Flip

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Whether you’re a performer or a listener, when you’re involved in music you’re flipping your attention all the time, orienting it from one place to another, focusing on something near or far, just past or maybe about to happen, from the sounds to your emotions and then back to the sounds, in a repeating feedback loop over time. That’s what involvement with music is: a flipping between the sounds and your engagement with them, over and over again. Even the most cursory self-reflection suggests that we never listen to music absent mindedly. (Even “chillout” music has a particular job to do that we track as we listen to make sure it’s doing it.) As we listen, we’re constantly comparing what we hear to what we already know, constantly registering degrees of development and stasis, and constantly evaluating the affective power of the music. Is this moving me? Is this interesting? What does this remind me of? How is this making me feel? All these questions simultaneously jostle with one another as we listen.

Recently I was watching a well-known rock band perform on Saturday Night Live. Rock isn’t my Thing, but I’m familiar with its instrumentation and its go-to musical gestures. As the band played I closed my eyes and tried to assess the performance not as celebrity spectacle—this was a well know band!—but as sound alone. The song seemed to be, at best, of average quality. Since my eyes were closed, I imagined walking past a small club on Avenue C in New York (back in the day—that area has long since gentrified) and hearing this band play through an open doorway. There might have been a few hardcore fans watching them, but the music wouldn’t have compelled me enough to stop. (In both my imaginary scenario and in real life there is always more just ok music than there is exceptional music.) The point of this story is that even though I’m not a rock fan, I listened to the group’s song while simultaneously bringing to mind every rock-ish music I had ever heard to try to make sense of what I was hearing. I flipped the band’s music around as they played it, trying to relate it to what I already knew. It had electric guitars, it had a drummer playing hard, and it had a singer sounding aggressive, but those facts on their own didn’t prove any musical worth. As I listened I tried to imagine why someone might like—or love—this sound.

Music offers many kinds of flipping opportunities. Musicians flip chords by inverting its notes to create new harmonies, and they flip musical style markers to play with musical genre conventions. Meanwhile music listeners flip between what they hear and what they’re thinking and feeling, always measuring the music against other metrics—including the musics they’ve already heard and who they feel themselves to be. I would say the band I saw on SNL was average, but maybe one day when I learn to flip my perception the right way they’ll be amazing.

Traces

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trace – a mark, object, or other indication of the existence or passing of something

Music is a space-generator, and one of the unexpected gifts of being a musician is that making music generates a space in which to think about it. When I play I’m usually thinking about several things at once, including moment-to-moment information generated by the music (e.g. what just happened and what’s to come), the state of my body, and also extra-musical things. Ideas seem to just float around when I’m inside the music’s motion and I can’t stop them.

One such floating idea is the notion of traces—those faint outlines of an experience that remain after the experience itself has passed. Traces are a redeeming quality of both live and recorded musical performances because they save the music from oblivion. As the music comes and goes so quickly that the entire experience can seem to be, in the moment of performance, like a sleight of hand, traces are subjective impressions that for some reason stay with us after the performance is over. I imagine traces as distillations of the essential qualities of a dissipated act—they’re what you remember as being important about the music (or the conversation, or the meal, or the book read) after it has stopped being.

Different kinds of musics leave different kinds of traces. Pop music’s hooks and short phrases leave traces that are like little freestanding photographs taken out of context. I can never remember what comes before or after the catchy parts (does it even matter?), but that doesn’t stop these catchy parts from leaving behind their energized paths to nowhere. Music you heard when you were a teenager can leave deeply etched traces, though we rarely interrogate these traces, choosing instead to revel in how familiar the music still is after all these years. Music that is layered and complex—like say, a Bach invention or fugue, or African drum ensemble music—can leave more amorphous traces (probably much less so for those who have played the music). I recall a theme, but its trace is more of a key than a tune per se—for example, more a C minor ambience than a C minor melody. Some music can leave massive traces, perhaps because it invites us to “fill in” its spaces. Arvo Part’s cavernous music comes to mind here because of its space and its slow tempo: maybe I can recall some of his chord progressions because their walking speeds don’t outpace my recalling! It’s as if the stillness of his music invites me to bring it back to life—at my own convenience.

