Folks seem to think they’re teaching us something when they bust us for not performing. “If you don’t play out you’re chicken, just a closet musician,” one dude sweetly put it.
Sure. Like every good cook should rush out and find work as a restaurant chef.
It’s beyond sad so many have forgotten the world was richer when most everyone made at least some music, when recordings didn’t exist and performances were rare, when people whistled, sang lullabies, chanted while they worked, when their own music added grace to the glorious all enveloping silence.
No longer creators, slouched back into their lazy minds, reduced to being merely an audience for specialist performers better at pretending than actually playing music, it’s ugly, dangerous, it’s the shape of the modern world.
Well, we’re not buying it.
When we’ve “performed”, and that’s never been to more than a few friends in the quiet of our own place, we’re always painfully aware we’re just imitating ourselves playing music, that trying to perform made the real thing impossible.
Even when our imitation was convincing we couldn’t fool ourselves. Dumbing stuff down, sticking to familiar safe patterns, not going for the gold ring, at worst it felt sacrilegious and dirty, at best a little sly and shameful.
How different when we’re alone and not afraid to sound awkward, when we forget we’re playing music, stop thinking how cool we sound, when shivery electric uncanny everything turns magic, when automatically we’re in sync.
Of course virtually all performers insist for them it’s been different, that audiences have given them inspiration and energy. They rarely admit the obvious, that radical newness is too scary to try in public, that exposed on a stage they don’t dare play anything they haven’t mastered or at least brought somewhat under control.
Pretending to Play Music
Live performances have important social functions. They energize warriors, warm up congregations for preachers, help people celebrate weddings and graduations, create situations where the young can find mates, etc.
But remarkably few actually channel divine fire, lift listeners out of their ordinary worlds, the rest are merely pretend music.
We first found ourselves thinking like this 30 years ago when we were immersed in the Varanasi classical music scene. As we learned to listen more carefully we heard our gurus were often out of tune, could not convincingly play the intricate rhythms they were teaching. Performing they were acting as much as playing music, using smooth hand gestures and beaming smiles to hide a lack of skill.
Once back in the West we soon realized our own music was in far worse shape. Here too all but the most principled performers were more interested in putting on a show than getting lost in the magic of sound.
Happening in every type of music, it was most grotesque in the world of Pop where “pretending” had officially become the only way to do things. Music videos had become more important than music, for singers breast and butt size counted more than voice.
What a terrible omen for the continued life of our civilization that the packaging of a product is now felt to be more critical than its quality.
That the right front, the right credential, is more important than having the right relevant skill.
One would think it impossible to believe such nonsense, to fail to see the point of doing something is to get it done, not just to pretend to have done it.
But no, worrying about “reality” is seen as out of date, uptight, prejudiced.
“All beliefs are relative, who’s to say what good is, an action’s fruits count less than its doing.”
Still it’s reasonable for performers to expect to be paid. What they do demands years of training and it’s hard work.
It’s just most of the time their product isn’t music, or at least it’s not magic music, not music with any juice, not music that could possibly lead to something new.
More often it’s a surprisingly lame imitation of the real thing.
Advantages Of Not Performing
If we’d performed our music wouldn’t be so bravely weird and different.
To find a venue we’d have had to chip away until our stuff fit an existing category, until we’d shaped it into something that could be accepted as “new music”, “avant guard classical”, “minimalist”, “free jazz”, “fusion”….
Then if we’d found such a spot, evolved a style that got some traction, probably that’s where our growth would have stopped.
Though frankly, with our instruments more likely we’d have never learned to play music clean enough to be performed. They’re not tamed engineered machines suited for the concert hall. Naturally wild, they don’t like to behave, they’re our friends not our servants, not our tools.
Our shoki finger holes are extra wide, our Bowus Family instruments are very very loosely strung with gut, both are always ready to suddenly break into a new register, to buzz, to whistle, to shriek, to rumble, to whisper. That’s their charm, their beauty, their uncanny strength, their warmth, their life. To force them to be good, to play nothing but round repeatable tones, would cripple them, would be a waste.
