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The sound of water

Walking is banal, everyday, inevitable. Walking is a necessary transportational utility for most people. It follows that few leave the house without headphones, myself included.

I do not mean the kind of planned crusade or organised expedition into the woods. I like to think most people can enjoy that sort of thing. I mean the obvious walking from house to class to seminar, from library to Tesco. A lame walking that simply has to be done.

When my phone broke three months ago, I felt not an ounce of surprise nor a hurry to replace the thing. It was getting old and I had been given a timely warning. My smartphone days were over and I felt a combination of relief and excitement. Then, however, came the absolute paroxysm of discovering that no phone meant no music en route. I reckoned that only a considerably valiant individual would be able to put up with this for long. I decided that I was not a considerably valiant individual. However, I did also decide to wait a while before investing in an iPod.

I recall parking myself on the staircase before having to leave the house for a lecture. This is where I would usually sit and choose the music that would suit the time span of my walk. I’m not the only music student who engages in these sorts of shenanigans before stepping out of the door! Now, no more Elton John to colour my crusade. Ah! No more could I hear the opening chord of Rachmaninov’s piano concerto no.3 (third movement!) so privately in my skull-sized world, and selfishly keep it there. 

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I felt bemused at my situation although forlorn might have described it better. You think I am making my walks into university seem more like a divine comedy. But yeah, without music, everything felt like a right trip! A pilgrimage all the way to the train station did not feel as exciting as it had in the past.

For a while I felt restless as if my walks were an empty wasting of time. Go away, spirit of my silence! I could be listening to Brahms right now. Beremboim is right: music quickens time. When we put our headphones on we wade in sound – we rely only on seeing where we are going. I have always been told to look right and left for cars, but never to listen for them. But how funny that my very ability to see properly is dependent on light (I can, in fact close my eyes if I wish not to see), but I can never adjourn my hearing. 

“Wherever we are, what we hear is mostly noise. When we hear it, it disturbs us. When we listen to it, we find it fascinating. The sound of a truck at fifty miles per hour. Static between the stations. Rain” – John Cage, in in his lectures and writings on Silence

Martyn Evans‘ view is in the same genre – bodily wellbeing exists in bodily silence at all, for no such thing is possible. It exists in exuberance, in song. When Cage entered an anechoic chamber at Harvard University in 1948 he looked forward to absolute silence, however later reported that he could hear one high and one low sound. Later, the engineer at the university usefully answered his questions: the high sound was his nervous system in operation, the low sound his blood in circulation.

“Inner” music is like a metaphor for, the taken-for-granted, ordinary living. Sometimes I am too preoccupied to hear my inner music. Then I walk by a friend and suddenly I hear the music again like the volume is being turned up, and I remember that life is very well. I am suddenly in tune. A less idealistic example is when I really pay attention to my fatigue or my need for an espresso. That is like a fish asking, “What the hell is water?”. With routine, like walking to a rehearsal, comes the work of choosing. It is in my power, after all, to consider a pilgrimage to the Norman Chapel in sub-zero-degrees as meaningful without recourse to Brahms to making the 9 minutes walk more somehow meaningful.

“So you have had a quiet few days so far?” my friend asked. I thought calmly about how cacophonous, noisy and overcast my week had been without my headphones. I replied (in the voice of death): “It is uncomfortable, the noise of silence”.

I began to sing out loud when I walked. I sang bits of melodies, stuck them together and also thought my own tunes up. I drove myself insane. One day I simply stopped walking, hauled my backpack against the nearest wall and took out a book so that I could read as I walked (I cannot say I would recommend this antidote).

I started noticing how extremely unpredictable inner music can be. How do I explain how ‘un-monochromatic’ it is? The same voice can ask questions and make statements, the same hands can gently touch a piano and can break open a tin of chickpeas. My feet that walk to café Capriccio are the same but different to those that run away from the rain. I can walk in different ways – I can pace or I can be a happy-go-lucky saunterer, like Thoreau’s treatise advises me to be. And these are fragments of self that I cosset in a sense.

When I walk with a disposition of presence and not productivity, I can listen acutely to what part of myself I am bringing to wherever I am going. I rarely ever bring my whole self. A part of me might be agonising over something, for example, but I have to go to the Norman Chapel and just sing. It is a gift that, like a walk will never be the same, I will never become quite familiar to myself. It becomes so important how many rainy days there are in my life. 

Maybe to walk with presence is to really be where you are and not have to rely on music to rose-tint it. The wind is cold. But how dare I be on Elvet bridge if I am thinking of something other than being on Elvet bridge?

A few weeks ago, I received a package in the mail. Holding an iPod felt strange – blue, thin and lightweight. Listening to music makes me happier than I can ever attempt to say. I look forward to fantasising whilst I walk, to letting the music carry me into higher thoughts rather than being reduced to thinking about mechanically putting one foot after the other. 

Despite what Kant said about music being enjoyed for itself and not for its ability to silence the noise of life, I don’t think listening to music whilst walking is a weapon against noisy platitudes. Nor is it self silencing. I think it can be those things, just like a knife can be used to murder or cut bread. Listening to music can be a way of imposing alleviation or order onto our daily worlds, but I think it is necessary to adapt ourselves to our surroundings on a regular basis. This may mean leaving headphones at home a few times per week.

My time without music reminded me that freedom is being where I am. To walk with a gallery of faces that are also crossing the road, not just beside them. Water is always there, I must simply notice it. 

 

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Artist of limits.

(This article is inspired by a talk given at the Philosophy of Improvisation: Aesthetics of Imperfection Workshops)

To be the master of perfect is inconceivable to Joe McPhee – he can only ever learn how to be a bigger mess.

The Joe McPhee Trio concert on Thursday the 4th of October marked a reunion between Joe and Paul Hession, who had not played together in 15 years. With all but a brief sound check, the trio delivered a totally improvised performance to a general listenership who remained seated for the entirety of the concert, even between two breaks.

“The audience gives back”.

Total improvisation is not just musical. As we can see, it constitutes the whole act of getting on the stage with someone who you’ve not communicated with prior to the performance.

Thinking too much, therefore, will slow you down.

We return to the child as example. Children are not suspicious or protective. Because their responses are not analytical or self conscious, they are capable of purely experiencing. They don’t think too much; they just enjoy being. 

Kathleen Raine recommends that we have to “unlearn, to un-know, if we hope to recapture a glimpse of that paradisal vision” rather than trying to understand everything. To become a bigger mess.

Perhaps, only then we will see value in things we did not see before. This sense of awe will inspire us to appreciate and use opportunities that are otherwise invisible to us. Happiness after all, to me, is seeing the same things but with different eyes.

“Children make do with things”, claims Joe. Indeed, children – little artists of limits – can use scant materials to come up with imaginative results. Give a child a stick and a stone and they will create an imaginary world.

Joe’s affinity with sounds is linked to past experiences. Perhaps he values the subconscious process of assembling observational and sensory data from the past. For, we cannot be separated from these experiences; so we might as well use their creative or destructive potential. Use the ‘lasso’ technique to grab pieces of creatio ex nihilo.

 

The Instrumental Impulse.

(This article is inspired by a talk given at the Philosophy of Improvisation: Aesthetics of Imperfection Workshops)

Improvising pianist, Adam Fiarhall, likes the rival   aesthetics of imperfection and perfection and is, in fact, at peace with crudeness.

Perhaps where a problem with perfection versus imperfection arises resides in our tendency  to separate practice from performance. This is relevant for the musician but does not exclude the dancer, the marathon runner or the surgeon practicing on a human cadaver.

How can the performance be the “real thing” if we don’t regard practice as “real”?

Adam spoke about developing an improvisation vocabulary for unconventional keyboard instruments. He prefers to play on “prepared” toy pianos (prepared as in arranged to perform extended techniques). This, in combination with actively developing his musical vocabulary during practice, reinvigorates his sense of ‘instrumental impulse’. 

 

To me, the ‘instrumental impulse’ is the genetic component to improvisation that Hamilton depicts in his book. This is the idea that improvisation is undetectable; for what would it matter, aesthetically, if something was not improvised but had an ‘improvised feel’? Most audience member’s would not be able to notice a different.

Composer Eliot Carter said that improvisation is a theatrical act – undigested fragments of our unconscious float to the surface in the process. We subconsciously use the familiar patterns imbedded in our muscular memory.

Adam states that the function of his idiosyncratic techniques is to ensure that improvisation does not happen over fixed codes. Like Pak Yan Lau, Adam practices to be prepared for spontaneity. This is the premise of improvisation; being in the moment and not thinking too much.

Perhaps we should regard practice more as a means of “creating ourselves” than to acquire a skill. We make an effort to approach practice with the curiosity of a beginner.

Perhaps, then, preparation begins to hide itself when it reaches a certain level.

The Present Imperfect.

(This article is inspired by a talk given at the Philosophy of Improvisation: Aesthetics of Imperfection Workshops

Improvisation is like instant coffee!

There is no romanticising – improvisation does not pretend to be anything it is not. Improvisation is incomplete; it is not given much thought, if any. What if this is precisely what makes improvised music impressive?

“We’re not here to be functions”, says Chris Corsano, free improvising drummer. We are here to create and transcend.

Chris is inspired by the use of the past imperfective in Spanish classes. The dictionary will say that the imperfect, not found in the English language, combines the past tense with an imperfect aspect.

If a perfect tense (such as past, present or future perfect) connotes something as ‘whole’ and complete at a definite time, the imperfect tense is to refer to something incomplete. This can be like saying “When I was younger…”. There is no definite time or end.

The imperfect aspect describes a repeated, continuous event – when something occurs in time, no matter what the external. It refers to the viewing of a situation with an interior composition. It is introspective.

Improvisation teaches you to listen.

Perhaps to use the dictionary perspective of imperfect – “faulty or incomplete” – is to inflict a value judgement; however, perhaps improvisation is valued for being imperfect. I don’t think an aesthetics of imperfection is paradoxical.

Just like improvisation is progressive and habitual, so is the imperfect – it is inherent in us, ever evolving with life and a ubiquitous part of living. The imperfection in improvisation is omniscient; it occurs in the past, present and future.

Whereas the perfect assesses a situation without interior composition (that is, it only describes forefront action), the imperfect sets the context (Chris describes this as an “investigation of the situation from the inside”).

Similar to the imperfect tense, improvisation leads to a “reverse-trauma-esque experience”. You remember how an event made you feel instead of remembering the exact trivialities and technicalities of the experience.

The imperfect tense can teach us that there is a place where time becomes abstracted, stretched and illusory. Improvisation resides there.

 

Imperfect Interactions when Improvising with others.

(This article is inspired by a talk given at the Philosophy of Improvisation: Aesthetics of Imperfection Workshops)

If musical composition is a means of achieving perfection and musical improvisation takes value in imperfection, what we are dealing with, aesthetically, is not an issue of taxonomy. The difference is in the spontaneity.

Graeme Wilson, free improvisation researcher and performer, views composition as solitary, and improvisation as inherently social.

What implications does such a spontaneous environment create when making music with others?

There is a collective anticipation as the players imagine what course the music will take. Every musician brings different strengths and weaknesses, all the time not approaching the performance with any “preconceived notion as to what kind of effect to achieve”, as musician Ornette Coleman describes his idea of unmediated emotional expression.

