Sunday, December 31, 2006

Meditations On Listening

Sonny Sharrock & Nicky Skopelitis: Faith Moves (CMP)
Material: Hallucination Engine (Axiom)
Bill Laswell: Hear No Evil (Virgin)
John Coltrane (with Eric Dolphy): Africa/Brass (Impulse)
John Coltrane (with Pharoah Sanders): Meditations (Impulse) and Ascension (Impulse)
Hedningarna: Hippjokk and Tra (NorthSound)
Robert Fripp & David Sylvian: The First Day (Virgin)
Jan Garbarek: Legend of the Seven Dreams and Dis

Sometimes I think about what people hear, when listening to music like this. Some of this list is ecstatic music, a lot of it pretty out on the fringe (to some ways of thinking), and some of it is soulful. Or all of the above. I know what I hear: music that excites me, that gets both my blood and mind going full-throttle. It's loud, it's aggerssive, it's jazz, it's fusion, it's progressive, it's rock, it's unclassifiable, it's music. It's harmonically advanced, modal, and sometimes atonal and jagged-edged.

When we listen: Do we listen primarily to technique? Do we listen first for guts and soul and inspiration? How does how we listen affect our experience and our expectations. Some of it is mindset. Some approach music very cerebrally (headspace), and when listening to prog rock (for example) are counting changing meters, etc., as though music were a mathematical system first and foremost. Some others approach music from a more holistic heartspace, which is a different way of listening, not a better one. And some listen from a space that integrates intellect with heart; this is, in my opinion, the best, most complete way to listen. All of the above. Both/and.

Aural experience is immersive. Listening (unless one is hearing impaired) is a multi-dimensional binaural experience. You don't just hear music; you bathe in its vibrations, which strike your entire corporeal existence, your body, not just your ears. You listen with your lungs and your body, not just your ears. Sound is a medium were bathed in, enveloped in, surrounded by. We are in an atmosphere that is constantly in motion, in vibration, and some of those vibrations we perceive as sound.

The list of albums above, for me, approaches a "top ten desert island" list of listening. This reveals something about my tastes in listening, of course, but it also says something about my approach to music. Left off of this too-brief list, of course, are Gamelan and Bach and Debussy and Reich and Eno and shakuhachi honkyoku and many others that I listen to constantly. Looking at my iTunes playlists, all these are there, and more. I think Sting writes perfect little pop tunes better than most. Joni Mitchell and Bruce Cockburn and Lynn Miles and Carol Noonan I revere as poets as well as largely-unsung guitar stylists. There are a lot of Bill Laswell projects on my lists, and John Cage, and The Art of Noise. There is at least as much avant-garde classical on my list as there is progressive rock or free jazz.

This marks me, perhaps, as a pathfinder rather than a hearthkeeper. I am drawn to experimentation, music that takes risks to achieve the possibility of ekstasis. I don't seek to preserve a tradition against dissolution, to turn it into frozen stone and stick it in a museum; as much as I respect many traditions, and have studed several, I tend to seek out New Traditions hybrids. I tend to see cultural change rather than cultural loss, evolution rather than dissolution. My tendency is progressive rather than regressive (which is a key reason I find Wynton Marsalis' regressive ideas and attitudes about jazz problematic and even dangerous at times).

So, when I listen to Hedningarna's Tra or Hippjokk, I hear the threads of traditional and new music that tie together into a new genre and new kind of music. I hear the traditional instruments of Sweden/Finnish folk music being used in new ways, in a punk-rock type setting at times. Hippjokk also features Wimme, a traditional Sami (Laplander) joik singer—joikking is shamanic singing that both describes and evokes the spirits of the living world—and things like Swedish keyed fiddles and hurdy-gurdys run through effects processors and distortion boxes.

I know someone who listens to Hedningarna primarily for the traditional aspects of the music—not the whole melange, but the older bits. Another friend that I have gone to see Hedningarna live with thinks of them as a trad-techno dance band and pogos all through the show. Wimme, on his own CDs and in live concerts, sings joik backed up by a small techno band that includes programmed drumbeats, synthesizer, and bass clarinet.

When even some jazz musicians listen to Coltrane's Ascension—I have had arguments over this with other jazz musicians—they hear cacophany, a lack of order, total chaos, an orchestra tuning up. I hear a Southern Baptist tent revival meeting combined with Indian raga melodies. I hear heterophony (simultaneous variation on a theme) rather than Western classical counterpoint (which is what those who argue against Coltrane, are arguing for), akin to the heterophony common to African and Indonesian traditional musics. I hear a higher level of order emerging from the apparent chaos, exactly as in nonlinear dynamic turbulent flows described by fractals and chaos theory, with higher-order stable states, transitional turbulence, and 2:1 stable energy flows.

