Roughness Part 4 — Mistakes

Sun Ra.  Image via .

Sun Ra.  Image via


While roughness is an important intention, it often arises by way of mistake.  What can transform the appearance of a mistake from something accidental to something intentional?

Sun Ra has an answer.



You made a mistake
You did something wrong
You made a mistake
You did something wrong
Now make another mistake
And do something right
Make another mistake
And do something right

Note how the song encodes grace and groove.  Repeating her mistake allows an artist to enter into her accident and turn wrong to right.  And the song’s groove evokes the creative flow that is recovered by way of repeating a stumble.  The stumble may thereby be examined and mined for its insight.

Make another mistake, and do something right. 

Thank you for reading.

Roughness Part 3 supplement — The Temptations of Technology

Some of the great singers featured in  20 Feet from Stardom . From left: Darlene Love, Tata Vega, Merry Clayton, Judith Hill, and Lisa Fischer.  Image via .

Some of the great singers featured in 20 Feet from Stardom. From left: Darlene Love, Tata Vega, Merry Clayton, Judith Hill, and Lisa Fischer.  Image via


Last year, I saw Twenty Feet from Stardom, a wonderful documentary that tells the story of some of the foremost background vocalists of the 1960s and 70s.  (Little did I know that some of them sang lead on tracks attributed to others.)

At one point, a producer from that era remarks on how none of the singers in the movie needed autotune or any of the other technology of the digital recording age.

True, but I wondered if the salient observation might be slightly different:  Engineers and producers have now been conditioned by autotune and don’t accept what they might have before the digital age.  Autotune and the trappings of digital recording are hard to resist.   Had they been available in the era documented in the film, who’s to say producers wouldn’t have used them? 

And what a loss that would have been!


Listening to “I Want You Back,” consider that young Michael Jackson’s less-than-perfect tuning is absolutely essential to the power of the performance, one of the greatest in the history of pop.  How many engineers of today can honestly say they would have left these tuning irregularities untouched by autotune?

When the technology for tidiness is available, it requires more than great restraint not to use it.  It requires something more than a commitment to authenticity.  It requires the knowledge and savoring of roughness, wholeness, and life.

Thank you for reading.



Roughness Part 3 supplement — Practice Roughness

Micky Waller.  Image via .

Micky Waller.  Image via


As artists, we become what we practice.  That much seems obvious, but what might be overlooked is that rough playing, which has its place, must be practiced.  It is not necessarily available to a dexterous player.

Thus, jazz drummers who sit in with rock bands might be impatient with the music they are asked to play, but their rock colleagues might be even more impatient with the jazzer’s inability to convey authentic rock swagger, because swagger must be practiced.  The stumbles and slop that go with that swagger are essential elements of the rock and roll musical vernacular. 


Micky Waller’s drum groove on Maggie May is a thing of beauty, and roughness—its swagger and slop—is an essential element of that beauty.  In order to pull off such swagger, a more sophisticated drummer than Waller must take a break from perfecting her rudiments and dexterity around the kit and devote some time to hearing and reproducing the rough attitude behind this kind of performance—the particular way Waller’s sticks flail onto the drums, the caveman simplicity of his fills, the sense that his kick drum is held in place by ropes tied to his drum throne.  It will not be easy for her.  Waller's drumming is awesomely messy, and the mess cannot be reproduced by someone whose practice time is devoted to tidiness.

Thank you for reading.


Roughness Part 2 supplement — Demo Recordings

Singer songwriter Ruthann Friedman.  Image via .

Singer songwriter Ruthann Friedman.  Image via


Demo recordings often capture something lost in the final version, and that something might be synonymous with what architect and theorist Christopher Alexander means by roughness. 

The rough edges of a demo recording can suggest completeness (and thus aliveness) in ways that a polished rerecording might not.  

For example, compare the snappy polish of the Association’s “Windy” . . . 


with the roughness of songwriter Ruthann Friedman’s original demo. 


Note the sparseness of Friedman’s demo arrangement, her bluesier singing, the texture of her guitar strings, the warp of the band’s groove and less-steady tempo.  The Association's much more professional recording presents an ode to a beautiful girl; Friedman sounds as if she is singing of someone whose eyes "flash at the sound of lies."  

While it lacks the Technicolor glory of the familiar Association version, the character marks in Friedman’s demo imbue it with a complete humanness that conveys life in a way the Association’s stellar version cannot.  

