Thinking Musically

I’ve written in the past about the adjective ‘musical’. Lately I’ve been hosting and helping people with improvisation. The odd thing is that I am no expert in music and I am an amateur and dilettante. I love to watch youtube videos about improvisation and playing technique and reading things here and there. I feel that one of the things that really enhances my ability to play is just to listen. There is a skill in being an effective listener of music and for me that is more of an accomplishment than whatever I happen to perform.

 

I have often said something to the effect lately, that the emphasis in performing well is to think musically. I keep saying this so much I don’t even know what I mean sometimes. I thought I might clarify what this could possibly mean in this post.

 

Thinking musically is about a commitment to music itself, music as a human activity and tradition that goes back to – God knows when! As a human activity we have forbears and we are inevitably indebted to them. It is fair to say that I am a paternalist about music often. Many things go back to Bach. Even the things that are developed as a reaction against something else, show that something else as a form of influence (Neoclassicism vs. 20th century Avant-Garde for example).

 

To think musically is to have your own voice. To think musically is to have a sense of conviction. My old piano teacher always used to emphasise the conviction of a performance over technique. Sometimes your conviction can be so strong that you might go against the standard interpretations or customs already established. Thinking musically can therefore be a means of expressing individuality.

 

As well as a commitment to traditions, genres and so forth; there is often an internal logic. There is an internal logic to an individual piece of music, sometimes in the phrasing, the articulation. Sometimes the internal logic is to one’s own playing style. An internal logic may be towards the interpretation of a composer or period.

 

I like to apply thinking musically to when I write my blogs. One thing that is a cliche of mine, is that I go for extended digressions that don’t always have a comprehensible take home message. Another example of applied musical thinking to a non musical discourse, is Glenn Gould’s ‘The Idea of the North’. This documentary on the Northern wastes of Canada applies an idea from the musical genre of the Fugue. The subject of the documentary focuses on vox pops of various people who have an experience of living on the northern frontiers of Canada and the aural testimonies are layered on top of each other in the form of subject, counter subject, answer. Of course I presume that when Gould did this documentary, not many of the intended audience would understand this Bachian influence on the art of radio documentary making. In lieu of this obscurity, it causes me to laugh at Glenn Gould’s sincerity. That so few would understand him yet he still continued his commitment to thinking and living musically.

 

Perhaps thinking musically is not a thing-in-itself, but a media through which ideas come forth. I think of how Haydn’s music often contains humour, not within the musical form but by virtue of being funny.

 

Perhaps I have a specific view about thinking musically. Lately my idea of musical thinking is a commitment to form and using form as a tool of expression. I often feel that things such as genre and style can often be the product of our cultural education and upbringing and instead of contributing new music to add to a historical process of cultural idioms and styles, we simply replicate them. While this in itself is not aesthetically ‘wrong’ or bad (see my post on musical conservatism), it is the unconscious and indeliberate nature of these influences that is deleterious. Like Walden, we must live deliberately in our music. If our upbringing is blues and our heart is in blues, then make it so, but deliberately.

 

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‘The Tree’: A play by Bernardo Stella

As part of my ever-continued quest to explore new places and ‘do more cultural things’, I ventured to visit the Pentameters theatre in Hampstead, North London. A brief statement of declaration: a personal friend of mine, Daniel Sawicki, was performing. I went to see a play called ‘The Tree’ by a Bernardo Stella. The story that was told before the play began was that Stella is a local restaurant business owner who sometimes writes plays and poetry, some of the former had been performed at said Pentameters venue.

 

‘The Tree’ was a romance story that was in impossible circumstances, as it was set between a Serb boy and a Muslim girl in what is now Bosnia and Herzegovina. I often hear the comparison of ‘Romeo and Juliet’ attached to stories and it often sounds very naff, and often undermines what the actual Shakespeare play was about by its elements. Often the ‘Romeo and Juliet’ comparison is seen as a desirable kind of romance or a very lovely situation. Of course if you actually read the Shakespeare text it is about two teenagers who fall in love but are from two families who basically have been killing each other for centuries. As far as adult relationships go, Romeo and Juliet is not a good cultural model for ideal behaviour. While I am on this point, I also don’t get the fascination with Goethe’s Werther for that matter.This story however, is, with the unfortunate cliche, an accurate Romeo and Juliet ‘star cross’d lovers’ situation. The story is set in around 1990/1991 and seems to go on to about maybe 1994.

