(I was able to share this with the Northfield Buddhist Meditation Center sangha this morning. It was a real pleasure. Printed here, rather than read aloud, to break a long blog silence...)
I first want to make clear what this title means, or at least marginally or provisionally clear.
I don’t intend to talk about doing Buddhist meditation practices creatively—though that would be fascinating—but rather about approaching the practice of creativity from a perspective informed by Buddhist meditation and thought. And it will require a little bit of personal history and a lot of very specific, self-involved reflection. I hope, though, that looking in will have actually led to reaching out, and that these reflections, once untangled, will be of some use to you.
Wanting to think this idea through with all of you takes me back, to a point in my life during which creative practice in my chosen crafts—composing music and writing words—had notably and completely fallen away. I thought its absence was permanent—and that word is telling—because I’d come to know, intimately, how unskillful the work had become. It devoured everything when it was in process and required intense self-flagellation to rekindle that hungry fire when it was not. And I’d run out of energy for it, or maybe some part of me rejected that particular dance and refused to allocate that energy any longer, not to creativity and frankly not to anything else, either. We could call it clinical depression or we could call it something else, but the affective result was that I was a shadow.
Sitting practice—or rather the ideas behind sitting practice—were the first things that made sense to me in that shut-down state, in that inner environment of having ruled out a creative life. I had run out of ways to justify a practice that propagated a particular sense of self. A story about being a creative type. The work existed, I had come to know in my bones, to prop up the idea that I was the sort of person who made things.
Sitting practice was the first thing that even suggested that experiencing WHAT WAS THERE, always, actually, and already, could have value. My dis-eased perspective would survey the internal scene and ask what I might make out of it. How could my internal reality be used, utilized, deployed, transfigured? Never what was there, only what could be made from it and that view of every state’s potential obscured what every state might just be.
I should stop talking retrospectively, as though I’ve resolved all of this, realized a better way and aligned my current work with that transformed method and ideal. But something has changed over the hours spent on the cushion or in study. Rather than wanting to be the sort of person who makes things, I am tilting towards being the sort of person who lets things be. How can that not also shut creativity down? There is so much to observe in the inner and outer world, to observe in our looking, to experience as our bodies process those infinite impulses and triggers. Why would I want to add to the noise? Or, rather, isn’t making a song or a poem or even a little melody the very definition of getting swept up in ego? Shouldn’t I just be watching the desire to sing until it passes so in its place that glorious equilibrium might arise?
Intellectually it doesn’t make a lot of sense to me. But experientially it does, and I lean more on experiential knowledge these days, body and heart over brain. To reference Karmic law: actions ripple out. My father played Chopin my whole childhood. I loved to sing at the piano. I could play a beat. Some of doing nothing is allowing the gravitational pull to those sounds and places, some of doing nothing is allowing them to speak. It is not because I want to have made things that things get made, it is because we can recast ourselves more as conduits than as actors. We can get out of the way and then, in place of our hangups, in place of our desires to leave a trace of our limited ego understanding behind, we might get a song or a poem or a melody, one that articulates all the music and language that has ever poured in, filtered through this momentary arising of self, this illusion of unique perspective. And out the other end we get to say I was here, you were there, I said these words to you and you heard them. But really there was just a drop of color in the ether, neutral ground tilted ever so slightly towards sharing, generosity, towards the tiniest stake in saying I saw this thing and you might like to see it, too.
Well that answers that. From Miles, who is in season 5 (last night he started referring to years of his life as seasons, as in "that smells like something I liked in season 2").
He wrote this and gave it to me and I found it beautiful and mysterious, like he'd become a motivational speaker but a remarkably understated one, inspiration via oversized fortune cookie the general tactic, Yoda-as-life-coach. I center my own efforts so completely all the time; "we will" is what I need to hear. Again that line from "aspirational gardening," coming soon-ish (I'm thick into the follow-up to MaWtBaL): nice to believe, harder to know.
And harder still to put into practice a reorientation to creative work as something I do on behalf of, in response to, and in collaboration with other beings. Teaching works that was by design; maybe the markedly different maker-posture comes in part from the pervasive idea that teaching is out there and for the institution while making is in here and for me. In part because, goes the story, because of The Structural Problem with Music: I have to compete to be heard over so much sound.
Unless being part of collective sound-making is the goal. My voice might not emerge but my voice can contribute. I make ambient music, then; most of us do, by definition. Structurally. We are making a thing that recedes out of attention but that nonetheless transforms the environment, which we can know by its richness ("the market is oversaturated") and openness ("anyone with a laptop can make a record") and generosity ("no one pays for music anymore").
