The Gestalt Musical Experience (Something to Say Pt. V)

In the early days of psychology, two opposing views of the world emerged, gestaltism and structuralism. Structuralists theorized that we perceive things in pieces that come together to form a whole. Gestalt thinkers believed (and many still believe) that a complete object is perceived different than its parts. Some Gestalt psychologists were able to prove that the brain indeed processed an entire event in a way that superseded its parts through optical illusions. To put it differently, one can create something that transcends its parts.

Musicians have been long fascinated with the transcendental experience. Stemming from a religious tradition, classical music has its roots in a yearning for something greater than a group of choir boys and later horse hair over gut strings. But even at a more fundamental level, the brain processes music as a Gestalt experience. How does the brain know that the steps of a scale go together? There are infinite notes between each half step, yet the mind only chooses certain frequency distances to qualify as a step. Something smaller sounds like the same note detuned, and something larger sounds like what we call a leap. How does the brain decide to process notes sounding together as chords and the simultaneous movements between chords as a such thing as “progression?” How can music sound like it is going anywhere at all without the aural illusion of movement from one place to another? We take these premises as granted, and we excel in playing different scales and forming harmonic progress through which the brain can create something much more than the independent notes played.

A composer does so much more than manipulate pitch for the transcendental experience. Music flows through time, and the composer uses rhythm and meter to create different expectations or groupings for the mind that give complexity and flow to the music. Different combinations of instruments and tone colors create illusions of continuity or freshness. Many modern composers focus on gestural writing, by which a mixture of rhythms, pitch events, and instruments are fashioned to create one sonic idea with its own character and nuance (which is then developed in transformations).

What happens if a composer decides to extend this idea to styles? Popular musicians like to explore fusion genres such as trip hop, bossa nova, country rap, gypsy punk, and reggaeton. The combination of two former genres comes together in a new sound, audibly influenced yet independent from its parts. Concert music composers have a history of fusing styles together to either be part of a new sound, make something fresh, or to invoke the mystery of a culture they did not understand (whether they cared to understand might be a different story…). However, with the influence of postmodernim, mixing many cultural styles together to create their work of art, including those of popular music, is normative and well-accepted today. Countless compositions in the 20th century bring in a dosage of jazz harmony and rhythms into their music, and quite a few current composers are mixing elements of EDM and metal into their sound. Others reach to the past, reinterpreting principles from Medieval music or reach across the world to other music cultures, such as India’s raga tradition or Balinese gamelan and even write for the instruments of that culture (and again, the subject of cultural sensitivity is a different topic). The combinations and possibilities are endless.

The results of sonic combinations, mixed with their cultural implications, create a rich tapestry of meaning and freshness to contemporary music. And living composers have the opportunity to develop a contemporary voice with the sounds that inhabit the present as well as connect to the age-old tradition. Rather than have many mangled medleys or exotic stereotypes, we have aural alloys that speak to the increasing global interactions we have as we come to understand and have an intercultural dialogue. Those of diverse cultures can and do blend their traditions with the ever-loosely defined Western music tradition that seems to accept more and more cultural variety in its reach. Perhaps we will arrive at a point where we acknowledge that while much of the influence of concert music comes from a Western tradition it ultimately transcends its past. But we have much learning to do of the cultures around us before we can confidently accept this task. Until then, we joyfully take the best we see to make something powerful and interesting.

Guilty by Association (Something to Say, Pt. IV)

A big topic in recent music inquiry is that of cultural appropriation. The viewpoint is that when a composer borrows musical elements that do not belong to their culture, especially when displaying them as exotic, then the result is a sort of cultural imperialism. The classical tradition has taken music from its original context and taken advantage of its merits, in a way deeming it subservient to some Austro-Germanic heritage we keep perpetuating. The claims of this argument perhaps have merit when we look at infamous examples such as Paul Simon’s use of African musicians who were basically paid nickels of the millions of dollars earned on his record Graceland. But to condemn musical borrowing is to condemn most if not all traditions in music, for it is the great melting pot and dialogue of world culture. It is very possible to assert that most music traditions of today were influenced by other cultures and that many explicitly borrowed from others, whether it be violins in India, timpani in Western Europe, African drumming styles in Steve Reich’s music, didgeridoos in electronic music, and so on. The issue becomes much more complex when we realize that the bagpipe is not only a Scottish instrument, the harp not only of the Irish, and the fiddle the “national” sound of many countries of Europe and the United States. Then we find that music in Latin America often includes at least three influences in all its music: European music, African music, and pre-Columbian music (in that order). And to ignore that fact that most popular music styles today take elements of folk, jazz, blues, R&B, and so forth (which have been blending, mixing, and matching throughout the last century) is untenable. We would especially have to condemn hip hop and its offshoots for taking and remixing actual samples of music, including some from classical music in addition to early jazz and contemporary artists. Some say that everything is a remix, and this means that everything is so-called cultural appropriation.

