Summon: A Short Essay on Making Music

Making music is, in one sense at least, really hard. I mean that it’s elusive. You can play an instrument by yourself for thousands of hours, as I have, often in a not very productive way, and you can play with others for hundreds of hours, and get hardly any music out of it. Even if you know the chords and you know the lyrics and you know the song form and the audience is clapping and you have the technique, usually something hasn’t quite happened. What isn’t happening all that time? What is music that is so elusive? 

There’s a trend now in discussions of “practice”, both in the strictly musical sense, like how to make your half-hour piano practice more efficient, what techniques to practice. But also in the more general and maybe more Eastern sense of “your practice”, the set of activities you do routinely and with intention to improve your skills and your self. (And by the way I think the conflation of these two different senses of “practice” for people who selling books about these topics.) In both these senses I myself am deficient, and am most often noodling mindlessly on my guitar or not being intentional enough about my actions in any sphere, let alone the musical one. 

On those rare moments when music happens, however, you really feel it. You can be playing something solo or, even better, suddenly find that you and the rest of the band are making something, holy shit!, making music! It’s there!

The way I think of it is like a seance. Playing summons music, though not often. The deepest feeling I have about music is that it’s its own thing, a rare presence in the room, a creation that sits apart from its participants. And isn’t this what art is, after all, what creation is: You made it and now it’s there.

As at a seance (I imagine), you can be “doing” the seance and not quite feeling it. Maybe the table shakes a little bit, maybe someone thinks the air has gotten colder in the corner. But then: the seance works and there is a real manifestation. And everybody knows it. A being has been summoned into this room with us. This is music. We are a string quartet—two violins, a viola, and a cello—but there are five…entities in this room.

Time is one for the main mediums (ha) of this summoning, too: The music has its tempo, and when it’s there you don’t feel like you’re having to keep time for the music. You just feel the music’s time, just as you feel the harmonies. They are there. Present. When the bridge of the jazz standard comes you all drop into it, relaxed in spacious time divisions and fooling with them because the music is with you, non-contingent, not fragile, it’s keeping things going, at the tempo, in that key.

And to summon music, you must of course listen. Even as you are playing. To listen and perform at the same time, even just by yourself, is rare! As rare as music is.

Earthy: Sweater-powered human space travel

A new more pragmatic generation of space exploration researchers has outfitted its small crew with a key new piece of technology: Icelandic sweaters. Four heavy, somewhat misshapen pullovers, differently-hued radial patterns across their chests, literally redolent of peat smoke and wool, of human sweat. The world’s television screens have fixed upon these lumpy traditional garments as totems of restored hope.

After nearly a decade this new mission, scheduled to execute moments from now, marks only the fourth trip into the reaches using a method known as leaping. Three prior deep space leaps have been tragedies, from which the crews have returned, because of the way that leaping must work, without any memories of the voyage. The data collected from devices about reaches of space previously unavailable to us is unimaginably rich, opening whole new fields of inquiry and research. But the leapers themselves have had nothing to tell us, nothing about what it’s like so far beyond the Earth and our solar system, what they’ve experienced. The world has wept at the grim, now-familiar images of the last three crews, emerging from the vessels in silver space suits, staring literally like idiots, unable to recall any details about their trip, or indeed anything from the lives they lead before they left for space. Some eventually regain their memories. Others, unfortunately, have come back lost to us utterly.

The Icelandic sweaters represent a very different approach to leaping. A return to earlier modes of travel, to a human-based program and a literal disenchantment with the garish silver metal rockets of the 1950s, the glass geomes and other basic shapes of the early 2020s. This time on our terms, the sweaters say: as humans, our outsized brains floating in liquid, our minds so prone to worry and to wander, our fragile skins.

Wool, it turns out, is very good at repelling solar radiation in space. No one knows why. The sheep in Iceland so close to what’s left of the intense ice sheets, the polar light of the North. Much more important, however, may be the actual feel of the sweaters, the deep odor of Icelandic wool, the talismanic wholesomeness they afford their wearers.

Wool sweaters are earthy. That’s the main thing. We believe that the astronauts now waiting to launch in thick traditional wool sweaters will retain more of themselves on this flight, and will share something real to us upon return.

This obsession with the future, we realize now, was about forgetting! Of course our astronauts would come back blanked. We would never conquer the reaches with fantasy. Silver shiny is not us. We’re wiser now. What had this abandonment of ourselves gotten us, this fetish of sleek and futuristic, the shiny Will Robinson fantasies? Making it there and back wasn’t a matter of faster vessels, more leap drive, or dilithium crystals. It was a matter of being able to maintain yourself, to keep your self organized. To feel and be present, no matter what.

To travel through distances any greater than to our own moon, you just need to leave the earth’s orbit with your space craft–almost any craft will do here–and then, working together, leap into the reaches with what’s more like a shared mental exercise than a spatial journey.

The astronauts stride into the small capsule. They know they are risking their lives, their memories, what makes them human. Researchers are already investigating an even stronger formula of Icelandic sweaters and Spanish rioja wine.


I’m trying out a new hobby: Sketchnotes. I think they’re used most often for capturing events: Creating concise, attractive, pop visual representations of talks at IT conferences is like a kind of sport for visual designers. As in jazz improvisation the masters are doing it in real-time, using pens not pencils, often wrapping up their works as the events themselves are concluding and Instagramming them out to attendees. In any case, the products of this are beautiful, useful, and help in a general way make sense of things.

Designers also create sketchnote drawings and animations of archived video lectures of the talking head variety in order to boil down a lot of information about, say, macroeconomics or the writings of John Stuart Mill into something sharable. RSA Animate is a master of this and where I became aware of it. Robert Reich is also an amazing sketchnoter of his own sometimes-abstruse points, for example in this YouTube video “The Truth about the Economy”. Above all Sacha Chua, whose very personal mix of diligence and curiosity and tech and art has been a real inspiration to me, esp. in the area of open visual thinking.

My goals for sketchnotes are smaller and more personal:


What I’m trying to get at is something like this:

  • Sketchnoting seems valuable to me mainly as a practice and not as a product. It’s sketchnoting, not sketchnotes. The virtues of this practice are:
    • Recollection & understanding: At a practical level, being able to distill something into a sketchnote means that you have understood it, and probably that you will remember it very well.
    • Re-presentation: I want to make a practice of publishing more, of “putting it out there”, and treating the things I write and make as if they will be published, which is a way of shaping them and taking care with how good they are, how they function.
    • Visual art: I used to draw a lot as a child and still doodle. My dad was an artist. Maybe sketchnoting can be a way to get back into something deeper, something more deeply pleasurable and immediate, something I’ve maybe dismissed. Or missed.
    • Slowness itself: The main practice here is…returning to things. Reviewing your own work. Being present. Trying to understand yourself, to slow down and understand.

I started my latest longhand journal with some tests of simple ways to make my tasks and notes to myself reviewable and crisp.

sktch1 sktch2

It’s fun and slow and above all, as I said above, a great practice, a way to take your own internal dialog more seriously. Let me know if you do it or want to talk about it.