Saturday, March 03, 2012

Listening to Be Bop: Staring at an Eclipse of the Sun

Photo Credit Luc Viatour
In the same way the performance of a score is different from an improvisation, I like to consider books, scripts and prepared presentations designed, but conversation as impromptu speech and therefore an unadorned chassis of thought, –engine, transmission and framework inclusive.

That's why we might take offense if someone stops us mid sentence to correct our use of a certain word, and we in turn them accuse them of being pedantic. Because perhaps the graver error is not the so-called mistake, but that the listener has given themselves away as being tone deaf to nuance.

Yes, a shared agreement on the meanings of certain words might make a given case better, but perfect usage, syntax or pronunciation does not always produce the most efficient means of conveying an idea or delivering a message. Sometimes the most engaging delivery requires one to take artistic liberties, to stretch the boundaries of language to its breaking point; but in order for such transmissions to be successful, we require an audience that can decipher new codes as they are being invented, that will forgive us errors in flow, and that might even find beauty in the way that we stumble.

Otherwise, what use poetry?


We are human, after all, and as such we frequently 'color' our codes with nuance or variation, or we deviate altogether, and beg our listeners to follow us down some slippery linguistic slope, and hopefully the challenge is worth it. Indeed, we often employ nuance and other such tactics to embed meaning into an otherwise incomplete statement. That is, we force micro expressions, not to mention body language, to do the heavy lifting when words fail us.

And indeed, a smile is very different from a smile and a wink. A wink can change everything. A wink can transform whatever has been said into it's complete opposite. Similarly, there are winks in music, too, if you can hear them. Although, sometimes you need to watch the performer to catch them as they sail by the senses into the last passing moment.

Not to mention that you can't convey emotion in music if you stay perfectly in tune. You can, however, express the absence of emotion, which often seems an art unto itself in modern music.


Misunderstandings, however, are not always the fault of the listener; and in fact, any communicator must take responsibility for being understood, the same way a soldier has to take responsibility for discharging friendly fire. 'I didn't mean to do it' or 'I didn't mean to say that' or 'You don't understand me' can be seen as attempts to discharge blame for one's own actions on audience members. But the musician who strives for a blue note and doesn't quite bend far enough has only his or herself to blame, if later someone else interprets the action as an error or high brow attempt at chromaticism.

"Do you get the gist of what I'm saying/ playing?" We might ask when we realize that although our brains are on fire, ignited by the passion or inspiration of the moment, we've been talking too fast for our mouths to actually articulate properly.

That said, it may be that a performer plays perfectly (if we can ever use that phrase for art), but audiences perceive the result as noise. The interpolating harmonies of some Asiatic musics often strike western listeners as out of tune. So, it bears pointing out that the perceived organization of any given data set is not only or always the intention of a given organizer. Which is to say sometimes I look at something and you look at something and we see different things. Happens all the time. That's why even eyewitness accounts have to be corroborated by evidence.

Not to mention that sometimes a data set –what is observed– is often subject to an overlay of meaning by the observer, an overlay that may or may not be the intention of the designer, especially if the circumstances by which the data set arrives upon our senses are random in origin.


'What does it mean?' You may ask listening to either Stravinsky or Bebop.
'What does it mean?' You may ask staring at Jackson Pollack painting.
'What does it mean?' You may ask staring at the Grand Canyon, or an eclipse of the sun.

Whatever it is, it may mean something or nothing at all. But if it has any meaning at all, such meaning is either communicated by the creator, or projected by the congregation or consumer.

Likewise, it may mean one thing for the culture and another for the commuter; one thing for the civilization and another for the one who unearths it.

For instance, is that a Barbie Doll the little girl holds in her hands? Or a fertility goddess? I'm presently inclined to think that as the centuries advance, the phrase 'Barbie Doll' will become synonymous with fertility goddess.

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