The Little Things

claire rousay

Over the past thirteen months, I have accidentally cut my finger with a chef’s knife 213 times. These little cuts all over my hands are entirely unintentional. The older cuts barely start to heal before new ones emerge. I cannot keep track of which cut is from which occurrence, and this has, for lack of a better term, fucked my perception of time.

This complete erasure of time awareness should worry me. As someone who was a drummer, I long associated myself with time awareness. I felt confident and emotionally secure because of my technical proficiency on the drum kit. The endorphin rush that resulted from playing the drums reinforced the idea that I needed to tie my identity to the instrument. But now I feel ambivalent. The same feeling that drumming used to stir up now overcomes me when I fiddle around with instruments that I didn’t spend a decade getting to know. Exploration has trumped the control I used to crave while sitting behind the kit. Opening myself up to new experiences and taking the time to learn new things has only recently become a recurring part of my life. I have replaced ease with exploration, technical ability with a lack of proficiency, preconceptions with questions. 

As 2020 slowed my perception of time, I started to pay more attention to what could be considered the mundane aspects of everyday experiences. Before, I routinely overlooked these details because of a flawed idea that smaller parts of a whole are not always worth paying attention to. I believe the unbalanced importance I placed on different aspects of an object or experience kept me from interacting with these missed details. I like to refer to them as the little things. I started to notice the little things as I integrated more exploration into my daily routine. An unfamiliar task presents many challenges, but can also present the opportunity to appreciate the task from a beginner’s perspective. I now have the ability to tune in and absorb even the smallest, simplest components of the task. As a beginner, an activity’s details do not appear to exist for me in a hierarchical way yet: these details are all presented at once. Someone with more experience would be able to view the same activity and organize its different components by importance, dismissing the simpler components as banal and unimportant. This hierarchical organization, while sometimes helpful, can cause one to overlook simpler components of a task. As someone who is more interested in exploring different aspects of an activity than mastering the activity, these simpler components ended up being what I was drawn to the most. 

Before I address the little things within the context of my musical practice, I want to talk about my experience of those details as they exist in my everyday life. One of my favorite parts of 2020 was working on expanding my knowledge in the kitchen. Prior to shelter-
in-place, I had been touring almost constantly for three years. My ability to create a meal that I actually wanted to consume was at an all-time low. Once it became clear that I was not traveling any time soon, I bought a few real knives, read a dozen articles on basic cooking skills, and literally started to chop away at this new task. 

In the beginning, my hands moved slowly. I was constantly refreshing the screen on my failing iPhone 6 while trying to keep up with the instructions provided. My mind wandered as I tried to absorb loads of brand new information. My hand slipped as I used the new knife to cut up a white onion to prepare for sauteing. This was the first of my 213 cuts. Regardless of how many times I nicked my finger, dropped food on the floor, or oversalted something, I was enjoying myself. Even when the food didn’t turn out even remotely close to how I expected, I still felt fulfilled. These new challenges opened up a part of my mind I had accessed less regularly. I had no strong opinions in the kitchen because I was not aware of what those opinions could be. All I knew was I needed to stop cutting myself with the knife. 

I continued to work on my knife skills each evening and noticed my mind was not wandering as much now that I was investigating these tasks at a deeper level. These mental investigations were fueled by genuine curiosity, with nothing to gain but knowledge. The lack of preconceptions transformed these new, simple tasks into something complex that needed to be explored beyond a surface-level evaluation. I was fascinated by all the different variables and outcomes that came with adjusting my movements on the cutting board. I didn’t view cooking as one task, but thousands of gestures that make up a whole. I found that the little things were largely a collection of qualities that I had overlooked due to impure intentions and ego. In the kitchen, I had fewer preconceptions and issues because it was an unfamiliar environment. This allowed me to enter the situation with an open mind and interact with the task on its terms and not mine. 

Implementing the little things into my musical practice was significantly more difficult for the same reasons it was so effortless in the kitchen. My practice has been drenched in ego and preconceptions for years, and the resulting works have no doubt been influenced by these things. I do not believe this is entirely a bad thing. However, it is something that, like anything, needs to lose some rigidity in order to remain a tool that can successfully be utilized without becoming an overwhelming component in the work. A beginner takes in information about a new task without the mental gymnastics that come with processing all the associations and baggage thrust upon the task by those with more experience. This entry-level ignorance possesses a unique clarity because of the lack of preconceptions. I do not believe this has to be abandoned as one acquires additional knowledge. Just like any information collected over time, this beginner’s mentality should remain a tool that one can still revisit and access when needed. 

The combination of this new mentality with the knowledge I acquired over time has taught me how to experience sound with fresh ears. I started to perceive objects, tasks, and my artistic practice differently now that my acknowledgement of these things was more nuanced, picking up on their various characteristics and complexities. My newfound attention to detail primarily stemmed from the mental shift that occurred once I decided to take a step back from drumming—both as an instrument and an identity. This intentional distancing from an instrument I spent over a decade getting to know opened up my eyes and ears in a way that allowed me to take in the same information in a way that it seemed completely new to me. Much like in the kitchen, the little things occupy a similar territory in my musical practice. 

Listening, not technical ability, is my weakness. As I started to alter my practice with this new mentality, I noticed that the largest difference in my behavior was in the live-performance environment. Anyone working with sound knows of the complexities and ever-changing qualities that accompany a performance space. Environmental factors can influence a performance in many ways: acoustics, amplification, and environmental noise. In my experience, sound practitioners gripe about many of these environmental factors for two reasons: the performer does not have complete control over these factors, and they perceive them to be a disruption of the sounds they are making. 

