Friday, March 29, 2013

First Perfection

Then Beyond...

I just finished watching a really fascinating and wonderful documentary about the making of Steely Dan's 1977 album Aja. If you are a Steely Dan fan, or just a fan of that album, a fan of music, or a person who has an interest in how a great recording is put together, I highly recommend this movie. It's called "Classic Albums: Steely Dan: Aja" and it's available for streaming on Netflix. 

Steely Dan has been my favorite band for many years now. I like many different kinds of music but this is the only band whose music I can always listen to and enjoy, almost any time, over and over. I never get tired of any of their songs. So I loved watching Donald Fagen and Walter Becker sitting at an engineering console and isolating different tracks from Aja, both rejected and album versions, and talking about how they put the music together. I also really enjoyed hearing other musicians who worked on the album talking about how they came up with their famous parts and what the whole process was like. All of this is interspersed with band history, archival photos, and shots of the band playing "live". All very cool. I'm amazed I waited this long to see it. 

But beyond the pleasure of watching how one of my favorite albums of all time was put together, there was a very nice moment in the middle of the movie that resonated with me and I think is relevant to many areas of life, including things like Yoga and T'ai-Chi. One of the musicians was talking about Fagen and Becker and he said that they weren't just looking for perfection. They wanted more than perfection. He said it was a two stage process. First they went for perfection. Then, when they had that, they went beyond perfection to where it felt natural, almost improvisational. 

When I heard this I immediately thought of martial arts and other movement arts and why certain practitioners rub me the wrong way and others don't. It seems the ones I like best and most aspire to be like are the ones who've gone beyond perfectionism, beyond technique, to naturalness. The ones I'm not crazy about seem to be stuck in the perfectionism stage, they think it's the goal rather than a stepping stone to a deeper understanding. 

In the arts I'm most focused on: T'ai-Chi, performing music, and songwriting, I feel a two stage process in my work as well. First I get things as close to perfect as I can get them. Then I do my best to go past that to where it feels natural, but intentional. I know that sounds like a contradiction in terms but that's what I'm after. I think part of my affinity with the Steely Dan sound is that it strikes me as intentionally natural. In very different arts and in very different ways, I feel we are aiming for the same thing. 


  1. Love it. Makes perfect sense. Well done, and thanks for the tip. (It appears to be free on YouTube. (About an hour long?)

  2. Yes, that would be it. Check it out. Very cool. GB