Wednesday, February 19, 2014

Artist Spotlight: Alvin Lucier

I would like to occasionally highlight a composer or performer that I think breaks creative ground. So let's start an "Artist Spotlight" series. I will explore the creative process and output of household names as well as more obscure artists. All genres are up for exploration. If you have any artist recommendations, feel free to suggest some in the comments below (or better yet, contribute a guest post!)

Lucier plugs in

Let's begin with the work of modern composer and tinkerer, Mr. Alvin Lucier (1931).

Lucier's compositions dwell in that twilight area between art and science. I first encountered his work referenced in a psychology of music textbook. His experimental sound installations were cited as examples of a variety acoustic and psychological phenomenon. His work poses many questions. How do we perceive sound? What are ways to manipulate the basic properties of the sound? What are the variety of ways we can manipulate it with technology? Can the brain actually play music? The 20th century had created an explosion of new methods for creating sounds. Composers don't often consider the fields of neuroscience and psychoacoustics when working. Lucier not only considers these fields, he makes them paramount.

Let's highlight his important works. Just a warning before we continue. Lucier is definitely a modern composer bordering on the side of the avant-garde. As you explore the pieces in the post, you may even wonder if what he creates is actually "music". That's fine and we could debate that. But what strikes me about his work is how each piece was created out of a series of "what if" questions (see the previous post). I may not want to necessarily create music that sounds like Lucier's compositions. But I do want to embrace the creative wonder that was the catalyst in bring these experiments to life.

Music for Solo Performer (1965)

 This was the first piece I discovered of Lucier's. I find it fascinating. The casual audience member would probably think they walked into a mad scientist's laboratory. Lucier is seated. For the first few minutes of the performance (which get tedious, feel free to jump ahead in the video), an assistant attaches electrodes to the performer's scalp. These are wired to an EEG (electroencephalography) machine. This machine is used by neuroscientists to pick up electric signals emitted by the brain. These signals vary depending on the specific brain wave states you are experiencing. Human beings always have a combination of brainwaves in our neurology. Delta and theta waves are the lower frequency brainwave commonly found while sleeping or in a drowsy state. Beta and gamma waves are the higher frequencies found when we are cognitively active. The alpha state is often found while relaxing or in a meditative state (note that when musicians enter a state of "flow" they are often in this alpha state). It is this alpha wave that Lucier uses in this composition.After the EEG picks up the alpha brainwaves, Lucier processes that signal by using it to control various percussion instruments on the stage. The strength of his meditative alpha state affect the movements of the mallets mechanized to strike timpani and other assorted instruments. Lucier is able to actually create music with his mind!

I am Sitting in a Room (1969)

This is another one of Lucier's well known works. In this one, the performer records a simple statement into a tape recorder: “I am sitting in a room, different from the one you are in now. I am recording the sound of my speaking voice…” After this statement, Lucier plays back the recording. This playback is then recorded again. Then the rerecorded statement is played back and recorded again. This goes on for 20 minutes. Try to guess what happens? Now watch the performance (feel free to jump ahead to hear the final result).

Pretty interesting, right? I didn't expect that when I first saw this. Lucier's goal in this performance was to isolate the "resonant frequencies" of the room the piece is performed in. The size, shape and reflection of the surfaces in a room have an effect on these frequencies. By the last re-recording of the statement we are left with nothing but a very interesting set of pitches and overtones. This brings to fruition the tail end of his statement: “I regard this activity not so much as a demonstration of a physical fact, but more as a way to smooth out any irregularities my speech might have,” Wild stuff...

Music on a Long Thin Wire (1977)

The final work further illustrates Lucier's fascination with acoustics. In this piece, he takes a thick piece of piano wire and sets it in motion with magnets and an amplified oscillator. This produces a set of fascinating overtones that constantly change. In his own words: "Music on a Long Thin Wire is constructed as follows: the wire is extended across a large room, clamped to tables at both ends. The ends of the wire are connected to the loudspeaker terminals of a power amplifier placed under one of the tables. A sine wave oscillator is connected to the amplifier. A magnet straddles the wire at one end. Wooden bridges are inserted under the wire at both ends to which contact microphones are imbedded, routed to the stereo sound system. The microphones pick up the vibrations that the wire imparts to the bridges and are sent through the playback system. By varying the frequency and loudness of the oscillator, a rich variety of slides, frequency shifts, audible beats and other sonic phenomena may be produced."

