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Brian Eno - Composers as Gardeners
November 13, 2011 1:45 PM   Subscribe

Brian Eno - Composers as Gardeners "My topic is the shift from 'architect' to 'gardener', where 'architect' stands for 'someone who carries a full picture of the work before it is made', to 'gardener' standing for 'someone who plants seeds and waits to see exactly what will come up'. I will argue that today's composer are more frequently 'gardeners' than 'architects' and, further, that the 'composer as architect' metaphor was a transitory historical blip."

Brian Eno quoted from Edge.org issue 11.10.11
posted by ThenCameNow (40 comments total) 35 users marked this as a favorite

 
open Eno thread
posted by victors at 1:52 PM on November 13, 2011


A historical blip that created some of the best music known to mankind, whereas the current crop of "indie-classical" type composers basically write the same music over and over and over again, a post-minimal haze of repetition, texture, and style winning out over content, substance, form, structure and intelligence.
posted by ReeMonster at 1:55 PM on November 13, 2011 [7 favorites]


I think Eno's distinction isn't quite as big as it sounds. All of my composing, and this is consistent with how I was taught to compose in school, is as someone who plants seeds and waits to see exactly what will come up. It's just that that process is what results in a finished score that you then hand to the performers. Pretty much no one carries a full picture of a work before it is written down; you start with some ideas, whether they are ideas of content or ideas of form, and see where they take you. One look at Beethoven's notebooks makes that pretty clear.

Now there certainly is a difference between the role of a performer as someone whose function is to faithfully carry out the composer's intention as recorded in the score and someone who has been given more of a road map by the composer and has much more explicit freedom to shape the resulting performance. But I think the difference is more one of degree than is immediately obvious.
posted by dfan at 2:02 PM on November 13, 2011 [2 favorites]


Brian. Not brain.
posted by parki at 2:16 PM on November 13, 2011 [5 favorites]


I hadn't even noticed and now you point it out I can't stop laughing about it.
posted by marienbad at 2:18 PM on November 13, 2011 [2 favorites]


I think Eno's distinction isn't quite as big as it sounds.

It completely ignores the vast differences between performers' interpretations of a piece. A simple glance at the marked scores of two different conductors will give you a good idea of just how much is up for interpretation. It's just that the matter of how much is left to the performer changes from era to era and tradition to tradition. My favorite tempo marking comes from an old French Baroque prelude and roughly translated to "with good taste."

In truth the only composers that have complete control of their works are the ones who perform it themselves. I think that any composer that says "I LET the performers have a say," has just as many illusions of control as the composer that says "performers must play my work MY way."
posted by Gygesringtone at 2:25 PM on November 13, 2011 [1 favorite]


I'm a Brian (but not a Peter George St. John le Baptiste de la Salle) and the typo makes me mental.
posted by parki at 2:26 PM on November 13, 2011 [1 favorite]


repetition, texture, and style winning out over content, substance

When we're talking about music, I'm not convince there's any distinction to be drawn between style and substance.
posted by LogicalDash at 2:34 PM on November 13, 2011


son, i am not convince
posted by LogicalDash at 2:35 PM on November 13, 2011 [1 favorite]


Right on, ReeMonster.

Eno may be correct in observing that many (or even most) frequently performed composers of new music in the US and the UK view their work in this way, but I would ask: are these 'gardeners' creating music worth repeating?

Historically it's clear, the lasting artistic value of trends like these is rarely (if ever) proportional to their popularity at the time of inception. Music worth repeating speaks to people and culture far beyond its own time, regardless of its self-imposed limitations -- stylistic or otherwise.
posted by Dr. Fetish at 2:39 PM on November 13, 2011 [1 favorite]


Brain Eno is exactly what he is for me, so that's a serendipitous mistake.
posted by Sebmojo at 2:42 PM on November 13, 2011


whereas the current crop of "indie-classical" "blues" "rock & roll" "punk" "be-bop" ________ type composers basically write the same music over and over and over again, a post-minimal haze of repetition, texture, and style winning out over content, substance, form, structure and intelligence.

REEMONSTER HATES YOUR GENRE
posted by victors at 2:44 PM on November 13, 2011 [4 favorites]


Historically it's clear, the lasting artistic value of trends like these is rarely (if ever) proportional to their popularity at the time of inception.

