John Cage And Improvisation


Art is sort of an experimental station in which one tries out living.
-John Cage

The American experimental composer John Cage once said that he didn’t believe in improvising as a composing technique. The reason is that when we improvise we only play what we already know.

But that has not been my experience. When I improvise—not all that skillfully, usually lost and barely hanging on, but in the moment, connecting my listening with the sounds I’m making—I often encounter novel sound combinations. Contra to Cage, I don’t have the feeling of playing what I already know; in fact, when I listen back to some of these improvisations I find them pleasurably unknown to me—I have no idea about the basis upon which I made decisions in the moment to make the sounds. For me the discovery process inside improvising seems to involve going out on a performance limb and then free-falling. Thinking through it comes later.

So when Cage says he doesn’t believe in improvising, I wonder: Could Cage improvise? Could he elicit sound combinations he found pleasing from instruments in real time, without a definite goal and without recourse to what he already knew? The sound and flow of some of his early pieces such as the beautiful In A Landscape or the gamelan-esque Sonatas and Interludes for prepared piano, suggest the composer had some interest in performance before theoretical concerns became paramount. This brings me to another thought: Did Cage perhaps turn his back on improvisation because it didn’t have a place within his rigorously conceptualized system of using chance procedures (such as the I-Ching or rolling dice) as a system by which to organize music? What I find odd is that if Cage believed that “art is sort of an experimental station in which one tries out living”, why wouldn’t he avail himself of improvising, that ultimate living strategy available to us all? Was improvising somehow un-composerly, simply too accessible, too universal, too human?

Notes On David Salle’s “How To See”


“To take a work’s psychic temperature, look at its surface energy.”
– David Salle, How To See, p. 15.

David Salle’s How To See: Looking, Talking, and Thinking About Art is a superb collection of writings about understanding visual art in terms of its intrinsic affective qualities rather than in terms of what it may express about the world or how it fits into a popular theory of interpretation. “Theory abounds, but concrete visual perception is at a low ebb” (2) Salle tells us. The author is an accomplished artist himself and in How To See he draws on his experience to engage with the works of a variety of contemporary artists including Edward Lichtenstein, Jeff Koons, Alex Katz, and many others. Salle’s go-to methodology is to notice, as he takes measure of a piece of art, “what it is you actually find yourself thinking about” (7). Questions flow from here: What makes a work of art tick? What makes it good? What makes it interesting? These questions get us on a path to understanding what Alex Katz aptly describes as an artwork’s “inside energy” (5).

For Salle, an artwork’s qualities exist in a form independent from what the artist may have intended. Moreover, the content of the artwork is more than a sum of cultural signs. The central problem of criticism then, is figuring out how to “talk about art without invoking the ‘isms,’ or resorting to generalities” (5). Where do we turn, Salle asks, to find a vocabulary that communicates what it feels like to see? The essays about artists and their art in How To See offer an informed storytelling by an author whose perceptions are grounded in a lifetime of creating. It’s this grounded experience that leads Salle to say that what reveals an artwork’s nature and quality is “the specific inflection and touch that goes into its making” (15). If any artist’s work is a long-term research project to reconcile form and content (69), then so too is the critic’s long-term project a matter of reconciling content with interpretive form as he or she figures out a way to convey art’s ever-delicate balance of aesthetics and mechanics (113).

At the end of How To See Salle includes a list of thought-provoking exercises for anyone wishing to engage more deeply with art. (As I read I of course thought about how these prompts might apply to musical examples.) Here are four of my favorites that deserve wider sharing:

Build your own analogies. For each work of art, make a sentence that begins “This is a work of art that…” and complete the analogy (244).

Compare and contrast. “Compare two works of art that are stylistically similar but of different intensities” (244).

Similes. Describe a work of art with a sentence that begins “This is a work that puts me in the mind of…” (245).

Where would it feel at home? “Imagine ten works of art of diverse styles and give the ideal place where each would be seen” (246).

Working Knowledge: Creating Space Between The Notes Or, Subtractive Epistemology


It may be a bit of a cliché in music to talk about the space between the notes, but it’s a cliché for good reasons and with good intentions.

The space between the notes is where the time of the music is most perceptible. In drumming, for instance, the space between two stick attacks on a cymbal or two hand strokes on a drum can tell you all you need know about the musician’s sense of time. A flurry of notes—cue the drum fill!—can impress, but what reveals time is the space between the onsets of two consecutive sounds.

Can one learn to leave space between notes? I think yes, but this depends on one’s willingness (not ability) to listen to the space to hear what it brings. It helps to have a reason to leave space in the first place. Like clarity. Just give me some space man! I need time to think, so goes the old saying that interweaves space and time.

