Perpetual Caveat: Analogies between athletics and musicianship are problematic, and present cultural understanding is too reliant on them. (See my 2015 thoughts on Grand Piano and Inside Llewyn Davis.)
Essay: I’m a little stuck on Free Solo, the Oscar-winning documentary about Alex Honnold’s free-solo climb of El Capitan. On the one hand (one thumb?), I’m hesitant to praise a movie that seems almost certain to accrue a body count. On the other, I must acknowledge that this is a new perspective on human capability—and a new document of the lengths people will go to try and be happy.
My hands are sweating at the keyboard just thinking about this movie.
Two moments keep returning to me and suggesting a connection to musical practice. At one point Honnold describes the nonexistent margin of error in free-solo climbing as central to its appeal. “I don’t want to fall off and die either,” he says, “but there’s a satisfaction to challenging yourself and doing something well. That feeling is heightened when you’re for sure facing death. If you’re seeking perfection, free soloing is as close as you can get. And it does feel good to feel perfect, for a brief moment.”
I have previously compared climbing to performing music. While I’m only lightly experienced in the former, I’ve noticed a connection between the moment your foot leaves the ground and the moment you start a piece in front of people. Rope or no, there is a feeling of commitment. The other day I played Lukas Foss’ solo piano arrangement of Billy the Kid for about 200 listeners. Once I started, I was started. I’m thinking of that old chestnut about people fearing public speaking more than they fear death. Maybe, on some deeper level of the mind, playing solo piano in front of 200 listeners isn’t so dissimilar from free-solo climbing.
Later, discussing his preparations for the climb, reading through his notes, Honnold describes his plan for the most difficult move of the route. He looks right at the camera and says, “autopilot.” The Buddhist teachings tell us that if we’re suffering, we are thinking; similarly at the piano, if I make a mistake, it’s probably because I’m thinking. I don’t play solo much lately, or from memory. When doing so, there comes this eerie moment when you realize you’ve come mentally detached from the playing and your hands are just doing it by themselves. Sometimes this realization comes with a lurching stop—I notice that I don’t know where I am in the music, muscle memory disengages from conscious processing, and suddenly I’m Wile E. Coyote having run off a cliff, finally looking down.
Let’s consider this notion of “muscle memory.” No one is suggesting that your hands literally have memory capacities. We’re talking about a different level of the mind. Playing the Copland, I realized that if I ever thought about what was coming next, I was already too late. I couldn’t think. It was too slow.
Over New Year’s I attended a meditation retreat in California with the renowned teacher Shinzen Young, who talks a lot about this mysterious notion of operating “from auto.” In other words, speaking or moving or even thinking with true and complete spontaneity, without surface-level thought breaking the flow. The irony is that we do this all the time: tying one’s shoes is a classic example, or brushing your teeth, or walking. But the difficult thing—and I mean difficult, I mean a lifetime’s work—is to do this consciously, to operate from auto with immediacy and intention and know you’re operating from auto.
This may seem very abstract, but when you see it in action, it is completely palpable, undeniable. It oozes from Alex Honnold’s figure in the climactic footage of his climb. My favorite musical example is this video of an elderly Vladimir Horowitz playing Mozart 330. Look at his face. He is almost completely disengaged, on the surface, from the activity of his hands. He’s watching them like they’re a couple of gazelles grazing in a meadow someplace. That’s auto. These performers become Don Genaro somersaulting over the waterfall. The importance of what they’re demonstrating lies no longer in the specifics of the athletic or musical achievement, but in the manner in which it is achieved.
My new trio premieres at Chatter this Sunday. I’ll be at the piano, with David Felberg (violin) and Jesse Tatum (flute). I talked to Spencer Beckwith at KUNM about the project, and there was also a little piece in the Albuquerque Journal. I wrote about the trio in this space a while back. I’ve also taken on a new role this year with Chatter as Company Manager. I look forward to applying more elbow grease toward presenting a variety of music to our community here in New Mexico.