Of course I sense a hyperbolizing and a tortured logic here. It's in service of trying on a new skin, though, a course-correction. Cutting the wheel hard because there is just so much pushing in the direction of hero myths. I want to try to retell a story in first person plural.
I like "we will" so much because it affirms what we are already doing, answering questions I am sure we are asking or need to ask. Addressing doubt head-on. (I also like it as a madlib. We will ________, and then a litany of things? Insert my excel to-do document.)
I like it most, though, as an idea that we are willing a thing into being. Together we intend. And the structures that attempt to yoke that setting of intention into a sale-able widgets will always be a step behind What Is Actually Happening. We do our work aware of those structures, interdependent with them, but at best we might privilege the privilege of swimming in the current over the fantasy of being scooped out and made to speak on its behalf.
When I cook with my mom and ask about proportions, the conversation goes like this:
-Is this too many ______? (leeks, shallots, etc. (which reminds me of "change the onion, change the sauce.")
-my mother used to say, "the more you put in, the more you'll find."
Apparently her mother also watched cooking shows, and constantly experimented with new things/ways to cook. She'd meet someone at the market and come home with ideas, or become inspired by Mary Ann Esposito's Ciao Italia. This is not consistent with my understanding of who my grandmother was. I imagined her rooted to the spot while the world around her changed, the idea of her fixed in space reinforced by the fact that I did not speak to her; she laughed at my fledgling and often broken Italian, and then as my Italian got better, she got sicker.
So I could write a story about her, the matriarch, in my head, that was unaffected by who she actually became over time. Others' stories about her were the pillars of the biography. Like: Duke, the bull mastiff, attacked my youngest uncle and she picked the dog up and threw him out the back door. Or: someone brought a loaf of bread to their house in the Bronx every week because, years prior, in Italy during the war, she broke the ration rules and gave this man's family extra bread. Or: she dreamed of my cousin, inexplicably, and woke up unsettled, only to learn there had been an accident. In my understanding, uncolored by an actual relationship, she was a kind of Benevolent Sorceress.
When she died there was an untethering, a fall from grace. She had been holding together a network of children and grandchildren that was slowly infiltrating/being infiltrated by a wholly different culture than the one she left and the new hybrid one she subsequently built, and without her centering the circle, the cables holding us in orbit started to fray and break. People moved away, or died, or became isolated, or got sick. I think that sense of her as an immovable, unchanging object made those disconnections more likely. Italian Glinda died and the suture died with her, no one there to subdue the animals who turn on us, or bend the rules of war, or forge a telepathic link when we are in danger. Cut the line and suction takes over. We assimilate.
Knowing that she'd go shopping in the neighborhood and come back with a recipe for Chinese fried rice, though, complicates this. She was a human being who did some things and then died, and some of what she did, unsurprisingly, is not consistent with a story I invented based on not knowing her. And the stories we have written about assimilation and about distance and about foregone conclusions might also be inconsistent with the ways we could live, if we were equally curious.
Is this too much _______? (Pathos, drama, oversharing, etc.)
I hear my mom's voice remembering her mother. The more you put in, the more you'll find.
Today that means leeks we got from our farm in a state my grandmother could never have imagined would intersect her story. Some wine, even (blasphemy!). A vegetarian (blasphemy!) broth, coming together in the kitchen that centers our house like it centered hers.
There are mirrors in this song, so turning the start of it backwards feels like an internally constant recursion, the first lines fed into the algorithm that some of the later lines describe, (which were of course triggered by the first lines in a kind of lyrical butterfly effect). But these lines didn't yet know about the mirroring to come when they were set down and photographed, when it was a blank page following a little idea (that making a thing is a valorized symptom of an illness and that the making creates a debt that one eventually needs to pay; then you write the song, the debts pile up, you hope to finish before the remittance stage). The future of the idea comes back to the spark and recasts it, in light of what it now knows. Time travel, made possible by taking a picture of something unprepared, in a conventional sense, to be photographed.
I think about documenting What Is Happening Now, for future filtering through the perspectives of Where It Will Lead. Omit the transitions, the intermediate stages; blank like rest of the page, white space after the initiating lines, the seed seen from the top of what eventually grew from it. The idea is that we can look way down to a germinating moment from a treetop with the tree somehow erased. And not fall. So if it's true that you spend 43 days down for every one day you spend up, timing is everything. What was I doing on October 18? (I counted calendar days from this photograph.) Eating all of the enchiladas in Albuquerque. How did this song look on that day? Like the first line turned backwards. Sickness masks things making. Making is the natural state.
