Monday, December 04, 2006

Music I Still Dream Of

My artistic roots lie more in music than in any other art or medium. I am very tied to sonic experience: I am unable to "tune out" annoying sounds by ignoring them, the way most folk claim they can. I'm very aware of environmental sounds, and I like lots of silence. The mindless TV chatter on all day in the next room will drive me to violence, eventually. I don't know if my hypersensitivity makes we unusual, or just more than usually aware of my surroundings (it seems to me lots of people tune out to everything, not just their musical environments, but to their whole lives). My musical roots lie in the avant-garde and the experimental. I still get a charge out of hearing something unique that I haven't encountered before.

I was browsing over at Mode Records earlier, after feeling like looking up one of my compositional mentors, George Cacioppo. George was a man I knew from my music school days in Ann Arbor, MI. I knew who he was before I ever met him: one of the founders of the ONCE Group, one of the composers whose work bridged the gap between composers interested in traditional form and melody, and composers interested purely in sound. He was interested in small, quiet sounds, and his works are often mysterious, have unusual sonic palettes, and feature poetic, even mystical titles. A piece I remember being very profoundly compelled by is Moves Upon Silence, for two amplified cymbals and small chamber orchestra.

George's day gig was over at the University of Michigan radio station, WUOM-FM, where he was an engineer, producer, programmer, and host of a weekly half-hour new music program. George occasionally taught composition students, and I got to know him when he took over the composition students' seminar for a semester at the School of Music, where I majored in composition. We became friends, and I got to know him pretty well, even after class was over. He had a real joy of throwing ideas up in the air for discussion, the more bizarre the better; he would toss something out, then sit back and watch the fireworks with a twinkle in his eye and an almost-but-not-quite-repressed grin. He had a truly wicked sense of humor.

Some time later, I performed in a concert retrospective of George's music at Rackham Auditorium in Ann Arbor; I was part of a mass performance of his seminal piece Cassiopeia, led by William Albright, my advisor and another mentor, with musicians scattered throughout the hall. I mostly played vibraphone for that event. A tape piece of mine, elegy for George, was played at the memorial service and concert held in his honor, after his sudden death in 1984. Other composers on the bill included Gordon Mumma, Donald Scavarda and Robert Ashley. I recall having a long conversation with Gordon Mumma in the lobby, a talk ranging across experimental music and ethnomusicology alike, which were shared interests.

When I heard George had died, I was in the production studios of WCBN-FM in Ann Arbor, the campus student station. Don't look down your nose at "campus student station." WCBN was efectively a county-wide community station airing music no one else did, and was very highly regarded. I was a volunteer programmer and producer for several programs, ranging from extended sonic pieces composed for radio, to new music and world-music shows aired every Sunday. It was in April of 1984, and I was working on recording some solo piano pieces on the old beatup upright in the recording studios. A friend and fellow programmer was acting as engineer on that occasion. We were both shocked and saddened at the news. I recorded a piano track, then ran the tape (yes, we actually used reel to reel tape in those days), backwards, and recorded voice and flute tracks using long tape-echo delays and reverbs. The resulting piece was elegy for George. I found out later that George had been re-reading T.S. Eliot's Four Quartets at the time of his death—at the exact same time I had also been re-reading the same poems. They were his favorite poems; they were, and are, my favorite Eliot poems. The synchronicity has always given me a chill. I had the Quartets in mind when I recorded my elegy, as well; someday I will get around to that string quartet inspired by them, that I've been meaning to get around to for 15 or 20 years.

Much of George Cacioppo's music is very quiet, very sparse, and moves slowly in a world of whispers and gentle sounds. Events happen with long spaces in between them, giving each sound time to be itself. George talked more than once about respecting sound and silence: as though each sound needed to be fully heard, fully explored—fully honored—before we could move on to the next sound.

Between this influence, and the influence of John Cage on my work in the form of indeterminacy, I often find myself listening in the way that George taught us to listen: to the tiniest thing as though our lives depended on it. He taught me to pay attention to the smallest aspects of sound, even as he also used indeterminate aspects in his music notation for pieces such as Cassiopeia, which has small determined note-clusters connected by lines and curves. One proceeds from node to node along the lines, staying connected at all times. There is in the score also dense section of drawing that has no obvious notes—George called it the "brain" in the score, mostly because it looked like one—but is a dense web of lines that the performer may follow more freely. George, as much as Cage, taught me to make my musical scores look visually beautiful, as well. (My mother once took a page of one of my scores, framed it, and mounted it on the wall near the piano in my parents' home, where it stayed for some years.) Playing Cassiopeia, always very quietly, taught mme lessons about connection and contemplation. It was a most meditative music, and was one of the foundations of my own composition and performance practice, which to this day I view as spiritual, meditative, disciplines practice.

It's been a day for thinking about music. I recently completed a dark-ambient piece for a new CD I'm working on, a "spacemusic" CD, based on one of my favorite pieces of music from all time and space, John Dowland's part-song Flow, My Tears. It's a piece I've sung and played for years, the showpiece of Dowland's mournful, Elizabethan blues music. Roots in the blues in the 16 th century. I've arranged the piece for male chorus, and it's been performed a couple of times. Here's this new version, titled Lachrimae Pavan.

In the years since graduating from the School of Music, I've been down several rocky roads—abandoning Western music in favor of Javanese gamelan for some time, making a living as a graphic artist and typographer, then not, returning to music renewed, learning to improvise, developing my skills as a performer on Chapman Stick, and much more—but music remains my root artform and medium. (Poetry is a distant third, after visual art. I happen to be good at all of these artistic mediums, though, so even if I rate poetry as third on my list of practicing artforms, others think highly enough of what I write to want to publish it on occasion, for which I am always very most grateful.)

