WHY READ ABOUT MUSIC?
Musicians, composers name their favorite inspirational reading
Introduction and interviews by J. Vognsen
In his book Faith vs. Fact, biologist Jerry A. Coyne writes:"Although Richard Feynman reportedly dismissed the value of philosophy to science with an infamous remark, 'Philosophy of science is about as useful to scientists as ornithology is to birds,' he was wrong on two counts. Philosophy of science is useful to scientists, and ornithology is useful to birds (many birders are conservationists)."Similar discussions are common in music, and in the arts more generally. What is the purpose of thinking about and writing about music, as compared to just playing or listening to it?
On the one hand, writing about music entails confronting a fundamental challenge: text is not sound. Either one inserts some kind of description or representation of the sound into the text and proceeds on the basis of that, risking some form of idolatry or missing something in translation. Or one simply decides to focus on other issues than what the music actually sounds like, ending up being unable to examine many crucial aspects of what music is and how it functions.
It was never easy to make this work.
Lately, text has encountered an additional challenge to its position. Much of our public discourse has moved online, playing out in the formats of videos and podcasts. Whatever the shortcomings of these formats, they do have the central strength that music can be accessed and engaged with directly.
To pick just one practical example, perhaps the best analogy here to Coyne's conservationists would be reviewers. There was a time when reviews had the function of conveying something about the sensation of the music, hoping to spike or deter interest and to offer a guide through mountains of new releases, otherwise just appearing as lists of titles. These days, this particular function has long since disappeared: anything can be listened to at once online.
On the other hand, music is - or at least involves - of course not only sound. It is also ideas, social practices, historical context and much else. Is there really any clear limit to what "writing about music" could be?
So, the question remains: What role is there for writing about music? To approach it, I reached out to musicians and composers, asking them the following:What are one or more examples of a text about music that was important to you? It could be a book, an article, a review, some liner notes, a private email, a piece of promotion, a comment somewhere online or any other format. What did you get from reading this particular text? What made it work? What did it facilitate or illuminate for you?for comments, thanks to
Anders Bach Pedersen
for helping out, thanks to
JOE MORRIS, composer, improviser and multi-instrumentalistAs a teenage guitar player in the early 1970's, I confronted the dilemma caused by the untimely death of Jimi Hendrix. His artistic example prevailed but his legacy was being defamed by athletic arena-rock lessers who annoyed and bored me. Fortunately, I heard Miles Davis, who had the great guitarist Pete Cosey--the most credible extension of Jimi--in his band. Miles steered me in the direction of John Coltrane, Ornette Coleman, Don Cherry, Albert Ayler, Cecil Taylor, the AACM, and Derek Bailey. Their playing was influenced by 20th-century classical music, including Webern, Stockhausen, Schoenberg, Cage, etc.; also references to Indian, African, Tibetan, and Javanese music. There were plenty of books about those traditions. As a guitarist, I was particularly interested in any music played on stringed instruments in that vein. It was hard to find much information about them.
My biggest influence back then was Cecil Taylor, whose playing has always been thought to be very influenced by classical music. And it is, but his perspective as an African-American contemporary artist was more informed by African cultural sensibilities synthesized with a personal sophisticated interpretation and presentation that formed a unique and truly American high art music. Like every notable artist following the jazz sensibility, he invented his technique and perfected it as an original kind of virtuosity. His inspiration set me toward a similar pursuit.
I read everything I could as I attempted to configure a solution to this idea. The most valuable book with the most pertinent and complete information was David Reck's Music of the Whole Earth (Scribners 1977). It was like a full course in ethnomusicology without any unnecessary academic verbiage. Using text, drawings, precise descriptions of all aspects of the music, categories of instrument families, techniques, rhythmic expression, song styles, etc.. Every page had valuable information given by the writer who was an advocate and a practitioner. The book was a respectful study of often discounted music presented as equal in value to everything else. Reck's writing avoided the kind of academic analysis using irrelevant Western terminology meant to clean it up. The meaning, cultural value, purpose, and technical properties were all taken at face value, and given on the terms of the people in the cultures where they developed. The effect was like the one Cecil Taylor, Coltrane, Don Cherry were sharing with all of us, the thing that mattered to me in their music--a complete disassembly of the false and oppressive hierarchy of human culture, and the proposal of a non-hierarchical truthful one, using music as the model. They and other artists spoke of that for years. Other books, like Amiri Baraka's (Leroi Jones) Blues People preceded Reck's on the subject. The difference in Reck's book was the precise presentation of shared aesthetic and technical aspects of much more music.
