Articles and Essays

Articles and Essays

Creative Fluency

All composers are essentially writers, with the main distinction that composers may have a more intimate understanding of the melody and rhythms of language. But that does not necessarily lead to linear fluency--at least not in prose, and sometimes not even in music.

To the extent that composing music and composing poetry and prose are both temporal art forms, the spinning out of an idea is largely dependent on the synchronization of the speed at which the piece unfolds and the comprehension of it. Music is more temporally fixed: One can't skip around in a piece of music in a live music performance as one can flipping around in a book (although large music festivals have made this more of a possibility, as you can walk around from stage to stage.) Novels are strictly linear, even if the narrative is non-linear. Non-fiction can be read nonlinearly.

Many composers and artists are "ambidextrous" with the literary, in which interdisciplinary approaches can work very efficiently. A paragraph is a metaphor for an 8-bar phrase in music, as they both encapsulate an idea. Syntax works almost the same way in music and prose, but only in more traditional form, e.g. sonata form, AABA song form and so on. A multidisciplinary approach adds a fluency or continuity to an artist's overall praxis, and is probably a best practice for all creative work.

To speak of the fluency of writing is to consider its musicality. Music is a fluid phenomenon in a vessel of time. Indeterminate sound is more "dry" in the sense that it is not fluid or fluent, and is more like steam or vapor. To call it Music is to assume that the state has changed from a gas into a liquid, more tangible and bulky in a tactile sense. Ambient sound makes perfect sense on its own, and creates its own rhythms through silences scattered randomly over time. If a constant sound in the background suddenly stops you notice it immediately.

Unlike the experience of visual art (including film) which can be a mostly non-linear phenomenon, the experience of composed music in performance is completely linear. Indeterminate sound or music emanating from multiple sources, such as environmental noises, are always non-linear and random, including your proximity to them when they occur. John Cage's 4'33" was an amalgam of both phenomena, whereby random sound is re-contextualized as music by making it a readymade object, using the traditional pianist sitting at the piano as the frame or gallery in which the piece is presented. The staged performance of random sounds is made into a linear experience by putting it into a traditional context such as a person sitting at a piano on a stage.

Cognition itself is essentially linear, although we are "primed" in different ways, i.e. we have a base of "pre-understanding" that sets the stage for our impulses and actions. Liking a piece of music has a lot to do with this priming effect, which also includes our general preferences arising from family traditions, political leanings and things as prosaic as preferences for certain foods. Those can lubricate fluency, as all the factors that inhibit it are already reconciled. Loyalties and affinities can make even the clunkiest prose feel as smooth as silk, as we blindly believe it regardless of grammar, correct spelling or proper syntax.

Visual Biases or "Loyalties"

Two galaxies overlapping

The assumption is that the galaxies are colliding because we have been primed to understand this image as a "collision" when in fact it is simply one galaxy in front of the other, separated by millions of light years.

Assumptions depend on the linearity of everything always being the same based on habits of seeing and understanding. This is no fault of human cognition, and may actually be that way for various reasons, e.g. to offload ambiguity to "cool" the brain for other things.

Modernity has completely screwed-up absolute linearity (fluency), leaving gaps in logic that models randomness but is not completely random. Cubism, for example was a screwed-up linearity that initially confounded viewers, but ultimately made our understanding of representational art more profound. Even though the linearity of a retinal (or cochlear) experience can be broken, it reorganizes itself back into a fluency shaped by a collective understanding of the fluencies inherent in the making of music. Similarly in film, the sequence of cuts can suggest a linear narrative even if the footage was shot in a completely different order. This is the phase transition that exists in a linear form that allows the brain to piece together a narrative from spoon-fed fragments.

Some people dislike cubism or primitivism as they may be primed to dislike it, not necessarily because they do not have a capacity to eventually like it. With any new visual paradigm or musical paradigm, there is a fairly long adjustment period, after which a New Normal is established. Personally I see a shift taking hold in the visual arts with street art, and electronic music being made using non-traditional instruments operating from mobile devices and tablets as a new type of controller. More and more people are embracing the idea that art should be freed from its incarceration by museums and galleries and use any exterior surface as a canvas. Consequently more people have gained a capacity for its acceptance, for good and for bad depending on where one draws the line between public and private property.

As it relates to the attainment of fluency over time, the generations have different roles: the older generations strive to understand the future from a past in which they lived and the younger generations the reverse. Intra-generational fluency is easy, but going in both directions is much more difficult. As a Boomer, I find music that is devoid of harmony (or any vertical consequent) jarring and lacking in structural integrity. But in reality it is my own sense of a linear logic that may be naturally creating cognitive dissonance, not necessarily because music has a finite capacity to be anything it wants to be. The same thing happens with visual art and conceptual art, although visual art is much more mature in this respect, as we have evolved culturally to inculcate those paradigms. Conceptual music is more difficult because we are naturally seeking a fluency: it wants to have a smoothness. Visual art is different in that we can experience it with the natural saccade of the eye, which can jump around to different areas on the surface. Ears do not have saccades. Cage's 4'33" forces us to switch our view of music, and most people, even to this day can't make the switch. Cage's version of Minimalism is less easy to digest than the minimalist works of Sol Lewitt and Donald Judd from the 1960s and 70s. Sound that has a random organization puts the same stress on cognition, as the ear wants music to align with a vertical grid (at least some of the time) because it releases tension. Jazz understood this very well, and incorporated a controlled disarray into the flow of the music. Random sounds can become music by chance, but the listener has to be right place at the right time to hear it as such.

Fundamentally we cannot hold a memory of piece of music, or even a single pitch and have it play simultaneously with sounds in the environment. If I hear a D-natural in a room and retain the pitch in memory when it stops, then walk outside and hear an F#, I am not then hearing a major triad. Sound and music are temporally discontinuous and therefore not fluent. It is no wonder Cage is so difficult to fathom. It is also difficult in the sense that it requires patience to wait for interesting random contexts that can organize itself musically.

I can speak from experience as a listener and a composer, that using randomness as a compositional device requires long durations, and the patience to wait for vertical events, i.e. to have random events line up at the moment that you are there to experience it. It is a very chilling experience when it occurs, and can almost appear to be a divine event. When I was working on my Atmosphere Generation project in the late 1990s, I would set three discrete audio systems in motion on shuffle play and observe how the sounds would combine in a random context. I would let it run for hours and sometimes walk away. One day when I came back in the studio, each of the three players were on the same track. The probability that this would happen is fairly high so I was elated that it occurred moment. I was the only one there (I think) so I was an audience of one.

If you combine entire systems with sub-systems operating within it, you essentially have a "universe" that can produce all kinds of variety, taking place temporally from where you stand at any moment. This is perfectly fluent, including you as a part of the fluid. It does not need to be understood, nor can it be. We just know fluency when it occurs. In some profound way, music is a perfect model for understanding the music of the spheres. Music as we know it reduces the vast randomness to some kind of pattern that we can easily understand. This is fluency. Writers have to do the same thing taking the trillions of possible combinations of words into something interesting and/or enjoyable, experienced by the reader at just the right moment when they are in a certain place, or thinking about something else, and ultimately meld together in interesting ways.

Lee Barry
April 27, 2013