Nevertheless, for the conscious composer, borrowing of any nature carries associative baggage, for better or for worse. When a listener hears a melody or rhythm from another artist, style, or tradition, their mind will conjure up some image (be it aural, visual, or a Wikipedia entry on the topic) that paints their perception. For example, every augmented second emphasized in a piece will conjure up some association, which might be Spanish, or Jewish, or Egyptian, or Middle-Eastern, or Eastern European or… (you get the point). Pentatonic-based music makes for an even wider catch of associations, with the most subtle nuances moving one’s mind from China to Bali to Native American to Morocco (the Peer Gynt Suite’s “Morning Mood” is about Morocco!). A composer with a courageous ear—having heard the world over (popular, classical, world, experimental, etc.)—will know the connotations of their music and be sensitive to how they either jump all in or keep cultural shading subtle. With great talent, the fusion of disparate musical elements creates a synthesis that further empowers the virtues of the individual styles in a whole that transcends the parts. While the idea of cultural appropriation might be taboo (and I am all for respecting cultures that are not my own and have quite a bit of experience with wonderful friends from around the world and from very different circumstances than mine), I happily express my guilt by association. I steal (or have stolen) from the following (with subtlety or overtly): Stravinsky, rock, prog. rock, some Classical aesthetics, some Romantic aesthetics, jazz, Debussy, electronic pop music, new wave, Medieval and Renaissance motets, Berio, Latin dance musics (including African drumming patterns), Tom-and-Jerry type music, church hymn music, Kodaly, Mongolian folk music, minimalism (only a little bit), every teacher I have studied with, experimental trends, Haydn (especially in wit and silence), and so on. May we all continue a fruitful musical dialogue built on the shoulders of the rich cultural associations across the globe.

Culture and Music-Making (Something to Say Pt. III)

Music-making throughout history was almost always associated with social or religious events. Music accompanied private parties, dances, public celebrations, story-telling entertainment, processions, masses, devotional events, and so forth. In the Western tradition, the music we chart out as the "classical" tradition, is rooted in the Christian polyphonic style, which emerged from music intended for the mass and other religious ceremonies and rites. Rather than include congregational singing, specialized choirs participated in these ceremonies and very quickly took on the virtuosic challenges of their composer contemporaries. This style branched out to a secular strain of "classical" music, most often heard within the courts of kings and lords. We must not forget that during this time, traveling musicians presented a more folk-like tradition of music. Surely hundreds of thousands of songs were also not recorded in these times when notation had yet to reach its current state.

With the formation of opera, music attained a new role in coordination with theater. While sacred music dramas existed earlier, opera swept quickly across Europe as a predominant strain of music. To accompany this spectacle, large groups of musicians were often hired, being the foundation for the modern orchestra (coming from the Greek word for the space reserved for musicians in ancient Greek dramas). Churches and kingly courts took up the orchestra, and between the opera hall, church, and courts, much of the so-called "masterpieces" of music were formed during the Baroque and Classical periods.

Nevertheless, a strange shift occurred as the orchestra approached the stage. At some point, orchestral music took a life of its own, becoming the highlight of the stage itself. Also, as printing costs reduced considerably with the printing press, a strain of amateur music-making began that opened up a new possibility for music to be a private experience, as it was for the king. While the latter likely remained a familial or friend-centered social experience at this time, the orchestra in isolation on the stage became a peculiar situation. Music was not accompanying an event; it was the event. Western music started to develop its own culture and following, creating its own rules and expectations. This trend developed incredibly with the freelance work of composers such as Beethoven, who placed music itself as the powerhouse of meaningful experience.