 

The twinkle of attraction between Esad and Nikola in some respects is like many intercultural relationships. While flourishing it is between communities with cultural contact but mutual suspicion. As the story goes on the wider political backdrop becomes more and more relevant to their relationship and ultimately defines how it ends. It made me think about how the circumstances of a given time may affect romances. In better economic and social times I would like to think that these big forces have a minimal impact on relationships. It is at the more extreme of times, such as poverty or civil unrest, that our personal lives can sometimes take a back seat.

 

‘The Tree’ refers to a backyard tree from Nikola’s family home. Esad’s neighbouring family find the tree to be an annoyance and later on the basis for antagonism between the two families. In more peaceful times the tree had flourished and the narrator (Brankovic) later mentions that the tree eventually became a burned out stump from a bombing.

 

This is an ugly and harsh play. It made the audience uncomfortable and anxious. This play communicated a very specific set of historical circumstances and did so in a way that an audience could understand. The ugliness of the play reflected the ugliness of the inhumanity and the world of what was the post-Yugoslavia Bosnia. I have spoken in the past about how the Kantian description of beauty has an inverse, and this would be the ultimate expression of what is aesthetic ugliness. There is one point in the play when the two main characters are dead and Brankovic’s narrator character walks to the audience and looks at us figuratively in the eye (he physically looked at me in the eye briefly) and said: “LOOK AT THEM!”. Their plight represents not just a personal tragedy, but the collective tragedies of so many who went through a period of civil unrest in a historically located situation.

 

The moral significance of ugliness is expressed through this “LOOK AT THEM!” utterance breaking the fourth wall. In our lives our culture is a selective mirror to ourselves: we look at the world we want to be in, or perhaps a world we might enjoy imagining, or a world reflecting some aspect of our values. This “LOOK AT THEM!” is a wake up call to say: do not forget.

 

Keeping the memory, or “My old hardware is a burden to me”

My hard drive

My old hard drive – we’ve had some great memories together

The subject of this blog post started with a little pile next to my table. There’s a printer, a scanner and a generic box (of unsorted documents that graduates to sorted/processed documents) which sits right next to my desk. I have an 2006 Canon Pixma printer, which supposedly was designed to print photograph sized prints in photograph quality I used it a few times but I found that it ran out of ink very quickly. I argued this point with my dad that it is not economical to own such a printer that barely prints maybe 2 dozen prints for the cost of £30-40 colour prints, when you can get prints for 20p or so each these days. As such, for this reason, and due to the other reason that I have a smaller and more efficient portable printer (its so portable it fits in a shoe bag), my once fancy Pixma printer is now obsolete. Also thanks to great retailers like Boots and other such photo processing serviciers (sic).

 

This Pixma printer is a 1ft square or so heavy box of plastic that just fills up space. It feels like emotional clutter due to its unuse. I feel guilty that a fancy printer is essentially surplus to requirement. I then thought about the 2 xbox 360s that I have above a cupboard. I bought two because one of them was in disrepair and I felt a strong urge to get an xbox by christmas of some time maybe a year or two ago, in order to have a ‘halo marathon’ (a tradition among a few friends of mine). Now that the old Xbox 360 is obsoleted by the new Xbox One(tm); I have more tat that is just gathering dust. I also have Xbox accessories, games, pads and even a neat little wifi adaptor. If these things were universal for say, a PC or other device I surely could have found use for it.

 

Thinking about my old technology brought me to a deeper and deeper rabbit hole. I’ve got meters upon meters of USB cables all scrunched up in my desk. I have endless earphones that don’t work or half work, or are ugly that came free with something. I have AC adaptors for things I don’t even remember owning and some of these things are not even 10 years old yet I feel like I am one of those people on the hoarder TV shows.

 

All this technology finds itself obsolete very quickly and it makes me sad. Lately I’ve been thinking things like: I have been using my USB keyboard for 8 years now, I should get rid of it; perhaps I should get rid of my USB speakers – they have served their time.

 

Lately I bought a tablet and a phone. I have a reputation among my friends for having ‘old technology’, and I am often reluctant to stop using something simply because a newer version of x has come out, or that the newer version does more things. Having said that, I am not exactly a Luddite. I sometimes  used my older laptops as experiments in Linux and in overclocking and working beyond their original specifications and default software settings. I’ve found  that some laptops that I bought have hardware specs that purposely lock out other operating systems. The Xbox 360 and other consoles notably have measures to detect if a device has been modified and once noticed, locks out and bans the user/machine for what I think is an open and inquisitive exploration into a piece of software.

 

People should not feel guilty for ‘hacking’ into their store bought hardware and using technology in ways beyond the original company’s design for them. I’ve seen creative mp3 players installed with windows xp just to see if it can be done, and games consoles with fancy lighting. I think that such modifications are an ode of respect to the companies that made these devices, and show a sense of openness and imaginative creativity on part of the consumer, that makes a consumer an active participant in the commodities they buy, and exactly because of this, the things that they buy are not ‘commodities’ but enabling.