One way to apply the traces concept in your own listening is to pay attention to what remains of your listening experience after your very first encounter with a piece of music. Sure, you haven’t yet had time to get to know the sounds, but this first encounter still may leave its marks that will guide you on your future returns. Here is the question to ask: What of the music has stayed with you? What traces has it left once it has finished sounding?

Aim

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aim—[verb] point or direct at a target; from the Latin aestimare ‘assess, estimate’

When I’m playing music I’m continually aiming and re-aiming my attention as the music goes along, and my aiming happens on different levels of perception. Since I play mallet percussion, there’s a spatial aiming of my mallet-holding hands along the marimba keys, where the keys are like small targets I need to accurately and reliably locate and hit over and over again. When the tempo is slow or my part is sparse, I have time to make sure my mallets meet every note where and when I need them to. But when the tempo is fast and my part is denser (e.g. chromatic runs up and down the keyboard), I have little time to think through mallet landing points. My aiming relies on a muscle memory that is practiced and quite reliable, though not infallible. Sometimes somewhere along a difficult passage I notice a glitch in my body recall—I’ll slightly overshoot a semitone distance say, or overestimate how fast the fast tempo requires me to play (it’s fast but not that fast). I can practice the difficult passage slowly (which I do from time to time), but I can’t practice aiming for its notes in the charged moment of performance: there’s the aiming one practices in practice, and then there’s the aiming that one pulls off (or not) in performance. Since I perform the same music each week and I have repeated opportunities to practice merging my practice and performing aiming, my goal has become how to more consciously make performing an ongoing practicing.

Another kind of aiming I do when I’m playing music is to latch onto extra-musical ideas that seem to be by-products of the music itself. In contrast to the aiming I do with a musical instrument, this aiming is fuzzier in execution and is best described as being like a radio receiver tuning in to faint signals from various extra-musical realms. Something about playing music seems to facilitate this mystical-sounding stance. These “signals” include memories (personal ones, as well as noticed connections to other musics you’ve encountered over the years), body feedback (e.g. my energy level, posture, tension and relaxation points), information from and on fellow musicians (e.g. I ask questions: Why are they playing just like that? What does that gesture right here and now mean? Are they on auto-pilot, or are they responding to the music as it unfolds? Are they listening to me or just playing in sync with me?), and emotions that arise in the course of playing music.

Of all these signals, it’s music’s emotional effects that are the central target in my aiming. My memories, my body feedback, and my information from and on fellow musicians are all peripheral to music’s power to conjure feeling. When I’m performing, my conjuring goal is to figure out how to make the music as emotionally expressive as it can be. Usually this involves me trying not to get in music’s way by doing only as much as it seems to require. As with many things, less often works out to be more. (Encountering a musician getting in music’s way by doing too much—by overplaying—is a distressing, un-musical experience.) When I’m composing, my conjuring goal is to find sounds, patterns, and juxtapositions that feel like something powerful, something moving. Here too, less is often more. Whether you’re a musician or not, you aim yourself in the direction of life’s faint emotional signals as a grasping after what really matters: Is this experience doing anything to you?

Curating The Week: The Necks, Algorithms And Creativity, Technology and Perception

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An article about The Necks by one of my favorite writers on music, Geoff Dyer.

“Impatience prevents you from seeing—hearing—that what you are waiting for is already happening (not a bad test-definition of the avant-garde). But there is scope for anxiety on behalf of the participating listener, because the gathering intensity is underwritten by the potential for dissipation. And any given performance makes you wonder how any part of it could be different. This is the possibility that the performance has to raise on the way to becoming that which it was.”

An article about how algorithms are transforming creativity. (His book is here.)

“Human creativity has always been a response to the immense strangeness of reality, and now its subject has evolved, as reality becomes increasingly codeterminate, and intermingled, with computation. If that statement seems extreme, consider the extent to which our fundamental perceptions of reality – from research in the physical sciences to finance to the little screens we constantly interject between ourselves in the world – have changed what it means to live, to feel, to know. As creators and appreciators of the arts, we would do well to remember all the things that Google does not know.”

An article about our technologies and perception.

“He says his epiphany came a few years ago, when he noticed he was surrounded by technology that was inhibiting him from concentrating on the things he wanted to focus on. ‘It was that kind of individual, existential realisation: what’s going on?’ he says. ‘Isn’t technology supposed to be doing the complete opposite of this?’”

