One way to listen to music–and by to I mean up and over and through and around music–is to imagine it as proposing a set of ideas for our consideration. From this perspective we can think about any music as sonically embodying, modeling, and organizing itself through these ideas. As we listen the ideas become present through the evanescent flow of the music as its sounds resonate and evaporate over time.
Mark Fell’s “Multistability 6-B” (henceforth M6B) is composed of just a few synthetic sounds: warbling synth, traces of a bell-like aura, hand claps, a pitched hi hat sped up into white noise, and a stuttering kick drum that effectively doubles as a gritty bass. As I listened to the track and wondered about the sources of its enchantment I took to trying to focus on the ideas the music’s flow seemed to embody. Could I enumerate them? I can try. First, and most noticeably, M6B incorporates displacement–parts that you expect to be in one place seemingly are and aren’t at the same time. Sometimes this appears to be a function of the placement of individual sounds, other times a matter of the piece’s overall fluctuating tempo. I first noticed this with the piece’s hand claps: they seem to be squarely on 2 and 4 but then keep sliding over ever so slightly in one direction or another, a detail I confirmed only when trying to snap along with my fingers. Second, M6B uses repetition and stasis: the same parts–displaced or not through placement or tempo–keep going and going which creates a pleasing sense of stability. Except sometimes this going and going is subtly more than that, which brings us to a third idea, contraction and elongation, which I noticed somewhere around 1:42, where that stuttering kick drum first begins changing the length of its phrase, as if opening and closing. Though these contracting and elongating fluctuations are continuous in the music I noticed some major ones beginning around 5:00 until the end of the seven minute piece. It’s one of the oldest musical devices: play a phrase, then make it progressively shorter or longer. There’s a mathematical logic to this kind of transformation that is always pleasing to behold, no? This brings us to a fourth idea, density: those stuttering kick drum fills and hi hat speeding into a hi hat blur fill a lot of the music’s space; the keyboard and hand clap parts are merely tracing broad outlines on top. A fifth idea is what we might call spatiality or the stereo sense produced by the warbling synth and the bell-like aura: we hear those parts subtly bouncing from one ear to another which lends the piece space (perhaps a respite from the kick drum and hi hat density) through another kind of motion. All this leads to a final idea suggested by the music: utility. This may be the most important question to ask of any music we encounter. With regards to Mark Fell’s M6B: What is this music for? You can’t dance to it. It isn’t ideal for selling cars. It’s not a love song. Yet it is tonal, consonant, kinetic and organized–the opposite of noise. I like this music because it perceptibly and beautifully grasps at things, moving this way and that, provoking us to think about the modes of thinking contained within itself.
Theorist: To compose music is to engage philosophically with music. Music is always about other things–about a bigger picture.
Pragmatist: Not at all–to compose music is to engage tactilely with putting sounds together.
Music is always about just music.
T: But surely you want to know to what end you’re doing the organizing?
P: I know my ends–I’m composing according to the sounds I have and the demands of the gig, the style, the context.
What other ends are there?
T: Well, one end is the bigger picture.
P: That’s vague. Isn’t music’s sound the picture–the picture that your ear takes in?
T: Yes but there’s more. I have the sense that anyone working in music–be they composer or performer or even listener–are in fact trying to do something else or be somewhere else. The picture is elsewhere as it were.
P: I don’t understand. You mean a string quartet playing together or a listener lost in headphone reverie are trying to achieve something outside of music?
T: Exactly! I think we use music as escape, as a way of imagining other states and ways of being, even as a way of experiencing virtual transgression.
P: Hmm. That last bit sounds somewhat radical. It brings to mind Jacques Attali who in his book Noise (1985) said that music is “forecast” and “prophecy” (21)–that music is like a crystal ball of sorts, anticipating future social change.
T: I like that formulation. But I’m convinced that the change music heralds or helps bring about is mostly internal.
What I’m saying is that music is a way to be virtually in several places at once.
In this way it teaches us about ourselves, about how we think and feel.
P: So this is what you mean when you say that music has a bigger picture and that music is always about other things?
P: Interesting. Okay, now this reminds me of a passage in Ben Ratliff’s Every Song Ever (2016).
Ratliff wonders whether music may be “actually necessary to consciousness.”
He asks: “What if music teaches you qualities of motion, ethics, ambition, in the most basic sense?” (88)
T: I could get behind that formulation.
P: So tell me, Theorist, what is it that you’re trying to do in your work?
T: I’m trying to connect music outwards to so many other realms of experience to show music’s bigger picture.
And what about you, Pragmatist?
P: I simply love making music–the smaller picture, if you will.
As an end to itself, there’s nothing else like it.
T: Now that, my friend, is most resoundingly true!
“My fandom is obsessive, possessive and largely static. When I am lucky enough to identify with a piece of music, I cling to it like a relic. There’s no use trying to convince me that my artifact is something other than my own personal Dead Sea Scrolls, something to help me parse or articulate where I fit in the world.”
