Music in Offices

The music room at Norton Rose Fulbright has panoramic windows looking out over tower bridge and a baby grand piano: an enviable practice room. My friend, Tomyr and I were there to run a workshop on Terry Riley’s In C and discussed how minimalist music has affected our culture. The workshop was part of our work with Music In Offices, an organisation which provides music lessons, choirs, workshops and team building projects to offices around London. Our scratch band was formed of professionals with various musical backgrounds playing: flute, melodeon, djembe, piano, vibraphone and ukulele. In C is one of the most performed pieces of the minimalist era, this owing to the fact that it can be performed by any combination of instruments. The aleatoric element of not knowing who was going to show up to the workshop added to the beauty of it. Our chance combination of instruments made a fascinating sound and one unlike any other performance of In C I’ve heard. 

We began the workshop with a performance of Steve Reich’s Clapping Music. The piece demonstrates Reich’s technique of phasing. It also served to illustrate the quintessentially minimalist idea of using minimum resources for the maximum results. There is no variation in pitch, timbre or harmony, just one rhythm being clapped by two people creating five minutes worth of engrossing music. We rehearsed the piece as a group and managed to perform the first few bars together. Tomyr and I had been practising Clapping Music all week in our kitchen and were worried it may be too difficult for participants to join. The participants rose to the challenge. They were happy to try an exercise which even professional musicians are apprehensive of. 

As a sort of musical icebreaker, we played a couple of improvisation games. I invited the participants to play a note within the C major scale for as long as their breath lasts and then change note. Then we improvised short rhythmic cells, still using only notes in C major. Finally, I removed all the rules and we played a brilliant cacophony for 5 minutes. I was overjoyed at the confidence with which the participants performed these improvisations. When I was a student at Guildhall a professor asked us to try these same games as an introduction to jazz improvisation. When they shouted “go!” there was a solid 30 seconds of silence, 30 seconds worth of visceral self-consciousness. A group full of students who do nothing but play music were so concerned that they may play the ‘wrong’ thing that they didn’t play at all. I expected the same muted response in our In C workshop. I had a stock speech about it being impossible to be wrong and how Miles Davis would play the ‘wrong’ note so confidently that it would become the ‘right note’. In the end, I didn’t need to encourage them to think ‘what would Miles Davis do?’ because they played confidently right from the start. 

This made me think about the differences between a group of music students at Guildhall and a group of office professionals at Norton Rose Fulbright. One obvious distinction is technical proficiency: students will be more in tune, more rhythmically precise and quicker to sight-read parts. Beyond this distinction, the line is a lot more blurred than I first thought. You may think a music student would have more contextual knowledge allowing for a well-informed interpretation of a piece but many times my adult students have demonstrated a far more comprehensive knowledge of music history than me. You may think that someone who has dedicated their whole life to music may have some intense love for music which would shine through in their performances but within that assumption lies a difficult question: do music students love music more than adult amateurs? People have all sorts of ulterior motives for learning music: children learn to help them make friends, teenagers take grade exams so their UCAS applications look good, professional musicians often perform just for money’s sake. For adult amateurs the motivations are different, there are less social pressures to learn. An adult is free from entrance exams, pushy parents and school concerts. Often, I get the sense that my pupils love music as much or even more than me and my colleagues. They are playing music for music’s sake, without ulterior motive and that’s a beautiful thing. 

We worked through the 36 cells of In C and then prepared for a full performance. Our final rendition took about 10 minutes to perform and was by all measures a great success. With that, there was no line between professional and amateur. This was not a good performance for a group of amateurs but simply a good performance. Amongst styles of music, classical music is unique in its desire for technical perfection. This stems from the need to correctly realise a composer’s instructions: in jazz, folk or pop music the instructions are rarely as strict and the performer takes more ownership of what they perform. Classical performances (even when performed by professional musicians) are often totally dismissed if they’re not immaculate. One need look no further than the youtube comments beneath Barenboim’s performance at Jaques Chirac’s funeral service to see how offended people become from a couple of missed notes.

I see our performance of In C as proof that perfection is not necessary for a successful classical performance. Confidence, intrigue and open-mindedness are far more important for the rehearsal and performance process. 