This is a common thought, but historically the importance of movements (or of individual composers/artists/etc.) has generally been recognized contemporaneously. There really aren't a lot of cases of "fifty years later we realized this was just a fad" or "fifty years later we realized that we should have taken this more seriously than we did at the time".
posted by dfan at 2:44 PM on November 13, 2011


Who did all this recognition, you guys? Are you summarizing your research on historical music criticism, or what?
posted by LogicalDash at 2:47 PM on November 13, 2011


are these 'gardeners' creating music worth repeating?

Probably about the same percentage as any other comparably sized school of composers is creating or has created. 90% of everything is crap. Some might be crap that appeals to you, but that doesn't make it better than the crap that doesn't appeal to you.

That assumes there's some great standard out there, which there isn't, but it's a useful fiction to pretend there is.
posted by Gygesringtone at 3:03 PM on November 13, 2011 [5 favorites]


I'm sure there are other people who can talk intelligently about the issues that Eno talks about. For a change, I'd like to hear from them, rather than another burst of buzzword-charged spiel.
posted by The River Ivel at 3:13 PM on November 13, 2011 [1 favorite]


Who did all this recognition, you guys? Are you summarizing your research on historical music criticism, or what?

I am summarizing other people's research on historical music criticism.
posted by dfan at 3:19 PM on November 13, 2011


It's bigger than just music. When artists of any stripe are gardeners instead of architects (and it's very common), the results tend to remind me of someone playing with filters in photoshop, without direction, and declaring the random mess that comes out to be art. It might be art, but it also tends to be meaningless happenstance shit. Gardeners may be weak on vision, and architects will flop if they don't have the skill to get to the precise place they're trying to reach. I love art that has both vast skill and vision, and maybe it's confirmation bias, but usually that stuff is not produced by gardeners.
posted by -harlequin- at 3:21 PM on November 13, 2011


dfan: Now there certainly is a difference between the role of a performer as someone whose function is to faithfully carry out the composer's intention as recorded in the score and someone who has been given more of a road map by the composer and has much more explicit freedom to shape the resulting performance. But I think the difference is more one of degree than is immediately obvious.

It doesn't sound like you really disagree with Eno on that point, unless you're questioning his assertion that the change in degree is of any significant magnitude:
And another way I can translate that is to say it's a repositioning of ourselves on the control/surrender spectrum. I'll talk briefly about that, then I'll shut up. We're used to the idea, coming from the industrial and very intelligent post-Enlightenment history that we have, we're used to the idea that the great triumph of humans is their ability to control. And indeed, that must be the case, to some extent.
I think that Eno is well aware of the fact that the translation from score to finished work invariably involves a lot of interpretation, as I'm sure were the composers he cites, among them Cage and Riley. I do think that the conceptual shift from deterministic to aleatoric music is significant, because it transformed the the ultimate impossibility of complete fidelity from an uncomfortable, mostly unacknowledged truth into a liberating and celebrated one.

Anyway, I await a compelling aesthetic argument in this thread from any of the people who are gesturing vaguely at "gardener" type artists (I note that none have been named so far and no specific works have been put forward for consideration) and the supposed inferiority of their work.

Also, what "lasting artistic value" correlates to is largely the tastes of a conservative elite. I see no reason to accept the standard narrative of the lasting adoration of the great works being due to their inherent and universal artistic value, because as far as I've seen that theory has a lot less explanatory power.
posted by invitapriore at 3:39 PM on November 13, 2011


No classical composer who ever wrote a symphony had every note and dynamic marking in his head before she (or usually he) put pen to paper. That's preposterous. The sheer magnitude of a Mahler symphony says otherwise.

I believe great music can be made by 'gardening,' by rolling dice, by letting entropy work on something, by the forces of chaos and by the castle of Greyskull.

But I also believe, in my bones, that humans can create (architecturally, if you must) music, or any other kind of art, that is better than the best music chance can create.

If 'gardened' music means the end of highly trained professional musicians making popular music, then I am against it.
posted by TheRedArmy at 3:42 PM on November 13, 2011


Eno on Colbert last week. Eno sings with Stipe and Colbert.
posted by Burhanistan at 3:44 PM on November 13, 2011 [1 favorite]


But I also believe, in my bones, that humans can create (architecturally, if you must) music, or any other kind of art, that is better than the best music chance can create.


