Conversation with Ken

Is 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). Field 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.

DE: 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.

DE: 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.

DE: 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.

DE: 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 things?

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.

DE: 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.

DE: Thank you for speaking with us.

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