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Fasting and Feasting


"Music (of quality) provides nutriment - spiritual calories. We all need these and are actively, though often unconsciously, seeking them out."

That thought from the other day has not left me alone since. Food, I think, is the only useful metaphor (that I've yet encountered) for the Substance of Music.

(Yes... the Substance of Music. It can be present or not-present, it can be perceived, it can be made and it can be contained. It can only be destroyed in the way that anything can be 'destroyed' - by being broken down and remade into something else.)

I've always felt that the only helpful way to describe music is to invoke food-language. You can't get far by explaining that the Joe Bloggs Band sounds a bit like the Fred Jones Group crossed with the Mary Smith Quintet - this is of limited help to anyone who hasn't heard Fred Jones or Mary Smith... or indeed to anyone who dislikes Fred Jones or Mary Smith.

But if you say that the Joe Bloggs Band combines richness with astringency, or spiciness with a lick of salt, that gives an immediate, visceral notion of what it might be like. Most people eat food, let's face it.

So there's that.

But it struck me suddenly, powerfully, yesterday, that how we make, share and consume music - how we prepare it, how we give and receive it - is exactly like our behaviour around food. Going way beyond the dotty linguistic tropes favoured by yer hapless scribe (*waves!*), our music, culturally, exhibits the same tendencies as a cuisine.

It was the word 'hobby' that got me to this thought. I had read two people's remarks on 'music as a hobby', and somehow that word rankled - it felt incorrect from my perspective. When I'm making music, it's not something I do to pass the time or to give me something to talk about at parties. (I'm not suggesting that this is really the aim of many people who make music, by the way - just that the word 'hobby' is not quite apt.) There is also this idea of separation between 'work' and 'hobby', and a thought that for each participant, music is one or the other. We have, alongside that, this notion of 'turning one's hobby into a career' - which tends to be characterised either as The Ultimate Ideal or Utter Blinkin' Sacrilege.

When I put this dissatisfaction with the word 'hobby' next to thoughts on music-as-food, suddenly it became obvious.

What I am doing is not an optional entertainment activity - it's as necessary and automatic as cooking a meal.

I am cooking a meal that I am very glad to share with my family and friends. It's nourishing me and them - not just by being eaten, but by being prepared. It's a mindful process, but it's also fun. It can be as formal or as casual as you fancy. You learn by doing it, but it's often utterly instinctive. Others can teach you, but sometimes you have an innate appreciation for its subtleties. Some people like a recipe, I prefer to take the bare principles and improvise from there. Often one's lack of knowledge and technique is an opportunity for invention or for serendipitous stumblement on to something interesting. Your taste tells you more than what's written down. There is effort required, but it's not the dragging effort of some chore you hate - the effort feels good. What you put in, you get out - equally. (This is generally not true of other domestic tasks - cleaning, for example!)

So that's what I'm up to. I can cook, better perhaps than this person, but not maybe as well as that person... but actually, I'm only doing it for myself and my loved ones, and we like it this way. Comparisons and ratings are somewhat irrelevant, and improvement or development are to be assessed internally, quietly. External criticism fails to stick: a total stranger might tell me "I hate this - it tastes bad!" or a professional food critic might say "This is clumsy and unrefined!" - and I would shrug, congratulate them on having an opinion that is very likely correct... and carry on doing it the same way anyway. Because (I shall repeat myself!) this food is for me and for my loved ones and we like it this way. Context is vital.

In other words, I'm not trying to run a restaurant here. Personally, I don't want to make music into a career. I'm neither temperamentally nor technically disposed to find this appealing or possible. So this is not 'work' as in a job, or something I wish to be paid for, or seen doing by strangers. But it's not a hobby - something that is picked up on a whim, something that is supposed to fill a temporal or psychological gap or make one seem interesting, or add an extra-curricular gloss to one's CV.

It's something vitally necessary, but very personal. Sharing it is essential, but in a limited and thought-through way. It has that interesting quality of being inevitable and necessary, but also enjoyable, restoring and relieving. Very often, cooking a meal, though it involves work, relieves the stresses of your humdrum day. So can musical practice. How I would live if either of these necessities/outlets WERE the humdrum day I needed to recover from... I do not know. All in all, creative/aesthetic pursuits do tend to have that curious collision of effort and ease - the effort required is not a wholly muscular effort, nor is it necessarily intellectual... it's more the effort of not-stopping, preceded by the effort of starting. And it's an effort that you willingly apply, rather than begrudging it. (Or at least... most of the time it is!) To further confuse you, I will also say that it is the effort of not-trying-not-to.