I’ve been reading the 30th anniversary edition of Forces in Motion, Graham Lock’s landmark book about Anthony Braxton. The subject is a famously prolific composer and reputedly impenetrable thinker, and the book takes a friendly approach, dropping us into one specific moment along the continuum of Braxton’s life and work. Lock traveled England with Braxton’s quartet in 1985, and the book includes tour diaries, reflections on the concerts, and interviews with the musicians. The interviews are illuminating: here is a smart and engaged person really trying to pin Braxton down on a wide range of issues. Most importantly, it’s encouraging for anyone curious about the music. It’s easy to be flummoxed by the mountainous volume of Braxton’s output. If nothing else, Lock shows us that the most deeply researched, well-intentioned, and closely accessed of attempts to decode Braxton’s system will still hit locked doors and dead ends. So you may as well just have a listen. At one point Braxton calls his ideal audience “friendly experiencers.” That much any of us can offer.
It is poignant to read this book in 2019 and notice many timeless correspondences—concerns about political and ecological degradation that are absolutely current if you find and replace “Reagan” with the current occupant of the White House and “acid rain” with “climate change”—as well as sea changes in the musical environment, especially as regards access and distribution of scores and recordings. It is always instructive to hear creative musicians in the heyday of the American recording industry complain about their relationships with record companies. At one point in the text Braxton fantasizes about a box set of tour recordings, and a footnote briefly documents his subsequent struggles to get those recordings released. Today Braxton has his own label, and recordings of the ’85 quartet are on Spotify. The grave illness of the record industry and our attendant loss of the habit of buying recordings has not, in general, been positive for musicians. But here is one artist who has been able to document his work and present it in the way he chooses.
I work with a lot of student musicians at the graduate and undergraduate levels—not usually as primary instructor but as coach/accompanist. The first reflection was that many of these students don’t need a music teacher, they need a therapist. That is, there are personal problems, usually in the family of anxiety, that are getting in their way more often than any issues that are specifically musical. Teach these people to meditate, I thought, and a lot of the musical problems will work themselves out.
The second reflection was that everything I just said also applies to me. My musical problems are fundamentally personal problems. The limitations come from blocks in the mind: from insufficient focus, insufficient compassion, insufficient understanding of present experience. I’m a working professional pianist, and at my level too, the lessons tend toward psychotherapy.
I already know how to meditate. Maybe I need to follow Travis’s example and learn Qigong.
I made an important decision, and it came pretty late at age 27, to never to ask anyone for advice about my creative work ever again. “Feedback” is very popular these days. I don’t oppose it universally, but one needs to be careful. Responses are one thing, but advice about direction is another. Everyone has an opinion. I’ve had plenty. They’ve tended to shift. Hence I mistrust my own opinion, and even more so everyone else’s.
One of my piano teachers said that teaching is primarily a process of justifying your own instincts.
In spite of all this, I’ve come to freshly appreciate the importance of having a teacher. In spiritual communities the dynamic is surprisingly similar. One “practices,” and it is common to have a lifelong relationship with teachers, placing oneself within various lineages. While I distrust the idea of the guru, this is mostly because I think one needs a number of teachers, never just one. That’s where the danger lies.
Decades are overrated. We think just because we have ten fingers that time must as well. Rather I’ve come to see time transpiring in overlapping seven-year cycles. I “went it alone” from age 24-31, then went back to school. My work at UNM has been mostly technical rather than conceptual. Hence the two Master’s degrees actually balance productively, though it’s an unusual academic resume to find in a musician.
I went in with three goals: to deepen my relationship with the instrument, to build local musical community, and to benefit from accepting externally imposed daily and weekly structures. To these I would add one more important and unforeseen result: a new and better approach to having a teacher. Actually I would say the experience has set me up for a lifetime of dynamic and useful relations with feedback. A teacher can give you ideas for how to work, and inspiration to keep the work fresh. One benefits from needing less from this person. Advice can be less important than example, discussion, and regular discursive examination.
I’ve been influenced lately by Seth Godin’s ideas about education. He likes to mock the question “will this be on the test?” We use “test” and “examination” as synonyms without really looking at the words. It should be an opportunity to examine something—to look it over and understand it better. This might be more useful than always “testing” oneself against others’ standards. At best we look closely at things. What we find there is the education.
• Gone Walkabout
• Music as Drama
• Crossroads II
• 10 Best of 2014
• January: Wyoming and the Open
• February: New Mexico and the Holes
• Coming Up
• Notes on The Accounts
• Crossroad Blues