“When I improvise with others” maintains Graeme, “I want to achieve creativity, not perfection. I don’t know how I can achieve perfection”.

Very often, jazz musicians meet their fellow improvisers for the first time on the stage. Graeme claims that spontaneity helps in circumstances like these, where perfection can’t be expected. Despite what people believe, spontaneity opens up time to think and allow new possibilities to become apparent.

Perhaps we are dealing with an aesthetics of compromise.

Everyone has a different idea of where the music will go; therefore, improvising embraces a democratic philosophy of negotiation. For example, how will musicians collectively decide when will the music end? The ending is a philosophically fascinating place to be.

Existentialist writers like Kafka are fascinated with life’s anxieties and the absurdity of choices. Rather like Kafka’s characters, perhaps, we must plough onwards in improvisation as in life.

Like conversing with people, creating music together is just as educational. You learn more with others than you could learn by yourself. Improvisation is a way of being creative in collaboration. It is a paradigm for social interaction.

 

That’s Not Freedom, That’s Taking License.

(This article is inspired by a talk given at the Philosophy of Improvisation: Aesthetics of Imperfection Workshops)

Feldman’s compositions don’t impose themselves on you, and they refuse to shout about their meaning or importance – even their length. They also resist your attempts to predict what might happen next. His music is full of repetition, and yet nothing ever repeats. What I mean is that individual chords, textures and rhythmic ideas reoccur, but they are never (or very rarely) the same. – Tom service 

Graphic musical scores ask you to withdraw meaning and information from symbols, pictures and texts. Many argue that such non-standard notation requires a performer to be visually literate and imaginative – the music depends on their individual choices of interpretation. 

But where does the composer belong in this story? Do performers mistake the freedom associated with graphic scores for licence?

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What are the pitfalls in interpreting graphic scores such as those by Morton Feldman? John Snijders, music lecturer at Durham University, made this the focus of his talk.

Cage, a contemporary composer, described Feldman’s music as “indeterminate with respect to its performance”.

If Feldman really was the originator of ‘chance’ music, then how can his indeterminate music be a recipe for catastrophe?

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Ixion by Feldman

Feldman stated that  “patterns are ‘complete’ in themselves and in no need of development – only of extension”. Perhaps then, according to his view, improvisation and interpretation is reliant on pre-existing forms.

But how do you really play a picture?

How do you know what the composer really wants if the sounds no longer have a determined symbolic shape, and if the instructions are indistinct. For example, Feldman rarely referred to ‘pitches’ – he much preferred ‘sounds’. This can be seen as vague.

How much ownership is a performer allowed?

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In Feldman’s Projections 2 very little is prescribed to the performer; for example, pitch is either signified as low, middle, or high. He is, however, very clear about instrumentation for the piece: flute, trumpet, violin, cello and piano.

 

Could Feldman’s scores be arbitrary in terms of notation but not sound?

Feldman felt so strongly about how he wanted graphic gestures to be interpreted and what he wrote Ixion in standard notation for performers who did not have the time or inclination to read his numbers.

Is the sound world in graphic scores the same as in notated scores?

Indeed, Feldman had a fixed ideas of sound. Should performers aim to meet these expectations of his, or use the score as a point of departure? Perhaps the score belongs to the composer but the performance of it to the performer. This would infer that the music does not solely belong to the composer.

“But you can always write your own piece”, concluded Snijders, in a humorous tone.

Perfection and Authenticity.

(This article is inspired by a talk given at the Philosophy of Improvisation: Aesthetics of Imperfection Workshops)

Recording is known to be a laborious, time-consuming process.

Many takes and crumpled sheets of manuscript paper later, the desired sound might be vaguely achieved, and we haven’t even started talking about quantising the beat or splicing yet.

Rock guitarist and sound engineer Dave Lloyd spoke about editing improvised recordings. Is audio-editing on the composition side of the spectrum? Surely, yes, if recording includes corrective techniques, and time to make choices.

Early 20th-century composer, Schoenberg, claims that composing is like slowed down improvisation – “one cannot write fast enough to keep up with the stream of ideas”. Almost in the same vein, Schoenberg’s contemporary, Busoni, stated that to put something on paper is inherently imperfect because it is impossible to capture everything.

Does the same apply to recording?

We can thus, perhaps, infer that an aesthetics of imperfection versus perfection is problematic. Imperfection is a valid potentiality in recording and composition as much as improvisation.

In adopting a perfectionist attitude, are we dehumanising the act of making music?

Perhaps it is a question of genre. Some genres rely more on editing; the idea is to modify, improve and enhance the musical vision of the artist. The outcome is a produced recording rather than a performance recording. But what about an untouched recording of an improvisation? Surely, that would still transform it into a composition if it is plucked out of its moment?

Does recording change the status of improvisation in fundamental way?

Perhaps it is a question of priority. The musical idea is the focus of the composition or recording, whereas improvisation focusses on energy and immediacy all of which happen in real time.

Dave argues that a recording does not provide an experience in its totality. It is lacking. It is like seeing an animal in a zoo compared to in the wild. Perhaps editing messes with the memory of the audience. An experience is turned into an object and this may foster disappointment or surprise.

Perhaps we can conclude that, despite the fact that improvisers and recording musicians have a similar aim – to make their work as good as it can be – improvisation and recording require a different structure of listening.

 

Image from https://www.tate.org.uk/art/artworks/marclay-the-clock-t14038/where-does-time-go

 

 

The Aesthetics of Possibilities.

(This article is inspired by a talk given at the Philosophy of Improvisation: Aesthetics of Imperfection Workshops)

What is the perfect performance? Does such a thing even exist?

Perhaps perfection is a transient moment. Upon looking back at a video or recording, for example, is it still perfect?

Most importantly, can we draw something positive from the aesthetics of perfection?

An aesthetics of imperfection versus perfection can be toxic. Improvising pianist, Pak Yan Lau, suggests that we should opt for something more positive, namely, an aesthetics of possibilities.

Often, when we are just trying to be, calm is gatecrashed by the inner judging spectre who is inside us all. It ceases to be all about the music. An aesthetics of perfection can lead to comparison to others, for example. Brahms never felt that he could live up to the music of Beethoven. An attitude of perfectionism means that it is all about getting there, less about the process of going through getting there.

12309570_543347505823871_2255958730379151864_o.jpgWilliam Blake refers to man’s judging spectre as their Urizen (their ‘reason’) – a jealous, unimaginative, loveless tyrant. I believe that to think reason is the enemy is closed minded, passive and cynical. I believe we need to think in order to be ready to confront our judging spectre.

We are all capable of making coherent choices informed by knowledge and creativity.

For Pak Yan Lau, it is less about how she gets there. “I just go through it”, she explains, telling us about her performances.

Pak Yan Lau shared with us a fascinating but brief resume of her life up until now; specifically, how she changed from an interpreter (performing compositions) to improviser. Classical training in the conservatoire translated to little creativity and hampered freedom in terms of what she could and could not do musically. So she left.

“I learnt a lot by bumping into things”

Pak Yan Lau played in bands, experimented with instruments and toy instruments. It was a liberating counter reaction to her life at the conservatoire.

Both composition and improvisation involve possibilities, she clarified. This reminded me of something Camus explains in his The myth of Sisyphus; the idea that two men of completely different lives but who are the same age, are given the same number of experiences in their life. It is about how aware you are of those experiences – about richly you choose to experience. Similarly, the improvisor and composer are each given the same number of possibilities. Perhaps it is about how much they listen out for them, approach them, live through them.

There is freedom in interpretation – that is, playing a composition. Without interpretation, our experiences can only be narrated through literal descriptions and the senses, claims Alasdair Macintyre in Fact, Explanation and Expertise. 

Pak Yan Lau believes that improvisation harbours more freedom. Possibilities of adapting to who you are playing with, the room you are playing in, the time you are playing at are more spontaneous. It is human. Improvising with others can convene people with very different ideas and backgrounds in order to create a common ground.

But, if you are familiar with the musicians you are performing with, is it still improvising?

I asked Pak Yan Lau about her practice. Interpreters practice to be prepared – you don’t want to mess up those scales in that Bach suite. Do improvising musicians practice to be unprepared? To be ready to take risks?

The focus of composition and improvisation is the same – to make the best music possible. This involves a level of preparedness.

To my question, Pak Yan Lau replied that everything she does is preparation. Thinking about music, taking out the instrument. Hers is a very non dualist approach – she becomes one with her performance. She listens. Listening is an act of making an effort.

Perhaps practice builds up a personal language and style. Through style, we can move and display our true selves.

 

Architecture of Imperfection: Unfinished Sketches and the Sublime.

(This article is inspired by a talk given at the Philosophy of Improvisation: Aesthetics of Imperfection Workshops)

The sketch gives a creative and artistic link to the practice of architecture. Despite computational design, algorithms and software that have extended the abilities of the architect, the hand-drawn sketch is still important today.

If the sketch is the expression of the building, then our imagination is entertained with the promise of something more. During Elizabeth’s talk, I found myself asking whether or not a potential can be more beautiful than an outcome.

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Elizabeth showed us some realistic depictions of scenes from Shakespeare – but can paintings go beyond the literal? Can the visual convey the sublime or is ‘material’ their limitation?

The ‘sublime’ goes beyond what we can see, and the ‘beautiful’ lies in the form. From al fresco, to painting on a canvas; the frame around a painting represents the notion of the ‘work’ and, thus, portrays artists and composers as ‘desk workers’. The product is of central importance.

If Plato and Aristotle believed that the arts, especially music, are integral to the construction of our universe, then surely our senses are not to be trusted? We see an artwork as composed of lines and colours but only our minds can fathom its true essence. The mind can travel further than the eye.

What about limits, such as a ‘frame’ – can they yield possibilities?

Elizabeth’s talk reminded me of Achilles’ shield. Firstly, it is circular and therefore infinite – there is nothing beyond it. Secondly, its function is largely figurative and referential – with so many scenes depicted on the shield, surely this art is about time and not space. It is like a cartoon strip in that it shows sequence. Angelo_monticelli_shield-of-achilles.jpg

Perhaps ‘form’ can be interpreted infinitely. That is, you can see new aspects every time you look at a work. There is pleasure in obscurity. In his book, The Infinity of Lists, Eco states that art “constructs harmonious representations that establish order”.

Can limits yield possibility?

Does the idea that sketching and visual art ‘imitates’, using the superficial, mean that they are limited in terms of what they can portray? What they can affect? Music, for example, can be suffused with suggestive obscurity. But surely, the feelings we get from a painting are subjective and variable too, at least to an extent?

To what extent the sublime can be the beautiful?

Romantic painter J.M.W Turner shows that the imagination can be emancipated by a painting.

His use of colour does not give ‘edges’ or ‘framing’. It gives shape. Edges fade into nothing. Perhaps structure ignites spontaneity and can extend to the sublime by reaching outward.

Perhaps, there is pleasure in obscurity.

 

 

 

 

 

Ethics and Embodiment in Dance improvisation.

(This article is inspired by a talk given at the Philosophy of Improvisation: Aesthetics of Imperfection Workshops)

truth and reality in art do not arise until you no longer understand what you are doing and are capable of but nevertheless sense a power that grows in proportion to your resistance – Henri Matisse 

It is not uncommon for dancers to agree on the fact that to dance is to lose oneself in the process.