The market for this "music for music's sake" launched the careers of the most-celebrated Romantic-era composer/performers. Liszt and Paganini in particular took their skills, booked concerts, and created a musical experience for their audiences. Orchestras popped up in the main music centers of Europe, and many other cities followed suit to keep up. These cultural roots still bear hold in places such as Berlin, where music of this tradition (including the 21st-century strains of it) are constantly performed.

Then came the 20th century with its innovations. By this point, some orchestras included around 100 members to tackle Wagner and Stravinsky, and small ensemble music, including a strong tradition of art song and piano music, was commonplace. But the invention of sound recording created another dramatic turn for the musical experience. The recording enabled the listener to have a completely private experience as a listener, detached from both the social and performance aspect of the art form. The cultural context of the concert hall or of amateur music-making provided a social setting for the musical experience, but listening to a gramophone recording provided a unique experience. At first, people who could not afford to attend the real concert dressed up to attend a gramophone concert, sitting in front of this piece of technology as it played a distorted version of the real experience. But technological advances allowed for mass reproduction and gave each person their own little orchestra (and later on their own Louis Armstrong or Elvis Presley). The radio then could transmit this same experience across the nation, providing a private experience extrapolated from a public event happening elsewhere or as abstracted studio recording event. At some point, stores and restaurants began playing music, cars could catch radio signals, audio devices became really small and portable, and music's cultural context became not only for a special event but for every second of every day, even if not willed.

With the changed and minimized cultural context of music, it becomes difficult to ascertain the music concert's value. Why should someone go to a concert hall if they can hear the music at their home, with a seemingly perfect recording? One method concert music organizers have used is a museum approach. They will perform the classic (so-called) masterpieces from 100-400 years ago so as to culture their audience. This post-modernistic approach to music-making is one of the most bizarre cultural experiences we have. We go to a concert hall to listen to something written hundreds of years ago, intended for a specific audience who lived in a very specific time and place with its own cultural implications, and we attempt to somehow pretend that the orchestral experience is innovative and up-to-date with society (is this considered part of the taboo cultural appropriation of today?).

Sure, the museum approach is a great way to celebrate our heritage, but it seems to be a music experience isolated from the outside cultural reality. Thousands of good composers live today across the globe, and they write music that ranges from accessible to complex, all being highly intellectual and emotionally powerful (I am talking about the "good" composers, however you may define it). These are people who live in our society today and write music within the fabric of our culture. Folk traditions influenced classical composers throughout the history of our tradition; what do we miss when we exclude music that is influenced by jazz, rock, electronic, pop, hip hop, or even rap music from our concerts? And what of the contributions of non-Western musical elements to this tradition? Excellent composers have incorporated these stylistic features in highly nuanced ways that both continue the classical tradition while maintaining a cultural relevance today. Orchestral programmers know that the current film and video game concert series are among their best ticket-sellers, so why not trust that carefully chosen contemporary composer concerts, that comprise even half of a concert series, would gain new, young, and vibrant audience? Yes, I believe that music can be enjoyed for its own merit, but if we isolate it from its cultural context, we lose a great deal of meaning. 

On Universals (Something to Say Pt. II)

As I mentioned in the previous post, the first rule of academic writing is to avoid superlatives at all costs. "Always" and "never" are almost always asking to be rebutted and almost never help an argument. This especially rings true in music. Sounds are intangible, and we as listeners largely perceive music based on prior experience and learning. Some ethnomusicologists assert that it is almost impossible to understand the music of a different culture because the preconceived notions we carry with us permanently taint our perspectives. Each person will comprehend and enjoy music of any style and variety based on their upbringing (and surely some of that nature that accounts for individual personality differences).

Despite this strong argument, I cannot help but point to certain universals that underpin any sonic experience. These, in and of themselves, are not emotional, but they do have potential to "play with the heartstrings." In fact, some composers treat the compositional process like a game or a riddle to solve, and many musicologists would point to Beethoven as one of these in how he treated musical form. The primary universal (and the only one I feel confident about) is that there is an opposition in all things. The most basic sonic opposition is between sound and silence. Composers must deal with this question, and different cultures take it in different ways. Balinese Gamelan avoids silence during the performance due to traditional beliefs, and Western music emphasizes silence. Indian Carnatic music abolishes silence altogether with a continuous drone that sounds before the first audience members enter the room. While each culture treats silence differently, there is, at the very least, the potential for this opposition to become a factor in the music.

