Music and the Mechanics of a Beloved Creature
by Eliot Cardinaux
Existential answers, like the answers provided by some religions, are a means by which we attempt to find comfort in the present moment. A good example would be this: if someone is going through a rough time, and consequently finds out that others around him are also going through a rough time, that person might find an answer in astrology: say, “Mercury is in retrograde.” The flip side of this answer might be that this doesn’t really change the fact of his going through a rough time. Similarly, his doubt as to whether Mercury being in retrograde truly has an effect upon his mood and the mood of those around him might come into play. Most likely he would then seek out more earthly equations by which to distill his anxiety: perhaps the political forces in motion here on Earth are causing things to change very rapidly. He knows intuitively and through common sense that change is difficult and so it would seem that there’s his answer. But things are not that simple. What is he left with? With each answer comes a different set of questions, all abstract, and inversely, with each question comes a different set of answers, none seeming to alter his situation in the present moment.
My poem, “Uniformless,” which is part of the subject and story of this essay.
Oftentimes, when we seek answers about our art – what purpose was it conceived by? what does it mean? where does it come from? – we can be overwhelmed. Art, or our outward projection of internal feelings, thoughts, and emotions, convictions, preconceptions, oppositions, and fancies then becomes the object by which we attempt to contemplate something greater. Look at the Bible, or the famous book of eastern philosophy, the Tao Te Ching. There is nothing inherently wrong with that. Sometimes, we conceive of ourselves as human beings through our art, and often we try and use it to paint a picture. Who is this person? Where do their loyalties lie? Or what can we do to assuage our doubts about ourselves through their work? Art can be used as a means of seeking answers about the questions themselves.
But what can one say about the questions and answers of existence? What can one say about art? They are each a means of obtaining meaning from existence. They are each a means of learning. They are each a means of experiencing life on a deeper level. All these are true. So through questioning things and obtaining answers about them, we can grow, correct? Likewise through art can we learn and grow. And yet, questions and answers are many; art, though singular, also comes in many different forms, even from a single person throughout her life. Sensations, pleasures, pains, experiences themselves are also objects of contemplation. Sometimes even contemplation in itself is the subject of a lot of thought. There is a question – what does it mean to contemplate a piece of art? There is another question – what does “my” art mean? – that can be nearly insoluble with answers. Another question is – is it fulfilling? – and again – what do I take out of the work I put into it?
For me, when I sit down at the piano, I often think to myself, “what is out there? What is there that I haven’t discovered yet, that I can bring to life in another’s senses? Through these eighty eight keys, through the measure of the weight of my hand, through the wire strings and wooden soundboard and metal framework of the piano, what might I do to create something new that another person might walk away from, saying, ‘wow, that changed my life?'”
Often writing about it seems to help me to understand the purpose of my even sitting down at the piano at all. It also helps me to express ideas in a way that other musicians might understand. Sharing the knowledge I attain through music is something that’s very important to me. It helps me to remember that I am not simply a conduit for a series of mechanical operations, but a mechanic – a person with a soul and mind and body as well, and that the object of my craft is music. Not only a machine with moving parts, but one that sound brings to life: also a beloved creature. Much like a mechanic might approach fixing a car that belongs to someone else – with love, I try and shape music into something that works – but something meaningful or pleasing to the ears, heart, mind and soul as well, much like how when a car’s engine purrs, you feel good. No?
Part of what I do as a musician is to incorporate poetry I’ve written into the music. In poetry, and likewise in the language of music, there are methods of shaping a piece beyond the search for the “perfect form” from the outset, or as one might say, an “answer” – as to how it should be done, or as to the existential questions themselves. And this is hard.
Here’s a little anecdote. I wrote a poem the other day that seemed much too short to perform in any context where I could tease it out from the page into a musical form that held enough of the nuances that I felt were lingering beneath the surface to make it worth my while. A teacher of mine – Anthony Coleman at the New England Conservatory – had read a different poem of mine recently, and commented that the language reminded him of “inversions.” An inversion is a musical term for something which has been flipped upside down. The accompanying term, used to describe a musical line played backwards, is “retrograde.”
