I was invited to create a piece of music and write up the process for inclusion in a book on Music and Wellbeing. I was asked to consider the notion of ‘well being’ in relation to the creation of a musical composition and write up the findings.
It is widely acknowledged that “writing about music is like dancing about architecture”. Explaining the creative process from a first person perspective is next to impossible. Below is an attempt to extract some elements I considered while writing the piece, and music in general.
You can listen to the composition before or after reading the words below, as is your wont.
I – Wellbeing
When I think about wellbeing, I think of pleasurable experiences, goals achieved, lessons learned. I think of those moments when I find myself in apparent synchrony with the world. These are the things that bolster my sense of wellbeing.
Good fortune and bon viveur.
Thinking on such matters inevitably leads one to a consideration of life, and how many more such moments there might be before the end.
“Hope I die, before I get old” – My Generation, The Who
I am a 41 year old male, living in the UK, the office of statistics put my life expectancy at 80.1 years placing me just past the mid-point in life.
Halfway to the finish line.
I am in, one sense, a biological system of cells, supporting the conscious entity I call myself. The health and functional efficiency of these cells determines whether I will remain alive, or not.
Without the cells, “I” have no where to be.
Some of my bone cells are over 20 years old, my red blood cells live for maybe 120 days, the cells lining my stomach maybe 2 days. The biological entity I consider to be my body is in constant flux, with no cells surviving my entire lifetime.
“I am not the man I used to be.” – The Fine Young Cannibals
Yet what does persist biologically, throughout my lifetime, from conception to death, is the constant replication of my DNA. This information lives on, even while the cells die off. Like a good song, handed down through the ages.
I decided the composition should be, in part, about these processes of life, the supporting structures which are the prerequisite of well being.
Life, after all, is just the repeating of complex patterns over time, just like Music.
II – Music as time
Music lives in time, in the form of a changing acoustic space, a geography that exists simultaneously as the immediate vibrations of the air hitting my ear drum, and the complex, constructive, predictive and emotive experience of music inside my mind. While these representations are radically different, they both share a common axis – time.
Spectrograph of Senescence
With a painting or other visual art form we can give ourselves the freedom to explore the experience for as long or as short a period of time as we choose. Our minds are free to interpret, emote and respond to the unfolding idea of the image at their own pace.
With a piece of music there is no such luxury. Of course we are able to listen over and over again, however the music itself has a distinctive form which is precisely defined by the period when it is being played.
Music exists as a form in time. Composition is sculpture.
III – Mid-Life Audit
“They give birth astride of a grave, the light gleams an instant, then it’s night once more.” – Pozzo, Waiting for Godot, Samuel Beckett.
In the great scheme of things, Beckett nails it. At one level of description I am made up of a bunch of atoms, forged in The Big Bang 14 billion years ago. These atoms will live on long after I’m gone, forming new bonds with other atoms until the end of time. This current arrangement that I call my body, is but a momentary diversion.
My life, such as it is, is fundamentally meaningless.
But it doesn’t feel like it, Goddamn it.
I was born, and in 40 years time (statistically speaking) I’ll be dead. What happens in between those two points in time seems pretty important to me.
However, whatever of this life I have ahead is a modern luxury. Current life expectancies far outreach those of even the recent past. In the early 20th Century life expectancy was 31 years, Neolithic man was lucky to make 20. For contemporary western cultures this has now more than tripled. The period of life we now consider as mid-life to old age simply was not of concern until very recent history.
When approaching this composition, my intention was both to explore the sounds of the immediate moment, of my direct physical activity and the notion of the underlying, unseen biological process that both keep me alive and keeps me dying. In the back of my mind I was considering this period of life I now occupy, from mid-life to old age, to understand what to expect from an aging body, where I have been, where I am now, and where it might end.
The form of the composition is in four parts reflecting this perspective. The first representing the childhood phase, followed by a section representing the surge through puberty then adulthood, and a final phase of stasis and decline.
I decided the composition should be built around a series of audio samples, predominantly recordings of my own body. Breathing, digesting, masticating – living.
In one sense, the piece may be considered as an acoustic mid-life audit.
So I built myself a stethoscope microphone and went listening to the sounds inside my own body.
The first thing I found was the beat of my heart.
IV – And the beat goes on
The sun is setting on the Neolithic landscape, our hominid forebears are gathered around the fire for warmth and protection. There are no words yet, but there is a community, bound together for survival.
Their world is structured in time by the external cycles of day and night, the changing of the seasons, the migration patterns of the animals they eat. Overlaid are the cycles of reproduction, of birth and death. Even the pre-linguistic brains of our ancestors could judge and predict these patterns. The notions of past, present and future were as yet unlabeled, but collectively used as abstract tools to plot out their lives.
This is the dawning of intentionality and the beginning of what we now call ‘consciousness’.
