Friday, February 22, 2019

Backwards / Forwards

It’s February of 2019…wow…

I guess “wow” can be applied in just about any way you want.  What’s your outlook?  How do you articulate it?

Here's a photo from 1966, taken at one of those in-between moments.  Before I knew too much...

I started this blog in 2010 in order to help clarify some things.  About process, music and doing this today, in 2019 as it currently stands.  Before that I had written articles, liner notes and done many interviews all starting around 1996.  Before that I guess I didn’t really have much to say or a platform from which to say it.  Somehow the whole internet thing seemed to coincide with a need to say in words many things that I used to think were not possible to say in words.  I recognize that need to say things as the need to speak to what you know, take a stand, define or even defend one’s turf.  That’s important.  But there is another side of that which is essential to understand.  There is no turf to defend.  Knowing, standing for, defending, let alone talking about those things is only possible because of that fact.  That’s because there are no things, there is only activity.  And that includes the activity of speaking and naming things. 

What are words?  What do they do?  They point to something, call attention to something.  They refer to something.  Refer.  What does that word mean?  The Oxford Dictionary gives this bit of information: 

Late Middle English: from Old French referer or Latin referre ‘carry back’, from re- ‘back’ + ferre ‘bring’.

To bring back.  To bring back what?  Anything, it would seem.  And the reason that works is because there is no fixed meaning with respect to words.  There are only situations which require the need for expression.  Why?  For functionality I suppose.  So we do need to agree on some baseline definitions of words.  But in order to reflect reality in any kind of way those agreed upon definitions need some flexibility in order to accommodate perspectives.  And who has perspectives?  People.  You and I. 

In spite of all this preoccupation with speech I’ve always been intuitive when it comes right down to it.  I figure out how to say things after the fact.  And the process of verbalizing seems to make the music clearer and more direct.  Then I can let it go and move on. But it’s that direct, intuitive encounter with music (or whatever you’re doing) that reveals everything, before you really know what you’re doing.  That happens even when you think you know what you’re doing.  Even the basics, the well worn prerequisites for learning your instrument are encountered by someone who doesn’t yet really know what they are dealing with.  You, me, everyone.  All the time in fact.

In my own musical practice these days I feel as if I am starting at the beginning again, with those basic fundamentals only this time I’m going backwards.  What does that even mean?  I think it means taking an even more careful look at “I don’t know.”  Learning to articulate in words what we’re doing is important.  But the trick is not to lead from that.  Better to lead from “I don’t know”.  “I don’t know” is completely wide open.  No need to think about the little that you know when there’s so much “I don’t know” in front of you, all around you.

I’m noticing this in teaching as well.  Over the years it’s gone from me thinking that I have to impart some kind of knowledge or information to realizing that it’s all about the student’s experience of encountering what they don’t know.  Acquiring the skills and knowledge they need and then letting it go.  That’s done by learning how to build a line of inquiry, meaning simply, how to ask questions. How to see what it is that’s being taken for granted. 

So what do you do with these questions once you find a good one?  Simply ask yourself the question and then respond on your instrument.  Like, "can a saxophone be ... ? (fill in the blank) Can I take the movement I see out my window and bring it into sound?  In looking at that building down the street is there any difference between that and the sound I'm making?  The more impossible the question, the better.  But it should come from a real need.  Try it.  Ask yourself a question and answer it on your instrument, without thinking anything out.  Take your time and really try and answer it.  Because it’s impossible.  Be open. Listen. Feel. The result might be subtle or it might be jarring.  Or it might not work at all or do anything whatsoever.  But it’s open.  And the response, whatever it is, good, bad, or indifferent, is definitely coming from somewhere.  You can always work with that.  Because you don’t know.  Because you’re encountering these things as they happen. If you think you know what they are, you may have missed an opportunity. 

Back in the day an upcoming musician wasn’t really told too much.  You had to get it by being there.  Listening with everything you had.  Pick it up and learn by trying, doing.  Practice, discipline and common sense all play a role.  But nothing was handed to you, you had to want it, need it.  And it was only made real by getting up on the bandstand and not knowing for sure what was going to happen.