What I Have Learned in the past few days of reading and practice is that singing, the attitude around it, is a litmus test for self-regard. Seems like kind of a wild theory, but experience and reflection and a litany of internal a-has seem to bear it out. I sing and then apologize. What does that MEAN?
I wrote to Jennifer Hamady after I read The Art of Singing. We're doing an email consultation (!) based around two tracks from MaWtBaL. (The weird thing--well, a weird thing--about this is that I am submitting final, about-to-be-released music as the impetus for correction. So I will just monitor my freakout about that as it unfolds.) In my note to her I thought, out loud, about my voice and my past as a singer and BOYOBOY did I discover some things. All of the markers on the path were moments of critique, embarrassment, even betrayal in a sense, though that feels like a really strong word in a post about going la la la. I remember starting to sing and loving it and doing it everywhere and saying "I like you" to the voice I was discovering. But then it became a numbers game: how many of my own "I like yous" would it take to counter "you need to work on your intonation" ("what's that?" "It means you sing in the wrong key") or failing to find re-do in my first eartraining class, over and over again, in front of everyone, or any number of other subtle cracks, comments, questions over the years, or, and this is maybe the worst one of all, being ignored, disregarded, the omission of the fact of the voice?
More than I could supply, it turns out, and so somehow the story became that my singing, in my own work, was a bug rather than a feature. A necessary evil. I am about to release a record on which I sing, and going into it feeling like I ought to apologize or explain doesn't feel like a comfortable or sustainable posture. I am about to play shows on which I sing, sometimes for my colleagues who, supportive though they are, structurally sit in judgment of my work. It is not going to go well if I recoil from my own sound. Others sense that. And regardless, the voice knows, the tenor of the performance transforms. It is disquieting to watch someone struggle with their voice, to publicly take issue with the sound one makes upon opening one's mouth. Partly, perhaps, that is because it is a public display of How We Feel About Ourselves.
So I am wondering if I can feel better about myself, I suppose, and use being curious about the voice, experimenting, learning to say "I like you" again, as the armature, the platform. I also wonder, a lot, about the point of writing things like this and sending them out over the internet via cryptic twitter posts or instagram photos with a "link in bio." Is that part of the voice, too? Regardless: what got me motivated today was to think about how this might make someone else's day better; rather than the overshare-as-value model I typically adopt, what if this was something you could actually use? Do you like you? I like you.
Seems like "not" is the most frequently used word today, followed by "also" and "good." That's a readout from today's analysis by 750words.com. (Go there, please, often, daily.) During which PLANS WERE HATCHED like always, but under the loose idea of a new regimen that is actually about not having a regimen.
Easy enough to make a list of skills to build and things I want to learn and do and things I want to want to learn and do. Such as: work through Gjerdingen's Partimenti and Solfeggi; plan my vocal counterpoint class; enshrine the courses I have taught already; learn my scales and do Hanon, as was the charge in my most recent piano lesson; learn "I Could Write a Book" well enough that I can begin to approach a right-hand improvisation that doesn't sound terrible; recast my language around my own work so I don't say things like that. Re-start and finish Eric's piece. Keep working on the Max patch that will be the boss of my solo work, especially the vocal processor. Speaking of vocal processing: find my singing voice.
That feels like the big one, and per this book I bought yesterday that I am tearing through on a Kindle reader since the actual Kindle has gone missing, there is work to do in terms of unlearning. Letting go of the language I always use around my own singing, such as "it sure sucks." I sat at the piano last night, and played "aspirational gardening" and "first day" and "exploding star" and "say a thing" and "where it lands." In my head were all the reminders and refreshers and new things from yet a different book about singing, and it felt like a different, better, healthier voice.
What if there actually is a voice in there? I mean, of course there is. But what if it's a non-shitty one? This is a different premise than I have been operating under, it turns out, for some time. And it requires an orientation that is more about exploration than about executing a daily routine that touches all of the list items. Hence the "grab bag" idea: that there is an abundance of exciting things to do, that there is the freedom to choose among them, that discovering a unique perspective and then centering it is the actual practice, rather than collecting more cookies, skillsets, party tricks. Discovering how to sing. Uncovering how to sing. That's the masthead right now. Actual singing and singing-as-metaphor.
Could be solfeggi, or my own songs, or that right-hand solo. Or Eric's piece, or even planning a course. What if singing were the thing, the organizing idea? What does it mean to center, unabashedly, one's own voice? Find out. I used to scrawl that across drafts of scores and grad school rejection letters in order to advertise concerts. Turns out it is still a good strategy, but maybe it need not redeem a draft or, worse, a rejection. There is a way to orient toward the voice that is about Finding Out, without the self-flagellation, without apologizing. In theory.
