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Making music with David Bowie

"Searching for music is like searching for God."

"They're very similar. There's an effort to reclaim the unmentionable, the unsayable, the unseeable, the speakable.." so I heard David Bowie say on the radio last night, in his strange, laconic and fragile voice. I remembered these words because they ring true. Anyone, who has tried to compose, improvise, create music knows this. And there are such barriers too! This morning, I set out, (all inspired by David Bowie) with several cracking ideas for two improvisations, only to find the same ideas seem ridiculous, impossible, hopeless ideas, no soon as I sat at the console of the organ. There was no way I could try these! Instead, with a head as empty as a balloon, I flung my hands at the keyboards and followed completely new ideas which surged up from who-knows-where..

Why is this? What does it mean? I have no doubt that the ideas I heard while listening to David Bowie could have been as good as the ones that I eventually went with. Perhaps the first ideas were too new and needed time to adjust? Perhaps I automatically adjust to the new (real) social context. Perhaps my improvisation will never be harnessed? (I haven't found a way yet..)

All this searching too, is a kind of search for understanding, for which there is clearly no ultimate formula. In his book 'Understanding Understanding', Richard Mason investigates all manners by which things can be understood - for example the way things are conceived, communicated or interpreted things. Different areas of human activity elicit different codes, methods and expectations for understanding, so that mathematics may be understood in a different to language, or astronomy. Artistic subjects such as music are particularly tricky because 'understanding' is so subjective, and the 'rules' governing sound structures are abstract and based in specific cultural values. Yet the desire to understand, and to communicate understanding in music is for me curiously compelling. Since reading Mason's book I like to expand those moments when I feel I understand something (perhaps when I write out a harmonic structure, or read an article, moments when something new clicks into place) to ask myself "What is it that I understand?", "How much more could I understand?" or perhaps "How much could be understood?" Often this leads to a blank wall.. as Mason suggests, we may set limits to our understanding - and these limits may be appropriate to music. 

Supposing someone was to suggest that they 'understood' a piece of music (a proposal not so far-fetched or uncommon as it might as first seem!). Would I credit this statement? Would this person's understanding be relevant or interesting to me? Can musical activity such as learning, interpreting, performing, improvising, be described as a search for understanding? Well, in a sense I think yes, it can? Yet to arrive at a final theory of musical understanding is clearly self-defeating. Which leads to a slightly different philosophical standpoint: "How much do I want to understand?" Or, can improvisation, for example, be understood? Well, in one way, no, of course not. After all, what form could that understanding take? A diagram, a visual image or verbal description? Perhaps a neurological map? Of course it's ridiculous, because improvisation will always mean so many different things to different people, (and will be a constantly evolving experience for each individual). And yet, as is so characteristic of 'understanding' as a domain, and 'musical understanding' in particular, it's possible to experience fleeting moments of beautiful clarity when I feel that "I understand" something deep and true about what I am playing.

When I recall my most recent experiences in understanding I think each of these moments contains something true about the way knowledge is represented; certainly each of these moments is highly characterised by the making of new connections; perhaps too, a moment of understanding is about shedding old knowledge, replacing one perception or solution with a better, more powerful one; I believe too that through understanding I experience greater self-knowledge and also an increase in agency. Though, again, there must be other forms of understanding which are less conscious, or even disturbing.. 

None of this is put anywhere near so eloquently as David Mason in his wonderful book 'Understanding Understanding', yet my own reflections tell me something about my own increasing perceptions of improvisation. At least that it is an activity or search through which insights or 'understandings' can be won. But for sure, I won't yet anticipate an ultimate goal of understanding.., maybe a theory or two on the way.., but nothing too definite!




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