Theatre and dance academic, Annie Kloppenberg, believes that “space is felt, not just seen”. To me this is suggesting that to experience space is a process and not a product. In other words it is suggestive, not exhaustive. Movement transcends the ocularcentricity in dance; this inclination towards the ‘unseen’ is revealed in the very etymology of the word improvisation.

Improvisatory dance, says Annie, leads to an attunement, expressing possibilities, composition and collaboration, and a ‘productive friction’. This ‘productive friction’ suggests that imperfection can give the wrestling with the unstable a sense of structure.

In a sense this is all-inclusive. Perhaps everybody can improvise.

Is to be alive to improvise?

Interestingly, Annie started talking about the concept of free will in improvisation. What is freedom? Is it a presence of choice, or absence of context?

It must be the case that, as an improvising dancer, the movements happen before one is consciously aware – are they beyond the scope of consciousness?

But surely to say that our world is far too filled with things and laws for free will is materialistic?

Annie spoke about ‘play’ as being an important part of creative and moral wellbeing – “the pleasure of play is in the potential of failure and the transgression of rules”. In his book on Leisure, Pieper highlights the condition of our ‘workaholic’ society; leisure is seen as indulgence for those who are lucky enough to have time to be idle.

But, surely if, as Aristotle said, that what shapes a man is what he does during his leisure time, then would we not want to fill those times with undisturbed presence with oneself? A creative and contemplative quiet?

This is play – it is a generative process. Annie states that the art of imperfection lies in evaluating ‘minds at work’; there is a childlike element. It is not what we do but how we do it – context is the most important.

This context must encourage us to reposition who we are and our capacities. Perhaps play is the reason that children are so readily adaptable to change; a living thing that plays is not tied to capricious restrictions and has a broad outlook on life.

Annie taught me that improvised dance is an expression of freedom, and that play is an essential ingredient in the process.

 

Illustration links :

https://www.henrimatisse.org/the-dance.jsp

 

Rarely heard, small unwanted sounds from the focus.

(This article is inspired by a talk given at the Philosophy of Improvisation: Aesthetics of Imperfection Workshops)

With his prepared semi-acoustic guitar balanced flat on his lap, David Brown set off to show us his fascination with ‘imperfect sounds’. Using utensils such as pegs and a fanlike device related to the sound of a fly, David produced twangs and clangorous sounds that constitute his personal musical vocabulary.

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These are the unwanted sounds, almost musique concrète in their conversance with metallic, bubbling and helicopter noises. The sounds that make you feel uneasy.

In his music, David uses the superfluous sounds around what he is trying to create. Think of accidental sounds in a violin recital, for example; say, the scraping noise of the bow when it is applied with slightly too much pressure on the string. This is an example of a sound that is meant to be inaudible. It belongs in the void or the ‘focus’, according to David.

An audience member asked whether or not there was an entertainment aspect in his set up. Does he ever find the sounds he is making funny or comic? David believes that it is almost as if he enters another worldly state when he is performing; perhaps, almost to the point where improvisation becomes an intuitive activity.

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Is it the case that David is actively looking for contingencies to react to or against?

I don’t believe so. David’s performances correspond to an aesthetics of imperfection – that is, he has an open and spontaneous approach to mistakes. His plan, during performance, is completely flexible to the fact that there are always weak spots in improvisation.

“In some ways, improvisation is my personality”.

Perhaps a question we should ask ourselves is whether or not we should value novelty of sound over cultivating style? According to David, practicing too much can lead to overthinking. The best practice is to perform a lot – to play with other people too.

An interesting question that cropped up in the audience: is there a desire to erase your past when you are performing? David tweaked the question by replying that he did have a desire to erase aspiration.

At first, I was not sure about this, but then I realised that David’s is an ethical musical position. His aesthetic state of mind is such that he doesn’t think too much during performance so as to remain flexible to unexpected contingencies. His message to us is that we should get creative with our mistakes.

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Still water moves.

(This article is inspired by a talk given at the Philosophy of Improvisation: Aesthetics of Imperfection Workshops)

Gardens are forever maturing.

I have watched my grandmother plant seeds, water them, watch and worship them. Perhaps after a certain point, your garden becomes independent and self-sufficient. You lose an element of the control you once had.

Phil Robinson’s  talk was more like a long poem asking this: does improvisation have a place in the garden? Could improvisation in gardening challenge our assumptions around perfection?

Many think about repeating patterns of form and colour when they think of a garden. We, as the gardener, can make the choice to use yellow against blue – opposites on the colour wheel.

Perfection is, by definition, a singular and static idea. But consider water. It brings patterns to life.

What colour is water? When it reflects, it leaves some of itself behind. Water is also a home. Birds come to water, for example, and we enjoy their presence and their movement in the garden.

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When I see rowers on the river Wear here at Durham University, it is like they are rowing on clouds.

Water moves, nature moves, we move and Cézanne can bring a painting of teacup to life. Perhaps this says something about how we should view process, improvisation and unfinishedness.

We come across certain constraints in life, improvisation and gardens. A constraint in the garden could be a hedge. Personally, I see a hedge as an “affordance”; it effects and controls your movement like a wall in a house that is designed to separate and articulate.

Perhaps, instead of allowing our eyes to be hegemonic, we should yield to the ease of movement that a garden encourages. A garden wants wellbeing for all its inhabitants.

The architect Pallasmaa said something that sticks with me. When he visits a city, he uses his whole body to confront it – “I experience myself in the city and the city exists through my embodied experience”.

In applying this philosophy to gardening and music, I believe the idea is to feel yourself in the process of improvisation. Become one with it, in some way, however cruel the crossing of two paths may be. At some point you will have to choose left or right, and the time of choice will come when it comes.

“It is difficult to walk through an orchard and not hit a tree” concludes Phil. And, therefore, a gardener has to improvise. To realise both that a garden is never finished, and that it has a mind of its own. It is a dynamic thing; a movement thing.

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Illustration links :

(Klimt) Water serpents, Unterach on Attersee, Apple tree

https://www.gustav-klimt.com/Unterach-on-Attersee.jsp

The Mistake as Material.

 

(This article is inspired by a talk given at the Philosophy of Improvisation: Aesthetics of Imperfection Workshops)

Corey Mwamba’s thoughts on the mistake gave me more questions to run with than answers to sit down with and that is why I enjoyed listening to him so much.

In this video, skip to 1:45 and you’ll see a little trumpeter improvising. If you look carefully, there is a moment during which the boy behind him winces. Funnily enough, it is at precisely this moment that our little trumpeter plays a clashing D note over an opposing E-flat chord. “Rationally speaking”, says Corey, the D note in that harmonic context was a mistake.

But should we be rational when we are creating music?

What is a mistake? Is it signalled by someone’s response, such as the little individual’s grimace – surely that is material evidence of a mistake?

Where is a mistake located exactly? Corey believes that the mistake is located in our perceptions. What you perceive as a mistake, the person next to you might perceive as an effect, completely intended.

But if the mistake is not something we can all 100% agree on, then does it have concrete existence? I believe that the mistake does exist because we are free to decide. I believe in the idea of informed mistakes; all mistakes are made for a reason and can be used as raw material, can open doors, be exploited and explored.

Perhaps we label mistakes as mistakes because we are too lazy to understand? Something is perceived as wrong as soon as it ceases to be coherent. Maybe it is a question of putting in more effort…

Corey draws a parallel between the mutualism of two different species of animals and states that composition and improvisation, too, have a mutualistic relationship. In his book on aesthetics and music, Hamilton refers to composition and improvisation as interpenetrating opposites; elements of imperfection can be traced in perfection and vice versa.

We must then ask ourselves this question: if playing the ‘composition’ means that you are playing something preprepared, and if ‘improvising’ means that you are grabbing ideas out of nothing like a lasso, then surely the entertainment context belonging to the improviser is a safer one? The audience would be much more forgiving.

Perhaps we should focus on the symbiosis between composition and improvisation. Neither are a ‘state’ of being. The point is simply to make music. We return to the idea of the child’s world wherein we cease to be the victim of our mistakes, but we use them to our advantage.

“It is about the attempt”, says Corey, and not just about interpreting the result. The attempt can be seen as the drive, and is separate from both the process and the product.A musician can attempt to produce music as a desired result from a conceived process. This is true for both performers of a composed work, and performers who improvise on a devised structure, or interprets a set of instructions.

Children don’t wince at the remembrances of mistakes. They barely dwell on them; in fact the little trumpeter hung onto the D for a good few seconds. That “mistake”, if we are speaking rationally, is a little grain that can become a pearl.

Perhaps it is not willingness to make mistakes that matters, but to correct them. What you do in the tenth of a second following a mistake is what is important. I think that this is what Corey is referring to by the attempt to produce a desired result can take root in an emerging process.

One more thing. If you rewatch the video very carefully, you’ll see that what caused the comical little grimace across the boy’s face was not the D note that his friend played. No, if you follow his gaze, you will see that he was pulling a face at the camera. On that note, perhaps we should all subscribe to Miles Davies’ notion that mistakes are not to be feared, for there are none.

“Stardust” : Seeing and Imagining what Isn’t There.

(This article is inspired by a talk given at the Philosophy of Improvisation: Aesthetics of Imperfection Workshops

“I must apologise before I start”, said Martin Mayes, and proceeded to confess that he had pre-prepared his presentation. So much for a workshop based around the theme of values in imperfection and improvisation! Alas, he shall be forgiven, for he talked about everything from the magic of stars and horns to shepherds. What, with covering this much ground in a mere 30 minutes, following a plan was probably a good idea.

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If stars are the moment of perfection, then the dark space around them are the imperfection, explains Martin. Does this then mean there is more space for imperfection? Or perhaps that creating involves the bringing together of moments (stars) that are unrelated, and this involves inevitable contact with the imperfect.

Lets suppose that you are a fortunate reader who lives somewhere unplagued by light or air-pollution and that you can go and stare at the stars tonight. What are those shining things really? What is that out there?

Martin played a familiar audio clip from The Lion king where Timone and Pumbaa are heard speculating over whether stars are really fireflies or balls of gas. Who knows?

Children belong in the ‘world of noise’ – energy, movement, unknown, vitality. They embody a space of imperfection which is open and susceptible to change. Perfection is closed and completed.

Childhood’s end happens when we become stuffed with preconceived knowledge, when we cannot explore and express without permission, and when we sacrifice our inherent pliability and richness by the breaking apart of learning.

In his book, Free Play, Nachmanovich denies the fact that there is such a thing as society. There are only “imperfect people doing their imperfect best and doing their imperfect jobs”. Everybody grows up, but we must transcend the experience like Picasso did. Picasso’s drawings are childlike, but not done by a child.

Martin explains that the sound of the horn, unlike the trumpet which is straight in shape, does not penetrate, it transcends. Its tubing is similar to seashells and trees – dynamic in shape like our ears.

 

Our ears shaped like an infinite spiral and this connotes agency – it is a musical symbol of reaching out. Martin uses the example of Romantic music wherein the horn evokes distant lands and unknown. Listen to Tchaikovsky’s, for example.

 

Play a note on the piano followed by another a fifth higher. Martin describes the fifth interval as a sound like a call – it already exists, and we recognise it. This made me think about Plato’s idea of learning as remembering.