Someone picks up a stick and strikes it gently against a hollow log. A soft resonant thud vibrates the air and becomes a sound. He strikes again, stronger this time, to experience the sound, once more – an act of intentional creation. The thud reminds him of his beating heart, powerful and strong in his chest when chasing down the gazelle – absent in the bodies of the dead. He strikes the log again and again, matching the beat of his own heart, one by one the group look up, some join in, thumping the ground, or slapping their own bodies – the entire group understands.
Of course, we can never know whether this romanticized vision of the dawn of music is true, but it is generally held that music as we understand it probably emerged 40,000-70,000 years ago alongside other activities of .the cultural explosion. (cave painting, jewellery etc) which leave an archeological record.
But to me music seems more fundamental than these other creative acts – painting or crafting require complex planning, preparation of materials and fine motor control – to make music one only needs ears a sense of timing.
To strike a drum repeatedly at a fixed interval requires complex neural timing circuitry, circuitry that also exists in other primates This suggests that even our earliest ancestors had the capacity to keep a beat – indeed we were perhaps drumming long before we were speaking.
Recognizing and responding to a regular pattern over time seems a simple task to us, and indeed we perform very well when the patterns are in the order of a few seconds long, but it breaks down for longer periods of time.
We have innate preferences for some forms of musical structure over others. For example it is no mere coincidence that our natural preference for is for tempos between 100bpm and 120bpm, which correspond to the heart rate of a dancing human.
The beating of the drum echos the beating of the heart.
Understanding the quanta of time is an essential survival skill. The ability to keep time in the same way as the other members of your group allows for coordinated hunting, for example.
Keeping time keeps you alive.
Communal rhythmic activities communicate a common sense of time keeping. By recognizing and mirroring the timing of another person we create a common landscape of time. Music can be seen, on one level, as a method of keeping our communal internal clocks in sync.
Music, as a communal activity of repetition and synchrony, gives structure to our personal and collective perception of time.
And with an understanding of time, comes understanding that our time is a finite resource, bounded by the duration of our lives.
V – Do you hear what I hear?
“What can be said at all can be said clearly, and what we cannot talk about we must pass over in silence.” – Wittgenstein, Tractatus 1922
When Wittgenstein investigated the philosophy of language, he concluded that the symbols and meaning of language exist solely “in public”, a phenomenon of a shared culture. Music similarly exists solely in the public realm, shared and understood by individuals through the medium of culture. However music is not language – in evolutionary terms, it pre-dates language.
Music communicates emotional states that live beyond verbal description, something deeper.
“After silence, that which comes nearest to expressing the inexpressible is music” – Aldous Huxley
We should rightly understand music as a cultural element able to communicate states of being which exist beyond the symbolic, rational world of language. Music tells us something about ourselves that language alone cannot.
Cognitive scientists call it “emotional intelligence”. Musicians call it “soul”.
Music can even cut through some language and cognitive impediments. Stutterers often find they can sing with fluidity. Tourettes sufferers are able to suppress their tics when singing.
Though it shares the same sensory modalities as language, music is not an offshoot of language, it exists as an orthogonal plane of conscious experience and expression.
VI – Senesense
Biologically speaking, ageing is determined by the rate of cell death (senescence), in part determined by the shortening of genes called telomeres, which are truncated with each replication, eventually resulting in mutation and malfunction of the cells. In humans this begins almost directly after sexual maturity – from approximately 19 years of age.
I’ve been in biological decline for over half my life.
Every second of every day cells are being replicated and destroyed. A process that will occur trillions of times in our lifetimes.
When DNA is replicated in the nucleus of a cell, the double helix is split in two, and each strand copied in an almost flawless manner (making less than one mistake for every 10 million nucleotides added)
However, with each replication comes a slight trimming of the sequence.
At the end of each strand of DNA there is a sequence of repeating code – a buffer, which is shortened every time replication occurs. When this runs out, the important code gets compromised, until the cell can no longer replicate.
I wanted to communicate this notion in the composition. The replication, the repetition, the eventual errors that precede collapse.
The melody of the piece is built around a number of repeating piano patterns, which replicate over differing periods of time, interacting and reacting.
These patterns return in the final phase of the composition, fractured and repeated – broken and senescent.
VII – Making music
The music I make music exists in two distinct places, the performance and the (often solitary) composition. This piece forced me to literally look (listen) inside myself to find the elements – to investigate the constituent parts of myself, the music making machine.
Making electronic music is like acoustic Lego. Pieces and colours interlock, or don’t, coalesce or confound. Some musicians are able to sit at the piano and write a song – it’s never been like that for me. Often the seed will come from a found sound or a distorted sample. Interlocking pieces are crafted and applied, manipulated and rejected until a satisfying whole emerges.
It’s very far removed from the direct physical action of ‘playing’ an instrument – my fingers touched a piano briefly, but the majority of the time was spent sampling, shaping, clicking and sequencing – a process which seems a million miles from the Neolithic log thumping described above.
But the result now exists in a way that prehistoric music does not – in digital physical form, to be replicated and deleted, listened to and ignored as a defined acoustic artefact. Perhaps even ready to be performed by an mp3 decoder and heard by human ears as yet unborn.