RIDE THE SOUND CURRENT: NEW MUSIC FROM SHRINK WRAP

     “Jim Drumming”, Photo by Ann Pirruccello.

Like most people, I am constantly running across written quotes, videos, podcasts etc. that contain ideas that I would like to incorporate into my life.  Often these “lessons” are difficult to hear, let alone embody.  About a year ago, it occurred to me that I might be open to hear these ideas if they were embedded in music that I liked.   And, so I began accumulating spoken messages that seemed to fit those criteria and create music to help make these messages more “hearable” on my part.

Recently it occurred to me that the music I had come up with might be enhanced by including contributions from my brother James, who is an accomplished saxophonist and composer. Collectively we are known as “Wilson Bros/Shrink Wrap”.

The tune introduced below, “Ride the Sound Current”, is the first of a series based on my experiment that will be released at Art and Zen Today.

 Here are some suggestions for listening:

1) Play the music when you have enough time to mindfully listen without worrying about being distracted by other issues.

2) Use whatever rituals you usually use when preparing  to move out of the  flow of ordinary life.

3) The music was especially created to be heard through headphones.  Try to avoid earplugs, if possible.

4)  As you listen, focus on your bodily reactions (i.e. sensations, feelings, emotions etc., whether positive or negative) rather than the meaning of what you are hearing.

5)  If you listen to the piece more than once be open to having different experiences with each exposure.  Try dancing while you listen!

Over time I have become increasingly interested in how listening and sound (and music) have been used in various meditative practices over the ages.  This is no place for an exhaustive review but below the video link, I have included a number of sources below dealing with this topic for those who may be interested in exploring further.

To hear “Ride the Sound Current” click below.

 

BOOKS

Hazrat Inayaat Khan  The Music of Life: The Inner Nature and

Effects of Sound  and The Mysticism of Sound and Music: The Sufi Teaching of Hazaart Inayat Khan.

Joachim-Ernest Berendt,  The World is Sound: Nada Brahama.

 ONLINE SOURCES

3 Reasons to Listen to Music Mindfully

http://www.wildmind.org/background/can-anyone-meditate/music

Mindfulness, Music Appreciation and Empathy

http://www.huffingtonpost.com/patrick-groneman/mindfulness-practice_b_3894331.html

Video on Listening Meditation by Stephen Batchelor

http://www.stephenbatchelor.org/index.php/en/guided-meditation-on-listening

 Music, Trance and Mindfulness:  http://artandzentoday.com/?p=4292

Aaron Copeland on Mindful Listening: http://artandzentoday.com/?p=4211

What are You Presently Listening To?  http://artandzentoday.com/?p=4091

THANK YOU FOR LETTING ME BE MYSELF AGAIN (Music Video)

Below is a link to a new video that was used in my Shuso Hossen Ceremony. It involves images of the Vista Zen Center and music produced by me and Central Florida’s favorite blues singer “Stoney” Stone.  For more background on the ceremony, the video and Stoney, read below before watching.

About a month ago I published a post titled “Koan For Manoj’s Shuso Hossen” (http://artandzentoday.com/?p=4380).  In that article I wrote:

 In this ceremony a student offers his or her understanding of the Koan and fields questions from other students about the Koan to demonstrate their readiness to be considered a senior student.  Usually, students are assigned to work on one of the traditional Koans that have been part of the training for Zen monks throughout the centuries in China and Japan.  However, my teacher has decided to explore alternative Koans that speak more to  Westerners living and practicing Zen in non-monastic circumstances.

The Ceremony was held on March 5, 1916 and  many of my upcoming posts will either entail segments from the video recordings made that night or will be based on my experiences as a Shuso at the Vista Zen Center. The essence of my Shuso Koan (see below) had to do with how I would or could fulfill the Four Bodhisattva Vows as an artist. During the Ceremony I presented 5 different musical performances that I saw as answering my Koan. In addition to my presentations, about 15  other members of the Center  also gave short performances displaying their understanding of Zen and their creative interests.  So the Ceremony consisted of a full evening of poems, songs, stories, demonstrations and short talks etc.