Notes On Vybarr Cregan-Reid’s “Footsteps: How Running Makes Us Human”

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“When running, thinking plays sixth fiddle to sensing–for hearing, seeing and feeling how places present themselves to our consciousness takes precedence over careful consideration.” – Vybarr Cregan-Reid, Footsteps, p. 56

Vybarr Cregan-Reid’s Footsteps: How Running Makes Us Human is a lucid and literary exploration of running. Cregan-Reid is an academic (professor of English) who has turned his analytic and communicative powers towards understanding how and why humans are well-designed for running outside and describing in micro-detail that experience. Footsteps joins a growing list of Quality books about running, including biologist Bernd Heinrich’s Why We Run, Robin Harvie’s The Lure of Long Distances, Richard Askwith’s Running Free, Adharanand Finn’s Running With The Kenyans and The Way of the Runner, and novelist Haruki Murakami’s What I Talk About When I Talk About Running. The best parts each of these books is when the author grapples with what it is the happens exactly (or vaguely) perceptually-speaking when we head out (yet again) to run. The ways in which the authors describe the hidden life of running reminds me of the challenge of analyzing other fleeting aesthetic experiences, such as listening to music. (Phew, I knew there was a way to connect this to music!)

Cregan-Reid’s book is woven from a rich cloth of historical and scientific references (noted in endnotes) and conceived in a four-part, grand style (“Part I: Sensing, Part II: Reasoning, Part III: Earthing, Part IV: Roaming”). His essential point is that running through natural environments (preferably barefoot, with a non-heel striking technique) is the best way to re-charge “a physical empathy that is impossible to know intellectually” (83). Stop right there: Have you ever considered the idea of recharging your sense of physical empathy? When we go outside to run, we revisit old capacities for having sensory experiences that are deeply imprinted on us. Humans are ideally suited to running slow and steady, not least because we have large feet, efficient cooling capacities, and the ability to keep our heads steady as we run. More importantly, running does something very powerful to our mind: it frees it to engage the sensational world around us in a playful, open, non-judgemental, and associative way that on the best runs can feel like effortless attention.

To support his claims, Cregan-Reid draws on writers such as Thomas Hardy (“It is the attitude of the observer which makes things great or small” [161]), William Wordsworth, Samuel Taylor Coleridge (“In Coleridge, movement is elevated into a philosophy” [59]), and numerous others who spent as much time walking around outside as they did committing words to paper. He also draws on attention restoration theory (ART), which suggests that natural environments offer us “soft fascinations” that we interact with when we run through them. ART suggests that exposure to the sounds and sights and smells and terrains of fields, forests, hills, and mountains can restore and build our powers of being in the world. All this, of course, is in contrast to the dreadful running treadmill, a technology whose history is intertwined with the prison system in nineteenth century England, where it was once known as a “discipline wheel” (198).

Building on the theme of soft fascination, Cregan-Reid borrows the word “nothinking” from Charles Dickens’ novel Bleek House to suggest a state of mind that running restores and builds. What an excellent concept! Nothinking is like a flow state in which we connect our experience of memory with noticing and reflection in the present. The author elaborates: “The experience of ‘nothink’…brings with it a kind of attention to the details and aspects of the world that are seemingly imperceptible at other times. ‘Nothink’ creates a kind of high-definition recollection coupled with a creative ability to identify points of connection between the inside and the outside” (214).

As Cregan-Reid takes us on his running excursions in various locales–from the lake country in the U.K. to the Pacific Northwest, from California and Paris to the Charles River in Boston and nearby Walden pond–he does an exquisite job of articulating his book’s second major theme: freedom. In his barefoot ramblings down country paths, along rocky coastlines, and even in and around urban centers, the author provides a sense of the blissful freeform freedom running outside can generate. “We may not be able to escape the city” he writes, “but we are still free, when running, to revel in the fact that we are basically highly mobile stone-agers ripping down the lanes, byways and boulevards of our cities” (228).

