straight lines

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  • Pleasure of process. Pleasure of action.

    [I am exploring the generation of a musical composition on the composer's terms. Bear with me.]

    endgame – the outcome you foresee; it is the plan. In composing, this may be the sonic
                landscape you envision before putting pen to paper, or it may be a manipulative political
    process – the guiding rules which constrain your actions. Process is itself not experienced, but
                is instead a means to carry out actions which lead you to your endgame.
    action – the moment-to-moment experience of creating, recording, or preserving sounds.
                Whether with their own intention or not, actions can be carried out at the service of a
                process or not.
    craft – the facility with which you execute your actions.


            Years ago, I studied weaving. The act of weaving, from start to finish, involves two large stages: the first consists of preparing the loom, while the second is primarily executing the actions by which thread is added to create a pattern and build length. In technical terms, the first stage deals with the warp, or the lengthwise threads; the second stage is about the weft, or perpendicular threads.

            The generation of a successful weaving requires dedicated adherence to a process, and, much as it might be in a piece of music, the process is determined before any actions take place. Specifically, one begins by selecting a pattern and arranging the warp threads so that the correct pattern will be revealed by addition of the weft. Failure at any moment in the first stage can cause significant enough deviation from the process that the plan will not be realized—the pattern will have a noticeable imperfection running through it.

            One needs concentration to move successfully through the first stage. This concentration demands that the weaver always keep the process in mind, and so the actions taken during the first stage feel directly connected to the endgame. There is a pleasure I derive from the feeling that each element of the process I follow is directly contributing to an outcome which will be instantly recognizable as either successful or not. Weaving thus requires a deep devotion to the process, for it does not simply guide the weaver's actions during the first stage, but it mandates the actions with extreme precision.


            While the preparation of the warp is all rigor and exactitude, the addition of the weft is a slow and patient unfolding. Much longer than the first stage, the second stage feels somewhat like a prolonged exhalation. Very little can go wrong, and any imperfections are quickly and easily remedied. During the second stage, the weaver's mind wanders as the actions take over, often becoming automatic. There is a rote quality to the actions, as there is hardly any room for error, and the process, now at the back of the mind, simply hovers in the distance and keeps watch over the proceedings.

            There are many moments like this throughout the generation of a weaving, during both stages. In the first stage there is the measuring and stretching of the thread, for instance. Specifically, though, the second stage consists of sitting stationary for many hours while passing back and forth a shuttle carrying the weft thread. Each pass is punctuated by a stepping on the correct pedal. There is muscle memory involved, particularly in more complex patterns.

            This tedium is its own delight. The feeling of steadiness and the inexorable march toward the end of the project are comforting, allowing the weaver to both focus deeply on the minutiae of craft, and to get lost in the vast stretches of time. What's more, since weaving is both a visual and tactile art, within a few hours comes early an gratification as the weaver sees the endgame—the final product—taking shape. The weaver is locked into a pace during the second stage. I always relished this experience.


            In weaving there are few decisions of any consequence after the first stage begins; once a pattern is selected, colors and material have been chosen, and the winding out of thread has begun, there is little opportunity or reason to exert influence on the process. This is the point: weaving itself is deeply rooted in a highly formulaic process, and in-the-moment deviation from the process will rarely yield compelling results; the weaver is so limited by the process that such decisions are often fundamentally impossible. Again, the creation is a devotion to a process combined with a love of the actions.

            Musicians often enjoy talking about process. I assume this is because process (whatever its inspiration may be) takes the form of a rationally-devised schematic, whereas the endgame is far more subjective and personal, and people can communicate more easily about the rational than the personal. (Also, perhaps cynically, I believe that because the rational is quantifiable, musicians can use process to locate themselves on a continuum of sophistication.) What I find distasteful about this discussion is the equation of process with creativity. Maybe I am splitting hairs, but I believe process is the offspring of necessity, arising from the artist's conception of the endgame of the work. The creativity we look for in the process actually resides in the endgame. This is especially clear in weaving, where nearly all creative choices are made prior to actually commencing the first stage.

            What I find exciting is what happens once actions are being carried out at the service of a process or endgame—do variations arise? does something in the process get tweaked? does the artist feel so beholden to the process that he experiences guilt at any deviation or unjustified action? These micro-level decisions are what drive my own composing, and they constitute the part of the creative act which is rarely discussed.

            Unlike weaving, music can suffer or benefit dramatically from these decisive actions; their ramifications can be vast, and usually must be answered, regardless of the rigor of the process. This is, for me, simultaneously exhilarating and terrifying. I usually compose with as loose a process as possible (though I often have a vague concept of the endgame in mind). The use of processes is said to facilitate action, but I simply find it boring when it comes to music. The difference in weaving is that I am locked into my actions by the physical limitations of the medium, whereas in music I am bound only by my own stubbornness. So I usually dispense with process. The challenge then is to make every action meaningful—here is where the responsibility to the creative impulse can become overwhelming.

            The middle ground between weaving and music is what I'm looking for. I take deep pleasure in the experience of pencil on paper, the action, and I cherish the consequences every physical stroke has on the creative act, the ramifications. Taking this approach, a composer has to believe in both the significance of action and the relevance of the individual. This approach carries both responsibility and the abdication of responsibility.