Thursday, September 16, 2010

Why Music?

  One of the most precious lessons I have learned about music came long before music school, or being a professional musician was even a thought in my brain.  It came from my years growing up in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, and it is all about silence. I am not talking about quiet breezes through the trees, or the crisp stillness the morning after a 4ft. snowstorm, or sitting alone on the shores of lake superior with nothing but the waves and seaguls to keep you company.  That is all well and good, (and yes, I miss it dearly), but I am talking about one moment in particular that, looking back, has shaped the way I view not only music, but the entire world around me.  So here it goes.
    I was out on one of my late night bike adventures, (literally just riding a bike with my friends all over the town until the wee hours of the morning, it is how I spent most of my summers).  I was on my way home, I think it was around 2 a.m. and I just stopped to listen.  After about 10 minutes of calming my own breath and heartbeat, I heard....nothing.  Or at least the closest thing to nothing that I have ever experienced out in the natural world.  There were no cars, no A.C. units, no planes, trains, no wind to disturb the trees.  It was like the whole world was silent.  I got off my bike and sat down right in the middle of the street and just listened.  The simple act of listening took me on an auditory adventure.  I was listening as far away as I could.  I tried listening behind me, way up above me.  I was constantly distracted by my own breath and body rhythms.  Just shifting my foot caused such a stir in the silence that I would have to wait a moment for the silence to set in again.  The longer this went on the more excited I became.  It felt like I was at the peak of a mountain that only a handful of people on the planet have ever been to.  I was in the center of nothing with nothing on the horizon a full 360 degrees around.  
  It felt an eternity but in actuality it took about 10 minutes before a glint of headlights in the distance alerted me that the end of my little  adventure in silence was about to be thwarted by a late night driver.  The car crept closer and passed quietly, I had moved into a shadow to avoid detection.  It was late and I decided to ride the wave of sounds back home.
  When I got home and laid down, I could not re-create the experience I just had.  The silence in my room felt claustrophobic, and when I really listened, I could hear the fridge running downstairs, and a slight hum from my alarm clock.  I felt trapped by these slight simple sounds.  I could not escape them.
  I can honestly say that now, almost 20 years later, I have not experienced another night quite like that one and yet, the feeling I got from it has never left me.  It is a comfort to me to know that out there amongst all the noise and ephemera of daily life, there is a huge open expanse of silence that is there, ready to embrace us all, and all we need to do is stop for a moment and listen.
  I remember a moment not long after I moved to California to go to music school.  One of my pastimes was riding my bike into the mountains.  My friend Bryn, who was an art student came with me often.  He was from Vermont and we related with each other on that small town boys in a big city kind of way.  We were neighbors in a small village about 10 miles north of the school campus. It was tucked away in a gorge within the foothills of the Sierra Nevada mountain range and had lots of great little fire roads that would wind up into the hills.  They were great for short rides to nowhere.
  So one day I took a ride up the hill behind our house. It was about a mile and a half up and when I reached the top I put my bike down and just listened.  At the time I was reading a great thinker named Krishnamurti. He had this great concept about listening in 360 degrees.  I thought that the top of a big hill would be the perfect place to practice that.  When I cooled down and closed my eyes to listen, I was constantly distracted by the sounds of the freeway.  The 405 ran north and south about 5 miles east of our village.  You could not see it, even from the top of the mountain, but you could definitely hear it.  What was even worse is that when I got back down to my house, I could still make it out.  It was now a new sound in my life that I knew would never go away.
  So the interesting part about this story is that when I told Bryn about my new discovery he did not believe me. He thought that I was crazy for being sad about having a sound that I could not escape.  He said there is no way you can hear the freeway from way back up in this gorge. We got into a bit of a heated debate and finally he made us go out to his driveway to listen.  Neither of us could hear anything.  I think now it was because we got so fired up talking about it that our own body rhythms were just enough of a distraction that we were unable to deeply listen.  2 days later I opened an e-mail from Bryn and it said something like...."Dude, I just rode up the mountain, you were right!" After giving him a big fat "I told ya' so" reply, I actually felt a little guilty for bringing the sound into Bryn's consciousness.  Ever since then I have been keenly aware of the sounds around me, and though they do not make me sad, I do long for the days of truly quiet time.

  The purity and beauty of silence is probably the highest form of music I can imagine.  You hear all the time from performing musicians that the space between the notes is the most important part, it is what gives the notes meaning.  What the experience that night on the streets of my hometown showed me was just how expansive and awe-inspiring that space can be.  As I grow as a musician, I must constantly remind myself to leave room between musical ideas.  I am starting to understand now how to let the music bring the listener into the space, and not keep them at bay with a wall of sound.
  Creating music, in my view, is one of the purest and most expressive forms of communication that humans are capable of.  The simplest definition of music is "The organization of space and time".  Isn't it funny that these are two things that we constantly tell ourselves that we have no control over?
   It is fascinating to me how little people are aware of all the sounds happening in the space around them.  I believe that all the noise is the reason why the whole concept of "background" music is so ubiquitous. The organization of the space that the music provides gives us comfort and room to think. It allows us to breath and settle in to a pre-programed rhythm, while pushing all other sounds out. At it's best, it provides an island of salvation that allows us to focus on other things, (like shopping in a mall, or elevator).
  It is precisely for this reason that background music falls short of a certain level of sophistication.  By design, it can not leave space, so it must fill in all the gaps that would otherwise pull the listener in.  Really great music gives us a way to let go of the world around us, but at the same time shows us a side of reality that most of us do not see everyday.  It quiets our mind and resonates our body, hopefully in a way that evokes the purest of joy.  From this we move, dance, and become inspired to create in a way that is truly free.
  The moment a great musical experience comes to an end is the moment you will find people most inspired to do....well, just about anything.  It is in the silence that creation is born, lives, and becomes silent again.  We get ourselves in trouble when we fail to either create, enjoy, or otherwise experience music.  The silence is always around us but we choose to fill it up with noise most of the time. This noise distracts our thoughts, muddles our emotions, and masks the realities of the world.  Music, by it's very nature, suspends our notions of time and shows us just how big the space around us is. It is our window into that which connects us all, and it has been that way since we have been on this planet.  It is the greatest gift we can give ourselves, all we need to do is listen.

2 comments:

A Wolf said...

Hi John,

Nice post. Haven't been following your blog but came across your link to this...

I've had the same experiences, including sitting down in the middle of the street listening to the silence when otherwise biking around town at 2AM. But I've had two other times where I heard the amazing silence again, once stopping randomly on a quiet highway passing through Utah, and once in the Negev desert in Israel. Unfortunately, by the last occasion I had been exposed to loud music enough (or was just old enough, or whatever the issues may be) that the faint ringing in my ears distracted me from the purity of the experience.

Incidentally, if you haven't read W.A. Mathieu's "The Listening Book" you should check it out. It's one of the few things I widely recommend to anyone and everyone and my students. He talks about these exact issues in poetic, accessible and short (as little as one page each)chapters starting with listening and eventually developing toward ways to practice and engage in music.

Cheers,
Aaron
wolftune.blogspot.com

A Wolf said...

I forgot to add the one thing that originally led me to comment:

I think deserts are the main places where the type of silence we're talking about can be reliably found. If you want to experience that again, go to any real desert and then simply be very quiet. It is powerful enough that one can understand why the various biblical figures in the ancient stories went out into the desert to escape their concerns before eventually returning and achieving whatever they later are famous for...

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