The major difference between Now (making my living as a creative professional, covering a wide spectrum of different skills) and Then (being a music student and serious composer of new music) is that, Now, I rarely notate scores anymore: instead, I record them. They are still notated, on occasion, but more like graphic notations than traditional scores. I think in terms of layers, shapes, gestures, forms, not in terms of harmony, counterpoint, and melody; the only Western element of music I still regularly employ is melody. I record a lot of what I do directly onto one or another of my computers, both of which are set up as creative stations for studio music recording, art creation and editing, photography, web design, and typography. (I have a Windows tower that is the main studio computer, and Mac laptop that travels with me wherever I go; most of my Black Dragon podcast has been recorded and mastered on the laptop.) I also use software to create new pieces purely on the computer; computer-music techniques that I regularly employ range from cut-and-paste to granular synthesis, with a full range of processing.

For the past several years, I have become more and more involved in playing Stick in groups that emphasize purely improvised music. We call it improv, we call it spontaneous music, we call it music improvised in all styles. Various groups and bands I've been in play to accompany poetry performance, to accompany silent film, at art gallery openings (I once sat and generated sound in a room full of pop art at the Weisman Gallery in Minneapolis; it was a great experience to be playing improv soundscape in a room full of Warhols, Rauschenbergs, and others), at festivals and art fairs, sound showcases, and avant-garde music reviews. Most of the music I perform in public, Now, is spontaneous music, then: unrehearsed, unplanned, unprogrammed, yet coherent. With the right group of players, who listen well to each other, it sounds composed: the paradox, of course, is that improvisation is spontaneous composition.

I've learned many lessons over the years, playing/composing in these situations. So, here is an idiosyncratic list of tips and tricks for playing live music in public settings, a list of practices that works for me, although they might not work for anyone else (or they might):

Don't try to do too much, too soon. There's always a next time.

Ignore every input that doesn't serve the music. If I have to tune out the crowd, and just pay attention to what I'm doing, that's okay. The crowd will (probably) still be there when I'm done. If I go on a journey, they'll come along for the ride.

State of mind matters.

Distractions are not really there. You don't even have to acknowledge them.

There's a spiritual and emotional aspect to live playing that they don't teach you in music school. It's possible to turn even a cover band gig at a noisy biker bar into a kind of prayer. (Prayer is nothing else than connection.)

Meditation helps, before, during, and after.

Eat after the gig, not before, unless it's at least an hour and a half before. Same rules as for swimming. A full belly slows down the brain.

Listen. Listen. Listen.

Pay attention. Pay attention. Pay attention.


If your mind wanders, bring it back without anger or judgment. Hey, I lost my focus for a moment. Oops. So, what's next.

Forget about perfection. Nothing is ever perfect, ever, not in this world. Striving for near-perfection is the best we can do—the path is the goal—but we'll eventually fail at even that, so just accept it and get over it. No matter what you do, something will always go wrong. Every gig has a technical problem of some sort or another. The secret to a calm mind is to find them before they find you.

Use nervousness and stage fright, if you experience them, as tools to keep your edge: harness whatever you're feeling, and direct it into your playing. Your mood might be affected by the room's mood, but as long as you're onstage, you have the ability to make the room's mood follow your mood, too. Keeping your edge means balancing on the edge of the knife: falling into neither despair nor complacency.

Emotion = energy + motion. Emotion is energy in motion. Don't stop for anything. Turn on a dime. Keep moving.

Turn your mistakes into riffs. "Play a mistake three times, it becomes an idea." (Thanks to Miles Davis.)

Follow where the music wants to lead. Ride the horse, but let it have its head on the riskier parts of the trail.

Forget everything technique you've ever learned, and go for Feel. Forget what you Know, or think you know, and just get into the flow.

The music knows more than you do. Your fingers know more than you do, too.

Don't pretend to know what you're going to do next: you might have an intention, but it's only an intention. Change plans to suite the moment. Never be afraid to throw everything away. Never be afraid to be naked and empty. Don't hide behind your technique. Don't be afraid to be vulnerable, and open to surprise.

Audience noise is part of the music.

"Remember those quiet evenings." —from the Oblique Strategies

The rules of swordsmanship are the same as the rules of musicianship. If you think about it too hard, you tie yourself in knots, you lose.

One of my Ki Aikido teachers said, "When you approach the practice mat, after you bow, say to yourself: This is my mat. I own this mat." I do the same thing, when I go onstage, as when I approach the mat. The stage is the mat, and the mat is life. The bow is also important.

The two best things I ever did for myself as a performing musician were to study drumming, and to study martial arts. Studying drumming got my time into shape. Studying martial arts got my attitude into shape.

Whatever tool works to keep you focused and centered, that's a good tool to use.


Looking back on the several directions my musical life has taken, since I first wrote and performed new music, back in Ann Arbor, I wonder, I do wonder: perhaps these are rules for living, not just for performing.

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2 Comments:

Anonymous Anonymous said...

hey, art, good to see that WCBN bubbles up to the top of your mind sometimes. send us some of your music and we'll put it in our jukebox - tony audas wcbn "horizons - music that looks far away" sundays 6pm est taudas@gmail.com

5:01 PM  
Blogger Art Durkee said...

Thanks, Tony, will do.

I have very good memories of CBN. It was more than radio, it was soundscape, at times. I learned a lot from my fellow DJs, producers, and staff. I wish most community radio were still as exploratory and dynamic.

6:04 PM  

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