Assembled as part encyclopedia of the world's music and part scholarly writing that defines the shared properties and logical actualities of the material, Music of the Whole Earth gave me a comprehensive new standard for understanding music. The detailed descriptions of the different classes of stringed instruments from various disciplines--specifically the ways in which they generate sound, their tuning, and purpose--changed the notion that they were limited when compared to western instruments.
It's a serious book packed with valuable, profound content, done so well that it reads like a manual, a how-to for understanding music and issues beyond the music with a fresh perspective. It helped me to gain a better understanding of the argument about the cultural/racial inequities that are the underlying subject of the African-American music I sought to engage with. Reck's diagrams, graphs and generalized traditional notation, provides clarity without rendering the material as academic examples. What other book listed Charlie Parker's and Cecil Taylor's groups along with a classical string quartet and a country string band in the category of "chamber ensembles"? That egalitarianism is present in all aspects of this great book.
Eventually, my main focus in this area was the study of the technique of West African stringed instruments, lutes, harps, fiddles and zithers as the roots the blues guitar and I combined those with 20th-century European music influences and methodologies from Jazz and Improvised music in my playing. But never literally or obviously, always through my own personal gaze. That one book provided an immensely valuable way of identifying and describing how I might engineer my musical direction. And it supported the values for an equitable society that are at the root of my artistic life.
ANDY MOOR, guitarist, DJ and photographer:From John Peel's autobiography Margrave of the Marshes:"I owe Walters more than I owe any other person in my life. He taught me that there was nothing shameful in getting things wrong from time to time, provided you remained true to some sort of ill-defined but genuinely held principles - and popped round the corner for a beer if time permitted. Whenever I have received an honorary degree or similar tribute, I have known that no more than a third of it was really mine, with a third going to John and a third going to Sheila."I love this quote by John Peel. It reminds me of Old Dirty Bastard's line in "Rawhide": "See, this ain't something new that's just gonna come out of nowhere.... no.... this is something old and dirty... and dirty."
The idea that one artist gets all the credit and income for music that is continually being circulated, warped, twisted, reshaped and remixed is a strange and unfair structure set up by the big record labels who want to harvest as much cash as they can from each product they release and from narcissistic egomaniac stars who don't give credit where credit is due. I don't need to mention names.
My music has metamorphosised from my early days with Dog Faced Hermans and all the musicians in that band had a massive influence on my musical growth, choices and development... and later all the musicians in The Ex, in Kletka Red and in fact in all duos, trios and ensembles that I have played with. Plus the music that I saw 'live' that blew me away and music I heard on LP's, CD's, mp3's, plus DJ's and radio including, of course, the incredible John Peel whose taste was so diverse that it inspired me and warned me never to get caught in a corner... explore with passion one style of music but keep your ears open for the thousands of other styles out there... choose the ones that hit you in the face or heart or make your feet move... and share that music with as many people as you can.
In the same book John Peel wrote when being accused of playing only white music: "Frankly, I listen to music with no concern whatever for the race, colour, religion, preference in breakfast foods, height, shoe size or whatever-you-like of the music makers." He then adds with massive tongue in cheek "The only footling prejudice I do permit myself is this: musicians I suspect of supporting Everton or Arsenal have a bugger of a time getting their ponderous tripe on to the programme."
He is telling us all to open our ears and choose the music we love for what it is, not for who is making it. This always stayed with me... even though my son now supports Arsenal.
ALAN JENKINS, legendary underground guitaristI read a book by David Keenan called This is Memorial Device. It's a fictional account of the music scene in Airdrie, Scotland in the 1980s and particularly the (made up) band Memorial Device. There are many examples of fictional bands in literature, but I particularly like this one - I think this is because the musicians in the book are too weird and uncompromising to have any commercial success - so, by definition, are more interesting than popular bands. In an ideal world all bands would be like that. He also captures the dysfunctionality of band life on that level. Another thing I liked about it was that David Keenan is obviously an aficionado of the same kind of obscure music that I like and many examples of actual obscure records crop up in the book - the characters in the book talk about them because it's what they're enthusiastic about. Some of these I had heard of before and some I hadn't. A couple of examples: "Days Have Gone By" by John Fahey and another one was "Like Flies on Sherbert" by Alex Chilton.
