Wednesday, April 25, 2012
Friday, April 13, 2012
I practice meditation and I forgo sessions at my own risk.
Passing thoughts can seem to be invasive and disruptive during a meditation session. One learns that they needn’t be a problem. Passing thoughts can become part of the flow by letting them do just that—pass through. Rather than confront and combat the thought that intrudes one just looks at it with mild interest as the benign bit of nothingness that it is and then one watches it move on. It’s no more or less interesting than a balloon that floats through one’s field of vision and is then forgotten. Thirteenth century Zen master and poet Dogen described the situation beautifully and with characteristic brevity:
The moon reflected
In a mind clear
As still water
Even the waves, breaking,
Are reflecting its light.
(Translated by Steven Heine)
Wednesday, April 4, 2012
“…an aspiration for me as a musician: to create an aural space, if you will, that is not only structurally and esthetically satisfying, but that also allows for the individual listener or player within it to have her own experience—an experience that perhaps leaves one feeling alone, but that brings one back to one’s Self, that affirms one’s deepest feelings and longings.”
Myra Melford in “Aural Architecture: The Confluence of Freedom”,
Chapter 8 of Arcana: Musicians On Music, edited by John Zorn, page 119
I open with this quote for a couple of reasons.
First of all, it aptly mirrors the experience and resulting motivation that I recently described in a blog entitled “The Lamb Played Piccolo.” (C.f. my blog on April 2, 2012.)
Secondly, her title references architecture. I’ve been thinking a lot about architecture-music connections of late. Consistent with my normal modus operandi the energy of my thinking attracted a source of further thought and inspiration. (Sort of the opposite of school where you are plied with sources that all too often don’t stimulate energized thinking.)
I’ve long had a fascination with architecture in a very practical sense. I love to be in built spaces. The ones that work best for me create a response very much like the music experience that Melford and I have described. The experience is most sublime when I am the only one in the structure. I very much enjoy walking through downtown indoor urban labyrinths on Sunday mornings when the only ones there are me and a few homeless folks seeking shelter. There’s nothing like rounding a corner and coming upon a fabricated canyon that stretches above and below me with snakes of stilled escalators reaching from one level to another. I could spend time analyzing and contemplating my response, and have done so, but it has virtually nothing to do with my appreciation.
It’s been said that architecture isn’t “about something.” A rich man may build a mausoleum in memory of his wife, but it isn’t “about” her. An overpass may be constructed to be graceful and to fit the landscape (wouldn’t that be nice?), and it can be fun to traverse a cleverly made one, but it’s not “about” a trip across town. The “meaning” is in the use.
There’s a wonderful old adage that gothic architecture is like frozen music. An inversion of that thought also makes sense to me—music is liquid architecture. The comparison leads to a reasonable question. Why are we constantly deluged with the insistence that music is about something? Someone might say “because music is emotional”. My proposition is that architecture is, too. But it doesn’t matter because emotion isn’t a meaning it’s a response.
Igor Stravinsky famously said, “Music is powerless to express anything at all,” and “My music is best understood by children and animals.” I like the implication that arises when these two quotes are brought together—while music can’t express anything it can be understood. It can be understood in the same way that a child “understands” a toy, or a dog “understands” a head stroke, or that I “understood” the Cathedral Basilica of Salvador in Bahia, Brazil or a mosque I entered in the city of Male in the Maldives or the center court of the old Marshall Fields in Chicago.
It’s a virtual deal breaker when I hear someone say that their instrumental composition is “about this great breakfast my girlfriend made me,” or “about the faint smile on my father’s lips when we reconciled at his deathbed.” At that point I’m back in grade school trying to see sheep on a hillside.
This has nothing to do, of course, with the effectiveness of sounds from “real life” used in music. It’s not contrary to the beauty of Don Vliet using the rhythm of windshield wipers to create a song, or Harry Partch using elements of his hobo life to structure his music, or Steve Reich’s applying recordings of street preachers and the pulse of train rides for musical form. The music isn’t “about” these things; it uses them as raw material.