Michelangelo believed that, inside the stone, the statue already existed. It was a question of visionary intelligence; of seeing what is already there. Perhaps the stone is to Michelangelo what time is to the musician.

Every shepherd’s bell, consisting of an interval of a second, has a sound belonging to their particular herd – they have long been associated with the arts and music. Shepherds are constantly moving up and down the mountain, exposed to the elements. Shepherds and children advance along their way without having to see journey or know what is coming up.

How do you find balance between controlling and being controlled? More specifically, between excavating or unsculpting what is there, whilst imagining it at the same time?

I believe that what Martin is saying is that we must return to the wonderful world of the child, opening ourselves up to our stream of consciousness, our remembrances. In order to do this, we cannot be static.

We must be in a state of constant flux, and comfortable about it.

 

Illustration links :

https://www.vangoghgallery.com/painting/starry-night.html

wikipedia

Struggle and Surrender : Process and Material in Painting. 

(This article is inspired by a talk given at the Philosophy of Improvisation: Aesthetics of Imperfection Workshops)

It comes as a surprise at first that visual artist, Claire Zakiewicz, does not make art. She prefers to label her creative work as a practice in listening, learning and observing.

Claire and her art reside in a world called spatialised time – a wonderful place where shapes of sound, dance and drawing are related back to the material world we live in. This world exists in the crossroad between two chief species of time. Intellectual time is a purposeful sequencing of parts or events and is, therefore, affiliated with ideas composition and product. Real time, familial to ideas of improvisation and process, is the experience of these sequenced parts.

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So in the land of spatialised time, Claire’s artistic house is located in a town called ‘perspectives in motion’ where the artistic system adopts a temporal focus attributable to Claire’s interest in the philosophy of the two species of time mentioned above.

In the course of one prickly affair, Claire found that the paintbrushes she was using were far to bristly and produced scanty lines – this effect was far from what she had envisaged. What does a relationship with failure look like? There are different shades of failure. Technical failure, like the brushes malfunctioning, and feeling of failure – a sense of dissatisfaction. Nonetheless, like all relationships, this one is creative. One create’s a space wherein to exist with the failure which, according to Murphy’s law, will inevitably happen.

What is worth mentioning is that failure has an important role in the element of duration. Claire resolved to refer to the whiskery brushstrokes – the technical failure – as a symbol of her emotions to the corporate shells of skyscrapers that characterised her first few weeks in New York.

Overthinking is dangerous. Claire’s approach to colour is spontaneous and usually involves picking quickly, or even asking friends to pick. Improvisation is a means of surrender, and energy is reserved for the act of becoming a character – becoming a paintbrush, for example.

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Performing brush strokes is a humanistic act – it is rooted in the body.

“Follow a set of patterns, rather than have expectations”, says Claire. She finds pleasure in the surprise outcome and this is reinforced by experiments such as painting in the dark with a cellist playing in the room, or painting blindfolded among dancers and improvising poets, or painting her bear feet and dancing on paper.

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Perhaps the wall between life and art crumbles when you don’t think too much. This involves a level of trust in the idea that the body knows more than the brain.

Maybe this is the big question of process : where is the end?

Then follows, when is it? What is it? Is there an end? Or must we accept the perpetual motion in life and art? Surely, we must all take note from Leonardo Di Vinci’s view that a work of art is never finished, it is abandoned.

Claire values the creative process rather than product; however, product – which connotes “finished” – is an essential part of the process. I think it is about realising the symbiosis between process and product – that the product is not the be all and end all, the process is not a smooth ride altogether.

Failure must become a friend if the artist wishes to make beauty alive and tangible in the moment.

An imperfect introduction to Imperfection.

The abstract noun, ‘Imperfection’, has quite a comfortable locale in our everyday modern vocabularies. But take a minute to really sit on the word. To repeat it out loud a few times. To think about what on earth it actually implies. You will find that ‘imperfection’ ceases to be a straightforward entirely; it becomes quite a mysterious entity of word.

Ours is a perfectionist post-modern society. An example among many is the occasion of recording in music. We no longer have to attend concerts; we can simply spread our limbs across the living-room sofa and select a piece, an artist and an edition. Not only can we adjust the volume but we can skip whole sections with a simple drag of our index finger across the screen.

Henry Pleasant is far from wrong in suggesting that we have become an audience “charged with laziness”; our ears refuse to make an effort with anything unfamiliar and we become accustomed to the polished feel of recordings that have been revised, corrected and auto-tuned.

Comfortable, routinely and reliable is the three-pronged vanguard that constitutes the make-up of our today. Since the fin de siècle, our new perspective of life from the Eiffel Tower and the airplane brought with it the hope that ‘perfection’ is finally within our grasp. Why allow anything less than the ‘perfection’ of one’s comfort zone when it is so attainable in our advanced modern day? Every little helps because you’re worth it. Anti-ageing cream vows to slow down that dreaded human journey of physical deterioration.

In his book, ‘A short history of Truth’, Bagginni talks about our post-truth fear of “openness to other perspectives”, our lack of “spirit of collective inquiry” and an unwillingness to learn from mistakes that will inevitably happen. It follows that, “by retreating into bubbles of the likeminded, people can strip out inconvenient complexities a wider perspective could give to simpler but distorted network.”

We are in the midst of an era of stuff, things and products. Marketisation ensures that we are prompted to purchase the new iPhone and to download the meditation app that will solve our problems. As soon as our jumper acquires a moth-eaten hole, it belongs in the dustbin and not in the hands of our grandmother who has a sewing kit.

Susan Sontag claims that photography has effected an ‘aesthetic consumerism’ in which we all play a role – taking photographs is our way of needing to have reality confirmed and experience enhanced. ‘Products’ – for example, technology – are largely to blame for perfectionism.

Education today is concerned with producing uniform children who are capable of little more than gainful employment. It’s not about personal experience, it’s about passing your A levels with three A’s so that you are accepted into a redbrick university. The problem is that children, in a progress obsessed world such as ours, scarcely know who they are before they are tagged as successful.

A sense of monoculture encourages a limited scope of possibility in what we can and cannot do – different is unstable. We all differ vastly from one another, but, in a way, we are told to suppress this. Perfect is the only option in the lives of “uniform, media-minded grown-ups” who “feed the marketplace with workers, managers and consumers”, according to Nachmanovitch.

I think it is safe to say that we think of ‘perfection’ as something to aim toward, and ‘imperfection’ as a deficiency that needs improving. It is as if we regard ‘imperfection’ as encompassing the long and laborious journey to the ‘perfect’. Imperfection is the ‘not quite there yet’, the ‘this needs fixing’ and even the ‘scrap this; I need to start anew’; therefore, it is entirely inferior.

However, our world is not perfect de facto. It is beautifully, painfully imperfect. We say silly things and spill tea on the carpet. Earthquakes destroy architectural masterpieces and famine kills thousands of young children every year. Forget anti-ageing cream – the corners of your mouth will eventually acquire fine lines when you smile.

Indeed, perhaps, there is a mysterious allure to imperfection.

The Aesthetics of Imperfection workshops in Newcastle on Saturday 6th and Sunday 7th of October will address themes of process, improvisation and incompleteness. How can imperfection be enjoyed aesthetically? This is the overarching question of the next two days.

My following two articles will intend to extract, quite briefly, the big questions that come to light in the next two days of workshops, with the aim that readers will think about Imperfection and its role in not only music, visual art and architecture, but in the everyday.

 

 

Illustration by Mimmo Paladino of James Joyce’s Ulysses, taken from https://www.brainpickings.org/2014/05/27/ulysses-mimmo-paladino/

Chords I’ve learned

“Oh I remember sitting back on my balcony, I was list’ning to the Rolling Stones. See I was waiting for my Dad to come home from work so I could show him all the chords that I learned.” Part Time Believer, Boy & Bear

This summer I have had plenty of time to think about the chords that I’ve learned during my first year at Durham. Chords in a quite literal sense as a music student of course, but also figuratively – I’ve acquired skills, I’ve met people, I’ve learned about me. How many chords there are that I did not know existed!

I’ve picked a few to share. Some of these are less instructive than they are a mere feeling, but there are people who believe that a chord, in all its multiplicity of forms, is meant to evoke a certain emotion or decision. You can decide on how to feel about, interpret, agree or disagree with the following extracts from a notebook I kept this year.

 

I’m spending a lot of money on train tickets, bus tickets, concert tickets – I think I am addicted to movement. Strangely I haven’t the slightest ounce of guilt about it, because I am spending money on experiences that lend to getting to know people and places. Spending money on moments rather than things. I don’t think twice before paying for a friend’s coffee because I know they will pay for mine next time. And if they don’t, I’ll buy them another one

I couldn’t choose between joining friends at the Swan or athletics training tonight so I went to neither and just created my own event in my room (lying on the floor and writing this). I think fear-of-missing-out (FOMO) is people’s way of interpreting sensory overload. Apparently Durham is a fertile soil for this feeling because there is so much going on all at once. But that is precisely why FOMO is fictitious! Whenever you are here, you are missing something there and vice versa. How funny it would be if everyone, all at the same time, were feeling fearful of losing out 

Someone spoke to me in a smile rather than a word today as I was walking across Elvet Bridge. It was like Cocteau says – ‘a railway accident; something you feel but can’t explain’

I had free time so went to an ethics lecture. Came out having chronicle feelings of doubt. Music is my little world, and philosophy is another world – have I picked the right degree?  In compensation, I went to the cathedral for evensong later. I took my time. I realised that I can’t see the top nor the bottom of my subject.  Music is the great passion of my life

There was a man on the street today who shouted in tune to the Dido & Aeneas overture I was listening to. Of course he had no idea, and I probably found that funnier than I should have. Had to make a vigorous u-turn so as to avoid eye contact with him. Having no sense of moderation when it comes to laughter can be extremely inconvenient but I think I’d rather laugh quickly and easily, because Durham can have a solemn disposition in May

Today was bleak. I made mistakes and it rained on my books. Maybe instead of making heavy weather out of things I will make heavy art out of my troubles, like Frida did. Come to think of it, rain is kind of extremely relaxing, especially now that I am in warm clothes, my books are drying and my window is big enough for me to watch the world become blurred

I will run across the bridge at Maiden Castle and reread the Chronicles of Narnia even though that’s not on my reading list, buy crêpes at the weekend market, climb observatory hill, also hand in assignments on time, pay bills that need paying and challenge people in conversation. I will do all the above with an equal sense of vitality

The essence of Durham is its people. Something as simple as seeing two people’s way of walk in the snow with mugs of tea can touch me deeply

Brahms and the philosophy in archery.

A violin cannot lie. Anecdotal experience tells me so. What I mean is that every light lift of the bow, its return to the string, and the shifting nuances of weight in the stroke, is audible. The musician’s conscious and subconscious impulses have nowhere to hide when it comes to the sound; it is almost as if the instrument is an extension of the body.

It has now been four months since I sank into my seat under the roof of London’s Wigmore Hall, blissfully unaware of the heroic performance I was about to hear. With Alina Ibragimova and Cédric Tiberghien due to appear on the stage at any moment, my father and I debated over whether or not to wake the elderly couple who were dozing contently in the row just before us. As Cédric played the opening half-bar chords of Brahms’ Violin Sonata no.1, I thought that, if anything, these first few bars might lull the snoozing couple into an even deeper more peaceful sleep. Alina’s seamless first notes, however, distanced me so far from the immediate moment that I was not in a place to notice its effects on anyone other than myself.

