Tuesday, March 13, 2012

5. The View from San Damiano, with Rain

The album mentions the Franciscan retreat house San Damiano in Danville, California.  And clearly the piece recreates a rain storm gradually approaching, pouring down, and leaving.

The title of, and idea for, this piece came from a composition by the great Cuban composer Leo Brouwer, "Cuban Landscape with Rain."  I played this composition with a classical guitar quartet I belonged to about 10 years ago.  At the time, I kept trying to convince the other guitarists to treat each of the little themes that we each had for each section of the developing rain storm as a matrix for improvisation, but no one was going for it.  Ironically, the composer himself was very interested in such ideas, and had incorporated "aleatoric" (i.e. randomness) techniques into instructions for some of his other works.  As a result,  the performances of Brouwer’s piece, even the recording by the LAGQ, always sound mechanical and way too regular to my ear.  I am hoping some day to get one or two other guitarists to play with me my own version of a rain storm, in this free and improvised way:  I think the results could be astounding.  And fun:  we are meant to PLAY the guitar, not to WORK it.

For the active guitarist, the approach used here opens up a lot of possibilities for exploration.  The use of randomness and allowing uncontrolled happenings opens one back up the mystery of the real world:  this is how events happen, and interact all together in the real world.  Only in recent times has there arisen an actual way to study this phenomenon, generally referred to as “chaos theory”.  Part of this new mathematics involves the notions of “Mandelbrot sets”:  the creation of large organic-looking structures (whose elements are scalable:  tiny leaves are arranged in patterns that create self-similar larger leaves), and the discovery that relatively simple procedures of iterations can create complex systems.  Another interesting aspect of chaos theory involves the discovery of, and attempts to describe, “strange attractors”:  apparently random events nonetheless strangely seem to keep appearing in particular places that have a certain order to them, creating these shapes called strange attractors.  

Traditional science has confined itself to carefully controlled experiments in the lab:  all parameters except the one being studied are eliminated.  This clearly separates the phenomena being studied from the natural, real world, where all things co-exist and interact, and are even co-creating (as the Buddhists say) and co-dependent (well, not in the abusive way of alcoholic families!)  Chaos theory arose out of the perception that despite the complex irregularity of patterns in nature, we intuitively feel that there is order in them:  they are pleasing to us.  And in some ways, the irregular “chaotic” order of natural processes (waves, and clouds, and leaves, patterns of plants, and rocks and all things interacting….) are more deeply satisfying than highly regular, predictable, symmetrical representations of order, “classical order.”    This is important territory for me because I have always been driven crazy by hard-edged, symmetrical, overly regular, starkly defined things and environments (and people, for that matter!)   I prefer oak trees to pines, plants and animals to man-made structures, and maintain a LARGE distance from artificial environments like malls.

If we can learn to be in tune with these complex rhythms of nature, they may become great assistants in generating new and interesting musical ideas.  This is not a new idea, by the way.  Leonardo Da Vinci once said that all he needed for inspiration was to see an old wall with moss and discolorations running every which way. 

There are a lot more significant things to be said for this realm of investigation, but I hope I have spelled out my own interest in it to illuminate the ideas for the listener, and made a good case for its relevance for the active musician.

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