LASSE MARHAUG, sound artist, composer, musician, non-musician and publisherOne text that had a huge impact on me was a long piece on Coil in a Norwegian music magazine in 1989, written by Stig Sæterbakken. The Norwegian music press in the 1980's was like a scaled down and provincial version of the UK - you had two big dominant music newspapers, and a couple of smaller ones. They pretty much wrote about what you'd expect, the regular stew of '60's-'80's pop and rock. Not particularly great writing, heavily opinionated and often with a strong sense of general consensus. For a young kid like me, who was hungry for more unusual and esoteric music, the Norwegian music press was something of a cultural wasteland - something I had to wade through to salvage the occasional valuable piece that could mean something. I was living in northern Norway and there were absolutely no other channels for finding out about the music and art I was interested in.
Then in 1989, a long article appeared in the leading magazine called Puls. It was nothing like the usual articles they would run. It was incredibly dense, in-depth, and just packed with information. It was written before the release of "Love's Secrets Domain," so it dealt with the "Scatology"/"Horse Rotorvator"/"Gold Is The Metal I" era. It described the music, the ideas behind it, the history of the project (including Throbbing Gristle and industrial music), the people, and it placed them in a musical context. It also went to great length about the things that influenced John Balance and Peter Christopherson, so I learnt about Pier Paolo Pasolini, Kenneth Anger, Derek Jarman, Aleister Crowley, Comte de Lautréamont, William Burroughs, magic/drugs/occultism, and how they mixed high art with underground pornography. It was also extremely well written (at least to my 14 year old eyes).
I must have read that piece a hundred times, but it still took me a few years before I'd get to hear all the music of Coil that the article described, and about the same time searching for the works of the other artists mentioned in the piece (of which William Burroughs The Naked Lunch probably had the biggest impact). A few years further down the line, I had discovered other types of music and artists that appealed to me more, and my interest in Coil faded somewhat, but I always remembered how much of a gateway that article had been for me. I learned more from that single text that any other writings at the time. Not just what it told me about the work of Peter Christophersen and John Balance, but also about how artists can draw inspiration from other artists across different fields, how ideas are a fluid material that can be used, twisted, and transformed into new ideas, that again can be passed on. It also underlined that nothing happens in a vacuum, that however singular an artist comes across, their work is still based on an exchange of ideas. For me, that piece on Coil was art school across four pages (and I never went to art school).
A couple of years ago, I was going through my old childhood books at my father's place. Everything had been in boxes since I moved out when I was 16. Shifting through the boxes I found the copy of Puls with the Coil piece in it. It was a great shock when I discovered who had written it. In 1989, the name Stig Sæterbakken meant nothing to me, I had no idea who it was and no way of finding out, but by 2021, I knew it very well. Stig Sæterbakken had since become one of the most well-known and respected Norwegian literary figures. He had published a number of celebrated novels, poetry collections, edited journals, was a journalist, a musician, a translator, a tutor for young writers, and he ran the best known literary festival in Norway (one of the things he did there was get the non-performing project Ulver to start playing live), and was an advocate for things that were otherwise marginalized and ignored. One those intellectual voices that makes a huge difference. Sadly, he was prone to heavy depressions and killed himself in January 2012.
I never got to meet him, which is sad, especially since I discovered that he wrote the piece on Coil. I wish I could've told him how much that text meant to me. Being published in a semi-conservative rock paper, I imagine most readers didn't bother to read it (pearls before swine), but for one kid way up in the north, it made all the difference.
Photo © Green Yang
NICK STORRING, composer, musician, music critic and curatorI ordered Curtis Roads' Microsound (2001), about twenty years ago now, either during or directly after my undergrad. I purchased it on account of my fascination back then with granular synthesis/processing. The interesting thing though was, even at that time (when I was still working quite intensively with electronics) what I ended up finding the most inspiring about this book was not the technical information about granular synthesis.
Instead, what still makes it a standout for me is his unique philosophy of musical sound and musical time that he lays out in the first section. Essentially, Roads offers a taxonomy of musical time units that encompasses everything from musical history down to the minutia of barely-perceptible particles of sound. He talks about how these various units flow into, and speak to, one another. he then goes into a more detailed discussion of what he calls "microsounds," including Dennis Gabor's ideas, the sound wave vs. sound particle debate and a history of electronic musical instruments.
What resonated with me and continues to resonate with me to this day, even though my practice mainly focuses on acoustic and electromechanical instrumentation, is the idea that there are many ways of thinking about musical time, and that these different strata of time are part of the same continuum. I suppose that's not a terribly radical concept but the way he articulates it is so tidy but also quite profound. Additionally, up until the point when I acquired this book, my musical training tended to treat musical history as a separate entity altogether from the single work, while also treating timbre as mere garnish, as opposed to another vital layer in a time-class smaller than the individual note. This wasn't true of my composition teacher, Peter Hatch, who was very interested in both time and timbre, but this mentality was prevalent throughout a lot of my other training. I loved that there was finally a way to look at all of music within a single rubric. The text seemed to express values I held but hadn't found the means to articulate.