“Pop culture has been firmly overtaken by corporations. Instead of a natural rotation of power, we now have lifetime dictators such as the Rolling Stones and AC/DC, for whom the audience pay for the ‘privilege’ of watching formerly great individuals being propped-up in stadiums or on polo-fields long past their prime, still pretending that they remain the best the world has to offer.”
“Beware of clichés…
There are clichés of response as well as expression.
There are clichés of observation and of thought–even of conception.
Many novels [or pieces of music, say], even quite a few adequately written ones,
are clichés of form which conform to clichés of expectation.”
“The principal consequence of the creative process is transformation.”
-Kyna Leski, The Storm of Creativity, p.4.
There is a reassuring and distilled clarity about Kyna Leski’s excellent recent book, The Storm of Creativity (MIT Press, 2015). Leski (http://kynaleski.com), an architect, designer, and teacher at the Rhode Island School Of Design, takes you by the hand and brings you to the edge of a lookout point onto the horizon of your consciousness. In the distance a storm is forming. This storm, she tells you, as you watch the swirling clouds against the sky, is a metaphor for the dynamics of your own creativity. Hearing her talk about it, you feel connected to larger forces–weather patterns and air currents, the flow of time, tides of energy. If you understand creativity as embedded in the world around you, you might see yourself and your agency in an altogether new way. “Analogies have their uses” Leski says. “The creative process is bigger than you. It is like a storm that slowly begins to gather and take form until it overtakes you” (x).
Following its title, this book progresses storm-like through a series of brief chapters that swirl around their theme, assembling little bits into a broader argument: “Creativity per se has no formal output; rather, it is an ongoing process” (xxiii). The chapters work in succession, but can also be read out of order, as each one explores a different facet and stage of the creativity as storm analogy. As I read I underlined here and there to remember the bits that spoke to me most.
Creativity begins with problem-making, a kind of stirring, a process that “comes from displacing, disturbing, and destabilizing what you (think you) know” (13). Almost paradoxically, this stirring in turn depends on accepting “the thoughtless and immediate ‘knowing’ of intuition without the support of facts” (11), “dwelling in the uncertain” (28), and having an empty mind in that Zen sense, “a readiness to have no ideas, a true tabula rasa, a genuine blank slate” (16). This allows you to sense “momentary alignment” between you, your materials, or a set of conditions. Leski vividly compares this sensing to seeing a rainbow emerging against sky as water droplets refract light. Creativity also involves a kind of coiled, tensile energy. Among her examples Leski includes photos of expandable and extractable wire structures (24) to illustrate how ideas or art can be a gathered object–“something that holds itself…by its own forces that define it” (52); “the material arranged in an elegant geometry” (53). Whether a building, a story, a painting, or a piece of music, a “creative work is a condensation of its making” (58). As tensile structures, different ideas have different tolerances too. “Some ideas are tight, and others have a loose fit, with wide margins of error” (66).
Two of my favorite parts of The Storm of Creativity are Leski’s discussion of the dynamics of play and, elsewhere, perspective in art. She explains how suspending the need for meaning through a playful approach to one’s materials creates an energy:
“Suspend control of meaning and concentrate on the language’s pattern, and that kind of play generates momentum…Relinquish a correspondence of cause and effect, or where the process will lead (intention), and unburden the play with language from solving a problem (purpose), and you generate further momentum. In other words, work the language itself, not with what the language necessarily represents” (74).
A little later Leski turns to the work of Paolo Uccello (1397-1475), an Italian painter and mathematician. She considers Uccello’s “The Battle of San Romano” as a case study for an unusual multiple vanishing point perspective that was significant in the development of linear perspective in Italian Renaissance art. Here is the one part of the three-panel work:
And here is Leski on it:
“Uccello’s perspective is based…on a vanishing point wherever the viewer looks. He doesn’t place objects within a gridded architectural field that vanishes to these points; instead, he focuses on the perspectival construction of the floating objects themselves…Unlike the perspective systems of the time that were based on a convergent infinity, Uccello’s perspective was based on a dynamic immensity. Wherever you look is the trajectory of perspective” (99).
Reading this passage I was struck by this idea of dynamic immensity because it seems to encapsulate the creativity as storm idea. Wherever you look, ideas are connecting to one another like the air and water in cloud formations, forming masses of energy. Like Uccello’s trajectory of perspective, our job in all creative work is essentially to be flexible in our own perceiving–to find the most productive trajectories for our problem-solving. “Really, really good observation…is how discoveries are made” says Liski (95), and this book convincingly shows in dozens of ways how discovery has its own logics. But let us not forget how storms are also apt metaphors for creativity because of the chaotic and unpredictable ways they form, surge, and dissipate without regard for boundaries. So too with the wild force of creativity. “Discovery and invention” says Risky, “happen outside the existing tracks or matrices of thought within a discipline” (161).