The Anaesthetics of Music

Side by side, in any bar in the world, are two types of people, drinking alcohol for opposite reasons. Some people are searching for experiences, to collect moments of happiness or euphoria: for them alcohol functions as an aid to heighten sensation. Others drink to kill all sensations, to forget their past, to forget who they are and to knock themselves out. This is a well-documented phenomenon. A fact self-evident to anyone who has ever drunk alcohol. Talked about far less are the two types of concert goer sat side by side: one in search of new extremes of emotion and one wishing to hide from emotions forever. 

In his essay, Anaesthetic Ideology, Mark Grief describes the point where people shift from searching for experience to searching to avoid it: 

‘You reach points in life at which you can no longer live like other people, though you don’t want to die. Experience becomes piercing, grating, intrusive. It is no longer out of reach, an occasional throb in the dark. It is no longer a prize, though it is the goal everyone else seeks. It is a scrouge. All you wish for is some means to reduce the feeling.’

Anaesthetic Ideology – Mark Grief

Aesthetics is a term used to describe subjective matters of taste and beauty; anaesthetics is a term used for drugs which induce a lack of sensation. In the countless books about the aesthetics of art or music, it is amazing how little the term anaesthetics comes up. The term anaesthetic has become almost exclusively associated with medical procedure and lost almost all relevance to its antonym. Could it be the case that music, like alcohol, is capable of inducing both a heightened experience and a total lack of sensation?

A concert, although ostensibly a sensory experience, could be the dullest moment of someone’s day. By ‘dull’ I don’t mean to make a judgment of the music but rather mean that there are no flashing lights or targeted adverts and that for a couple of hours you are forced to sit still. It was in a performance of Wagners Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg (for which I stood still for nearly four and a half hours) that I experienced the strongest anaesthetic effects of music. There were huge swathes of time which seemed to last forever and no time at all. At the end of the performance, I could remember almost nothing of it. This was punctuated by moments of intense beauty in which the music suddenly brought me back to reality. Reality felt far more beautiful and intense after I had disappeared off for a couple of hours and I can’t help but think that this contrast of anaesthetic and aesthetic quality was a deliberate technique employed by Wagner. I had a similar experience with Jesus Blood Never Failed Me Yet by Gavin Bryars. I saw the first 6 hours of a 12-hour version of the piece performed at the Tate Modern. The piece features the same short tape of a tune looped hundreds of times with evolving accompaniment. The 6 hours I was there seemed to disappear strangely quickly. When walking home at 2 am I couldn’t recall the tune at all. My friend who watched the performance with me reported a similar experience, saying that in the blink of an eye three hours seemed to disappear. The UFO spotters which Louis Theroux interviews in his Weird Weekends explain this phenomenon of ‘lost time’ with alien abduction. Perhaps we were all abducted by aliens for 3 hours then had our memories wiped or perhaps we were in a state of music-induced anaesthesia. 

The idea that music can change our perception of time is generally accepted as it is something we have all experienced. There are many subjective parameters which could affect our perception of time. Boring music may pass slow and exiting music vice versa. Repetitive music may pass quicker than varied music because there is less new information for the brain to process. The extent of music’s time-shifting capability would be difficult to test as our perception is so reliant on taste. Could music stop time forever? Could music make time speed by so quickly that your entire life disappears in the blink of an eye? I think it would be an interesting musical experiment to try to pinpoint the musical features which affect your perception of time and then compose a piece which pushes time to its extremes. 

The Royal Opera Houses current advertising campaign features the tagline ‘feel something new’. I wonder how effective the tagline: ‘be free of feelings for a few moments’ might be. Although this seems ridiculous, it occurs to me that it is worth letting the public know that music can have this effect. After watching a performance, people may be too embarrassed to admit they were in a state of anaesthesia: “yes, I loved the opera, I lost all sensation and awareness” or “it felt just like when I was under general anaesthetic; it was as if I had been sat there for forever and no time at all”. 

There is no wrong way to experience music. I see no reason to be embarrassed about this lack of sensation; this could be misconstrued as an insult to the performers or reflect you’re own inability to follow a plot. A state of anaesthesia is not simply being bored to sleep by subpar music. In fact, in my experience, the opposite is true. If the music is disappointing then I will be present for the whole performance, critiquing it and getting annoyed by it; if the music is of a high quality I can relax enough to begin to disappear. 