                                                            Shuso Koan

I ended my portion of the evening by singing Sly Stone’s “I want to Thank You For Letting Me Be Myself Again” using altered lyrics that I hoped expressed my appreciation to my teacher and fellow students for providing a safe place to practice Zen.


A week after the Ceremony, my wife’s niece Elene and her boyfriend “Stoney” visited with us for a few days. They both are musicians and play together in various venues in central Florida.   Stoney’s other band “Stoney and the Housebreakers” also play for events throughout Florida and have produced numerous CDs.  Their album “Cruisin’ For A Bluesin’ ” was the recipient of the prestigious Central Florida “CD of The Year Award” in 2009 @ The Brevard Live Florida Music Awards.(See the band’s  website: http://www.stoney3.com/ )

                                                          Elene and Stoney

Anyway, soon after our visitors arrived, I had Stoney in my studio singing the altered lyrics to the Sly Stone classic.  The short video below incorporates the recording Stoney and I produced and is accompanied by images compiled for the Shuso Hossen Ceremony to display the talents and dedication of the members of the Vista Zen Center.

https://youtu.be/WdWtlB6cphI

 

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MUSIC, TRANCE AND MINDFULNESS

My last post  contained a music video called “Dronology 101: Tongue in Cheek – Drool on Desk” (scroll down to read) and prompted a couple of interesting responses from readers.  In this post I want to start to address these remarks.  You can read the comments by Charles and James by looking in the Replies Section to the Right.

I can’t tell you how many times I feel asleep while working on this music video; often waking up with a smile on my face at the irony of me falling asleep during an art piece that I hoped would capture the interest of an audience.  Granted, unlike Charlie, I did not usually work on this after drinking coffee.  For me, the video was a metaphor for the painful process of waking up (i.e. becoming perpetually mindful) in the Buddhist’s sense.  So having practiced Zen for over 10 years, I identified with each and every one of the people and animals in the  video.  However, as an artist I am also interested in whether art and music can and should strive to induce mindfulness among viewers/listeners and this interest is behind the current series of posts.

 

Like Charlie, I have difficulty with most minimalist music, finding that I either tune it out and start thinking about something else, fall into reverie or physically fall asleep.  On the other hand, like James, I like the use of drones if and when there is something else going on in the music.  This, of course, is just my opinion and could see someone making the argument that even in the most  repetitive of music, one should be able to mindfully find variety and nuisance enough to maintain their attention (See Langer’s take on “mindfulness by using the Search feature on this site).  I once attended an Aftican Drum class where the instructor had each of us playing a simple repetitive pattern over and over.  As a jazz drummer, I kept hearing complicated riffs that I wanted to play.  Not being allow to do this I, at first, become bored and wanted to leave.  However, after about 15 minutes of this process, I suddenly became aware of what other drummers were doing and how my simple part contributed to the larger whole.  As I let go of my personal needs and interests, I shifted temporarily into a non-ordinary state of consciousness, a trance, to use a term that Charles brought up in his comment.

Because drones and repetitive drum patterns often accompany trance states in traditional societies, Westerner scholars have spent a lot of ink trying to account for the relationship between music and trance.  Part of the problem is that the term “trance” has no universally agreed upon definition and the nature of the trance state (both external behavior and phenomenology) varies greatly from culture to culture. Efforts to find a universal psycho physiological marker of trance has lead only  to the observation that in a trance a person is deeply relaxed but not asleep.   Summaries of studies of the music-trance connection suggest that  the most that can be said is that music can lead  to trance if and when those participating (ie. playing instruments, singing, dancing or simply witnessing,) want to and expect to go into a trance. If you play a drone instrument within hearing distance of someone, for instance, they will not automatically go into a trance. 

This is similar to hypnosis; a subject will go into a trance only if he or she allows that to happen.  I once volunteered to be a subject in a class  I was taking in hypnosis.  The teacher guided me through a variety of relaxing procedures and I willingly allowed myself to become completely relaxed, although I was aware of the teacher’s voice and aware that other students were watching.  Once relaxed, I felt very comfortable and did not worry about what I was going be asked to do or about what the others were thinking about me.  The usual thought processes slowed down and although I was aware of the teacher’s voice, I felt like I was in a state of “semi-awareness” (to use the term in Dronology 101).  At some point she told me that she was going to ask me my address and that I would not be able to remember it.  I recall briefly thinking to myself something like: “I could remember that if I wanted to but it would take too much effort and would require moving out of this wonderful relaxed state”.  So there was a conscious decision on my part to play along with the hypnotist’s request and not try to come up with my address, even if others might think that my inability to do so meant that I was deficient in some way.