...something about monkeys and shakespeares...
posted by LogicalDash at 4:03 PM on November 13, 2011


TheRedArmy: "But I also believe, in my bones, that humans can create (architecturally, if you must) music, or any other kind of art, that is better than the best music chance can create."

It's a good thing you confine this to music, because no human artist is going to make a sculpture to match the grand canyon or a mobile to match the solar system.

Also, it should be clarified regarding Cage and his concept of the aleatory that it was opposed not only to the control of the composer but also the control of the performer. He was, more than most composers, consistently against intuition and interpretation (this is why he hated jazz).
posted by idiopath at 4:10 PM on November 13, 2011


But I also believe, in my bones, that humans can create (architecturally, if you must) music, or any other kind of art, that is better than the best music chance can create.

i'm currently engaged in basing music on generated things - not sure how much chance is involved, but certainly what i'm improvising over is not composed or even intended by me - i'm not going to get into a better or best evaluation mode, especially seeing as i've just started doing this - but what i do know is that i am coming up with things that i would not have thought of myself, that i would not have composed or improvised

that makes it an interesting thing for me to do - and it's an expansion of my music and the possibilities i find in it
posted by pyramid termite at 5:08 PM on November 13, 2011 [3 favorites]


Idiopath:Also, it should be clarified regarding Cage and his concept of the aleatory that it was opposed not only to the control of the composer but also the control of the performer.

pyramid termite: i'm currently engaged in basing music on generated things

I think what we've hit on here is a third way of looking at composers: organizers of sound.
posted by Gygesringtone at 6:01 PM on November 13, 2011


I teach music to children. In my realm, Eno's distinction is not (as some seem to be suggesting) trivial or incremental. Sometimes – rarely – I give students notes to play. Of course it never quite sounds the same from one performance to next – they're children. But the music has an objective standing to which the students never quite attain (they know this).

But I also have kids walk and pick up tempo from their paces; play instruments in invented ways; put instruments on their bodies as they move; use different sound spaces in the building, and, often, purely improvise with a limited set of tones. They take bits of stories and improvise them into something new, or they take a single gesture and compound it into music. When clusters of sound start to aggregate, I strengthen them by recording them, looping them, feeding them back to other classes, writing them in minimal form, or singing them. Then we play games with them: make fun, invert, leave a gap, etc.

All of this is utterly different than if I sat down at a staff and wrote out notes for the kids to play. It's especially different if I make every performance different, using just a few rules, as I often do. Of course I have, as the kids do, a developing notion of form in the music. But it's just a different sort of art form than the fully notated score. Eno's right on this one.
posted by argybarg at 6:27 PM on November 13, 2011 [5 favorites]


TheRedArmy: "But I also believe, in my bones, that humans can create (architecturally, if you must) music, or any other kind of art, that is better than the best music chance can create."

I think I just meant that music, like all art, benefits occasionally by revision.
posted by TheRedArmy at 6:35 PM on November 13, 2011


A historical blip that created some of the best music known to mankind, whereas the current crop of "indie-classical" type composers basically write the same music over and over and over again, a post-minimal haze of repetition, texture, and style winning out over content, substance, form, structure and intelligence.

What's the difference between texture and style on the one hand, and form and structure on the other? Isn't repetition a structure? Isn't texture a kind of substance?
posted by wwwwwhatt at 6:57 PM on November 13, 2011


gyreringstone - the commonly accepted academic definition of music is "organised sound" (coined by varése), and that is the title of one of the big music technology journals.

argybarg - I think what you are doing with your kids is less eno gardening and more the kind of improvisational music-making that has historically been dominant. Eno, for all his railing against "architect" composers, still comes out of an intellectual tradition whereby he is setting up a system and defining parameters and intentionally leaving out instinctive musical decisions and performance.

Look - we all make choices when we compose music - even deciding not to control certain elements is a choice, since if you leave an element to chance you actually have a pretty good idea what it will sound like. For instance, choosing to make music based on a C major scale scale but letting the order of pitches be randomly decided will give a specific sound - you won't all of a sudden hear an augmented or diminished tonality for example, or a functional chord progression. Generally you will experience a pan-tonal chaos with moments of directionality, but the kind of thing where it quickly becomes apparent that there is no overall goal to the music.

