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Matthew Dallman is a composer, philosopher, & blogger. He has released three albums of original compositions, and published many essays that deal with integral art. His website is


World Ears for Composers

Matthew Dallman

The iPod from Apple is probably the most significant invention for composers since the piano. I'll risk the sound of an advertisement, simply because I think it is true. The equal-tempered piano (which did not receive wide-spread acceptance until the 20th century) provides a comprehensive capacity to modulate through the keys of harmonic space. It sacrifices harmonic precision to some degree - only the octaves are in tune, every other note is slightly off, the bane of equal temperament. But the piano works musically because of the music terrain a pianist can travel because of it, and the new mode of consciousness extension in tone. And it is that sense of wider interior voyage that the iPod can provide contemporary music lovers, and especially composers. Or in simple terms, the iPod lets you find new doors to open. Composers walk through.

The iPod is a pop culture phenomenon (over 10 million sold as of January 2005) that has brought forth an iPod Nation of passionate fans. Some of these folks participate in iPod DJ parties, even become 'podcasters', and all of them take their white, plastic toy with them everywhere they go. It is an obsession in personal flexibility. Some criticize the technology, that it fosters dissociated individualists, detached from society and surroundings, auto-enmeshed in their own contracted selves - Andrew Sullivan wrote that the iPod helps puts the 'I' in me. Technology to a certain degree reflects the values and needs of the user, and some people appear to want to check out from the world. Yet I believe these downsides are mitigated by a simple fact: the arc of music history is long, and it bends towards inclusion.

That motion towards inclusion is fundamental, and over the long term, is simply astonishing. And now, we have a user-friendly tool that supports inclusion like never before. With an iPod, a person can cultivate a truly world ear in the midst of an everyday life. If we pick our songs right, we can hear virtually any style and tradition of music on record. We can train our ears to be in tune with the ears of musicians from the rest of the world. If there isn't yet a common practice amongst the world's composers, at least now there can be the makings of a common ear. People will always hear sounds, tones, and music differently, but with the iPod, the opportunity to share experience has grown to a dramatic new scale.

Libraries have long supported adventures in world sound (without the hype). To some degree, other contemporary communications technology - the computer, television, satallite radio - can foster wider experience in music. But the iPod takes the possibilities of a wide musical immersion to new levels of inclusion and intimacy. Inside the high-tech decor and simply interface of the iPod lies a power that past humans have realized only in fleeting moments. Before interdependent mass-media, it was tough to learn about other cultures with much depth. Now a world ear is something we can reasonably acquire. What was, at best, a faint calling can now be a stable realization of everyday hearing.

Technology and multiculturalism meet, and foster a wider sonic exchange. And we can experience this exchange as we walk down the street, sit in a park, drink a cold beverage, or wherever. If you live in Chicago, you can have traditional music from Zimbabwe along with your hot dog. For everyone, this is a wonderful development, I believe. Particularly for the world's composers, this can have enormous ramifications for the music we produce. We can train our ears like never before.

At this moment: think of all of the world's music, even in the abstract. Put all albums ever recorded in a big pile on a table. The available palette of rhythms, tones, and forms for detailed and lifelong study in our home studios make for combinations too multiple to list. Through patient study, and then experimentation, our sonorous images can be all the more colorful. With resonant world ears, our compositions can emerge as humble gifts informed by and aimed towards the entire world. While not an instrument for performance, the iPod is something else - it is an instrument for more inclusive receptivity. With an iPod, we can choose to increase the size of our ears.

In short, iPod technology supports those who want a planet-centric musical appreciation. "Planet" is just that - the whole world. Instead of a mere appreciation of one's own compositions (i.e., "me"-centric) or even an appreciation of one's own musical tradition and native culture (i.e., "us"-centric), the iPod allows composers to be "all of us"-centric. In one sense, this is simply natural. More and more people have a moral sense that takes the entire world into account, in the areas of politics, economics, and the environment. The same can go for music. The iPod, I believe, is the most efficient way to operate musically from an "all of us"-centric perspective.

With all of our freedom for uniqueness and individuality still in place, the iPod allows a personal planet-centrism. There are as many ways to be planet-centric as there are people in the world. The world's musical traditions, I believe are more animated, diverse, interesting, and enriching the more we take each into account. This makes for interior resonance of a deeper and wider span and depth, which imprints our being and, through the mysterious alchemy of composition, brings forth newly energized and vitalized music.

As philosopher Roger Scrunton reminds us in The Aesthetics of Music, music is found in nearly every kind of human ceremony and occasion - social ritual, dance, religious rite, political event, marriage, artistic performance, labor, and many more. It is found in cultures of all kinds, from the tribal to the super-urban. Around the world, music has offered entertainment, education, and enlightenment, all in aural colors of nearly infinite hue. While we can never know everything about all corners of the globe, we can know the general contours of every major musical tradition, as well as plenty of particulars and nuanced relationships. Simply put, there is a lot for us to learn.

