|Despite playing the guitar for 35 years, I am not a musician. I'm stymied by too many possibilities. |
A musician — an artist — sees limits within that infinite field.
I've been playing guitar since I was 16. I feel like every guy my age, more or less, plays the guitar. What happened to that? Learning the guitar took time: fingers need to be trained to make those chords. And it hurts having skinny steel string dig into your fingertips! How do the kids spend their time now? I suppose they screw around on Logic creating beats. This is not a judgement; it's just an observation.
Anyway, for the most part, I am a terrible guitar player. I can play chords and some scales and, every now and again, I'm inspired to craft a little something. But it doesn't flow out of me the way it does, say, Paul McCartney or Rob Crow — folks who write song and after song as if they had no choice. It doesn't flow out of me like it does for my friend Brian who crafts and lusciously produces ditties across a breadth of styles in his basement studio — all amidst his work and familial duties, no less. These folks think through the world in terms of music. When they look over the landscape of life, they see music, think music, all the shapes and sounds and speeds and possibilities and, from it all, say: Ah, this.
Me, I don't think in terms of music. When I pick up my guitar, I don't see a way through or of or with the world. I see ghosts, cliché, Jimi and Stephen Stills and Black Francis. Which is to say, I see what's been; I don't see what could be. I don't think the world in terms of music, as these units of vibration, rhythm, and affective resonance. When I listen to music, I relentlessly seek new approaches to life and sound that are interesting. But when I sit down to play, I look in the rear view mirror.
As I pick up my guitar, I rarely have a vision of what I want from the instrument, the kinds of sounds I want to make, the moods I want to conjure. I noodle and hope something will come, a child-maniac in a sandbox hurling sand every which way because it feels great and because that's the only way I know how to interact with this music and its infinite possibilities. I'm not sure how to shape it, work with it, create new worlds with it. All I know is this sand feels really good running through my fingers. So I keep doing it.
If and when a shape does actually emerge from this play — a lick, a riff, a sonic shape that has mood, texture, and form — I am hard pressed to repeat it. It comes — and then goes even more readily. I have trouble corralling it into a thing, a form of life, of meaning, a discrete unit of affect and vibration. I have trouble finding its internal mechanics, the thing that drives it, animates it, its immanent logic. And so it dissipates, so many grains of sand through my fingers. I can't play it again to give it form: to birth it.
All forms — human bodies, animal bodies, gnats, rocks, gadgets, rivers, molecules and medicines, ideas, sentences, anything that coheres into something, whether visible or invisible — all forms are animated by the miraculous operation of repetition. (Repetition is not a force but is usually a conjunction of myriad forces — gravity, momentum, desire.) That is precisely what a form is (or rather how a form becomes): it's these limits again and again. If you don't repeat its limits, it no longer exists as it; it's now something else. Repetition animates and propels a form to maintain itself as a form and not, say, dissipate into a glorious cosmic fireworks like Oogway upon death. Repetition is the operation that transforms a willy-nilly assemblage into this.
There are all kinds of repetition. Memory, for instance, is the repetition of forms in what seems to be a different form but is nonetheless constitutive of that form (which lets us know that a form has all kinds of modes and limits; when you repeat as my memory, you are a gossamer image; indeed, all forms are images of some sort — Henri Bergson says matter = image — so your repetition as my memory is a mode of the image that is you. The reproduction of images is not a recent invention but is the very stuff of existence). A thing may not exist materially anymore but it persists in the repetition of itself in and with other bodies — recollections, photographs, scars, erosion. In the act of living, we become agents of repetition of other forms. Sometimes, a repetition introduces such a radical mutation that it becomes a new form — from fish to mammal. This is the great game of telephone, the play of memetics, that is life and its relentless becoming. Isn't this the basis of Darwin's evolution, after all — a repetition of forms with difference?
(A word or ten on memory as repetition....Memory is a form of possible new limits being introduced into our ways of going. An asteroid hits a mountain and now that mountain is mountain with crater (as asteroid repeats as crater). If the asteroid were bigger, it might decimate that mountain, transforming it from mountain to crater, making it mountain no more as its limits no longer exist. We are all mountains with craters. And sometimes, after the asteroid hits, we're just crater — or something else entirely.)