There are a lot of problems with Eno's argument. He is fond of a specific movement which started in the 60's, viewed itself as diametrically opposed to the establishment (although it really has more in common with the establishment than it thinks), and was influential within a fairly limited scope of the musical world. How this turns into "today's composers are more frequently 'gardeners' than 'architects' and, further, that the 'composer as architect' metaphor was a transitory historical blip" demonstrates Eno's lack of perspective on music historically and outside of one particular tradition.

Maybe what is happening is that Eno is conflating musical surrender, as to a process, and musical non-egoism. From the article - "Cooperation and surrender are actually parts of the same skill." Which, in most peoples view, is not true at all. Musical cooperation is a wonderful thing, and it isn't at all the same thing as generative composition. To piggyback on the Gnarls Barkley thread, if Cee Lo is surrendering, he is surrendering to his deeply ingrained sense of musicality, to something that Cage and Eno would reject as being too much a part of the composer.

I admit that Cage and Eno both bug me when they get all soap-boxy like this. They've both made great music but I really disagree with the whole total surrender canard for three reasons. First, it ignores the way the majority of musicians actually work, which is much more related to trusting instinct than rejecting control– in fact, I think it just shows how little Eno actually understands the way he creates music, if he thinks he really is not in control. Two, it ignores performance, which to me is the most important element of music, and which is inherently based on conscious action and musical choices on a deep level. And third, the way that Eno structures his argument reveals that he is actually working within the western art music tradition he talks so much about disliking. It really strikes me as being hypocritical.
posted by ianhattwick at 7:12 PM on November 13, 2011 [3 favorites]


A lot of the dismissive comments here against the "gardening" as opposed to the "architecture" metaphor seem to be positing an either/or opposition which Eno is not in fact presenting, and thus are constructing a straw man. It makes me wonder how thoroughly some of you have read the piece (or listened to the embedded video), and whether you're not simply just reacting to a summary rather than the piece itself.

Eno takes pains to emphasize a balance between the two metaphorical models, and to point out that there is still an element of control even in the gardener role (selecting the "seeds", for instance):

"And another way I can translate that is to say it's a repositioning of ourselves on the control/surrender spectrum.  I'll talk briefly about that, then I'll shut up.  We're used to the idea, coming from the industrial and very intelligent post-Enlightenment history that we have, we're used to the idea that the great triumph of humans is their ability to control.  And indeed, that must be the case, to some extent.

What we're not so used to is the idea that another great gift we have is the talent to surrender and to cooperate.  Cooperation and surrender are actually parts of the same skill.  To be able to surrender is to be able to know when to stop trying to control.  And to know when to go with things, to be taken along by them.  And that's a skill that we actually have to start relearning.  Our hubris about our success in terms of being controllers has made us overlook that side of our abilities.  So we're so used to dignifying controllers that we forget to dignify surrenderers."


After talking briefly about methods of seeking out surrendering experiences - religion, sex, art, drugs - which are found in all cultures, he goes on:

"But essentially they're all experiments with ourselves in trying to remind ourselves that the controlling talent that we have must be balanced by the surrendering talent that we also have.  And so my idea about art as gardening is to sort of revivify that discussion and to say let's accept the role of gardener as being equal in dignity to the role of architect…"


I'd add that there's something very odd in a dismissive attitude towards non-architectural approaches, very underestimating of the fecundity of a gardening approach - that is, the wealth of order that's implicit in the natural processes one works in concert with, a richness of organizational possibility arising from the bottom-up, simplicity-leading-to-complexity path to order, which, after all, is how we came to be - via evolution.

In fact, Eno points this out, in a way:

"Use the dynamics of the system to take you in the direction you wanted to go.  …. So my feeling has been that the whole concept of how things are created and organized has been shifting for the last 40 or 50 years, and as I said, this sequence of science as cybernetics, catastrophe theory, chaos theory and complexity theory, are really all ways of us trying to get used to this idea that we have to stop thinking of top-down control as being the only way in which things could be made.

