Tuesday, August 2, 2016

What am I Doing?

This site is where I first decided to embark on writing seriously about the “composition and performance” (as it says on my new business card) of music. Through that activity I was able to compile a strong amount of “audition material” that served me when I applied to write for Examiner.com. After I settled into that site, my writing about music on this site gradually abated; and I used it primarily to comment on some of the many absurdities I would encounter while reading my news sources about both current events and the world of technology. Following the passing of Examiner.com and my frantic efforts to preserve as many of the pieces I wrote there before their URLs became inaccessible, I have returned to this platform for writing about music. This feels a bit like a homecoming; and, in that spirit, readers may have observed that I used yesterday’s article about the guitar music composed by Jorge Liderman as an opportunity for some autobiographical musing.

However, since I spent more than half a decade putting out a large number of articles for Examiner.com, all of which took on the task of turning listening experiences into text, I realized that it might be worth while to take stock of the current state of my thoughts on such matters. From that point of view, I should probably begin by apologizing for using a phrase like “state of my thoughts,” which implies that my mind is some sort of a database that gets fed with new entries every time I write something and becomes the source of my memories. Yes, I have been building a database (which is why I used print-to-PDF on Safari to back up my Examiner.com articles, since that tool preserved both searchable text and hyperlinks). However, the database is not my memory; it is the crutch I use when memory fails me.

Even before I was writing about music, I was using this site to call out and explore the critical differences between what I called “noun-based” and “verb-based” thinking. Simply put, a database is a resource that is confined to noun phrases, nouns and the adjectives that modify them. However, as a result of reading the books of Gerald Edelman, I began to appreciate that memory, like consciousness itself, is an ongoing process. As a result, without some grasp (even a hypothesized one) of how we deal with our awareness of the passing of time, we are unlikely to grasp just how the “wet brain” deals with memory. Actually, that link to consciousness is a critical one, since, in many ways, the most important take-away from Martin Heidegger’s Being and Time has to do with his use of “being” as a verb, rather than a noun.

In other words we have become so wedded to the advantages of digital technology that we have begun to lose an appreciation for what that technology does not do; and a primary example is the inability to deal with the time-base nature of verbs, rather than just their grammatical role in parsing sentences. This turned out to have a major effect on how I would think about music, because making music is a particularly accessible instance of time-based behavior. Indeed, sound itself is time-based. Because sound arises from the temporal phenomenon of oscillation, there is no such thing as an “instant” of sound. One cannot “freeze” an auditory stimulus for “closer inspection,” the way a digital stimulus can be captured in a photograph.

The impact of this attitude on my writing has emerged over the last half-dozen years or so. More and more I used phrases like “in-the-moment” when writing about a performance. Indeed, following up on Augustine’s Confessions, I often think of the “immediate” present in terms of its two “horizons,” one of those events that have passed and the other of events that are anticipated. Because any performance of music is tightly coupled to an awareness of an entire score at every instant of the performance (or, in the case of jazz improvisation, an awareness of the sorts of things that every other player is likely to do, as well as whatever (s)he has already done), it would be fair to say that one cannot provide a performance that engages the attention of the listener without building on a solid foundation of time-consciousness.

Perhaps “solid” is not the right word. It may be that asking a musician to talk about time-consciousness is in the same league as asking a fish to talk about water. In a somewhat overly reductive way, one might say that “what time is” is less important than “what you do with it.” It is through the doing that both past and future bump into the present as described in the preceding paragraph. The performing musician may not know what is happening or why it is happening, (s)he just knows “what to do” in the circumstances at hand.

If we include memory as part of the area of speculation, then it would be fair to say that we have been worrying about the nature of time since the Ancient Greeks. There is no questioning that we have made progress since then; and these days those with enough patience can appreciate at least some of that progress through the “wet brain” literature. Nevertheless, the stimuli associated with listening to music are still too complex to be handled adequately with the current tools of scientific research. Thus, the best we can do with a phenomenon like listening to music is speculate and then try to come up with sufficient warrants to lend credibility to our speculations.

I suppose that is what I am doing these days. I am using those settings in which I listen to music, in performance or on recording, as a “laboratory workbench” at which I speculate about the nature of time-based behavior. From that point of view, writing provides me with the discipline to maintain a “laboratory notebook.” Perhaps one of these days I shall be able to draw some useful conclusions from those many speculations!

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