More recently, I was really captivated by Eldritch Priest's book Boring Formless Nonsense: Experimental Music and the Aesthetics of Failure (2013), so much so that I reviewed it for Musicworks Magazine. Priest is a Canadian composer and writer/thinker affiliated with Simon Fraser University, but also the loose-knit (and geographically dispersed) Canadian music scene that includes folks like Martin Arnold, Allison Cameron, Eric Chenaux, John Mark Sherlock, Christopher Butterfield (who was he taught), Cassandra Miller, and Linda Catlin Smith--many of whom were either students (or "grand-students") of the innovative Czech composer Rudolph Komorous at the University of Victoria.
Boring Formless Nonsense has two aspects that make it such a powerful read for me. The most simple one to discuss is the examples Priest chooses to use. He frequently refers to works by his friends and colleagues (some of whom I've alluded to above). All these artists are very familiar to me as a Canadian operating within the same orbit, but they're certainly not known to everyone. It was really heartening, frankly, to see someone so clearly sharing the visibility he had achieved (the book is published by Bloomsbury) with fellow members of his community. It's as though he's urging readers to check out this body of work.
The other thing I found very special about this work was how he used writing tactics that matched his subject matter. As per its provocative title, the book explores monotony, formlessness and incoherence in music, and Priest very much adopts peculiar strategies to make these things more palpable. Riffing a bit on the wild prose of the CCRU, he variously uses purposefully meandering passages, enormous footnotes, outright lies, weaponized font choices (it's all set in sans serif!), and strange self-referentiality to give his material a trippy multi-dimensional quality (not to mention musicality) that's seldom found in writing about music. For me, it's seldom that writing about music mirrors the strange logic of music, but in this case, Priest was very successful in achieving that without it being too overbearing.
Finally, I'll mention Frank Denyer's In The Margins of Composition (2019), another book that I ended up reviewing (this time for the Wire). Denyer's book is an unflinchingly personal account that speaks in great depth about his life in music and the ideas that inform his practice. Denyer's approach to writing is impressively candid and warm, and one feels as if they're sitting down with a dear friend they haven't seen in some time. This style matches its contents and also Denyer's own aesthetic concerns. Denyer takes great care to conjure intimacy in his music and he successfully does this here too, describing dreams and his extensive musicological travels in vivid detail and tying it all back to his unique oeuvre. It's imminently readable especially on account of its informal quality. Where other writings on music can be so hung up on expressing objective musical truths, Denyer seems more intent on conveying and contextualizing his own particular perspective, which is very different. There's a beautiful vulnerability here. Having later interviewed Denyer for a feature in Musicworks, I can confirm that his manner of writing is very aligned with his personality.
He's someone that has spent a great deal of time living amidst cultures outside of his own, and what I found fascinating about his depictions about those experiences was how he makes them familiar rather than "exotic." You can really feel that he is tremendously respectful of the culture, music-making, and individual people in these various groups he's lived with. It's a breath of fresh air to read his accounts. They're very thorough but yet they don't have that strange observatory tone that you find with ethnographical accounts. For me, it comes down to his motivations for exploring these cultures/musics. He approached these societies due to his own curiosities, to learn more about music (and his own work), and thus there seems to be less distance between him and the various people he has met in this capacity.
Photo by Andy Moor
JAAP BLONK, self-taught composer, performer and poetIn 1977, I decided to quit my mathematics studies at Utrecht University, at about three-quarters of the way to the degree. My preference was for pure, not applied, math and this would mean a life working on problems that could be shared with only a few dozen people in the world: an oppressive prospect for me.
Besides, I had become very interested in poetry and jazz, both worlds that my strict Reformed Church upbringing had kept far from me.
I'd like to mention three books here that were very important to me. First of all, in 1979 I read Ernst Bloch's Das Prinzip Hoffnung ("The Principle of Hope"), his major work, written between 1938 and 1947 and published in the 1950's. I had the German version in three volumes, a total of some 1,500 pages. I had set myself the rule to read it for at least two hours a day. I faithfully followed this rule indeed, which meant sometimes after going out with friends and coming home after midnight, I had to read into the wee hours of the morning.
The book had a decisive influence on my decision to become an artist. I gave me the conviction that every experience in life, good or bad, could be turned into or give incitations for art.
In the same year, I also read Thomas Mann's Doktor Faustus. At the time, I had just begun composing simple pieces of music, mostly jazz-related. But this book gave me the impetus to take life as a composer totally seriously, and uncompromisingly follow my ideas wherever they would lead me.
