Keeping The Hands In Play

(Photo: Gerrit Dou’s “A Woman Playing A Clavichord”, c. 1665)

“The musician, like the writer or speaker,
regularly confronts his conduct as performance or not.”

David Sudnow, Talk’s Body (1979), p. 65.

1.

Whenever I feel I’m disconnected from the musical because I’ve been looking at the screen and tinkering with parameters too much, I take out the keyboard and play. Play is my key concept because it’s the most generative way to get musical things done, or at least started. Why is this? I think it’s because when you play an instrument–regardless of your level of non-virtuosity–you open a visceral hands-mind-sound feedback loop with no end, only a direction: to move ever forward. When you play, you aren’t hiding from yourself, but revealing it. When you play, you submit to the constraints of what you can do/are doing right now. When you play, it’s a performance of both your physical being and emotional way of being.

It’s for these reasons that playing is the composer’s most valuable tool. Sure, there are contrapuntal, rhythmic, and harmonic ways to develop what you have later. But these means are processual, non-real time, and secondary to the main event, which is making up something in the real-time, ticking along moment. Playing an instrument is a way to find patterns inherent in its terrain, patterns whose sounds compel me to take notice and keep playing to extend the experience for a while. A while may be a minute of melodying, or an hour of chord exploring, but remember: record your play because play doesn’t care if you do. In sum, capture the carefree to reconnect with the beginning of what could be new music. 

2.

Whenever I feel I’m disconnected from the musical
because I’ve been looking at the screen
and tinkering with parameters too much,
I take out the keyboard and play.

Play is my key concept
because it’s the most generative way
to get musical things done,
or at least started.

Why is this?

I think it’s because when you play an instrument
–regardless of your level of non-virtuosity–
you open a visceral hands-mind-sound
feedback loop with no end,
only a direction:
to move ever forward.

When you play,
you aren’t hiding from yourself,
but revealing it.

When you play,
you submit to the constraints
of what you can do/are doing right now.

When you play,
it’s a performance
of both your physical being
and emotional way of being.

It’s for these reasons that playing
is the composer’s most valuable tool.

Sure, there are contrapuntal, rhythmic, and harmonic
ways to develop what you have later.

But these means are processual, non-real time,
and secondary to the main event,
which is making up something in the real-time,
ticking along moment.

Playing an instrument is a way to find patterns
inherent in its terrain,
patterns whose sounds compel me
to take notice
and keep playing
to extend the experience for a while.

A while may be a minute of melodying,
or an hour of chord exploring,
but remember:

record your play because play doesn’t care if you do.

In sum, capture the carefree
to reconnect with the beginning
of what could be new music. 

Resonant thoughts: Kalefa Sanneh’s “Major Labels” (2021)

“When I was working as a pop music critic, I tried not to think too much about quality—at least not directly. My belief, then as now, was that there was no useful difference between loving a song and considering it good, or between not liking one and considering it bad. (If it is possible for a song to be good without inspiring any affection in a listener, then what use is goodness?) But I knew, as all critics know, that successful criticism usually relies on finding a balance between personal taste and conventional wisdom. Stray too far from the judgments of the relevant musical communities—audiences, experts, fellow critics—and readers will think you’re a crank, out of touch with the world they live in. Hew too closely to those judgments and readers will think you’re a hack, saying the same things everyone else is saying. Either one makes you seem boring, and as a professional critic, your chief obligation, superseding any musical directive, is not to bore the readers.”

“One way that critics smuggle unexamined preconceptions into their writing is by using seemingly descriptive terms that function as covert judgments. When a song is described as ‘soulful,’ that is invariably a compliment. Is it possible for a song to be soulful but lousy, or soulless but excellent? If not, then ‘soulful’ is not a description at all—it is just a synonym for ‘good.’”

On Beginning Music Not With Silence 

Consider an idea: 

begin a piece of music not with silence, 
but with a soundscape from nature 
playing through your speakers or headphones. 

Use this soundscape not as a part of your piece or the piece itself
but as a springboard for the first sounds you’ll make or use, 
the first first chords you’ll play, 
the first beat you’ll drum. 

Beginning with wind or water reorientates your thinking about music 
as something connected to sounds already happening around you 
via your speakers or headphones. 

This reorientation asks you to consider:
How will my sounds “get along” with nature’s mix? 

I often use this approach to sort of ease into a piece—
to move from feeling as if I’m outside to being inside 
yet with an outside frame of mind. 

I’ll listen to wind and water 
and choose sounds that accompany them—
almost like a soundtrack underscore for a film. 

Once the musical ideas get going, I turn off the nature sounds, 
but sometimes I forget they’re there, 
which shows the work they’re doing. 

Now the music is foreground
and the wind and water
—the sounds that got me here—
recede to the background.