Thought and Sound
April 3, 2021
Things that are to sound to ear as being simultaneous, do not have to
be thought of or prepared for at the same time.
A classic example is when both hands have to jump, in opposite
directions, from the notes they are currently on, to two unrelated
notes that are far away. Say the right hand is playing c4 and needs
to jump upwards to e7, while at the same moment the left hand, which
is playing say a3, has to jump downwards to d1. The e7 and the d1 are
to commence sounding simultaneous. The temptation is to try to move
both hands simultaneously and hope for the best that they will remain
properly coordinated and land on their destined notes simultaneously.
This assumes that the physical actions producing these two
simultaneous sounds need themselves to transpire simultaneously.
Let us, instead, for the moment, consider that these two hand
movements do not have to occur at the same time, although, in the end
the notes to which they move will be sounded together. We can start
by choosing one hand, say the right hand, and have it traverse the
distance from c4 to g6, where it will then wait without sounding the
note, followed by the left hand, which will traverse the distance from
a3 to d1, and like the right hand, simply waits there until a moment
is chosen when both hands will play their notes. Both hands are on
the notes they are to play and are ready to play those notes,
simultaneously, at any moment they choose.
In the flow of playing it may seem to the outside observer that the pianist has accomplished both motions at the same time.
In music, time is the lynchpin and holds in its embrace on the one
hand simultaneity and on the other sequentiality. In analogy to
relativity theory where two events will be perceived as being either
simultaneous or sequential depending solely on the position of the
observer, so in music, while simultaneous and sequential seem
implacably distinct, they can, in many ways, combine and blend. In
our instance, above it is less about whether the sounds are
simultaneous or sequential but whether the time it takes physically to
The passive act of listening and noticing is proactive.
As assume that for a note or chord to sound a certain exact way or at
a certain exact time, it is necessary for us to prepare physically for
this to occur. I have learned over the decades that the one thing we
can do that will best guarantee that something sounds a certain way
is, paradoxically, not to try to make it sound that way but wait
until the moment it sounds, and then simply notice how it sounds,
whether it sounded a certain way or not.
One might object here that the sound of a note is an ‘effect’ of some
intention or cause, that is physical or mental. That is certainly
the ineluctable order of time in the real world, where no effect can
occur without a cause. But in the realm of art, especially that art
(music) which is most immersed in time rather than space, other things
can transpire that seem impossible through the laws of science and
the scientific laws governing the order in time.
For here I am claiming that the best way to control something that is
about to happen is to notice whether it did happen. Not to do anything
beforehand to make it happen that way, even if it is even just an
instant or two before it happens. We have to wait and then observe.
An impassive and alert ear, with “no ax to grind”, will, in the
complex flow of the strands of time, do the most to determine the
course of events. If one were mystical one would say the ear has the
power to mold the sounds – but that far we don’t have to go, to simply
notice the fact that we best control sound when we simply listen to
the sound, and not claim for it an explanation scientific or mystical.
The other part of this has to do with the future. What we do if we
wait for the sound to happen, but notice that there is something
displeasing about the sound. For instance, it was the wrong note, it
was played at the wrong loudness, its rhythm was inexact, etc. If,
above, we were talking about the alleged influence on the past on the
present, and contended instead that only the present influences the
present, now we are talking about what the influence is of the present
on the future.
If, for instance, we notice that a certain sound was too loud, a
standard reaction would be (though largely unconscious) “though it’s
too late for me to correct the note that just occurred because it’s
already swallowed into the past, I can correct the next note to
sound, which though it is definitely too late for the previous note, can
at least show the audience my honest intent to have played the first
note a certain way and was not unaware that I failed.
By constantly atoning for a present mistake, we overcompensate in the
next sound, which will only serve to further distort the sound of the
passage from what we are expecting. We attempt to change the past by
making a series of corrections in the future.
The moral of the story is: be just like someone listening to you play
in the room, simply noticing things and reacting to things as they
become available. There is something Taoistic about this. We notice
the inner workings of the universe as it is without trying to change
or exploit it and yet appear to have the most control over it.