We have to actually lose the idea of intelligent design, because that's actually what that is.  The top-down theory is the same as intelligent design."


Yes, it is correct to point out that we (who, of course, exist, btw, unlike deities) are indeed intelligent designers of a sort, and that this is a way in which we apparently transcend the evolutionary processes which gave rise to our intelligence, but it's also worth noting that since a great deal of our intelligence operates under the surface, so to speak - unconsciously, as modules inaccessible to consciousness, for whatever evolutionary reasons - it behooves us to remember that we too still are governed in significant part by deterministic factors outside our conscious control, and to learn to work with those processes as well as exercise control in some aspects.

Again, it's not an either/or situation.

I'm a composer myself (composition degree from Berklee), and I've long found the notion that I'm in complete, conscious control of all that I compose to be a laughably naïve and hubristic one.

To the contrary, I've found that some of my worst stuff - in the sense of lacking flow and cohesion - results when I approach the process as an entirely conscious, deliberative one, where I take a lot of time to consider methods; I get more and more bogged down in the tweaking of details, to the detriment of the whole.

It's when I work quickly, make decisions quickly, without taking a lot of time to stop and deliberate, that the pieces have more integrity, more cohesion, more flow, more of a sense of inevitability ("ah, yes, of course - that's the way that bass line just had to be, given the context".) I'm more and more convinced that this is because working quickly tends to engage the more unconscious parts of my cognition, especially those techniques which I've internalized through long practice to the point where they are what Aristotle referred to as "second nature": skills which operate at the same unconscious, automatic level of facility as our inborn instincts (our "first nature"). In some way, the fact that I'm engaging processes which I've made second nature gives me greater access to the possibilities inherent in the patterns, etc., which I've chosen as the "seeds" of the composition. (I don't pretend to know why this is, but I think it's a fruitful line of inquiry for psychologists and neurologists studying human creative processes.)

The "architect" model still has a role - in tweaking here and there after the rush of this unconsciously guided process, as well as in setting general aims beforehand for the entire process. But what I find most significant about my composing process is the degree to which it's a matter of following where the patterns suggest, of respecting their autonomous inherent generative order, their matrix of possibilities, of discovery more than outright invention.

Surprising and delighting myself, having a sense that I'm as much a spectator to the creative process as a driver of it (being as much an audience as a performer & creator, as Eno puts it), is one of the most satisfying aspects of being a composer. It gives me a sense of connection to the inherent order of nature.
posted by Philofacts at 7:40 PM on November 13, 2011 [4 favorites]


I think what you are doing with your kids is less eno gardening and more the kind of improvisational music-making that has historically been dominant.

No, I really can't agree. If I say to one group of kids: "play notes that stretch out very long and then fall into drops," and tell another section: "make fun of whatever they do," and then tell a third "when you hear a space, fill it" and I tell a fourth: "dodge the footsteps" that really is not like traditional improvisational music-making, unless you mean in the way that an amoeba is like a box turtle.

There is purely aleatoric music (John Cage with the I Ching), there is music that gives the performers a few parameters or constraints but otherwise gives them discretion (In C, later Ornette Coleman), there's music with set chord changes and beats but improvised melody and accompaniment (jazz), there's immaculately composed music in which it would be improper to add or subtract at your own discretion, but the interpretation with the given notes is yours (much of the classical canon). There are variants in between those kinds and in different directions. There really are different assumptions at work when, say, Peter Pears sang Benjamin Britten oratorios and when singers at a Haitian Voudon ceremony are singing.

To say that all of the above are the same, or that there's only utter chance and everything else is, it seems to me, being willfully perverse. There really are non-random generative forms of music. I think they're in their infancy as fields of intentional exploration, although some folk and world musical have similarities.

It reminds me of Christopher Alexander's work, of the difference between what he calls "the timeless way of building" (immediate, locally shaped, gradually taking form, responsive) and prefab buildings, or even buildings from a blueprint in general. Look at, say, an old village in the Mediterranean and a suburb and you see massively different processes at work. One is generated, the other is designed. There's a similar distinction in music, and I think Eno is right to point out that difference.
posted by argybarg at 8:06 PM on November 13, 2011 [2 favorites]


One of the instruments at the core of my musical world is a little red box, built in Sweden, that lets you build modular synthesizers that can run without a computer host. One of the best things about them is how they turn chance processes into a manageable system. I can set up chains of unsynchronized LFOs cascading down and detuning oscillators that are ring-modulating each other and otherwise cross-modulating the whole process, let the system sort of drift and evolve as I'm recording the whole mess, and then use that as a part of a more composed piece, in which I'm being both observer and architect, spectator and operator.

