The Seven Phenomenal Lessons I’ve Learnt From Music and how they Changed Me Profoundly as a Visual Artist.

It’s nearing the end of the year and the traditional time for making lists of stuff is upon us. So rather than a list of my top ten albums, pieces of jewellery or political pratfalls of 2017 (although I’m not ruling that out if list mania grips me next week) I’m looking back at what I have learnt from my immersion in music, both as listener and bass player this year.

Lessons Learnt From Music #1 Magic

As a visual artist, I am supremely jealous of music as a creative form. It has a direct connection to our deep and visceral emotions in a way no other art form does. You only have to watch the reaction of an audience to their favourite band playing live to see that connection. You only have to start dancing to feel that tie. Whether a massive crowd at a big rock gig or a simple song spellbinding a tiny audience, music has the same magical power to get deep inside. I have come to realise that we rely on music as instigator, guardian and supporter of our emotions. Even repeated hearing does not dull the pleasure. Music can be complex enough to re-create the pleasurable emotions that propel us to listen again and again. Look it’s even levitated this guy in the picture below!

Crowd Surfer: by Thomas Lisle Brooker
Crowd Surfer: by Thomas Lisle Brooker

Lessons Learnt from Music #2 Wonder

I mean wonder in both senses of the word here, wide-eyed, childlike wonder and the thoughtful “I wonder”. To listen open-eared and open-eyed (in my synaesthetic case) to the sheer beauty of playing, the sounds that drip smooth as honey onto my soul or sear themselves in bright white rockets with smoky grey tails across my memory. The wonder at the skill, musicianship and sheer virtuosity of the musicians I’ve been privileged enough to hear. Then to learn myself, I’m a bass player. I always follow my curiosity, “I wonder how to play that?” Slowly, slowly acquiring some musical skill and building my understanding of the language of music.

Lessons Learnt from Music #3 Improvisation

Music has taught me to enjoy the presence of the moment; music is about time and the passage of time, one note fades as another takes its place. The most skilful and inspired musicians are like Time Lords, able to gather up the sound, silence and rhythm around them, travel through it, layer it, mould it, redistribute it and release it back to the universe.

Poppy Porter and Steve Lawson performing Illuminated Loops
Poppy Porter and Steve Lawson performing Illuminated Loops

This learning came not only from listening to a wide variety of music but also from working with Steve Lawson, a musician who has spent his entire career making his creative output happen in the moment. He has arrived at a point where his improvised works are the only thing; he makes his art in real time. It comes from his hands to his bass, and he shapes it as it happens by his temporal choices using an array of effects pedals and digital post-processing. This is the polar opposite of my starting place as a maker of physical objects that I expect to have a long life and a life that it will spend separated from me. I have begun to value my process more respectfully and to allow what I make to happen in time rather than to start by planning a predictable and controllable outcome.

Lessons Learnt from Music #4 Immersion and the art of ecstatic free-fall

I saw a card today at the music school where I go to band practice and have bass lessons, “headphones on …world off”. How true is that? My son always describes it as “going off to the world of music.” That oh so private space between your ears, those delicate instruments set on the side of your skull, with those tiny bones and hairs all calibrated to deliver sound to your brain. Then, close your eyes imagine as you listen, a wormhole in space opens up in front of you, and you dive down it bodily. A helter-skelter of colour and shapes swirl around you like time travel in a science fiction film…and it is so beautiful you could cry. The best music (and by that I mean the music you love the most) takes you away, immerses you in something else and lets you just be.

Lessons Learnt from Music #5 Darkness

I love fast music; I love heavy music, I love a deep and dark bass line that pulses and glowers.

Darkness is very much the preserve of the bass, full of rich, plum velvety secrets. My synaesthesia loves bass even though it is often hard to find and hard to see. My synaesthetic “headspace” is dark as the night sky, so it can be hard to “see” the darker colours. The lower notes of a bass guitar, on a four string, at any rate, are purple on the low E string then graduating up to greens on the higher G string. Detune the E string to a D, and you are getting down to a purple so dark it is almost black. Darkness is good, wholesome, satisfying and rich once you have taken the time to explore it a little.

Poppy Porter Portrait of a Bassist: Scott Devine
Poppy Porter Portrait of a Bassist: Scott Devine

Lessons Learnt from Music #6 Persistence

Progress, process, practice and persistence, “no one cares if it’s right they only care if it sounds good.” That’s Steve Lawson again. You only progress and acquire skill through doing; action is the way forward. The only way to get better is to practice, whether you practice an instrument or practice drawing. Practice is a funny thing, a little bit regularly and suddenly you can do something well without realising exactly how much work has gone into something. It took me five years to develop the skill to be able to draw my synaesthesia and another one to get my head around drawing it on the fly, live. Practising my bass daily and recording what I do has given me a framework for understanding how my skills develop and mature both as an amateur bass player and professional artist.

Lessons Learnt from Music #7 Inspiration is outside your comfort zone

Performance is not a natural thing for me to do, but then perhaps I just need practice (see #6) and starting to play in a band was a massive step for me to take as a bass player. I had wanted to do that for a long time but never felt ready and still didn’t when I eventually did join. I even played my first gig (a classic pub gig in aid of the church roof – yes really!). Performance as an artist, drawing live to Steve’s playing opened creative doors that are still firmly latched open and through which I have stepped with an enquiring mind. Both of these have given me confidence in my work I did not have before, the instant feedback being a big part of that. Starting with nothing, creating and having your audience respond right there validated what I was doing as valuable and exciting. So thank you to everyone who came along to both events and got drunk and danced at the former and had a few beers, watched fascinated and asked so many questions at the latter.

These seven things I have learnt from my involvement in music this year have developed me and changed me. The overarching lesson being that looking outside of your experience, to an entirely different industry can lead to valuable lessons on your own. I cannot exist without music; it fills me with joy and inspiration, colour and craziness it has taught me so much this year. What has it taught you? Let me know in the comments or on social media.