Friday, September 26, 2008

Sitting quietly, doing nothing

After a short period of reflection and doubt, I'm back in action this week, with a renewed sense of purpose. Maybe I'm buoyed by the knowledge that, if this composing thing doesn't work out, my proximity to Russia makes me eminently qualified to serve as Vice-President of the U.S. Or maybe my piece is just going better now. At a concert last week, a stopped to chat with a colleague, and he asked me archly, "So what happened?" I must have looked puzzled. "With your piece! I'm dying to know." I find it comforting that, if nothing else, I at least provide some mild entertainment for my peers.

Whatever the case, I feel like it's back on track. As I explained to him, making a public admission that your piece sucks and you intend to scrap it makes it much harder to continue down the wrong path. Taking the piece down to its simplest components had the benefit of revealing something about those materials that I hadn't seen earlier: a fundamental rhythmic incompatibility that was blocking the music's progress. I was trying to reconcile two completely different sets of ideas under a single rhythmic impulse, and it wasn't ever going to work, at least not the way I was doing it. On the one hand, I had a set of very free, floating, quasi-diatonic ideas that, while rhythmic and repetitive, were non-periodic in their repetitiveness. On the other, I had very rigid, diatonic, periodic materials. Although constructed around the same 16th-note pulse, I was never able to make one become the other, because while the rigid material offered the possibility of change, the free materials were completely static, objects that offered no way of turning into anything else, and in combination with the developmental materials, had the effect of the stopping the piece in its tracks every time I introduced them.

This contrast between static ideas and developmental ideas, and the recognition of which is which, is one of the central difficulties of composing for me. Unable to reconcile the two in this piece, I decided to just render all the materials static, to not develop any of them in a linear way. Rather, they're constantly rearranged and juxtaposed differently, changing the perspective on each idea as it encounters another set of objects. The result thus far is like a sonic mobile, with blocks of ideas floating around freely between the two players. They sometimes play together as a sort of meta-guitar, with the Baroque guitar acting as an extension of the theorbo's upper register, sometimes they circle around each other freely. The whole thing has a kind of "suchness" to it – an unhurried, aimless sense of balance, an absence of need to change the materials in any way, their true nature having been revealed – that I find appealing at this moment in time. It turns out that I really wanted to write yet another slow, meditative piece.

I also have the troublesome Baroque guitar at my disposal for the next couple of weeks, so I can get my head around its odd tuning: five courses of strings in a re-entrant tuning (reading top-down) of E-B-G-D-A, where the D and A sound in the same register as the E minor triad. This cluster tuning creates some difficulties in imagining voicings, so having it around to experiment with will make things easier.

In line with the idea of "suchness", I took up a friend's invitation to join him last night at the local Zen center to sit zazen and hear a teisho, a teaching speech, by a visiting sensei. It was a new experience for me, as I'm mainly a solitary practicioner and consider religious expression a deeply private matter, to the point where I found a short group recitation of text mildly alarming. I found it very reassuring to hear some of the things I've been working on in my own time confirmed, and may just continue with the idea of group practice. I definitely enjoyed the feeling of being one person among many sitting in silence, doing nothing.

There's a "suchness" to life here, a feeling that each day, no matter how busy, spirals inevitably toward silence and stillness in the end, even in the city. It's embedded in Finnish culture, the value of silence ("silence is gold"), and conversations have a way of settling into enjoyable, unplanned lulls that don't require breaking. In fall especially, there's a drawing inward that happens – to people, to the earth, to the air – that makes one especially aware of silence and its place in life. (Verlyn Klinkenborg recently wrote a beautiful NY Times piece about silence in boreal Finland.) Some, myself included, would say that this craving for silence and privacy can manifest itself in extremes of social non-interaction, but it's still nice to be part of a culture that places such great weight on the importance of silence as a counterpoint to activity.

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