When I'm really at play with my little red boxes, there's definitely a sense of being a gardener, in that the field is my garden, and what I plant, whether it's an oscillator or an envelope or some little self-mutating chain of LFOs and other gizmos, is under my control, but the field itself has the inherent capacity to go rogue and turn into jangling, tooth-loosening noise. As the gardener, though, I can nip these evolutions in the bud, tweaking my oscillators and damping or exaggerating sensitivities.

I used to have the sort of emotional battle of doubt about the whole notion of chance processes versus designed structures, but I have great examples of places where those metaphors collide in amazing ways. Fallingwater, for one, is a piece of very detailed architectural design created as a conversation with chance processes, and being in that house, and just letting my eyes roam the spaces, I don't worry about where the random ends and the built begins. In the end, it's immaterial to the final result.

At the same time, I'm working in music that's sort of tied up in being recorded, as it's about building texture and atmosphere, and is dependent on instruments that are fragile and novel enough that they won't have a lasting influence on the world of music. Sometimes, I feel like it is, at its best, something like zen gardening, just placing rocks and plants and raking fine gravel into the illusion of seas in suspension, knowing full well that the system will carry on without me and will just return to chaos.

It's science and the natural order that makes it sound, but my presence that makes it music.
posted by sonascope at 8:36 PM on November 13, 2011 [3 favorites]


Same as it ever was.

I guess I should try to recoup my investment by maximizing the utility of my Oblique Strategies. Where would they be more appropriate than right in this place here?

Brian Eno's random advice for all of us as we refine and cultivate our creative process in developing this thread:

You are an engineer

redraw for those not feeling pulled by that one:

Accept advice
posted by Meatbomb at 11:05 PM on November 13, 2011 [2 favorites]


A historical blip that created some of the best music known to mankind, whereas the current crop of "indie-classical" type composers basically write the same music over and over and over again, a post-minimal haze of repetition, texture, and style winning out over content, substance, form, structure and intelligence.

Uh huh. And when we don't do the post-minimal thing we get accused of writing atonal monstrosities. Composers can't catch a break these days.
posted by speicus at 12:15 AM on November 14, 2011


Uh huh. And when we don't do the post-minimal thing we get accused of writing atonal monstrosities. Composers can't catch a break these days.

Well, there's always Neo-Romanticism! *fart*
posted by invitapriore at 6:39 AM on November 14, 2011 [1 favorite]


Composers can't catch a break these days.

And, when it's not that, there's another accusation. Someone put it very succinctly once to me: "Have you ever thought about making money?"
posted by ob at 7:07 AM on November 14, 2011


"To say that all of the above are the same, or that there's only utter chance and everything else is, it seems to me, being willfully perverse. There really are non-random generative forms of music. I think they're in their infancy as fields of intentional exploration, although some folk and world musical have similarities.

It reminds me of Christopher Alexander's work, of the difference between what he calls "the timeless way of building" (immediate, locally shaped, gradually taking form, responsive) and prefab buildings, or even buildings from a blueprint in general. Look at, say, an old village in the Mediterranean and a suburb and you see massively different processes at work. One is generated, the other is designed. There's a similar distinction in music, and I think Eno is right to point out that difference."


Re this first paragraph:

I currently study (and have done so for a long time) North Indian classical music, the raga system. It has a combination, unparalleled in Western classical musics, of rigorously prescribed structure (each raga having a "grammar": a set of rules which shape melodic form) and an imperative to improvise. This echoes the balance Eno describes, in the sense that a generative factor is present in the form of one's in-the-moment decisions, one's improvisation. Since one is making decisions at a pace too fast for conscious analysis and iterative refinement (which I consider to be the essence of top-down, conscious composition - the architecture model), one's generation of melodic phrases has to originate from one's subconscious, "second nature" (as I discussed above) absorption of the raga's grammar. (This means, of course, that it takes long hours of practice to "push" that grammar down into one's subconscious.)

