Michael Garfield – How To Live in the Future: October 2007

28 October 2007

Finding The Music In Noise

As should now be apparent from my essays on the Light Harp and on Tantric Listening, if I am a seeker of anything, it is of music in what is considered nonmusical. Consequently, I am a huge fan of music that draws its inspiration from environmental sounds. Clyde Stubblefield, "the world's most sampled drummer" for his work with James Brown (and thus himself something of an environmental phenomenon), had some great stuff to say about this in his essay on time for the September 2007 issue Modern Drummer Magazine:

"I learned to keep time when I was a kid by focusing on my walking. I really listened to all the sounds around me and always heard rhythm in them. Whatever the leg and foot patterns of my walking may be, that's the time I focus on. Those are my timekeepers.

I lived in Chattanooga, Tennesee as a child, and there was a big factory where they made cardboard boxes. The factory had a big smoke stack. Every morning it would start puffing smoke out, and you could hear it all over the city. So From early in the morning until about 4:00 p.m., you heard this smock stack going PUFF-puff-PUFF-puff-PUFF-puff all around you. I also remember the sound of the old washing machine at home going slish-slosh-slish-slosh all the time. And hearing that tick-tock of our big clock - it all stuck in my head. I would fall asleep to the sound of that clock. I feel that all of these things helped develop my time as a drummer."

Yes indeed, internalizing our environment is the evolutionary process itself (more on that here). So we are taking a more active role in evolution when we groove to the sounds around us, whatever they may be. Peter Gabriel, in his infinite wisdom, has of course already written a song about this:

Listening with headphones, you can hear the scratchy percussion track come in when he's singing about the burnt brown toast, and the dull repeating thud when he talks about his neighbor hammering something...it's a gorgeous song.

In the same vein, Björk made a whole movie, Dancer in the Dark, about the musical fantasies that take over a woman's imagination as she goes blind. Increasingly forced to rely on her hearing to escape her suffering, she fancies herself the star in a series of outlandish interludes:

Electronic sampling has helped us make sense of our busy industrial world for decades. When I got my computer, I was most excited about the little built-in microphone - suddenly I had a mobile recording studio! The first thing I did was go record the oh-so-melodic sound of rotors and computation that the ATM makes before spitting out cash (I'd been waiting to do it for weeks). That sample, and a synth flute I made from blowing a Tanqueray bottle, were prominently featured in my first electronic composition:

In my next piece, I carried it a bit further into Björk territory and made almost the entire song from random noises - including a soda fountain, wind chimes, a shaken box full of old toys, and the rustling pages of a book (Osho's Tantric Transformations)

In the works are another song that grooves to the University of Kansas Herpetology Department's printer; one that squeezes anthemic glory out of a rusty dishwasher door; and a kind of tribal thing that features me drumming on the computer itself (oooh, how recursive!). Tonight, I'm playing a show with a electronic drum kits composed of little chimey things I found lying around at my old job in the candle shop. I'm sure that sooner or later the novelty of saying, "That gorgeous synthesizer tone is me dragging a chair across the floor" will wear off, but in the meantime it's a game I'm playing with the universe to find cool new textures and rhythms where I wouldn't normally pay attention.

The more I listen, the more intimate I become with the various properties of my surroundings - learning to anticipate how this table might sound if I struck it with that magazine, wondering whether my laptop mic is sensitive enough to pick up the sound of me rubbing two leaves together (and if so, what part of the drum kit would that be?).

It's a great game. But it tickles me when artists are not only paying attention to this stuff, but lending their creative ear to music that ends up doing something important. Tim and Chris Bran, aka the Vapour Brothers, showed me up with this gorgeous little cut-up ditty they created for SOS Live Earth ("Concerts For A Climate In Crisis"):

...Just in case you were wondering how to make cool music, commune with the kosmos, and help save the planet all at the same time. But don't think you need expensive recording equipment to start crafting your own found sound masterworks. The Freesound Project is a massive collaborate effort that collects and archives all kinds of cool environmental samples under a Creative Commons license for anyone to use. Thanks, guys!

And there you have it. Maybe now that jackhammer outside your window will put a little swing in your step. Why not? The world sings for us.

(Written for iggli.com.)