I could write, exclusively, about Alina’s sound for it is in my head. I could write about her phrasing, for example – the intense swells of rubato throughout the initial bars of the vivace ma non troppo that made me acutely aware of her uniquely free interpretation of the opening. Or about how Alina’s malleable expression was a comforting reminder of the undulating freeness of Brahms’ melodies, despite my having always found his cross rhythms challenging to suss. But there was something else that captivated me; something about the way that she played which gave birth to that very sound.

On stage, Alina lived with her violin like it was a partner. During the adagio-più andante, it truly sounded to me almost as if her bow never left the string. The melody never ceased, it just morphed and transformed, and flowed and enveloped and lengthened. In the few times that the bow ascended, it returned to its home soundlessly. It was as if the body and the bow of the violin was to Alina what the bow and arrow is to an archer.

In his book on improvisation in life and art, Nachmanovitch muses on the ideas of arriving at effortlessness. “Right and left, violin and bow, male and female, music and silence; the couples dance, combine, struggle, merge”. I think Nachmanovitch is writing about an act of surrender. About the animus and anima within, about the relationship with your instrument that transcends mastery or control to the extent that the “taut bow hairs” become an “extension” of your arm, of your brain and bloodstream. When you grow another limb – when your violin is a part of you – you become an entirely different being.

People drifted anticipatively in and out of the hall during the interval. Someone behind me proclaimed, “She gets it. Alina just gets it”. There was a certain coherency in her playing; it was like watching an archer’s arrow perform a perfect, subtle curve before it hits the target. You don’t just hear her, you listen with a peculiar sense of searching, an attentiveness to something secret, a sacred melody. You watch her feel every reiteration of the motif. You feel it with her. As I saw Alina’s vibrato in my mind’s eye, how it originated from deep in her hand, I knew that this was something. I needed more, to hear more, in order to understand.

Violinists cannot be unique in experiencing this divine surrender, I thought. Artists have their paintbrush and a blank canvas. “Archers have a bow and arrow” added my father, completing my thoughts for me. Suffice it for now to say that we spoke about the art of kyudo for the rest of the interval, with specific attention to Eugan Herrigel’s work (it is thanks to my father that I am no longer ignorant of his book!). Later, I would stumble upon the following words in ‘Zen in the art of Archery’ : “You and your bow must come together as one; that act is divine. This unity of instrument and oneself is divine. There is no bow, no arrow, no you; yes and no are one”. You have to disappear. To renounce both the identity of yourself and your instrument.

Fifty years before the release of the eighties film ‘Karate Kid’, German philosophy professor, Herrigel, moved to Japan not to meet Mr. Myiagi, (“wax-on, wax-off!!”) but the equally notorious and non-fictional Kenzo. Herrigel writes in his book about the teaching he received from Kenzo – a master in the art of kyudo (Japanese for archery), and also, seemingly, the art of condemning his student to painstakingly process-heavy, longwinded and repetitive training, not dissimilar to the likes of Mr. Miyagi’s karate-teaching stratagems. It seems that what the two Japanese mentors had most in common was their belief in learning to stand before learning to fly.

Alina and Cedric’s delivery of the allegro amabile, Sonata no.2, transformed and transfixed me. Its lyricism bears witness to the influence of contemporary Lieder on the melody. Then came the tender memoire of a piece I played when I was eleven, the allegro apassionato. As I hummed along in my head, I soaked in the easy intensity with which Alina played the high notes with a clarity that harmonics promise. In the allegretto grazioso, Alina judged the cross-string arpeggios so sensitively she could have been improvising. It occurred to me that she bore no armour. Didn’t Brahms himself remark that the mark of an artist is how much he throws away?

“The more relaxed and ready the muscles are, the more different the ways in which they can move… free up the hands, arms, shoulders… make every part of the body strong, soft and supple…”, instructs Nachmanovitch, who is a jazz violinist himself. He uses Wilhelm Reich’s concept of ‘body armour’ as an umbrella term for the “involuntary contractions of the voluntary muscles” and the “fears, doubts and rigidities” that are “manifested physiologically as excessive muscular tension”. Alina has a relationship with her instrument that transcends intimate connection. Her violin is herself, she retracts and extends with the phrasing. She is proof that one has to be vulnerable on the stage.

This element of vulnerability is not foreign in kuydo. It is an act of letting go and knowing yourself in unfamiliar territory;  letting go of the arrow is “a movement of compassion” as if it is yourself that you are shooting. In Kenzo’s words, “If you look at the target as your enemy, you will never make progress”. In my words, if you look at the notes on the violin – those notes of impossible height – as your enemy, they will never be your dependable reference point. Similarly, one can interpret the ‘target’, so to speak, as representing the audience. If you look at the audience as your enemy, their eyes will be as blinking and unforgiving as you bestow them to be. Alina demonstrates a release of the armour or ‘clutter’ of physical tension so that she can exploit the music in the process of becoming one with her instrument.

Brahms’ Sonata no.3 was intended much more for the public ear than to be played in a domestic setting, but, despite this reputation, Alina’s sotto voice unfurled itself mysteriously above the tensile piano rhythm – she played as if, in the best way, she forgot why she was doing it and who was there. Alina made sweeping motions as if grappling with some unspoken inner turmoil – (these are one of few times where you don’t need to be economical with the bow) – and was unafraid of her sound. The adagio sounded suitably aristocratic with its pleading yet civilised melodies and refined double stops. In the un poco presto e con sentimento, you must not take the melody too seriously because the repeated quavers are indisputably playful and stubborn. And finally, the extroverted presto agitato began with a rapturously dramatic abruption as Alina bites the strings with her bow. A few squeaks surfaced here and there but she forgave the sounds with a disposition of indifference that made them seem utterly indispensable to the considerable drama that dominates this movement. It was as if she was diving into herself and into the craft of forgetting everything but the sound.

In kyudo, archers know this mood of the “mind with no remainder” as the state of zanshin; a period of relaxed alertness as one dives deeper into the crystalline pool that is the craft of archery (or playing, in the case of the musician). This, of course, takes years of hard work and dedication. From the Moscow Gnesin School to the Yehudi Menuhin School and Royal College of Music in London, Alina has had years to apply her violin to herself like a prosthetic limb, to control it as if it were a sensitive, hyper-responsive lie detector. Despite intelligible and friendly melodies, a Brahms sonata is emotionally challenging to play. The sincerity and passion in Alina’s sound are signs, among many, that she has found her state of zanshin. She is able to breathe life into her sound like a child animates a toy.

Confucius, who was also an archer, said that there is more to archery than bows and arrows. Similarly, music is more than the wood of the violin and the particles in the space. These are merely the media, but the music is something noumenal. Playing is ‘study at ground-level’ but when your violin becomes a part of your hand and your heart, then is becomes a ‘soaring achievement’. I felt as if I learned that Alina’s ultimate aim is not to hit the notes per se, but to give herself over to the process of playing, of working hard.

The sonata finished in its defiant jouissance, and the audience launched into a deafening applause. I let the sound envelope me as I scribbled a few final words in my red notebook, wondering how I might translate any of this night’s experiences into substance…

Little did I know, that I was sitting next to BBC Radio 3 presenter and writer, Tom Service. After conversing for a while, Tom introduced me to Alina (his wife!), and Cédric backstage – all of which I felt not entirely prepared for. I set aside my slight embarrassment as soon as I got the opportunity to congratulate Alina in person. I like to think that she didn’t mind my corduroy trousers and well-loved sneakers amongst a sea of beautiful dresses and fluffy coats.

A violin always tells the truth. I have learned this a while ago, lying with my back flat on the floor, violin in hand and staring at the ceiling as I tried to practice scales. Perhaps I was trying to keep my ‘mind composed and my posture straight’, like an archer. I wonder how my thinking would have been if I could have listened to the wealth of wisdom in Alina’s playing back then.

In a venue so synonymous with chamber music, the naturalness with which Alina and Cédric played together displayed their musicianship and sense of mutual trust. The only problem with such a heroic concert is that, well, it comes to an end. There is no prospect of sleep afterwards, not even if you are supposed to be severely jet lagged. London was waiting behind the doors of Wigmore Hall, and the streets seemed ever brimming with people from all walks of life. With the allegro apassionato melody humming in my mind, my father and I argued affectionately, searching in the hopes to find a dinner establishment.

We were famished and gloriously light-hearted.

 

 

A dear little mother with claws.

In the space of a mere week, Prague revealed to me lessons of life, love, music and writing. An orchestra tour is a time for concerts and music, of course, but also for playing cards into the night and discoursing about everything from space orbital manoeuvre to cold shock response and how long it would take you to drown in the waters of the Vltava river. The week is intense, loud and does not promise time for reading; however, in spare moments and on buses, I had my head in Kafka’s The Castle. I have since read his Metamorphosis and other short stories as well as The Trial, discovering that, much like Prague’s architecture is eclectic and adorned, so is Kafka’s city of writings.

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Prague is a myth and that much was clear as we arrived that June afternoon, slightly off-beam from the 24-hour bus journey but not uninspired by the shabby elegance of our hostel. 35970243_2033456336725135_6339178515497222144_nThe city’s architecture tells tales of many influences; the pointed arches of the monstrous St Vitus Cathedral are irrefutably Gothic and the sgraffito images on the Dum u Minuty house (wherein Kafka lived for a time) reveal settings from old legends and Greek mythology. The images celebrate humanity rather than heaven; a Renaissance characteristic. Among the elemental colours and decorative splendour, the odd unsightly communist-era building sticks out like a sore thumb.

 

 

‘A cage went in search for a bird’ is perhaps the aphorism that most epitomises Kafka’s existence – a hypersensitive soul in a city where the air was thick with racial and cultural tensions. Prague’s physiology was composed of invisible borders, districts. Kafka’s was a world tainted by a perpetual fear and guilt and anti-Semitism – a world in which his father rebuked and expanded, leaving little room for Kafka to breath.

 

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this narrow circle encompasses my entire life.

 

Such was Kafka’s thinking as he looked out onto the old market square; suffice to say his life was one of limitations. I think he longed to get out. Why didn’t you get out of yourself, Kafka? was the question echoing in my mind as we ambled across Charles Bridge, the sky milky blue above and opulent copper in the distance as we tried to decide what was happening in the scenes that the statues were depicting.

 

 

only one thing is certain; our inadequacy.

 

Kafka’s characters are pale reflections of the writer himself, examining their flaws as if under a magnifying glass. Hopelessly perfectionist. We are incompetent to recognise most of the world’s secrets and truths – they are here in front of us, only, reality is a ‘mesh’. Perhaps, just as Kafka’s characters are on a quest for explanation, Kafka paid attention to life’s details.

 

imagination is waiting for reality to catch up.

 

 

Whilst reading about the writer, I discovered that he did not believe that accidents happen in real life. Accidents are in our heads. In The Castle, Mr. K’s rejection, isolation and failure to make it to the castle is no accident – it is a riddle that remains unsolved. The only concrete fact is the Mr. K is a stranger.

