on ritual’s tyrannies and blessings

Yesterday’s post will no doubt make one thing clear: keeping my promise yesterday was a pain.

It was also richly rewarding, in ways I didn’t expect, in ways that took time to realize.

When I walked into my studio, I was eager to reach a modest, specific goal: to solve a few of the technical problems and get the notes more under control. I was thwarted almost immediately by annoying technical problems. My recording software is several versions out of date, and working around that seems to require getting the Mac booted, the Mbox 2 plugged in, certain files deleted, the Mbox drivers connected, and Pro Tools launched in a specific sequence. I thought I’d figured out that sequence this weekend, but yesterday it took an hour and several uninstalls, reinstalls, and reboots to get it running. I’ve already ordered the upgrade, and now I have to wait for it to arrive. Nine days for shipping! It might as well be nine years.

During this frustrating hour, I warmed up and worked on a few etudes in brief interludes while installers ran and my Mac restarted, with repeated interruptions to click things and type things and ponder things. Each time I picked my horn back up, it was cold and full of water again. By the time I had Pro Tools running, I was nearly out of time—in twenty minutes, I needed to be out the door, meeting a friend for dinner.

My heart was not in it. If I had made this promise only to myself, a Kaddish a day for a year and a day, yesterday I would not have kept my promise. How much time can I sink into it, when I have a life full of responsibilities besides this one? Sooner or later you have to move on, address other things that are also important.

But I had made this promise, so I forged on. I made the recording, which as previously described was not an entirely pleasant experience.

And now the rewards begin.

After I record a take, I have to convert it from a Pro Tools track to a normal audio file, a process called, mysteriously, “bounce to disc.” It’s a simultaneous convert-and-save operation that takes place in real time while sending playback to my headphones. Then I have to convert that big .aiff file to an .m4a file that takes about half the size, and finally I upload that to a DropBox folder where Mira and others can get it.

While I’m doing all this, I might as well listen, right? So I do.

And no, this is not as obvious as you might think. Usually when I record something I’m working on, intending to study the playback, I have many excuses for why a take didn’t go well, so rather than pause to listen and learn, I jump right into another take. I might do four takes before I get something that seems worth listening to, and only then do I discover what I should have learned listening to the first take. Or worse, I’ll wear myself out on repeated flawed takes. This is inefficient, but it happens. I would be surprised if this isn’t what most musicians do. We’re perfectionists by nature, and when we already know that many things were unsatisfactory, we can’t stand the thought of hearing them—we just want to move on immediately to working on those things and trying again. I have actually gone weeks making recordings and never quite listening to them. It is embarrassing to admit this.

But since this process forces me to work differently, I do listen, and I hear things I don’t expect to hear. I hear phrasing that worked better than I thought, and I hear rhythms I thought were right that were not. In general, my sense of time is inaccurate, even within the context of this piece’s rubato. I hear breathing that is more obtrusive and less effective than I realized. I hear notes that are consistently out of tune. I hear a shift in my timbre where the music drops down to a and D about two-thirds of the way down the page. I have an idea about what’s causing me to keep clamming in the phrase at the end that goes up to g”.

[I refer to pitches in the key of F, as written for horn, using the octave designation system recommended by The New Harvard Dictionary of Music, ed. Don Randel (1986), viz. c’ for “middle C,” c” for the octave above, c”’ for two octaves above middle c, C for the octave below middle C, and C<sub>1</sub> for two octaves below middle C, etc.]

Mostly what I hear is a work in progress—a musician in the early stages of working a piece back up to performance standard. I do not hear the music yet—not really. I hear the notes, and I hear the music beginning to take shape, but it’s not there yet. I get a little lost in the wanderings of the phrasing. I realize I need to figure out the structure better.

What I really do not hear is what I’m amazed to read in Mira’s reply (see her comment on my previous post, “in which the musician…”).

The memoirist is hearing music. She is having physical responses. She is seeing and feeling the music! She is having visions. She is wandering, lost, disoriented. She is wanting to ground this in the words—the familiar text of Kaddish. I am unsure how to reply to this right now. I could probably give her many pointers on how to understand the music and find her way around in it, but I want to hear what she hears—not some version of what I teach her to hear.

She is hearing music!

And she is giving me the tremendous gift of her words, telling me (and all of you who join us in this project) what she’s hearing. My earlier post, “Mandelbrot and music: on listening in fractal dimensions,” explored how I hear music and how I can no longer remember how I used to hear, before my musical training colonized my brain. I have asked her to use her dazzling ability with words to help me with this. (We ask this of our readers, too. Please share your experiences with us in the comments.)

She’s also seeing porn pop-ups. I don’t know what that’s about. Evil gremlins prowling the intertubes?

I had dinner with “the mutual friend who sits at the fulcrum, giggling” last night, and as we walked from dinner to a nearby pub, I shared with her my delight and surprise at my quotidian recording having had such an impact on the memoirist. I had just read the comments—they beeped in while I was in the loo—along with subsequent private comments adding further detail that is to remain private for now.

I was, frankly, blown away. Immensely gratified that my playing was beginning to work as music. Moved that she uses her words—her remarkable ability to articulate the ineffable—to give back to me what it is that I have given her.

The mutual friend is a singer. As we walked, we compared thoughts on how music works sometimes through or despite the musician. I’ve found that I am most able to reach listeners when I am completely on top of my game—in physical and emotional control, playing a piece that I have analyzed, practiced, and planned. I need to spend a certain amount of time playing it only for myself and later a few trusted colleagues, in different spaces, in different moods and times of day. A process of discovery unfolds. Eventually I am ready and I know how to play it so that others will receive my intentions. She agreed that her experience has been similar.

But we’ve also both had experiences where we ourselves were not at our best, and our listeners heard the music anyway. Sometimes the listener is so receptive to the experience that the musician’s performance almost doesn’t matter. It can feel as though I am only a medium for the composer, or even for the music itself. When this happens, one might become mystical enough to ponder whether even the composer is unimportant, that the music comes through the composer as much as through us, the performers. She would probably have no reluctance to describe it this way, but I’m an agnostic and skeptical math/stats geek. Acknowledging that music can have power so far beyond my ability to understand does not come naturally to me.

I came home and talked further with my wife, about how ritual and a promise had already served me. I was willing but not especially motivated to make the day’s recording, and then all the technical problems drained what little momentum I had. I was running short on time. I pushed ahead only because I had made a promise and knew Mira was waiting for her recording. The take went a little better than I had any right to expect, and because I was bouncing it to Mira, I listened to it myself and appreciated what the playback offered me. The promise Mira has made to me to hear each recording each day meant that she made herself available to experience the music, and she further entrusted me with her astonishing reaction right away—so that I then had her words and my experience to compare in conversation with our mutual friend, whose spiritual dimensions are so much richer than my own.

Keeping my promise to Mira and to the ritual itself has already brought blessings I didn’t realize I needed.

A few hours ago, I recorded, bounced, and heard today’s “Kaddish.” The take went fairly well, although I’m still struggling with roughly the same issues. Ironing them out will take a while.

I have temporarily reverted to a lower-fidelity recording method while I await the arrival of my Pro Tools upgrade. I’m disappointed by the murkier sound, but I imagine Mira will appreciate how much faster today’s file downloads.

Our mutual friend and a friend of mine have requested the private link to join us in listening, and to them I extend my welcome and thanks.