Monday, September 17, 2012

Each moment of music is its own

I think a common artistic mistake is the continual quest to perfect the craft itself. The ultimate possibility of art is the achievement of moments of transcendence. In the case of music you could argue that no real advance can be made; you can only hope to visit and revisit the wellspring of emotion and inspiration. Access to these things isn’t always dependent on progress in your craft. They can’t be achieved without your craft and craft alone cannot create them. You need trust and faith in the subjective feelings that the music generates. There is no accumulation of technique and ability that you can rely on. Each moment of music is its own and you have to be open to its possibilities. These moments can arise at various levels of technical ability. The muse is very democratic. On some level I’ve always known that it is not about becoming a better fiddler in a technical sense. I think it’s more about learning to be more receptive and open to that magical moment we long for. These moments are the music; everything else is the dance leading up to that point."
A few years ago I read this beautiful quote by Martin Hayes and immediately knew what he was talking about. When I play Irish music, I often get the feeling that I'm grasping at something subtle and infinitesimal that is constantly evading my reach. The couple of seconds where I seem to get it in the middle of a tune is the only reward in my solo practice, and is experienced much faster and for longer when playing with my band. Isolating this tiny snatch of essence and stretching it throughout an entire tune is a goal which I may or may not ever reach, even if I practice for decades. I feel able to achieve this most with Irish music (mainly because the tunes are short and not difficult technically) which often can sound trite but is actually more difficult and heart wrenching than it first appears.

I've never been able to compose or write music, which is how many people I know get musical satisfaction. What I get from playing music comes from the joy of playing with others, of learning many tunes off by heart and striving to get the sound more right every time I play.
A frontispiece from a book of traditional music collected by Edward Bunting in the 18th and 19th Centuries, mainly from the great Irish harpists who were dying out even at that time
These days I don't get time to practice or gig as much as I used to, though I'm hoping that will change in the next year or so. I recently didn't get to play a gig I'd been looking forward to for months and I was surprised by how sad and disappointed I felt. Playing with the band gives me a chance to break away mentally from my day-to-day existence and I treasure that time as it is rare that I get to experience that state of flow that is so good for me.

Mihály Csíkszentmihályi's flow is an interesting psychological concept that is defined as "the mental state of operation in which a person performing an activity is fully immersed in a feeling of energized focus, full involvement, and enjoyment in the process of the activity" and I don't often get to feel it these days, my whole life being strewn with the shattered shards of split attention. An hour a two spent concentrating on playing through the simplicities and drawing out the complexities of AA BB tunes every few weeks can make a big difference.


  1. I think it's so difficult to allow ourselves the time to get into a flow state. There's this feeling we should be doing everything at once. Something like crocheting has to be soundtracked by the TV and punctuated by regular Twitter breaks. Hooping and roller skating are two favourite flow acitivities for me. (This comment took about twenty minutes to write because I kept getting distracted. My attention span is so short these days!)

    1. I totally agree - I've got to work out a way of not feelings like I should be catching up on my phone the whole time... I think it's really damaging actually. I used to sit and be able to read for hours, but now I get a few minutes in and by habit I'm reaching for my phone to check up on Twitter etc... it's an addiction and I really am gonna try and get over it. Hooping and Skating sound perfect! Mine are playing music and walking and when I don't do either for a while I get angsty and headachy!


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