Listen To The Still Voice Inside (The Art Of Listening)

Expanded from a blog post on Wednesday, November 25, 2009 on my old blog.

Sometimes it’s not enough to just play your instruments. You need to move beyond them, beyond their physical realm. When I play my instruments, I’m listening for the unusual, straining to hear the limits of their sound, and even looking past those limits. I want to know them intimately, to know what they can do, and how I can recreate those sounds. It’s important to me to be able to reproduce sounds in a consistent way. The very nature of percussion is open to so many nuances—the type of mallet, the type of stroke, the force used, the touch—so many variables, and all of them combine to form a multitude of sounds.

  • Note: The other night I found myself just sitting in a chair in my studio, sitting in the middle of all my Gongs & Metals, just listening. I could hear them all speaking to me. I didn’t need to play them because I know their sounds intimately—I could just play them in my mind.

While performing is the final goal, as a solo artist, I find composing to be just as important, and, often more challenging. It’s not enough for me to merely improvise live at a concert, following the sounds, following the instruments and their desires for speaking. I want to have order among the chaos. I want to have a place to work from and to come back to. This is where composition comes in. For me, composition is an ordered set of pre-chosen events in time.

The act of composing is a deliberate endeavor where I play the instruments, listening for little events or sounds to expand on. Often a fragment of rhythm or melody will lead things down a path, twisting and turning, backtracking, and finally coming to some sort of resolution. But at other times, it’s not enough to just play the instruments. This is when I simply sit and listen to the air itself. In the silence, there is music. Here, the small, barely audible voices of the instruments speak directly to me. By stilling my mind and listening, the music has a chance to surface and be heard. I like to sit in my studio, surrounded by my instruments, imagining how they sound, how their sounds interact. I can feel their vibrations reaching out. I can hear the subtle nuances, how the harmonics react and combine to form other tones. It’s not unusual for me to compose a piece mentally, then play it completely on my instruments the first time.

And don’t forget to get away from your instruments. Get out in nature and listen to both the sound and the silence. Walk around the city and pick up on the myriad of sounds and rhythms that are being played. I love to hear the train that runs through the valley down from my house. I always listen to its rhythm, looking for something new, something inspiring. Sit still in meditation and listen to the inner sounds of your own being.

The sounds are already there, you just need to listen…

~ MB

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