 

As I said the term “trance” is not well defined and seems to refer to a wide range of situations where, temporarily, the usual left brain process slow down or stop completely. Since our left brain processes are responsible for how we define ourselves, we often strive to keep them going and view any shift away from their dominance as a cause for concern.  This can happen in minor ways when we forget something we should know or do something absentmindedly.  However, sometimes, more than most people acknowledge, we experience marked shifts of this nature.  In Western culture, where left brain dominance is almost universally considered to be the norm, shifts in consciousness of this nature are viewed as signs of mental illness or procession or some other undesirable phenomenon.  It is generally agreed that a person’s specific experience during such shifts of consciousness and their understanding and reaction to it afterwards, depends on their mental set and the setting during the incident.  This idea was especially useful in understanding altered states attained by using psychotropic drugs, but has also been used to describe shifts occurring under non-drug induced situations.

With regard to “setting”, a person who has this kind of experience in a church may well experience it and understand it as a “religious” experience of some sort.  In some cultures, such experiences a viewed as instances of possession by some foreign entity or spirit.  In traditional societies where trance is common and accepted, it is not seen as a big deal.  However, in the West, where there is no appropriate set and setting, it can be frightening.

When the Set and Setting is Right, even Westerners can enjoy TRANCE.

Apparently it is rather common in the West for youth to have such experiences spontaneously but as Maslow found most end up denying or forgetting them since they were experienced as a dangerous loss of self-control.  I recall when I was around 10 or 11 having two experiences of this type; they both took place when I was on my own and in a large crowd of strangers.  I did not freak out but, I remember being concerned about what was going on afterwards.  As it turns out, my best childhood friend, a guy who was mature,  smart and creative for his age, also had had similar experiences and also had a name (“trance”) for them.  And so we would sometimes sit around and discuss our trance experiences.  I recall that it was quite comforting to me to have a name for these experiences and to know that I was not the only one who had them.   Although I did not think in these terms back then, I believe that my friend and I realized, at a rather early age, that what most people accept as normal consciousness is a limited way of being.  I feel grateful to my friend for helping me attain this insight at such an early age; most kids seem to discover this later through the use of psychotropic drugs or not at all.  I like to think that this friend was also responsible for my later academic interest in altered states of consciousness and in Eastern meditation practices.

 

So does meditation involve going into a trance?  Again, it depends upon your definition but in Eastern spiritual disciplines the state is referred to as Samadhi and is sometimes translated as “trance”.  It is understood that Samadhi is something that can vary in intensity but essentially involves the kind of slowing down or diminishing of left-brain thought processes that I described above.  When this happens, one expands awareness or consciousness beyond the internal dialogue that is thought to be normal consciousness.  From my understanding of the literature, this mode of consciousness, the awakened consciousness, will gradually become the normal, everyday consciousness of those who consistently practice meditation and other practices.  Using the word trance to describe this state is misleading because of what we usually associate with this term (stupor, unconscious, sleep etc.).  The Zen state does not necessarily entail a curtailing of left-brain activities but rather an opening up (See Fehmi’ on “Open focused experiences” by using SEARCH on this Site) to right brain activities in a balanced form (see James Olson”s  The Whole-Brain Path To Peace).  Doing so allows one to respond to whatever is happening in the present moment and not be “ruled”, so to speak by old conditioned responses that govern the left-brain. This is what “mindfulness” is all about.