Kafka believed that almost everything is uncertain, but, even though he, vicariously, attempts to adopt a mood of acceptance and sense of hope in the inexplicable through the trials of his characters, it is evident that he scarcely achieved this in real life. Neither does his characters, for that matter. He wrestled with an existential conflict (although writing was his “form of prayer” he could never decide whether it was a vocation or a profession), felt utterly debilitated by a sense of indefensibility towards his father and inability to live with his nuisance self. He died of tuberculosis.

 

i am nothing but literature and can and want to be nothing else.

 

 

8:30am, sitting with Peter and Jeremy and doodling mindlessly. I felt almost guilty at feeling this content with life. I sipped coffee whilst the boys indulged in second breakfast of sourdough and perfect eggs with finely chopped chives. Fed by our oneness – our ability to create music together and to argue affectionately over many of life’s questions – we enjoyed stillnesses in conversation also, especially in small morning hours. Nielsen’s flute concerto and Bartók’s Romanian folk dances. Why is it that we can hear sounds that we did not know existed but understand them beyond explanation?

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there is only one truth, but it is alive and constantly changing face and shape.

 

Kafka’s grappling with uncertainty immediately led me to think about John Keats’ theory of negative capability. This talks about the art of being “capable of being in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason”. In a previous blogpost I wrote about ‘traveling light’ – keeping one’s backpack devoid of heavy thoughts. Kafka broke because he was incapable of doing this or, perhaps, he didn’t want to. Sources say that Kafka was indecisive, a walking contradiction – when he was alone he craved company, and when had had company he hankered after solitude. Kafka could not collaborate with the unforeseen – it made him restless. He was averse to the essential mysteries of the world and I think he knew it.

In her profound book, ‘A Field Guide to Getting Lost’, Rebecca Solnit writes about the concept of being ‘lost’ as in to ‘lose yourself’ and to transcend the fear of making mistakes. To be lost is to be fully present, and to be fully present is to be able to stay afloat amid surprises, mysteries and uncertainties. It is an act of surrendering.

the roof of this wretched life will burst open, and all of us, shoulder to shoulder, will ascend into the lofty realm of freedom.

 

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Trams in Prague are silent, gliding bodies with low roofs. Inside, there are people clawing onto the handles, breathing on each other, a boy eating an ice-cream that is fast melting onto your shoes and you know this because you can hear the drip drip drip. The heat is relentless and unstoppable that it often feels like you have been on the tram forever. When will it end, when can I breathe? Just like our tram journeys, life moves irrevocably fast and is frighteningly impermanent.

 

but the most beautiful thing about my burrow is the stillness.

 

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A part of me wants to defend Kafka, resolutely. I cherish the idea that his work has a hopeful side, but also that he – a man who bore so much in his backpack and saw himself as so worthless – somehow predicted what was to come – persecution and suffering – and that he not only possessed the temperament of a philosopher on the search for the laws of reason and love, but he had an impressive sense of humour. A ‘Jewish’ irony, so to speak. The joke was always on himself; look at how frivolous I am.

Kafka had me laughing as we sped through the countryside on our way to Edinburgh. I tried to express to my friend on the train that I could not grasp the ill-fated fortune of Gregor in Metamorphosis who had found himself one morning to be turned into an insect. But, like Gregor, who is fretful only over what his family will think and how his boss will react to this unfortunate incident, Kafka seeked to draw strength from people (from his father!) and that was his downfall. Much like Mr. K in The Castle, Kafka sees himself as living in a foreign society and longs to be accepted, to be active in society, to marry, to fit in and to obtain gainful employment. Parallel to this willingness to be sociable was a longing for loneliness.

I think the castle is God and the village is earth. Kafka wanted to reach God through people. Mr. K can only reach the castle if he achieves permission from the village but, alas, he never does. The rejection Kafka felt from his father is the abandonment Kafka felt from God, from his religion. “To the peasants I don’t belong, and to the castle I don’t either, I suppose.” What Kafka had to realise is the peasants and the castle are not the same thing.

 

Psalm 137: 4

How can we sing songs of the Lord while in a foreign land?

 

Kafka saw the truth – there is a God because things matter, there is a right and a wrong and life isn’t just lived and then we die. He understood that we are complete strangers unto this world, we are on a trial. But he didn’t accept the fact that we are incapable of comprehending it all. This drove him away from God, away from the castle. I think anyone relate to Mr. K like we can relate to Faust in Goethe.

 

don’t complain, immerse yourself in your suffering.

 

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Every part of me longs to tell Kafka that we are not impossible failures in the sight of God. I wish he applied to his life the hope that he knew existed. I can see him smiling in Café Louvre with his coffee. In his books I see that Kafka loved preciseness and detail, that he was so sensitive to his bodily imperfection that it drove him into torment.

 

You don’t belong in the castle

You don’t belong in the village

You don’t belong anywhere

You are nothing

But, unfortunately

You are something

You are a stranger.

 

 

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These are the famous words, taken from his novel, The Castle, that flashed before my eyes on the wall of Prague’s Kafka museum. Captivated by the shape of these words, I hardly realised that we were being asked to leave – it was time for the museum to close. We walked passed the statue of the two men en pissant and through the warm, buttery smells of the gingerbread shop across the yard. 35849196_10214167899209694_7937774233650724864_o.jpg

I will never know Kafka. My understanding of the man is narrow – I have read four of his books as they have been translated – and my knowledge of Prague, this city of many church spires, is absolutely provincial – there are only so many secrets you can uncover in a week. But, because of Kafka, I am becoming more and more at peace with the fact that there are unknowns, lasting mysteries in life. I am travelling lighter and lighter.

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Easter term.

With a violin slung across left shoulder, one arm trying to manoeuvre my suitcase up South Road and the other hand shielding my eyes from the sharp rays, I greeted the Odgen Centre of physics and scrutinised the construction progress of the new Education hub (controversially, Durham’s small, already brimming radius is preparing for expansion). The city campus is bursting its banks, so to speak, and accepting more and more students. They were all, as I stopped for a moment to catch my breath, sitting outside the Bill Bryson library eating baguettes and smoking with faces pointed up towards the sun.

I turned around and fixed my eyes on the soft blue ahead; it had quickly dawned on me how mockingly beautiful the summer light was. How distressingly bittersweet reality seemed all of a sudden – I would not be able to enjoy the sun without feeling somewhat guilty at the fact that I was not revising for exams! Smiling, I laboured on towards my college, which is situated suitably at the top of the hill, and thought to myself that I could at least use study-breaks to enjoy the sun.

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“If this is the best they can do on the first night back,” Tom exclaimed at dinner “then I am worried for the rest of the term”. The cauliflower was so overcooked that it dissolved at the slightest pressure of one’s mouth. I laughed in agreement and felt an accompanying pang of nervous excitement for what was to come and, more specifically, how quickly it will come.

With no more class, days became indistinguishable from one another and monotonous under the sun; May in durham is tainted brassy yellow, fast-moving, mocking. Passing students in the street felt like walking past a mirror, muttering sternly under their breath as they rush by, spending hours behind curtains of thought, relentlessly engaged with their own narratives and studies.

The library had become ever portentous with silence and fretful tapping of keyboards and scratching of pens. Finding a spare seat was a rarity. Empty packets of harries and tissues and monster energy drinks bore witness to sleepless nights. Although it may have been easier to camp in the library for most of the term, I eventually decided to use the dangerous freedom effect by the lack of lectures and seminars as a means to discipline myself – to encourage myself to be creative with my time. I say that as if it was easy – I can confirm it was not. Progress often felt glacial.

Self care, self care I thought, Bach’s partita in B-flat major in my ears and watching the hills roll as far as my eyes could see. This is self care; this taking the train to somewhere and getting sunburnt. Yes, this is more self care to me than a bath bomb. There is nothing wrong with treating yourself to a bath bomb but, perhaps, there is a slight economical problem attached to self care and students; namely, we are so encouraged to buy things that promise to lull our sanities that we forget the simple wonders of taking a walk outside.

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One evening, Prishanti burst into my room and expressed with an ardent desire that she wanted to create something that would last in this world. “I feel static” she said. I stared at her large watery pupils. We humans have the funny (and very inconvenient) tendency to burn with the desire to create things and do things during the most untimely situations, like exam season. But what had made my friend so suddenly passionate? “Wide Sargasso Sea”, she answered. That feral book! I thought about Japanese cherry blossoms and about how far things had come to fruition this year, not unlike that large blossom tree just next to Grey College. Just as blossoms remain for a a few days before being blown soundlessly away, sounds of music don’t stay long, exam season is not long and neither is life; nothing is permanent and everything is wild and dangerous just like nature itself and just like the exotic novel that had stirred Prishanti so. That makes music and life like a flower; a spectre of transfiguring beauty. The end of it all felt quite near when I began walking out of exams greeted with the whiff of warm champagne on the wind. Sometimes I would find bits of confetti in my hair.

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It felt truly finished on that morning when two friends and myself went to Durham’s Saturday park run together. After a well-deserved brunch, we spread ourselves out on the lawn of the botanical gardens, finally allowing the sun to make us lazy, for it to bake the yellowed pages of our books. And, oh, how gluttonously I enjoyed these moments. This is what happens when deadlines and exams are things of the past; spontaneous turns of events become luxuriously drawn-out without time constraint, and every second is saturated with the knowledge that should you choose to linger in the moment a little longer or rather get up and see where your feet take you, it would not matter.

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Fast and furious is how I would describe the last few weeks of term. Rehearsals and concerts predominated, conversations were lively and loud, the Summer formal was slightly disappointing but the philosophy ball a reverie, and a trip to Whitby involved fish and chips and lobster sandwiches, diary ice cream and long hours on the bus along the coast. Slowly but noticeably, Durham started to empty and I would bump into student with large suitcases in college reception. How barren Durham suddenly feels after you have bid someone farewell at the station; how deeply aware you are that they are not around anymore. You won’t necessarily find true friendships in first or second or third term. But some people you meet in the final few weeks of university and you know that they will hum in your consciousness. This is one thing that makes university very exciting.

As I stood on Observatory hill, I said a prayer. I said thank you for music and for these buttercups at my feet, and the precipitous slope of the hill and the blue shade of the trees and the cathedral on the horizon. The cathedral looked so loud and unmissable out there, so beautiful.

This is home now.

 

 

 

The art of living light.

Discussing life with my Oupa is one of my favourite ways to pass time.

He may have turned 83 this year but is just about as active as a 38-year-old; he is a working architect and artist, in his spare moments making films and travelling to far flung places like China with my grandmother. Talking to someone with such a positive quality of gentleness and quiet propensity to soak up experiences like a sponge is more of a privilege that anything else.

One afternoon we were eating apples and mindlessly dangling our legs from the bench on which we were sitting. Oupa said something complex :

“We all carry our own backpack through this life. We collect beautiful things along the way – like desert roses from Namibia or a post card from a stranger – but we also collect burdens.”

Rather like receipts, I thought, or sweet wrappers that accumulate discreetly at the bottom of one’s backpack, taking up more and more space.

“We have the liberty to unpack it, reorganise it and remove the things we don’t need. Things we can get by without, things that weigh use down. Remember you can do this; sort through your backpack often.”

I nodded vigorously. Sometimes conversations with my Oupa aren’t conversations at all because they are such that I can’t add anything. He has already said all that there needs to be said.

Later, I thought more about this backpack ideology; the art of living light. What does it mean? How do you distinguish between what is and is not worth carrying around with you? I knew one thing. The more unnecessary baggage you have, the less mobile you are.