Carnatic music demonstrates the essential opposition between stasis and activity. Our brains are designed to give attention to the most active parts of our surroundings. Hopefully, the music at a concert performance takes this active role the moment the baton falls. Yet, after some time, some aspects of the music take on a passive role due to sameness. Composers and performers, in response to this natural phenomenon, must ensure that their music contains enough variety to sustain interest. Every variation to the music arises out of opposition to something else. High or low, loud or soft, fast or slow, clarinet or violin, muted or overblown, consonant or dissonant, major or minor (or whole-tone or octatonic), choppy or sustained, groovy or floating: these are some of the tools musicians work with. This game of oppositions becomes as simple or as complex as the musician desires it to be, and each culture deals with opposition in its unique ways.

Nevertheless, a caveat exists in this game. When is there too much variety? The brain can only process so much information before the music becomes incomprehensible. Novice composers may vary their music to the point that the variation becomes sameness (and thus static and boring). A good friend pointed out that perhaps the key to writing music is establishing a sense of consistency and tactfully working to build in musical surprises. I believe in this principle as well, and I also believe that the more familiarity one has with a style of music, the more attuned one is to the subtle surprises at play. For example, a Western musician may have great difficulty hearing the difference between common scales in the Middle East because of the melodic limitations of a twelve-note collection. Also, people from non-Western cultures may not find much satisfaction in Western music's harmonic flow because their primary musical style sustains interest in other ways. Repeated, active listening attunes the ear to some of these differences.

To me, an understanding of how opposing forces interact in music is essential for anyone who engages in music as a musician or listener, even if at a subconscious level. It easily maps onto the human experience, in which each of us deals with variety and sameness (the brain is wired this way). So, from this angle, can someone enjoy music, despite its origin and their understanding? Definitely. Will some education help them enjoy it more? Surely. Will a product of one's immediate culture have the greatest impact? Perhaps. But they can certainly enjoy other styles too.

Something to Say (and not saying it)

Artists often cycle through phases of writer's block, where they feel like nothing moves from mind to ink to paper. This debilitating sentiment may extend for days or weeks (or longer for some poor souls). This is not necessarily the case for the large gap in blog posts and the recent struggles I have dealt with in recent music-making. Equally paralyzing are the almost infinite directions to take artistic vision. In my case, two roadblocks are associated with this issue. First, in the case of my blog posts, I forget to record my thoughts and they never seem to resurface. A good artist captures sparks of inspiration before smoldering into ash. Many musicians carry around a small staff pad or notebook for this reason or record musical ideas on their phone at whim. Second, I deal with the underlying, elevating, yet terrifying question is: "Why am I doing this and for what purpose does it serve?" I have already written on this concept before (from different angles), but it never ceases to bother me.

It seems that the majority of musicians believe that music's strength lies in that it communicates a message that is unique to each listener. Because music is inherently abstract, a listener engages with the art form through personal experience, learning, and culture. These influences pervade perception so deeply that, at times, a listener is shocked to discover how different one person's taste may be when compared to another's. As disparate parts of the globe meld into a global community, listeners experience parts of a rich and diverse tapestry densely woven of long histories and traditions. Without understanding these complex cultural currents, most listeners enter into the music with their own preconceptions. Can jazz be understood by Russians? Can raga be understood by Colombians? Can polka be understood by the Chinese? It appears that unfamiliar styles are appreciated and sometimes even loved by people, regardless of background! But does a lack of understanding the context weaken their musical experience? Or is there a greater message that they are missing because they do not know why the music exists in the first place?

I have something to say, but I am not saying it... yet (or perhaps it will, in the end, be closer to John Cage's determination to have nothing to say and to say it). To follow my own advice to record my thoughts, I may or may not write on the following topics over the next few months: 1.) Are there universals in music?, 2.) How does culture play a role in the formation of music?, 3.) How do composers deal with cultural associations, in both the Western tradition and in other popular/foreign musics?, 4.) How does a composer use music in a way that transcends the sounds themselves in a world where cultural associations are so varied and independently construed?, 5.) Why do I write music and what purpose does it serve for others? My thoughts will not be definitive, and I look forward to any dialogue that may come of them!