A polyphony of recorded innovation

Decades of technological development have culminated in the iPod. With a few spins of a finger touchpad, the iPod can allow us to study the virtues and mysteries of premodern, modern, and contemporary music from virtually anywhere on record. This can happen, in part, because of avant-garde technology. Consider that the iPod integrates several technologies - various recorded media (phonographs/records, cassettes, CDs, now MP3s), home stereos, walkmans, microprocessors, computers, and the internet. These comprise the last century of music technology. The iPod transcends and includes each technology in a user-friendly interface that allows a maximum of storage, personal discretion, and immediate delivery.

It capitalizes particularly on the widespread use of MP3 files and a broadband internet. Any musician who has access to the internet can post their music in MP3 form, easily transferred for anyone around the globe to hear. Musicians and record companies have increasingly used the MP3 format to distribute tens of thousands of albums, old and new. Because MP3 has become a standard music format, more voices can be heard. Add the internet, which is a distribution network, and slowly but irrevocably, a multicultural world emerges, one song at a time.

In short, we can listen to virtually anything from anywhere. All of it can rest side by side, in the memory of our little machine, then our ears. The iPod, then, is a metaphor for a resonant world community of music lovers. It has emerged with the pluralist worldview firmly rooted in the minds of humans. A material reflection of this value is found in the complicated circuitry. In a democratic iPod, nothing ought be marginalized or ignored needlessly. What we have is simple and clear: the iPod allows multiculturalism in a box. First we absorb, then we transcend. As composers, we cannot hope for the latter unless we invest in the former, deeply.

A library of our own

What's more, now our library can fit in our pocket. This is the crucial development. A personalized media functions as a library in miniature. It can go wherever we go. We are empowered to enjoy and study music however we want to. Our play-lists are our dewey decimal taxonomies.

Of course, we still need libraries. There is much insight to gain through research into cultural, social, formal, and intentional perspectives on music. This is the stuff of books, articles, interviews, documentaries, and scholarship. And you can never substitute the power of live performance. Person-to-person is how we exchange our most discreet energy. After all, music is a living tradition.

A limit is important: the iPod is the most direct means of delivery for recorded music ever created. It irrigates musical experience without filters we normally expect - critical/historical commentary, mainstream radio programming, availability at public libraries and music stores, as well as traditional ethnic and cultural barriers. Via the iPod format, music from around the world is allowed to stand on its own merits, in our ears as we actively listen. Word of mouth referrals are more effective than ever. Music lovers can embrace in a planet-wide communion. Curiosity is our guide, and resonance is our common sense.

So the iPod is not an isolated cure-all, but it still offers a kind of miracle. The technological power and flexibility is unprecedented. It is the definition of user-friendly. We create our own filing system, and quickly scan its entire contents. In doing so, we can create deeper and wider musical contrasts, dance in the spaces, and investigate our own reactions. We create a mix-tape to end all mix-tapes - endless in its variety, and unmatched in its breadth. You can go as deep as you are called. Even the faintest calls can become a source of lifelong study.

A moral tool

An additional but no less significant benefit is that we now have more of an ability to be responsible musical citizens in the world. The first step, as usual, is to listen. The next is to honor. We can study the traditions like never before. We can learn from how other cultures have arranged beats and tones. We open our doors to music from Indonesia, China, Canada, the U.S., Peru, Burkina Faso, West Benin, Spain, Italy, Germany, the Netherlands, Poland, Bulgaria, Russia, Iran, Tibet, India, Australia, and the rest. Musical boundaries based on geography are more transparent than ever. We can create a canon of the planet's best musical works.

This does not mean we don't respect boundaries, however. The world's musical traditions all offer something precious, but do so in different ways, according to different areas of emphasis and manners of nuanced development. The iPod helps to kill cultural chauvinism and ignorance. In The Listening Book, composer W.A. Mathieu writes that, in general, African traditions have perfected cross-rhythms, Indian traditions have perfected melodic sensitivity, and European traditions have perfected counterpoint. Every tradition offers interesting flavors, perfect compositional forms, bold sonorities, and ingenious uses of silence. Or as he writes, "No one owns the highest part, the soul connection. That belongs to everyone equally."

From the broadest possible view, the nature of sound and frequency is fundamentally common. Sound is sound, and music is music - always and everywhere. But the dialects of music differ from culture to culture. Humans would have it no other way. We all can have our own voices. Our planet is richer because of its diversity. We'd be bored silly if everything sounded the same.

What this means is that ours ears can foster a wider sense of cultural exchange. The iPod is a tool for a more inclusive moral embrace. Empowered with more autonomy and individualism, composers can simultaneously become active parts of a larger whole. Increased agency and freedom brings a wider communion and sense of care and justice. Composers can be more informed and educated about the larger world of music, in the traditions we previously knew little about. We can increase our musical knowledge, and take on more perspectives. Resonance can come from any direction. It can expand from any aspect of our being, outwards.