18 October 2007

The Fullness of Emptiness: Riffing on Arvo Pärt

With this entry, I'll be commenting on the sage wisdom of visionary composer Arvo Pärt. Pärt's minimalist soundscapes are a major feature of the Twentieth Century's musical terrain; his is a particularly windblown and barren, starkly beautiful land, with grand vistas and time-carved expanses. It's rare that an artist evokes such obvious and linear geographic metaphors for me, but I love Pärt's music for the exact same reason that I love the badlands of Wyoming. Both are vast and open and take ages to cross. Both are dotted by the miniature embellishments of dry and rugged plants or the occasional orchestral flourish, and are riven by the traces of scarce water's seasonal flow or a change of key, equally sudden and embraced.

The hugeness of the American West has inspired countless poets and cowboy philosophers, and I count myself among them. So it is little wonder that I experience the same hugeness in Pärt's symphonies as a giant sky, into which my attention spills and spills, a beckoning horizon just faint enough to yield to my conjectures. He demonstrates in human craft what being in such a place will tell you: that emptiness makes room for form. Absence is suggestive. All sound arises from silence.

What follows are quotes from Pärt I found in the liner notes to a collection of his recordings (Pärt: Tabula rasa/Fratres/Symphony No. 3a, 1999 Deutsche Grammophon GmbH, Hamburg) - and, in the tradition of the commentators on Sun Tzu's Art of War or Lao Tzu's Book of Changes, my own embellishments on what he has to say. I think his musings and those of the Eastern sages are equally profound. Hopefully some of you will find my contributions worthwhile, as well.

(Arvo Pärt - Tabula Rasa: I. Ludus, Tabula Rasa: II. Silentium)

"I need to withdraw in order to depict something objective. The greater our ability to stand back and feel the wing-beat of time, the more powerful will be the impact of the work of art. Time's beating wing affects us in two ways: on the one hand creating uncertainty, endless complications, chaos; on the other hand, order. It is the simultaneity of life and death." (p.3)

Creativity requires a balance between detachment and immersion - the forest and the trees. In the moment of inspiration, the composer is not separate from the composition. Improvisation requires one to be completely within the music, but this is balanced with a period of revision, of review. If you are to make a transparent offering with your music, you cannot criticize yourself while you are writing, but neither can you be open to every idea that comes to you when the time comes to redraft your work. Great creativity is a balance between the art and the craft (or the science). We as limited creatures are usually incapable of both at once, so these are taken in turn, serially.

This is one way in which "the wing-beat of time" appears in music. The finished piece is like the channel of a river, starting with a blanket of rain and gathering into the sweeping curve of the earth, summer after summer, one storm after another. Discernment and discrimination determine the final artifact left by a wash of emotion. The clarity of our messages are determined by our ability to ride the ebb and flow of growth and paring, intimacy and perspective, passion and choice, as these things arise naturally. The feminine provides and the masculine decides.

A more complex environment - a rich imagination, or a diverse ecosystem - provides more raw material with which to sculpt new meaning. Consequently, the most complicated music in the world is written in response to the most complicated times. The more chaos there is in the system, the more structure appears to make sense of it.

Add enough heat to wood and you get the living crystal of flame - directionality, current, and contour. Ilya Prigogine called this a "dissipative structure": a pattern that forms to best bear the strain of additional energy in a system. Add a thousand things for people to talk about, and mere words no longer suffice. Sooner or later, you get syntactic language; "it's how the cookie crumbles." Water forms hexagonal cells right before it boils. Force people into chains and you get rhythm and blues. Force infinity into people and you get musicians.

And for the record, randomness is defined by mathematicians as our inability to discern the order in a pattern. Neither exists without the other; neither is more foundational. They are reciprocal, and great musicians are aware of this. Mature creativity is walking the shoreline of an island of reality that rises from a sea of potential. The shore is always being redrawn, both by the waves and by our footsteps. On our next pass, we'll have to draw a different map. Life and death are in love with each other, and together they conceive each new moment as a variation on the theme of the last - even in the tiniest gesture, in some improvised flourish, or the serendipitous recording of studio banter.

"You have to limit yourself and cut back a lot, both within yourself and in terms of what is around you. And this is also reflected in the music. If I know nothing about something, it is not right that I should say anything about it either. But if I have discovered something, even if it is very little, I say so: very briefly and as directly and as concentratedly as I can, since I, too, am concentrating on the thing in question. That's why the notes that I write may be no more than cues." (p.5)

First, a musician must have an idea. But then, as Ken Wilber said, "Part of being a good writer is selecting words that have a minimum number of alternative meanings, so you can communicate a coherent message." We can not be honest with ourselves and expect our music to fully describe our inner experience. The first-person world and the third-person world are lovers, but they are ultimately incommensurable. There is no valid way to measure one in the language of another. Magritte said, "Every painting starts as a romance and ends as a rape." We can succumb to this cynicism, or we can accept that no quantity will ever replace a quality. All of our words are "no more than cues."