Pacing Pt. II

I briefly wrote about the importance of pacing a few weeks ago. Here are some additional thoughts as I write my work Disconnect for saxophonist Chi Him Chik and percussionist Derek Frank with live electronics.

Writing a piece that includes both performers (who read notated music) and electronics (that do not fit nicely into our notation conventions) creates a unique challenge for perfect pacing. The way we notate music to fit into time is through strict rhythmic divisions within a meter. The notation system normally divides notes into halves (whole, half, quarter, eighth), but we can mark different divisions of notes in relationship to larger beats. For example, we can divide a quarter into 7 sixteenths by putting a 7 and a bracket over them. These all are to fit into a meter, which implies an emphasis (downbeat) and basic rhythmic framework (this is a simplification). Yet many natural sounding rhythms cannot be notated with precision because of our method. Some composers have invented ways to achieve more fluid rhythms, but they often cause great confusion for the standard performer.

Electronics, while they may be synced to one of these meters, are much more easily thought of in absolute time (minutes and seconds). With modern Digital Audio Workstations (DAWs), I can line up different sound files at just the right millisecond. I realized in this project that the best method for my piece was to work in absolute time and then place the live performers within that frame rather than deal with the electronics in a metric framework. To pace the performers within the ammetrical sound world, I first juxtapose standard meter in their music against the electronics, calculating about how many beats of rest are needed between entrances. For longer waits, I have a foot pedal attached to a computer to trigger the next major electronics entrance or shift.

As my piece progresses, however, I take the sax and percussion music away from strict meter. The first thing to go is the meter itself. The standard rhythmic configurations will exist, but without the meter, it implies that there is room for rhythmic flexibility. Then, I introduce reactionary gestures, which are sets of notes that will be triggered by something in the electronics or from the other performer. Soon after, I introduce imitation gestures, where instead of notation, the performers imitate something they hear from the other performer or in the electronics. Later, I give free improvisation with a contour, drawing lines that squiggle through their music to tell the performer only pitch content with a note on the general feeling of the line. And finally, they are given completely free improvisation within certain time frames, with expressive prompts for inspiration. As the structure of the notation loosens and leads into free improvisation, the musicians align themselves more with the spontaneity of the electronic music. As the piece progresses, I have less exact control over the pacing because of the loss of meter and exact rhythms; however, I place trust in the performers' developed musical senses and the implications from my electronics to make this a successful piece.

More on pacing later! This work Disconnect will be premiered at the Exchange of Midwestern Collegiate Composers (EMCC) on April 7th at the University of Iowa (Iowa City) at 7:30. See the performance page for directions (more details will be posted soon)!

The Language Metaphor

Common for both musicians and perhaps the public-at-large is to remark that music is the universal language. If that is the case, then it communicates poorly! An effective language conveys specific meaning that both parties understand while music plays with emotional/spiritual feelings that in only the rarest instances are shared by all listeners and performers (and composers). Of course, language may be fashioned to focus on its linguistic and musical nature as in poetry, which is a fascinating art in that it conveys literal and additional meanings, but music seems hard-pressed to cross its boundaries (tone poems often miserably attempt to do so). When John Cage said, "I have nothing to say, and I'm saying it," I do not believe that he was trying to blot out the fact that music engages others but that music very rarely (if ever) can say something, something the composer grappled with throughout his long career.

The metaphor does work, however, in some cases. While communication is not as precise as language, feelings come in a way that may exceed language's ability. But the musical information, like in language, is comprehended to the extent that certain patterns are followed. To understand something, I will need pauses to capture everything. I may need context, including an ear attuned to different dialects. I need a way to structure the information I receive. I need patterns. Many composers use small combinations of pitches, rhythms, or other ear-catching devices to create their own "language." Mostly fitting under the term "motif," a small bit of musical information can be comprehended and then expanded on throughout a piece. Popular music may use melodies that hook a listener in, but even more prevalent for comprehension is the underlying groove, which becomes the structural foundation upon which the rest of the music is built. Other music (lots of other music) may defy both of these methods. But just like in language, comprehensibility comes from there being certain principles that guide the listener from the beginning to the end (without being boring because we all have experienced conversations where our interest wanes...). Of course, some music seeks to border incomprehensibility, but the majority of pieces throughout all genres and all time seek to give us a comprehensible message, even if we can't decide on what it is.