This is why I suggest that planet-centric ears lead to planet-centric composition. Our music can be richer. What goes into our ears comes out in our music. In the sculpture of a score, or the molten flow of an improvisation, our work can be more informed, more informed by tonal possibility, more integral. I believe that every kind of music has something of value and knowledge to offer us. But we have to give careful study, and pay our dues. We have to take the time to listen humbly, and learn from an empty cup. We have to be open to the mystery and fear of the unknown.

To witness, to touch

Each of us will find our planet-centric resonance in our own distinct ways. Music is a big ocean, and there are endless waves to surf. The decisions and distinctions we make while wet are ours and ours alone. What the iPod provides is a powerful surfboard, to listen to the waves of resonance, and ride along. As with any tool, we have to learn to use it. But the skills in this case are not sensorimotor-based. It is quite easy to work an iPod. Just spin a dial and press a couple buttons. Anyone can. And to choose a diverse catalog of music for you planet-centric playlist requires a degree of mental discernment. But that, too, is not the full story.

No, these skills are of the ears, and the soul. Our ability to witness music and to resonate with music from around the world takes patience, openness, motivation, and curiousity. It requires spiritual work. Music is perhaps the most mystical of the arts, for its nature is the most difficult to pin down. We somehow hear something of our self in music, yet also radically not our self. It is a mystery.

So my advice is to slowly build your planet-centric library of music (it does take cash, some good friends, and trial and error). Do so one culture at a time. And of course remember to investigate the traditional music of your own culture. Find the roots of what moves you today. Hear the sources of our culture. Experience what inspired your favorite musicians. Seek what they sought.

Put the iPod on shuffle mode. Allow the traditions of music mix together in a random order. Take advantage the iPod's functionality and flexibility. Be as creative as you can. Be silly if you like. You can turn off shuffle mode when you like to focus on what grabs your ear. Perhaps amidst a planet-centric diversity, you will hear music in new ways. Even old friends can ring anew. All in all - suspend disbelief. People's souls come through these tones. Music is a tricky beast - it has a sneaky way of deceiving us to think it is simpler than it really is. Good music is supposed to sound simple, but that does not mean the construction and spiritual work on the part of the composer or musicians was simple quite the contrary.

It is a practice to suspend disbelief, to be able to proceed seamlessly from Hildegard von Bingen's plainchant to Aboriginal didgeridoo to Cesaria Evora's seductions to Shona mbira polyrhythms to Bach fugues to Bartok's funky tonality to the Beastie Boys to Tibetan long-tone meditations to Indian raga to Babatunde Olatunji to the Beatles - and back and forth again along a different road with different characters and new rest-stops. Find your own connections and drama, and walk the world map along your own paths.

And as you go, wonder. Can you just maybe hear from where all music comes? Is there an original one in the many? What could be the source?

Perhaps ask yourself - as I listen, where am I? Geographically, sure, but also, where are you on an emotional spectrum? What does it feel like to contrast the foreign with the old and the new, sequentially? Can you be aware of your resistance (which is natural), and yet still listen? And what happens when you return to this music after time away? Do you resonate more? Has it altered your life? Your beliefs? Your compositions?

The familiar and the unknown

As I see it, all of music's power is already in our blood and bones, some just needs to be tapped a little, given a nudge to activate. The simple resonance of authentic music programs our very being, as a human kind of being. Our ancestors, the world over, provide us musical journeys that can remind us of our own nature, from where we have come, through sound. Our contemporaries help us sort through the confusions of our day to day lives. Overall, music is a little wave metaphor life and death - timelessness, animated. It offers a picture of creation, in all kinds of variety, from the point of view of the creator and the created. Our task is to listen openly, with engaged bodies, minds, and spirits. Then simply live and follow what you like.

It is a ride on the cusp of the familiar and the unknown. Sometimes we take bullet trains. Sometimes we walk. We even stand still. Through our motion in life, the world's recorded adventures lay within our ears and fingers. So press play and travel through the time, and your own nature. Become enfolded in everything we are, and all that we can be. Feel the entertainment, the education, and the enlightenment of music, and the variations that cultures around the world have developed, perfected, and offered to all of humanity.

And then please - when you turn off the iPod, take off your headphones, and sit with your musical instrument in this newly energized silence, a silence infused homeopathically with planet-centrism, your open filters, muscle and mental memories, and your own native creativity - please compose music from this space. Make love from emptiness. Make love as tone. The more time you invest in authentic absorption of the tones of the world, the more fertile your own interior clearing can be, away from gadgets. Allow whatever music is tapped to flow through this energized, electric silence. On a score or in an improvisation with friends or by yourself, just go ahead and play, as a flushed human being. The world awaits. We want to hear how the flow of your path sounds, as tones in time, a drama that evokes native timelessness.

2005 Electric Goose Productions.

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