Presumably there are music-hobbyists and food-hobbyists, as well as those people who want to make their hobby into their career (...cupcakes, anyone?!). There are music show-offs and food show-offs (talent contests abound to service those desires). There are musical geniuses/prodigious epicures - most have attained those heights through long, intense work and study, and as a result they are on a totally different plane to the amateur home cook/tuneslinger. I have to state right here, I think we (amateurs and professionals) are no threat to one another, and the current of learning can be encouraged to flow both ways.

Consumption is another facet, obviously. Appreciation. I do not remember my life before food... nor do I remember my life before music. I'm an expert in neither field, but naturally I feel qualified to voice the occasional opinion. I can't cook to a fine dining standard, nor can I polish off a Chopin étude, but I would feel comfortable and confident eating at a good restaurant or listening to a concert by a proficient pianist. My eating and listening are informed (humbly, but categorically) by my minor cooking and tuneslinging exploits. It's instructive to try your hand at something and demonstrate not only what you can do but what you can't do, or perhaps to define what you don't wish or need to do. This can't help but bring about empathy and appreciation of the gifts of others.

You'll also become aware eventually of your natural level of discernment. I've said before, of music, I'm most unlikely to pay someone else to supply something I can provide for myself. It's just that way with food, too. Having baked innumerable lasagnes, I won't buy the sloppy convenience version, or order it in a motorway refreshment stop. At a fine Italian restaurant, however... yes please. In the same way, I know I'll get more nourishment and enjoyment from a pop song I've made up myself as opposed to something wrought by other hands (pop music is about expressing the moment you're in, in the most entertaining and efficient way possible, and I can't imagine anyone else is going to summarise my current state of being better than me - especially when you consider that the cheaper sort of pop music tends towards the general, rather than the specific!). But I have no hope of composing a symphony or perpetrating a complex fusion of jazz and interplanetary funk, so I'll let someone else do that for me. ;-)

This leads to a consciousness of what you won't consume - what is unnecessary in your diet (musical or victual), or even harmful. You might even decide that you are macrobiotic, vegan, or that you wish to practice some other form of pre-selection. (Plus, it's important to respect your digestive system - avoiding cheese if lactose-intolerant, or avoiding 'Dark Side of the Moon' if allergic to Pink Floyd. ;-P) Counter-intuitive it may seem, but restricting choice aids Decision and reduces panic. I'm fairly omnivorous where food is concerned, but very picky with music. I recommend this - the world is far less difficult to navigate when you free yourself from the tyrannical strain of excessive choice. (Getting off the point here, but I'll put this in for clarity-of-a-kind: 'choice' and 'freedom' are not necessarily synonymous - choice is an enumeration of options (obviously); freedom is a condition of the soul, a feeling, a state of being, that is not always lashed to your material circumstances.)

'Consumption' is a horrid word, really - visions of a big mouth drooling and flapping and scoffing. That is not an ideal way to take in nutriment, musical or comestible. And yet, that's what we are constantly encouraged to do. We are even called 'consumers', as if all we are expected to do in life is sit there pointing at our open gobs, waiting for something to fall in. You can live on junk food if you want to (or, in certain cases, sadly, because that's all you have access to), but you won't live well on it. Further, as 'consumers', our role is (when you get right down to it) to sit there dutifully and be duped by the 'content provider', unless we take up arms against a sea of troubles, and by opposing, exacerbate them. ;-) It's a foie gras state of affairs; almost impossible to avoid gulping down what is being forced on us, and struggling may not ameliorate matters. But nevertheless... I don't want to be a 'consumer' - a big void that sucks in what it is fed, and gives out nothing but excrement. That is passive, docile, it does not go to meet what comes towards it. It's not allowed to. 'Keep Calm And Swallow This Mush' - uh, No Thanks.

Here's yet another bold statement of intent. (It's that kind of a week.)

I want to partake, to participate, to point my awareness at what I am taking in, and to respond by giving out something that is healthy for others to take in (maybe just my close company, rather than paying customers, but that still counts!). When I come to the transaction of eating something or hearing something that has been prepared for my benefit by another person, I want to treat it and them well. I might not think it's up to much - I might feel moved to say so - but if I say so, I want to be kind as well as honest. And I want to accept their right of reply, and the risk of my being shown to be incorrect.

I will get this wrong more often than I get it right (such is the lot of humans), but - in some part, at least - Intention Is Action, and it is very much Worth A Punt. ;-)


( 2 confidences — Confide in me... )
Jul. 24th, 2013 11:17 pm (UTC)
"Consumption" always reminds me of poets dying :)
Jul. 25th, 2013 07:22 pm (UTC)
Haha! That, too, is something best avoided. ;-)
( 2 confidences — Confide in me... )

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