Pacing Pt. I

One of the trickiest aspects of writing music is pacing. Good pacing happens when the sounds do the perfect thing at the perfect moment. Because musicians often practice and perfect minute details of surface rhythms, melodies, harmony, motifs, and so on, they must be careful to not overlook the big picture events. I struggle with this as well in my composing--after finessing ten seconds of music for over an hour, I tend to view everything at a microscopic level. But when I take a day to step back and precisely place the sounds where they need to be, it is magical.

I'll be back with my thoughts and methods in pacing my music another day, but today I want to simply reflect on good pacing. Great orchestration is often the result of pacing. Maurice Ravel and Claude Debussy, both excellent and visionary orchestrators, knew the right time to bring an instrument in or take an instrument out. They also knew how to bring a new sound in or out: Should the performer play suddenly or should they softly enter in from the texture? And they knew which sound should come in or drop out at the perfect time: I recall in particular the celestial violin note in La mer that backs the last iteration of the melody before the the exhilarating lunge to the finish. It is the right sound that enters the right way at the right time. The good performer will take the opportunity and run with it, and the good composer will not miss an opportunity to make as many of these special moments as possible.

More thoughts on this later, but if you're in the Phoenix area, be sure to come hear Julia Lougheed's concert that includes my piece Stone in Hand, performed by her, Charlotte Ethington, and Andrew Lineweaver!

Writing Notes

When writers have an idea, they jot their thoughts down in a notebook or in a Word document. From those first words, they formulate sentences, paragraphs, and eventually articles and books, some spanning hundreds of pages with millions of words. When music composers have an idea, they write some type of pattern of notes or rhythms on a paper. Or scribble some weird shape or texture that only they understand... or rush to a private place to record themselves singing some type of disjunct squeals (in the mind they are violins!)... They soon  find the nearest piano, only to realize that their idea is a lot more complicated than they anticipated. The rhythm is somewhere between a quintuplet and a sextuplet and the imagined colors seem impossible to render with an orchestra, let alone a woodwind trio or piano. Instead of writing in a well-understood language, composers must translate expansive ideas into something that their performer will understand and interpret well. 

Why is communicating with music notation so much harder than writing in a language? While words have a specific, distinguishable, and clear-ish meaning, the palette of existent sounds in the universe is endless (in fact, all words in every language are simply a subset of possible sounds). Music notation focuses on pitch, rhythm, and meter, and with less clarity it includes abbreviations and symbols for dynamics, articulation, and phrasing. While helpful, information is lost in the process of notation. There are twelve notes to somehow represent every frequency between a given pitch and double its frequency. Rhythms are only divisible by two and must be written as a tuplet to be more specific (except for the first subdivision in compound time, which happens to trip performers up constantly). Dynamics are represented by only 6 reasonable levels (pp-ff). And articulations are often entirely dependent on context and are to be interpreted from a combination of dots, lines, carrots, and curves above notes.

There are creative ways to expand the ability of the music notation, but performers will attest that even with these basic limitations, it is challenging to render a sophisticated piece of music well! Unlike the languages we speak that use a limited number of sounds and largely ignore pitch (at least for denotation), music may involve any possible combination of pitches and rhythms in each short gesture, which results in millions of possible combinations when only using a few notes (which is why performers are often hidden in practice rooms for several hours a day). In essence, notation cannot capture the nuanced nature of sound, but even in its limited capacity, the human mind must work tirelessly for years to communicate through it.

So what is the benefit of written music when so many cultures and notable people have created stunning artistry through an oral tradition? Perhaps all the stress about notes is because we forget they are indeed notes. However detailed or planned out by the composer,  notes do little more than give the performer instructions to enact, recalling information to complete the task. But how can a performer recall something in music they have never read before? The answer to this question is: Western music is also an oral tradition, as is all music (and all languages first and foremost)! Deeper than notes is the essence of the music itself, and musicians who expose themselves to a large and diverse selection of sounds will understand and accurately interpret this essence.

