Musings on the Margin

Carlos Basualdo wrote:

Dear Sue,

… I have been listening [to your program], but I think I need a bit more of information. Could you tell me briefly about the context for “In the Margin…”?

Hope all is well with you.

All the best,

Sue Schardt replied:

Dear Carlos:

One of the guiding or formative ideas behind what I do is that ‘everything happens in the margin’ …an idea that was first planted in my head by a macro-economics professor I had in college in 1980 – Dr. Whiteman, was his name. It was one of those ideas that rolled around in my mind through the years, surfacing every once in awhile as I tried to understand what he really meant. It came to me again as a I thought about how to describe what I do on the radio, and what to ‘call it.’ I visualized the most obvious “margin” I knew – on a piece of paper – carefully delineated by red lines on the right and on the left as the place where random thoughts are written, comments, reminders…existing apart from the main body of the text. My a-ha moment occurred when I then imagined two or more pieces of paper, each with its own set of margins, put against one another, so that the margins are joined, and – extrapolating out to a wider context – the elements in each can respond and interact w/one another. When joined, the margin has the power to command a different kind of attention. This is a phenomenon evident in music, and in economics, yes… also physics (free-radical theory), visual arts… Just about anywhere where expansion/freedom/not-yet-defined co-exists with what is established/defined/understood, which is just about everywhere, and in everything, I suppose. Forces of nature.

So. In the margin of the other implies this relationship that exists between the fringe of two things that are established or defined when they come into contact with each other. This is where the not-yet-quite-a-pattern exists, but there are clues and vestiges of one. This is where the most interesting things happen – random, uncertain, (or, in music, aleatoric) relationships form. It is a place that holds the germ of a promise of (new) birth – of ideas, of trends, of patterns, of realizations, etc… Thus, the “everything happens in this place…. in the margin.” I tend to believe, too, that there is a specific sort of curiosity that draws one to the margin, that not everyone possesses it, but I believe more possess it than we know. With my show, I suppose I’m trying to encourage or fan the flames of this curiosity – build legions of margin dwellers. I don’t believe or even care that people will always actually understand what I’m trying to do on the air, but that there will be something that draws them… that attracts them to the margin.

So… being In the Margin of the Other is very much about that ‘place between things,’ I, for the most part, spontaneously decide what comes after what – which piece of music is put ‘against’ another. The program is basically a two-hour improvisation guided by what I am hearing or observing with my ear in the moment. It might be a rhythm, or text, or a particular harmony, instrument, timbre… the range of associations is very large. I’m hinting at the subtle aspects of relationships, and trying to drawing out elements that are not necessarily apparent. This is my principal “activity” during the show, and I’m trying to create a continuous, coherent thread from start to finish. Sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn’t. My experience, when it does work, is that sort of ‘a-ha’ moment I described before. Something unexpected and wonderful happens, when one thing moves out of itself and into another… There is a moment of transfer, of shifting and, as a listener, realizing you’re no longer “there”, but now “here” but you don’t know when the moment happened, but the feeling is of something opening. And then, of course, the moment is passed and we are into the song, anticipating the next margin. And I do believe that music, in this way, has a sort of magical, expansive potential. That is, on occasion, those “moments” in the margin actually open or create a more or less permanent(?) new corner in someone’s mind or imagination. This is the optimist in me speaking. While I do make careful choices about the songs I choose to play, when I listen back to the program, it is, for me, much more about those points of transition and the anticipation that seems to be a higher part of my own experience. I don’t know if the same holds true for you (or other listeners), but that is what it is about for me.

This is really the deepest part of how I think about what I do. There are other things I try to bring, too… levity, nostalgia, humor, information… Music has the power to do so many things if we’re mindful in how we choose. And radio is just an amazing thing, too. The act of putting things, literally, into the living air; forming these crazy ideas through notes and sounds, and then passing them to an imagined, invisible person who happens to be out there somewhere, with their ear turned in my direction.

I so appreciate you asking, and I do hope that I’ve managed to answer your question. I rarely have a chance to think it through and try to articulate it carefully.

In the Margin of the Other
New time: Monday, 3-4 pm ET
Cambridge, MA