Thursday, April 9, 2020

Giving Form…




Today I gave another one of these on-line “is it a lesson or what is it?” things.  I don’t mean to be flip about it, it’s just that it’s weird.  And I think the best thing is to just let it be what it is.  I don’t know.  But I try my best with it.  Anyway…

The emphasis would seem to be how to convey to a student a means to carry on by themselves under these conditions.  Being in isolation during a pandemic forces things.  And we feel a tension around how to be a musician when there are no gigs, no way to play with someone else.  No way to interact except through artificial means.  These means help, no doubt, to be able to speak to someone or write down your feelings for someone to read or share some music.  My sister is a writer living in Italy and she sent a short video from her rooftop greenhouse overlooking the small village she lives in.  She wrote “And yet today, for the first time in weeks, the church bells rang.”  Just a thirty second video and it was painfully gorgeous.

During the lesson we spoke about interaction as an aspect of improvisation.  It’s essential.  And right now we feel an absence of interaction.  That goes straight to the core of what the act of music is.  And suddenly it seems we can’t do what we do.  A big part seems missing.  How long will this take?  How long can I distract myself?  What will things be like once we begin to move a little?  Will it be the same?

And if you or someone you know or have heard about is not feeling well, perhaps are ill.  Or perhaps has passed.  How does this change your feelings about what you do?  Do we even talk about music under these conditions?

This morning I was reading book by Dainin Katagiri called “Returning to Silence”.  There was this phrase that jumped off the page…

“Form is the total functioning of all beings.”

He’s speaking of form as phenomena.  All phenomena, any and all things.  We speak about form in music in several ways.  The form of a composition or improvisation.  How to form a sound.  The form your instrument takes.  Usually we think of it analytically, after the fact.  As in form and analysis.  But he’s conveying that form is action.  And not in an abstract sense, but in the very real sense of all beings.  Meaning…all beings.  You, me, your friend, the person you love and the person you hate.  The person you know exists and the person you don’t know exists.  It doesn’t exclude anyone or anything.  It’s form as in what you yourself are doing.  Right now.  At any time.  This moment, completely personal and known only to you, is the precise and perfect result of everything that has happened, everywhere.

This may sound philosophical but the next time you pick up your instrument appreciate that your instrument is perfect.  It responds perfectly to what you put into it.  This is not an opportunity to complain about your reeds or the fact that the horn is leaking.  It’s still perfect.  It’s telling you what to do.  It’s telling you how to respond.  This is interaction.  So who or what are you interacting with?

“Form is the total functioning of all beings.”

Where do we draw the lines around this?  Or do we?  This is not an idea, unless that’s all you make out of it.  I can find no place to draw a line of separation.  And yet I realize that playing the saxophone is one thing.  Cooking dinner is another.  Working at the computer yet another.  They are all form.  And they are all ephemeral.   Just as ephemeral as music.  Here one moment, gone the next.  But not gone really, just moving.  Always changing.  No boundaries.  Inhalation, exhalation.  Upbeat, downbeat.

So in those difficult moments I might ask myself…

How stubborn do you want to be about how you normally think this works?

Reality will force the issue.  But does it always require hardship to appreciate?

So when I’m alone in my room playing the saxophone.  No other tools, just the room and the chair I’m sitting on.  The sound coming from the horn, vibrating my body, the air, the walls.  Completely alone.  Pure interaction.

“Form is the total functioning of all beings.”

You might also ask yourself what a being is.


Yesterday I went out on my bike in the early evening, through the streets, mostly empty.  I could ride slowly and take in the city, right through the heart of deserted times square, lonely but never alone…

Our hearts go out to each and everyone, particularly when facing the loss of life.


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