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?

Reset

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In my current work of performing music, perhaps the most useful “secret” for maintaining a high standard of playing is my ability to reset. In my life outside of music, there are very few occasions in need of resetting—at home, there’s pressing the small button on the kitchen thermometer, or unplugging the cable modem now and then so it can find the signal. The resetting I do at the show is similar to this, but a tad more involved. In a nutshell, when I reset I pretend—suspend disbelief—that this show is the first show. Even though I have memories of thousands of previous shows, this show is the first and last of its kind, and so worth paying close attention to. Paying close attention makes it more interesting because it makes it a game of noticing details. Phenomenologists might describe my stance using the term bracketing—a way of setting off the here and now of immediate experience from everything else that might be beckoning for my attention. To reset is to re-consider the details of this performance one more time without past experience getting in the way. To reset is to be a (trained) beginner (again).

I had this thought about reset just as I was picking up some mallets and standing there, waiting to play. I thought about how for the audience this was their first time at the performance and their first time encountering my sounds (somewhere in the overall mix of sounds and sights clamoring for their attention). I thought about how extraneous, non-musical claptrap that had gradually infiltrated my consciousness over the years—tiny stories about the music, gossip via and about fellow musicians, workplace politics (oh the drama!)—is of zero use in the moment of performance. Zero. I thought about how powerful it feels to have a “higher” gear I can kick into to silence that cognitive noise by resetting, over and over again. In that moment I don’t measure my experience by the number of shows I have already played (in the thousands, in any case), or by the lessons I have stowed away (few, in any case) that I can recycle and reapply. The cleanest way to (re)encounter the moment is to let go of my assumptions about it and attend to its unfolding, just like this, in this way, right now. When you keep things empty, they remain fresh and full of potential. And then the music started and I began to play.

Meta-Reflection: Talking About Creativity And The Value Of Performance

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“Craft is what enables you to be successful when you’re not inspired.” – Brian Eno

As a research flâneur, one of my favorite meta-subjects is the nature of the creative process and the question of how new and original ideas arise. Over the course of reading about music I’ve wandered into some compelling efforts to unpack how creativity works and I’ll begin by sharing a few of them with you. In a 1960 article (“Blind variation and selective retentions in creative thought as in other knowledge processes”), the psychologist Donald Campbell speaks of creativity in terms of “blind variation” or wandering which is subject to chance discoveries and “selective retentions” or recognition of these discoveries. Arthur Koestler’s 1964 book, The Act of Creation, posits creativity’s key as “bi-sociation” or bringing two seemingly unrelated entities together. In a 1988 article (“Society, Culture, and Person: A Systems View of Creativity”), the psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi (famous for his “flow” concept) triangulates creativity as a by-product of an interaction between an individual and a cultural domain with rules and conventions, and a social field that evaluates and judges the creative work. In his 1979 ethnographic memoir Ways of The Hand, the jazz pianist and sociologist David Sudnow describes creativity as a terrain of pathways for “various critical tasks faced when sustaining orderly articulated movements” (3). In her 2003 book The Creative Mind, cognitive scientist Margaret Boden applies a computational perspective on (re)combining familiar items, and exploring and transforming an established conceptual space. In his 2014 book Antifragile, statistician and essayist Nassim Taleb frames creativity in terms of tinkering or trial and error experimentation to generate small mistakes that are rich information, setting the stage for discovering “something rather significant” (236). In her 2015 book The Storm of Creativity, architect Kyna Leski describes the creative process as transforming via “displacing, disturbing, and destabilizing what you (think you) know” (13). And in his 2017 book The Evolution of Imagination, Stephen Asma likens creativity to inquiry—“an intellectual, artistic, and even bodily form of investigation and expression” (4).

This blog is in some ways fundamentally about creativity and vectors of invention. I have reviewed books on the topic (such as ones by Ed Catmull, Philippe Petit, and Kyna Leski), and I have written obliquely about it in my Working Knowledge and Performance Notes posts. Insights regarding creativity are everywhere. Take cooking, for example. I have found similarities between how chefs think about generating ideas and how composers do. The work of Michel Bras, Ferran Adria, Rene Redzepi, and Alain Passard is particularly interesting. Here is Bras, the self-taught master, describing his process: “In cooking, I often identify with the ingredient. I try to understand it, become one with it in order to recreate it.”

