Friday

Listening: Pauline Oliveros' Time Perspectives and Mnemonics

I'm writing late today, sitting my kitchen after a bumpy afternoon with a cup of long-steeped lemon and ginger to ward off the beginnings of a winter cold. Today I'm thinking about audience and description. These two frames catch my attention most as a writer and reader these days: who will be in the room? Who will share space with the work? What will the work say to them? How will it speak? How will they receive it? What is their role in it? What role might have been designed for them, and what role do they ultimately assume? It's a sort of cyclic preoccupation for me as I think about designing new pieces of writing, this daily writing practice included.

Descriptions strike me as particularly filtered pieces of writing, dependent from the outset on social context. Describing an experience is really a matter of translating an external reality into a relationship with another person, with their past and their perspective. I notice myself shifting descriptive parameters quite widely from person to person when trying to convey. In conversation, I'll find myself describing the same event from wildly different perspectives, as I subconsciously shape my descriptions with details that I hope might particularly delight or enliven my companion in the conversation. The depictions might entirely contradict each other in some aspects (mood, tone, takeaway) while maintaining factual continuity, as I hope to fold my story into another person's life experience. 

One of my professors that his own teacher, Milton Babbitt, loved to use the word "construe". He thought that using theory to approach a piece of music -- using the practice of music theory to glean structure and meaning -- would produce an answer not to the question "What is this?" but to the question, "How do you construe?" Construe, which in Babbitt's turn of phrase was charmingly turned intransitive, comes from the Latin construere, from con- ("with") and -struo (“pile up, arrange; build, erect”). The sense of metaphor: materials, objects, construction, fabrication. Thinking is building. Or at least, piling things up. Construal means that studying music closely is really an act of developing a meaning that is derived, stable, defensible, and true, but also completely particular to you. Your theoretical approach to Stravinsky's Agon may be understandable and even fully expressible, but certainly not replicable. A construal is a description that you have made by bringing your own knowledge to a work, a description that is both shareable and uniquely yours. To me, that duality is divine. 

If I can "construe", I hope also to "convey". When I write, I ask the question, "How do you convey?" Again turned intransitive, convey comes from the Latin con- ("with") and via ("way"). Conveying is finding the way together, seeking the path for me and the others on the journey. Thoughts are roads, and writing is traveling those roads with others. Lately, I've been joining birdwatching walks, a group of walkers seeking the soundings and sometimes even sightings of birds in the hidden wilds of New York City's parks. Our wayfinder is an incredibly knowledgeable leader who greets each walker with cheer and calm, finds the quiet trails along the coastline and through the protected forests, recognizes a downy woodpecker from just a chitter through the trees, knows the stand of pines where owls might hide, holds up the group to watch a red-tailed hawk wheel on silent wings above. We walk for a few hours along the park trails, and he points out each bird and tree as we encounter them, naming them, helping us to see and hear the rich variety of life in the natural world that we move in. My hope is to make pieces of writing that do the same, writing that asks my reader to choose to come and seek out a way with me, to walk slowly noticing through the world with me for a while, to listen for the details and complexities and beautiful creatures that live alongside us.