Thank you for reading.

Roughness Part 1 supplement — Bob Dylan

Bob Dylan.  Image via .

Bob Dylan.  Image via


In the previous post, we considered architect and theorist Christopher Alexander’s concept of Roughness, an element of wholeness in his schema.   The irregularities and imperfections that produce roughness help imbue a design with a sense of life.

“It is certainly noticeable that all great buildings do have various small irregularities in them, even though they often conform to approximate overall symmetries and configurations. By contrast, buildings which are perfectly regular seem dead.”

Christopher Alexander, Book One, The Nature of Order, p.214

Rock and roll abounds with examples of how roughness suggests the life force at work in the music.  For example . . .


Bob Dylan’s voice has been derided as toneless and out of tune.  These complaints miss the point.  Note how much more alive the words sound precisely because of his growling tone and sour tuning, which actually enliven the words.

As Shierry Weber Nicholsen notes . . .

The resulting combination of local symmetry and roughness, Alexander suggests, is the product of forces tending toward a larger order and integration . . .  

Shierry Weber Nicholsen
The Love of Nature and the End of the World p. 191

An intuitive listener knows not to hear Dylan’s gritty tone and tuning as shortcomings.  To her ears, the song comes to life through its rough presentation.

Another great version of the song, by the Byrds, has less in the way of roughness.


Whichever rendition of the song one prefers, and there are good arguments for both, we can hear the tradeoffs when Dylan’s grit and twisted tuning is replaced by the more pleasing chorale of the Byrds’ harmonies.  The Byrds by no means abandon roughness, but note that as the singing gains tuning and tone, the words lose some of their bite. 

Thank you for reading.

Roughness Part 1 — Roughness as Life-Affirming Element

Image via .

Image via


(I am indebted to Donald Schell for introducing me to Christopher Alexander, and to Tom Kubla, who has posted extensively about Alexander’s theories on, where I found some of the following quotes from Alexander.)

The architect/theorist/philosopher Christopher Alexander postulates that life comes from wholeness.  In his schema, wholeness has fifteen basic properties.  One of them is roughness:

“Things which have real life always have a certain ease, a morphological roughness. This is not an accidental property”   

“The seemingly rough arrangement is more precise because it comes from a much more careful guarding of the essential centers of the design.”

Christopher Alexander, Book One, The Nature of Order, p. 210, 211

An example of roughness and its place within Alexander’s schema of wholeness might be the stripes on a zebra, as Shierry Weber Nicholsen explains:

A zebra’s stripes may be regular in their tendency, but they must fit around the various parts of the zebra’s body, which are only roughly symmetrical.  The resulting combination of local symmetry and roughness, Alexander suggests, is the product of forces tending toward a larger order and integration . . .

Shierry Weber Nicholsen
The Love of Nature and the End of the World p. 191

And thus, the irregularity of the stripes are what give us the sense of the zebra’s aliveness.  As Alexander explains . . .

“It is certainly noticeable that all great buildings do have various small irregularities in them, even though they often conform to approximate overall symmetries and configurations. By contrast, buildings which are perfectly regular seem dead.”

Christopher Alexander, Book One, The Nature of Order, p.214

So for instance, one can consider the difference between a handmade bookshelf and one purchased from Ikea.  The handmade shelf—by way of its roughness, its inexact cuts and its acute/obtuse angles—speaks of life, especially when contrasted with the mechanized, soulless precision of Ikea. 

Musical examples abound.


Stevie Wonder’s groove is irresistible, but it is important to note that it is also inexact.  Furthermore, the inexact nature of the groove is essential to the liveliness of his sound.  His drumming exudes a slightly warped sense of time, as if we are hearing a drumbeat that was left out in the sun, and the result is something that sounds more alive.  As Shierry Weber Nicholsen’s noted about wholeness . . .

The resulting combination of local symmetry and roughness . . . is the product of forces tending toward a larger order and integration . . .

This description captures an essential quality of Stevie Wonder’s solo albums of the early 1970s, the way in which the handmade sound of the performances with their various quirks and imperfections all point towards a larger and integrated whole, one that overflows with life.

Thank you for reading.

Critique Part 4d — Artwork has its seasons

The Harvest,  1915, by   Zinaida Serebriakova .  Image via .