Whether or not we use the term “trance” to refer to these kinds of shifts in consciousness, I believe it is accurate to say that they can vary in intensity. It may be best to avoid that word altogether simply because it carries some negative connotations in the West where generally, at least until recently, right-brain thinking has been considered normal and variations away from this as problematic.  I should add that such a shift can be problematic depending on the situation.  As Charles rightly points out, moving out of right-brain attentiveness to a lecture can negatively affect a student’s grade.  Stopping to groove to music being played in a department store while there is a fire is not a mindful choice.  So, yes, what we are referring to as trances could be dangerous under certain circumstances.  On the other hand, vigilantly maintaining a self-protective left-brained orientation can be harmful to one’s health  

 

This leads back to the issues raise by both James and Charles regarding the function of repetitiveness in music and how this may affect mindful listening.  However, the “Dronometer” on my computer is alerting me to the fact that this post has gone on too long.  So, I plan to return to this at a later date.  Before I sign off, let me just say that I believe that someone listening to music can experience this left to right brain shift that I have been talking about.  There has to be a reason the music is a dominate form of entertainment in almost all cultures. The term “entertaining” has come to refer to anything that “engages or keeps our attention”.  If we are attentive to (mindful of) what we are listening to we are not attending to (or listening to) the internal dialogue that comprises our left-brain thought processes.  And so the degree to which we become entranced or mindful of a musical performance can vary greatly.  In the next post, I want to look at what it might look like to consciously practice mindful listening and riff a little bit about James’ comment on the use of repetition in music.

 

 

 

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DRONOLOGY 101: TONGUE IN CHEEK – DROOL ON DESK

A Didgeridoo; a droning wind instrument developed by Indigenous Austrailians

The Drones are coming!  The Drones are coming!  The video below called “Dronology 101: Tongue in Cheek – Drool on Desk” is the first attack.

 As you know my recent posts have been about the general topic of mindful listening.  One thread of this exploration will entail playing with the nature of “drones” and how they relate to mindful listening. What kind of drones am I talking about? The dictionary provides a number of definitions for this term, some of which I’ve listed below.

 1. an unmanned aircraft that can navigate autonomously.

2. a low monotonous sound; hum or buzz

3.  to speak in a monotonous tone

4. to proceed in a dull, monotonous manner.

5.  a continuous low tone produced by a musical instrument like bagpipes.

6.  a genre of music using drone like instruments.

7.  the male of  the honeybee, stingless and making no honey.

8. a person who lives on the labor of others; a drudge.

 Well, the answer is that I will most likely end up touching on all of these forms of drones.  However, my investigation will always focus on musical droning. 

Drone music is a minimalist style, that emphasizes the use of sustained or repeated sound, notes, or tone-clusters-called drones.  It is typically characterized by lengthy audio programs with relatively slight harmonic variations.  Some examples of ethnic or spiritual music which contains drones includes bagpipe traditions, didgeridoo music in Australia, South Indian classical music, Japanese Gagaku tradition, and medieval European chants.  Today, drone music is primarily created using digital processes; check out the online station, The Drone Zone at Soma FM.

The fact that this form of music, both traditional and contemporary, is seen as having a spiritual or consciousness- altering effect makes me wonder whether it can help induce what I have been calling “mindful listening”.  This is of interest to me because typically, any sound that is unvarying can certainly induce boredom or sleepiness. Is it, I wonder, possible to produce art that has elements of this repetitiveness and monotony and still provide opportunities for the audience to attend mindfully?  At this point I am not sure of the answer and so future posts will play with this question.  As always, your comments will help with my investigation.

 It seems appropriate to begin with the short music video which I have titled “Dronology 101- Tongue in Cheek – Drool on Desk.  Let me know what your experience of this piece was like in the Reply Box. Be sure to turn up your volume and for better results use stereo speakers or headphones.

 In case you were wondering about the phrase “Drool on Desk”, check out the wonderful film Ferris Bueller’s Day Off. 

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AARON COPLAND ON MINDFUL LISTENING

 

My guest blogger today is Aaron Copland (1900-1990), one of the most respected American classical composers of the twentieth century. By incorporating popular forms of American music such as jazz and folk into his compositions, he created pieces both exceptional and innovative. As a spokesman for the advancement of indigenous American music, Copland made great strides in liberating it from European influence.  Not only did he write symphonies, ballets and film scores, he was a scholar, critic, writer and teacher.  The passage below is from one of his books called “What to Listen for in Music”. (Thanks to Jake Roshi for sending this my way.)    Interspersed between quotes from Copland’s book, I have included some comments (in italics) that reflect some personal thoughts on his ideas. 

