I think a lot about music. I spend vast tracts of my day, often to the detriment of other duties, utterly absorbed in the questions surrounding music. The ‘wheres’ and the ‘hows’ and the ‘whys’ are all-consuming topics that usually rattle around my head for hours at a time. Preparation, environment, motivation, methods, execution – these are all vast subjects relating to the processes and rituals of music, and their interdependent, tendril-like relationships can often spin off into nebulous tangents like fractal images – and that’s one of the aspects I love about the art form. No other discipline has the capability to unite and divide a roomful of people like music does.
Music’s reach has increased a thousandfold since the advent of the internet, and the plethora of devices with which we can now access it – smartphones, tablets, computers – are expanding its grasp and strengthening its hold over us. But I don’t want to focus here on the distraction of thinking about numbers, quantities and metrics. It’s all scaleable. One could argue that U2 are one of the biggest bands on the planet, and by that yardstick, are one of the best. But we know that pervasiveness does not necessarily equal quality, or even benefit. Smallpox, cholera, and the bubonic plague had pretty successful world tours back in the day.
The ease of access to music, and its ubiquity comes with caveats; how does one make good choices regarding one’s interaction with music, and perhaps also a slightly darker question, how are we being directed toward making the choices that are maybe not necessarily the best, but perhaps the most profitable for the originator? Do you, like me, rely largely on your peers, contemporaries, curators and pundits? How much of your discovery is pure happenstance, or better still, conscious effort? In the creation and distribution stakes, I’m not arguing for hardline purity and authenticity one hundred percent of the time – some of the greatest pieces of music have been written for purely financial gain, and have been propagated under marketing campaigns of astonishing cost and military precision. Hearteningly, the argument for patron (in the true sense of the word) over consumer is something that is becoming better understood due to the rise of Bandcamp, Kickstarter et al. I just wonder where the divisions lie for most of us. Nobody would deign to proffer that great art and viable commerce are mutually exclusive, but the fact that these two factors are ones of frequent discussion, and often of a polarising nature, suggests the questions; Why is this one thing successful or popular? What is it that is we identify with? Where is the pleasurable element, the affecting part, the joy, that the audience member, the player, the fan, the end-user responds to?
By way of explanation, let me share how I feel about the other facet of music; the being and the doing – the immersion.
When I’m involved in creating a piece of music, it’s the visceral element that draws me in. The feel of something guttural in a squall of feedback, the gentle delicacy of a tremolando string section, a voice cracking as it strains for a note previously denied, a crisp kick drum compressed to force a gasp from the listener. Notice how these examples are all sensory in their nature. Regardless of how our egos like to bask in the thrall of the cerebral, I believe that when it comes to music, we are still fundamentally primal, and that the draw of the innate, the instinctual, and sensory stimulus will trump theorising nine times out of ten.
This is not to undermine the satisfaction of an academic approach to music, and it would be disingenuous of me to pretend I’m not listening to production intricacies and drumming techniques and getting satisfaction from the fact that I can identify these things. I’m a passionate advocate for listening and digesting music in a more active manner. This can deepen our enjoyment of a piece immeasurably, without the need for dissection down to the last sixteenth note. To spend time listening to a single instrument in a song is a useful and enjoyable thing to me.
Yet passive consumption is abundant, and I’m not judging, that’s just how it is. I’m not saying there’s no merit to it either. We use music in such varied ways; to help us focus; to motivate us; to soundtrack a journey, experience, or moment; to go to sleep. There is value in all of this, and no one person will listen to, or experience, a single piece of music the same way the next person will.
All of this not withstanding, I’m sure some of you can precisely pinpoint a moment when your consumption of a particular piece shifted from passive to active – an absolutely crystalline recollection of where you were and what you were doing at the time. You can vividly remember when that song, that now means so much to you, grabbed your attention and buried itself in your life.
I’m guessing that what happens in these moments is that something changes within us, and my personal take on what changes, is that it’s our perception. Which brings us back to the senses. We all know how our perceptions of things can change – sometimes subtly, sometimes markedly – and the catalyst for me always appears to be external. Perhaps I’m wrong, but I reckon epiphanies are pretty rare. The sensory world around us has far more influence than we credit it for, and affects such a large part of how things appear to us. So in terms of how we create; should this inform our practice at all? Things may not turn out better – merely different. Yet we’ve all experienced occasions when we’re truly on top of our game. The buzzword-du-jour appears to be ‘flow’, and to me, it’s synonymous with instinct. You don’t overthink, you just know, and the next step comes, and the next, and so on.
Ultimately each one of us wants to make something great. Now, whether your motivation is egoic, altruistic, or economic, perhaps we should argue that the best results speak for themselves – and not in terms of efficiency, reach, or profitability, but by way of the responses the works elicit – and that those results originate from the heart.
The next time you go to make, or build, or write something, pause to ask yourself some of these questions. I’d be interested to hear how things turn out for you.