Saturday, May 08, 2010

Music and Nature

There's a Taoist saying that Only the music of nature is complete and undiminished. In other words, if I as a musician play one note I am already neglecting to listen to other sounds. Only by playing nothing can I hear all sounds in complete harmony. Listening is more important than making sound. Music is like wood carving, in that a carving is created at the expense of taking all that wood away.

In other words: Art is artifice. Everything we make, as creators of art, and as co-creators with the Divine, is artifice. We are artisans. There is no "natural" music from this viewpoint; except purely ambient natural sounds.

While in many ways I'm a Taoist at heart, as an artist I accept that my music-making creates neglect of the rest of the soundscape. In fact, I want it to: it's a summoning of focus. Not in an ego-affirming manner, but as a way of focusing attention, as in meditation. We pay attention to our breathing. We listen to the temple bell giving the hour, tolling the times to begin and end the day's activities.

The implied emphasis on listening as a way of becoming one, of emphasizing oneness, is worth contemplating. Listening is central to both hearing the music of nature and to making music. The most limited musicians are those who don't listen to what their peers are doing. While I am all for hearing one's own inner music, listening in the silence for those musics that rise up from within, I also like making music with other musicians. Ensemble playing requires listening; a kind of listening that's not too dissimilar from listening within. The bottom line in each case is that one must pay attention: mindfulness rather slackness is required.

There were a number of composers of 20th Century music who were very good listeners to the music of nature. Some were also transcribers. Some created frames for listening, with mindful attention to listening being practiced by both audience and performers, within the frame of the duration of the music's performance. Some others transcribed the sounds of nature, and the musics of other cultures, transcribed them into notation for performers to reproduce. If there's a contrast here between these kinds of composers, it's not a contrast of who listened to nature better; rather, it's the contrast between "hands on" and "hands off" the sounds themselves. The "hands off" method could be seen as allowing the environment to make its own sounds, which become the music. The "hands on" method is perhaps more about transcription from nature. One might include recordings of natural sounds in both of these approaches.

The "hands off" camp could be thought of as the aleatoric, indeterminacy, open-spaces composers who allowed silence into their musical frames: John Cage, Morton Feldman, Earle Brown, David Tudor, among others. The "hands on" camp could be thought of as Olivier Messiaen (birdsong transcriptions), Alan Hovhaness (And God Created Great Whales, which includes humpback whale songs in performance; I've played this piece in orchestra, and it was a real pleasure), Colin McPhee (transcribed Balinese gamelan appears in several orchestral and piano pieces), and others.

I'm not interested in creating one more dualistic dichotomy here, and I'll point out that there is overlap between these camps, both in terms of musical technique and musical philosophy. I'm talking about composers' means of using sound in musical space; these are technical approaches to sound existing among many other approaches.

The Taoist ideal of pure listening, and playing not a single note, appeals to me—but it cannot satisfy me completely. I am not a Taoist master or a Zen master, and not yet very non-attached or non-active. As a composer, I still feel called to make music: it's a response to music, to nature, to poetry, to life experiences. Making music is not merely ego-self-expression, but it is "expression" in the sense of having a need to express a response. I cannot help it: I must make music.

Japanese composer Toru Takemitsu thought about this extensively. In his book of essays on music, published late in life, Confronting Silence, Takemitsu has an entire chapter entitled "Nature and Music." In that chapter, he circles around music and nature several times, and also his need to respond musically to experiences in nature. This is what Takemitsu has to say about expression:

A lifestyle out of balance with nature is frightening. As long as we live, we aspire to harmonize with nature. It is this harmony in which the arts originate and to which they will eventually return. Harmony, or balance, in this sense does not mean regulation or control by ready-made rules. It is beyond functionalism. I believe what we call "expression" in art is really discovery, by one's own mode, of something new to this world. There is something about this word "expression," however, that alienates me: no matter how dedicated to the truth we may be, in the end when we see that what we have produced is artificial, it is false. I have never doubted that the love of art is the love of unreality.

Takemitsu echoes the Taoist saying here: art is artifice. Music is artificial. Music is unreal, a constructed thing, as much as it might seem to be discovered.

Yet music is not only expression. Music can be, in my experience, akin to a force of nature. The great Lakota shaman and healer Frank Fools Crow often referred to himself as “A little hollow bone for Great Spirit to blow through.” Fools Crow said his job was to keep the little hollow bone—like an eagle-bone whistle—clear of blockages, so that Great Spirit could always move easily through it. This is a discipline of readiness, of being prepared to receive nature through oneself, then get out of the way, so it can do its work. I feel this way about my creative work. As a composer, I have often felt like a little hollow bone, with something greater than I blowing through. The sounds and shapes and gestures come in a single breath, no matter how many more breaths it takes me to transcribe them, write them down, play them back. Jazz master composer and trumpeter Lester Bowie used to say how he had permanent 24-hour soundtrack playing in his mind; all he had to was bring it into audibility for the rest of us to hear it, by dipping into the soundtrack and playing what he heard; but the inner soundtrack was always there. This echoes my own experience of always having music playing in my head. (It also echoes a mythic Balinese story about the origins of music.)

