The Alan Sondheim Mail Archive

March 29, 2012


Why do I constantly play music, jump from one instrument to another.
This isn't a trivial question; I search out the sounds of things.
But why instruments? Why this fakery? I look for the larger gestures.
Secretly I know I get nowhere. Secretly I know, with my hearing and
tinnitus, I'm a fraud. I'm desperate for correct positions. I repeat
figures I heard in ragas decades ago: I can't do anything original!
The fingerboards are mockeries. At this point I prefer the simplest,
no frets, no markers, nothing but a potential field. The markers come
later, muscle memory. They're never exact enough; sometimes they
don't come at all. Then there are the flutes and other mechanical
devices: I'm running all over them with my hands, my fingers, my
mouth. It seems purposeless. On a Boehm flute it's hard to go out of
tune but it's also hard to find something else to do. On simpler
flutes, it's easy enough with the primary scale, but everything else
- like circular breathing on a ken bau - seems to me impossible. I
long for the days of the guitar - nothing but fakery and nuance, the
frets constantly chatter to you, to each other, to the audience.
Even there I remember Al Wilson telling me I had to keep the guitar
in tune; I hardly knew what he meant. I learned by rote, I memorized
the chords in order. I knew my eyesight was terrible, but it didn't
deceive me: I could look at a complex or simple instrument with
wonder: why on earth would one want ones hands or fingers or mouth
to travel over this thing? And in certain patterns? The sounds seem
remote from the image, although after a while they might as well be
married. But remote. Here I am, moving my hands over taut strings,
and something emerges in another dimension, or dimensionless (time
be damned), that takes on a life of its own. It has nothing to do
with what I'm doing; what I'm doing is faking, getting cramps,
trying to remember what I'm doing in the first place. It has nothing
to do with the appearance of the instrument, the decoration, the
placement of the pegs, the weight of the thing in my hands, the sway
of the bow. It doesn't float either, this emergent. I don't want to
make too much of this. It's like this: I'm a fake, I pretend I'm a
musician, at least now and then. But what emerges isn't fake, isn't
real, isn't in tune or out of tune, has a problematic relationship
with the strings or the fipple or the bow or my fingers, memory or
whatever my mind brings to the table, takes from the tablature.
What emerges is something being, being in the time it takes for its
being, no more and no less, an ontology of the evanescent, an
epistemology that has left the virtual long behind. And a secret: I
know, playing a string instrument, I must let the sounds die out at
the very end, I must do nothing to impede them. So there's a moment
of building towards that, towards this openness, and it's only
later, after the emergent seems already a memory, that I realize -
that what's in my hands is a _thing,_ an object, beautiful though
it may be, that is just _there,_ that has no relationship to what I
just heard, what might have come from me, one or another way, but
surely not from the wood, the metal, the strings, the fipple, the
very organs of the object. Here are two secrets of music: one, you
already know, the fakery, but the other, more serious, is that the
ontology of music is zero, it doesn't exist, since nothing is
parceled out through time, time renders music invisible, although
the instrument itself is more than visible, it is assertive, it is
a somehow connected and disconnected thing. The music is invisible
and it is not even momentary, it is _not there,_ and will never be
there, will never have been there, and there is no there there, in
fact, there is nothing. So it is circuitry within you, it is all
interior and refuses to die out with the end of the universe, for
the simple reason that it was never born, was never _in_ the
universe in the first place. When I play something, improvise, when
I look down at the instrument after I have seemingly finished, I
have a sense of astonishment at this disconnection between presence
and appetition on one hand, and absence, emptiness on the other.
This emptiness, and the potential rhythm of this emptiness, speak
of and to a mockery, fakery of the universe itself, with all its
pseudo-rhythms of lunar months, years, electron orbitals, beating
hearts and the like. Rhythm's the byproduct of music which trembles
materiality, as if there were an event traveling through the cosmos
carrying its heart with it, as if there were a centering involved,
which there isn't, which there absolutely isn't. You don't need it,
and the farther you go the more you realize you don't need melody
or harmony, you don't need notes or scales; you might think you
need sound, but the sound's already there, so you can't really know
if you need it or not. In any case, none of this has anything to do
with the thing in your hands, which astonishes you, as I have said
already, which appears to be a device of some sort, perhaps a
machine, but one that does nothing more than tremble on occasion,
and what is that about? For myself, I tender the machine, that is
all I know, and I know little of that in fact, and the rest, the
rest is make-believe; one of these days, I'll hit a really high
note, and my face will bear upon it, the proper mixture of ecstasy
and anguish...

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