SPF 365 Experiment

365 Days of Exploring, Experimenting, Experiencing and Expanding

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Day 24(C): Wednesdays with Ivan

Some people believe that if you set an intention, then opportunities which weren’t there before will present themselves and help you to make your dream come true. My take is a little different. I believe that we consistently live in a world of infinite possibility. Possibilities surround us like invisible radio waves, cell phone signals, and the like. When we set a particular intention, or we shift our thinking in specific ways, we begin to gain the ability to “tune in” particular possibilities. I believe this is also the source of the “self-fufulfilling prophesy.” The possibility of “failure” (especially if you choose to see it as failure) is always there, and if we focus on it, we tune it in, and voilà! You just knew it was going to fail, and it did, just like you predicted! I believe that as we better refine our understanding of who we are and how we want to manifest ourselves in this world, we improve the “tuning” of our receiver to discover those possibilities which will empower us the most. In my case, I lived most of my life with a very loose, unfocused tuner, not truly knowing who I was. As a result, when fantastic opportunities came my way, I didn’t recognize them for what they were.

One of these opportunities was studying electronic composition with a true artistic soul, Ivan Tcherepnin.

Jung teases me for not admitting where I went to college, but there’s a reason. I attended Harvard, and although it opened up many opportunities for me, I was struggling with my identity at the time and as a result, the environment was toxic to me. Even though academically I did well, emotionally I had to fight constantly to maintain any shred of self-confidence. Although I did make a few good friends there, I do not generally look back on those years fondly. One large exception is the brief time I was able to spend in Professor Ivan Tcherepnin’s classes in the Harvard Electronic Music Studio.

My memory is fuzzy at the moment, but I’m pretty sure that none of us called him, “professor.” I think he was “Ivan” (pronounced \Ēe•vǎhn\) to everyone. He had the most amazing, unplaceable accent which was a result of his spending his earliest years in France where he was born of a Chinese mother-pianist and a Russian father-composer before his family moved to the United States when he was still a child. To be honest, I never knew that much about his past. You can read more here than I ever knew about him, but I’ve never really been impressed by title, pedigree, or lists of accomplishments, anyhow. What did impress me about Ivan, was the power of his presence. The pure creative energy which surrounded him was exhilarating and the way he saw learning as a non-linear spiral process has never left me. For now, his original course listing for undergraduates has been preserved on the web and although it’s from a number of years after I was there, you can still see the prerequisites for his course. It drove him crazy that the Registrar’s Office insisted that his classes be on a “track” where one class prepared the student for the next. In his mind, one class didn’t lead linearly into the next; a student could jump in anywhere and start learning, picking up what they needed as they went along. This was a shock to my linear mind at the time, but that was just the beginning of what he would introduce to me.

Ivan stretched me in two directions at once. First, he challenged my rational mind to free itself up and to discard the notion of a “right way” or a “wrong way.” He encouraged all of us to improvise in the studio and to experiment with the equipment to discover all the sounds it was capable of making, regardless of what it had been designed to do. He encouraged us to compose through a process of discovery and my compositions at the time became a documentation of what I discovered in the studio.

At the same time, Ivan stretched me to see music and sound as more than just an ephemeral, emotional self-expression. To him it was also something that was very real, rooted in the fabric of the world. When I knew Ivan, he was especially fascinated with breaking sounds down to their smallest component parts, and then building the sounds up again. He introduced me to the work of Hermann von Helmholtz, the 19th century German physician and physicist, and I became fascinated with the math, physics, and biology behind vibration and how we perceive it as sound. I became overwhelmed with how much book-learning there was that could help me understand what I was experiencing in the studio, but Ivan’s non-linear approach to creativity and learning assured me that there was nothing I needed to learn “first.” I could simultaneously exercise my musical intuition through experimentation while exercising my rational mind through the math and science of acoustics and perception, and have my intuition and mind inform each other as I created music. Composing without the artificial constraints of a “linear process” was an incredibly liberating experience!

He encouraged us to both read the manuals, and forget about them, because there was value in each approach and that despite what we may have learned in other classes, in his class, “manual” and “not-manual” could co-exist. In his class, “hard work” included both learning the equations of sound synthesis and doing hexadecimal math in our heads, and putting in long stretches of time “just fooling around,” freely creating sounds we never imagined, all through experimentation and happy accidents. His was the first class where I felt like my whole self was being exercised, and it was both exhausting and exhilarating at the same time. Jung would have loved his class because she also thinks in terms of “both/and” just like Ivan did!

The somewhat sad ending to this story for me, is that because I was trying so hard to fit in at Harvard, I never recognized Ivan’s studio for what it truly was for me: my island paradise in a foreign land. It was one place I could truly be myself and yet because I didn’t know my true self at the time, I didn’t know that I belonged in that studio. Unfortunately, instead recognizing and following my true self, I continued to “convince” myself that my “real work” was to be found elsewhere. I remained firmly on my track, heading towards becoming a music history professor. (A track I ultimately chose to leave behind years later, when I woke up to who I truly was.)

Experiencing Ivan’s studio was an opportunity, one of those infinite possibilities, that I was fortunate to stumble upon by accident and although I regret not grasping at it more firmly at the time, I am still grateful to have had that moment to glimpse my true world, and I thank Ivan, wherever his spirit may be, for being himself, in that place, for me.

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