Wednesday, April 25, 2012

A Process Of Passages

I saw a scrap of manuscript paper
where I sketched four bars of a melody
many months ago. I had forgotten
both the melody and writing it down.

I looked at the notation. In my mind
I played through the melody and listened.

And I remembered, then, everything.

When the melody first occurred to me.

What I was doing, thinking and feeling.

For an instant as the melody played
in my mind, it was as if I was there,
in that other place, in that other time,
it was as if a passage between worlds
had opened and allowed me through and back.

And there were no electronics involved.

There was no computer dissecting space.

Was it the paper with lines and scribbles?

Was it the thought of an old melody?

Or was it a process that once started
continued endlessly around someone
who created the start of the process?

A process of passages between worlds.


I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the differences between an acquired personal skill, and a gadget. And the consequences of those differences.

Specifically, I’ve been thinking a lot about the French composer Olivier Messiaen and his almost life-long hobby of listening to birdsongs and notating the songs in his musical journals.

Now I’m not personally that captivated by birdsong, although I do like birds and I do enjoy listening to them sing. But I am very interested in a lot of other things, and many of the issues that come up in the context of a composer interested in birdsong seem very relevant, even gripping, to me in an abstract sort of way.

These days high-resolution digital stereo recorders are reasonably inexpensive and can fit in a person’s pocket. And computer programs called digital audio workstations (DAWs) can analyze an audio file and isolate the frequencies and durations of notes. Files like that can be quantized, where note lengths are “rounded-off” to some arbitrarily set unit. And then that digital file can be represented in many different graphically-informative styles. I’ve never seen it, but I believe there are utilities that can convert an audio file all the way over to standard music notation.

So a person interested in birdsong these days can gather a lot more information with a handy pocket recorder than they can by listening carefully and analyzing what they hear and converting their audio experience to music notation manually.

But I wonder if the end result is the same, or even similar.

I mean that in two ways.

First of all, any serious musician has to learn to read music well enough to perform a score that might be generated by software that converts an audio file to music notation. So any serious musician has to develop an engagement with notation anyway, even if pocket recorders and DAWs are wildly powerful. And once you develop a skill like that it becomes something like fun to use the skill to notate sounds that are important to you. So in this first sense it is nice that technology provides the capability, I guess, but a serious musician is still going to develop the personal skill regardless of technology being available.

Secondly, suppose a musician doesn’t develop the engagement with standard notation. Suppose a musician just uses technology to capture sounds or birdsongs and analyze those sounds and study those sounds using the tools and displays a DAW provides. That musician still is going to learn a lot about birdsong, or any other sound. And what that musician learns can still be used to shape his own playing and compositions. Only instead of composing onto manuscript paper, such a musician would compose onto digital audio tracks of one kind or another.

I always wonder: When a musician chooses to go through the process of analyzing a sound and then synthesizing a translation of that sound into standard music notation, does that musician “own” the sound in some kind of mental or emotional way that another musician doesn’t? Is that musician more deeply engaged with the sound, more deeply knowledgeable in some way than the musician who studies audio files and their sound profiles?

Is the analysis and synthesis process something that, once performed, becomes a part of a person in a very dynamic way?

Of course this question applies to so many modern activities.

Just one for instance: There was a time when a photographer—to use Ansel Adams’ phrase—would try to “pre-visualize” an exposure of a scene and understand where the darkest dark would be and the lightest light and the distribution of grays in between within the composition and manually adjust the settings on the camera to capture the scene in an image that recreated that mental pre-visualization. Nowadays almost all cameras adjust their own exposures using a variety of artificial intelligence algorithms that take into account different light contexts. And computer programs can evaluate the light/dark areas of a photo file and adjust the histogram, the balance of grays throughout the image, to create an appropriate (if that’s the right word) image of the scene. Photographers can still do things manually, or in part manually, but many photographers in the modern world trust their camera to capture a scene in a useful way, a technically correct way, and then they trust processing software to create a useful image, a technically correct image.

When a photographer chooses to go through the process of analyzing a scene and then synthesizing a translation of that scene by understanding the capabilities of his camera and setting them accordingly, does that photographer create an image that is, somehow, more meaningful than a photographer who just snaps a picture and trusts technology?

I don’t know. But this seems like an important question.

It seems to me that the mental and emotional process of analyzing something and then synthesizing a translation of that something into another medium is really what art is all about. But I couldn’t really put into words, right now, what the difference is between acquiring the skills to do something manually and acquiring the skills to operate technology and doing something, to use a word, robotically.

If there is a difference, then it seems like this is an issue worth taking the time to codify into words because we are very quickly moving into a world where almost nobody will have personal skills anymore and almost everybody will depend on one or another kind of robot to do almost everything.

Soon there will be no passages between worlds, because there won’t be different worlds, there only will be this world, and there only will be the here and now.

(And even more interesting is that of the people who still will have the skills and still will be in a position to practice them, in the contemporary world many of these people are prodigies, rather than people who have devoted the time and resources to acquire and develop skills. And my experiences have been that prodigies have a vastly different emotional reaction to their skills and a vastly different emotional commitment to their skills than non-prodigies who acquire and develop the same or similar abilities.)

I’m going to end today with an interesting quote that doesn’t directly touch on this business, but does illustrate an interesting example of these issues.

One time Olivier Messiaen and his wife recorded some birdsongs. His wife identified a bird more quickly than Messiaen did. But how did she identify the bird faster than her husband? She had been practicing a piano piece Messiaen had composed based on birdsong, and here is the wonderful little story:

By now Loriod accompanied birdsong expeditions with a tape recorder. On one occasion she heard a ‘whistling’ cry which she recognized as a curlew. Messiaen was at first skeptical but when he heard the tape conceded that she was right. She attributed her new-found ornithological expertise to his music: ‘If you hadn’t notated it so clearly in the piano piece I’ve just learned, I wouldn’t have recognized it!’

. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

Passages Between Worlds

Pamela At The Doorway To Atlantis

Songs A Husband Heard

Song As Eternal Monster Inside Sound

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