 

Products like the iPad and Windows 8 devices are said to be enabling by all the Press Releases and tech conference presentations, but only in a limited way of thinking and perceiving and using a device. I feel that there’s a political analogy here. I think about geographical space lately. In the area where I live, there are lots of shops, and lots of houses, but nothing else. There’s a public library, which had the threat of closure more than once in the past decade. However there’s not really much for anyone if you don’t have spending money or a mortgage/monthly rent. The physical space where I live is exceptionally limited in the terms set by consumption: you live, sleep, and buy.

 

For this reason I think that my local library is an amazing place. I like going to the library just to peruse the books. I see a lot of self-improvement books, a lot of books about Tamil culture (a cultural group who have a distinct presence locally) and even a few comics, graphic novels and Mangas. The library is a place where you can read magazines and newspapers at no charge and there are sometimes local Councillors having surgeries and children’s storytelling meetings there.

 

Outside of this little haven of the library is shop upon shop. The options are limited in shops: you buy, and that’s about it. This can be very isolating and exceptionally limiting to the imagination. With my group of friends we sometimes try to subvert the perception of geographical urban space by inserting a bit of humour (and confusion) to the area. One thing we like doing for example is going out in costume or wearing a horse mask, the breaching of our ascribed sense of conformity to public spaces shocks most of the public. Another thing we sometimes do is while in a moving car, play a bit of music on our instruments, usually people are amused or bemused. I think there is a significance to being bemused. It shows the possibility of other alternatives for use of that space. The ideal of art is to show an interpretation of the world differently and hopefully show that we can differently interpret the world as it is.

 

Technology is similar. Technologies are sold to us so often as things that are enabling and yet, when we are overwhelmed with it, or when we are sanctioned for using technology in an alternative way, this is hardly enabling. It saddens me that there is such limitations often built in to hardware, that limits alternative uses.

 

Another aspect of my woe about my hardware is that there’s such a waste. I’m getting rid of a few old laptops this month, and once upon a time they probably cumulatively cost £8000-9000 all together, and now I have to pay for someone to get it off my hands! All of the machines I’m getting rid of this month are not even over 10 years old. By contrast I still have some VCRs from the mid-late 1990s and they work as well as in the days in which they were used most.

 

There seems to be a turning point with old technology, certain things like a first generation Nintendo/Famicom console are lovely products in their retro glory. A friend of mine recently bought a flat and one of his ‘christening’ gifts was to set up his NES in his fancy HD big screen TV. We found that Duck Hunt, the game that uses a light gun, no longer works on new TVs, because of the way that the light gun was designed for CRTs (old style TVs) to map and track pixels. Something like a NES, a SNES or maybe even a Dreamcast, are seen as retro-tastic mementos of a golden past and childhood or teenhood or early adulthood, and yet my old laptops which are highly more sophisticated technically than games consoles, and my printers and USB accessories have been made to be obsolete by the successors.

 

Old games consoles from the 80s and 90s are quaint bits of retro, yet consoles from the 2000s are a heavy burden, because the new generation of consoles are basically the same in functionality – but do more! I think that the same cannot be said for the transition between say, the NES and the N64 – they do vastly different things and enable vastly different possibilities. However between say the PS3 and PS4 – they are basically the same machine where one does vastly more than the other but there is no qualitative transition of gaming or thinking or concept.

 

I would consider this way of consuming computer games and hardware to be in line with the critical Adorno view of late capitalist culture. Like Adorno I think that the transitions to newer technologies and the pressures to take up things like tablets and HD televisions; Blu-Rays, Tivos, 4G and cloud services are difficult to avoid to function in the modern world, but it is highly wasteful and makes things obsolete very quickly. I really love my new tablet computer at the moment, but I know there will be a day when it becomes hurrendously outdated and obsolete compared to what comes in the future.

 

What can we do about this? I feel like this is the open question that I cannot quite answer yet. I think this is the interesting open question of our culture. How do we find ways of opposing the trend of creating so much waste, while keeping modern? One thing I have done is that I’ve opened up my old laptops and taken various chips out and I’m going to re-use some of the hard drives and play with the RAM cards and explore the processor chipsets in the same child like way that I used to break things to see how they worked. One other reason I kept some of my old hard drives and processors are that they are a physical memento, a sentimental trinket that looks cool kept in my room, but they are also my, if you will excuse the amphiboly, memories.