Sunday, October 5, 2008

Connecting the Dots: From Notes on Paper to 4D Sensing

   Many people think of dots on staff paper when they think of playing music. The evolution of representing musical ideas visually went hand-in-hand with the evolution of music in Europe, and now that tradition has influenced the entire world. Writing music down has made possible the incredible library of music from the last several hundred years.
   I learned to read music very early, from my mother, who is a piano teacher. There is really not much difference between reading language and reading music: you learn the letters, you start understanding them together in words, then phrases, and eventually you can read a novel, or you can read a symphony. You learn to see patterns of phrasing, to intuit the implied inflection and emotion, and to read "between the lines" when you have background information about the author and the time period. I am dealing with conventional Western (European-originated) notation here. There are people who have created alternative systems, which communicate directions for different concepts and processes. 
   In the Western system, the visual representation of music on a two-dimensional plane gives us certain information. For a given "note" there are usually symbols of pitch, relative time duration, and relative loudness. There are usually markings which indicate the shaping of the piece - how it changes in loudness and timing. Some composers include more detail about the expressive qualities of their music. But all of this is VERY little information about how a piece can be brought to life with imagination, because millions of subtle details go into a performance: changes in timing and timbre which would be extremely cumbersome to notate. And as more details accumulate on paper, the less freedom the performer has to interpret. The page communicates only a shorthand concept for a piece of music. There is a huge difference between seeing a recipe in a book and actually cooking it up and tasting it.
   From the performer's point of view, the notes on paper tell nothing about the physical process of making the sounds. This is why we as performers can get confused, distracted and derailed by reading and playing at the same time. We can become so involved in the act of reading and in the abstract conception of a work that we lose touch with what we are doing physically. We might not even be listening to the sound we are producing on our own instruments. We might get so tunnel-focused on reading that we are unaware of our fellow musicians, with whom we are supposed to be playing. How can we expand our awareness beyond the 2D world of dry dots on paper?
   Let me make it personal: I realize that I've been out of touch with my actual physical feeling while playing the violin. I have played for 35 years - professionally for about 22  of those - but there are certain things I still want to improve. I want to improve the continuity of my awareness in my performances. I want to improve my accuracy when shifting positions. I want to allow freer flow from imagination to actualization. Don't we as musicians all want these things?  The goal is: being more conscious, which means being more continuously WITHIN the action.
   It has to do with employing 3D sensing: feeling your physical shape changing as you play your instrument. And it has to do with staying awake during the unnamed, unrepresented time-spaces between the named locations we call "notes." Again, the instructions are - because we don't usually give attention to these things:
Feel your instrument with your sense of touch, and feel your movements through space in three dimensions.
Remain conscious (feeling, hearing, seeing) during the transitional times between the notes. With this it becomes 4D sensing, since time is the fourth dimension.

   The concept of a "note" has gained too much solidity, too much importance, because notes have a visual presence in front of us on a piece of paper. We validate them as "real" because we can see them. They have a measurable quantity of ink. But the dot represents only a temporary spot in a continuum of change. The dot represents a destination, a resting point, a beginning of a sound change. But the beginning of the note is only a small part of the story. Once the sound starts, it is already changing, going outward, morphing as you either stop suddenly or continue the movement which started it. It is resonating and reflecting against things, or it is going out into space and disappearing. Can we be aware of the continuum, not just the sound "locations" which we call "notes"? We call them "notes" because we have invented a way to describe certain coordinates, name them, and notate them. Can we stay aware of the whole landscape, not just the named landmarks?
   If I am playing the violin, let's say I start playing a note, from the frog (the part of the bow closest to where I hold it.) I have already done most of what is on paper: a certain pitch, a certain loudness of starting the note. Now I am in a process of holding it the notated duration of time, which doesn't take up a visually-proportional space on the page. I've already exhausted the information in the dot, so now I'm in uncharted territory: the unrepresented space-time between the notes. I am drawing my bow arm down, keeping the bow hair in contact with the string, extending my forearm to its full length. The movement of the bow arm is a continuous thing: a flow not described by a dot. My left hand is resting in a position, maybe vibrating back and forth, if that is desired in the musical style. My body as a whole has a certain shape, my hands are in a particular position for producing a particular sound. I reach the next instruction, the next dot. The dot on the page doesn't describe the multi-faceted motion through space that I must do with both hands to play the next pitch in the prescribed manner. The notation also doesn't show the time it takes to execute that motion.
   The feeling of transitional areas of time is known as "rhythm," and we work it with constantly as musicians. Its use in music is based on the concept of a mathematical grid placed over felt time, in which we measure relative "lengths" of time. We practice it as a mental discipline, but it resonates in the body. It is like intuitive mathematics. We feel the in-between times between impulses of sound.
   The transitional motions through space between note-landmarks are felt in the body by the sense of touch. From muscles and joints we receive messages about the shape we are making with our limbs in space. From pressure on our skin we receive messages about the instrument we are holding and playing. To feel the transitions between named points (notes) we have to stay "in touch" - in its most basic meaning. If we've gotten "out of touch" we must re-validate our sense of touch: re-activate the connection of our mental awareness to our sense of our bodies' felt presence. We must stay aware during transitions.

Next essay will continue with this subject, exploring the idea of perceiving and validating the in-between spaces and times...


Scott Robinson said...

Have you read Christopher Small's book "Musicking"? He makes the case that "music," as an object, does not exist--there is only the act of performance. A recording is an archive of a performance; a score is a set of instructions for a performance. Dots on paper are not music.

You might enjoy this: he also says that, although we are taught that musicians exist to play pieces of music, in fact pieces of music exist to give performers something to play!

Steve said...

Ms Justen,
Though it has been a few years since you have updated this blog, I have recently discovered it, and I would very much like to read your thoughts in the next essay you were planning to add -"exploring the idea of perceiving and validating the in-between spaces and times..." - whenever your commitments and interests will allow you the time to add it. Thank you so much for what is here in your blog, for that part of yourself you have already shared with us.