This all leads to issues of intention that we’ll address soon.
Monday, April 2, 2012
“The trouble with music appreciation in general is that people are taught to have too much respect for music; they should be taught to love it instead.”
I was in fifth grade when buses pulled up at my grade school one day to haul us off to Northrup Auditorium at the University of Minnesota so we could experience a matinee concert by the Minneapolis Symphony. Someone took to the stage before the concert to explain what we were about to witness and how we should experience it. She told us that the composer intended for us to see specific pictures when listening to his music. We were to close our eyes and try to get an image in our minds of what the composer was seeing. She even helped us out by telling us that in the piece of music we were about to hear the composer wanted us to see sheep on a green hillside. I gave it my best shot—my brow furrowed and eyes tightly shut, desperately trying to summon up the predetermined picture. Nothing. I could hear the music. I could feel the hard arms of my chair and the kid squirreling around next to me. But the smell of our wet wool jackets was the closest I could come to anything ovine. And no green grassy hill.
I was subtly and thoroughly convinced that day that I was not equipped to properly experience music…and certainly not classical music. I already played four musical instruments—accordion, flutophone (a plastic recorder), trombone, and cello—but if I couldn’t see the pictures I must be kidding myself. I wasn’t aware at the time of how demoralized I had been by the concert experience.
Former U.S. Poet Laureate Billy Collins has spoken of how our school system installs a poetry deflector shield in students that stays in place for a lifetime. Music appreciation classes did the same thing. I had been drawn to music since infancy. My first toys were a cardboard guitar and a plastic Emenee accordion (later replaced by a 120 bass Italian instrument). But classroom experiences of “Blow the Man Down” and rounds and descants and invisible sheep on hillsides were deadly dull and disappointing.
I had two other experiences at that time, experiences that redirected my life and saved my soul. They were so natural and organic that it took me many years to figure out their importance.
My parents went out one evening and I babysat my two younger brothers. After I got them tucked into bed I settled in to wait for our folks to come home. The house was filled with a quiet, deep, and ominous loneliness. I turned on the radio…a hefty plastic pre-Bose-System high-fidelity tabletop radio with a great sound. I searched for distant mysterious AM stations like the one from Little Rock. Instead I came across the most amazing sound I’d ever heard. I’d never been transported by anything in that way before. I floated and bobbed on some distant sublime bed of cloudy, comforting loneliness for what felt like an eternity. I didn’t want to ever come back. I didn’t know or think about what style of music it was. I’m certain now that it was something “classical.” I didn’t need instruction on how to appreciate it.
Soon after that we moved to a farm in southern Minnesota for a year. My brothers and I spent a summer exploring woods, trails that had never been seen by human eyes, and abandoned pig and chicken sheds—literal farm animal ghost towns. My favorite things to do that summer were reading and going alone to my private outdoor spot. Behind some barns there was a gigantic galvanized grain storage bin. It had some sort of mechanical fan/drying unit at its base. I would sit nearby, listen to its endless drone, and sing long tones in unison or harmony to it. Time would stand still.
I had no concept of the musical or meditative implications involved, or the way that drones and repetitive music would dominate and compel me throughout my life. And when I fell completely in love with Joe Zawinul’s eponymous album in my 20’s it never occurred to me that it matched in some way my late night fifth grade radio experience.
The fact is, all my energy since those days has been aimed at recreating the sensations I've described. My music listening, playing, and “teaching” (not to mention my endeavors in other art disciplines) are based on the deep belief that others have had experiences that are similar in some way to the ones I've related here. The sensibilities engendered by those experiences may be deeply buried, but they are sending out a homing signal. If people can be diverted from the input coming from teachers, lessons, magazines, and marketing it’s possible to find the music that is calling to them. The music deflector shield can be uninstalled.
BTW, this is what my Emenee accordion looked like. What a beaut’!