In embracing this, however, we can be playful with our language. Knowing that no single song will ever satisfy, I am liberated from the burden of writing the perfect song. The song I am now writing shows something beautiful and unique, and anyway, there will be more. I know there is no such thing as the Great American Novel, so I can get on with writing my story. I am free to write about the "very little," because I am no longer chained to the task of capturing Everything in Something. And the less I try to do so, the more space I leave for the listener to notice that indeed, every thing does lead home to Everything.

"I have discovered that it is enough if a single note is played beautifully. This single note, the sense of peace or silence have a calming effect on me." (p.4)

One word suggests more than two ever could. Candlelights will always be sexier than floodlights. Emptiness yields. The blank page tells every story, which is why writer's block is so overwhelming: we tremble before the mystery of our own omnipotence. Lao Tzu: "The Master says nothing, and leaves nothing unsaid."

"My music was always written after I had long been silent in the most literal sense of the word. When I speak of silence, I mean the 'nothingness' out of which God created the world. That is why, ideally, musical silence is sacred. Silence is not simply given to us, but in order that we may draw sustenance from it. This sustenance is no less valuable to me than the air I breathe. There's an expression: to live on air and love. I'd like to rephrase this: if you approach silence with love, music may result. A composer often has to wait a long time for this music. It is this reverent sense of expectation that constitutes the brief silence of which I am so fond." (p.5)

I have studied a little bit of neuroscience, enough to know that we do not experience things, but the differences between things. We see boundaries, and our brains conserve resources by assuming the rest. So when I say that no sound exists without silence, I mean it in the least metaphysical, most flesh-and-blood way possible. To experience is to compare. We owe all of our music to silence, even if we never stop to thank it. The single piece of advice common to every musician, no matter the instrument, is to play the rests. Play the rests.

There is also, however, a silence beneath silence. The rests emerge in this openness, the deeper silence in which we make our comparisons. Needless to say, you cannot hear it. But maybe you should try.

(Written for iggli.com)

12 October 2007

An Ode To The Chapman Stick

Unlike with previous instruments in this column, I have a long-standing and personal relationship with the invention I'll be discussing this week. It's called the Chapman Stick, and it was one of the most radical developments in music from the second half of the Twentieth Century (the first half goes to the electric guitar). Created by Emmett Chapman in 1969, the Stick is a wild redesign of the guitar that opened a new realm of musical expression - one that has only begun to be explored.

Forty years ago, Chapman was struggling to fill the anemic sound of solo jazz guitar with a richer bass end and started adding lower strings to his instruments. It wasn't long before six strings became nine. Soon after, he realized that his magnetic pickups were sensitive enough to register even the slightest tapping of strings to frets. He had found a way to make sounds in a much more direct and percussive fashion than by plucking and strumming, liberating his right hand from having to sound the efforts of his left.

Thus, the Stick was born. Chapman had discovered a musical space similar to the one occupied by pianists, in which interweaving voices, multiple melodic lines, and free-winging improvisation with chordal accompaniment is standard fare. Each hand can be playing in a different meter, or - thanks to its split pickups and a stereo output - through a different effects chain.

Here's an example - a gorgeous pastoral piece by Rob Martino:

By the 1980s, he was installing MIDI pickups on them, and suddenly each string could trigger a separate synthesizer. The Stick effortlessly spread its wings into the burgeoning fantasia of electronic music. There are now Stickists performing in bands all over the world in the stead of guitar, bass, keyboards, and even drums (thanks, again, to MIDI).

Glenn Poorman has taken fantastic advantage of this, using MIDI and live looping to create a one-man live electronic act:

I first heard the Stick played by Greg Howard on "The Dreaming Tree," the deep sylvan sojourn holding up the back end of Dave Matthews Band's 1998 album Before These Crowded Streets. (So yeah, I got acquainted with the Stick through a song about a tree. How appropriate! The further I go with this instrument, the more cosmically symmetrical everything about it becomes. More on that in a minute.)