And while it might be possible to discipline our quartertone kalimbas, each key sings a different strange mix of harmonics, the intervals between them are irregular, there are tons of wolf notes. For keyboards they’re off scale anti-authoritarian.
That’s why we never seriously tried to perform, we were pretty sure we couldn’t do it, knew the sounds of our instruments were too unpredictable.
Which meant we could skip the brutal practice needed to play error-free music in real time, the doing the same thing over and over again which digs deep grooves in the brain, traps one in old patterns, trashes fingers wrists arms necks backs throats, which for all too many people puts an end to playing music.
We didn’t have to play loud enough to be heard, didn’t go deaf in one ear like generations of violinists, didn’t lose hearing in both like most pop performers. Instead we could relax, stay soft, go for subtlety.
We weren’t forced to stay up late, hang out in noisy smoky bars, travel long miles to venues, eat unhealthy restaurant food, play when our heads or stomachs ached.
Our Performing ?
Of course there’s a sense in which we have performed, just it’s been at home with microphones as our only audience. And though microphones are not people, putting them out did change the way we listened.
We started asking “what will this sound like to someone else? ”
We heard our fast stuff when recorded often came across as hysterical, so from one CD to the next our music got slower, more chilled. On Dotara and Bass Bowus we began focusing on low notes, we’d only begun to learn to turn their screeches into magic. We played simpler patterns on our kalimbas, got more careful about how we hit their keys, listened more for sweetness, ring, tone.
In short we learned to play for our recording equipment the way performers learn to play for their audiences. And like they claim about their live performances, the challenge of recording did supercharge our experience.
It gave us the edge, the chops, the determination, the computer smarts, without which we never could have created the astonishing music on Work In Progress.
While if we hadn’t wanted to record them, we never would have built our most complicated instruments. Dotara, Bass Bowus, Boxus Quartus, Boardus Quartus, would all be just dreams.
So no doubt the recording which has functioned as “our performing”, our way to get our music out there, has been beyond rewarding.
Still even as performing ends the growth of all but the most inspired musicians, a decade of recording nearly killed our music.
For seven years after Work In Progress it sure looked like we were done. Playing together had become work, no longer a joy we couldn’t make ourselves do it. The instruments we’d sweated to build sat untouched, sad reminders of our failure.
Then suddenly in 2020 our music exploded back into life, weirder, more skillful, more sure than ever.
We’d given up, stopped trying to record, and something wonderful had happened.
Again we were in love with playing together, with our instruments, our music.
Our show had not been cancelled, once more we’d found magic.
On Being an Audience
As for the years of pleasure performers and performances have given us, well I don’t quite know how to relate to that. There’s no denying we lugged dozens of cassettes with us to India.
Certainly my life would have been poorer if I’d never heard Bach, the Dead, Coltrane, and Ali Akbar Khan. Without them I wouldn’t be playing what I play now.
Mitsuko feels the same about Beethoven, Carol King, Monk, and Shivkumar Sharma.
But as we grew more serious about our own music we listened less to other stuff. Especially what we liked stuck in our heads, got in the way of playing anything new.
Until eventually this not listening became an explicit policy.
And it worked. For better or worse we’re now totally out of phase with the rest of the music world.
When we check out old favorites, they sound thin and unconvincing. Short on musical ideas, stretched puffed padded by technique, almost always a few minutes are enough.
Our playing too has become quite different from what’s usually called playing music. Each time we put out instruments it’s a new adventure, we have no idea what’s going to happen, nothing is planned, practiced, rehearsed, or studied, Eyes half closed, spaced out, we listen for when we’re getting closer, for hidden magic, then we play with it, toss it back and forth.
If our heads were still stuffed full of bits and pieces of other music, we couldn’t be so loose goose.
Here it’s tempting to go Zen, to say the music we listened to was a finger pointing at the moon not the moon itself, a ladder to be put aside once we’d climbed it to the next floor.
But that’s too clever, too easy, too high for us, too much like Saint Cage going all holy about never having heard a noise.
Better to admit our attitude towards performance is inconsistent.
To smile at our inadequate understanding.