The Harvest,1915, by Zinaida Serebriakova.  Image via

The Shoots of Autumn Crops , 1907, by Zinaida Serebriakova.  Image via

The Shoots of Autumn Crops, 1907, by Zinaida Serebriakova.  Image via

Veranda in Spring , 1899, by Zinaida Serebriakova.  Image via

Veranda in Spring, 1899, by Zinaida Serebriakova.  Image via

Most people have had the experience of encountering a song, a movie, or a book that they didn’t like, only to rediscover it later and wonder, “What was I thinking?  I love this!”

An artist would do well to keep this phenomenon in mind as she listens to responses from others and filters those responses through her intuition.  Sometimes the artwork is in Capricorn while the audience is in Mercury.

A famous case of this is the Hall and Oates song “She’s Gone.”  It was released off of their second album Abandoned Luncheonette.  It did well with the duo’s hometown listeners in Philadelphia, but did not connect as hoped with audiences elsewhere.  Two years later, after they had scored a nationwide hit with “Sara Smile,” the song was rereleased and became a top-ten hit.

It had found its season.


Thank you for reading.

Critique Part 4c — Questions

Legendary film editor and film sound mixer Walter Murch.  Image via .

Legendary film editor and film sound mixer Walter Murch.  Image via

Author Michael Ondaatje met Murch during the making of  The English Patient,  an adaptation of Ondaatje's novel that was edited by Murch.  The conversations they had inspired Ondaatje's book of interviews with Murch,  The Conversations.

Author Michael Ondaatje met Murch during the making of The English Patient, an adaptation of Ondaatje's novel that was edited by Murch.  The conversations they had inspired Ondaatje's book of interviews with Murch, The Conversations.

In the two previous posts, I suggested that artists do as little talking as possible as they listen to feedback and process it through their intuition.   

When a particular piece of feedback does not resonate intuitively, sometimes it pays to ask questions.  The resulting conversation may reveal that the critique in question had misstated things. 

A great example of this is found in The Conversations: Walter Murch and the Art of Editing Film, Michael Ondaatje’s book of interviews with film editor and sound mixer Walter Murch.  In this excerpt, Murch relates how the producer of the Godfather (for which Murch mixed the sound), responded to composer Nina Rota’s music score. 

Murch: There was an intense crisis with the music.  When Bob Evans heard Nina Rota’s music, he felt it would sink the film, that it was too lugubrious and didn’t have enough energy. . .  

Ondaatje: You mean the main theme music?

Murch: Yes . . . well, all the music.

Ondaatje: My God, it’s a trademark!

Murch: Well, nobody knew that at the time.  Remember, someone at MGM wanted to cut “Over the Rainbow” from The Wizard of Oz

(Murch told Ondaatje that Evans actually wanted to replace Nina Rota with Henry Mancini, to give the score more of an American flavor.)

Murch: Frequently what happens in film is that people, especially distracted executives, will say, I hate—pick one—the music, camerawork, art direction, acting in your film.  But if you actually get under the skin of that prejudice, you can discover the particular thing they really hate — the pea under the mattress.  It often comes down to one or two small things that spoil everything else.  When I talked to Bob Evans, it turned out he hated the music for the horse’s-head scene, where Woltz pulls the sheet back and the severed head of his half-million-dollar horse is revealed in the bed.  Maybe because Woltz is the head of a studio and Evans was the head of a studio and it’s a particularly striking, grisly scene—the first violence in the film—he felt the music should be appropriate to that.

I tried to listen to what Nino had written with Bob Evans’s ears, and I thought he had a point.  The music, as it was originally written, was a waltz and it played against the horror of the event.  It was sweet carousel music.  You were seeing those horrible images, but the music was counterpointing the horror of the visuals.  Perhaps it needed to be crazier a little earlier . . . 

. . . You now heard, superimposed on each other, things that were supposed to be separate in time.  So it starts off as the same piece of music, but then begins—just as Woltz realizes that something is wrong—to grate against itself.  There is now a disorienting madness to the music that builds and builds to the moment when Woltz finally pulls the sheet back.   

We played this version for Evans, and he thought it was fantastic. . .

The result was that some of the heat was taken off the music. 

Michael Ondaatje, The Conversations: Walter Murch and the Art of Editing Film, pp. 99-102 

Murch’s intuition about the music, that it was great, prompted him to dig further into the meaning of the feedback from Evans.  One can only imagine what the film might have been with out Rota’s score. 

