Esoterica, Part 1: The Art Of Listening

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.

As a percussionist, I think we have the most difficult time because of all these variables. Think of any other instrument, and their choices are much less. Percussion can be anything, and is everything. I know that for me I’m always looking for new sounds from the instruments I have, but not in a gimmicky way. This is not some sort of circus or novelty act. I want the sounds, no matter how unusual, to be usable. I’m thinking of John Cage’s use of pitched tin/steel cans in his Imaginary Landscape pieces. What looks like something gimmicky on first glance, turns out to be a very musical experience.

While performing is the goal, as a solo artist, I find composing to be just as important and, 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 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.

A good example of this is that I got 2 new Gongs last week while I was in Memphis. I played them a bit then, getting the sounds in my mind, then had them shipped to me. They arrived a few days later, after I had returned, and I waited all day to finally unpack them, then played them a few times, again getting the sound & vibrations in my mind, and put them down in my studio with the other Gongs. I’ll play them sometime later this week, knowing fully how they will fit into my set up and work with the other Gongs.

I carry all my sounds inside me. Where do your sounds reside?

~ MB


  1. My sounds enter though my ears, mingles with my mind, and reside in my heart! Michael, I could not agree with you more about knowing the sound limitations of our instruments and understanding the power that silence brings. Also, your overture to composition is fascinating in the sense that you approach it from a purely mental state and then proceed to intermingle it with your instruments. Thanks for sharing your depth of knowledge an experience on these blogs!

  2. Thanks for your comment!

    For me, I don't feel composition has any fixed form. I often do start from the mental and move to the physical, but I also will start from the physical (such as a sound or rhythm) and build upon that. Things can also start from a mood that I then try to express through the instruments. Or things can start from a word or phrase that creates a mental picture (I'm always writing down short phrases/ideas that I keep in a file by my desk and refer to when looking for inspiration).

    The important thing is to be open, and be ready—you never know when the spark will hit.

    ~ MB


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