Labeling or Observing

I was lucky enough to meet and play with wonderful improvisers from the U.S., E.U and Great Britain during the “Ictus Music Festival” at Teatro Out/Off in Milan, July 4-7, 2022. “Ictus” is Andrea Centazzo’s label celebrating 45 years. Four days of wonderful improvisations where Centazzo combined players in different ensembles. The way people listened, complemented, opposed, ignored, led, followed and blended, created compositions on the spot. There were of course through composed forms, as well as ABA and Rondo forms. Pieces went from subtle to bombastic and everything in-between.

I met a contemporary classical musician once that said, “Free improvisation is either scratch and sniff or pet store on fire.” I have to say that I think it was a humorous way for her to dismiss the creative process, and I do smile when I hear instances that could be described as such. However, that is as insensitive as saying classical music is what you hear on cartoons or atonal music is the scary part of a movie. It’s as personally limiting as saying music is too hard or too easy.

It’s not just with music. Labeling stops us from looking deeper and noticing details. Years ago, I was hiking with my young nieces in Colorado’s Estes National Park and they took a quick look at a rock, labeled it and looked for the next rock to label. I had to stop them and say, “Look, this granite is a different color than the last one. How many colors can you see in it? Did you notice the shape of this rock?…” They are both intelligent, high achievers and have now graduated, probably with 4+ averages. They learned the game our education system supports, “learn how to categorize and label quickly. The quicker the more brownie points you get.”

Intelligence is too often attributed to the speed of information sorting rather than the depth of information absorbing.

But quick is not where the life stories are. Quick is not where beauty lives. Quick is of the mind not the spirit. When was the last time you really looked at the chair you last sat in. Can you recall the color, the shape, the height, the material: wood, rattan, metal, plastic? What is the story of the nick in the back leg or the tear in the cushion? How did it feel when you sat in it? Was it hard, soft, did it wobble, slide, stick? Did your feet touch the ground? Did you stick to the seat? What was the sound it made when you sat in it or moved it?

Too often we don’t experience life because we are so quickly trying to make a life we forget to have a life.

That is one reason I’m not very good at taking and posting photos. I’d rather feel the experience and let it become a part of who I will be because of it. About twenty years ago, I was on a whale watching boat off the east coast of Rhode Island. A mother and baby whale surfaced quite close and was looking at us in the boat. The guide told us that this was very special. She was teaching her baby about us and she probably won’t do that again. “So special,” I thought, “I should take a photo of it.” Then I stopped myself so that I could look directly in the whales’ eyes instead of at them through a lens. Do I regret not having the photo? No! I probably couldn’t find it anyway, or it might be on a slide or digitized and stored on a CD or hard drive someplace. But I will always have the image and feeling in my memory. I only have to think of it, slow down and it comes back to me.

When I was in Oaxaca, Mexico, there was a thirty-forty piece wind band playing at the street festival. I told them I played flute. They asked me to go get it and join them. They were so inviting. The sheet music they played was fun and quite challenging. Then they would break into arranged songs that they all knew by ear. They were great players technically and musically, but they didn’t tune! At first I labeled the group “horribly out of tune.” Then I had to ask myself who says that the European standard of intonation is the most “correct”? It is just my training. So, I let my ears open and it was wonderful! The texture was rich like a tapestry of forty thin threads woven together rather than ten thick ones. There was a unique individuality in the collective. (To hear an example:

I, personally, have a difficult time opening up to smells. Thirty years ago when my then-husband and I were in Australia at Ayres Rock, we missed the last bus back to the campground. The sun was going down and the campsite was 7.5 miles away, so, we stuck out our thumbs. Many cars passed us by. Finally a truck of Aboriginal men picked us up. I was in the open truck bed with about six men and the smell was pungent. It took a little while, but when I relaxed and just smelled rather than trying to block out what I initially labeled as offensive, I was treated to an understanding of the land I was in. I smelled dust and dampness and multiple grasses and flowers. I still remember it. It was a certain kind of sweet smell. I just had to get past the initial labeling.

When I label and am in discomfort and I am holding myself tightly in. For me to absorb something I have to soften and allow.

The next time you just use a thing for its function or quickly label something as bad, undesirable, (or even desirable) and notice that you are holding yourself tightly, I hope that you can slow down, soften and allow your senses to experience it. You’ll never know what stories you’ll hear.