I was rehearsing the first poem I mentioned with another musician, the one which I felt was too short to be used as a musical piece – for better or for worse – when I was struck with the inspiration to read it backwards; and it worked! Imagine that! Spurred by my teacher’s comments, I went home and decided to try a few different versions of the poem alone using the concept of inversions and retrograde, and I came up with something I liked. I decided to keep a version I made after transcribing some of my experiments, adding punctuation, form and space, and I felt quite happy about it.
The next day, I sat down with the intent to write an essay about the experience. To be truthful, it was an earlier draft of the very essay you are reading right now. I decided to include the poem as part of the essay, with an attempt to elucidate what I meant, or so I thought. Then I decided I would post a piece of music that had been inspired by the poem, along with the essay, onto my blog. What happened was, the poem itself happened to be about the unforgivable unity of formlessness over form – a particularly strange and dark poem that alludes to death, stillness, and stripping things down to their bones, which in the end concludes that a form in itself is a mere fact of existence, no matter how hard we try to rid ourselves of it. In the end, my essay was so bogged down with my need to include everything – the poem, the piece, an explanation – that one couldn’t have read it without thinking it inherently strange. Well, maybe that’s not true, but to me it was.
But then I remembered something else that my teacher Anthony Coleman had said to me not that long ago. He had made a comment to me about my playing which had had me thinking ever since. He said “I think you need to think about the need to express something versus the expression of the thing itself.” I don’t think a teacher has made a better observation about my playing in the whole of my study of music, or poetry, or even both. He told me then to play what I’d been working on at the piano, as if it were an exercise. Not to try and express anything at all. And he played me a recording of the famous pianist Bud Powell playing a standard in such a stripped-down way that you almost couldn’t tell it was him, admitting that he thought our school, the New England Conservatory, was a great place for people to gain things – knowledge, ideas, information, skills – but a terrible place for things to be gotten rid of. He used the term “divesting” to describe what he felt as the need of many of his students – i.e. letting go of all of the information they’d acquired while in school to make something more simple in order for others to understand. It made me think of Bud Powell’s friend, the great alto saxophonist Charlie Parker, who also said that the toughest thing was always unlearning everything he had learned, and that this was a constant part of his process. All this came flooding back in my realization that I had posted my essay in a form that no one could possibly comprehend.
The famous American writer Maya Angelou once said, “a bird doesn’t sing because it has an answer, it sings because it has a song.” Another famous American writer, James Baldwin, similarly once wrote, “I think it’s better to know that you don’t know, that way you can grow with the mystery as the mystery grows in you.” Finding answers may often seem a fool’s crusade, and yet seeking them is a part of life, and even human nature. Otherwise there wouldn’t have been a need for each of these authors to express their thoughts on it.
Even if we can’t answer them, questions help propel us forward into thinking; but doing the work and owning up is more than half the battle. An answer has an ending, a question is open, unresolved. When questioning things, we’d better be prepared to do some digging, even if an answer is right in front of us. Imagine me when everywhere I looked I started to hear comments about the mistake I had made in posting my essay too soon. Most were probably in my imagination. I was forced to confront the answer I had made for myself. It was like digging a hole to find a buried skull, when all along, the skull was right there: in my head.
In conclusion, this is what I would like to express: sometimes cracking down to the mechanics of things can help assuage some of the greater questions as to what art is, what life is, and our purpose in it. Sometimes instead of contemplating the greater meaning of something I’ve created, or of the universe itself, I have to remember to sit down and try and understand the way it works, and how to make it better: like a mechanic. A beloved creature. That way it helps me with the process, more than explaining the result. The questions, rather than the answer, i.e. “what does it mean?” can then inspire joy and curiosity, and further down the road, even wonder, hopefully through success. I just needed to be reminded of this too: it’s often a matter of perspective.
-Eliot Cardinaux, 3.6.’16