A Creative Compass: Music Is Feeling, Not Sound

 

Feeling-Wheel

In the second stanza of his poem “Peter Quince at the Clavier”, Wallace Stevens makes a simple observation about the nature of music with an acuity that exceeds the findings of the most sophisticated music theorists:

“Music is feeling, then, not sound.”

Stevens brings our attention to one of music’s central curiosities: how it’s built from one thing (sounding vibrations) but is about another (felt feeling).

I keep returning to this line whenever I’m assessing music I’m listening to or when I’m working on something of my own. What Stevens understands is the many ways music can do its emotional work not only through its sound, but despite its sound, or in contrast to its sound. Keeping Stevens’ line in mind, I’ll ask myself how the music is working on a feeling level. What is it doing (to me)? What is it trying to achieve? How does it push or pull me along? How the music is working as sound is usually audibly transparent, but its feeling quality is a more complicated matter. A music can trigger multiple sensations simultaneously, like a mallet striking five bells at once: there’s an initial klang, but then you hear all those individual pitches overlapping into a chord and dissipating as they go their separate harmonic ways over time. How do all of us non-scientist listeners unpack this as we go along?

Stevens’ line also emboldens me to be a critical listener: as I listen I want evidence of some kind of emotional stance and if that stance doesn’t materialize sooner rather than later, which is to say that if the music seems to be more about sound than about feeling—I’ll jump ship. Maybe it’s for this reason that I’m weary of virtuosos or those who have pursued a technique to some exaggerated end. Musicians keep your attention through the feelings they generate, not their sounds per se.

The most useful application of Stevens’ line though, is to use it as a creative compass. The next time you’re inside that song, or at the concert, or playing an instrument, ask yourself whether or not the music is about the feeling or about the sound.

Notes On Daniel Lanois’s “Heavy Sun”

I kinda froze when I heard the two and a half-minute track “Heavy Sun” from Canadian producer and ambient instrumentalist Daniel Lanois’s latest recording (with Rocco Deluca), “Goodbye To Language.” I had been scrolling through the new releases on Spotify for the week when I found the Lanois piece and I froze because I found the music immediately appealing not only in terms of its sounds but also in terms of its design. Unlike a lot of music I encounter I had no idea how this gem was assembled or performed, or even what instruments or other equipment might have been used. The music had a drone quality, but the drone subtly pulsed. The sounds seemed to be electronic, but also effortlessly natural in an acoustic kind of way, as if the performers had deep confidence with getting their gear to do exactly what they want. Over the drone I heard wisps of chords and melodic motifs, but those wisps and motifs had a floating rather than a directional, I need to get somewhere feel. The music took its time conjuring its unusual, old-timey, and alien soundscape. It wasn’t until a few weeks later that I remembered that Lanois plays pedal steel guitar and that this subtle recording was made using this subtle instrument. Suddenly it all started making sense, but not so much sense that it explained itself away.

Here is a video of Lanois performing another track, “Satie”, with Deluca:

On Olivier Messiaen’s Astonishing Chords

“It is…the denial of forward-moving time that is the generative and fundamental substance of Messiaen’s music: the matter of his verbal commentaries is no more than an explanation of the music…and conducted in terms other than those of the music.”
– Paul Griffiths, Olivier Messiaen and the Music of Time (1985, p. 17)

 

On Listening Fast And Slow

In his book, Thinking Fast And Slow, the eminent psychologist Daniel Kahneman describes two modes of thinking that steer our judgements and decision-making. The first type, System 1, is fast, intuitive, and emotional: the second, System 2, is slower, more considered, and logical. I have talked about Kahneman’s book on my blog, here.

Recently I remembered Kahneman’s work as I thought about how I listen to music. For me, listening is initially always a System 1 engagement. I make assessments about what I’m hearing fast–maybe too fast–as if answering a series of questions I didn’t know I had. Does this music speak to me? What is it trying to say? What of its materials holds my attention? Is it presenting something for me to grapple with and figure out? Does it manage to contain mysteries within its sounds that will keep me coming back for more? As you can imagine, not a lot of music passes this System 1 test. For worse or better, I often dismiss what I hear before giving it a chance to prove itself.

When I find something that sounds interesting my System 2 kicks in. Now I do two things. First, I listen to the music a lot, coming back to it over and over again, listening at different times a day in different places (to see how it travels), listening in a way that could be called well, obsessive. The second way I listen is I hone in on different points of intrigue in the music. The obsessive listening foregrounds things I never noticed during my first System 1 encounter with the work. Things like an unusual chord (“the bass note isn’t a stable root, it’s a dissonance!”), a rhythmic instability (“Why can’t I find beat one?”), or a timbre (“that organ in the high register is super transparent”). As I listen, I try to figure out how it is that what I like in the music works.

