“The Music Passes Through Me”

Every now and then, I’m reminded that no matter how hard someone works, pure talent is tough to compete with. A recent example of this is when Usain Bolt beat out his fellow countryman Yohan Blake on the grand stage of the 2012 London Olympics, even though Blake beat Bolt in the trials leading up to the Games. There is no level of work one can do to surpass the truly talented. Now, on a totally separate thread, I’m reminded of a quote from a song by DJ Shadow, in which he says, to paraphrase, that he doesn’t “play music,” but rather, that “the music passes through me.” DJ Shadow is known to have the largest vinyl record collection in the world. He has been cutting and splicing beats in this manner longer than most people. I once saw him perform in San Francisco in 2004 and, just to mix things up, he found these old instructional videotapes of a Spanish percussionist and scratched them together to form a new beat as if the media was just an old record. (I wrote about some of this here.)

The reason I’m rambling about this is because you should check out this video of Japanese piano prodigy Nobuyuki Tsujii. He’s just over 20 years old, blind, and began piano at age 2. When you watch this short video below of him playing, it’s clear that he is talented, no doubt. But, he also didn’t learn to play music by sight reading or watching videos. I remember learning instruments growing up, with an easel and music stand to follow along the notes. Every now and then, I would be able to memorize some notes, but the manner in which I learned was based on sight, and therefore it impacted my ability to channel it. For someone like Tsujii, however, he’s never seen music, and when you watch this performance, it is crystal clear that he doesn’t play the notes — but that the notes pass through him. He is a talent beyond all others. No one could learn to play this particular music with this level of care and precision in this moment in time. I think about this law of nature when I write about something I see, or when I’m evaluating a person or product or investment, to look for something that passes through another channel that is just levels beyond everything else.


Updated June 2016:

Earlier today, a friend on Twitter shared this video clip of Pharrell giving feedback to music students at NYU Tisch. As soon as I heard the song, the voice reminded me of some of my favorite female vocalists, most notably Cat Power. The video below starts at around the 18-minute mark is about 5 minutes total. The artist here, Maggie Rogers, gives a brief intro about her background and style, and how she was into and out of music, then they play the song, and then Pharrell is supposed to give his analysis.

There are so many interesting lessons in this short exchange. Where to start? I love that this artist grew up in a musical style that was very straight forward, but then she took a break, she stopped making music. She did other things that were not music. She spent time outdoors. She went away. Traveled. She explored other art forms. And through these experiences, her creativity sprung back, where the unnatural became natural for her, but the sound was new, entirely new, a combination of elements and forces which she’s been exposed to previously in the past.

Then, after the song, Pharrell elects not to critique the song because he is blown away by something else: the authenticity of the art. He states he can hear her biographical experiences in the music, and that he cannot judge the music because he can’t compare it to anything he’s heard. He says “You’re doing your own thing, it’s singular…you have to be willing to seek, to be real frank in your music, and frank in your choices…I can hear your whole story in the music.”

My favorite part is Rogers, before they play her music, admitted the song isn’t finished, but was “good for now,” and needed more mixing and mastering. But the raw tape seems to be powerful enough.