Return again

While in graduate school studying composition, attending concerts of new pieces by my colleagues, I began to learn an important lesson, or at least I experienced an initial step in the process of learning an important lesson. What I found was that as I listened to a friend’s new piece, I would inevitably encounter something I didn’t like, wouldn’t do, or something of the sort, and I would stop listening actively, basically shut out the rest of the piece. Then, on encountering the person after the concert, I had no idea what to say. I couldn’t bring myself to be honest, tell them I didn’t like the piece, hated it, whatever my felt reaction was, because of my compassion for the sensitivity one has after exposing one’s musical creations for the first time.

So I resolved that I would turn back toward the music, keep listening in order to find
something I could honestly say I liked or enjoyed that would enable me to have a positive comment to greet my friend with. What blessing this move has been! I found that many times a thing I would never do, thought was awful or ugly, turned out to be the foundation of a successful piece, something I really enjoyed hearing! This turning back, ignoring my reactions, or at least continuing to listen despite my reactions, has become a cornerstone of my listening, and connects to a couple of very important facets of my life.

In realizing that my likes and dislikes, my concepts of music, in fact aspects of my musical training stood in the way of fully hearing music in the first place, I have a direct experience of how knowledge can prevent us from encountering music honestly. That realization, along with a few others, is at the heart of the analytical method, the
Sound-Energy Aggregate, and of my new workshop, Just Listening. People with much musical expertise are often so intent on finding what we’ve been trained to listen (or look) for that we don’t hear elements that are the life of a piece, style, or musical culture. And for anyone, getting involved in a thought about how much we like something is just as detrimental to listening as turning away out of dislike.

This listening paradigm reminds me of the old adage to “follow the straight and narrow path”. I heard that a lot growing up, but in my experience, I don’t really go straight, I veer off constantly! And it’s not about not veering off, it’s about being honest with myself that I have veered off, and turning back toward the path I wish to follow. How much spiritual guidance focuses on this very human tendency? Certainly Zen meditation deals with it at the foundational level: when one finds the mind involved in a thought, one returns to counting the breath, or to just sitting. In meditation I find the spiritual reality of a lesson learned from listening to music. And one of the songs from the closing services on Yom Kippur resounds in my mind, a repetitive and uplifting song exhorting us to “return again...”

Returning again to listening is the source of meaningful engagement with music. It needs to be the foundation of honest musical analysis. We have to set our knowledge aside to truly engage, without fear that our knowledge will be of no value. On the contrary, our knowledge does not leave us, it facilitates our hearing in ways that we hardly understand and do not consciously control. When needed, it supports us effortlessly. But I begin once again to enter discussion of not knowing. More on that another day!

A Few Thoughts on Resonance

Resonance is an upwelling of unity. When in the presence of vibration, certain objects will start to vibrate with the original stimulus. Think of sympathetic vibration in instruments like the sitar (a set of strings not directly articulated vibrates when the other strings do): the term means something! Sympathy is coming into congruence with another’s feelings, this is a kind of unity as well. A piano or a violin is constructed as a resonating box, an object whose purpose is to vibrate in sympathy with the string source, amplify it so it spreads further. When someone states that what you said resonates with them, they are rather saying the same thing, that it stirred within their mind a sympathetic thought or feeling, a vibration.

So there is something about vibrating together, yes? Isn’t the phenomenon of entrainment the same? When in the presence of rhythm, a steady beat, we start to tap, sway, dance. Isn’t a beat sort of a slow vibration, a periodic reality? When people listen to music together, they become entrained to the same vibration, they resonate with the music, if you will. So a yet-unexplained (but well-documented) neurological phenomenon, entrainment, is a clear demonstration of the ability of musical engagement to create unity.

Evolving thoughts, a new initiative

I have realized that what once was an initiative to promote a new method of analysis, the Sound-Energy Aggregate (SEA) is really a much broader move, with deeper implications. Already in recent years, I had come to know that what I was dealing with was a contemplative method, one which shared quite a lot with Zen meditation, one that I had presented in a conference or two. As I work on the talk, which has now turned into what it needs to be, a workshop, I am coming to understand that its foundation in not knowing is the key, just as it is fundamental to Zen practice. I call the workshop Just Listening, which refers to the Zen practice of Just Sitting (Shikantaza).

My initial conviction, itself founded on years of experience getting students to comprehend music – unfamiliar, sometimes difficult music – and simply pay attention to what they actually hear, is that one can penetrate deeply into a selection of music without having had any musical training whatsoever. Furthermore, it has become clear to me that those who
think they know something, especially if they consider themselves experts, have the more difficult task of setting aside what they know in order to engage authentically with what they hear. I find that the musically less-initiated more easily find that hallowed, oft-mentioned state, the beginner’s mind.

