I was reading this super valuable post by Rob Walker listing different strategies for how to pay attention. Deep attention makes the difference between looking at something and actually seeing it. Rob is talking mostly to visual artists and designers, but his methods work well for musicians too–seeing is to looking as hearing is to listening. Paying attention is the most basic skill an artist needs in any medium, and one of the most basic skills a person needs in life. Not only does artistic practice require attention, but it also helps you learn it. When you look critically at a painting or listen critically to a song, you’re disciplining your attentional system.
Being able to focus deeply has its obvious practical benefits, but it’s also an invaluable tool for making your emotional life more manageable. It’s significant to me that the image below appears in two different Wikipedia articles: attention and flow.
When people ask why we should study the arts, the attention argument is the best answer. The variety of deep attention known as mindfulness is a powerful antidepressant. Teaching the arts isn’t just about cultural preservation and transmission; it’s also a cost-effective public health measure. Music isn’t the only method for practicing your attention, but it’s one of the best. This post will address my preferred method for focusing my musical attention: the infinite loop.
I have been very vocal in my criticism of contemporary classical music on this blog. But there is some new music out there that I do like, very much. Most of it falls under the minimalist category, made by Steve Reich and his followers. The coolest new thing I’ve heard in this idiom is “Timber” by Michael Gordon.
The piece is played by six people on wooden planks, using mallets and fingertips. I thought at first it was a conceptual thing — “look what we can do with ordinary lumber” — but in fact this is an actual instrument called a simantra, used by Eastern Orthodox monks and, later, Iannis Xenakis. You can take a look at part of the score.
Musical repetition has become a repeating theme of this blog. Seems appropriate, right? This post looks at a wonderful book by Elizabeth Hellmuth Margulis, called On Repeat: How Music Plays The Mind. It investigates the reasons why we love repetition in music. You can also read long excerpts at Aeon Magazine.
Here’s the nub of Margulis’ argument:
The simple act of repetition can serve as a quasi-magical agent of musicalisation. Instead of asking: ‘What is music?’ we might have an easier time asking: ‘What do we hear as music?’ And a remarkably large part of the answer appears to be: ‘I know it when I hear it again.’
Musicians: How do you deal with playing songs that have very monotonous parts?
I’m going to use James Brown’s Sex Machine as an example. Don’t get me wrong, I love the song. However, the rhythm guitar seems to be nothing but 2 chords played over and over and over with no variation (except for the bridge). What is it like to have to play songs like that? Even if you like the song, do you dread it, or do you just have fun as long as you are playing music? If you are bored, how do you deal with it? Does your mind wander while you play, or do you have to concentrate?
This is actually quite a profound question. It gets to the heart of the major conflict playing out in western music right now between linearity and circularity.
Draw a lot.
Don’t be precious about materials. Don’t use fancy art board or moleskines. Get a big newsprint pad or a stack of cheap legal pads from Staples. You want to draw as much and as quickly as possible, without being worried about wasting expensive paper.
Use a pen or Sharpie. No erasers, no correcting fluid. Fill the page completely as fast as you can. Use loose scribbles and gestures. Don’t sweat details. Use The Force — let go your feelings, young Skywalker. Get it right the first time or start over. Try to push each drawing to completion, but if you’re really not happy with where it’s going, toss it in the recycling and move on. Also try drawing without looking at the page. Get ready to be pleasantly surprised by the result.
When teaching guitar, I find that my students need the most help with groove. Students come to me expecting to learn chords, scales, riffs and ultimately entire tunes. I do teach those things, but after a little guidance, anyone can learn them on their own just as well from books, videos, web sites and so on. The harmonic and melodic aspects of guitar take time to master, but it’s just memorization. I devote most of my in-person time with students to rhythm.
Groove is harder to pin down in text and diagrams than chords and scales, so it doesn’t get as much written about it. That gives some folks the mistaken idea that rhythm isn’t as important as melody and harmony. The reverse is true. You can have a long, rich and satisfying guitar-playing life using nothing but the standard fifteen chords, as long as you can groove. If you can’t groove, you can learn all the chords and scales you want, but you won’t sound good.
Here’s an exercise that worked great for me when I was learning, and that I make all my students do. I call it the One Note Groove. It’s pretty simple, you just put on a repetitive beat and play one note over it. Since you don’t have to think about which notes to play, you’re free to devote your entire attention to your timekeeping, your attack, your whole sound — in other words, your groove.
The other day Brian Eno was on NPR talking about his process. He likes to have people walk into the studio without any preconceived ideas or written out material. Then he has the musicians improvise within certain constraints. Usually these constraints are more about a mood or a vibe than a particular musical structure. After recording some improvisation, Eno edits and loops the high points into a shape. Miles Davis used this same process for some of his electric albums, like In A Silent Way.
Miles and Eno seem radical, but in a way, they’re just boiling the usual compositional process down to its raw essentials. Really, all composition and songwriting consist of improvising within constraints and then sequencing the best ideas into shape. Usually this improvisation happens in short spurts, inside the composer’s head or alone at an instrument. Using a recording device instead of a sheet of paper can make the process more bodily and immediate, and can help get at playful ideas that might not squeak past the mind’s internal judges and editors during the relatively slow process of writing stuff on paper. Michael Jackson wrote his best stuff by improvising into a tape recorder. There’s something about improvising a performance while being recorded that focuses the mind wonderfully.
Since 2004 I’ve been writing and recording with Barbara Singer in different configurations. The first version was her idea, a band called Blopop. She had some techno versions of pop songs programmed into her MC-909 groovebox, and the idea was that she’d sing and DJ, and I’d improvise guitar on top.
In Annie Hall, young Woody Allen explains to his doctor that he won’t do his homework because the universe is expanding, so what’s the point? His mother exasperatedly tells him, “You’re here in Brooklyn. Brooklyn is not expanding!”
I post this because I’ve been reading Coming Of Age In The Milky Way by Tim Ferris, as good a summary of the state of cosmology between two covers as a person could ask for. Thinking about the horrifying enormousness and ancientness of the universe might have depressed Woody Allen, but it has a paradoxically calming effect on me. Reading books like Ferris’ is my favorite form of meditation.
Life appeared very early in the planet’s history, earlier than you might have naively guessed. But then for billions of years, it existed only as simple single cells floating in the ocean or sitting in cracks in the rocks. Big complex creatures visible to the naked eye didn’t appear until the planet was two-thirds of the way to its present age. The first insects didn’t appear until nine-tenths of the way to the present, and humans didn’t show up until ninety-nine percent of the way.
Our creation stories start with the assumption that we’re the most important thing in the world, the reason for everything else’s being. The story that science tells relegates us to the periphery. Life has mostly been smaller and simpler than us. I think it’s important to recognize that we might very easily wipe ourselves out, and the microbes will barely have noticed we were even here.