Composer Nina Rota.  Image via

Composer Nina Rota.  Image via


Thank you for reading.

Critique Part 4b — Let the witnesses testify

In my instructions for my writing workshops, I ask those whose piece is under discussion to remain quiet.

The writer does not take part in the discussion except by my invitation.  Though this may suggest a courtroom atmosphere where the writer and her work are on trial, the workshop is something else entirely—a chance for the writer to discover how her readers’ experience aligned with her intentions.   Her silence aids her in that process. 

Indeed, if anyone is the judge, it’s the writer.  The readers are witnesses whose testimony about the experience of reading illuminates for her what worked and what needs further attention. 

When your work is being discussed, listen and take notes.  Though you may be frustrated when readers have misread or misunderstood some aspect your work, leaping into the discussion stops you from discovering the extent of their misunderstanding.  By letting them air their misunderstanding and confusion, you will have a better sense of how to revise your work.

Only by listening can the artist make sense of what the testimony has actually told her.

Testimony worth listening to — The Dave Holland Quartet, "Conference of the Birds."


The witnesses . . . 

Bassist and composer Dave Holland.  Image via  .

Bassist and composer Dave Holland.  Image via

Reed and flute player Anthony Braxton.  Image via .

Reed and flute player Anthony Braxton.  Image via

Reed and flute player Sam Rivers.  Image via .

Reed and flute player Sam Rivers.  Image via

Percussionist Barry Altschul.  Image via .

Percussionist Barry Altschul.  Image via

Thank you for reading.

Critique Part 4a — Receiving Critique Through Intuition

Composer Maryanne Amacher.  Image via  sound-art-text .com.

Composer Maryanne Amacher.  Image via


As I watch students comment on each other’s work, I am sometimes horrified to see the writer scribble down every note of the conversation, nodding her head in anxious confirmation.

So many times I long to lean over and ask, “Are you simply going to act on every comment you receive here?   Most of them are missing the point of your piece!”

When receiving critique from her colleagues, an artist must remember to absorb the comments by way of her intuition.  Responses that resonate with her intuition may have something to tell her about how to proceed.  Those that do not might be set aside and if not discarded at least examined before they are acted upon.

Bad critique has the power to pull an artist out of dialogue with her intuition, whereas the best critique informs and deepens that dialogue.

Imagine how resolutely in touch with her own intuition composer Maryanne Amacher had to be to produce this piece.

  A detailed description of the piece can be found here.

Thank you for reading.

Critique Part 3 supplement — What about the blueberry pancakes?

Esther Lamandier.  Image via .

Esther Lamandier.  Image via


One tendency of workshop students is to expect a work of art to answer all of the questions it raises, even if those questions are projected onto the art by the respondents. 

So for instance, a student will respond to a piece of writing by saying, “I wanted to know more about the blueberry pancakes.  I found them really interesting and wanted to know more.”

And I ask, “Why?”

 “Because they seemed interesting.  I wanted to have them myself."

"Okay, but what does that have to do with the story?"

"Um . . . "

"What is the story about?"

"It's about a man going off to war."

"Then what will more information about the blueberry pancakes do to advance that story?"

"Ah, not much."

"Right.  So, as a reader, reading the story, what do you want?"

"I see.  In that case, I really don't care about the pancakes.  (But I really love pancakes.)"

"Which is fine, but the writer has the right to create a world and fill it with all kinds of things that might interest us.  As long as she doesn't make promises about exploring those objects, you may have to content yourself with the fact that the writer is merely doing her job and creating a vivid scene, one aspect of which may appeal to part of you that is not focused on the story." 

"You don't need to know about the blueberry pancakes!" became such a familiar refrain for my students that at the end of the semester, one of them gave me this replica as a token of appreciation .

"You don't need to know about the blueberry pancakes!" became such a familiar refrain for my students that at the end of the semester, one of them gave me this replica as a token of appreciation .

Though the question in this example may have concerned a trivial detail, art may confront us with larger questions.  And as respondents, we might consider that  . . .

  • Questions draw us into the artwork.  They pique our curiosity.

  • Great art often leaves us with unanswered questions that point beyond the artwork and engage our imagination.

Sometimes the questions are obvious, as in the case of Frank Stockton’s story “The Lady, or the Tiger?