So what I am working on is an experience that allows people to come to know the joy of musical engagement that comes from not knowing, from setting aside the fear of being found out not to know enough about music to appreciate it (hogwash!), or from engaging in a natural way that allows those with much knowledge to come to terms with the music in ways that sidestep their training.

My aim of exposing people to the transformative power of engaging deeply with music resonates with the work others are doing. One significant example will suffice for now. Earlier this fall, I spent a lot of time with and heard the presentation of Dr. Claire Garabedian about her research into music as a means of reaching those with severe dementia. The stories are amazing and exciting: people who are labelled as uncommunicative awaken and speak, become vibrant and alive. At the end of Claire’s telling of her journey of discovery and research, she made a statement to summarize her findings that is so much the thing I am aiming for, I have adapted it as the subtitle for my workshop. The original statement: “Through shared listening, and sound haven is created in which healing can occur” has become “Shared listening creates a sound haven that awakens compassion for ourselves and others.”

Indeed, if music has this effect on the identified population, certainly we can recognize how much it has a similar effect on those who deeply engage with it. I will stop myself from going on and on about this potential, and save the thoughts for another time. The key is getting, or allowing, people to engage deeply, and our world, our thinking is full of impediments. I am beginning a campaign to help people remove them. And I do not know where this all will lead.

On Further Reflection

More reflections on On Further Reflection

Traveling last week to DC for the premiere of
On Further Reflection, wonderfully rendered by the commissioning ensemble, the Atlantic Reed Consort, has yielded a few additional insights. First, just before departure, I realized that I should add subtitles to the movements. It was during my daily meditation, first thing in the morning, and I suddenly understood more of what was in the piece. As described in another essay on the piece, I used the I Ching to generate a series of energy states that I then allowed to guide the sectional changes in the piece.

Now, I had a realization of how the changes in energy related to each other in a loosely narrative sense. The meaning deepened as I described my realization to the ensemble, and seems rather to arise from consideration of what conditions nurture a sense of well-being. Each movement has four sections, and is connected to a trigram from the
I Ching. The trigram Tui/Joy kept showing up, and I used the energy, but the kind of joy I was using was not very overt or cheerful. It was more a matter of fleeting moments, particularly in the first movement, where glimpses of joy or swagger come between lower, almost foreboding energies which punctuate. Once I had the flash of appropriate subtitles, things settled into place in my mind.

The subtitles:
I. Seeking Refuge, II. Sheltered, III. Confident.

What I realized was that the joy of the first movement was a limited, restricted kind of joy, and that the primary content of the second movement was, even as I composed it, marked by the image of rain, of keeping still and being sheltered, protected. (These images came from the
I Ching.) Wind shows up as short sections throughout, connected to the concept of dispersion. The final pair of those sections comes at the end of the second movement and the beginning of the third, where I chose to use the sense of wind as a penetrating force. That penetration then sets off the last movement, which offers a confident flowering of the materials which gradually emerged during the protection of the previous movement.

What is so interesting to me about this whole progression is that I composed with the energies offered by the trigrams, pondered them at great length, generated music which carried them, and yet never quite grasped the underlying implications of their order. These energies and relationships had as much to do with my personal life as with the larger world “out there”. Only in working with the group, hearing actual instruments play the notes, and fielding questions about how to treat this place or that, did I gradually admit to myself that there might be a narrative that fits the shape and structure of the piece.

I have never wished to offer programmatic narratives for my music, and I will not now. Whatever I might state at this time would be to make up something that wasn’t intended while composing, and would replace the open-ended pondering that can happen in a listener with what would surely be received as the “correct” interpretation of the energies heard. So I leave the story there, as one of a composer learning more about the piece he has composed by experiencing it with the people who are bringing it to life.

not knowing

I have experienced the incredible value of not knowing in every aspect of my life. This comes from my Zen practice, which has allowed me to realize that such a phenomenon had been growing in my consciousness for many years before being named as such.

I seem to have used that awareness in driving a bus in high school with the broadest range of class and race aboard in the rural South, when I took the path of treating everyone equally and with respect, in essence choosing not to know what one group might say about another group. Peace emerged within weeks on what had been a bus full of fighting and mayhem.

That awareness served me when I realized, in 1990, that what I had thought was a single musical phenomenon turned out to be the sum of other recognizable parts. This realization first led to a new approach to composing, then to a method of analysis. It has now evolved to the point that I realize the approach as a contemplative form of analysis, one that depends upon not knowing in order to hear what is really taking place in music.

And the place of not knowing has been of inestimable value in relations with other people: when I have the courage not to know, even when I think I do, I can deeply hear others. When not knowing is the foundation of action, all directions are possible, peace and justice are attainable. There is a great need of not knowing in the world today.