Playing Along

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When I’m composing I’m almost always playing along with something that’s already sounding. Pop musicians often begin with a groove, but since I don’t make beat music (at the moment) I often begin with free improvisation at the keyboard. I’m searching for something—a chord, a bit of melody—that I haven’t exactly heard before. I’m searching for something novel, yet at the same time familiar enough to recall musics I already like. There’s also some ventriloquizing going on: it sometimes feels as if I’m pretending to be someone else whose music I might enjoy!

At some point this improvisation becomes a part that stands on its own—material from which to derive other parts or against which I can keep improvising. Now I shift modes from searcher to observer, listening to the improvised part as if surveying a map spread out in front of me, noticing routes and topographies that weren’t apparent when I was on the ground, in the thicket. As the improvised part plays, I play along like a one-way jam session. It’s one-way because the initial part can’t react to my playing along, which is a good thing because something needs to remain constant at this stage. I try out different kinds of playing along: harmonizing like a good group singer (hit those thirds and tenths—nice!), providing rhythmic accompaniment, staying out of the way, finding the holes here and there, and exploring going against the harmonic grain (that’s not C major anymore, it’s A minor!). For the most part mostly I listen while playing to see if I can figure out what, if anything, that initial part needs to make it more than itself.

It may sound strange, but even though the composition process has just begun here I’m already considering whether or not my initial improvisation is complete on its own. I’m assuming a lot, specifically 1) the possibility that what I’ve begun with is already enough and not in need of any playing along with, and 2) that finishing things through minimal means is preferable to finishing them through maximal means. As I listen, observing the music, I notice details of its form, tempo, mood, and go-to gestures. The improvisation has already boxed me in somewhat, but maybe it also offers ways to get out? Playing along to the music is like making multiple attempts to figure out how to make the most of the details I’m noticing.

There are also pragmatic considerations as I play along. I try out different sounds to hear how they go with what I started with: there are resonant and dry sounds, fat and thin sounds, sharp and rounded sounds, hollow and solid sounds, clean and dirty-muffled sounds, and so on. I’ll play the same part over and over again while trying out different sounds (and unbeknownst to me, solidify the part I’m playing because I’m too busy evaluating one timbre after another). Trying out different sounds can lead to either revelation (this bowed kalimba is perfect!) or a sense that I’ve lost track of playing along’s most important function, which is to meaningfully interact with what is already sounding. And so the process unfolds as I listen to and play along with the improvisation and try out various sounds.

At some point—sometimes it’s days or weeks or months later—I start hearing things in the initial improvisation that were never apparent at the time I did it. I start hearing the musical thread—the lines of musical thinking—that I was following as I aimed for this note and missed it by a semitone, or jumped for a dramatic deep chord and hit upon something partly wrong yet still adequately cool. Now I hear those moments as signposts that can anchor a piece. The moments are rich in information about destinations, and so are the notes leading up to and away from those moments. Now I’m hearing the flow of what I was trying to say my first time around.

Speaking of hearing flow, it might surprise you to hear that composers don’t necessarily think about music in technical terms. You might have noticed that I haven’t dwelled on keys or scales, and the reason for this is that this isn’t how I think at an instrument. (Does a painter think consciously about the color blue except insofar as blue conveys a certain kind of energy and mood? How do musicians “think” at their instruments?) An acquaintance in school who was a composer once came up to me after I had played a vibraphone piece and observed, “you must really like Dorian [mode].” At that moment I realized that I had composed the piece not upon my knowledge of modes but around the vibraphone’s shapes and limitations (e.g. its lowest note is an F). My acquaintance’s observation wasn’t entirely wrong, but it wasn’t right either. Instead of keys and scales, one can think about the flows of moments, drama, destinations, and hand shapes. The potentials of these elements become clearer when I’m playing along and trying to understand the improvisation that began the process. That’s what playing along is: a way to understand what someone else—or yourself, a while ago—is doing and then fitting into that to amplify it.




Long Tail Listening


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.

Resonant Thoughts: On Simon Critchley’s “What We Think About When We Think About Soccer” (2017)


On phenomenology:

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).

On rhythm:

“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).

Resonant Thoughts: Arnold Berleant’s “Notes For A Phenomenology Of Musical Performance” (1999)


“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.

Resonant Thoughts: Thomas Clifton’s “Music As Heard” (1983)


“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.

Lessons From Italo Calvino’s “Reading A Wave”

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.