Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Senses all a-jumble

I was always interested in art. I used to practice, when I was a kid, drawing dollar bills. A lot of kids do that, I'm sure. Cal Schenkel was so good at it, he drew a five dollar bill one time and passed it. He bought his high school lunch with it.

I'd never seen music on paper. What I had seen had been orchestra parts they give you in high school, beginner stuff. Then I saw a score. It just looked so wonderful -- the very idea that this graphic representation, when translated into sound waves through the efforts of craftsmen would result in music. I said, Hey I gotta do this! So I got a ruler, I went out and bought some music paper, and I just started drawing. I didn't know what the fuck I was doing, but I could look at it. Then I went around looking for people who could play it, to find out what it would sound like. That's how I started out.

-- Frank Zappa, qtd. by Ben Watson

I used to be a bit of a purist when it came to sensory experience. For a long time I harbored a grudge against Western culture's preoccupation with all things visual, because I considered myself primarily an auditory guy. Not because I couldn't appreciate art that was aimed at the eyes -- except for the few years I spent living in propinquity to the oppressive shadow of Hollywood, I have always been a film nut. Rather, I thought our mania for appearances -- no matter how artfully realized -- helped explain why music in general was under-appreciated (and why music that was played by people who looked "good" was more likely to be "successful").

One of my pet peeves has always been the idea that people are more interested in the way things look, than with the way they sound. This, of course, has implications not only for aesthetics but for politics. (It was also, I thought, the primary engine driving the clique-making dynamic I so despised in high school.)

More recently, of course, I have come up against the ways in which visual aspects of a musical performance, when obviously fiddled with in one way or another, tend to trump the musical ones, even when that is not the intention of said fiddling.

I still think there is some reason for harboring a grudge, but nowadays I can admit that I'm more comfortable with the peaceful cohabitation and intermingling of the senses. Because honestly, does one really end where the other begins? When you close your eyes in order to listen to music, do you really stop "seeing"?

What if sight is just another form of hearing, just as hearing (as Evelyn Glennie has argued) is another form of touch? Isn't it all just molecules vibrating in the air, and picked up by some sort of receptor?

I have, like most of the composers I admire, always drawn a great deal of inspiration from the musicians I have worked with: as I have said, I can't write in a vacuum. Some composers are driven by visual inspiration, in that (for instance) they see colors or abstract shapes when they compose. To the (small) extent that I visualize anything when I write, it's usually a fleeting imaginative glimpse of the people I want to play the music, actually playing it.

[photo credit: fPat]

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