Appreciating this anew, after all these years, seems to be very much related to the fact that I don’t seem to have much to say these days when it comes to writing about music.  It’s been almost a year since the last post! Playing music is it’s own experience, for the musician and the listener.  Teaching music is it’s own experience, for the student and for the teacher.  The deeper and richer that experience becomes, the less there seems to be to say about it.  And yet I’m not giving up on words or writing.  I just want to see it for what it is and not try and use it as a substitute for the experience of what the words refer to.  Meaning that I want to experience more directly what is happening, before things are named.  And things are named very quickly, almost immediately, in the name of understanding and knowing what we’re doing.  In fact, here is a little thought experiment…

Whatever you “think” is after the fact, after the experience.
“Awareness of thinking” also comes after the fact (the fact of thinking).
By the time a thought registers, it’s a memory, a reflection.  
That’s the speed at which this happens.  
So if I say, pay attention to the experience itself 
(meaning what you are doing), rather than thinking about it, that would imply that 
naming the experience comes after the experience that is being referred to.  
But if thinking is an activity (rather than a thing) then 
the naming of a thing comes before it’s named.  
Meaning that it happened before you were aware of it.  

So of what use is this little excursion?   For me it’s a way to let go.  We can compare it to music.  As soon as it’s there it’s gone.  It has no meaning, therefore it might mean anything.  And you can’t hold on to any of it.  Why?  Because it’s life.  Not just part of life, but life.  There are no parts of life, there is just living.  So thinking is alright.  It’s more than alright, it’s amazing.  But we have a choice of where to live.  We can live in our thoughts or we can live in our actions.  Our actions include thought.  Thought sometimes thinks that it includes actions, includes the world, includes reality.  But that’s probably just a false thought.  So what’s next?

Oh right, I was writing about language.  And the point?  Well, perhaps I’m suggesting that there would be far fewer conflicts in the world if we were able to see the mistakes in our thinking, which I suspect are often due to linguistic errors, especially around ideas like "I", "me" and "mine".  At the same time, I also notice more and more how the collective scene (people doing things together) seems evermore scattered and diffuse, due largely to the way we use our phones and computers.  Even when we’re “here” we’re not really “here”.  Social media seems to have some kind of pull on us.  And I want to point out that I cannot truly criticize this because I am just as much a part of it.  I may not like it, that’s for sure.  I don’t use a smart phone and I don’t like the intrusion when people around me bring them out.  But I’m on the computer too much at home.  It often affects my thinking in negative ways when I could very well be doing other things. That has to change.  So in addition to seeing thought for what it is I also want to be very clear about what it is I’m actually saying and why.  There is always some kind of self-interest involved.  Which is not necessarily a bad thing, but seeing it is a good thing.  Because what is it really?  Perhaps a form of ownership. 

Ask yourself what you can really own.  And then play your instrument.  

Ownership tends to lead to the need to protect or defend.  It is true that we do need to protect ourselves (and others).  There are very real threats in the world.  Most of them can be traced to a misunderstanding with respect to thought.  And it becomes entrenched.  So while we work to see it in ourselves we also need to work to see it in the larger society, the larger system.  We create it and it creates us. 

Here’s another thought experiment.  If I have something (you name it) and give it to you, do I not have it any longer?  Seems obvious.  But what might I give that does not take anything away? 

Or put another way, does my ownership of something come at someone else’s expense?  Probably so, if you look deeply enough.  But if I give it away, does that come at my own expense?  It may well feel that way.  What to do?  I have my thoughts on that but I won’t say.  You might pick up your instrument and ask.

Writing an article like this tends to evoke ideas relating to freedom, liberation, good feelings.  Thing is, that so easily becomes a “thing”.  And you know what we do with “things” in our culture.  We package and sell them!  But I think you can see that the activity of going a bit deeper, in continuing to ask more questions and assess what’s being taken for granted we’re likely to meet resistance.  In ourselves or from others.  That can be very challenging, maybe excruciating at times.  But in music, I’ve never met a challenge that did not also invite a positive action. I might not have known what that action was, how could I?  But that doesn’t mean that it can’t be done. 

One of the things I find myself saying a lot is “trust the music”.  That extends to everything really.   What does the music need right now?  What does the current situation need right now?  What do you need right now?  It’s 2019.  Wow.  Does it need more commentary?  More of anything?  We should know what we’re doing to be able to speak the truth, which is that we really do not know at all, as we speak.  And there is plenty to be done.  It’s happening right now.  We can pay attention, or not.

With all of this I’m prepared to say that this blog may have largely served it’s purpose.  Perhaps there will be something to share here or there but we’ll see.  As for practical matters, the website will continue to be updated with news of concerts and recordings.  In fact, there will be a new recording to talk about later in the year.  But the music is moving stronger than ever and I do look forward to sharing that with you sometime, somewhere, before too long.  And I trust that all of you will be moving things forward in ways that we can’t even imagine.

If any of this sparks anything, feel free to drop me an e-mail.  And I’m happy to set up music lessons anytime you’re in town (NYC) and interested. 

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