The most important technical book about music in this first phase became Vincent Persichetti's Twentieth Century Harmony. This gives so many different ideas about building pieces without being burdened by classical functional harmony, and in a very clear way. I think it was decisive for my development, in the sense that it gave the first impetus to the creation of work of an enormous diversity - which, over the course of my career, has resulted in getting me only a small following, because most people find this confusing and prefer artists that can easily be pigeonholed. But for me it was, and still is, the only way to go.
Photo by André Løyning
GURO SKUMSNES MOE, composer, bass player and vocalist:I have a strong remembrance of my first time reading "A Horse Sings From Cloud" by Pauline Oliveros. Something became so clear to me, about my place in this society. It opened up a sensitivity to being a human in this world which resonated deeply in me without me knowing how or why. It was freeing in a new way.
What made it work was how it was so clear and so free and how it showed trust towards every persons exact moment. How it opened up a safe room for me to be in, in the presence of all the other musicians reading the same text and interacting according to their pace.
It gave a way for my creativity to find light. It made my eyes trust more the things I didn't see. Almost as a pivotal moment. I feel it made me see clearer what I wanted to navigate towards.
Photo by Dawid Laskowski
PAT THOMAS, pianist, improviserILHAM - The Metaphysics of Music - The Impact of Imam Ghazali and Hazrat Inayat Khan on My Musical Thought
Inspiration is the most important component of a musical performance. The term "ILHAM" is an Arabic term. The great Arabic grammarian Ibn Al Mansur, who wrote the definitive Arabic dictionary Lisan Al Arab, states that ILHAM is closely connected to "wahy," revelation, and "isharah," a sign. It can be said to be distinct from Divine Revelation which is specific to Prophets only. ILHAM on the other hand is connected to saints, the Awliya Friends of God in Sufi Terminology. They receive creative inspiration, which enables them to write books of wisdom poetry and music. One of the best examples of this is the Mathnawi by the great Sufi master Mawlana (which means master in Persian) Jalaluddin Rumi, and also Tarjuman Al-Ashwaq - The Interpretation of Intense Desire, by Muhyiddin Ibn Al Arabi, and of course the sublime Al Burdah (The Cloak) by Imam Al Busiri. The term for inspired spiritual Music in Sufi Terms is called "Sama." The Great Giant Imam al Ghazali known as Hujuj Al Islam, the proof of Islam and great Sufi wrote a great book called The Alchemy of Happiness, his great treatise on listening to music. This had a tremendous impact on my musical outlook. In this book, I found the concepts of time, place and people. Inspirational music needs a context. There are particular times, the place where the music is performed and the people who gather to listen. I have found this to be important in channeling inspiration. Three places that have resulted in some of my most inspired playing have these ingredients. Cafe Oto is a venue that in my view has created an ambience that results in inspired music being more likely to happen. Another place is the CounterFlows Festival in Glasgow. The final one for me is The Huddersfield Contemporary Festival.
Imam Ghazali also helped me to understand the underlying metaphysics contained in music, through his concept of the stations of music. He has three categories that comprise stations of music, performance and listening.
The first station is the station of meaning and understanding. Here, he is not talking about merely musical or technical issues, rather about intention. Is the aim in playing music negative or positive? This leads to the 2nd station he names finding, which can result in a higher state of consciousness, the result similar to the ecstasy called drunkenness in Sufi terminology. This leads to the 3rd station called motion. This can be in the form of involuntary swaying or dancing, a reaction to the music attaining a new level of meaning. These three stations are interconnected and not necessarily in a sequential order. music is not only a personal experience but also a shared interconnected experience.
The great Sufi mystic and musician Hazrat Inyat Khan was also seminal in developing my musical thought. His book The Mysticism of Music, Sound and Word made me realise the importance of Vibration:"Man is not only formed of vibrations, but he lives and moves in them; they surround him as the fish is surrounded by water. This vibratory activity is the basis of sensation and the source of all pleasure and pain; its cessation is the opposite of sensation. All sensations are caused by a certain grade of activity of vibration. There are two aspects of vibrations, fine and gross, both containing varied degrees; some are perceived by the soul, some by the mind, and some by the eyes. What the soul perceives are the vibrations of the feelings; what the mind conceives are the vibrations of the thoughts; what the eyes see are the vibrations solidified from their ethereal state and turned into atoms, which appear in the physical world."This concept of multiple layers had a big influence on me. Also his concept of music as sound was revelatory to me. He says:"Sound gives to the consciousness an evidence of its existence, although it is in fact the active part of consciousness itself which turns into sound. It is thus that sound appeals to man. All things being derived from and formed of vibrations have sound hidden within them, as fire is hidden in flint. Tone has either a warm or a cold effect, according to its element, since all elements are made of different degrees of vibrations. Therefore sound can produce an agreeable or a disagreeable effect upon man's mind and body, and has its healing effect in the absence of herbs and drugs which also have their origin in vibrations. Every element has a sound peculiar to itself."These concepts of Imam Ghazali and Hazrat Inyat Khan still have a profound impact on my musical thought.