I know that some musicians I know, when listening to The First Day focus on the technical chops of the players. I usually find myself focusing on the music they create. Things like meter, key signature, pattern, loop, motors, are all important parts of that mix; but I don't tend focus on them cerebrally, but viscerally. Years of martial arts training and percussion studies (especially "ethnic" percussion such as gamelan and frame drums) have gotten me to the point where I can tap out a meter by listening to it without having to actually count it out. 5/4, 7/4, and all the various 12/4 cycles are so familiar that I don't even think about them.

A humorous moment: A friend of mine is convinced that "You can't dance to 5/4!" I disputed him, and without telling him what I was doing, put on a track by October Project, and told him to dance to it. He found it effortless to dance to, even pleasurable—until I pointed it out that it was in 5/4. Then he seized up and got all flustered. My point is that it's all in your mind.

I think often that the ideas that we have about our ideas limit us. If you think that something is going to be hard to do, it probably will be. If you assume it to be effortless, and relax, it can in fact become effortless. What we believe about what we perceive affects what we perceive. As Richard Bach wrote in Illusions: Argue for your limitations, and sure enough, they're yours.

Our ideas about reality create limits. It is not that the Universe is chaotic by nature, it is rather that we cannot perceive all scales of order that emerge from chaos. (Fractal geometry is the first Western philosophical conception
that allows for this.) J.B. Haldane said once, The Universe is not only queerer than we imagine, it is queerer than we can imagine. The more open your being is to new possibilities, new patterns, the more likely you are to be able to perceive them, and bring them to the ears and minds of others.

This is what Coltrane's search was all about, and it was ultimately a spiritual search: a spiritual evolution expressed through a musical evolution. The music was his voice. It is no wonder, therefore, that he eventually had to "break out" of standard jazz forms, harmonic stereotypes, tonal melody, and musical structures. His later recordings such as Ascension and Meditations push this far beyond the explorations of even his own earlier music, such as A Love Supreme and Africa/Brass.

Bach was writing in essentially a dead, archaic style of music that had already been passed over by most of his contemporaries. He was considered to be very old-fashioned during his lifetime. But he had the duende—that elusive "dark sound" talked about in Spanish gypsy poetry and flamenco music. The soul of flamenco is duende: not the flash dances, but the deep song (cante jondo) wrung from the depths of the soul. Astor Piazzolla also had the duende. In my opinion, Steve Reich sometimes has the duende, but Philip Glass does not, or only rarely. Sonny Sharrock definitely had the duende, and so does Hedningarna. Their album Tra (Wood) is awesome. David Sylvian occasionally summons the duende, but he keeps short-circuiting it because of ego.

Two different translations of Spanish poet Federico Garcia Lorca's seminal essay on the duende can be found online here and here.

So, my list of albums is not only a list of musical progressives, or of musical ecstatics, it is also a list of "deep song," music with spiritual, emotional, and visceral, gutsy depths; not only mental depths, deep song contains both the eros/ekstasis of life and the risk of death. I don't find much progressive rock such as Dream Theater very interesting, frankly, because I often feel like the music is all cerebral counting-games. By contrast, I feel that most of Robert Fripp's projects, from King Crimson to his solo soundscapes and ambient work with Biran Eno, show spiritual depths as well as mental depths. This is why I go on and on sometimes about musicality over technical chops: if it doesn't move me in my guts, if it doesn't grip me spiritually, if it doesn't make my blood beat, it just can't sustain my interest very long. I don't find and have never found Rush to be interesting; I do find Primus to be interesting. Henryk Gorecki has the duende; so does Gyorgy Ligeti (which is one reason Stanley Kubrick kept using Ligeti's music in his films).

So, how we think about things really does color how we perceive things. As Haldane implied, if we can't conceive of something, it doesn't exist in our perception. Perhaps someone else will discover it, and bring it into our perceptual reality—I think Coltrane and Cage are both loved and derided for doing exactly that.

Sometimes, all it takes is a small change in mental perspective to realize that all we needed to do to fix a situation is a very small, almost meaningless shift. In cognitive psychology, this is sometimes called reframing.

I will never be the most technically adept of Stick players. I find rather that I tend to have an approach to Stick, and music in general, that is resonant with the ideas I've expressed above. I tend to emphasize musicality and depth rather than flash. In situations where I have taught Stick, photography, music composition, poetry writing, and Photoshop, I like to pull forward the gifts that make each student unique—their unique constellation of talents, if you will—and get them to see their individuality and personal style. Perhaps this is more like coaching than music theory class: the trick is get the student to see their own strengths, then undershore their self-confidence till they can stand on their own. The last thing I would ever want to be is a guru with a bunch of disciples; I much prefer to kick fledgling eagles out of the nest so they learn to fly on their own. As for Stick playing itself, I think I can hold my own musically; there are technical tricks others can do way better than I, and I think I can play well enough to express what I hear in my heart. I'm always getting better, though, which is just the gift of experience and practice. The day you think you know it all, is the day you're dead.

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