Interesting music. Perhaps not something you will rush to put on your Ipod, but hopefully something that gets you thinking a little bit about sound and its role in the creative process.

Friday, February 7, 2014

Mastery, Grit, and 10,000 Hours

Novelist Stephen King
“If you want to be a writer, you must do two things above all others: read a lot and write a lot. There's no way around these two things that I'm aware of, no shortcut.” 
― Stephen KingOn Writing: A Memoir of the Craft

Another Mr. King quote! King's novels are fine, but I sure do love his quotes! I find them inspiring and with a few tweaks can be very applicable to the musical muse. Allow me to replace a few words...

“If you want to be a composer/musician/improviser, you must do two things above all others: listen a lot and compose/play/improvise a lot. There's no way around these two things that I'm aware of, no shortcut.” 

- My variant of Stephen King's quote 

That's basically it. I could end this post here. Mr. King has laid out a simple formula for mastery that cannot be denied. Listen and create. Repeat.

Malcolm Gladwell popularized the "10,000 hour" rule in his 2008 book Outliers. The summation of this rule is that it takes 10,000 hours of doing something to develop mastery. Gladwell cites cases from the Beatles cutting their teeth by playing cover songs in Hamburg dives to Bill Gates who had access to a computer in 1968 when they weren't as common as they were today. 

An important aspect of this 10,000 hours is the idea of mastering what has already been created in your art form. The Beatles spent their time in Hamburg not writing original "creative" works. They covered American rock and roll songs. The U.S. troops station there demanded the music of Little Richard, the Isley Brothers, and Chuck Berry. This forced the Fab Four to develop a solid vocabulary of rock and roll. It taught them to groove. It taught them stage presence. It taught them about the art of songcraft. By the time they penned their first number one hit in England ("Please Please Me") they have logged in 10,000 hours of mastering the art of performing and writing a hit song.

This "10,000 rule" is based on the research of psychologist Anders Ericsson. It has its critics who feel this rule has been misused as it has become quoted in many pop-psychology articles and blogs. Merely putting in time won't make one a master the critics argue. Even Ericsson has said, “You don’t get benefits from mechanical repetition, but by adjusting your execution over and over to get closer to your goal.” 

So that seems to be an important point. Practice involves repetition AND correction. There needs to be a high level of focus and determination to make those corrections. Cognitive psychologists have labeled this trait as "grit".  Daniel Coleman in his book, Focus: The Hidden Driver of Excellence explores this idea of grit as being a crucial pairing in making the "10,000 hour" rule work. Without getting your hands dirty in your practice and putting in some serious, focused labor the bulk of those 10,000 hours can be wasted time. (I just finished this book and highly recommend it. This combined with Robert Greene's Mastery takes off where Gladwell left us.)
Everyone can be creative. It seems to be a trite statement but its true. On some level, everyone has the ability to be inspired. Even the beginner musician can experience the thrill of exploration that even the greatest musical innovators experience. It would be very frustrating if you had to lock in 10,000 hours BEFORE you could create. 

However, you must know that these early creative attempts will not be original. They won't be masterpieces. They will probably not even be good. At least not without developing a solid foundation of skills and knowledge. It is impossible to create a truly unique, quality piece of work until you have created a LOT of derivative works. 

Students with a creative urge are often frustrated by this. They have a strong desire to create something groundbreaking but they haven't yet mastered the basics. Without a command of what has already been created in their field, that won't know how to be original. What rules should you break? What is the basic vocabulary of style? What elements of preexisting works can be borrowed and combined to create new, original works?

A solid creative foundation needs:
  • A command of musical elements (rhythm, melody, harmony, form, timbre)
  • A deep knowledge of style and genre (not all styles and genres, but at least the ones in your purview)
  • The study of repertoire in that genre from the earliest days to the present
  • An apprenticeship of two types. A formal student-teacher relationship AND the tutelage of the great artists in the field through recordings and live performances. 
  • A venue. The student needs an outlet to showcase the mastery of the above.
 In addition, you need to have a desire to explore. "What if?" should be a regular part of this stage. 
  • "What if I harmonize this melody in fourths?"
  • "What if I play this tune in 7?"
  • "What if I add more dissonance? More consonance?"
  • "What if I add more space?"
  • "What if I ..."
With each new question you will be creating something new. Evaluate the new product. If it is good, go on from there asking a new "what if" question. If it doesn't work out, ask a different question.

