Last summer I quoted percussionist Doug Perkins, an apparently offhand comment from his podcast: "I use the music at Boston Conservatory to teach ownership and leadership and thoughtful decision making. I certainly don’t make music because I think it sounds pretty. That’s the last thing I think about.”
On its face, this is a wildly counterintuitive thing for a professional musician to say. Music is not about sounds? How un-Cagean. (Though it is, maybe, Wolffian. When I played Snowdrop last year, we quickly realized that the piece was not about realizing a specific set of sounds but rather about achieving a certain sort of social mediation and group communication. Maybe it's something about New Hampshire -- Perkins and Wolff both taught at Dartmouth. Live Free or Die, etc.)
Music not about sound? Posh. It can't be, right?
But lately I find myself inside this comment. When you're really in rehearsal all day, especially as the years of toil and underemployment begin to stack up, it occurs to you: most of the time, this really isn't about the esthetic transcendent, the fleeting moment of connection and revelation. That's all great, but it isn't enough to sustain the practice. The pleasure of pretty sounds is too simple; what we're after can't be as easy as taking a bite of dark chocolate. Ironically, Cage leads us back to this. Stipulated: wind in the trees outside can be as beautiful a sound as Mozart. So why on earth do we keep working so hard?
We wouldn't keep doing this unless we were engaging in some deeper sort of creative problem solving, or some useful sort of introspective spiritual cartography.
Maybe it's because my head's been deep in politics, but that's the root I keep coming back to, useful. The practice has social utility—it has to. Or it never could have sustained so many people, for so long, for so little pay.
“I’m a straight-up jazz musician, no doubt," Jason Moran once said. "But I also like to think of myself as an urban performance artist who happens to play piano.” I've played at devising a similar formula for my own activities. What if there's something else, something downy and diaphanous, that I'm really after, and the piano is useful but incidental to the basic quest? What if there's something much more mysterious that we're really doing all day, and the instrument we play is just, well, an instrument?
Maybe Doug was right. It's worth pointing out that he was referring specifically to his interest in "difficult" music, in the new, challenging, and unusual. Music that "destabilizes," to use a word from the zeitgeist.
Maybe we really are organizing something other than sound.
With that, I'm off to a loadbang concert.
[Score excerpt at the top is from Dance by Marta Gentilucci, 2016.]
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