I write as a human being, in the world, with a particular known reality of what the interactions between beings are. I write from a minuscule point in an incomprehensible cluster.
Like all humans I know, I have experienced and observed complicated and gradated forms of power abuse. I understand that this is a critical part of human nature and how we experience and react to these abuses forms our collective reality.
In my own work that I do not separate from my human self, I try to balance the power vibrations, and when I observe an appetite for being myself in power over others I try as much as possible to allow this to dissipate or to settle downwards. This is a basic human struggle I find myself hoping desperately to transcend.
I’ve been a musician for as long as I can remember. Definitively from age five, one year after my first distinct memory of human power abuse, when one day a piano was rolled into the family house and my older brother was told he was going to take piano lessons. From that point I demanded that I do so also. Since then it has mostly been my own asserted desire that has kept me, continuously, a musician in practice and creation.
Numerous times other humans (teachers, family members, religious leaders) tried to persuade me to do other things. I was composing at a young age, but no one seemed interested in what I was doing. I would sit for many hours at the piano attempting patterned structures to invoke certain resonances and was often told to stop playing. My piano teacher kicked me out of her studio at age eleven because I did not want to go to competitions or to learn Mozart sonatas.
In European classical music pedagogy, one learns quickly that there are experts, humans in authority, and the complicated gradated levels of hierarchical power that ensue. One tries to achieve something concrete in this oppressive forest. In a pedagogical orchestra one is placed in the first chair and tests are held regularly to alternate who is at the highest level in a given month or so. If one is placed in the highest position, then one is quickly made aware that others are trying to undermine one’s position.
I played viola in the orchestra and I found I could not handle being in a position of power. I did not like the vibration of human responsiveness and I cowered from it. My orchestra teacher warned me I should not be a professional because it only worsened with age, that eventually the youthful joy and discovery of the music was lost after years of reproduction and patterned hierarchies.
There was an older boy who was graduating and going on to study composition. His work was taken seriously by the teacher and played by the student ensemble. I remember feeling very envious of his position.
One day as a teenager my viola professor gave to me an interval exercise to work on. I took this home and took it very seriously. I played it every day for hours, trying to comprehend the immensity of the colorations I was hearing. This was my first concrete memory of listening to clear differences in tonal interaction, i.e. the inner life of tonality, but I had no basis for what I was listening to. I simply remember discovering that there was a multiplicity of where to place my fingers and tried to settle on what sounded pleasing to me in a given moment. When I brought it back to her, excited to share, she seemed extremely frustrated with me. I didn’t understand why. A year or two later she asked me to work on a Brahms sonata together with a pianist. She scheduled for us to meet regularly and to learn the piece together. At the end of the recital she came up to me very excitedly and told me that until then she thought I was tone deaf. Only later did I understand this story.
In college I was listening to a range of music I had never listened to before. I remember being very struck by recordings of Ram Naryan, N. Rajam, and other Indian classical musicians and knowing on an elemental level that I needed to comprehend the music further. I mentioned this to various professors and the responses were all-similar; that the music was out of tune, or not sophisticated enough, or hadn’t evolved like European classical music had. This felt intuitively incorrect to me and decided to go to India to learn on my own.
I happened upon a beautiful situation in Pune at age 21, living with a dedicated sitarist Jyoti Thakar who had learned from Ram Naryan. For those seven months, I played my viola more than I ever had in a given day, the wealth of the environment was so inspiring that I wanted to comprehend as much as I could during that time.
It was made clear to me that there are many classical systems in the world, constructed and refined, evolving in complicated and subtle ways and I was just touching on a different structured reality and perceptual/philosophical history from the one in which I was raised.
I also learned that the hierarchical power structures in musical pedagogy and practice were just as present in India. There was no escaping those abuses.
When I returned to the United States after that experience, I felt freer. I had somehow confronted the filter in which I had been raised and proved it was only a filter, discovering another and my senses were opened.
I quit the conservatory, started to learn about experimental (mostly American) music, and began improvising with friends. I began to follow inspiration rather than do what I thought I should do.