I read something by Hannah Ardent and a particular observation caught my eye. According to her, the world as it is now is one of ‘alternative facts and incompatible knowledge’. ‘Knowing is world-building’. ‘Thinking undoes every morning what is has finished with the night before’. Thinking anticipates meaning, not truth.

Ardent was a political thinker (not philosopher) and I am not going to talk about politics, but I am going to talk about ‘opinions’ – the individual attitudes and viewpoints we all seem to carry around with us. I’ve realised that it is not just children who allow their views to be wholly defined by their momentary situations.

Knowing (or thinking that you know) is concrete. It determines your attitude, sets it in stone – (this mindset of ‘I know this and that and what is best’) – and, often, it construes this opaque wall of opinions around you. Thinking, however, is humbling. Profoundly so, in fact, because it invokes probing things with questions, not answers. We don’t have all the answers (shocker). We do have very incomplete maps of reality.

What if you momentarily eschewed your instinctive opinion to attune yourself to other perspectives? I think that would challenge our perceptions; open up the portals to our senses and make us empathetic.

What if you heard something disagreeable about someone one day, but rather than accepting this vicarious information as truth – for which it may not even be the truth so much as a mere rumour – you go to bed that night and wake up deciding that you will give this person the benefit of the doubt?

What if evidence and facts were contextual? C.S. Lewis used the analogy that there aren’t wrong or right notes of the piano, only a right and wrong time for a note. Lets pretend that you have grown up in an insulated small town listening to Beethoven only, and suddenly you find yourself living in the Middle East listening to the twangs of Umm Kulthum’s Enta Omri . Instead of rejecting this new sound you decide to put your thoughts on a leash and let something foreign become a new reality. It’s that simple really…

Just as old realities are not current anymore, we tend to shed old selves as we travel through life. Unlike ‘knowing’, ‘thinking’ does not yield answers that can be deemed fixed but instead comes back and back again to questions in different experiences and circumstances. I’d recommend reading about Ardent’s cliticisation of the “quest for certainty” and epistemological foundationalism.

Let me emphasise that I do not think we should have moveable standards, or agree with everybody on things just because it makes our backpack lighter. It is good and democratic for people to assert opinions, but there’s a difference between having opinions and being opinionated. I do think we should give situations the benefit of the doubt. This way we travel ‘lighter’, with a better mental hygiene and space for contemplation.

To conclude this ramble, I will state that we should give life the benefit of the doubt through relentless self-questioning and trusting that we don’t need to stuff our backpacks with weapons and emergency supplies. Personally, I want to make an effort from this day forth to keep the pockets in my backpack filled with good thoughts. I want to refine, adapt and even transform the contents of my backpack. To have flexible opinions; to be open minded and receptive. To be loving and tolerant. I can only see living with a sense of joy as a product of this.

 

 

 

 

QPO and QNMC winners in concert : Qatar’s most talented young musicians.

Last night at the Qatar National Convention centre, three young Qatar National Music Competition winners staged a musical celebration of their achievements and it was, most positively, an evening of pure spectacle. It was one of those concert moments in life where, as much as I prefer composing and being behind the scenes than being in the limelight, I almost reconsidered throwing everything to the side in order to practice for 7 hours a day instead. In fact I’m quite sure it even provoked a desire in my father, who is a sports doctor, to forget his PhD and take up the clarinet again. Such is the power of music.

The Qatar Philharmonic Orchestra, conducted by Elias Grandy, roused our appetites with the overture to Cosi fan tutte, k. 588 – (beautiful, beautiful – just enough to leave us hankering after more Mozart). Much to our delight, more Mozart is exactly what we received from Prama Yudhistra (student at my secondary school, Doha College), who played piano Concerto no. 20 in D minor. The orchestra began to play the turbulent and agitated exposition.

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Moments before his first entry, Prama proceeded to slip off his shoes in a charmingly unsubtle way, but with the calculated movements of someone who knew what he was doing and this put me at ease. From those Mozartian trills to the lithe scalic runs, the Allegro evidenced Prama’s crystal technique and nimble fingers. He did a wonderful job. The Romance section ushered me back deeply into bleached visions of a 3-year-old me in South Africa with the purple Mozart CD I still have today. The melody was passed beautifully from the orchestra to Prama and vice versa – the piano and orchestra were definitely conversing about something they had similar views on, for they were soon finishing each other’s phrases. With the agitated translation having been resolved thereafter, the Rondo ensued as a celebration; in a short time, the finale brought us to D major – what a relief.

Next, Mia Park-Torchinsky played Shostakovich’s piano concerto no. 2 in F major, Op. 102. Sonja Park, her mother (and my Doha piano teacher, inspiration and friend always), also appeared on the stage to adjust Mia’s stool and help arrange her dress in a way that looked proper. I felt smiled as I thought about how Shostakovich had composed this concerto for his son and thought perhaps just like this concerto represented his son’s coming of age, it emphasised just how young 10-year-old Mia is. The little girl who I used to babysit – who showed me her toys and played with me on her bedroom floor – is now a performer. Her little hands were playing those bare Shostakovich octaves.

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With its dissonances and march-like quality, it was clear that we had waved goodbye to Mozart skipped a century onwards. This was definetely Shostakovich. The Andante’s sombre film-music essence had me daydreaming of a garden in the night, with silver olive trees, an enormous full moon and a light breeze. Mia carried the melody away beautifully towards the close of the Andante until its final note vanished into this garden, almost immediately reappearing in a completely new context. The Allegro was impressive; I meditated over how much more married the piano and orchestra were to one another in this work as opposed to Mozart’s sharp distinction between the tutti and solo sections. Mia finished with her hands up in the air, as if they were suspended in amber for a moment.

Finally, Tricia Enlin Ng played for us the Allegro Maestoso of Paganini’s Violin concerto no.1 in D major, Op. 6. She wore a beautiful eastern silk patterned dress and had her hair pinned up – if Paganini was the “wizard of the violin”, then Tricia definitely looked like an enchantress last night. She played like one too, mind you, arresting us with her buttery melodies and flashy entries. In a delightful way, she captured Paganini’s mischievous streak. It was almost as if Tricia did not need the orchestra – she could accompany herself by the sounds of it (she nailed the chords, even the chromatic ones). All in all, Tricia played – double stops, harmonics, cadenza and all – superbly. If her bow had been one of those fly-swatters, there would not have been a fly alive for miles.

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The aspect I most enjoyed about last night would have to be how vulnerable the young performers were. And how authentic they appeared on stage as a result. First with Prama – the way he clicked his knuckles (Mozart might sound songful and accessible but it is not easy, mate – make one mistake and even the tone deaf among the audience will know it). Also his shoe situation; one only had to imagine the stage and the audience away and it was as if he was playing in his living room. Then the way Sonja adjusted Mia’s stool – just like she has always done for her daughter in the student and MYA concerts I used to partake in. And how Mia had looked to the conductor and mouthed “one more?” after she had bowed three times. I think making yourself vulnerable as a performer is vital. This way you will be at peace – everything around you dissolves and it is just you and your instrument.

Prama, Mia and Tricia blew the audience away to far distant places – from the 18th to the 20th century – and I was so reluctant to return that I felt rather inert when it was time to get up and leave the hall.

Epiphany.

Until researching it, I was never sure why the second term at Durham is called Epiphany, but, despite it often being cited as the more ‘settled down’ phase of one’s first year at university, this academic term afforded many small epiphanies and realisations.

To approach the second term with a sense of trepidation seems quite a stereotypical pastime of the university student, what with all the assignments that had been completed over Christmas (or final week thereof) that need handing in, and a feeling of uncertainty associated with not-yet-solidified friendships. Upon my return, I quickly replaced my illusion that people had somehow stuck around consolidating relationships over Christmas with the relieving reality that, since the final day of the first term, life in Durham had been placed on hold. I quickly learned that first term is the time and place to be friendly to a fault and act almost too interested in everything for your own good; it’s all about asserting and introducing yourself to as many people as possible. Second term offers little alternative but for people to reveal something of their true colours. In many ways, this has made Epiphany an ideal environment for pursuing friendships that you know are based on a solid foundation of shared interests.

By the Wednesday of the first week back (more commonly known as ‘re-freshers’ week), my floor-mates and myself had already experienced Newcastle’s ‘Digital’ – or, otherwise, the surging humid mass of perspiring adolescents, lip gloss, bare backs and holding hands to prevent being swallowed. A recent post on ‘Durfess’ (a sort of confessions-of-a-durham-university-student page) revealed that the best way to have a night out in Durham is to take the train to Newcastle. Not much of a nightclub person myself, I wouldn’t be able to give a fair point of view, but it felt as if three hours had passed before we escaped ‘Digital’, laughing into the cold air. We bought chips in a corner shop, and joined other 1am cafe-goers in singing along very loudly to ‘You to Me are Everything’. The conversations on the top storey of the bus back to college were a highlight, and as I watched familiar buildings materialise, I remember thinking that it felt as if I had never left Durham. The fear of resuming university after a break is always bigger than the return itself.
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In a sense, just like the cobblestones have been worn smooth overtime, daily Durham life began to rid itself of sharp edged moments of novelty and uncertainty. My college was now referred to as “home”, and walks to the music department started to promise at least a dozen encounters with familiar faces. This would just entail a nod and a smile or a quick, “you doing well?” followed by a “yeah, moderately” if we knew each other well enough. In the quiet wintry mornings Durham looked like something from a period novel and I felt very nonchalant.

Sometimes the notorious “second term blues” would hover in the air as if induced by the winter darkness that is so premature. Returning to Durham with a fresh array of visions for the new year in my head, I found myself threatened by a long term running injury. This not only prevented me from attending a single cross country training session this term, but rendered me unable to run when I felt an inescapable surge of energy, when I felt fragile or extremely happy, or had too much blood in my head that needed dispersing. I decided that, after wallowing in self pity over having to miss the BUCS Championships, I would use the free time to become more flexible. With mornings devoid of early river runs, and late night training sessions scratched, I had time for longer conversations over breakfast, reading books (that are definitely not on my reading list) and, well, going to philosophy lectures. Tis’ great to pretend that I belong in those big lecture theatres where they learn about moral relativity and impartiality.

By second term, most first years will have formed habits, and scouted out their favourite traditions and places in Durham. It is a known fact that Durham definitely hasn’t a shortage of cafes. On a far more serious note, Pret is closing and so I must find somewhere else to do my reading on Monday afternoon, alas, alas. Maybe it is a sign that I should aim to epitomise the Durham student and spend far too much money in Flat White instead, or yield to more northern ways by becoming a loyal Greggs customer.
This term I have realised my profound affinity for jazz; my soundtrack of the past two months has been especially saturated with surging rhythms, melodies with ragged edges and impetuous sounds of life – its improvisatory tendencies. My Sunday evenings, after church, were spent with my good friend in Durham’s renowned ‘Empty Shop’ where we would listen and watchand hum to live music – hearing a piece of each musician’s mind as they improvised. The space is an intimate and dimly lit time warp; everyone just sort of stares at things, giving the impression of looking beyond the objects they were fixed on as if they were observing something only they can see. I promise I am not a walking cliché, but jazz has had me believing in little miracles, and noticing small things.

