Choosing 功夫

April 25, 2015

Sitting against the wall in my apartment is a carved wooden cabinet, about three feet tall and designed for holding musical scores. I bought it from the back of a Chinese restaurant and brought it home to store CDs. The cabinet stands quietly on its little curved legs like a demure traveler from the past, a bit confused by its new contents. The contrast between the inscrutable disks and their container is the central image of this essay.

Compact disks (already an antiquated technology) are alien to my senses. Their information is as invisible to me as cosmic rays. All I can perceive is a rainbow scattering of light from the surface of the disk, which is technically a disturbance. I’m like a fish that can only see the disturbance of waves, unable to intuit the existence of a boat. Even if I were able to see the microscopic pits encoding the digital signal they would be visually just a nonsense jumble, the speed of their audio sampling rate is fathomless to my mind.

I require a tool to translate the information, and like so many tools today this one has a pushbutton interface: just press play. In one way this is a triumph of user design. I should be so lucky as to press a button and hear a song, or be lifted to another floor in a building, or make words appear in a document, or create heat in an oven, or flush a toilet, or light up a room, or divide numbers, or tell a bus to stop.

However in another way the pushbutton, especially in music, offers a choice. In Chinese there is a word 功夫, gongfu, which we have anglicized to Kung Fu. It actually doesn’t mean cheesy fighting moves, it means the studies or practices which take time, patience, and energy to master. Internalized knowledge that can’t be rushed. “There is no royal road to geometry,” as Euclid once explained.

Gongfu doesn’t change the outside world, it changes us, and that is why it can’t be rushed. The mind works by delicate neural habits that take time to wear into the brain. Our biggest challenge in a plentiful society is choosing our gongfu. Conveniences like recorded music present us this choice.

I’m grateful for audio recordings. They have expanded my musical knowledge far beyond what I might have gleaned from random local live performances. The danger, however, is that I fall back on recordings as a crutch and never develop real appreciation through playing music. The composer and conductor John Philip Sousa lived while audio recording was going mainstream and he watched the changes brought about by this technology. In The Menace of Mechanical Music he worried that

The child becomes indifferent to practice, for when music can be heard in the homes without the labor of study and close application, and without the slow process of acquiring a technic, it will be simply a question of time when the amateur disappears entirely, and with him a host of vocal and instrumental teachers, who will be without field or calling.

Thankfully this is not what I noticed this evening. I decided to visit the San Francisco Community Music Center on 21st and Capp St. It was bustling with people of all ages practicing. I actually could not find a piano practice room available at the time of night I visited.

There are wonderful materials for people to get started learning and playing songs. The San Francisco public library has a vast collection of scores. I was able to find a fairly comprehensive folio of piano music by Federico Mompou. I checked out the score, wrote down a little reference on a notecard of the bass- and treble-cleff notes to help me read the notation more easily, and went to jump right into one of the simpler songs (Musica Callada). I’m lucky that I naturally enjoy many songs that don’t appear to require much virtuousity to play.

Learning anything has an opportunity cost. I could settle as I have thus far in life with enjoying recorded music. I’d have more time for coding that way. But we all have a choice of self development, of the things we want to keep in our minds. Becoming intimate with a song, actually moving our hands to play it in exactly the same way as its composer once did, this is a way to feel more empathy. All recordings suffer from the opaqueness of ease. The sounds emerge with equal ease in songs of varied difficulty. William James discussed this perception in Psychology, a Briefer Course:

Only what we partly know inspires us with a desire to know more. The more elaborate textile fabrics, the vaster works in metal, to most of us are like the air, the water, and the ground, absolute existences which awaken no ideas. It is a matter of course that an engraving or a copper-plate inscription should possess that degree of beauty. but if we are shown a pen-drawing of equal perfection, our personal sympathy with the difficulty of the task makes us immediately wonder at the skill.

The 功夫 tightrope exists in many fields, for instance Chess. In one way of looking at it Chess is a “solved problem.” Computers are now the world champions and operate by blindly Minimaxing a move tree. There is a beauty in understanding the problem in these terms to create a machine that can beat grandmasters. But you can also feel undaunted as a human and realize that the experience of being skilled at chess holds meaning and drama. An internal combustion engine travels faster than a bicyclist but we haven’t canceled the Tour de France.

Same goes for drawing or painting. The best external results are swiftly achieved with a camera (another pushbutton interface). If I were documenting a crimescene I would obviously use a camera to take copious pictures. But there are internal results from manual artistic reproduction. It is the lingering in a moment for its own sake. It’s as if in the pushbutton world we see ourselves in the third person, but when following fools’ errands like Chess or drawing we finally inhabit ourselves.

Even the written word has been criticized for how it modifies our minds. A dialog of Socrates points out how we can fall back on readymade words to disguise our ignorance.

And in this instance, you who are the father of letters, from a paternal love of your own children have been led to attribute to them a quality which they cannot have; for this discovery of yours will create forgetfulness in the learners’ souls, because they will not use their memories; they will trust to the external written characters and not remember of themselves. The specific which you have discovered is an aid not to memory, but to reminiscence, and you give your disciples not truth, but only the semblance of truth; they will be hearers of many things and will have learned nothing; they will appear to be omniscient and will generally know nothing; they will be tiresome company, having the show of wisdom without the reality.

That’s why there are degrees and types of gongfu. I am willing to weaken my memory in exchange for the richness of recorded history. The important point is to know the tradeoff.

And that’s why I want to begin playing piano songs, to break through the musique d’ameublement and start filling my cabinet with scores and not just CDs.