It would be good to have an image for every post, a la thank you campaign. Going back over that project, in order to move it here, reminded me what it was like to be attempting to communicate often, with people other than myself.
That process has always been a complicated one for me. And now, as I think about releasing this new record, it becomes even more urgent that I figure out why. Why does it feel like a problem to want others to hear the music? Why does it feel somehow disingenuous or ideologically impure?
I think about what I am doing, internally, when I am listening or at a show. How that communal experience makes sense of my own experience, brings me into contact with others who are similarly wired/weird, how completely unrelated to commerce the whole thing feels.
Writing here feels that way even if no one is reading it. Just saying "this is here for you if it might mean something" feels like performance, in the best way, feels like passing a note or writing a little inscription in a book you intend to give away. I did that recently and never checked up on it, whether it was ever noticed or read. But it's there, and that it is there matters to me. A link in a chain.
Everything about putting music into the world feels difficult and complicated. I mean the logistical armature, not the making and sharing. Certainly the latter--making and sharing--is difficult and complicated, but the good kind. The former, though, the logistics: you pay someone to ask someone who is paid to write about things like yours that they should write about your thing, and then that, I guess, turns into more of the same, so people play your tracks on spotify maybe? Or ask you to write something for them, so you can do it and then restart the whole process?
I suppose it's a matter of figuring out what you are after. What I am chasing is that feeling of suspension in a web of ideas and sounds and people, a corroboration by other human beings. An "I felt it, too," whether we are the makers of the things or the beholders of them. What's the straightest shot to that?
I expect that it's a lot simpler and more direct than it feels when you are thinking about a press campaign or a tenure prospectus. I also expect that said campaign/prospectus would benefit from that line of best fit, from boiling this down to something a bit more essential and less full of interior noise.
The thing about noise is that signal and not-signal get equal weight.
Chasing signal these days. Chasing? Sounds noisy. Letting it emerge. Waiting for it. Or allowing it in. Inviting it in. Setting the table. I am trying to make my home hospitable. Other analogies abound. Antennae. Resonant frequencies. Holding the right light up to invisible ink, like in "where it lands," a new song that, come to think of it, did eventually find its way home. I'll share it. Soon.
Firing a shot across the bow.
And why so violent?
I called myself out in class the other day for the kind of language I seem often to use to describe things like, say, mastering a track really well ("It hits hard! It kills!"). Everyone laughed. I appreciated the generosity.
Speaking of, it is unbelievable to me that young people can still be so generous to someone like me, so kind. In the face of Where We Are These Days. Two Americas, et cetera. And the attendant disaster of opportunities lost.
Still, they laugh with me. And they trust that I will say something of value about making a thing, which I honestly and earnestly do try to do.
Even with the sinking suspicion that there is something really profoundly flawed with what I make. I imagine playing with my friends and how cool and exciting their sets will be, and then I will get up there and start my mediocre singing about Things That Feel So Real and it will be embarrassing for all of us.
That's today. Other days I will sit and play for you as soon as you pick up on the hint that I dropped that I would like to play for you.
Step out one ring: push this whole thing over. Brush it off. There need not be so much noise in this simple life of making and sharing.
(As the lyric I have been playing with says: nice to believe, harder to know.)
Wait, what? You want to hear it? Oh I suppose I could play it for you...
It's nice to be building this site again, and to be writing again. I mean, I am still writing every morning. 1.7 million words since 2010. But that shall never see the light of day. Whereas this? This you could find if you were enterprising enough, or if I tweetstagram a breadcrumb trail (which is the nickname for my new marketing strategy that it is unlikely I will adopt) to it.
Also, here is a thing. I buried it way down here.
I give a talk here at SōSI tomorrow at noon. I've been preparing to do something new, rather than a modified job audition. And I typically shape this talk, or attempt to shape it at least, center it around some kind of argument. This year I have been wondering about reframing, reconsidering the purpose of this moment with our generous, earnest, and eager students. Turns out, goes my thinking, it's not about looking like a great composer in front of them. It's about being of use to them in some way. So I've decided to show a few new things, just to orient to the range of work I like to do, but also show work that is in progress, to talk a little about the processes and recursions that are in play under the notes. And just like those processes often unfold in order to fuse two ideas, or reconcile them, this talk prep is attempting to fold in a background theme or concept: room/space/place. Where is this work situated in literal space? Basement, law office, studio, and the very room in which we find ourselves. Not necessarily in that order.