Tuesday, August 31, 2004

Outside Posted by Hello

Inside Posted by Hello

Composition by Triangulation

When I sit down to compose a song, I most often start with a memory or feeling. It works best when that memory is multisensory, synaesthetic and engages emotions. Usually there are a variety of related "sense anchors" that I can dive into many times during the writing of the song, that don't wear out, in a repeated process like re-inking a pen.

I haven't been able to go back to decades-old, unfinished songs and make anything out of them. I think it's because my memories have drifted away from the sense anchor that I used to write it. When I try to fix part of the older lyric, I always patch it with the wrong material, they become eclectic and weak. That is true for both the words and the music. And the original sense anchor is no longer available, not having been correctly summoned when the song was first attempted.

Giving the sense anchor form is the reason for composing a song. It is to bring into existence a form that, as a stimulus, allows me to lock into this temporal world a way of experiencing the sense anchor as an explicit thing. Not that the thing is the explicit subject. The subject of the words, and the compositional strategy for the music combine to cause in me the art experience. What I am able to do when I compose is arrange things in this earth so that they provoke something not of this earth. Medium, sense anchor, and experience: composition by triangulation.

The sense anchor doesn't have to be a memory of something I did. It can be from a feeling, a cadence, a shape, a rhythm of words. In formalism, the sense anchor can come from a compositional strategy. But throw in too many formal elements and the sense anchor can't be felt because the music becomes dilluted.

To the degree that a sense anchor is shared, the music is tribal. To the degree that a sense anchor is unique, the music is avant-garde (anyone park their work next to that word now days?). I like music that falls into both categories, but since high school have always liked Michael Snow's remark to the effect that if you're going to make something, you might as well make something that didn't exist before. And the act of giving something a physical representation in this world that is otherwise ineffable , this reminds me of Gabriel Vahanian's remark that the "word" is iconoclastic only as it makes man become what he is not, that is, man instead of God.

Wednesday, August 25, 2004

Shuba Gunapu, her veena, my guitar Posted by Hello

Ragas, Time, Notime

A raga is a scale to be explored (along with certain rules for its playing).
On a sitar and some veenas, there are sympathetic strings that vibrate when their pitches are played on the melody strings, and that are also occasionally struck with the little finger.

The sympathetic strings are tuned to the pitches of the raga. Striking them is like projecting a photograph of everything that is possible. A synchronic snapshot, as opposed to the diachronic articulating of the melody.

Neither the veena (South Indian) nor sitar (North Indian) are designed to produce chords. There are no chords in traditional Indian music. But there is this continued reminding interplay of timeless existence of all possibilities versus the soul's narrative of the specific.

Indian musicians are extremely sensitive to pitch. They know a ragas by its feel. They learn to play each systematically, but when they have learned to explore the raga, they move within it, and know it.

I think of the raga as having an odor, a smell. And there are hundreds of ragas, and an Indian musician knows the range of their feelings. When the sitar player strikes the sympathetic strings it's like waving the incense: the air is filled with its scent, and the melody runs and weaves through it, writing its life in time.

Saturday, August 21, 2004

Friday, August 20, 2004

Post Card

My oceans mark time
Like gulls hear language.

Let's part the boats from ports
Loosen boards from bindings
Lean and sway, trough and crest
Sweep as our oscillating bodies
Swim perpendicular to current, painting
Sine waves in sea as a
Turquoise cloud precipice
Sets up tomorrow's climb.

Speak to me as melted gold
Irradiating restless light
Irrigating lost thought trenches and
Icy reflecting oyster teeth.
Iridescent lightning stencils palm trees
Island escapes then falling back
Fading day draws scarabs from fronds
Fire spews sun spurs, sand melts to glass
Freed star sparks absorbed in inky night
Floor sand and sanspurs cool sun down
Frothy salt and seaweed floating to us.

Sunday, August 15, 2004

The Ames Room Posted by Hello


I love the late Dr. Larry Bakke's statement about viewing objects in the Ames room: "It's easier for us to believe that a person is impossibly sized than it is for us to believe that the room isn't made of regular rectangles".

The Ames room was old when I went to school, it is older now. But it still works: even when we know that we know we are caught in the illusion of our own presuppositions.

It takes travel, experimentation and creativity to break our preconceptions. And sometimes it is necessary for us to be willing to withhold our judgements based on them. Why is it in our society that blind action is considered so compelling? If a president and his cabinet purchase the good will of Americans through misguided action, what does that mean for the rest of our society? Certainly actions are important, but once a gun is aimed, the action of pulling a trigger renders any later consideration irrelevant. If your judgement is wrong, and your judgement destroys another person, you are not worthy of the responsibility that comes with your position.

The Ames room has a specific architecture. When we look into it, we have a map in our minds that we use to interpret it, one with which we will base our actions. But the map is not the territory. One's judgement should not be based upon a single model, but upon many. In a similar way, images do not denote, they connote.

Life presents mis-en-scene after mis-en-scene. We can approach them like a speed reader, interpreting and acting as fast as we can run through them. But such an approach will not get one closer to reality. What is speed reading to a poem? And what aspect of life is less like a poem, and more like a newspaper headline?

This is why society so often destroys its artists and poets: because it does not perceive their difficult images and words except within its own context, except as misinterpreted by its own perspective. It reduces artists and poets to misfits. This is the conceptual map of the newspaper headline, of the rush through judgement, of the end of justice.