What I get from all this is that music is expression, but it is not necessarily self-expression. The self, the ego-personality, is not what is being expressed here: it is not in charge of the process, in fact it has to “get out of the way.”

In order to move music-making away from ego-self-expression, and more in alliance with the music of nature, Takemitsu writes a bit later on:

I wish to free sounds from the trite rules of music, rules that are in turn stifled by formulas and calculations. I want to give sounds the freedom to breathe. Rather than on the ideology of self-expression, music should be based on a profound relationship to nature—sometimes gentle, sometimes harsh. When sounds are possessed by ideas instead of having their own identity, music suffers.

Takemitsu explores ways of making this idea practical. One possibility is through an ethnological approach—what McPhee did with Balinese music, what Benjamin Britten did with Noh drama, what Takemitsu has done with combining traditional Japanese musical genres (gagaku, for example) with the modern orchestra. But the ethnological approach, which is a transcriptional “hands on” approach, Takemitsu in the end decides is not completely honest, because it is detached, observational, even analytical. The composer wants a more active relationship to the present moment.

Another possible to way to free sounds is to contrast them with silence. Takemitsu writes:

Music is either sound or silence. As long as I live I shall choose sound as something to confront a silence. That sound should be a single, strong sound.

I wonder if the task of the composer should not be that of presenting the basic unaltered form of music.


I think of the sculptures of Isamu Noguchi, which to me contain huge amounts of silence. There is a tradition of natural forms, forms made to seem natural, based on nature, in which something very simple and elegant occurs. I think of Andy Goldsworthy’s sculptures that are built on-site, always out of natural materials, some of which endure less than a day, some of which—the running stone walls, for example—which might endure a lifetime.

It is often considered an advanced technique, for example in the design of Japanese gardens, for the end result to appear effortless. But this too is unnatural: it is a technical accomplishment intended to be seen as natural. It remains artifice. Whether it is more self-conscious of its artifice than a less masterful result is perhaps debatable; but the aesthetic of apparent randomness is the end result of careful planning. This leads us to the paradox of artlessness vs. control. I think of Pierre Boulez’ Second Piano Sonata, which was composed using the principle of “total serialism”: every single aspect of the piece is subjected to cyclic mathematical determination a la the Schoenbergian tone-row, including pitch, dynamics, duration, and so forth. The end result is a piece in which every single aspect of the music is carefully determined and controlled—and which, when performed, sounds completely random and chaotic. How do we respond to self-conscious artlessness? Takemitsu writes:

The term “anti-virtuoso” appears to have a profound spiritual depth but in reality is closely related to the intellect, and in the end it is really rooted in the notion of human superiority over nature. This is not the way to confront silence. We cannot avoid the silence of death that awaits us. For this reason I spoke earlier of the gentleness and cruelty of nature. If a work depends on technique it will be picked bare by nature, its bleaching bones left to become part of the landscape.

A Japanese garden must be constantly tended, constantly repaired. The most artless-appearing, natural-seeming corner must be maintained by the gardener to seem so natural and artless. This is the invisible hand of tradition, of artifice, that invisibly, delicately continues to pretend not to be present.

Gagaku, the classical Japanese court music, lacks the Western concept of beat or measure. There is no pulse to this music. Sounds rise and fall, almost as though unrelated. But the music also expresses the Buddhist idea of codependent origination, in which it is seen that nothing arises in isolation, but everything arises in context and interrelationship with everything else. The pauses in the music have to do with eternity, with silence. They seem much longer than they really are. Takemitsu contrasts this timeless sense within the music as follows:

Western music has been carefully classified within a narrow system of sounds, and its presentation has been systematically notated. Rests within a score tend to be placed with mathematical compromises. Here the sound has lost its strength within the limitation of functionalism. Our task is to revive the basic power of sound. This can be done only by a new recognition of what sound really is. . . .

I have referred to the “stream of sounds.” This is not only an impressionistic description but a phrase intended to contrast with the usual method of composition in music—that of superimposing sounds one on another. This is not a matter of creating new space by merely dividing it, but it does pose a question: By admitting a new perception of space and giving it an active sense, is it not possible to discover a new unexpected, unexplored world? This is the same as recognizing sound as an object. Listening to the sho [the instrument in gagaku that maintains a continuous thread of sound] I began to think of a basic creative approach to negative space.