 

On How Composers Listen To Their Own Work

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Having recently finished a project and waiting for it to be mastered, I found myself spending a few minutes each day listening to the pieces. I did this listening while doing other things like making toast or tidying up the apartment, and more often than not I listened from another room, letting the sounds move down the hallway and bend around corners so I could take them in from a distance. Why was I listening and what was I trying to notice?

A first reason for listening was to get to know the music. The pieces had been done relatively quickly—quickly enough that prior to finishing the music I had never quite gotten to know it. Over the past few years, my composing has been partly based upon improvisation. (Isn’t all composing at some point improvisation?) This means that I end up reaching for things in one-time performances without fully knowing what it is that I’m reaching for. I just play—trying to make something that seems balanced and enchanting in the moment, or at least not immediately annoying. Later, when I’m editing, I’ll listen to the pieces repeatedly, but since I’ll be focused on the minutiae of fixing little annoying errors, I won’t hear how the pieces flow and won’t understand what it was that I had originally been reaching for. It’s only once the pieces are done (little errors now minimized) that I can begin listening while doing other things and get to know the music in a general way. Now I can hear the performance almost as an outsider would—as if observing it from a distance. This explains why I’ll listen from another room.

I was also listening for something more amorphous: how the music makes me feel, its overall mood, and how it sustains and paces my feeling for the duration of its sounding. Let me re-phrase that: music probably doesn’t make us feel anything—we arrive at feelings with the help of the music. Listening, in other words, is an encounter between the hearer and the sounding. Listening from another room while doing other things is an encounter that helps me gauge how the music inflects those other things I’m doing, as if the sounds are scents, or casting shadows. In a way, I was trying to assess if this music could be actually useful. For instance, could I, or someone else, make toast or fall asleep to this music? I’m happy to report that the answer to both these questions is yes!

A third thing I was listening for was durability: how do these pieces hold up over repeated listenings? How do they wear as I get to know them better? Do some pieces become more annoying, more cloying, the more I listen to them? Do some pieces get better or simply hold their value? Here’s an example: there was one piece in the series—originally the ninth piece, now the fifth—that had always struck me as slightly better than the others. Even though all the pieces were created the same way, each one based upon brief musical improvisations, this particular piece had a weight to it. If it wasn’t better, it at least sounded more assured, almost as if it were a model for the others to aspire to. Maybe I got lucky with it, or maybe, since it was originally the ninth piece in a series of twenty, I had begun to hit my stride with it? In any case, repeated listening did two things: it confirmed my initial positive impression of this model piece, and it confirmed the durability if not of the piece, then at least of that initial positive impression. This was an important realization insofar as there are times when a music seems to change over time simply because my tastes have changed. Funny how that works.

A final reason I was listening was to let go of the music. While I’m working on a project and listening to it over and over, its sounds loom large in my mind’s ear and I often hear bits of the pieces on repeat in my head when I’m least expecting it, as if I’ve created my own earworms. I began this project one year ago, then left it for a time, then came back to it. During that time, the pieces were in the foreground of my attention. But now I need to shift them to the background. I’m done with this music and the fundamental reason I’m spending a few minutes each day listening to the pieces from another room while doing other things is to say goodbye to them.

On Leaving Space In Music

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The other evening I felt like listening to some “zone out” music on my way home from work, so I put on Harold Budd’s Perhaps, a collection of piano music.

As I walked the last few blocks from the subway I took measure of the great space in Budd’s improvisations–in the spaces he leaves between his chord clusters and melodies that hang like tree branches. In addition to his attractive note choices, what stands out in Budd’s playing are those spaces just after the melo-harmonic resonances are fading away. Taking measure of these spaces in the music, I tried counting the number of steps I was taking between each chord and was surprised to find that the average was between eight and twelve steps. That’s a lot of space!

While I have enjoyed Budd’s music since I first encountered it a few years ago, I never realized that maybe part of how it works is through what could be called its generosity of space-providing. As you listen, the music offers you ample room to think about what you just heard, count your steps if you’re so inclined, or make other non-musical associations. Most music we listen to isn’t like this. Most music is about fullness and density–richly layered, textured, orchestrated, and fit together like a jigsaw puzzle. But such music doesn’t invite us into the listening encounter the way Budd’s space-providing piano playing does.

You can read more about Budd here and here and here.