Music A Language?
Speaking with Ken Field, Composer
Ken Field is a saxophonist, flutist, percussionist
and composer. Since 1988 he has been a member of the internationally
acclaimed electronic modern music ensemble Birdsongs Of The Mesozoic;
he has also created music for Sesame Street, and he has performed
for President Bill Clinton (when asked about M.L., all Field would
say was that our President did not have a relationship with M.L.
in Field's actual presence).
has recently recorded his first solo release Subterranea which
was made in an underground room in Roswell, New Mexico. We caught
up with him in Silver City, and began by asking him if he thought
music was a language.
Ken Field: A language is something that
communicates, maybe between two people, or it can communicate
in time, like with a diary or a letter. Music is a communicating
form in the same ways; when I'm playing music or writing music
I'm communicating with my audience, or with myself. The best things
I spontaneously compose are things I've done at home when no one
else was there to hear them. But I've experienced something, as
if I was talking to myself. There are times when people want to
work something out, and they talk to themselves - that's language
too. Language is an external representation of internal thoughts.
It's taking this nebulous mass of whatever in your brain, and
putting it in some kind of organized form. That has the effect
of forcing you to organize it a little bit. And sitting by yourself
and thinking isn't quite the same as sitting by yourself and talking.
For me, I'm often surprised when I'm writing a letter, because
I write things I didn't even know I was thinking, or feeling.
Does that happen to you when you play music?
KF: Absolutely. There are two ways I make music. I spontaneously
improvise music, and I write music on paper, the traditional way,
composition, where I can edit, change things. With Improvising,
something happens and you end up in a place that you didn't think
you were going to. So that's what improvisation is about, surprising
yourself. That can happen in composition as well: you get something
in your head, write it down, and then it starts going off in a
direction of it's own.
Are sounds like words? I mean, words have attached meanings, sometimes
more than one. Do sounds have attracted meanings for you?
KF: Probably not as much. Music is organized sound, but certain
sounds aren't traditionally considered music, like the sound of
water dripping, although, actually, it can be considered a kind
of music. It's organizing itself, in a kind of rhythmic pulse.
But to me, sounds and musical gestures are much more abstract
than words. I don't tend to be thinking of things when I'm playing;
I'm thinking of music.
Is there any representation that goes on in music - do you ever
try to depict anything?
KF: I don't think that's where I'm at with my music. I don't try
to portray, say, a sunset with any piece that I write. I'm just
trying to make beautiful sounds, as the end in themselves. I would
draw a parallel between that concept and the movement in art through
the centuries from being 'representational' to being what I would
call 'presentational', or abstract. People have moved from documenting
things and hiding the medium that they're using, to a point where
they're more obvious in the techniques, the paint or the brushstrokes,
and what's was being represented is now gone. You look out and
see a landscape, and you know, that doesn't have any underlying
meaning; it's just beautiful.
Does making music give you insight into the way the brain works?
I ask this because I'm thinking of how we move through the world
using our senses and attaching meaning to things, and yet we have
the ability, demonstrated by our love of art and music, to appreciate
things that seem to have no meaning. Why do we appreciate meaningless
KF: Do I have insight into the way the brain works? No. But, I
don't really think that we attach meaning to everything we see.
For example, I don't attach meaning to a beautiful sunset; I acknowledge
it and appreciate it, but I don't see any underlying meaning.
But in terms of the brain, I think that as you grow, you build
up a structure, a kind of organization in your brain, and you
have things off of it as you learn and experience the world. So
you understand various concepts, and the reason why you understand
one thing and not another is because this one thing fits into
the structure that you already have in your head, and another
thing doesn't, and so it makes no sense to you.
What's important is how you end up building - and it may happen
when you're a baby - this structure in your brain that organizes
your senses. Because we know the brain organizes things, associating
experiences, finding what's similar, linking things together.
I think that art and music can be appreciated better - even abstract
art or music - by someone who has a structure in their brain that
gives them something they can relate it to. Maybe they've heard
something like it before - for example, for people who have never
heard bee-bop, the music is going to be a jumble for them. But
if they've heard it before there are gradations and stylistic
differences that they'll perceive. So I think it's a matter of
being able to relate to something, which isn't the same as placing
meaning on it.
Like two yellow squares next to one another, such that you might
see that one is slightly greener; there's no meaning to the yellow,
except maybe you could say that it's the difference itself that
makes the meaning.
KF: Meaning is a funny thing ... I don't really know what 'meaning'
means. But I think that a piece of music can enrich your life,
give you emotional responses, in a way that changes you. And if
that's meaning, well, then music has meaning.
Thank you for speaking with us.
KF: You're welcome. My pleasure.
Exposure March 1998
Silver City, New Mexico
Jay Glickman, Editor and Interviewer