I’ve been thinking about space recently as I’ve been editing some new music. As it happens, the music does have space in it, in part because its tempo is slow, but editing it has been a lesson in amplifying this already present space. The editing process began with the usual deletion of an accidental note doubling or busy passage here and there to allow what is there and here to be heard more. Standard stuff as far as that goes. But then a last-minute sound substitution (my original sound was buzzing too much) led to its upper register notes sounding thin. So I began deleting these notes (because there was no other way to fix them) and realized to my surprise that the more I took out, the more everything else sounded better. So I kept going. I noticed an unnecessary reverb over here and deleted it. I noticed an unnecessary track doubling over there and deleted that. As Nassim Taleb observes in Antifragile, subtractive knowledge means that “we know a lot more what is wrong than what is right.” Knowledge, he says, “grows by subtraction much more than by addition” (303).

Anyway, I learned something through the process of taking away stuff to create more space in the music. I learned that I was more interested in how the empty spaces were resonating than with any actual silence they might contain. In the empty spaces I heard little traces of the sounds that preceded them—sounds like disembodied chords without attacks, just sustains and releases, vapors and tails without statements and bodies. It occurred to me that this is one of the challenges with composing for the sounds of percussion instruments: often the fact of their sounds being so sharp and fleeting (e.g. a cymbal crash) causes us to miss what the space of the music sounds like in the wake of these sounds. The space between the notes is interesting because it’s the just after part where you have a split second to recall what just happened and anticipate what might yet arrive.

Maybe this is why I keep slowing down the tempo of my music and why editing has become a way to create even more space.

Curating The Week: John Berger, The ‘Pop-Drop’ Sound, Clapping On The Off-Beats


• An interview with John Berger (1926-2017).

“The primary thing wasn’t to say whether a work was good or bad; it was rather to look and try to discover the stories within it. There was always this connection between art and all the other things that were happening in the world at the time, many of which were, in the wider sense of the word, political.”

And this short video:

“Creation is the constant correction of errors.”

• An article on the “pop-drop” sound (or: trickle-down of electronic dance music aesthetics)

“Finally, the pop-drop lands. The singer literally drops out, replaced by synthesizers and chopped-up, distorted vocal samples that vaguely reference the earlier lyrics. There is no need to sing along. Paired with a syncopated beat, the pop-drop invites the listener to just feel the music in a way that’s unexpected, revelatory and just plain fun.”

• Harry Connick Jr. gets his audience’s 2 & 4 clapping onto the off-beats! (at 0:40):

Brett’s Sound Picks: Huerco S.’s “The Sacred Dance”

I know little about how Huerco S. makes his electronic music, except that it seems loop-based, it has many layers, and creates a serene sensation of pulsation–circling, echoing, flanging, and chugging along, around and around, almost the same but always somehow changing just enough. My favored track on his For Those Of You Who Have Never (And Also Those Who Have) (2016) is the last one, “The Sacred Dance”:

Chasing Creativity



Creativity is a wolf that you’re chasing in a mountain forest in the middle of winter. You run after this stealth silent and fleet-footed animal that sprints ahead of you, flying over rocks and branches, leaping over iced streams, always vanishing just around the next bend in the trail. You’re patient in your pursuit, keeping him in your sights from a distance while maintaining an even pace you’ve learned from your training. The advantage you have over Creativity is that he occasionally gets lost (he never has a plan of action) and likes to stop once in a while to ponder, pursue scents, take in the sights. These are the moments when you make headway on him, closing in—but not too close to scare him away or provoke an attack—to spy the animal up close.

At one point he turns around and notices you as you both stand motionless, taking in one another from ten feet, your breaths turning to steam in the cold air. It’s scary. Creativity is elegantly wild: a strong build, smooth white fur, unafraid of frigid temperatures, effortlessly going for long stretches without food or water, and of course, he has those eyes. Those penetrating, blue-grey eyes that decipher your weaknesses in a second, while at the same time looking at you uncomprehendingly because clearly you’re of an alien species. Creativity can easily outrun you, but for the moment he stares you eye to eye in the alpine stillness and the fading light of a late afternoon sun. What are you to do? You’re in his environment now—way off the grid, feeling your feet, nose, and fingers freezing by the second, and your GPS watch has lost its signal. You can’t stay out here as long as Creativity can—he lives here, after all—but you can give chase for a while and maybe learn some things from him. Then Creativity speaks.

Let’s keep running he says in confident, perfectly unaccented English, and then disappears deeper into the forest pine.

As you chase after Creativity you think about what it felt like to look into his wolf eyes up close. You realize that Creativity doesn’t care about you. He only sized you up as a less efficient animal intruding upon his habitat, leaving much unspoken.

You’re welcome to follow me, but I won’t wait for you.

I may change direction at any time and I won’t help you if you fall.

On the upside, follow my footstep patterns and learn from my maneuvering.

Maybe later you can analyze why I moved as I moved.

And remember, unlike you I’m a wild animal: my appetites are my survival.

(Do you like wolf analogies? Here is a bird analogy.)