Order and Chaos

At the beginning of 2018 I commenced post graduate study at the Griffith University in their Doctorate of Musical Arts program. What I present below is a reflective journal, available for any who may be interested but also aiding the reflexive component of my research. As such this is deeply personal and at times sensitive. Please read with this in mind if you so desire. Sincerely, PW.

“Being, for the Taoists—reality itself—is composed of two opposing principles, often translated as feminine and masculine, or even more narrowly as female and male. However, yin and yang are more accurately understood as chaos and order…. chaos and order are interchangeable, as well as eternally juxtaposed. There is nothing so certain that it cannot vary.” (Peterson, 2018)

As a musician I feel two primal forces threading my art. One is the intuitive conjuring of meaning from chaos. The birthing of sound worlds. It is most clearly manifest when I compose music in the computer environment. I can spend days layering synth pads, dragging sound samples and processing sounds in pursuit of a mood or energy. This is not a structured process but rather an impulsive search. It is the Taoist female principle - the chaos element. The second is cultivated, ordered and controlled. It is disciplined study of music theory, the daily grind of technical practise, the embodiment of jazz bass guitar. It is the Taoist male principle of order. Setting these elements alongside each other is one of my favourite things to do. 

When I composed the music for my first album The Life Electric I created many of the pieces within the computer environment, spending weeks and in some cases months intuitively tweaking textural and rhythmic sounds with no clear harmonic structure and no melody. I intuitively played around with forms until the piece spoke to me and I arrived at what felt like a soundscape I would like to walk through, painting harmonic roads of chord and melody and ultimately narrative - bringing order into the chaos (though I must say order has usually been established to varying extents by this point through the influence of form and structure). Another theme of that album was the embedding of the analog into the digital realm. The bass guitar, as my primary musical voice was set into the digitally created musical space. The ordered manipulations of a studied and embodied craft, nested in the naive, innocent domain of the chaotically crafted digital element. 

In society too much of either (order and chaos) can be disastrous (think social decay and depravity vs Stalinist Russia) and so too in music. It would seem that genres or schools of musical thinking are an act of auditing these forces and keeping the balance in check. The institutionalised codification of post-Parker bebop all but necessitated the rise of Ornette Coleman’s free jazz. It was as though the chains of order needed to be torn off and the world reminded that intuitive melodic polyphony alone was a potent force. Similarly the emotionally charged polyphony of baroque music gave way to the formal symmetry of classical music. It is as though the Art knows where the balance is, and entire careers are but pawns in this balancing. These forces, yin and yang, are present to varying degrees in every aspect of music making. Like a fractal painting one can zoom into any detail and see elements of order and chaos at play. The phenomena is larger than the mechanical components of music. Think for example of the reciprocal energies elicited from band members and audience alike when tension is created by sustained dissonant harmony. Think of the euphoria when such excursions return to the harmonic structure of the piece. Usually  after such an excursion the spirit of adventure has been lit in such a way that more chaotic deviations will follow. Zoom out one level in our fractal analogy and the impetus for such a decision (when to create tension) could itself be arrived at through chaos or order.

For me, the greatest joy of music is the flow-state of live performance. I have felt a similar flow-state while composing in the studio but the experience is fleeting. With empathetic musicians on the bandstand I find that live performance is where this flow-state can most deeply and consistently be experienced. Particularly when the musical vocabulary we are using is the jazz language and the idiomatic reference points are open. That is I most enjoy performing in that jazz setting whereby the piece can go many places stylistically and harmonically. There was a long period, perhaps ten years or more, when this experience eluded me. I knew that it existed from my days noodling on the piano as a child but the musical mechanisms required to perform this harmonically sophisticated music with other musicians in a state of spontaneous interplay required diligent perfecting until I finally could embody jazz bass guitar. The goal of ordered practise, of all that yang, is to arrive back where you started - back to that ancient dance of order and chaos. 

“Order is the white, masculine serpent; Chaos, its black, feminine counterpart. The black dot in the white—and the white in the black—indicate the possibility of transformation: just when things seem secure, the unknown can loom, unexpectedly and large. Conversely, just when everything seems lost, new order can emerge from catastrophe and chaos.For the Taoists, meaning is to be found on the border between the ever-entwined pair. To walk that border is to stay on the path of life, the divine Way”

Peterson, J. B. (2018). 12 Rules for Life: An Antidote for Chaos. New York, New York: Penguin Random House