                                                                 

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The first prerequisite for listening to music is so obvious that it almost seems ludicrous to mention, yet it is often the single element that is absent: to pay attention and to give the music your concentrated effort as an active listener.

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 (As a musician, I might add that learning to pay attention to the sounds you are making is an essential skill in learning to play any instrument.  In future posts, I will review a couple of books that make the case that mindfulness is key to masterful performance on any instrument)
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It is revealing to compare the actions of theater audiences to those of symphonic audiences. In the theater the audience listens with full attention to every line of the play, knowing that if important lines are missed understanding can be diminished-this instinctive attention is too often lacking in the concert hall.

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(This statement fascinates me as it makes me wonder whether composers/performers can do more to help make the audience listen more mindfully.  This will be a theme I will return to in later posts.  Since, of late I have been experimenting with pairing video with music, I found it interesting that John Cage wrote the following, in an essay describing his approach to sound and music:

       Where do we go from here? Towards theatre. 

       That art more than music resembles nature.                             We have eyes as well as ears, and it is

      our business while we are alive to use them.”

      Pg. 12 in Silence by John Cage.

This suggests that the pairing of visual imagery and sound may be one way to foster mindfulness in the audience.  Particularly, in the creation of music videos, this seems to raise the question of how to combine visual stimuli and sound in ways that one does not take precedence over the other.  If the video portion has a strong narrative element to it , the music may become merely a backdrop much like a film score.  On the other hand if the music is so compelling as to draw in most listeners, there may be no need for visuals at all.  I am wondering whether music/videos can be created where the visual and sound aspects are equally important and mutually supportive in fostering mindful attentiveness on the part of the audience.  This wondering will most likely be in my mind as I work on future projects.)

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One has but to observe listeners at a concert to witness the distractions of talking or reading or simply staring into space.


Only a small percentage are vitally concerned with the essential role of active listening. 

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.(Remember the above was written years before the appearance of cell phones and other devices of distraction that prevail today.)
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This lack is serious because the listener is essential to the process of music; music after all consists of the composer, the performer and the listener. Each of these three elements should be present in the most ideal way. We expect a fine composition brilliantly performed, but how often do we think it should also be brilliantly heard?

The destiny of a piece of music, while basically in the hands of the composer and performer, also depends on the attitude and ability of the listener. It is the listener in the larger sense who dictates the ultimate acceptance or rejection of the composition and performer…Unfortunately for music, many listeners are content to sit in an emotional bath and limit their reaction to music to the sensual element of being surrounded by sounds. But the sounds are organized; the sounds have intellectual as well as emotional appeal.
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(I think Copland’s use of the term “intellectual” here is unfortunate.  I don’t believe that he is suggesting that mindful listening entails protracted left-brain/discursive thinking.  I believe it is more accurate to say that mindfulness entails “whole brain thinking” (Olson, The Whole-brain Path to Peace) or “open focused attention” (see earlier post called “HAVE YOURSELF A MERRY OPENED- FOCUS EXPERIENCE WHILE READING THIS POST!”    ) where so called left and right brain processes are working interdependently.  Langer seems to capture the so called “intellectual” aspect of mindfulness by describing it as “”drawing novel distinctions..”noticing new things” and “seeing the similarities in things thought different and the differences in thing taken to be similar”.  (pgs. 5 and16, On Becoming an Artist,  For more on Langer, use the blog search box, using her name or “mindfulness”   )

Various mindfulness practices that accompany spiritual disciplines seem to encourage practioners not to be so immersed in left-brain thinking that they are out of touch with their right brains.  Mindfulness practices thus helps to increase one’s awareness and sensitivity to feeling and emotions that were previously beyond awareness.  However, my understanding is that the aim is to expand consciousness to include sensations often unnoticed but not necessarily to do away with the capacity for left brain functioning. 

When we mindfully expose ourselves to visual art or music, having a grasp of the choices available to and made by the artist, is a part of our appreciating the art piece or performance.  Appreciating an art piece  does not necessarily entail “liking” it, but may involve having an understanding of the historical, social, and personal reasons why the work unfolds as it does, along with an awareness of how one personally is responding and why.  