One evening, four of us walked back to college through snow with nipped fingers and hearts invigorated by the events of the jazz and poetry evening hosted by the English literature society at Fabio’s bar. After dropping the other two off as we passed St Mary’s College, my friend and I, on a whim, decided to trudge up to observatory hill to catch a blurry view of the cathedral. It was one of those rare moments where life seems perfect. The snow fell relentlessly and I had experienced the insane privilege of being in someone’s poem that evening. Me in a poem? I smiled stupidly at the thought for the rest of that long night.

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Of course February’s unseasonable snow had everyone seized with panic. Everything ceased to function, waddling became the prime mode of movability and my email inbox became clogged up with emails titled ‘Adverse weather update #23084′. With the snow having coincided with
striking, the entrance to the Bill Bryson Library was often aswarm with lecturers looking far too happy in their massive coats carrying travel coffee cups and banners and handing out yellow stickers. IMG_9288We ate from plastic plates and cups that week (kitchen staff absence meant fewer hands to wash dishes) and Wednesday’s Yorkshire puddings were so hard that you could literally “bludgeon someone to death with it” according to Ed. This made the postponement of the spring ball even more of a travesty. Fancy food would have to wait until next term’s formal.

One good thing about being so insulated in by university life are the few times you get to escape the bubble. On a weekly basis I venture down to Whitley Bay for piano studies. Often the lessons send me into such a happy delirium that I miss my stop on the train and have to wait on a solitary platform for the next train to take me back to Newcastle. I enjoy the commutes with a strange conviction – the underground station with its warm winds and weather patterns, and the brisk walk to my teacher’s house through the park. I never leave uninspired and, among many things, my lessons remind me to protect my practice time heedless of busy university days.

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‘All Shook up’ was the Collingwood college Woodplayers production of the term – an Elvis Presley musical with hues of Shakespeare. As member of the pit band, I was astonished and humbled by the work I witnessed behind the scenes. On the night before the first show, people used spare minutes to do their maths assignments and fortify themselves with creme eggs and biscuits; there was an overall feeling that we may not be as ready as we thought. By the time we finished the final scene it was 3:10am. After the first show, people retired to bed immediately and with disappointed hearts – we knew it could have been better. The second night, however, could not have been better (celebratory drinks were had in the bar afterwards), and by the fourth and final night, everyone was ready for the afterparty. As we dismantled the stage and got to grips with the fact that the show was over, I heard a few cast members exclaim: “What am I going to do with my life now?”. What I found most most breathtaking about the whole experience was watching the faces of the people involved as their hard work came to fruition.
Would I be a true student if I did not moan about the work which, as expected, increased in volume rather noticeably this term?
“Sometimes you will hurdle an assignment and sometimes an assignment will hurdle you and knock you about a bit, but like all earthquakes, things come to a standstill after some time.” were the words uttered by my friend during a phone call.
“Hmm. But you do have to deal with the rubble. We’re threatened by chaos here.” I replied.
Summative assignments – the ones that count towards your end grade – saw work acquire a more serious tone (or were perhaps just an excuse to nurse late night cereal or digestive biscuit addictions). This term I had more faith in my abilities and found the work all the more engrossing. Tired eyes bore witness to long nights in the library (now open 24/7) or on my friend’s bedroom floor as we worked through Beethoven.

Quickly – what else have I missed? A few weeks into the term I discovered mushrooms growing out of the tiles in the shower room, Collingwood experienced some mid-term wifi issues which led to many angry post-it-note messages on windows (“FIX THE WIFI”, “I would make a joke about wifi but it would get bad reception”),  I’ve started reviewing for Music Durham, and one of the best happenings of the term were the ‘Human’ events hosted by the Christian Union on the 19-23 of February. In summary, the objective was to explore ‘questions of humanity, life and faith’ with God at the centre. Everything – from thought-provoking conversations in the Globe cafe and live music to themed lunch and evening talks – took place in a large marque opposite St Mary’s. To say it was an impactful and challenging week is an understatement.

Epiphany, you’ve been marvellous and frightening at times. Ah, Durham, where is the time already going? Exam season will be upon us soon. People don’t lie when they say it has a way of escaping you at university. There will, I know there will come a time that I am going to long many of these moments back into existence again.
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Watching paint dry.

My primary-school art teacher liked to catch me deep in thought – to pluck me from oddly distracted moods on a weekly basis, always by exclaiming, “Elisabet! Are you watching paint dry?”. At the time, this would irritate me deeply. I knew she didn’t think me an idle pupil for I poured myself into the tasks we were set and I always looked forward to our two-hour classes. Yet her voice always caught me by surprise.

Now that I am older (and, hopefully, wiser), I can finally say I think I know what she meant. Granted, she was telling me to get up and do something useful – scrub my paintbrushes with soapy hot water, flick through the Matisse book at the back of the room, draw something else inspired by previous years’ work on the walls; but I like to believe that she was communicating a deeper something, teaching me a little life lesson about creativity that has started making more sense as I’ve grown up. It was as if she was saying, “Do anything but nothing. Be anything but passive”. What powerful advice.

Since graduating from preparatory school and proceeding from secondary education to university, I have caught myself watching paint dry often and I get uneasy about it. We all do it, although I think it can mean something different for everyone.

I struggle to remember a time I’ve ever felt comfortable not using my time ‘deliberately’, especially now that I am studying something I’m passionate about, and now that I have an idea of what I enjoy and am simultaneously decent at. As someone who takes pleasure in creating, I automatically expect myself to be a full-time creative. You could say that watching paint dry makes me nervous – I either succumb to impatience and end up with something completely different than I had envisaged (colours bleed and become disturbed when you add a layer over a wash that isn’t yet dry etc.) or maybe even get the hairdryer out to speed up the drying process. Although this is quite a productive way to be, I’ve realised that there is a rather large problem. Being this way puts relentless pressure on the things I enjoy and leads to grave disappointment in myself. Disappointment when I don’t meet personal expectations or feel like the quality of what I have created doesn’t reach a certain standard. Because we are in constant flux and a bit erratic by nature, it’s unrealistic to expect consistency when it comes to personal projects and creativity.

Why then, if it is dangerous for us to expect unfaltering creative output, is it bad to take a break? Surely creative ideas can flow from idle musings? What is so bad about watching paint dry? The answer is I don’t think it is bad at all. Sometimes it is the best thing you can do. Without intending to umm and ahh unnecessarily, I guess what I want to emphasise here is that it is a question of whether or not we are using the destructive potential of being uninspired or static – whatever you want to call it. The thing is, watching paint dry is almost always very inwards, mindless and indifferent to what is going on around you.

Recently, my friend and I spoke about our creative processes and how we went about composing or writing music, and came up with the idea of ‘creative hibernation’; something we both experience occasionally. This is sort of equivalent to the ‘creative block’; a period of not feeling inspired to create. Breaks are necessary, but sometimes I have experienced such unwelcome respites from creating for the wrong reasons, for example because I feel inept or as if I’m treading water. Something I read in Anthony Storr’s Music and the mind resonated with me: “…creative people are hypersensitive…have difficulty in dealing wth sensory input from the external world…are overwhelmed by the treat of confusion or disorder”. It is during times of feeling this way that I tend to retreat inwards and silently reject things happening around me. I watch paint dry.

As is hopefully clear by now, my aim is not to suggest that we should be creating or working on projects unremittingly. We shouldn’t get anxious when we catch ourselves floating. However, we should, when catching ourselves in the act, change our axis to be self-aware not self-obsessed, intentional not distracted, observant not inward. It’s not all about us and thank goodness for that. I think there is so much potential in things (conversations, exhibitions, ways of seeing). When we are caught up in this vacuum of watching paint dry, opportunities pass in silence. The general fickle nature of life and the reality that everything is, strictly speaking, a coincidence means that there is so much to notice. Only, so much goes unnoticed because we are absent minded, unconfident or waiting. We don’t make an effort to distill irrelevant thoughts and open our eyes to live in the clarity of now. There’s so much to see that we do not need to get involved in. We simply need to notice it. And when you notice the world, you’ll find that watching paint dry is the very opposite of unproductive.

So, if I could turn back time my reply would probably consist of, ‘Yes, I am watching paint dry – what of it?’. But then I’d smile at my teacher and I would get on with something useful. You see, her rhetorical question brought to my attention how urgently significant the little moments in between larger creative fevers are, and their potential shouldn’t be overlooked. Her philosophy was to do be awake for everything you do, find a balance between being blithe and being deliberate, pursue inspiration and write down things you overhear or see that make you feel something. Such is the way to live creatively.

Home is in cinnamon.

I have quite a nostalgic nose whether I like it or not. In that respect, returning to Qatar to spend Christmas and the new year with my family has been an interesting experience.

I stepped into my old room like I was stepping into old mindsets.

My desk stood as I had left it – scarred with ringed mug stains and the remnants of a bit of A-level revision tucked under a few books. My record player had acquired a fine veil of dust, a lone Neil Young album placed up against it. My double bed felt like an ocean and I was swimming in a very familiar washing powder. I resigned to feeling unapologetically tired and happy.

The following morning I rediscovered cinnamon. To give my toast a light dusting in the morning or my hot chocolate in the evening used to be quite a religious experience before I left for university.

Noticing the little peak of cinnamon – like a sand dune – on my cereal, my mum mentioned a verse from the song ‘Kaneelverkoper’ by Coenie de Villiers.

Die kleure van Arabië
die oop woestyn se geel –
vul al die mandjies in my tent –
en elk bevat kaneel

Those of you who do not understand Afrikaans – fret not! – I have translated this extraordinary little entity of words for you.

The colours of Arabia
the open desert yellow –
fills all the hampers in my tent –
and they all hold cinnamon.

When I smell cinnamon, my mind halts and dormant memories come bubbling to the surface. I think of home – not home as in a place, necessarily. Rather, an elusive wayward feeling like bleached visions of climbing the gate after school and kicking dust. The distant peal of a Mosque’s call to prayer.

A curious but comforting normality.

Perhaps to celebrate my reunion with this feeling of home and of being back in the desert, or, more likely, as an excuse to loiter around the kitchen after a term of meals on trays (and no seconds), I found myself baking impromptu biscuits one evening.

Once the batter, which had been hastily shaped into rustic looking stars and Christmas trees, was safely in the oven, my sister and I sat on the kitchen counter. We played chess and waited for the smell of orange and cinnamon to infuse our warm coma zone.

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what you will need.

  • 2 tablespoons of cinnamon
  • 1 tablespoon of orange juice
  • some orange peal
  • 3/4 cup powdered coconut sugar
  • 2 cups of ground almonds
  • 1.5 cup of ground hazelnuts
  • 1/2 cup water
  • 3/4 cup oat flour

how to make them.

  • put on a big t-shirt and listen to an album you love and know well.
  • to turn it into a powder, pulse the coconut sugar in a blender. Repeat this using rolled oats to make oat flour.
  • we used a herb cutter to ground the hazelnuts and almonds. A food processor would also do the job.

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  • mix all of the ingredients in a bowl.
  • (optional sneaky tasting of batter).
  • roll out and cut the dough into shapes.

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  • preheat the oven to 180°C. After 7 minutes, remove the biscuits from the oven; they should still be quite soft.
  • let them cool down, then sprinkle with icing sugar and more cinnamon.

(How to enjoy them: on the patio whilst singing along loudly to Electric light orchestra).