“Is our experience of time’s flow akin to watching a live play, where things occur in the moment but not before or after, a flickering in and out of existence around the ‘now’? Or, is it like watching a movie, where all eternity is already in the can, and we are watching a discrete sequence of static images, fooled by our limited perceptual apparatus into thinking the action flows smoothly?”
“I’d tune the radio in to this station, wait until something really string-y came up, either an introduction or an end or an interlude on one of these muzak numbers and I would grab a bit like a measure. Then I’d slow it down and see what I’d got. And it was really interesting because back then there was no Prozac, there were no anti-depressants, there was muzak and it was everywhere. But when you took a little piece of it and slowed it down, like looking at something under the microscope, this rich well of melancholy was exposed. And that really resonated with me.
So I found that these were the kind of textures I was interested in working with, making a tapestry with them, creating cyclic rhythms with them. And the fact that this stuff was leaking out of the airwaves, meant it felt like I was creating something out of nothing. It was one wild, mad experiment. I would set up loops, get them going, put on the tape recorder and let it go for the length of the cassette because if it was going, it captured this eternal moment.”
• A skilled harmonica player improvises over a drone in the style of Indian classical music.
“A lot of good things come from isolation and hard work and being truthful to some object. The first work of artists often comes from that angle, the liberation of expectation from what that work will be.”
– Tim Hecker (interviewed here).
Recently I went to see the Canadian electronic musician Tim Hecker perform at Warsaw in Brooklyn. Hecker has been increasingly recognized over the past few years for the depth and layered complexity of his hard to categorize experimental music. His sound is a kind of best blend of the digital and the acoustic that steadfastly avoids the obvious in pursuit of the challenging and often, the beautiful. The sound sets on his latest release, Love Streams, incorporate field recordings of pipe organ recorded in Iceland, voices singing bits of Josquin Des Prez, and what sounds like electric guitar mangled, arranged, and finessed with processing into huge swaths of affect that behave like clouds.
In performance what stands out about Hecker and what makes his concerts a something to behold is his interest in pulsation rather than rhythm per se. At his Warsaw show I was struck by the varieties and subtleties of pulsing organ-ish chords, white noise, piston-sounding percussion, and low bass tones. These sound layers seemed to be constantly working against and through one another. The pulsations never line up, creating constant clashing, constant wah wah beating effects. The music heaves and lumbers, like clouds, yes, but also like giant ocean waves. There’s just so much depth and detail here–almost too much to process.
Along with its layers of noisy pulsations Hecker’s music is, to my ear, essentially a mutated species of tonal music, filled with all manner of chords, though you’re hard pressed to hear recognizable ones. Forget major and minor; Resident Advisor aptly describes the sound as “chaos with a patina of melody.” The chords are always disguised, always in processual unfolding, always the by-product of extensive sound layering in which it is hard know what the sounds are, how numerous they are, or where the digital takes over from the electric or the recorded acoustic. This kind of thick layering can have immense emotional effects.
Every few minutes you can hear a transition in Hecker’s set–a point a which one sound set fades into another, where a harsh digital harpsichord sound appears (10:48pm), where a three note up and down bassline appears (10:54), where super low tumble-muffled drum sounds appear but without discernible rhythm and then the bottom disappears (10:55), where a warped music box appears (11:03), where low feedbacking electric guitars appear (11:07), and so on. And through all these types of changes the concert hall remains dark–I couldn’t see Hecker from where I was standing–and rather punishing high volume brings everything to viscerality.
Listening to Hecker play his set I thought about the ways his music works against getting a handle on it, works against finding it’s sense; how it works to undermine your sense-making. The textures are so opaque with sound layers and the cues for directions–rhythmic or melo-harmonic–so not obvious that the listener needs to step up his interpretive game. As I listened to the set I thought about where it might be going, yet at almost every point of reflection the music went somewhere I wasn’t expecting, lingering on those cloud-waves of dissonance and pulsation, pushing the audience to stay with it just a little more, just a little longer. It was as if the music held the therapeutic promise of resolving itself at some point. But that would be too easy.
What is the social contract between musical performer and listener? Within the implicit genre constraints of Hecker’s music what is the performer trying to do? Surprise us? Overwhelm us? Chart uncharted paths for us? And what role do we play in facilitating the performer’s quest? I ask these questions not because Hecker didn’t deliver a powerful live set–he did–but because his performance raised questions and had me reflecting on what it is that performer and listener are working to accomplish together in the first place. I don’t have the answer, but sometimes it’s the gap between the music and our perception of it that holds clues. After the show as I was walking to the subway I passed a few guys (most of the audience was male) who had been at the show. Chatting in front of a bar they were unpacking what they had heard over the past hour and their expectations for Hecker’s set. “I thought he was building up to something and then the lights would go on” one of them said. “But he never got there.”