The practice of practice

February 16, 2014 § Leave a comment

The idea of “Hallock Hill” began as a way to capture my idea of spontaneous composition: an accretion of improvised layers that would form a whole that was (hopefully) greater than the sum of its parts. In each instance, a piece would be played and then not tended. I would let it sit for a period of time — which ranged from minutes to months — and then return to record over that initial track having never listened back to the first recording. In this way, each new track was an unrehearsed reaction to the earlier track, experienced for the first time.

After a year or two of this, the process changed by degrees. I might work around a musical idea for an hour or two, and then record it. That initial part would then, at least, be more “finished.” Subsequent overdubs were handled in the same manner.

And then finally, a process of overdubbing without listening to the earlier track(s) developed. A piece was recorded for a fixed time. I’d return to zero and hit record but this time without the benefit of headphones. I was playing in the same mood, or trying to stay in the same imagined space as the earlier track, but there was (obviously) no way to make the tracks cohere temporally. They could only cohere in the space of their tones and through the mechanism of method. Five or six tracks might be built up in this way. The results are, to my ears, an eerily resonant sculpture.

I have used the above approaches with acoustic and electric guitars, lap steels, banjos, piano, and harp guitar.

Because I have always lacked the organizational ability to compose and record a piece systematically, and because I am not a player with any real “chops,” this has been my work. Arhythmic, undefined tonal centers, an emphasis on reactive sound rather than produced sound. The two earliest pieces produced in this manner were the unreleased ‘Spring’ and ‘Sand in My Eyes,’ the second track on The Union, which was recorded in April 2008. In the case of the latter, a thick drone was built with an eBow on a 1920s National lap steel in a tuning that was chosen by ear moments before recording. The acoustic guitar that is heard foregrounding it was recorded over this base. I remember saying to myself, “Don’t worry about the results, just try this and pretend you are practicing.”

26 seconds into that track you can hear me sniffle (this is in the overdubbed acoustic track) and there I am. The rest of the track is to my ears a reflection of the process of not being there. If in my music I could disappear, I would. Whichever instrument is used comes forth as a vehicle for oblivescence, and the disappearance of any kind of self  that dominates so much of our world today. Sounds without a ticker tape at the bottom of the screen. A given name that dissolves into a manufactured name of original being, before self unseated pure experience.

The idea that each piece is a form of practice resonated and resonates. A forever challenge to capture an unmediated few moments. The impossibility of it has led me to continue to go on, to step away from the dominant role of living and let myself just practice. I am not saying these are dress rehearsals. Just that they are not edifices. They are as unfamiliar to me as they are to you. Perhaps more so, because each time I listen to them I have to try and forget again who I am, and you’ve never had to forget me.

A friend recently asked me to record a thirty to forty minute improvisation on the piano for a project he is working on. The only way to get ready for something like that is to look across the street at the snow covering the world. Recording starts and the first note leads to the next and some many minutes later it ends, but it is just that. There was no beginning, middle, or end because the formlessness of it all was really its precise structure: and the practice of moving is what is moving.  I played — and could play — it only once. The recording is the false memory of that time in our lives when this happened. We might even come to think of our own shipwrecks as beautiful if we could freeze them in time for our later selves.

The dichotomies collapse. Harmony and disharmony, man and woman, parent and child, here and there, remembered and forgotten, alive and dead. Maybe it is precisely when our hands are moving that the practice blooms. The hands that are connected to the dichotomies. Which are collapsing at the fingertips.


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