lesson I’ve taken from running is to create conditions for wandering by setting myself time constraints rather than directional ones. Just as I have thirty minutes or an hour to explore New York neighborhoods, I use a similar constraint to guide pieces of music in progress. For a few minutes I tinker around with what’s in front of me, a creative wandering the results of which I won’t hear until I’ve arrived in its new place.