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The adventure of learning how to listen to music is one of the great joys of exposure to this art…Your efforts to understand more of what is taking place will be rewarded a thousand-fold in the intense pleasure and increased interest you will find.

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I believe that what Copland says above can be extrapolated to the benefits of mindfulness in all aspects of life, not just music.

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1700 Koans

This week’s guest blogger is Jake Jiyu Gage, Roshi.  He wrote a reply to my last post entitled “What Are You Presently Listening to?”  Because his response was in the form of a poem, I decided to publish it as a post.  Since poetry is one of the most useful expressions of a spiritual practioner’s inner experiences, there has been a  close association of Zen and poetry throughout history.  If you haven’t already, I would suggest that you read the previous post before enjoying the poem below.  For those unfamiliar with Zen, the description of Koans, below the poem, may be helpful.  Jake is
the founder of the The Vista Zen Center in Vista California.
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“What Am I Listening to Presently”
featuring Jake Jiyu Gage 
and
The Hotei-ji Chamber Orchestra
    (with special thanks to “System
     of a Down”)
1700 Koans*
1700 Koans
Going off
All at once
In the Zen Symphony
Known as:
“What Am I presently listening to?”
Each Koan
Different:
In Name
In Number
In Collection Found
In Tone
In Duration
In Dynamics
In Frequency
In Beginning
In Middling
In Ending
In Trailing Off
In Disappearing
In Reappearing
In Main Case
In Commentary
In Capping Phrase
In Resolution
In Acceptance
Or
In Denial
Ring, Ring, Ring
In Starting Over
In Trying Again
In Gaining Acceptance
No Ringing
*Koans (from Chinese kung-an, literally “public notice,” or “public announcement”) are based on anecdotes of Zen (Chinese: Ch’an) masters. There are said to be 1,700 koans in all. The two major collections are the Pi-yen lu (Chinese: “Blue Cliff Records”; Japanese: Hekigan-roku), consisting of 100 koans selected and commented on by a Chinese priest, Yüan-wu, in 1125 on the basis of an earlier compilation; and the Wu-men kuan (Japanese: Mumon-kan), a collection of 48 koans compiled in 1228 by the Chinese priest Hui-k’ai (known also as Wu-men)
in Zen Buddhism of Japan, a succinct paradoxical statement or question used as a meditation discipline for novices, particularly in the Rinzai sect. The effort to “solve” a koan is intended to exhaust the analytic intellect and the egoistic will, readying the mind to entertain an appropriate response on the intuitive level. Each such exercise constitutes both a communication of some aspect of Zen experience and a test of the novice’s competence. A well known koan is: “What is the sound of one hand clapping?
                                                                              

Here is an old Zen story I just found that seems to relate to Roshi’s Poem.

The disciple was always complaining to his master, “you are hiding the final secret of Zen from me.” And he would not accept the master’s denials. One day they were walking in the hills when they heard a bird sing.

“Did you hear that bird sing?” said the master. “Yes” said the disciple.

“Well now you know that I have hidden nothing from you” “Yes.”

 

                          

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WHAT ARE YOU PRESENTLY LISTENING TO?

WHAT ARE YOU PRESENTLY LISTENING TO?

My guess is that most people answering this question would remove their headphones and provide the name of the bands currently cued up on their listening device.  But based on some articles I have been reading lately, the question is somewhat deeper than that (more like “what is the sound of one hand clapping” deep).  It points to how we respond to music (and sound in general) and trying to answer it can help us better understand both creative and spiritual practices.

It has been a while since my last post.  It’s not that my left brain hasn’t been coming up with stuff to write (maybe I should call it my “Write Brain”).  Rather it is that my right brain has been “compelling” me to spend time learning how to use the new music production software I purchased several months ago.  I have spend most of my “creative time” playing with this program, happily trying out all kinds of wild stuff, not at all concerned about whether it will ever be heard or liked by others.