So wherever you are at in laying your foundation, ask these questions. Focus and develop your inner grit. And start clocking in some of those 10,000 hours!

Sunday, February 2, 2014

Conversational Exercise: Let's Chat!

Glenn Gould
There is a section entitled "Truck Stop" in Fran├žois Girard's 32 Short Films about Glenn Gould that sparked the content of this post. Glenn Gould, the eccentric classical pianist, visits his regular haunt, a diner in Toronto. In the scene, he orders his breakfast and while waiting begins listening to the chatter going on around him. He becomes mesmerized by not the content of the conversations, but the musical language. We can see Gould listening to these unrelated conversations happening on opposite sides of the diner. The director portrays him absorbed in this breakfast chatter as a sort of counterpoint. Perhaps, the "Art of the Breakfast Fugue"?

This attention to the interaction of voices inspired Gould in his 1967 project entitled the "Solitude Trilogy". The most famous work of this project was called "The Idea of North". Here Gould created a sound collage of overlapping spoken monologues.  It is strikingly avant-garde for someone steeped in traditional classical music. Then again, Gould was an eccentric.

There could be a comparison made between this experiment and counterpoint of the Baroque period that was Gould's primary piano gig. Counterpoint refers to melodies that are played simultaneously. In the same fashion Gould called this technique "contrapuntal radio". If you are interested, the entire recording can be found here.

I had an idea inspired by the above scene and Gould's experiment. Could we develop a creativity warm-up routine for 2 or more players modeled on the idea of carrying on a spoken conversation? Or perhaps simultaneous conversations? In a previous post, I demonstrated the idea of gesturing as a way of getting the mind in a creative state. Would the model from the Glenn Gould film work in a similar fashion for small groups of musicians?

Here is the idea:

  • Get together with a partner. Any instrument or voice would work.
  • You are going to have a conversation with the other person on your instrument. 
  • Begin improvising a melody. Maybe pick a key or tonal center to work with. You could also play free.
  • The partner should at some point respond to your statement.
  • The length of each statement is up to each of you. If you are really engaged in what they are playing, lay back and listen. If you have the urge to interrupt and speak your mind do it. Have nothing else to say? Stop.
  • At the beginning you may wish to set up parameters. (e.g. swap short phrases, demand silence in between phrases, use long discourse, overlap phrases, "talk at the same time" (counterpoint).
  • Eventually, the goal would be to remove the strict parameters and let the conversation unfold naturally.
The product here should be a little more detailed than a simple regular call and response. The goal is to interact in a similar way to an actual human conversation. This means allowing room for silence, discussion, interruptions, discourse, and listening. Keeping eye contact with the other participant is key. Just as in a spoken conversation a glance, nod of the head, or movement of the eyes can invoke a reaction.

Often in conversations, one person is the leader. They bring a topic to mind and can often direct (if not dominate) the conversation. In a similar fashion, you may find that one of you is "following" the other person. This is okay and entirely natural. If recognize this happening, then you may want to make a conscious effort the switch roles. Have the other person "lead" the discussion.

Really, there are no hard and fast rules with this exercise. You can add to it and develop it in any fashion you wish. Other ideas include:

  • limiting the conversation to just rhythmic ideas (use a single percussion instrument or clap)
  • include 3, 4 (or more!) people in on the conversation
  • have two different conversations (two pairs of musicians) going on at once
  • converse with people who are at different levels of musical maturity
  • instead of improvising, notate and compose a "conversation-like" piece 
  • set up scenarios for the conversation (using space in between, simultaneous conversations, different keys/tonal centers, through a tune or chord progression)
  • You can even "comp" while the other person is "talking". In other words, play a simpler supportive part while the speaker takes the lead. I think of this as akin to nodding your head and saying "uh-huh" or "yeah" during a casual conversation.
Here are some parameters I set up as John and I explored this exercise. Check them out and then find a buddy and have a chat!

Conversation with deliberate silence in between the melodic statements.

Conversation with short phrases and minimal silence in between.

Conversation with Comping (e.g. playing supportive parts during the other player's melodic statements)

 Simultaneous Conversation

Melodic Contour Exercise

An effective and quite creative method for composing/improvising strong melodies would be to connect it with the visual artist's techniq...