"Vibrations as a rule have length as well as breadth; and they may last the least fraction of a moment or the greater part of the age of the universe. The influence of vibrations is left on the chair on which one sits, in the bed where one has slept, in the house where one lives, in the clothes one wears, in the food one eats, and even in the street where one walks. There is a psychological conception of rhythms used in poetry or music which may be explained thus: every rhythm has a certain effect, not only upon the physical and mental bodies of the poet, on him for whom the poetry is written, on the musician, or on him to whom the song is sung, but even upon their life's affairs. No other art can inspire and sweeten the personality like music; the lover of music attains sooner or later to the most sublime field of thought. Music loses its freedom by being subject to the laws of technique. Music is sound and rhythm. And if sound and rhythm were understood in their nature and character, then music would not only be used as a pastime, but would become a source of healing and upliftment."
- Al Ghazali: On Listening To Music - Translated by Muhammad Nur Abdus Salam (Great Books of the Islamic World, 2002)
- Hazrat Inayat Khan: The Mysticism of Music, Sound and Word (Ebook Commodious Victus, 2012)
Photo by Jim Block
JOHN BISCHOFF, composerReflections on Walter Piston's "Harmony" (1941) and You Nakai's "Reminded by the Instruments: David Tudor's Music" (2021)
We teach ourselves to listen--to solve the riddle of the music--largely by listening. Reading about music is a secondary process which can help clarify properties intuited through listening. Texts can reveal the persistent methods that support a particular music and thereby make the working concepts more understandable--and in some cases make those workings applicable to broader musical contexts. They therefore can inform the breadth of our musical imaginations in critical ways.
Studying Piston's Harmony text helped me build a detailed structural model of musical polyphony within my own imagination. This model by its very nature was specific to a particular musical tradition--it assumes a particular cultural context and instrumentation, etc. But once learned, the model is not limited in value to that context but can be used to orient our imaginations when confronted with an unknown music from outside that historical context. A practical and theoretical understanding of any musical tradition--not just a Western European one--can inform our imaginations more generally. An example of this is the concept of polyphony. Western musical polyphony is a polyphony of "voices" or melodies and the methods of constructing voice relations--both harmonic and in time--are well documented. Part of the theory details how harmonic complexities result from voices being displaced in time--either slightly ahead or behind in their arrival on any given chord. Such time slippage ornaments the flow of musical texture in significant ways.
I have come to feel that there can be other kinds of polyphonies--a polyphony of "musics" rather than of "voices" for instance, where each part is an independent music rather than a melodic line. This expanded view of polyphony is not limited to a Western musical context or instrumentation. Other elements like noise, spatial location, and electronic instrumentation can play a part. But even in these other applications, the sonic phenomena of multiple concurrent parts which exhibit an interplay of proximity and distance plays out. I once heard Terry Riley perform in the Mills College Concert Hall in the early 1980s. In the midst of listening I suddenly heard connections between melodic lines that were farther apart in time--as if the window of the musical present had widened to include more of the recent past and possible future. This effect was not due to harmonic relations in Riley's playing, of course, but a type of modal relation instead. Whatever the case, it seemed as if there was greater time slippage allowed between his melodic parts which created a kind of halo effect. It was an amazing experience.
An even more radical extension of polyphony--stretching the metaphor even further--occurred in the early 1990's while I listened to the radio. I tuned-in in the midst of a selection and was immediately struck by an unknown music. The recording sounded like a band of some kind--but the musical coordination between players seemed just barely viable, as if the players were situated in different rooms and only dimly aware of each other. the freedom and independence of the parts suggested separately composed musics played all at the same time. I was galvanized by the experience--the music felt completely original in conception and at the same time established a sense of a unified whole immediately. Here again was a vastly expanded take on polyphonic texture, one where the distance between parts was pushed to an edge of perceptibility. It turned out the band was Sun Ra and his group.
