12/40 Thinking in Binary

I had a discussion with a musical friend today that raised the stakes on a series of themes that have been in my attention for a number of years. The conversation was around some comments I made in my previous post regarding the human experience of musical endeavour.

In this discussion, a story came up around a certain well known jazz piano player who is quoted as saying “we can say nothing if our heart isn’t beating, and it’s as far from a drum machine as anything can be”.

Another topic that came up was the frequent criticism of Western tuning, which is something often heard in alternative, healing, and “spiritual” music circles, especially among those who have converted to a more “Eastern” philosophy on music.

Those who are critical of Western tuning (by which I assume they mean equal temperament) don’t appear to understand what makes it valuable, and while I don’t intend to make this post about the relative merits of Eastern and Western methods of tuning, this sort of critique has grown really tired for me. I much more respect the individual that can dance between those polarities, and operate equally freely in either one. So many “enlightened” individuals have made a career for themselves by planting their feet and criticizing what they don’t understand. It is certainly important to know what I am good at, and what I have committed my practice to: that is where my house is built. But if I can’t step off my property or even look over the fence with a sense of curiosity and wonder, and openness to new ways of seeing truth, then my house is a prison.

I have also come to see statements like “as far from a heart beat as anything” as being theatrical, and rather unenlightened. It’s a binary statement that seeks self validation only by invalidating the opposite. It can only exist because it invokes it’s evil twin. It does not say “I am”, it only says “I am not that”. Despite the cleverly scripted bite at technology, it sounds rather more like music must serve us, rather than we the music.

Music is bigger than that. It is not owned by us. It is not made for us. It is not a reward for “joining the club”. We are able to participate in it, but we are not it. We don’t really “create” it as much as we are able to borrow it, to take a piece of it and work with it for a short space of time – our little creation is the shell of an ineffable, un-holdable, un-understandable, un-hearable “AM”. Anything else is our ego demanding to have its existence acknowledged.

Does this mean we should not even approach music or creativity? Of course not. The fact that we’re able to participate and interact with it at all is one of the most wonderful and truly beautiful things we can do. But to think that we can ever come to the point where we grasp it in its infinity: no, that is the path towards stagnation and dictatorship. Does this mean we should play a bit of everything and stretch ourselves to every corner of the genre map? This is a tricky question, to which I’m inclined to say “no”. I do feel there is merit in mastery of a certain area. But let’s not confuse discipline and dictatorship: mastery is the domain of the humble, not the finished.

This compels me to be clear about something I mentioned in my previous post: the “human being” is not the valuable part of the musical experience. Whether a machine or a human plays a part is inconsequential from the point of view of music. The value in the act of doing, however, is for the doer. The value in listening is for the individual engaged in the act of listening, and no one else. That is, the payoff in participating with music is owned wholly by the individual involved. A very lucky and hard working few can do it as a group. It is one of the few things in life we can truly be capable of owning. Whether we choose to participate or not is our freedom, and surely this is the birthright of any intelligent being.

PS A special thank you to David Collins for his invaluable contributions to the discussion, including but not limited to this quote.

One thought on “12/40 Thinking in Binary

  1. A bit off topic maybe –
    Perhaps I confuse this music made by humans or their machines with the ‘musical’ language of, for instance birds. For me there seems to be a number of sets of communication techniques. Body and facial gestures, chemical signals and readings, touch, sound, color etc. And they come in layers of evolving complexity to reflect the complex requirements of communication.
    In social systems there are various communication techniques and languages by necessity, perhaps even by definition. I can if I want assume that a bird’s ‘song’ functions beyond mere mating communication and goes into other areas of expression and semiotics. I like to think it’s evolutionary. Human hubris seems to forever elevate itself towards new gods it invents. The origins of music might be quite practical and humble. Why does it have to be ‘magical’, or mythological? Perhaps we simply want it to be for other needs. Food itself can be raised to the level of art, but I don’t think we’d fantasize in a contemporary manner the mythical origins of consumable resources.
    I can I suppose ponder the idea that these forms of communication are ‘bigger than the individual’ and are a product of a collective so large that it is in practical terms unknowable. But I find it still very organic and not a thing that stands alone from the collective that it serves. I don’t think it’s a permanent fixture of the universes. If a man makes a machine that makes music and it communicates syntax and another can parse it and derive some signal then great – the seed for me is the same – social communications. I have a bird call – he comes, and leaves, since I was not really communicating a social reality, but simply imitating a signal. Herein lies perhaps the origin of some confusion.

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