Thursday, August 12, 2004

Dung Syi Posted by Hello

The Thing at the Edge

I remember that when I was back in college, Steve Reich made the statement that it wasn't how you made the music, what was important was whether it was good music or not. And the statement puzzled me, because more than anyone Reich had introduced process into composition, process that led to unintended sonic textures. Well, maybe more than anyone except Cage. But what values did Reich use to determine what was good music?

I'd listened to as wide a range of music as I possibly could, from every inch of the globe, from every electronic and music concrete blurt, and from the very oldest to the current. And what I loved most to hear was something that I absolutely hadn't ever thought existed.

If something is really foreign, your reaction is not usually intense. If something well known is played badly, you have an intense reaction. But if it's truly unlike the art you make, you will not recognize the art in it on first blush. It will take repeated exposures, and learning about how it is made, and what rules are followed, and what came before it, and what the instrument that generates it is like to play etc. After a while, you'll start to feel the inner parts, and you'll perceive the play it has.

But at the edge of Vygotsky's zone of proximal development, you do have a reaction. This is again intense, because your mind and senses are rushing into the experience to get a solid taste of it, to map it and perceive it. To perceive its beauty.

And for me, this is what I've come to believe is the "good music" that Reich refers to. I know it isn't a definition that is pan-cultural, but I could imagine someone following that thread and making sense of it. Someone might argue that beautiful music is music that conforms to certain architectural ratios. I can agree, but the beauty needs a person who is ready to resonate with it.

And so I've come to value the beautiful over the new. Not because I think it is more important. But because I know it's a healthy place for a person to have a nest. And because I know that as one perceives, the locus of that nest must change, as percept becomes concept. The thing, then, is always a balance among self, object, and sensory perspective.

Tuesday, August 10, 2004

From "Sand, or How Computers Dream of Truth in Cinema" Posted by Hello


Anaesthesia, the lack of all aesthetics. The problem isn't having bad taste. It's having no feeling. I look over my life, and my biggest mistakes were when I just didn't feel enough to correctly guide my actions.

My Father an electrical engineer, once told me that he considered metaphor basically a mistake. He was an analyst (and an excellent one I believe), but didn't like feeling things very much unless he'd had a drink. But feelings rising in him were almost always smothered by a rush of anger. For him anger was a circuit breaker for feelings.

I think my seeing this as a trait/strategy led me to want to find an alternative in metaphor. For this purpose, for me, metaphor works because it comprises a meaning that no longer exists when the components are split. The division kills the phenomenon. Metaphors, symbols and meaning float for me above their component atoms, like the cloud of percussion attack sounds float in the air above the pitches of Steve Reich's Music for Mallet Instruments. And while analysis may stop the meaning, it does not prove that the meaning doesn't exist.

Once I understood this, I could make peace with my dad's analysis, and place it in relation to my Mother's art. And I made the choice to create meaning wherever and whenever I could, because it was as important as creating anything else in this real world.

Sunday, August 08, 2004

Photo by Neal Margolis Posted by Hello

Collect Edit Project

When I regularly made films and videos, I saw a three-part sequence to most compositional strategies:

1. Collecting the elements to use
2. Editing/modulating the elements
3. Projecting/presenting the piece.

The problem I saw was to make each stage creative, so that none was assumed or just mechanical. So collection for me was to always have a camera with me, shooting what appeared between me and the world, and the real finds were exposures that had an existence and received meaning only as it was captured through a set f-stop, shutter speed and lens length.

The edit was a juxtapositioning of elements, so the collection of stuff could be staged for the presentation, but not necessarily fixed for that presentation.

The projection could involve many aspects: what you projected onto, the relationship between projection speed and previous collection speed, image against image and sounds, words against image, and all those Eisensteinian montage strategies.

The music I was making offered itself in the same way: capture or generate sounds, modulate and mix them through electronic modules, and when presenting again do a live mix through electronic modules. Today the heightened interest in electronic/acoustic performances underlines the power of creative integration of these three steps during performance.

Today, working with Premiere, with Sonar, and with The Mister Edgars, questions of strategy come up again for me. How each step of the creative process can be kept from being mechanized, and instead can speak to us as we engage it. And again: to have the engagement reveal the possibilities of beauty that we have always previously missed, so that we're more aware of it as we kick through the world.

After the parabola of a lifetime, I now reinterpret Duchamp and Cage for the central importance that beauty has in their work and writing. They needed to get away from using the word, Duchamp hated the concept of taste because, I believe, it represented how enculturation stopped perception. But now I understand beauty to be positioned as a pair of lights at the edge of what one understands, registering action at the present position of Vygotsky's zone of proximal development. It is that cliche'd culture only if one doesn't attend to it, try to make it speak, smear yourself in its sensuality so that you can through experience come to perception, and through perception bump those lights and the zone outside as you claim your site. Like a baby that laughs when it learns, we're charged with beauty when we perceive. Nothing to be ashamed of here, nothing to hide from. And the question's not "Why bother?".

Saturday, August 07, 2004


Almost twenty years after producing Memory Theatre One, I'm still involved in its central problem: how do you comprehend your life, your experience. I understand art to be that gesture of comprehension: inventive, documentive, inciting, reflective, and (if done correctly), both desperate and beautiful.

A resume is a putrid way of collecting your life experiences, but composing one recently it did provoke the challenge of trying to make a portrait of a person...however gollum-like that portait is. How to communicate a harmony that reads through a list like eclecticism. And that the point isn't really the range itself, but the intensity of the harmonic structures. Why should someone want to work with you, except to have you pull something beautiful into existence? ...yeah, I know.