I have focussed on music as this is what I have most experience of but it’s possible that everything which has aesthetic quality could also create an anaesthetic effect. I experimented with this idea by wandering around the Tate Modern for a while to see whether paintings and sculptures could have the same anaesthetic quality as music. Strangely, even the imposing Rothko room with its dim lighting didn’t come close. It occurred to me that the art gallery was never going to achieve the same sensory reduction that a concert hall does. There would always be the noise of people around me and it would still be socially acceptable to take my phone out. In an art gallery (unlike a concert hall) one always has the choice to walk out and in my experience, I have always walked out before being dulled into a state of anaesthesia. Interestingly, I did manage to recreate the feeling by making a quick sketch in my notebook. The need to finish the sketch functioned like the closed doors of the concert hall: something was stopping me from getting distracted and walking away so the art had time to take effect on me. 

In The Glass Menagerie by Tennessee Williams, the character Tom spends all his time and money going to the movies to the detriment of his relationships and his work. Addiction has destroyed his life but rather than heroin or gambling, Tom is addicted to films. The world’s addiction to art is endemic. People pride themselves on having seen an incredible amount of music, art and films. The implication is that this cultured life is full of exciting experiences we should all aspire to. With an anaesthetic view of the arts, a cultured person is someone who has dulled their perception for more time than the general public and in that sense, they aren’t too far away from alcoholics. 

I do not mean for this to be a criticism of music but rather a celebration of another one of its brilliant capabilities and a pubic service announcement that music can function as an anaesthetic. I dare any arts organisation to run the tagline ‘‘be free of feelings for a few moments’ in their next advertising campaign.

The No No’s

Music and (Prescription) Drugs

Engraved in each Nortriptyline tablet is the abbreviation ‘No’ and each night before taking my dose I am confronted with the short message ‘No No’. I am afraid of these drugs but I can mitigate this fear with intrigue. Musical composition is as much a mystery to neurologists as my chronic migraine. I have the unique opportunity to observe the effects of my drugs on the generative process. My creative output can function as a diary charting the effects of my various medications. 

My neurologist was surprised when I said I wasn’t taking any recreational drugs or binge drinking. He said I wasn’t fulfilling the stereotype of a musician that he had in his head. There is a strong association between drugs and music. People often attribute incredible feats of creativity to drugs rather than individuals. It is understandable that someone would believe that David Bowie could only create what he did with superhuman creativity induced by various recreational drugs. If we don’t attribute creativity to drugs it is often attributed to mental illness, particularly in classical music. It is easier for people to believe that Schubert’s prolific output in his final years was the result of a syphilitic madness rather than an incredible man composing regardless of his deteriorating health. These myths come from the average person’s desperate desire to be Bowie or Schubert. It is easier to believe that creativity is the result of exceptional circumstances rather than intense practice. Thus we can believe that one day some drug or madness will take over us and we’ll rise to their level. If I believed that heroin or syphilis would allow me to create music on par with Bowie and Schubert then I would consider it. I know a lot of people (who adore music and would do anything for it) who would join me in my heroin binge.

The side effects of my medication and the effects of my chronic migraine are often indiscernible. Both cause nausea, confusion, and a general feeling that your senses can’t quite be trusted. From a creative perspective, this is an upside. The mental state that leaves you wondering up and down supermarket aisles without a full understanding of where you are is also the state that allows you to write music without judging yourself too harshly. I suppose a similar state could be induced by a bit of heroin or a syphilitic madness. Music feels like something ungrounded in the empirical world; when the walls start moving you can feel closer to music than the ground beneath your feet. 

Both propranolol and naproxen induce nightmares. What is more creative than a nightmare? Something so real yet abstract, where you function as director, actor, audience, stage designer, producer, and composer. However bizarre or vivid nightmares are they are yet to help me produce anything. As we all know, dreams are quickly forgotten and attempts to capture them in writing often feel pale. There are stories of composers leaping from their sleep to write down a theme like Elgar after having his tonsils removed scribbling down the first theme of his cello concerto, but I have had no such luck. 

Salvador Dali, Max Ernst, Rene Magritte, and all their surrealist contemporaries aimed to reveal the unconscious. Some of them did so by painting their dreams. Ernst allows one to stare at a dream for as long as they like without its details fading as one’s own dreams do. Surrealist art has a solid place in popular culture (with Dali’s melting clocks as its mascot) but surrealist music hasn’t been quite as successful. Although one of the first works to be described as surreal was Satie’s ballet Parade, the music of the movement was vastly overshadowed by the visual art. Ultimately, I think this is down to the fact that the subconscious is far more visual than musical. At least in my case, a dream can leave vivid images but has never left vivid sounds. Max Ernst’s L’Ange du Foyer looks like an image I have seen in a nightmare; Satie’s Parade doesn’t sound anything like my dreams. This is, of course, just my experience and your brain may conjure up great tunes in your sleep: write them down because I’d love to hear them. 