More frequently, the questions live in the fabric of the work.  Consider how many questions this ancient Syriac chant, sung by French soprano Esther Lamandier, leaves in its wake. 


We may leave this piece with more questions than we had going into it.  And yet those questions open our minds to consider more than we had only moments earlier.

Thank you for reading.

Critique Part 3 supplement — Engaging the artist's imagination

George Martin.  Image via .

George Martin.  Image via


Just as art can leave room for the insights of its audience, critiques of art in progress can leave room for the artist to decide how she wants to proceed.

Critique that takes the form of a long list of detailed responses, while helpful, might not engage the artist’s imagination and the learning already present in the work.  For example, consider a singer recording a vocal track.  She sings a take, and the producer, seated behind the control-room glass, responds. 

Compare this response . . .  

“You were flat on the first Mary and lamb and also the second Mary.  (The second lamb was okay.)  You were sharp on the final fleece, and you rushed snow.  Let’s try it again.”

with this one . . .

“Let’s try another, and this time, see if you can focus on telling the story.”

The second response has several advantages over the first: 

  • It recognizes the deeper problem, which is that the performance got away from the singer.  She lost her concentration. 
  • It offers a single meta-task around which the singer can focus her next take, rather than presenting a series of little fixes to which she must attend. 
  • It sets free the singer’s imagination.  Rather than attending to a checklist of problems, she can now engage her imagination.
  • It leaves room for unexpected solutions. 

A great example of deeper communication between artists: After the Beatles recorded the basic tracks for “Being for the Benefit of Mr. Kite,” John Lennon communicated his vision for the finished recording to producer George Martin.  The conversation is reported in Mark Lewisohn's book The Beatles Recording Sessions.  

"Beatles songs were quite simple in the early days," says George Martin.  "You couldn't play around with them too much.  But by 1967 we were building sound pictures and my role had changed — it was now to interpret those pictures and work out how best to get them down on tape.  Paul was fine — he could express what he wanted, the sounds he wanted to have.  But John was less musically articulate.  He'd make whooshing noises and try to describe what only he could hear in his head, saying he wanted a song 'to sound like an orange'.  When we first worked on 'Being for the Benefit of Mr Kite!' John had said that he wanted to 'smell the sawdust on the floor' . . . 

Mark Lewisohn, The Beatles Recording Sessions, p. 99

Note that what Martin may have viewed as Lennon's liability, his lack of a proper musical vocabulary, may well have been a great advantage in his collaborations with Martin and McCartney.  See how the statement that he wanted to 'smell the sawdust on the floor' . . .

  • Identifies a deeper problem, the mood of the recording.
  • Sets forth a single meta-task, rather than a list of specifics. 
  • Frees George Martin to engage his producer’s imagination. 
  • Leaves room for unexpected solutions, in this case recording a sped up Hammond organ, chopping up the tape, and splicing it back together at random to produce something surreal that evokes a circus.

By way of this framing of his mission, Lennon engaged Martin’s artistic imagination, and the song came to life.

Thank you for reading.


Critique Part 3 — Helpful feedback begins with an honest “Yes.”


Above and left, Yoko Ono views her own work "Ceiling Painting" (aka the Yes Painting).  Viewers climbed a ladder and used a magnifying glass hung from the ceiling to glimpse her message: "yes"  Images via and

When responding to an artist’s work, it helps to on the side of the art.  This holds true for several reasons.

  • “How is this working for me?” (as opposed to “How is this failing?”) allows a respondent access the learning the piece has offered her.  By first identifying the elements to which she responds with the biggest “yes,” she is primed for further insights that will guide her toward a more productive critique. 
  • Likewise, feedback that starts an honest “Yes” reconnects the artist to the learning she has already undergone through creating the work.   By helping her keep track of the earlier learning, such feedback better positions her to consider her next steps.
  • Artists are prone to await feedback with a certain amount of anxiety, which can occlude their ability to listen.   By starting with an honest “Yes,” a respondent can help defuse some of these anxieties and help the artist listen more attentively.

A good example of why this works: Imagine a recording session.  A vocalist stands at the microphone while the producer stares at her from behind the control-room glass.  The producer, who is mindful not only of the finished product she has in mind but also of the singer’s vocal endurance and, perhaps, anxiety, will want to lead her artist through the recording in the fewest possible takes (though she may be ready to take as many as needed to capture the desired performance).

