Thinking with the ear

Phil Ford

I’m continuing to work on some of the thoughts I started writing about the other day. Thanks to everyone who responded — the comments are so good it will take me many blog posts to get through all the questions they raise. And there have been a few blog posts in response: look here, here, here, and here.

Last time I wrote about performance as a series of deliberative acts vs. performance in a “flow state” and thought about what understanding of self and volition these two states entail. It got me thinking about an old friend — let’s call him Chuck — who was a music undergrad at the same time as me and with whom I played a little chamber music. This guy was one of the smartest people I’ve ever met in my life, a sponge for languages, ideas, literatures, whole fields of endeavor. His intellectual restlessness manifested itself in his approach to music; he was a seriously deliberative musician. When we played together, he would plan out everything that would happen in every phrase, every little pause and inflection worked out along the axis of a carefully-prepared analysis. And I, being at that time convinced that such an analytical orientation was indispensable for proper interpretation, went right along. I enjoyed the crossword-puzzle aspect of our rehearsals, the satisfying feeling of figuring out and verbalizing what he and I were to do at any given moment of the piece. But Chuck’s playing never lost a certain stiffness, a certain lack of organic cohesion—everything he played sounded as if it were made out of Tinkertoys. And it never really grew past a certain point, as Chuck admitted himself, which is why he ended up doing something else with his life (and meeting with a great deal of success).

I’d go so far as to say that those musicians like Chuck, musicians who think of performance as a highly deliberative act, are at a disadvantage. I’ve written before about my experiences studying piano with Michel Block, the result of which has been (among other things) a conviction that the duality between “form” and “content” (or style/substance, surface/depth, etc.) is an illusion. But he also got me past another conceptual blockage: the notion that piano playing can or should be a largely “intellectual,” deliberative practice in which one applies analytical insights to the music one performs. This is a kind of dualism, too, because it entails an extreme concentration on critical consciousness and an associated separation from one’s performance. One conceives of one’s body as if it were a car and the self were a separate thing driving it. The body is unruly and must be disciplined; you can’t just play a piece of music any old way your body might want to — what would Beethoven say? You have to honor his intentions! And this of course entails having intentions of your own, which you enforce on your playing. But when you do that you are always outside of yourself, unintegrated, not flowing.

This was the main problem with my own playing before I started working with Block: my playing was “ticky ticky,” as Block liked to say. Re-learning to play the piano at about age 20, I had to lose this sense of an imperial ego that was controlling everything and learn to play selflessly. I spent a summer playing very simple things — the kinds of things that had always given me trouble. Another teacher of mine, James Tocco, once remarked that I played better when the music was complex and worse when it wasn’t. I didn’t know what to do in a simple lyrical piece. If the form offered no real difficulties (just a typical character-piece ABA shape), if the texture was just uncluttered melody-and-accompaniment, if the point was just to project a singing melody, I was unstrung by the overtness of it all. I wanted to make a statement, send a message, and the simplicity of this kind of music frustrated that desire. My big realization after spending a summer playing such pieces was a variation on Samuel Goldwyn’s “if you want to send a message, call Western Union.” There’s a kind of practice where you don’t think about what you’re playing, you listen to it — that’s all, just listening. You’re making discriminations, but they’re different from rational, intentional discriminations. It’s sort of like when you hang a picture and step back and look to see if it’s straight. You’re not thinking in the usual way, and not just zoning out, either (the worst kind of playing, automatic-pilot zombie mode) — you’re thinking with the ear. Another dualism, between the mind and the senses, collapses.

As a teacher, Block was famously mercurial and eccentric, given to obscurities of speech and action in lessons. I was thrown by this at first. I would come in and play some simple songful piece Bloch had asked me to play and he would say or do something very obscure — suddenly going on about Barbra Streisand, or saying “ticky ticky” (and nothing else), or playing the left hand of the piece while poking out the right hand melody with a pencil eraser. What he wasn’t doing was saying play this part a little faster, or a little quieter, or with a little more pedal, or whatever. His teaching was deictic — a process of “direct pointing,” as those who practice Zen think of it. The reality of sound is not found in verbalized concepts, but only in itself. So if the reality of sound in itself, beyond or prior to all concepts, is what you’re after (or what you want your student to grasp), you can’t talk about it — you can only point.

That “reality of sound in itself” thing is the hard part, isn’t it? It’s the point where we become aware of the extreme limitations of language. Recent scholarly thinking on “presence” (Hans Ulrich Gumbrecht), “the drastic” (Carolyn Abbate), and “performativity” (you name it) and so on are ways of redescribing the same phenomenon—the simple mute thereness of actuality, what Buddhists call “tathata.” It’s not for nothing that one of the links to my earlier post connected my ruminations to Buddhism. Indeed, many of these thoughts, though gestating a long time within my work as a humanities scholar, appear to take on a new significance in the light of Buddhist thought, and Zen in particular, which I have been thinking a lot about lately. Music throws a light on Zen, and vice versa. This is perhaps fodder for some future blog post.

About Phil Ford

Chairman of the Committee for the Memorial to the Victims of Modernism
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5 Responses to Thinking with the ear

  1. Jim says:

    Great post, Phil. One question: do you feel like you now know what to do with a simple lyrical piece?

  2. Phil Ford says:

    Well, if I were playing at all (which I’m not) I would feel that way; I certainly did back when I was in shape. The experience I’m describing here really did mark a huge change in my playing, and it affected everything I played, not just short simple pieces. It was also what got me really into playing chamber music, since this practice of intense listening is greatly rewarded when you have other people to listen (and respond) to.
    Nice to see you around here, Jim!

  3. Lyle Sanford says:

    Terrific post with lots to process through. Very glad you’re continuing to develop this theme in such depth. What keeps floating around in the intuitive background for me in these discussions is a variant of the mind body dualism you mention. Physical gestures large and small are what actually create the music. Maybe more attention to our physical nature and our individual ways of gesturing is a way of working towards being in the flow.
    Also, here’s a recent post by Pliable over On An Overgrown Path that uses Buddhist thought to talk about music.

  4. Mark says:

    Phil, I’m going to do a pilgrimage by bicycle on Shikoku Island in Japan this summer. 88 Buddhist temples. I’m going to lose 10 lbs. and find inner peace. We’ll see how the experience affects my playing! If you want to pledge, the money will go to the building of schools in Afghanistan and Pakistan.

  5. I agree with Lyle, maybe more attention to our physical nature and our individual ways of gesturing is a way of working towards being in the flow.

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