Because this improvisation (and all improvisations, really; it's just that Indian music constrains the parameters more strictly than, let's say, jazz) operates from an unconscious, quasi-instinctive level, it constitutes a form of generative decision-making, albeit one whose sources are not solely some external pattern-generator in nature, but also an internal one. (But of course our subconscious cognition is a part of nature as well - we, as products of evolution, are almost if not entirely determined by natural processes. But for now I'll sidestep the free will/determinism debate here.) One surrenders oneself to the process of creating, which, being rapid, is reactive rather than deliberative, and involves a moment-to-moment sensitivity to the surrounding context (both one's immediately prior phrases, as well as other musical elements, and those of the other players, if present - e.g., a sitarist will react to a table player's phrases.) The generative elements are a combination of what one has internalized and the external context to which one reacts. There is no time to stop and exercise strictly conscious control; one has to draw principally on one's subconscious processes. And thus, as with other generative methods, no two performances can or will be the same. An improv belongs to its moment; it is the product of an interaction of one's subconscious with a particular time and place. (With this in mind, I can almost sympathize with Robert Fripp's objection to recording live shows. Almost.)

It cannot be considered as an architectural model, even though the initial defining of the raga's grammar (or of the looser rules of chord scales over changes that constitute the basis of jazz improv, something to which I was exposed a lot at Berklee) was of course a conscious, deliberative, and thus top-down process. Once the grammar is internalized, though, made second nature, it no longer operates as a conscious process. To think about the grammar while one is improvising is to take oneself out of the moment, and interferes with the ongoing flow of ideas. Reactivity has its advantages. An analogy I often recall is the time my drummer pal Liz (with whom I was in a band) and I saw Larry Bird of the Boston Celtics at the Boston Garden: he received a pass while in motion, and as he was airborne and heading out of bounds, he swivelled and executed a perfect swish shot. There was no way he was consciously thinking about what he was doing. That was an illustration of second nature, of long practice distilled into pure, skillful reactivity.

When the structural sources of one's improvisation are so thoroughly internalized, what one creates often exceeds in complexity, flow and cohesion what one can come up with in a non-realtime, top-down, consciously deliberated, architectural compositional process. (I think here of the time John Coltrane, who was an extremely fluent reader of sheet music, was presented with a transcription of one of his solos: "It's too hard!", he demurred, after attempting to play it. His subconscious ability was more advanced than his conscious, as, I think, it is for all of us who cultivate improvisational abilities. This suggests something about the process of making skills second nature.)

Re the second paragraph I quoted:

That distinction, between the generative vernacular of "the timeless way" and the conscious deliberations of architects, is quite apropos. I would add something another architecture critic, Eno's friend Stewart Brand, has observed in his book How Buildings Learn: That architects tend to produce static visions unresponsive to change, unresponsive to external contingencies, such as people's changing uses for structures. They build only in three dimensions, not in four, as he puts it. It's possible to build structures that are flexible, that leave room for additional input and changes, but this involves ceding a degree of control, perhaps a great degree.
posted by Philofacts at 10:08 AM on November 14, 2011 [1 favorite]


the commonly accepted academic definition of music is "organised sound" (coined by varése), and that is the title of one of the big music technology journals.

Yup, that's where I got the phrase from. The reason I said it was to illustrate that it's all part of the same continuum, and that even John Cage is still exerting control over the end product, no matter how much he wants to minimize his role.

Personally, I think getting too wrapped up in the Composer as X where X =/ Composer, misses the point. We're all just setting up perimeters for some noises that will get produced later on. Would Bach still write great music if he considered himself an architect or gardener? Probably. That type of framing is useful only to form what kind of music we write, not if what we write is music. It is useful, and can have a huge impact on the final result, but it is only one of thousands of tools people who write music have for changing their product.
posted by Gygesringtone at 10:14 AM on November 14, 2011


Thanks for posting this. Excellent companion to the recent FPP, A Popular Guide to Unpopular Music.
posted by xod at 10:41 AM on November 14, 2011 [1 favorite]


[De-brained the typo in the post.]
posted by cortex at 9:32 AM on November 15, 2011


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