Greg Howard is a virtuoso, very much the heir apparent to Emmett Chapman. He covers Charles Mingus' "Goodbye Porkpie Hat" in this video:

After years of hopeless dreaming, I finally got my own Stick last spring - and laying eyes on it for the first time, I reeled at the incredible potential this thing contains. This bizarre instrument with its five octave range sat sleeping in its open case like the only visible body part of a transparent orchestra. It occupies a terrain somewhere between the guitar, piano, bass, drums, and synthesizer - a giant fretboard, played as a part of the body, with the nuance of acoustic and the teeth of electric. It's operated - if one can even use such a vulgar word - with the amplifier turned up loud, so that the player can use as little force as possible. It's the paradoxical junction of grace and grit - at once the stupidly obvious logical conclusion of stringed instruments, and yet exotic enough to appear as an artifact of the unimaginably distant future, in the David Lynch's adaptation of Dune.

Here's the clip of Patrick Stewart faking it on an embellished Stick:

The Stick is a magical object, glowing with alchemical significance. Literally: Chapman, who invented not just the Stick and its method of parallel tapping, but also a powerful ambidextrous tennis technique and a significant breakthrough in brewing coffee, also happens to be a master astrologist in his few remaining hobby hours. He sees the grand and deeper patterns of the universe. He is a Libra - you know, "The Scales" - and the fact that this beautiful thing found its way into the world through Libra - a sign reknowned for its symmetry, balance, and sense of order - has not been lost on me. It has ten strings - for ten fingers - and is tuned reciprocally, so that the same fingering produces a chord in the treble strings and the inversion of that chord in the bass. Chapman even created a new modal system for it based on his personal birth chart. Seriously.

The geometric perfection of it all is too much for my limited cognition. Several people claim that playing this instrument has actually alleviated their carpal tunnel or other serious chronic hand issues and allowed them to make music again. (It's because of the Stick's ergonomics, how it's held upright and how you reach across the fretboard to play, thus opening your hand - rather than the cramped positions that most instruments require of their players.)

My own Stick is one of the later models, woven from graphite fiber like other futuristic things - including that space elevator we'll be getting any day now. It was never a living wood - no sentient beings were harmed in the making of this musical revolution. I bought it on the 8th of April, a day that is celebrated in Japan as the birthday of Shakyamuni Buddha, with a festival of countless fluttering blossoms. There's something about its crystalline construction, the ludicrous abundance of Japanese festival culture, and the Buddha's "do no harm" injunction that requires me to use this as an instrument of peace.

It arrived in the mail on Good Friday, which is appropriate because I cannot think about it without being swept up in angelic metaphor. I am not alone among Stick players in my conviction that this is a sacred instrument. Even as a die-hard guitarist, one of the minority who have taken up the Stick without abandoning my mother tongue, I cannot imagine the guitar evoking exactly the same intensity of nerd-monk reverence. There's something about it that inspires an otherworldly devotion and wonderment that is rare with other instruments, an elegance that puts it in the same category as relativity theory and the Cartesian plane. I mean this in the strictest sense: Einstein attested relativity theory to a spontaneous peak experience he had while riding a train, and Descartes said that his mathematical revolution was delivered at night by angelic vision.

In this video, Trevor (the only Stickist in Kansas?) peppers footage of his excellent playing with a bit of discourse on his spiritual relationship with his instrument:

The Stick is a rare physical object in the pantheon with these luminous abstractions; it stands unpretentiously as a gift from on high. It's a burning bush, the impossible clue that we give ourselves to wake into a lucid dream: by all reason, it should only be a fantasy, and yet I can feel it underneath my fingers. I don't claim to understand.

Many of my favorite musicians have communicated the importance of favoring the message over the medium. To whatever degree you can, forget the instrument that you play and focus on the music you are trying to express. Victor Wooten - probably the most influential bassist alive - is fond of saying that he is a musician, not a bassist. That paying attention to your instrument while you play can trip you up in the same way that paying attention to your tongue makes it more difficult to speak.

Try as I might, though, it's hard to make the Stick totally transparent to the music (although earlier, literally transparent lucite models do exist as a kind of joke attempt). If there's one thing I've learned from postmodernism, it's that the message is never really separate from its medium. Although the Stick can liberate a solo artist to perform stupendously rich compositions, it simultaneously transforms the same artist into a Swiss Army knife in band contexts. Agency and communion. The drum and the harp. Masculine and feminine. I open the case and suddenly I am voyeur to the spectacular orgy of every archetype as they make love in the space of an overhead compartment.

Nor can I, no matter how poetic I wax, truly describe the weird beauty of the Chapman Stick with words alone. Here are some other good videos of this masterpiece in action.

A cover of the cantina band theme from Star wars:

The Stick with a proper European lightshow:

A truly excellent Stick and african percussion jam:

Additional audio/video, and more information than you could ever fully digest, is available online at www.stick.com. Enjoy!

(Written for iggli.com)