Think the Note: Michael Pisaro on Challenging the Ear

This past week I read Bill Meyer’s review of the latest Michael Pisaro releases on Gravity Wave and ended up reading the small essay referenced in that article, as well. Besides my interest in music theory in general, I was intrigued by Meyer’s description of Pisaro’s strategy, which draws connections between baseball, The Temptations, John Cage, and modern music in general.

It’s a brief article, and worth reading in its entirety, but here’s an excerpt I especially liked:

Because of experiences like this, I believe that music creates (as opposed to revives) feeling. Also that the first and primary feeling created from music we love is joy at our ability, based on the most subtle sensory discrimination, to respond. This must be very like joy a great player feels when hits a home run, the exhilaration of pushing his senses to their limit, in hitting an object which is moving very quickly in a complicated trajectory.

My favorite music well into my 20’s was anything that could summon exceptionally strong emotions, like sadness or anger or even confidence; but, I never stopped to wonder where those emotions came from, or how they came to be at all. If, as Pisaro argues, music creates joy through the response it makes possible, then it might be argued that the very best music is the music which pushes us to respond in new ways, because it is the music that helps open the world up to us. And by responding, I assume Pisaro means something like thinking, reasoning, or possibly even transforming, as when we calm ourselves by listening to calming music. Responses could be of many kinds, and could have very many effects, but in order for us to respond, there must first be a communication that we understand, something that is intended by the composer and completed together with the performer.

I’m just venturing thoughts, here, and my interest isn’t in classifying good music or bad music generally; I’m more interested in understanding why I think some music is so much better than others, and why that music is always infused with a intellectual or philosophical spirit. I’m not adverse to entertainment, but I’m never totally satisfied by it, either. No matter what, I’m always captivated most by music that elicits a sense of wonder, and much of the joy I get from hearing it and feeling it comes in investigating its nuances, including the composer’s intent, and the whole world of thoughts and feelings that served as its foundation and impetus, whether they’re religious, mathematical, sexual, or otherwise. If there is no depth, no layers through which I can float, then ultimately I’m left unsatisfied. Of course, that doesn’t mean music always needs to be new or innovative in order to be great, but only that the music seeks to do more than entertain.

Then again, there’s always joy to be found in singing simple songs with someone else, or in humming pleasing melodies, and it’s probably important to remember all the kinds of pleasure music inspires, including those that revive our memories and bring us closer to others, strangers and loved ones alike.

Pisaro’s music is available from Erstwhile.

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