Much of what I have come up with in my experimental creations does not neatly fit into most of the categories used to describe music; in fact it is not even clear that it is music.  So, recently the left brain started pestering me to find some sort of label for whatever it is I am doing.  By the way, this questioning seems to be rooted in the basic left brain concerns about whether what I was doing was worthwhile or “good” or whether it would be understandable to others.  Anyway, I started to do some research on the internet and so this, and subsequent blog posts, will be inspired by the reading I have done.  I’ll be quoting and paraphrasing heavily from some of the articles I’ve discovered. And, as always, I will try to point to some links with the practice of Zen, where I can.

An article by Robert Worby titled “An Introduction to Sound Art” suggests that maybe what I have been doing is best categorized as “Sound Art”. (http://www.robertworby.com/writing/an-introduction-to-sound-art)   In reality, it probably doesn’t matter how my work is labeled.  At some point I may post some examples and let you decide what it is, but, for now, let’s look at what Worby has to say about ”sound art”.  I think his ideas are relevant  to those interested in any kind of artistic practice or any kind of spiritual practice where one attempts to be more in touch with the senses.

Worby starts off by examining the nature of sound (it is extremely impermanent as you Zen practioners might suspect) and by differentiating between the process of “hearing” and the process of “listening”.  According to Worby:

Sound is constantly pouring into our ears. Most of it goes unnoticed because we are not listening to it. Listening occurs when we become conscious of sound and connect with it. We hear it and we engage our intellect, our emotions, our memory and many other faculties. Hearing is a physical process, listening is a psychological act. And when we listen to sound we are beginning the process of generating meaning with it. If we are listening properly our curiosity is aroused and we might begin to ask questions about the sound; not just the usual questions about what produced the sound but questions about what we are hearing: How loud is it? For how long does it continue? Is it pitched? If it is pitched, how high is it? How low is it? How far away is it? Is it moving? In which direction? How fast? Is it changing? How is it changing? What is changing? And, if there is more than one sound, how many sounds are there? How do they relate to one another? How do individual sounds relate to the mass of sound? There are many, many questions of this type we can ask and, if we ask them, they help us to perceive sounds with greater clarity. This aroused perception generates more detail and raises our consciousness. We have more to say about sound and we can comprehend it in greater detail. All of this may, in turn, help us to generate feelings about what we can hear and it may help to generate meaning from what we are able to hear.(Underlines are mine.)

Worby goes on to say:

Listening is an art. It is an art just as composing and performing are arts. Listening involves action, we cannot listen and remain passive. If we are passive and uninvolved then we are only hearing. Listening is creative and it is this auditory creativity that has given rise to what is now called sound art.

Although Worby looks at a variety of historical sources of “sound art”, he pays particular attention to the work of John Cage, who expressly connected his art and his practice of Zen (Search for previous posts on this topic by entering keywords Cage or Duchamp).  In general, I think, Cage’s work, even if he called it “music” rather than “sound art” can be seen as raising the kinds of questions that Worby says in the previous quotation are raised when we really start to listen to sounds.  According to Worby:

 Cage’s most notorious piece is commonly known as ‘4’ 33”’. It is in three movements (a very conventional Western musical structure) and the notation for each movement simply reads ‘Tacet’. This is the musical term meaning ‘Be silent’. Cage is asking the performer to be silent for three consecutive movements. The piece does not instruct the performer to ‘do nothing’ (a common misconception) but it does require the performer to ‘be silent’. During the first performance, in 1952, the pianist, David Tudor, indicated the passage of the three movements by closing the piano lid at the beginning of each movement and opening it at the end. Hopefully he made no sound. But there was plenty to hear. Four minutes thirty three seconds is quite a long time, for an unsuspecting public, to sit and listen. The sound of the audience twitching, coughing and nervously shuffling filled the space and sounds drifted into the auditorium from outside. Cage had outlined a situation in which sound could be heard but he had no control over those sounds. The conventional roles of composer, performer and listener had been completely subverted. It was difficult to say who was the composer or who was the performer or who was the listener. The listeners were making the sounds so, in conventional terms, they were the performers. The performer, David Tudor, was also a listener. The composer had no hand in crafting what was heard, this was done entirely by the listeners, so, in effect, they were the composers. Cage had turned conventional music making inside out.