When it comes to talking about my own music making, I’m circumspect about detailing techniques and methods because doing so seems reductive. But I do write about them. Offline I make short notes about what is and isn’t working to gradually steer myself towards productive rather than dead-end paths. Interestingly, most of the notes have something do with “leaving more space.” (Note to readers: leaving space always helps!) In my experience, if there is an essence of creativity it emerges not so much from techniques or methods (and certainly not from one’s “gear”) but within the flow of a performance. Performances, of course, are complicated staging or spectacles that we see all around us: politicians and reality TV characters—who are sometimes one and the same—perform, teachers perform, and so do novels and musical improvisations. One of the things that makes performances complicated is their sense of urgency—that is, their relationship to pressures, real or imagined. (I have written about performance here.) Performances have led me to cool places where the most interesting-sounding discoveries are by-products of serendipity, transpiring halfway between accident and my less than ideal technical facility for “sustaining orderly articulated movements” as Sudnow says, within music’s time. A plainer way of saying this is that although I’m not always sure how I get things done, things get done through a performance. And while I usher them along, connecting their moments, the better performances seem to draw on alternate bio- and psycho-energy sources. Why rule out the effect of ineffable intangibles such as your disparate thoughts, the time of day, your location, your hunger, or your muscle memories on your ability to conjure something apropos for the project at hand?

What though, are the sources of performance skill? When I’m in a pragmatic state of mind (e.g. it’s morning), I might say that creativity through performance depends on how you draw on and apply your experience. In my case, I’ve been playing two musical instruments (percussion and piano) for about thirty-five years. With the piano, not playing it very dexterously, but that hasn’t stopped an understanding from developing between the layout of the keys and my sense of where I want to go over them. (Knowledge proceeds independent of practical skill.) Based on knowing a musical instrument, I can reliably find ways to get from here to there and, most of the time, back again. (If not, we’re going to have a surprise ending folks!) When I’m in a more associative mood (e.g. it’s late afternoon), I might say that creativity is about how you use your experience to defy the materials with which you work. Whether making a bird out of folded paper or a chordspace out of tones and semitones, you imagine that your craft is always gesturing somewhere else.

 

Interface: On The Ergonomics Of Musical Instruments

“Most of the works are not about something–they are not trying to tell something–but they are more made like interfaces for the viewer.”
– Cevdet Erek

Recently I came across the music of the Turkish artist and musician Cevdet Erek, who creates sound art installation works that deal with sounds, space, and rhythm. Here is some video of his excitingly-titled “Room of Rhythms” (which I imagine is completely immersive bass-wise when you’re actually in it):

And here is a short profile on Erek:

Erek plays the davul, a Turkish double-headed bass drum struck with a mallet and a thin stick. The davul is commonly used in folk music, not only in Turkey, but also in Iran, Albania, Romania, Bulgaria, Armenia, Serbia, Macedonia, and Greece. (Interestingly, the Greek name for the davul is davouli, and in Greece the instrument sometimes goes by the names toumpano/tymbana/toubi, all of which connect to the Greek tympano—the source of the name for the modern timpani drums of the western orchestra.)

Erek’s recording Davul features the drum solo, in all its abstract beauty. I wouldn’t call this easy listening music, but then this blog is not about easy listening. Anyway, here is the first track, “Heal”:

As I was listening I started thinking about the ergonomics of playing an acoustic instrument–in this case, a davul drum with two different kinds of sticks at the same time. Then it occurred to me how difficult or even impossible it would be to program Erek’s freeform and flowing rhythms in my DAW software. How would I render all those timbral and timing subtleties? This lead me to marvel and wonder at how it is that musicians interface so well with time-tested acoustic musical instruments and how far electronic ones still have to go to earn our goodwill. With hands and sticks we connect seamlessly with our drums and percussion instruments. Ditto with our keyboards, and our lutes where one hand usually frets and the other bows or plucks. It’s all so ergonomic: we designed acoustic instruments with our playing bodies in mind, while at the same time we have spent centuries adapting ourselves to instrumental demands and resistances. Listening to Erek play I thought about how the electronic and digital turns in music making raise enduring questions: How do we relate to our instruments and thus to our musics? Can I interface with my laptop software the way Erek does with his davul? Is the electronic musician’s modality of relating—pushing buttons, turning knobs, triggering clips and scenes, etc.—still in need of thinking through?