With that in mind, consider the difference between this . . . 

“I thought you were rushing the choruses.”

and this . . .

“I like how laid back and pocketed the verses are.  You are really feeling the rhythm there and it’s bringing the words to life.  Can you work that same groovy magic on the choruses?”

The second response affirms what the singer has already learned about singing the verses and invites her to bring that learning to the choruses.  It turns her learning loose on the problem.  The first response, on the other hand, makes no such reference.  Indeed, the singer may think she is singing the verses wrong, too.  If she is like most of us creative types, the first comment will invite unnecessary self-criticism.  The second invites self-affirmation, which is what all artists need to access their deepest learning.

Begin with "yes."  It's a lesson from improv acting that has relevance to the art of critique, and life at large.

Thank you for reading.

Critique Part 2 supplement — What is on the page?

Pianist Marilyn Nonken.  Image via .

Pianist Marilyn Nonken.  Image via


One of the hardest lessons for workshop students is to respond to only what is before them.  What is on the page?  On the screen?  On the stage?  On the canvas?

The lesson is important for both respondents and artists: let the work accomplish its goals under its own power, by its own means.  Lengthy notes of explanation from the artist, if they are not part of the work, encroach on a respondent's ability to evaluate the work’s success.  Likewise, responses to things outside of the work (the artist’s process, her level of effort, her other work) distract the artist from hearing how the work itself has been received and gauging how it might be received by those she may never meet. 

One tipoff that the response looks outside of the work is the presence of moral judgment.  

Compare this . . . 

            “I just don’t feel like you tried very hard.”

Or . . .

"I felt like the writer was trying to get me to feel sorry for her."

With this . . .  

“I couldn’t figure out what the piece was really about.  At first I thought it might have been the arson.  Then there were five paragraphs about the brother’s troubled past, but then it returned to the arson and the investigation.  So I found myself unable to grab hold of the story, because I couldn’t determine which storyline was the ultimate focus, the brother or the arson.” 

Note how the gratuitous moral language in the first two responses offers nothing about the art, only speculation about the artist.  The third response highlights the source of the respondent's confusion and stays within the bounds of the art.

Respondents do well to confine their attention to what the artist sets before them. And artists do well to learn to let their art speak for itself.  Well-conceived work can stand on its own.

Consider, for instance, how strange and yet perfectly articulate this piece of music is.  It's an excerpt from Morton Feldman’s Triadic Memories, performed by Marilyn Nonken.  Feldman's composition and Nonken's interpretation require no introduction, even though a listener may be unfamiliar with this kind of music.  The logic of the piece is sufficient unto itself.  And understanding it does not require us to reflect upon anything outside of the piece and its performance.  

Thank you for reading.


Critique Part 2 supplement— The Hazards of Prescription

Anoushka Shankar.  Image via .

Anoushka Shankar.  Image via


Creating art requires an artist to channel the mysteries of her intuition into something others can behold.  It requires her tune out chatter from within and without.

In my writing workshops, I ask students to avoid prescribing solutions to their classmates.  I do this for several reasons:

  • The main goal of the workshop is to get the students to listen to their experience as readers, and if they begin to offer prescriptions, they shift out of listening and into broadcasting.
  • The artist is the person most in tune with what she is trying to make.  Attempts to interfere with her process are likely to disrupt the learning that is bringing forth the artwork.

This does not preclude the students from considering possibilities.  But note the difference between this . . .

“I think you should end it at the third paragraph from the end.”

and this . . .

“I was really captivated by the description of the parachute ride back to earth, but the closing paragraphs after the landing felt less compelling.  I wondered if you considered ending the piece at the third paragraph from the end, when the narrator is still in the air.”

The first response offers prescription without experience.  It leaves little room for the writer, who might know that the final paragraphs are crucial to some purpose not yet evident to her readers. 

The second reports on the reader’s experience, and rather than prescribing a particular solution, which might conflict with the writer’s ultimate purpose, merely invites the writer to consider one valid option.

In order to create work that will reach her audience, an artist must tune out the chatter of the audience members (real and imagined) and descend into her own intuition.  It requires the kind of focus and deep attention so evident in the following clip of sitar player Anoushka Shankar, tabla player Tanmoy Bose, and tampura player Kenji.

Thank you for reading.