Negative space in art is what surrounds the object of interest: the surrounding emptiness. Negative space in painting is empty space, or unrevealed, unfulfilled space. It may be highly painted, yet to the eye it seems to be a void. Takemitsu’s idea of negative space in music seems to be, to me, a sense of timelessness, or rhythmic absence: anything can happen, any sound can manifest, but the duration of time is not broken into pulses, beats, or measures. It simply is time. In exploring this possibility, both Takemitsu and Messiaen have created musical spaces that seem to just float, like clouds or caves, with no beginning or end. They may change shape, but they don’t hurry anywhere. They simply are.

Sound permeates me, linking me to the world. I give sounds active meaning. By doing this I am assured of being in the sounds, becoming one with them. To me this is the greatest reality. it is not that I shape anything, but rather that I desire to merge with the world. . . .

What I have been saying is that we must give meaning to sound by returning it to its original state as a naked being. Sounds themselves, their movement as personalized beings—that is what we must discover and continue to discover anew. Organized sound is merely the subjective creation of the human being and is not the personalized sound I am discussing. My phrase “give meaning to sound” refers to something other than mere naming and differentiating. It concerns a total image. Both my acceptance and my suspicion of “chance music” stem from this point of view.


So we return to our original Taoist insights into sound: and are left with another paradox, of both acceptance of the ideal or non-action and letting sound be sound, and rejection of musical frames that are only a duration of time in which any sound made by the environment is reborn as “music” merely by existing within the musical frame. We must both accept and reject that kind of imposed purity. On one level, it’s a revelation that sound is music, and music is nature, and nature is full of sound. On another level, it so removes the composer from his interposition between nature and audience as sound-interpreter as to make music meaningless.

What the artifice of music leads us to, then—and this is what “expression” is all about, as opposed to self-expression, is that there is something in the music that goes beyond its collection of performed sounds. Takemitsu calls it a special element that cannot be rationalized or explained. He says that music which succeeds in expression captured space and time beyond everyday life, shaping and moving according to the will of the composer. (Takemitsu is discussing the gong sounds, the campanology, or bell-ringing, in Toshiro Mayuzumi’s Nirvana Symphony.) Towards this end, Takemitsu quotes poet and critic Makoto Ooka, who writes about poetry as follows:

The words in poetry are something like iron filings on a sheet or paper: they can be arranged by a magnet and be made to rise, all pointing in one directions. Once a certain vital power penetrates words, the words themselves are abandoned, transformed by that power. Each word beings to show a magnetic character. Words gain direction.

It is interesting to think of this magnetism of meaning, or expression, in terms of music, as well as in poetry. The sounds used in a musical piece can also be magnetized towards some vital power. This is the power of music to evoke experience in the listener—what has superficially and inaccurately been called music “universal language,” i.e. the ability of music to arose emotion, contemplation, and active imagination when listened to. The only way in which music is a “universal language” is because it is made of sounds, and the natural phenomenal nature of sounds are something we all (naturally) share in common. We live in a world immersed in sound. What makes music universal is what makes it natural. There is an excitement, a life-force arousal, that happens when we actively listen to music.

At the end of his chapter on :Nature and Music,” Takemitsu takes this back to expression, to the search for the music of nature, where we began with our Taoist sayings. I can conclude this meditation no better than to quote Takemitsu’s again:

The excitement music provides goes beyond verbalization. And that is the reason we find meaning there.

That time when we are truly impressed by a human being occurs when we see great power working within a small humble person. This is also true of words. That is, we are impressed, not by description, but by something elevated to “expression.”

Labels: , , , ,

2 Comments:

Blogger Jim Murdoch said...

After reading an article like this a part of me wants to immediately sit down and write something. My wife has a software programme that’s fairly quick and easy to use and I had a play with it when she first got it but I don’t have the time. It’s best I stick with the words. I’ve progressed beyond the basics there so that what I do is natural. With the music I’d be checking chord sequences and all that basic rot that’s faded from memory. I enjoyed those years when music was my main form of expression and part of me is sad that I became a writer and not a composer but the fact is I’m a natural writer. I may not be very in tune with Nature with a capital N but I know my own nature and I am filled with the echoes of words. If I am hollow that is what you hear, not the wind rushing through me, not bells, not strings – words.

And yet I wouldn’t be without music. I listen to it constantly. Just now it’s a symphony by Niels Gade, Mendelssohn’s successor, but as you know my tastes are catholic with a small c.

5:49 AM  
Blogger Art Durkee said...

I can't hope for any better than that, that someone might want to sit down and make something after reading this! It is inspirational, ennit? I feel really inspired by Takemitsu right now, both the writing and the solo piano music.

Who knows, now that your health is recovering? Maybe you'll find time to putter back into making music, eventually.

But I couldn't be without music, either, I agree. Listening or making. I almost always have a CD in the truck stereo when driving anywhere. It can shape your whole day, what you listen to when out and about.

11:53 AM  

Post a Comment

Links to this post:

Create a Link

<< Home