Nakai's Reminded by the Instruments exhaustively documents David Tudor's music, a music that has yet to be theoretically formalized. Nakai's text does not teach rules of practice but aims instead to describe how Tudor carved out an arc of new musical territory over the course of his long career. Tudor (and Cage) "broke" musical time in order to allow new ways of listening to arise spontaneously out of a situation of non-continuity. To put it another way, they created a music where control of continuity became unnecessary. This openness to sound, which in a sense pieces itself together outside of our control, tends to focus our attention on the material nature of sound production. A burrowing down into the materials uncovers an elemental nature that then re-assembles itself anew from the ground up. What guides this self-assembly process became a question for them, and in the case of Cage, chance procedures plays an important role. For Tudor, as he incorporated electronics more and more into his work, the discovery of agents arising from within the electronic technology itself- self-directed actors emerging from the materials-- became important. As he expressed it "...something that composes itself out of its own instrumental nature."
These kinds of reflections on Tudor's music have been brewing for years within my imagination. In that sense, Nakai's book is a kind of latter-day text for me as it articulates ideas after the fact--after many years of listening and developing my own ideas inspired in part by Tudor's example. But the close correspondence at many points between Nakai's detailed study and my own thoughts about Tudor has been a revelation nonetheless.
MARTA ZAPPAROLI, experimental sound artist, improviser, performer, independent researcher:An example of a text about music, which was important to me is the following by Alvin Lucier. In the 1995 book Reflections: Interviews, Scores, Writings, he describes the foundational realization that "the electronics come from your brain, from inside every person, that every person has a little electronic studio inside his or her brain." It was not just the sound, but the poetics and transformation of scientific/medical equipment into a tool for art, taking an "existing situation...and displace it, taking it right out of the hospital and putting it into the concert hall. Then it becomes art, or at least what I thought was art."
Another example is from "Pauline Oliveros: Sonosphere", chapter 13 from the book Earth Sound Earth Signal: Energies and Earth Magnitude in the Arts by Douglas Kahn:"Oliveros's sonosphere embraces a full sweep and barrage of energies, including the magnetic, electrical, electromagnetic, geomagnetic, and quantum, as well as the acoustical. It resonates among personal and interpersonal, musical, earth, and cosmological scales informed by physics and metaphysics. Furthermore, unlike soundscape, there is no stigma of technology arising from a moral chasm between nature and technology."These texts are examples of how scientific tools or existing situations, or electromagnetic waves and energies, can be so displaced into another context that it creates a form of art and awareness out of it.
What both quotations have in common is the idea that electrical signals and energies - electromagnetic and magnetic - that are perceived by humans, and other-than-humans, are the medium for generating multiple interpretations of the invisible web of connections between our bodies, minds and the external environment. Energies are a great medium to create music and to investigate the deep connection between human life, inner space and outer space, technology, and the universe of nature, with artistic-poetics and freedom. Physics and metaphysics are important tools to develop new visions of our invisible parallel reality.
These texts are an inspiration to my personal approach and my investigations in sound. In my work, scientific techniques and experimental aesthetics crash headlong into something larger; doors open to cosmically textured ingredients, with consciousness as a driving force. Something is evoked which spans the vast space between the intimate self and an impersonal catastrophe on a cosmic scale.
Photo: Thor Brødreskift
JENNY BERGER MYHRE, multidisciplinary artistI could've chosen one of many super inspiring interviews from the 9 editions of Lasse Marhaug's Personal Best magazine. I think all of them have made a big impact on me, expanding my horizon in sound and inspiring me with first hand thoughts on making music from so many different artists. But at the moment, I feel that one of the most important texts about music for me was a private email I got during the very beginning of the pandemic. It came from a colleague whom I was corresponding with because of a concert he'd played with his band Moon Relay: he was mastering the recorded sound, I was editing the video footage. The concert was filmed in February 2020, and this email came on March 22nd. It was mostly a "sorry for the late reply, here are the last changes"-kind of email, but in the second paragraph, he suddenly wrote about the solitude he was experiencing, and about how spending time listening to this recording, taking his time mastering it, had been a comfort for him, and a kind of time-capsule. He wrote about how the music made him feel part of something outside his own situation, feeling less lonely. He then caught me off guard, saying that he would seek the same kind of comfort in my then 3 year old album, that he felt at home in the music, and that he felt it amplified his feeling of being in the world, of moving between being inside his own head and being present with others.