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Composing is one thing, performing is another, listening is yet a third. What can they have to do with one another?”  John Cage

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From today’s perspective, the performance of Cage’s 4′ 33″ seems rather contrived and passé, much like Duchamp’s hanging of an urinal at an art show (Search for previous posts on this topic using the keyword “Cage” or “Duchamp”).  Although those attending the first performance of Cage’s piece may have been shocked into pondering questions about the nature of sound and music, most people today would attend because it was the cool thing to do.  However contrived they seem now, both Cage and Duchamp managed to call attention to the importance of the mental attitude of the audience and both had a profound effect on how artists approached their practices since then.  I think that it is no accident that both of these guys were influenced by their knowledge of Buddhist philosophy and practice.

Cage with D. T. Suzuki

It’s not clear to me whether Cage actually used the term “sound art” to describe his work but the term has consistently been used that way by others.  So, exactly what is sound art?  

At this point it appears that the term “sound art” refers to a diverse set of practices (ranging from Dada nonsense poetry to recording of natural sounds at various sites) and there is still no clear distinction between “sound art” and “music”. (Below I have links to 3 short videos to provide some examples of  “sound art”.)  The term “experimental music” is often used to characterize musical compositions that veer away from conventional ideas about music, but I would be hard pressed to describe the distinction.  In Worby’s words:

 The multiple threads of sound art practice weave a fabulously rich tapestry. It celebrates the ear in a world that we mostly perceive with our eyes. Language, our tool for thought, is very much orientated towards what we can see. Sound art encourages us to listen, it sharpens the ears and the imagination and so develops what it is to be human.

Cage at the Piano

While any piece of music can have these effects, it seems that “sound artists” see the main goal of their creative endeavor as encouraging real listening.  Whether someone truly “listens” to music or any other sounds depends upon the person’s mental set.  Sound art, as I understand it, is designed to make it induce listening as Worby has defined it.  In future posts I will consider the writings of other authors who have used the terms “deep listening” and “mindful listening” to seemly capture the essence of what Worby is saying.

Since Zen and other spiritual disciplines encourage practioners to be mindfully present and aware and a wide variety of situations, I would suggest that these disciplines share a common goals with much of what might be called sound art (this is most clear in the case of John Cage).  In future post’s I’ll be exploring how music/sound can become a mindfulness practice and looking material suggesting that mindfulness practice can enhance our listening to sounds/music and that listening can increase our mindfulness.

Personally, although I can appreciate the goal of making me more active in the process of listening, I find a lot of sound art and experimental music to be rather irritating; I’m sure I would have been one of the first people out the door at the first performance of Cage’s 4′ 33″.  Doing all of this reading and thinking (thanks left brain!) has led me to wonder whether I can create sounds that are musical and yet can raise listerner’s awareness in the manner that Worby has described.  That is, can sound art be engaging/entertaining and still be consciousness expanding? Maybe it really doesn’t matter as long as I am having fun doing it (thank you right brain!)

 Check out these short videos showing some examples of “sound art”.  Also see my previous post titled “Border Music by Glenn Weyant”

 

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=23dBLgKTw0s

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=B6bZWfrKmIg

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HNM37dnKnyc&list=PLMrY5LKrAJRrsRzb9OSPbneiUzshjkyfi&index=4

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BORDER MUSIC BY GLENN WEYANT

 

ARTIST GLENN WEYANT, ACCOMPANIED BY BORDER PATROL, PLAYING THE US/MEXICO BORDER FENCE.

Today’s post features a socially conscious musician/artist who raises interesting questions about  art, music, social activism and spiritual practice.  You will be introduced to Glenn Weyant in a couple of short videos.  This feature is the beginning of a shift in my approach to this blog.  Up to now, most post have mainly been devoted to exploring the interrelationship between art and Zen practice.  In the future, I will not spend so much time with theory and focus instead on actual art and actual artists.  There is so much interesting work going on out there, locally as well as globally, and I aim to make my readers aware of it.

I have always used the terms “art” and “spiritual” in the widest possible ways and will continue to do  so in the future.  To my mind, almost any activity can be approached as an art and so if you know of some art or artists who you think should be covered in my blog posts, please let me know.  For now, enjoy the videos below.  For those familiar with the work of John Cage, be sure to listen to the last part of the second video.

 

 

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