Monthly Archives: September 2016

Poet Kenneth Goldsmith introduced me to the idea of a thinkership as opposed to a readership. “My books are better thought about than read”, Goldsmith mentions in a particular interview. “The idea is much more important than the product”.

Maurice Ravel described fellow French composer Erik Satie’s influence using similar language:

“His was the inventor’s mind par excellence…Simply and ingeniously Satie pointed the way…While he himself may, perhaps, never have wrought out of his own discoveries a single complete work of art, nevertheless we have today many such works which might not have come into existence if Satie had never lived”.

Schoenberg had a similar statement about John Cage: “Of course he is not a composer but an inventor – of genius”.

Not the composer’s mind but the inventor’s mind.

I have just picked up reading The Evolution of Useful Things by Henry Petroski. Therein he explores the idea that form does not follow function but follows the potential of past forms.

As he discusses engineers, Petroski insists that those “…engaged in design are inventors who are daily looking for ways to overcome the limitations of what already works, but not quite as well as can be imagined or is hoped. Whether or not improved designs for computers, bridges, or paper clips come to be patented or incorporated into the technological landscape, they are always explorations of the possible paths along which technology can evolve”.

Invention in this case is an evolutionary approach to things we take for granted, from forks to paper clips.

Could this be the merit of Satie and Cage as inventors? Not to say that they are rungs in a ladder proceeding to perfection but have presented in their ideas “the possible paths along which [music] can evolve”. People have taken these ideas and have incorporated and expanded on them, leading to further potential pathways.

Maybe calling composers inventors is not as much an insult. Maybe it could serve as an analogy to what we do in music.


Some passages speak for themselves. Below is a wonderful excerpt from Nina Simon’s newest book, The Art of Relevancethat stuck out to me. She is discussing an artistic group called Odyssey Works, a troupe whose task is to create an expansive art piece around a single person. The particular person in the example is Kristina:

“Kristina’s Odyssey Works weekend started with something she loved: Clair de Lune by Claude Debussy. Kristina loved all things symmetrical and tonal. Throughout the day, she encountered those perfect piano notes again and again. In a classical architectural space. With her family. Each time, the music was a treat that reinforced her worldview.

Kristina started to relax. The artists who were creating this weekend for her clearly understood her world, her preferences. They weren’t judging her. They understood her. She was in a space of comfort. And so she started to let down her guard, to trust, to open up.

As Kristina’s reservations and judgments faded, the song started to shift. She started hearing different versions of Clair de Lune. Weird ones. Discordant ones. Seven hours and 500 smiles into her weekend, she got picked up at a train station by a car. During the drive that followed, she listened to a version composed just for her: an 80-minute deconstruction of the 4-minute piece. The music was a slow deterioration. It started classical and ended sounding like people chewing on string. It was beautiful noise. It was the exact opposite of what Kristina liked, and yet by that point, she found it beautiful.

Kristina’s whole experience was kind of a deconstruction of form. An unwinding of the structure that rooted her life. It went from something familiar, at the heart of what she already knew, and took her somewhere strange and new. The journey made that foreign destination relevant to her for the first time.

The experience was powerful to her. She said it pried her open. After the Odyssey Works experience, Kristina changed her life. She quit her job, broke up with her boyfriend, moved to a new town…

It was a love letter from someone she’d never met. It opened a door to a new level of engagement was life. It made new things relevant”.

“When I first met him (Debussy), he was all absorbed in Mussorgsky, was searching avidly for a path not easy to find. In this search I was far ahead of him: the prizes of Rome or other cities did not impede my progress, since I carry no such prize on my person or on my back, for I am a man of the race of Adam (of Paradise) who never carried off any prize – a lazy fellow, no doubt”.

– Erik Satie on Debussy, public lecture, 1922

My favorite part of Homer’s Odyssey is when Ulysses confronts the cyclops Polyphemus. The cyclops asks for his name. Ulysses answers back, ‘Cyclops, you asked my noble name, and I will tell it; but do you give the stranger’s gift, just as you promised. My name is Nobody. Nobody I am called by mother, father, and by all my comrades'”. After the tussle that leaves Polyphemus injured, Ulysses makes his escape. Polyphemus cries out to the other cyclopses on the island for help. What did he say?

Nobody is hurting me. Nobody is escaping. The other cyclopses ignore his plea.

The perfect set up for the perfect getaway.

Ulysses’ anonymity allows him to escape with ease. There is a freedom of mobility granted to him because he is a nobody. In that instance he was a nobody by choice.

Satie’s use of anonymity allows him to pursue musical experimentation. Unlike Debussy, Satie is unburdened by success and the responsibilities that come from it. Sure, Debussy still experimented, but all eyes and ears were gravitating towards him. Pressure was being applied.

Debussy was becoming a somebody. And Satie? Close to a nobody. That anonymity had enabled Satie to stretch without repercussions. The man of the race of Adam was tinkering around. So what?

The perfect set up for the perfect getaway.

“[Psychologist] L.S Vygotsky never forgets that language is always, and at once, both social and intellectual in function, nor does he forget for a moment the relation of intellect and affect, of how all communication, all thought, is also emotional, reflecting ‘personal needs and interests, the inclinations and impulses’ of the individual”.

“The corollary to all this is that if communication goes awry, it will affect intellectual growth, social intercourse, language development, and emotional attitudes, all at once, simultaneously and inseparably”.

 – Oliver Sacks, Seeing Voices 

These passages are referring to language in the sense of speech and sign. How about language in the sense of music?

Music, then, is a language that is always and at once social, intellectual, and emotional. To acknowledge these constituent elements is to examine music as a network. This is where the corollary comes in. What does it mean for communication to go awry in music?

Our first inclination is to think of when the delivery of music is faulty: an out of tune singer or a passage played terribly. And yet performance is but a narrow portion of communication within music.

Further in Sacks’ book, he explains that the environment that pre-lingual deaf children are raised drastically affects their ability to think and process language. It is how parents treat their child.

Sacks meets one child whose whole family learned sign along with her. There was a deliberate choice to integrate her into the family on her terms, not theirs. Subjugation did not enter their minds. It is no surprise that Sacks found her as bright and brimming with wonder.

From a Google search, one definition of ‘communication’ is “the means of connection between people or places”. The connection between deaf child and parent affects the way the child engages with (sign) language and thought. Immersing the whole family in sign is such an example.

Communication is connection.

How people within music connect to each other affects how we think and use music as a language. Breakdowns in communication become more than sloppy playing. They transform to frustrations between teacher and student and scenes that subject others to prejudice. These emotionally drain, intellectually stagnate, and socially isolate.

If we can examine how we connect with others and its relationship to the emotional, social, and intellectual, what difference in music can it make?