For more posts on the ergonomics of music making:

https://brettworks.com/2017/05/03/on-knowing-music-in-practice-and-in-theory/

https://brettworks.com/2015/06/07/on-the-ergonomics-of-music-reflections-on-flow-in-steve-reichs-drumming/

https://brettworks.com/2011/07/20/on-expressivity-in-musical-performance-the-korg-wavedrum/

On Performance

 

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When I think about the word performance I often think about musicians, actors, dancers, even teachers putting on some kind of show. There’s a spectacle aspect to most performances though: they involve some degree of put on, some level of acting, some amount of fakeness. I say this even though I myself perform as a musician six days a week. But maybe performing isn’t the problem. Maybe the problem is focusing on its superficial aspects rather than the other, more substantial demands it makes our concentration, problem-solving, and attention?

Lately I’ve been thinking about some of the redeeming and compelling qualities of performance that have little to do with spectacle. One quality that interests me is how performance can bring out the best in us by urging us to surpass what we already know. In my experience, this quality often manifests itself through improvising in situations in which I have a rough idea of where I’m going but don’t know exactly how I’ll get there, or how I’ll get out of where I’ve gone. I compose this way, formulating a vague melodic game plan, along the lines of I’ll start here, then go higher, linger there for a while, then I’ll come back down. Flying without a net, basically, but just having this simple game plan is enormously helpful. I’ve used it enough to be convinced that its utility is due to it being simple enough to remember in real-time (I often play slowly and leave space, which helps), and also because it’s an open-ended constraint. I haven’t put any limits, for instance, on how long I’ll linger once I’ve moved to a higher register, or on how long it will take me to make my return descent. What does this have to do with performance? Performance is what brings the game plan to life and dares me to play with its constraints; I perform within the game plan by almost going beyond it.

I do something similar with writing. Here I don’t think in spatial terms exactly, but work along analogous lines. Let’s say I want to write about the idea of melodic game plans. Immediately I have three possible conceptual launch points: melody, games, and plans. How are melodies like games of planning? And off we go. It could be that a first paragraph will be all about melody, leaving aside games and plans for the moment. And maybe in the course of that paragraph the word moment stands out as a new connector. Maybe moment deserves its own paragraph to explain how melodies are moment connectors, architectonic plans in the form of pitched games? Once again, what does this have to do with performance? Two things. First, I’m trying find the performative potentials in my materials–which in this hypothetical example is a mere three words. Second, my playing around with my materials is both my performance and also a finding the direction in which my materials will ultimately take me. In other words, in improvising music and riffing on ideas my performing is a way of structuring, a way forward, a way of thinking through, a way of building outwards from a rough plan, one note or word at a time, to reveal some kind of path. Simply put, performance is at once a rising to an occasion and also its creation.

One final thing about performances is that they are deeply time bound. When a concert begins, the ensemble doesn’t make a false start and then say So Sorry! Ignore that. We’ll start over. The musicians just keep going despite how they began–no turning back now. The clock is ticking and the audience have come for an experience that can’t be turned back. These realities lend the proceedings a sense of urgency. Whether you’re performing, composing, or writing, the magical thing about a bona fide performance runs deeper than mere spectacle. A great performance feeds off of time in the most productive, imaginative way of which the performer is capable.

On The Ergonomics Of Music: Reflections On Flow In Steve Reich’s “Drumming”

“But how the paths sounded to me was deeply linked to how I was making them. There wasn’t one me listening, and another one playing along paths. I listened-in-order-to-make-my-way.”
-David Sudnow, Ways of the Hand (MIT Press 2001, p. 40)

Every once in a while warming up before a show I noodle around by playing a bit of Steve Reich’s Drumming on the marimba. Composed in 1971, Drumming is over an hour of continuous percussion music entirely built on just a few pitches arranged in a constellation of eight beats over twelve pulses. This is the core melo-rhythmic pattern:

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As I played Reich’s pattern I thought about what makes it so idiomatic for the drummer’s hands. First, there its short-short-long-long rhythm whose composite sounding has the feel of a three against two polyrhythm. Next, the truncated scale: four notes of a minor one, but without the other three notes that would tell us more about specifics. Finally, Reich’s pattern on these four notes bring my left hand on an out-in-out motor pattern, moving from the g-sharp (out or away from me), up to the b-natural (in or towards me), and then from the b-natural down a semitone to the a-sharp (in to out). Simply put, while the right hand stays perched up on the c-sharp, the left hand motor pattern traverses a small in-out path that flows like crazy!

