In music, we pay a lot of attention to the onset of sounds—the point at which the sound begins its audible life. The onset of a sound is its attack point where the stick hits the drum, the bow grabs the string, the finger presses the key, and so on. From a sound’s attack we can surmise quite a bit about how the musician is doing, time- and dynamics- and timbre-wise: Are they playing in time? Are they playing loud or soft? What is the quality of sound they’re making?
But what happens after a sound’s onset point of attack is equally revealing. With some instruments, such as strings or winds, a sound’s attack is the beginning of a longer sustaining that must be maintained over time through continuous bowing or breathing. Other instruments, such as percussion, produce sounds that for the most part are attack-focused: you hit the drum and its sound disappears almost immediately after it has sounded. The only way to sustain a sound on a percussion instrument is to rapidly repeat it in the form of some sort of roll. Of course, some percussion instruments like cymbals and gongs have a more sustaining sound, but they are still attack-focused.
This situation encourages the percussionist to be a long tail listener who tracks what happens after the attack point of the sound as it either disappears immediately or else gradually diminishes to nothing. Long tail listening is about focusing on what happens next: strike a marimba note and it vanishes after a half second; strike a gong and it decays into silence over a half-minute. Either way, long tail listening shifts your attention to the effects of what you just hit, not the hitting itself, as if you’re learning to be your own GPS machine, using your location in time to look back at what just transpired to understand where you are now and where you’re going. In this way, long tail listening encourages us to slow down our music making: as we hear backwards we have time to feel the effects of those onset points of attack now gone that would otherwise have passed by unnoticed.
Phenomenology is the attempt “to get close, as close as possible, to the grain, texture, and existential matrix of experience as it is given, and to allow words to echo that experience in a way that might allow us to see it in a new light, under a changed aspect” (17).
“The rhythm of football is…a legato, a smooth, emerging and subtle flow of time. Football is about shifts in the experience of time. These are shifts in the intensities of experience, when time is revealed—when that moment of moments occurs—to be something malleable, plastic, and elastic” (28).
“The performer necessarily comes at the music from within…Most often the performance situation catapults a musician into a rare and unusual condition, one that reveals the basic features of experience with eloquent directness, free, at least to some extent, from the usual overlay of cultural and philosophical presuppositions that nearly always obstruct our awareness. What is this perceptual condition like?”
– Arnold Berleant, “Notes For A Phenomenology Of Musical Performance”,
Philosophy of Music Education Review, Vol. 7, No. 2 (Fall, 1999), p. 75.
“The theoretical act involves ‘observing the self observing the music’ (37).
“The logic and sense of music are different from the logic of propositions” (71-72).
“Before becoming a cultural artifact, a style,
or an object of study, music is a presence” (80).
“But to inhabit the world of music, it is necessary to be able to identify that world and refer to it, not its representative. And the only way to refer to it is by reflecting on it as a phenomenal object which one’s abilities recognize to be expressive” (298).
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.