The concrete effects of my migraine on my music are vague. It would be difficult to see a distinction between migraine music and healthy music. Around January 2019 I was as ill as I’ve ever been. I was on a collection of medication that I now believe was having no positive effect. All I wanted to do was write a pretty, romantic piano sonata whilst a year before (when I was perfectly healthy) I was writing horrible stabbing atonal music for 8 saxophones and piano. These were merely the projects I was most focused on at the time: I was still trying to write pretty music in 2018 and I was still writing horrible stabby music in 2019. I’m sure if I was a better music analyst I would be able to find some polarising distinction between my migraine music and healthy music but the fact that the difference is not clear on the surface means it’s probably inconsequential. 

I find it bizarre that all the chemicals in my brain could have gone through such instability but the things I have created have not changed at all. It is reassuring that something unshakeable remains: an identity that no illness can take away.

Music and Chronic Migraine

My neurologist laughed when I said I teach clarinet and recorder in schools, they said that couldn’t possibly be good for migraines. In response to people saying, ‘that must be so difficult for you’ my stock reply has become ‘my life would be very difficult if it wasn’t so easy’. A classroom full of children with clarinets may sound like a chronic migraine sufferers nightmare but the reality is teaching often offers me a momentary refuge from the pain. I welcome anything that demands my total attention. Distraction works well as a pain killer and adrenaline is even better. The more nerve-racking a situation is, the clearer my mind becomes. Paradoxically, in the weeks leading up to my final exams at Guildhall, I would be pain-free for hours at a time because of the stress.

At points, when the pain is persistent it is tempting to believe that the pain is deserved as then it would make some sort of sense but, of course, an illness doesn’t know anything about justice. Recently, I have begun to think of the migraine as a benevolence. It functions as a safety pin or a pressure release valve. With the real world becoming too difficult to comprehend my brain decided to leave it. The senses cease to function, the ground moves and people glow; one is reminded that there is far more to the world than our senses can show and it becomes ridiculous to worry too much about what you see and hear. Music has this effect also, in a much more pleasant way, it can make you feel separated (and safe) from reality. 

Haikus from pain diary

Music and migraine combined make for a transcendent experience. There were a few points at the end of my time at Guildhall when I’d be in intense pain during a rehearsal with my earplugs in and my eyes closed, I could feel my senses getting more and more overwhelmed. I would then have a desire to open my eyes and remove my earplugs, a panic akin to claustrophobia. My over-sensitive eyes and ears would be flooded with light and sound, for a few moments I’d feel an incredible calm as I left the world (senses enveloped in music) then a sledgehammer would hit me in the back of the head and the earplugs would go back in again.

It is important to appreciate the positives whilst not dismissing the negatives. Of course, what goes up must come down. A day of teaching fuelled by painkillers and adrenaline will always end with pain akin to being hit on the back of the head with a plank. I find it very difficult to turn down/rearrange work for the sake of my health. Ultimately, most of the time the migraine is bearable. I may be in so much pain that I occasionally need to go and vomit but with a great deal of physical and mental effort, I can create the illusion that my brain is functioning normally. There is little energy from anything else, going to the pub or going to a concert seems impossible. Thus this illness has stolen a lot of fun from me. I am learning that it is acceptable to rearrange work to allow myself to have enough energy to not crash at the end of the day; healthy people are not expected to work to the point that they collapse and nor should I. 

For me, the pain is a small part of the migraine. Far more unpleasant is nausea and confusion. In day to day life, I used to take for granted my ability to make decisions. When you make a cup of tea you have to think of what order to do everything in, this probably doesn’t seem like a mental exercise because it’s so simple but this basic decision making requires a functioning brain. Having lost the ability to order my thoughts I can often end up wandering round in circles. At this point music helps a lot: I have spent (10 years now) habitually ordering my thoughts in the form of practicing music. Running scales and patterns up and down seems to reset my brain, it begins to understand which order things should come in. If I’m not near a piano I can run the scales in my head and the visualisation of my thumbs moving under my fingers seems to remind my brain that thoughts must come one at a time, one after the other. 