The Audience Learns Part 4 supplement — Removal

Hip-hop poets par excellence, the Digable Planets.

Hip-hop poets par excellence, the Digable Planets.


Removal is a particularly effective form of surprise.  When an element has been removed, an audience suddenly learns about its importance and its interaction with everything around it.


Hip-hop thrives on removal.  “Rebirth of Slick (Cool Like Dat)” by the Digable Planets removes the bass and drum groove at strategic points to achieve several ends:

  • Removal punctuates the ends of the first two verses.  (1:25-1:27 and 2:14-2:16).  The vocals are briefly exposed against a backdrop of silence.  This creates the sense that the ground has disappeared and that we are suspended in mid-air with the rappers.  We are somehow more acutely aware of the song's forward motion.   Note how this calls attention to the absent parts.  Our ears suddenly miss what we might have taken for granted.  The returning elements give extra emphasis to the downbeats of the choruses.
  • These removals set up our expectation that the removal at 2:53-2:55 will also be followed by a chorus, but the verse keeps going until the removal at 3:13-3:15.
  • The extended removal at 3:43-3:54 (“We out, we out, we out . . . ”) gives emphasis to the end of the rapping and helps us hear that the track is now in its outro.

In all cases, the removals surprise us and also illuminate our understanding of what is happening in the track.

Thank you for reading.

The Audience Learns Part 4 supplement — Denial and Reward

A fascinating book that you can read in an hour (and then may find yourself revisiting over and over): Matthew Frederick’s 101 Things I Learned in Architecture School

The 101 things in question are short observations accompanied by illustrations.  Many of Frederick’s insights about architecture have relevance to other fields.  Here is one.

Use “denial and reward” to enrich passage through the built environment. 

As we move through buildings, towns, and cities, we mentally connect visual cues from our surroundings to our needs and expectations.  The satisfaction and richness of our experiences are largely the result of the ways in which these connections are made.

Denial and reward can encourage the formulation of a rich experience.  In designing paths of travel, try presenting users a view of their target—a staircase, building entrance, monument, or other element—then momentarily screen it from view as they continue their approach.  Reveal the target a second time from a different angle or with an interesting new detail.  Divert users onto an unexpected path to create additional intrigue or even momentary lostness; then reward them with other interesting experiences or other views of their target.  This additional “work” will make the journey more interesting, the arrival more rewarding.

 #11 of Matthew Frederick’s 101 Things I Learned in Architecture School

Creators in a variety of mediums make use of this technique. 

In Fiction

Consider, for example, the tantalizing withholding of the title character’s entrance into F. Scott Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby.

  • We see Gatsby’s name in the title, and in the introduction we hear of his impact on the narrator, Nick.
  • Nick moves in nextdoor to Gatsby’s mansion.
  • At Daisy and Tom’s, Nick notices Daisy’s reaction to mention of his name. “Gastby?  What Gatsby?”
  • Later that night, Nick sees Gatsby’s silhouetted profile, looking at the stars.  As Nick tries to determine what far off light Gatsby might have been looking at, Gatsby disappears.
  • From next door, Nick witnesses the spectacle of Gatsby’s lavish parties, the deliveries of liquor, oranges, food, tables, the orchestra musicians, and so forth.
  • One day, a chauffeur walks over an invitation referencing a “little party.”
  • As Nick weaves his way into the scene, the other party guests are evasive as to Gatsby’s whereabouts.
  • Nick overhears rumors from others in the crowd: Gatsby murdered someone?  He was a German spy?
  • Nick wanders into the house, peruses the library, talking with a stranger, and then during a lull in the action, another stranger sees Nick in the hall.  “Your face is familiar.  Weren’t you in the Third Division in the war?”  Yes he was.  The two of them talk. Nick’s sort-of girlfriend, Jordan, comes up to the two of them.

    “Having a gay time now?” she asks.

    Nick explains to the stranger, “This is an unusual party for me because I haven’t even met the host.  I live over there and this man Gatsby had his chauffeur walk over the invitation."

    And the stranger replies, “I’m Gatsby.”


At this point, we are almost one-third of the way into the novel.  Our denied access to Gatsby and then the sudden reward of encountering him helps to convey a sense of expectation that echoes the long wait Gatsby himself has endured as he plans to win back Daisy.  The book revolves around his hope that his denial will end with reward.

