- T. S. Eliot
Out of nothing. All Creation comes ex nihilo. Whether in cosmology or rthe Bible, first there is nothing, then there is something. Buddhism reveres states of "emptiness" (though not "nothingness") and epiphantic moments of satori (enlightenment). Hinduism suggests that material existence is illusory and the only reality "behind" it is Brahma. Quantum Mechanics posits a zero-point vacuum energy where reality pops in and out of existence. String Theory hypothesizes timeless multiple-dimensional "string" vibrations at the unimaginably small Planck scale (10 to the -35 meters) and "branes" that carve out a one-dimensional "worldvolume" - possibly delimiting different universes. Does Time itself possess an ontic existence and why does the "arrow" of Time only point towards the future (given that the physics from Newton to Einstein does not prohibit the reverse)? Or, as some physicists have argued, is Time merely an imposed "construct" or projection? Confirmation of the Higgs boson comprising the Higgs field at CERN in 2012 explained why reality is infused with mass rather than nothingness. The debate rages about consciousness - neurobiologists insisting that it can be completely described by identifying and tracing cellular neuro-networks and chemical changes in the brain, while philosophers, theologians and poets are equally adamant that ambiguity and pre-scientific "higher-order functions" - besides mere biological "plumbing" - is responsible. Similarly, geneticists contend that all observed biological characterists reside in an organism's comprehensive DNA library and ensuing protein expression - that is until epigeneticists and evolutionary biologists introduced the idea that context, RNA variability, heritability and environment might play an equal role in how the genome expresses.
Fact can turn out to be fiction. Fictions sometimes become facts. How do we specify the origins of intuition, imagination, feelings, fantasy, creativity, spontaneity, spirit, soul, self, being ...? Free will or fate? Cause and effect or chance and chaos?
And ... what does this have to do with music?
My belief (and my experience) is that music, too, comes ex nihilo. Making music is more a matter of listening than it is of doing. More precisely, it is a matter of "hearing". "Hearing" what? Hearing the nothingness. Hearing the nothingness percolating into somethingness.
A classic psychological experiment in which subjects were asked to focus on counting the number of basketball tosses between two players revealed that more than half failed to notice the appearance of a "gorilla" walking across the scene - giving rise to the memorable "invisible gorilla effect". Focusing on counting tosses, subjects were oblivious to any other intruding data. Recently this phenomenon was extended to the aural realm: subjects wearing headphones and concentrating on two different sets of conversations failed to notice nineteen seconds of "gorilla man" repeating the phrase "I am a gorilla" during a sixty-nine second tape loop.
The salient lesson here is that sometimes intently focusing on "what is" (listening) makes one miss "what is not" (hearing). Music genesis is a product of this second condition - hearing what "is not". Hearing what is "not" - yet.
My personal definition of music-making is: "discovering a collection of innocent notes". Occam's Razor-simple or just simpleminded? Either way, experientially, empirically and existentially, this is what happens time after time with me.
For ten years I was fortunate to have access to a seminal Moog modular 900-series analog synthesizer. Before digitalization and Moore's Law had time to shrink the hardware, the beast took up an entire wall and playing required running from one end to the other to manipulate potentiometers and throw switches. A composition session was physically, as well as mentally and emotionally, exhausting. On several occasions, simply by turning on the gear, the instrument started to "sing" - unwinding long, sinuoius passages of ever-evolving melodic beauty and rhythmic complexity. Leaving aside my observation that electronics are fully "alive" (a topic for another blog), there was no question that the Moog was determined to sing its own song. All attempts to manipulate the modules, change the inter-connecting banana plugs, re-tune the oscillators, etc. only muddied the song and was being actively resisted by the instrument. So ... all there was to do was turn on the tape recorder, capture and enjoy the spontaneous unfurling composition. Like a Greek Aeolian harp, the composition was being generated ex nihilo.
Years later, this tabula rasa stance was certainly a key component in "hearing" the music possibilities latent in birdsong. Although composing birdsong music required listing to field recordings hundreds of times, I found myself frequently unable to match a sound sample with a particular species (the way ornithologists and birders swiftly learn to do). This obtuseness bothered me until I realized that I was not listening for purposes of identification, but was programmed to hear each repetition freshly - the way a symphony can be experienced anew each time by shifting concentration to different elements, like following the bass lines or melody evolution or noting the variations on themes.
Many will argue that experise is at the root of composition and songwriting. Only after the mastery of fundamentals can original work arise. Others contend that only from the untutored, uneducated virginal sensitivity may truly fresh ideas germinate. Perhaps both theories are wanting (not wrong, just incomplete). Jimi Hendrix's first guitar had only one string and he would sometimes variably stretch a rubber band to play "songs" on it. Beethoven, when nearly completely deaf, because of his earlier mastery of composition, was able, through physical sensation from the vibrations and pulsations of his piano, to continue working even though he was unable to hear the results. One, completely unschooled; one, vastly technically accomplished - BOTH contributing enduring music. How can this be? Are both paths valid? Can both conditions coexist or are they mutually exclusive? Are nothingness and imagination flip sides of the same coin?
This argument can even be taken to yet another level.
During a Depth Psychology class in college, I was challenged by a friend who insisted on the exclusivity of expertise underpinning all future achievement (and who then preceded to "prove" his point by having a distinguished and well-remunerated legal career). My response was that authentic originality (not just achievement) - true creation - was the provenance of revolutionary consciousness, came from the outliers of conventional society, the aesthetic misfits, those hearing what others missed or dismissed - citing people like Edgar Allen Poe, Bela Bartok, Dostoyevsky, Nietzsche and Van Gogh. But how then to explain the "mainstream" - Charles Ives (banker), Mozart, Bach, igor Stravinsky, etc.?
I submit that the answer lies in asking the question, "What do they all have in common?" NOT, "How do they differ?"
Einstein's insight that "imagination is more important than knowledge" points the way. Imagination: "the ability to form mental images of things not real". How do we tap into and tune into "things not real"? Yet, undeniably, we do - all the time.
Perhaps the answer resides in seeing nothing/something as merely a meaningless or unhelpful semantic distinction. "Necessary" but not "Sufficient". In an ontic sense, maybe the distinction is akin to Schrodinger's famous cat-in-a-box thought experiment: BOTH probabilities (the cat is alive; the cat is dead) coexist. The act of observing the cat determines the outcome. ALL quantum states possess this counter-intuitive probalistic duality. Ludwig Wittenstein in his Philosophical Investigations proffers the illusion of a "duck-rabbit" - an image that can be seen as either a duck or a rabbit depending on different ways of "seeing as". Seeing is an "interpretive act". Perception is grounded in background theories, concepts, language - virtually our entire observational history. There is no concrete "objective" phenomenological entity or "thing-in-itself". If observing and interpreting phenomena has a role in determining existence, perhaps hearing possesses a similar dynamic.
Hearing and Imagination. Creation is ex nihilo.
The artist's job is not to succumb to despair, but to find an antidote for the emptiness of existence
- Woody Allen -