In Musicophilia Oliver Sacks says he experienced amusia (the total inability to recognise music) as part of his migraine aura, he said the sound of the piano disintegrated into industrial noise. I think this anecdote shows the power of migraine over perception. Music is something that only exists in our brains. It has to be processed and migraine is capable of effecting any element of that mental process. Luckily, my migraines have never brought on amusia and if anything they increase the effect music has on me probably because my hearing and eyesight become hypersensitive (which is horrible when you’re trying to sleep but quite exciting when in front of an orchestra). 

I know little about music therapy and how it could be applied to migraine sufferers but it is something I will look into. An illness that affects so many different parts of the brain demands a therapy which, equally, uses the whole brain. I have found that music works as an all-consuming distraction but, more interestingly, I have found its ability to reorder my mind when I have become confused. Perhaps, I should try to come up with the perfect practice routine for resetting the mind. Confusion usually comes before the pain I may even be able to avoid the pain by practicing during the confusion stage of the migraine! 

I would be very interested to hear from other musicians suffering from migraines and whether they’ve found music helps or worsens the attacks.

100 Scores

Doing what we’re told

People are most furious when you take away their autonomy, one need look no further than a cancelled train or gridlocked traffic to see people beside themselves with anger. Being told what to do induces anger and humiliation even if you were going to do what you’ve been told to do anyway. We all have the desire to choose what we do and rebel against what we are told. 

Then why, when a score is placed in front a musician do they have the instant desire to do what they’re told quickly and precisely. If they can’t do exactly as they’re told they despise themselves and they mock people around them who are trying to do what they’re told but can’t. Does it come from a fondness for the composer? Why trust a stranger so completely? 

scores 5-10

This shift from freedom to obedience in music is clear on a larger time frame. As the world has become more free music has become more strict. If you compare the score to Monteverdi’s Orfeo with Thomas Ades’ Exterminating Angel you can see this change clearly at a glance. Montiverdi provides the bare minimum in notation and relies on the performers to improvise within his frame work whilst Ades provides is meticulously detailed and asks his performers to accomplish rhythmic difficulties right at the brink of human capability. It seems bizarre that a society that values freedom above all else would champion art that is more and more controlled.

I spent 2 years to trying to do exactly as Stockhausen told me. Stockhausen famously had a cult following of performers that really wanted to do what he told them to do. I’ve asked my teachers their thoughts on Stockhausen and their thoughts vary from ‘he’s a bit controlling’ to ‘he’s a bit of a facist’. It’s obvious that you’d have to think very carefully about following the strict instructions of someones who’s ‘a bit of a facist’ yet I had already begun learning his music and continued to do so without concern for the composers ideology.

Any other format invite scrutiny: you do not follow a rule just because it is written down, you question why it has been written down and who wrote it. Maybe that scrutiny has always been done for us. In the context of music college the music which makes it on to our stands has been scrutinised by our teachers and thus our trust is in our teachers rather than the dead stranger who wrote the piece.

There are words that an actor would feel uncomfortable speaking, words that are clearly not meant for them. But is there music which would induce the same feeling? Have you ever sat in front of a score and thought ‘this is not for me to play’.

Musicians are portrayed as hedonistic dropouts from society, failing to conform to normal standards of work and living. Everyone has the sense that they are pushing against something, that the world would rather you be something else or as a teacher said to me ‘you’re not doing the world any favours by becoming a saxophonist’. Yet we do what we’re told far more than any accountant or solicitor. Punk rock is full of anarchists that are very good at doing what they’re told.

scores 11-16

I have written 100 musical scores on business cards which often require the performer to be ridiculous. I didn’t start writing these scores with this manifesto in mind. Many times I would get to the end of the day and think ‘I haven’t achieved anything’ so I started writing at least one little score everyday so I had concrete evidence that I had done something. It was only after writing a few that I realised how strange it was that scores have so much power over us.  I was also aware of how much power a grading system had over the music I was writing; everything had to be taken very seriously because it was going to be marked as part of my degree. Now I’m free from those restrictions I can be as ridiculous as I like.

Of course, music is part of a wider rebellion. By playing music you are rebelling against the empirical world, you’re rebelling against the idea that all we see is all their is. In a less metaphysical sense you’re rebelling against a more conventional career path. Ultimatly, the pay off is worth it, you do what your told (and practice) for long enough that your entire life can become a rebellion.