In Music

Musical examples abound,   One form of denial and reward is dissonance resolving into consonance  Bach's Prelude #1 in C Major thrives on this principle.  (This video begins with 15 seconds of silence.)


Notice how the dialogue between dissonance and consonance is roughly the length of one breath cycle; we inhale one and exhale the other.  It suggests that this tension between denial and reward is necessary to sustain the music.

Another musical instance of denial and reward would be a song with an introduction that delays the entrance of the band.


The rollercoaster metaphor, present in the melodic oscillation of the guitar riff,  also applies to the long, suspenseful ascent to the band's entrance. The denial and reward is created by the extended, tiered instrumental introduction.  The guitar starts, then enter the hi-hat and bass drum (playing only on the weak beats to add suspense), then agogo bell . . . 

roller coaster climb via

. . . and  finally, with a whiplash drum fill . . . 


the song plunges down into the verse. 

Thank you for reading.

The Audience Learns Part 4 — Surprise

Jo Ann Beard.  Image via .

Jo Ann Beard.  Image via


Jo Ann Beard, one of the great non-fiction writers of our time, advises her non-fiction writing students to ask four questions of each sentence they write:

1.  Is it grammatical?
2.  Is it true?
3.  Does it contain new information?
4.  Does it include a surprise?

Note the important difference between questions 3 and 4.  A surprise is more than new information; it asks us to make a mental leap.  Those mental leaps are what characterize the insights of the work.

Listen to the opening phrases of “Bewitched, Bothered, and Bewildered,” performed here by Ella Fitzgerald and the Buddy Bregman Orchestra.


Note how each line considers Jo Ann Beard’s questions.

1.  Each line is grammatical (in that we are able to make musical sense of it).

2.  Each line is true (in the sense that the melody feels plainly stated, without deception).

3.  Each line contains new information (in that our understanding continues to deepen).

4.  Each line contains a surprise. 

After one whole quart of brandy

The surprises include the downward leap on the second syllable of after and the up and down leaps on “of brandy.”

Like a daisy, I’m awake.

The second syllable of awake adds a delicious and surprising tweak.

With no Bromo Seltzer handy

The span of the upward leap on the second syllable of Seltzer is a big surprise. 

I don’t even shake. 

Another surprising leap between the first two syllables.  Also, that last pitch provides surprise and intrigue.

My guess is that what sticks in the ears of most listeners are those surprises, especially the big leap in the third line.  The surprises are sticky.

Another example . . .


Joni Mitchell's songs are full of surprises.  As you listen to the first verse of "Help Me," hear how each phrase comes in for a landing on a surprising chord.

Help me
I think I'm falling

In love again ⬅︎

When I get that crazy feeling
I know I'm in trouble again ⬅︎

I'm in trouble
'Cause you're a rambler and a gambler
And a sweet talking ladies man

And you love your lovin' ⬅︎

But not like you love your freedom ⬅︎

The constant changing of key creates the sensation of riding along a hilly road where each hill crests with a surprising vista.  Those surprises are what make the song’s sense of discovery so palpable, so that the listeners can hang onto and learn from them.

"Does it include a surprise?"  Thank you, Jo Ann Beard.

Thank you for reading.

The Audience Learns Part 3 supplement — Nina Simone teaching as she sings

Nina Simone.  Image via .

Nina Simone.  Image via


Nina Simone’s gifts as an interpreter rely heavily on her care for the learning of her audience, and we can hear that care in how she attends to repetition and variation. 


Note here how the first iteration of the verse melody (0:23-0:40) is the simplest.  You can hear her teaching us how to listen, and like all great teachers she starts with something simple—something very much like an iconic melody. 

The second iteration (0:41-0:59) is nearly the same, with only one heartbreaking twist on the phrase “your own kin did.”  Even that one twist tells us some things about the simple melody, including the harmonic structure that is its context.

These first two, simpler melodies have prepared us for the breaking apart of that melody that we hear in the third iteration (1:43-2:01).  This breaking away from the original melody helps create the sense of deepening emotions, the sense that the song is driving at some deeper truth.  And the fourth time through the melody (2:01-2:22) is the freest and emotionally crushing of all.  Again, part of why it hits so hard is because we hear it as a bending and twisting of the earlier, simpler melody.  Were we not able to hear the earlier melody in these later iterations, the sense of heartbreak and loss would vanish.

Thank you for reading.