Saturday, December 26, 2009

The essence of things

Anything can be painted. It's more difficult to see whether what one is doing is any good or not. But that's the only thing that counts. As Duchamp showed, it has nothing to do with craftsmanship. What counts isn't being able to do a thing, it's seeing what it is. Seeing is the decisive act, and ultimately it places the maker and the viewer on the same level.

-- Gerhard Richter.

Thursday, October 8, 2009


Sometimes I imagine the existence of a music authority. Not one whose moral grounds come from aesthetics, idealism and/or extra-musical beliefs, but one of a moral respect for the art itself. I would love, for instance, that a bad singer be denied the possibility of singing lieder by Schubert and Schumann; that a mediocre orchestra or conductor be forbidden of meddling with Mozart or Beethoven; or that a pianist who only sees the keys of the instrument but can't hear them be remitted to wedding bands and have the scores of true art music withheld.

But of course, this can't be. In reality I'd be against it myself. To do so would imply the enforcement of policies, and as is now very clear, politics are an ideal channel through which human beings can degrade themselves. But even-though a music authority can't and shouldn't exist, it's nice to dream every once in a while.

Thursday, August 20, 2009

Lost time

No one seems to have time anymore. It appears it's about to become extinguished.

With my music I hope to return some of the world's lost time.

Monday, August 3, 2009

Musical baggage

I found this video at NetNewMusic, where Jeff Harrington uses it to point out musical expectations. It's outstanding to realize (as the present video shows, but not only because of it) how certain musical notions and criteria are embeded in us. No wonder a great deal of the 20th century sounds like a lost puppy.

Sunday, July 19, 2009

Tha dark side of the moon (if anyone cares)

In my creative work I seek to simplify certain structural processes in order to vent others that occur more naturally. A simple structure -and with certain width regarding time and space- allows for the unfolding of more complex (and interesting) acoustical phenomena. A more intimate approach to the substance of sound is needed for this to take place. In this way, sound can be a self-worthy entity instead of a syntactic element. It requires space and time to move, to transform itself, to breathe. Sound is not interested in ideas, and when it's pushed around with them it hides its nature, its essence, it becomes indifferent, almost as if giving the other cheek.

Like with the Alexander Technique [see previous post], it is not necessary to do much with sound, only establish the conditions for it to do what it must. The more one interferes with these processes, the less freedom. Artistic work deals with the establishing of these conditions. It's an enormous -seems almost impossible- labor which is the sum of skills, perception, intelligence, intuition, and sensitivity.

Music knows very little about this. Or better said, we know almost nothing about this other music. It's like the dark side of the moon, and there aren't many who'd like to step in. Most would rather have certainty (with an intervalic syntax, for instance) and it's understandable, it's a safe place. There's a popular saying: "No one said life was easy." No one said art is.

Monday, May 18, 2009

Composition and the Alexander Technique

The voyage of discovery is not in seeking new landscapes
but in having new eyes.
-Marcel Proust

The Alexander Technique is well known in the performing arts. Frederick Matthias Alexander (1869-1955), a theatre actor who specialized in Shakespearian monologues, developed the technique in the course of his life due to some performing problems which stemmed from the wrong use of the self. In Alexander's particular case, his voice used to go out in performance due to unnecessary physical stress of the back and neck. So, after medical doctors couldn't find the real cause, and much less a solution to his condition, he began searching, not for answers, but for the problems. After pinpointing them, he realized that doing something about it would not help, on the contrary, it would sometimes make matters worse. So what did he do? Nothing.

Yes, nothing. If he was tensing his neck, he didn't do anything to attempt to relax it, he just thought to himself that he wanted his neck to be free. In this way he didn't do something that would trigger more unnecessary tension in other muscles so that his neck would be better, he just stopped interfering with the natural way we balance ourselves. The difference might seem meaningless, even just a semantic one, but it is huge.

So the Alexander Technique helps us achieve a better use of ourselves. A way in which body and mind blend into a whole. The difficult part is getting rid of old habits (We first make our habits, and then they make us. -John Dryden). We tend to believe that what we do is right (Everyone wants to be right, but no one stops to consider if their idea of right is right. -F. M. Alexander). Sometimes we think we're doing something we're not. We might feel we're standing straight, not realizing that our spine is bent a little to the side and our shoulders are just hanging to the front, collapsed.

Performing artists have benefited a great deal from Alexander's technique. The relation is of course obvious. The way an actor moves and speaks, and how a musician handles her instrument and produces sounds with it are a few examples. But how about in the way an artist creates an artistic piece/object? Can the Alexander Technique teach us something, about how not to interfere with ourselves for instance?

I'm not talking about the way someone sits at a desk or stands in front of a canvas. I'm talking about the creative process, about the means that bring about a result. Thought has plagued the way we conduct our lives since I-don't-know-when, and it has deprived us of an equally important part: physicality and the senses. Art has not escaped this privation. We tend to see much less of this problem in the plastic arts, since theirs is a very tangible and physical nature. Music, on the other hand, lends itself effortlessly to take the shape of thought. We don't just hear Beethoven, we sort of understand the philosophy within his works. We tend to think that Cage's indeterminate works set sounds free, allowing a more direct apprehension of them, but in reality the process of producing sounds was given the freedoms, not so much the sounds themselves. Thought has controlled a great deal of western music in recent centuries: counterpoint, sonata form, Beethoven, Wagner, (almost all Germans?), serialism, all the neo-musics, etc.