As is the way of repetition, evolution is the perpetual introduction of difference of the form — humans get a thumb, a big brain, incorporate the virus of language. The repetition of a form is the introduction of difference (which, as our asteroid taught us, may eradicate the form). Every time Bob Dylan performs "Isis," it's different. If it were the same every time, it wouldn't be repetition: it would be a copy. He could just play the album. As repetition is an operation of bodies in the word, and as body in the world is in flux, repetition is an act of form maintaining its form as it changes. All forms inevitably take on new tics, new materials, new modes — mountains erode, people age. Think of a yourself: you are you over time, sure, but this you is always different. If the difference is so great as to erase your existing limits, you are either dead or born again as a new form.
I suppose a form could be bound by something external such as a soul or Platonic Form, a non-material force that animates this mortal coil but is not of it. In this case, a form is not bound by repetition but by a metaphysic — that is, the thing that makes me me and not, say, an assortment of limbs, veins, and personality tics is my soul. And this soul is not of this world but is divine, external to the particular form of me. One clear advantage of this is that it means that the thing that binds this all together doesn't die when I die — so this form that is me could exist again.
But such an architecture of limits creates a split personality. or even schizophrenia, in which I am bound by something that may very well have motives at odds with my experiences, my pleasures, my desires, my very body. Isn't this the cruelty we portray in our movies as the Church or Family forbids, say, a homosexual romance leaving our horny hero in a state of self loathing? After all, who knows the will of this soul (if it's not of me)? Priests? The government? By saying I am bound by a soul external to me, we invite some uncomfortable politics.
In any case, to repeat something is to say Yes to this and this and No to all that. Repetition is the movement of a form, an act of discernment and selection, as it moves through the world. If I eat granola every morning for breakfast, I am saying Yes to granola and No to croissants, eggs, toast, not to mention fillet mignon, chocolate mousse, dumplings, burritos, and fasting. So it is with art: a musician plays these notes and not those; a painter affirms these shapes and not those; a writer affirms these words, tone, and rhythm and not those. Creation is the affirmation of limits. A heralding of this — and the love to repeat it.
When musicians find something they want to play again, what is that other than radical affirmation, a Yes saying to a form, a declaration of love? This! I like it so much I'm going to play it again! A musician summons a form into the world — a moving form, of course, but that's redundant as everything is always already moving — and, in playing it again, affirms and creates it. Here. This. Hear this.
What is that other than love? Ok, sometimes is compulsion, a weird tic or hiccup. When I pick up my guitar, I inevitably play one of a very small set of licks. It doesn't feel like love as much as it feels like, well, a hiccup — an involuntary repetition that devolves into a copy.
So while not all repetition is love, all love is repetition. Repetition is the heart of love: It says Yes to this...over and over, as time moves and things change...yes...yes to infinity (or until exhaustion, distaste, or a change in circumstance). In the second volume of Either/Or, the Danish philosopher, Søren Kierkeegard, assumes the voice of a married judge writing a letter to a young aesthete who beds a series of women. The demand of marriage, this judge argues, is to find the erotic in one's spouse every day — to find it again, anew, each day — rather than finding the new in a different person every day. For Kierkegaard's judge, love — or at least an erotic marriage — lives and dies in the act of repetition. Love is the affirmation of this person, these limits, this way of going.
Love, like repetition, is not general. It is particular: I love this — this person, this tequila, this film. When a musician repeats a line, creates a melody, forges a structured "piece of music," they are not saying Yes to all music, all sound, all melodies, all notes, all harmonies. In repeating this form, they are saying No to most of the world — not as Nay sayers per se but as someone who only has eyes for this.
When I try to write a song, I am immediately and continuously overwhelmed by the sheer quantity of possibilities. Have you ever used a program like GarageBand or Logic? You can choose one of their thousands of beats, use their tools to create your own, or upload an existing beat from elsewhere. How in the world am I suppose to choose? Do I just go with a simple rock 4/4 (which is never a simple decision as there are many simple rock 4/4 beats)? Or do I want something more trip hoppy? Or punk? Or disco? Laid back and super chill? A waltz? A march? Do I speed up the time or slow it down? And that's just for selecting a beat! I haven't even got to writing the damn song with its infinite sprawl of possibility.