As I read the book I found it interesting how it is that neither walking nor riding a bicycle have the same effects as running, and I wondered if running’s special status is due to its tactile rhythmic aspects? I was particularly attuned to those passages in which Cregan-Reid speaks of the running body knowing things about the world of which the conscious mind is unaware. When he runs, he says, “it feels like I could do this with my eyes closed, that my balance and the movement of my limbs are processes that are independent of thought” (237). (In fact, he does experiment with running with his eyes closed.) In addition to matters of proprioception, I found myself thinking about running’s impact on our sense of time: What happens when you move your body at a faster tempo than usual? Does the intensity of your movement somehow make your sense of the environment around you seem to move slower? For me, the answer is a resounding (and somewhat trippy) yes. But the running that Cregan-Reid describes is never about speed because speed can break the trance. It’s more about a kind mobile idleness, a rhythmic flaneuring that has serious meditative qualities. Like the creative process itself, running long and slow is free play with mysterious cognitive benefits. “Our time is too valuable and short to be contained within our cubicles and workspaces” says the author near the end of the book. Footnotes makes a poetic case for those human qualities of attention “that cannot be outsourced so easily, that we have free access to, once we clear the decks of cognitive noise and distraction” (266).

 

Lessons From Italo Calvino’s “Reading A Wave”

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If I were a fictionalist, I would write in the analytical-introspective manner of Italo Calvino (1923-1985). In Calvino’s novel Mr. Palomar, we follow one man’s attempts to increase his inner awareness by increasing his consciousness of his surroundings. Mr. Palomar is a practicing phenomenologist who tries to understand the world through all of its perceived details and in each brief, self-contained chapter we read Mr. Palomar’s meditations on various topics. My favorite part of the novel is “Reading A Wave” (a sub-section of the chapter “Mr. Palomar On the Beach”) in which Calvino unpacks Mr. Palomar’s experience trying to describe the difficult to describe experience of watching a single ocean wave.

Mr. Palomar could charitably be described as a nervous control freak, and one of his strategies for dealing with the noise of the world is to reduce it by framing it in particular ways. In Mr. Palomar’s “desire to avoid vague sensations, he establishes for his every action a limited and precise object”, hoping that “the key to mastering the world’s complexity [is] by reducing it to its simplest mechanism.” But framing a single ocean wave is a difficult perceptual task that involves “separating it from the wave immediately following, which seems to push it and at times overtakes it and sweeps it away.” A wave is never in isolation and you can’t look at one wave “without bearing in mind the complex features that concur in shaping it and the other, equally complex ones that the wave itself generates.” Even so, Mr. Palomar believes he can somehow focus on the essence of a single wave at one point in time—to “simply see a wave–that is, to perceive all its simultaneous components without overlooking any of them.”

Finding it difficult to isolate a single wave, Mr. Palomar “now tries to limit his field of observation” by imagining a larger, 10 by 10 meter square for analysis. Within this frame “he can carry out an inventory of all the wave movements that are repeated with varying frequency within a given time interval.” But this too is exhausting  work, because a lot happens within any arbitrarily chosen section of the ocean. By the end of the story Calvino reveals that the idealistic goal of Mr. Palomar’s observation exercise is to hack his own faculties of noticing: “Is this perhaps the real pursuit that Mr. Palomar is about to achieve? To make the waves run in the opposite direction, to overturn time, to perceive the true substance of the world beyond sensory and mental habits?”

As I read “Reading A Wave” it struck me as an excellent model for thinking through the difficulty of describing and writing about musical experience. The problem, simply put, is that music never stays still. It’s nothing but ceaseless movement. Even a “static” drone is continuous vibration over time. Like the breaking ocean waves, music ebbs and flows over durations. Another problem with music is that so much happens at once. It’s often composed of simultaneities. Even a simple song with voice and accompaniment contains several lines to pay attention to. And what about a fugue? Or polyrhythmic drumming? Maybe writing about music is like dancing about architecture!

What I take from “Mr. Palomar” is the intensity of his attempts to describe a single wave. Even if his enterprise is somewhat futile, I like that Palomar goes all in trying to pay attention to as many details as he can notice. I like too that he has established a “limited and precise object”—even if his choice of object is perhaps too fluid to submit to anything longer than a momentary descriptive capturing. Whatever the anxious origins of his motivations for perceptual precision, Mr. Palomar is doing the Difficult Critical Work of framing the world around him so to slow it down just long enough so he can take some of it in.

You can read “Mr. Palomar” here.