Of course we have some very fortunate exceptions: Mozart, Schubert, Chopin, Debussy, Stravinsky, Varèse, Scelsi, Xenakis, Ligeti, Feldman, Estrada... just to name some of the most remarkable ones. Mozart's physicality has had to suffer Beethoven's existential phylosophy. But of course, not everything in thought-propelled composers is just that. For instance, the way the aforementioned Beethoven goes to the depths of the piano and brings about an incredible resonance that blurs harmony and rhythm is just astounding.

But I shall not digress. Physicality, sound, movement. Three basics of music that are surprisingly not very acknowledged. I won't say that music is intangible, but since its tangibility lies in another field of apprehension it is somewhat more difficult to experience in those terms, hence its propensity to imitate linguistic and thought structures. But you won't be able to get near Mozart or Scelsi if you only look for harmonic progressions and eastern philosophies respectively. Here, sound and its movement go far beyond a symbolic arrangement.

Taking as a basis the union of mind and body in ourselves, we can consider the union of sound and movement in music. So, in these terms, what can the Alexander Technique bring to music? Or better: how can music be transformed by the Alexander Technique? By metaphor. Matthias Alexander developed his technique for purposes other than music creation. But he teaches us that the means are more important than the end itself (It is the means that determine the end. -H. E. Fosdick). Now of course we begin to think about our means of music-making. What habits do we have? Are they necessarily right or are they there because, well, they've always been there? Are we trying to reach something, just as Beethoven in his ninth symphony, just as most chord progressions? Are we trying to say something, therefore arranging sound in a way that its relations, not its qualities, finally give some meaning?

Now, besides addressing our means of music-making, we shall explore further into the means of the music itself. Is the music trying to get somewhere? Is it just a way to go from point A to point B? Is our music literally constipated from all the tension and frustration of not having a compelling musical equivalent to language anymore?

What is there between points A and B? Sound. And what is that? Air pressure, yes, but how do I perceive it? As matter in motion, or better, as evolving matter (read matter here as physical substance). Am I listening to the sounds themselves or to the intervals between them? The questionnaire can go on, and the further it goes, the more the music will change.

Am I advocating for a purely physical music? No. Thought is very important, and art has always shown that. But when its physical counterpart is forced to submit to it, the results rarely achieve artistic status. Do we have here then, with the Alexander Technique, the origins of a new style, or even better, as some scholars would like to say, a new compositional technique? No, no, no. It's just the attitude. And attitude is what we finally listen to in music.

(All quotes taken from How you stand, how you move, how you live: Learning the Alexander Technique by Missy Vineyard. Very good book with very good quotes in it.)

Thursday, February 12, 2009

On knowledge and technique

"Who will dominate dominance, and what's left of the individual when he becomes the object of knowledge and technique?"
-André Comte-Sponville.

Although originally a question on medicine, a good one for composers.

Wednesday, February 4, 2009

Geography in music

The time-space duality is not only of vital importance in music, but it presents a different relation to that of extra-musical everyday experience. Basically, the sensation of space is also manifested in a temporal way in music. The analogy between a visual and a musical work resides in a fascinating translation where the spacial dimension is temporalized. And even though this is a very rich topic, I would like to deal with a derived and more specific one: musical geography.

It's common (perhaps too common and too ordinary) to link music with cultural aspects like society. And why not, since music is part of culture. But when culture feeds only on itself, it starts to smell funny. Reason enough not to be surprised when talking or thinking about certain music of how we rely not only on extra-musical terminology, but on extra-cultural references. Albert Einstein used to say that Mozart's music resembles the universe. On the other hand, Beethoven's music is perhaps too cultural and self-referent sometimes.

Then, if culture isn't everything, what more is there capable of permeating creative thinking and, therefore, artistic work? Geography and its peculiar phenomena. And here our conceptual world hopelessly collapses. No more self-references, no more abstractions, but simple perception of things and events. Of course, it's difficult to have geography without culture, it's difficult to have anything without it. But a culture that looses its grip from its environment begins to agonize, and eventually might die, unless it can transform itself and reestablish its links.

So what has happened with music? Precisely that, it has dissociated itself. Music has been theorized, finding refuge in the academic world. There they heroically safeguard how music is made, but not music itself.

But going back to geography, I remember one time I was able to understand this more clearly. In a road trip from middle to north Mexico a gradual change of the surroundings was made evident, which respectively went from complex and plentiful, to expansive and open. When the trip started, proximity between elements (crooked trees, weeds and plants, rocks, etc.) made the landscape contrasting and saturated. All this, along with the suspended fog that envelops everything around sunrise, generates a saturated and quickly-changing sensorial experience.

But the environment started to open up. The further north I went, space between elements began to widen, vegetation homogenized, the sky was clearer, and changes in general became slow and subtle. This great openness fostered a different perception, focused on the austerity of the landscape. But the quantitative simplicity of elements gave rise to a qualitative perception that resides within things. The open space revealed a subtle complexity of properties, not of relations. The slightly changing tones of vegetation, the reliefs of the land, the constitutive characteristics of hills and mountains. All this translating into long textured landscape moments of a rich plastic aesthetic. These are my familiar surroundings.