When I sit down in front of the blank page of a GarageBand file, I am stymied. I don't see possibilities; I don't see shapes or ideas. I just see choices, too many choices, infinite choices. I may goof around and stumble on a shape I like and will stick with it because, well, what else am I gonna do? And it's fun to stumble on a form and then try to repeat it, to stick to its internal logic, its limits, what it can become, how it goes in the world.
When a musician sits down in front of the same screen, they see forms. Rather than infinite possibilities, they see these possibilities, not the sublimity of all possibilities. No doubt, most musicians most of the time don't know the exact form of the song-to-be. They, too, have to negotiate a morass of possible shapes, moods, and ideas — and these may very well change. "Sympathy for the Devil" started as a folk song. But musicians don't see the possibilities as sublime, as too much: they see what they need to see, even when unsure, even when grasping. Where I consider my musical instruments and see unbound possibilities devoid of discretion, they see limits everywhere — grooves and such. I see every possible way of going. They see different ways of going.
No doubt, many aspiring musicians only see a small set of old ways of going. They can copy a lick, copy a song, but they can't repeat it. To copy is to see the traits and try to replicate them — bend the note here just like Jimi did, pull back like Jimi did. To repeat is to be of the form itself. To dwell, to live through, its internal mechanics. It's not to play act but to become that form. As my basement studio musician friend, Brian, argues Jimi Hendrix doesn't even play an instrument per se. He is the instrument; he becomes guitar or, rather, with a guitar Hendrix becomes pure expression, an unmediated event. To copy is to play an instrument, to play a song. To repeat is to birth a form, to animate the emergence of life itself.
I believe many people experience this sublimity when they sit down to write. The blank page stops them in their tracks in its infinite possibilities. How in the world to begin? That white blank page creates a kind of snow blindness — all the different ways to begin, all the ways to construct a sentence, all the voices and tones one can take at once. How to choose which is right or best? Many, faced with such a daunting choice, revert to cliché. I taught critical writing at UC Berkeley for a decade and it was conspicuous: students would try to sound erudite, copying a mode of expression rather than repeating it. ("Man has long pondered the question of truth" was a common opening line for papers on Nietzsche.)
I've been writing concertedly for a long time now; 35 years which, oddly enough, is the same amount of time I've been playing guitar. Except when I sit down in front of a blank word processing doc, I don't see infinite possibilities. I see many possibilities, many ways in, many ways through but, no matter what, I see ways. I see forms, trajectories. I see limits.
Of course, once into the piece of writing, these limits may very well change — open, close, morph, shift direction. But I never find myself blinded by the abundance of it all. I am always choosing from among forms and modes of combination. Like the musician working in GarageBand, I see different ways of going that may change but are rarely washed out by the quantitative abundance of options.
An artist, then, is not one who sees infinite possibilities. On the contrary, an artist sees limits. But despite the familiar way we think of limits, these limits are not constraining. Rather, these limits are the very creation of the world, of a new form, a new way of going, a creation born of love.
In this sense, an artist does see infinite possibility — but the infinite possibility of new forms to exist in general. When artists see the world, they don't assume they're stuck with what is; they assume new forms are always possible. That is precisely what an artist is: a creator of novel forms. But just as they see infinite possibility of new forms in general, they see limits as they create these new forms. Amid the abundant fertility of the world, they see limits everywhere — all these ways of going, all these new forms that can grow, mutate, flourish.
When I taught critical writing to undergrads, I never gave them a blank page and told them to write. That would be absurd. To paraphrase the German philosopher Husserl's claim about consciousness, writing is always writing of something. Even when we did free writing — five minutes without picking their pens up from the page — I provided a prompt, a leaping off point, something to reckon, even if they demolished that prompt. All creation comes from limits. Indeed, to create is to limit. Just as nothing comes from nothing, nothing comes from everything. Something comes from this.
Artists create and, in repetition, affirm limits. They repeat logics and operations that forge and extend these limits, these forms of life. And what is that other than love — a wild unabashed scream of Yes! This! Again!