Many artists enjoy incorporating a space’s unique acoustics into their performance. That enjoyment typically ends when the acoustic qualities of a space aren’t as predictable as the performer would have liked them to be, and the acoustics end up changing the performance in a way the performer finds less than ideal. Extreme acoustics used to bother me because they contributed to the lack of control I disliked so much. My instrument did not sound the same in each new performance environment. Even if I had the opportunity to explore the acoustics of a space during a soundcheck, there was no way I was going to be able to predict the way the room would respond to each sound I might make. 

Many performers are proficient in dealing with odd acoustic qualities and interacting with them in a way that is beneficial to the performance but fail to earnestly engage with it. I believe that solely omitting certain textures, dynamics, or other musical elements from the performance—rather than exploring a wide range of these things—is what allows someone to engage with acoustics rather than interacting with them. This engagement isn’t defined by what is not, but what can be.

Amplification is rarely approached with an open mind in a live-performance environment. I have found that the provided sound system often has some quality that changes the performer’s sound in a way they did not originally plan on. Ignoring these factors and steamrolling through a performance is probably the least eloquent way of interacting with amplification. This approach was one I used for years. Usually this was a result of me feeling upset, like my work was not being treated with enough respect. Once I applied my new mindset to amplification, I started to notice that—much like acoustics—the performer has the ability to listen to and interact with this environmental element. If a microphone starts to feed back, moving your body is a straightforward way of breaking that loop. Even if this repositioning only breaks the cycle for a second, it’s already changed that moment and altered the outcome of the performance. 

Amplification can also be consciously interacted with when the performer is forced to use a low-quality or faulty sound system. As a sound artist and musician, I found that a faulty sound system can be an opportunity to color your sound in a way that you aren’t able to on your own. Just as every space’s acoustics differ, each faulty sound system differs from one another. This attention to detail can easily be a way to explore and uniquely interact with a performance space in a way that can only occur in that moment. 

Another factor, which involves the human element, is environmental noise—a complex and loaded term that I feel the need to define. Here I am referring to unintentional sounds, outside the performer’s control, that are attached to each performance environment. They are unique because there is almost always a human behind these sounds. The first time I embraced environmental noise was during a performance at a venue that also doubled as a bar. The chatter from the audience was significant, making my performance feel insignificant. The audience’s dismissal hurt my ego and was overwhelming, but only because I never reacted to the chatter or adjusted the dynamics in my performance in reaction to the environment. I valued my sounds over all other sounds in the environment. Eventually, the chatter became so overwhelming that I decided I would perform the same material at a much greater volume. This did nothing and even resulted in louder talking from the audience, but the audience’s behavior is not what is important. The revelation was how I adjusted to the changing performance environment’s noise. Not only had I listened and reacted, but I realized that I had the ability to change the environment just like the audience did. 

Following this performance, I started interacting with environmental noise even more. Playing louder to combat audience chatter and still being talked over is one extreme. The other side of the spectrum includes a similar situation: out of the 50-or-so people occupying the venue, only twelve of them were not speaking during my performance. The front row occupants were especially noisy and clearly had consumed quite a bit of alcohol. After about fifteen minutes of non-stop conversation, they managed to drop a bottle of wine onto the concrete floor. The bottle shattered and cheap red wine splashed onto the stage. At this point even the twelve attentive audience members were focusing only on the drunken disaster. I stopped playing my instrument. The room fell silent as the sound of cymbal wash suddenly ceased. Luckily, I had a vocal microphone, so I stood up and joined the conversation happening in the front row. My actions were still being perceived as part of the performance. 

Today, the importance of the little things in my musical practice has less to do with specific sonic characteristics of various activities or objects, and more with how I approach listening and interacting with sound as a whole. Ego and a false sense of mastery have been the hardest barriers to break down in order to access this new way of listening and reacting. The baggage that accompanies mastery can be limiting, but a false sense of mastery is blinding. This is what I suffered from the most while identifying as a drummer and percussionist. Technical ability, while a useful tool, is not intrinsic to listening. I do not believe my entire musical practice should connect to technical ability or the eventual mastery of an instrument. Because of this shift in priorities, I have found new ways to create and interact with sound. 

Rejection of my instrument was only one part of the journey to a more fulfilling sound practice. Since I still wanted to continue creating work using sound, I had to find new tools to accompany this listening practice. I flirted with various approaches: picking up piano again, composing with electronics, and even not performing at all. I eventually settled on what seemed like the natural progression to rejection of mastery: a focus on reacting to the immediate environment and hyperflexibility. No instrument. 

It felt absurd at first, but over time it has proved to be the most fitting choice for what I want to accomplish with my musical practice. To me, the identity of “No Instrument” allows me to attempt, practice, and even become proficient at many things without the baggage that comes with emotionally dedicating myself to a single tool used to make sound. This way I do not feel the pressure to cloud my listening practice with the preconceptions or ego related to my technical proficiency. It feels as if implementing these new practices has finally brought honesty back into my musical practice and I do not want to risk losing it again. I am no longer overlooking smaller parts of the whole, because I am not rejecting parts of the whole to begin with. While I have implemented these new perspectives as tools in my practice, that is not the one and only role they play. These new experiences of actively listening, not just hearing, can exist entirely on their own, with no agenda of how to use them in a musical setting. These experiences are whole on their own and have brought my focus back to why music intrigued me initially.