Soon after that I found the kind of artistic mentors I had always desired, such as James Tenney, Michael Pisaro, and Mani Kaul. They lived music from a more sensorial, informative, inviting, and hierarchically open position. In Los Angeles I found myself in a community of musicians who created and shared together. Though full of imperfections, to me this was a kind of utopian, mindful place.
I learned that one can describe music in more direct, clear, and inviting terms. One can describe what one is listening to – acoustically, phenomenologically, perceptually, and when one reduces acoustics to elemental principles one finds connectivity to the world outside of known theoretical structures, relating more easily to that which is unfamiliar.
I began internalizing numbers as relational tonalities that could explain the dimensionality of harmonic space, the atmosphere around tones and timbres resonating together. Every point a resonating body, interacting uniquely with another. I began to hear the world differently as a result. Airplanes, generators, and musical instruments all had the potentiality as brilliant shades of spectra vibrating and moving together in space and time. I became happier and lighter as a human being.
I rejected the concept of the expert or the best; accepting only the collective atmosphere around the idea of such an individual/truth. I have always believed that competitive and dogmatic attitudes do not belong in the arts (or anywhere) and when one has an aim to be better than someone else, or when one is convinced of something being the truth over other things, one misses the vibrational complexities of the cluster, or the uniqueness of the individual points, and this is a tragedy.
When I go about learning a new tonal relationship, at first I find it can be abstract or dissonant, but once I discover its resonating properties, shadows moving into focus, dimensionality opening, I find myself in a beautiful vibrating plane of infinite points.
One of my deepest joys are the moments in which I am sharing this dimensionality with other beings. But to another’s perception and position in space, the same thing could seem flat and dull. I must accept this fact and continue with my own exploration, continue to find joy whether it is shared with others or not. This is the paradox of being human. To search for resonances with other beings, but to release any kind of control over the other, to not force one’s own perception upon the other, and at the same time, to not be persuaded away when the resonation is not there. Teacher and student do not exist in this constellation. Expertise and naivety are intertwined into various planes of reality, and no two humans perceive the same way.
Mani Kaul, having resonated with Zia Mohiuddin Dagar’s philosophy, expressed that one individual’s mistake defines their expressive and unique character, and so it is necessary that mistakes be observed with reverence and reflection rather than with immediate critique and correction.
So Dagar shared skeletal compositional frames, humming very lightly and devoid of his own expression to the one he was sharing with, so that the other might find their own self and expressive potential within the constructs of the composition.
This is how I desire to share mine, to invite another person into an experience but to never force it upon the other.
This past summer I attended a week of music organized by Antoine Beuger at the Klangraum in Düsseldorf. I was deeply struck by the atmosphere of the time structure; how it altered the humans taking part together was visceral and light. For five days the same program of music, poetry, and conversation was scheduled, but rearranged in different times of the day. How each artist chose to approach this repetition was unique, but in each case the observer, listener, and participant was able to discover a new way into experiencing the work. The focus was placed on the discovery together as a collective in one large resonant room. It was intense but joyful. The hierarchies were close to nonexistent. All participants were mingled so that the composer was the interpreter and the performer the listener and the audience the reflector, and these roles were in constant flux. Rather than the more established musicians present being interviewed (what one might refer to as the experts in this situation), Beuger turned it around to make certain everyone got an opportunity to learn something about each individual participating. It quickly became clear that respect was directed toward all humans, and the beautiful responsiveness to this open feeling was to go deeper into the music at hand. Because of the gentleness of the structure and the atmosphere, the result was expansive.
Working with tones as relatable numbers suggests a kind of aural and physical precision, as one is in constant adjustment to the resonating principles in a moment. The imperfections of instruments and tools, the changes in air density, and environmental chaos constantly shifts our clearly defined perceptual frame. Pure ratios are exactly between the unnatural and the natural world. Numbers in interaction are both conceptual and sensorial. All tones contain a pure and precise numeric overtone row, but this row is warped, stretched, altered by the worldly materiality within its pure wave vibrations.
However, when one warped/stretched string, metal, or glass is vibrating with another, together there are interacting spectralities realigning in space toward mathematical purities. Points resonating clearly together with other points may reinforce a more precise conceptual dimension. Humans can even complete the perfection in their own minds and inner aural experiences.
Music is a totality. To achieve a perfect state of listening is to dissolve all the abuses of humanity.