As our world becomes more interconnected, the expectations for musicians will increase, for Charlie Parker, Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, Sting, and the Beatles all had something to say that Mozart's style did not (and we can't ignore it!). It is the job of the composer, and always has been, to communicate what they envision in the clearest manner possible, despite the limitations of the notes. Then, with whatever intelligible scribbles are on the music stand, the performer pulls from thousands of years of culture acquired by ear and a lifetime of practice  and continues that oral tradition all musicians preserve. The reasons why composers and performers would specialize in their respective roles and not cross over is a topic for another day (and it's honestly a mystery to me), but in the end, music is much more than the notes. But I'll toil away to get them on the page anyway because, while unclear and somewhat vague, they allow performers, audiences, and me to share in the communal experience they represent--the experience we have from our cultures, life events, and perhaps from things deeper and more eternally rooted in essence than we can comprehend.

Resolutions and Rhythm

Even if, as a few cynical memes assert, the new year is an arbitrary division of time, why not take a moment to renew former efforts and plan out the future? Dividing time into chunks is hardly arbitrary; without doing so, we are forced to contemplate the eternities and its overwhelming grandeur and uncertainty (in regards to our time on Earth). To make time comprehensible to our finite minds, we have to slice and dice it. Though New Year's Day is arbitrary, it is simple to see how the passing of the sun and moon across the sky led to divisions of days (to be divided into hours and minutes) and how the repetition of larger phenomena (including length of days, change of seasons, position of stars in the sky, etc.) could divide into years (to be divided into or built from months and weeks). These divisions allow for reference points in the past from which a length of time can be measured, and they allow for projecting into the future. If divisions of time allow for projecting into the future, then why not take advantage of it and use it for planning? If still cynical about the need for these yearly resolutions, start with daily, weekly, or monthly resolutions--goal setting sessions with plans for real results. How can one plan for years if one cannot even maintain day-to-day projection? Most musicians know that playing in tempo requires consistent subdividing of the meter.

But to the disheartened, there are other ways to conceptualize time. Our Greek "logical" way of thinking supports the aforementioned time divisions because everything fits nicely into a box, but other cultures have not viewed time the same way. In other languages, including Hebrew, the tense constructions for past, present, and future are blurred to better allow for the truthfulness of time's eternal nature. Events are still identified, but they are in relation to each other and affect each other. Like a rhythm, a current event can normalize what may have seemed like a disruption in the flow of former events. In other words, while our Greek-dominated logic puts time events as absolutes, Hebrew thinking (and I assume in other cultures) sees time events as unresolved and ever-changing. This means that a mistake in the past does not leave a permanent scar if we play the corrective rhythm. Failures of years before will become the stepping stones of success in your future, if the right groove is found.

This conceptualization of time, while not useful in predicting yearly weather patterns and other repetition-based phenomena, is incredibly useful for humans who want to improve in life. We are not trapped in orbit like the moon or a satellite; we have the ability to chart our own path travel beyond the monotony of a set daily schedule.  Also unlike the moon, we are bound to be broken from our repetition, despite our choices, and understanding the inevitability of variability braces ourselves for the best and worst life has to offer.

Goal-setting and planning then gains two more dimensions (among others): risk assessment and preparation. The variables in life all present risks, so why not embrace this as a fact? Some goals will not be achieved until we are willing to take risks, but with planning, many of these risks may turn out to be smaller than previously thought. But what of other risks that may have a downfall? What about the risks that are out of our control? We prepare for the worst while striving for the best. Many residents of Miami will have hurricane shutters in storage and most Midwesterners have a basement, cellar, or evacuation route to avoid cyclones, yet they do not live in constant dread. If one is prepared to land on the beat through practice, they will not be too lost in the music to play it correctly, even if momentarily distracted.

So, the takeaways should be: 1.) Confidently plan in time chunks you can manage. 2.) Remember that the past does not permanently affect your future--unless you allow it to. 3.) The future is unpredictable, so be prepared. 4.) You might need to leave your comfort zone and take risks, but often those risks present much less danger than you anticipate, if well assessed and prepared for. Musically speaking: 1.) Subdivide. 2.) Don't dwell on a missed beat. 3.) Practice your part. 4.) Be vulnerable and make real, bold music.