I think the reason why this little e-mail has been so important to me, is that it came by surprise both in terms of the sender and the timing. I didn't know he had listened to my music. And at that time, even before the pandemic had hit, I was in big doubt of everything revolving my practice. I hadn't made any music in a long while, I hadn't felt the wish to, and so many other things had been in focus. I think in a way, I'd kind of forgotten about that "old" album, left it behind in a way. This short email was a reminder for me: that what we create will inevitably start to live its own life in the ears of others. It illuminated an important aspect of my own music making for myself - that it is not a concentrated, conceptual work, but rather a continuous attempt to be present, and to make sense of the life I'm living. It is an attempt to feel connected to the people around me, and to the world. And finally, the email reminded me that talking about our experiences makes us feel connected. Perhaps the music has a great value in itself, but it's when it is revived in the listener that it starts to accumulate meaning, to become more and more meaningful.
In a way, I think most writing about music is an attempt to describe the experiences we have through listening. And essentially, I think writing about music is terribly difficult, and reading good texts on music makes me feel less lonely. So I am so grateful to those who do it, both in little emails, in underground magazines, and in academia.
Photo by Reuben Radding
JAMES MOORE, composer, guitarist, and bandleaderI am a performer and composer who has recently returned to academia after several years of working as a freelance musician. The music I make often incorporates improvisation and open forms, and I enjoy working with mixed ensembles of artists from different musical backgrounds. As part of my research towards my dissertation, I have been digging into the writings of a range of 20th century experimental composers who use open elements into their work.
In this research, I find myself struggling with an inconsistency in the rhetoric and general attitude towards the use of improvisation within a composed piece of music. It might not be a surprise that in these writings, many of the composers who clearly align themselves with the European classical music tradition tend to avoid, or outright condemn, the term "improvisation" when referring to their music, despite working with highly fluid materials that require a great deal of spontaneity and decision making from their performers. In parallel, the writings of many contemporaneous black experimental composers (frequently associated with jazz movements) embrace the term, often as a fundamental component of their compositional practice and the compositions themselves.
Reading George Lewis's article Improvised Music after 1950: Afrological and Eurological Perspectives was particularly eye-opening for me, connecting the dots of this multi-layered issue in a clear and eloquent way. Lewis highlights the suspicious coincidence that Western classical composers of this era began exploring open elements in their work in the decades following the emergence of bebop, yet squarely denied any influence from this music. This attitude has helped to perpetuate an unnecessary composition/improvisation binary which has had lasting implications on how music is presented, credited, funded, and monetized.
Despite having feelings of frustration and anger about this issue, I also come out of reading this article with a feeling of agency and inspiration. Lewis's writing has not only moved me to dig deeper into this subject, but has also given me a new lens on how I approach and discuss my own work. I hope that by renewing our scrutiny of these antiquated attitudes about improvisation and composition, we can build a fresh perspective on this music as performers and composers.
NORA MULDER, pianist, improviser and instrument builderTo be honest, I have great difficulty in answering this question directly and unambiguously. Can a text about music be important? And if so, is it the text that is important or is it the music the text is about that is important? And is it important to me or to my music? So I interpreted the question a bit wider and will give you three examples that are indeed important to me, not in the least because they are not "just" about music. Because that is important to me and for my music!
My examples are about or by people who do more than one thing. The first is about a performer/composer, the next is poetry by a musician, and I would like to end with a text by a performance artist.
- You Nakai: Reminded by the Instruments - David Tudor's Music
David Tudor was a legendary pianist of post-war avant-garde music and a founding figure of live electronic music. He is often referred to as a "performer- turned-composer." This book is a very thorough study of the creative methods Tudor used, based on his idea to "focus on the specific principles which exist inside each material." Whether the material was a composition or an instrument, given by someone else or created by himself, Tudor approached it in the same way. The writer, Nakai, manages to explain very well that in fact everything Tudor did, whether being a performer or being a composer, arose from this same principle. And therefore, there was no such thing as a transition from one to the other: Tudor was always both (or all). I loved to read it and can recommend it to anybody who likes puzzles or is also called a puzzle him/herself.
- James L. Wolf and Hartmut Geerken (ed.): Sun Ra - The Immeasurable Equation - The Collected Poetry and Prose
This is poetry and prose by someone we know as a musician and who was so much more than that. Reading his poems tells me more about his music than all the texts about his music. There is also one quote by Sun Ra about music I would like to mention: "You couldn't have one form of music unless you just have one form of person, and then you wouldn't need but one man - what good would the rest of them be?"
- Marina Abramovic: Passing Through Electricity
She is not a musician and this is not about music but about performing, and it is also not written but spoken, but that's still a text?! It is the best way I've heard someone explain what performance is about, what happens when you perform for an audience, and why an audience is important for your performance. It is true for musical performances just as much as for her performances.
It is a documentary about her life and work. The one thing that struck me in particular is also the title of the documentary. You can find the documentary online.
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