As I played and enjoyed the flow of the pattern I wondered how it would sound and feel in different keys, so I transposed it downwards one semitone at a time to try it out on eleven other starting pitches. But none of these transpositions felt nearly as natural as playing the pattern on g-sharp. Interesting. In fact, some of the transpositions–starting on b-natural, for instance–were seriously awkward to play. Now I wondered: Would Drumming have worked had it been done in a different key? Had it been tried in different keys? Was motor pattern flow a factor in deciding on its key? (So many questions.)

Playing the core pattern of Drumming had me thinking about some other matters related to composing and playing musical instruments. Had the pathways of this pattern, in this key, on this instrument (and not the tuned bongo drums that are featured in the piece’s opening movement), been the impetus for Drumming? I also reflected on how it is that a piece of music that works so well–that sits so well in the hands–can help define a lexicon of movements that are possible along the terrain of an instrument. If you write music for marimba, it’s difficult to ignore the enduring influence of Reich’s distinctive syncopated patterns on your understanding of the instrument’s idiomatic potentials and expressive sweet spots. Even if you’re just noodling around, warming up before a show by playing bits of Drumming, the fact that the piece continues to sound and feel as good as it does as ergonomic percussion music is enough to make you reflect anew on how closely writing and performing music are connected.

Here is part two of Drumming:

On Hiromi’s The Trio Project

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This past Sunday I went to see the jazz pianist Hiromi and her Trio Project play at the Blue Note Jazz Club. The pianist’s bandmates were Simon Phillips on drums and Anthony Jackson on electric bass. The musicians’ playing was virtuosic and as an ensemble they were super tight–almost telepathically so.

I sat behind Hiromi and couldn’t see her two bandmates–until I realized that if I looked towards the mirrored far wall across the room I could see the head of Jackson and Phillips’ hands–but nothing else, obscured as the drummer was by his giant cymbals. Not bad, but who knew that seeing makes listening to live music that much better? I wanted to see what the musicians were thinking with their faces. So it goes sometimes.

Given my interests, I was particularly moved by Phillips’ drumming. Playing matched grip, his sound was at once booming and crisply articulated, moving easily and instantly from rock time feels to double time swing. His cymbal work was a highlight here. From jazz time on the rides to the symphonic crashes, the cymbals sounded pristine every time he struck them–like important events marked with panache. It was hard to imagine this trio’s music functioning at all without Phillips’ rhythmic verve and presence. It’s in this regard that good drummers are so much more than steady “timekeepers.” The good ones can slice and dice time to the point that the drumming becomes the time.

Unfamiliar with Hiromi’s music, I wondered while listening to the trio perform their airtight set just how much–if any–of their music making was improvised. It sounded composed. Most of the pieces had numerous clearly demarcated sections that dictated exactly how long anyone’s solo might last, ever-shifting odd meters marked by repeating piano riffs, as well as three-way unison flourishes, stops and starts. The grooves were without seams, and downbeat accents were never missed. Indeed, the set seemed a performance of pieces pre-worked out in their details, giving the trio a commanding ability to bring the audience on a calibrated musical trip.

A day after the show I listened the group’s recent recording, Alive, and realized that the music was exactly the set I had heard at the Blue Note. One of the standout tunes is the angular and odd-metered “Dreamer”, which begins and ends with a moody four-chord piano sequence, accompanied by a delicately brilliant drum pattern that evokes Steve Gadd’s “Fifty Ways To Leave Your Lover” rudimental gear shifting. Like Hiromi’s Trio Project show at the Blue Note, “Dreamer” and many of the other pieces on their recording is an organized, fully thought through adventure that keeps changing and packs a wallop. In jazz does it even matter anymore if the music is composed or improvised?

Here is the trio performing another powerful piece, “Alive”, in the studio: