Suggestions, Oscillations, & Loss
Originally published in my newsletter, sent on Mar 13, 2016:
I’m blocked. I haven’t made music in months and it’s upsetting me. Call it a quarter-life crisis or whatever but my general creative production has come to a halt and has been replaced with an apathetic view of society, politics, and art. It’s hard for me to figure out a way to get back to my creative process because it never was institutionalized in me. In school I studied communication theory, never learned how to play an instrument, never had my work really critiqued. But it’s also something else. I’m confused about creating.
In my latest mix I included clips of interviews with two very different musicians: Elizabeth Cotten & Laurie Spiegel. Cotten was a rural class maid who at an early age gravitated towards the guitar. In the clip, she explains that when she was eleven she saved enough money to buy a guitar and immediately started teaching herself how to play. “I said ‘Momma I’m learning a new song.’ But I wasn’t learning no song. I didn’t know one then; I didn’t know no songs then.” Cotten went on to write one of the most popular folk songs in American history, “Freight Train,” without any formal training.
You see this a lot in music. People feel an intrinsic need to express themselves through song. When trying to engender specific emotions or ideas, sometimes language isn’t enough. In these instances, music can be the most expressive form of communication. In Music–Immateriality–Value, Diedrich Diederichsen writes that when music is able to touch one’s “most intimate subjectivity,” its value emerges as “a profusion of individual and collective musical experiences nourished by moments of agreement between signifiers and signifieds, moments in which one feels that one understands oneself, or feels understood by others.” Elizabeth Cotten wanted to make music. It was within her.
Diederichsen describes the utopian nature of music, that music-making is a uniquely human practice that is untethered by the constraints of socio-economic factors. Here he details the understanding he came to when producing music:
I realized myself as a human being in the dialectic between my nature as a unique individual and my nature as a social and collective being, and I did so entirely without economy, without reification, without the creation of value, without storage, costs, or profits, without the calculation of future time and hence without speculation, without interest or the creation of secondary value, and without valorization.
Personally, I create music as a way to process emotion and explore my understandings of communication. My relationship to my instrument is very explorative, much like Cotten with her guitar. This exploration is also apparent in the work of Laurie Spiegel. Spiegel is a pioneer of electronic synthesizer music. She worked on algorithmic composition at Bell Laboratories, where this interview took place.
In the interview, Spiegel talks about the nature of suggestion in the relationship between the artist and the instrument. She explains that music ultimately begins with the artist’s need to express an emotion, a fascination, an idea. Yet she also speaks of what she calls a “synergistic oscillation,” a balance in the degree the technology suggests possibilities to the artist and the artist’s initial intent. Of course, the technology is created by humans, and her experience with the synth is fully dictated by her own explorations. But if it has the power of suggestion, is it possible that the instrument can inherently contain a vast understanding of music without human interaction? Spiegel’s object-oriented algorithmic compositions are developed by creating “a description as a general rule rather than making a whole bunch of specific notes.” If these rules already exist within the technology and the musician is merely setting them, then is music even ontologically related to the musician? That is, can the concept of music exist without sound, or even further, without notation?
Yes, this is very hypothetical and I’m way out of my element. And of course, this all depends on the listener’s definition of music. But when I produce a piece, I feel a sense of fear that my music is never finished because of the lack of constraints available. Artists generally feel as if they are empowering objects with meaning, yet when approaching the limitlessness of digital audio workstations, I feel powerless. There is always something more, something waiting to be discovered, or suggested.
I’ve developed this piece on and off for six months and have been perfecting it through performance for two years. It will never be done to me. I will constantly encounter further suggestions. But I’m tired of holding on to it: bead drip lifted, etc.
I’ve always been interested in how the loss of interpersonal communication has an effect on one’s sense of self. In communication theory, the coordinated management of meaning asserts that when trying to find meaning, individuals establish their own set rules based on previous experiences with social realities. In interpersonal relationships, the participating individuals must come to terms on how their two sets of rules can appropriately fit with one another, thus creating a new social reality that is uniquely related to both parties. When a relationship ends, one has to come to terms with not only the loss of the other person but also the social reality that was born out of a shared understanding of meaning. So when one loses another, one loses a part of one’s self.