Today I played the piano for four hours in total. I started by messing around with a Beethoven piano sonata, which I played a lot, repeatedly butchering the same passages as I always do, never stopping to correct them. That led to some practice exercises, which I always use as a way of tricking myself into not concentrating, and from there a big improvisation ensued.
I went back to Beethoven after lunch. And then after a cup of tea, and at the very last moment, while my partner was picking up takeaway, I fell into playing something I really liked, super-repetitive, just two chords. I only sat down at the piano because it was there, and I couldn’t think of anything better to do, having already checked my phone the requisite ten times in the previous hour.
I landed on these two chords completely fortuitously, and I make no claim for them: they are simple run-of-the-mill chords that anyone could know and play. But my hands took me there, and then I just played them again and again for at least twenty minutes.
And once I was involved, I was lost. At points I zoned out, at other times I zoomed in. My mind was wandering freely, erratically, randomly, but entirely positively: banal thoughts, memories of simple pleasure, satisfaction, gratitude. The music was beautiful, but quite sad in a way, not obviously ecstatic or euphoric, with no particular narrative or logic, just another loop, and I was barely aware of making it myself other than when my fingers started to hurt after 20 minutes of the same triplet rhythm. And then I finished and wrote it down, and that was what I 'did' today, that was what I created, that's the 'legacy' of the day, the trace left behind, and it’s no coincidence that it happened almost when I wasn't looking, almost when I'd stopped trying, and I was just trying to fill the time till the food arrived. By the time I stood up the pizza had gone cold.
I was both present and absent in this process. Improvisation only exists at its moment of creation- it is still-born with no past or future - and yet at the same time if you improvise a loop, then it is theoretically endless, and there is no good way to end, as the only way to perform it is to be within it, to the point where I was entirely non-present, simply repeating melodic phrases again and again, almost automatically, with no conscious awareness of my hands moving, my mind completely elsewhere, though not distracted, because my mind had been led by the music to this point, but my ears were experiencing the music with the joy of being both listener, creator, and performer simultaneously, in control of the duration of the work but subservient to its simplicity, only really controlling dynamic and texture and when to shift harmony, and those decisions were just occurring, bypassing any conscious thought, the whole thing unpredictable but inevitable, overwhelming me, and yet, were you to hear it, utterly unexceptional, the music simply a means to an end, one way through, time well spent, a course safely navigated, at the end of which the heart falls back to its normal rate, the swelling subsides, the mind returns, and it’s just me and a piano staring at the wall. And once fully returned to the present, I know I could stop at any point, just lift the hands to break the spell, and I know I'll have to, and that has its own sadness, but somehow it’s right, it’s necessary, and the only task left is to find the perfect spot, not in the music but literally in time, to stop. And with that cessation, there’s a metaphor for the finitude of everything, and an acceptance of that fact and our impotence to resist it. I stand up and my whole relationship to the room, my body, my internal experience of thought, has been subtly changed, to the point where the first sound I hear (normally someone’s voice) wakes me up, snaps me back, with some disappointment, to the everyday.
I've been lucky enough to experience this kind of relationship with music, music as therapy/catharsis/meditation, almost daily since I was very young. As a child I could lose myself for hours playing the same C major triad, and as a teenager, the piano bore the brunt of all my hormonal angst, and became something of a weapon of confession.
But for years I thought it was nothing beyond that; of no more worth than an embarrassingly tortured diary entry or Valentine’s poem. In fact I would routinely dismiss my piano playing as a waste of time that counted for nothing because it involved no toil or labour; its automatism, the very fact of its subconsciousness, was not to be trusted - it was simply indulgence, giving in to the pleasure of the sound, with no regard for structure or purpose, privileging the private over the public, and most egregiously it was onanistic, ‘for its own sake.’
Since this time, and with many years of avoiding playing the piano in public behind me, I’ve come to appreciate that the truly liberating force of music is precisely its lack of consequence, its fundamental inability to represent or refer, and its ever-losing battle with time. Music stands so apart, sublime, mercurial; and yet works so physically, so directly on the senses, and is so audaciously counter and other to the conscious mind. Is it any wonder then that it has always made spiritual claims on people, and continues to be perceived today, as it has throughout history, as a threat to certain ideologies?
I don't claim to know what spiritual or religious experience would truly be like. But for those who do claim to, it seems to be a matter of practice, not as in learning the tenets of faith, or quoting chunks of text, but as in those daily performances of prayer/meditation/ritual, or acts of kindness/empathy/community, that constitute religious, spiritual or social exercise, and that qualify one to identify as a practicing adherent to any belief system.
So I close with this dialectical pun:
Musicians practice: it's what they brag about doing for x hours a day.
That practice is transitive: they practice something, which requires an external goal, a linear conception of time - "Practice makes perfect", where perfection implies completeness, the subjugation of time, an endpoint arbitrarily imposed, but in reality (in practice) ever-receding in its unattainability.
Well, nothing that I did today really improved my ability to play or advanced me towards anything.
What I did was intransitive: a practicing musician, being, doing, no more than passing time. And I believe it’s in such mundane but ineffable praxis, rather than in its emotive content, that music is at its most profound and mysterious, and reaches farthest towards transcendence.