Chapter One: The Courage to Create
May talks first about courage:
This courage will not be the opposite of despair. We shall often be faced with despair, as indeed every sensitive person has been during the last several decades in this country. Hence Kierkegaard and Nietszche and Camus and Sartre have proclaimed that courage is not the absence of despair; it is, rather, the capacity to move ahead in spite of despair. (12)The type of courage he's interested in is that which allows people to express themselves in new ways, even if these new directions are not well-received. May believes that those who have this courage can contribute to society through their creation.
May notes that an important "paradox of courage" is that being absolutely sure of oneself is dangerous, yet one must be very sure of himself in order to maintain courage. Thus one must balance courage with doubt.
Paul Cézanne strongly believed that he was discovering and painting a new form of space which would radically influence the future of art, yet he was at the same time filled with painful and ever-present doubts. The relationship between commitment and doubt is by no means an antagonistic one. Commitment is healthiest when it is not without doubt, but in spite of doubt. (21)After discussing physical courage, moral courage, and social courage, May writes about "the most important kind of courage of all": creative courage. "Whereas moral courage is the righting of wrongs, creative courage, in contrast, is the discovering of new forms, new symbols, new patterns on which a new society can be built." He says that many occupations require creative courage, but those most directly in contact with it are the artists: poets, musicians, painters, and the like. He notes also that appreciating the product of an artist is a creative act. When we look at a painting or hear a piece of music, it changes us; something has been created inside us. "Some new vision is triggered in us by our contact with the painting; something unique is born within us. This is why appreciation of the music or painting or other works of the creative person is also a creative act on our part." (22)
May relates creativity to our struggle to survive. New ideas and thoughts can have much longer lives than we have. If one can create an idea that is powerful, he can in a sense remain alive even when his physical body is gone. "By the creative act, however, we are able to reach beyond our own death. This is why creativity is so important and why we need to confront the problem of the relationship between creativity and death." (25)
May believes that artists "create the conscience of the race." By communicating their new ideas, artists can move their cultures in new directions.
Every authentic artist is engaged in this creating of the conscience of the race, even though he or she may be unaware of the fact. The artist is not a moralist by conscious intention, but is concerned only within his or her own being. But out of the symbols the artist sees and creates--as Giotto created the forms for the Renaissance--there is later hewn the ethical structure of the society. (26)May writes that societies is often afraid of creative people, because their creations may threaten the established structures of the societies. This is yet another obstacle which artists must overcome. May goes so far as to write, "This is why authentic creativity takes so much courage: an active battle with the gods is occurring." (27) He gives examples of these battles in mythical lore, but then arrives at the conclusion that "the creative artist must fight the actual (as contrasted to the ideal) gods of our society--the god of conformism as well as the gods of apathy, material success, and exploitative power. These are the `idols' of our society that are worshipped by multitudes of people."
May returns to the idea that creation is a way to escape death. We use creativity to battle the gods and obtain immortality. Without our burning desire to live, we would not create.
The battle with the gods thus hinges on our own mortality! Creativity is a yearning for immortality. We human beings know that we must die. We have, strangely enough, a word for death. We know that each of us must develop the courage to confront death. Yet we also must rebel and struggle against it. Creativity comes from this struggle--out of the rebellion the creative act is born. (31)This is an interesting outlook. So, if we come to terms with death, as the Buddhists would have us do, will our creativity vanish? Are the most creative people those who fear death the most? I suppose I can't go that far. But people who are intensely creative must be driven by something.
Wherever it comes from, this intensity and drive is vital to an artist if he is to create the "uncreated conscience of the race." "This intensity of emotion, a heightened vitality--for is not the vital forever in opposition to death? We could call this intensity by many different names: I choose to call it rage." This "rage" drives the artist to create. May believes the ultimate source of this rage to be a conflict with "the prototype of all injustice--death." (32)
Chapter Two: The Nature of Creativity
May makes the distinction between "creativity as superficial aestheticism" and real creativity. Real creativity brings something new into being and expands people's minds. But many things we may call creative are really just the same old thing, reworked to look different. It's the difference between art and a hobby or pastime. "The crucial difference is between art as artificiality (as in `artifice' or `artful') and genuine art." May says of the true artists, "...these are the ones who enlarge human consciousness. Their creativity is the most basic manifestation of a man or woman fulfilling his or her own being in the world." (39)
Next May continues on to the creative process.
The first thing we notice in a creative act is that it is an encounter. Artists encounter the landscape they propose to paint--they look at it, observe it from this angle and that. They are, as we say, absorbed in it.This encounter is very important, because it is where the artist lays the groundwork for the creation. The actual materials and methods artist uses are not as important as this groundwork. To a musician, the actual instrument used and the techniques used to play the instrument are not as important as the composition. (41)
With regard to the amount of work the artist puts into his composition, May writes that what's important is the artist's "degree of absorption" or "engagement". If the artist is very engaged in his work, the actual amount of effort he puts into the work isn't so important. May notes that children display this same engagement in their play. "A healthy child's play, for example, also has the essential features of encounter, and we know it is one of the important prototypes of adult creativity." (41)
Having defined a few terms, May is now better able to make the distinction between "pseudo, escapist creativity" and the real thing: "Escapist creativity is that which lacks encounter." If an artist is not really involved with his creation, the encounter is not present and art is not created. (41)
May also makes a distinction between talent and creativity.
Talent may well have its neurological correlates and can be studied as "given" to a person. A man or woman may have talent whether he or she uses it or not; talent can probably be measured in the person as such. But creativity can be seen only in the act. If we were purists, we would not speak of a "creative person", but only of a creative act . (43)May gives Picasso as an example of one who had both creativity and talent. May writes that many believed Scott Fitzgerald to have "great talent and truncated creativity." Finally, Thomas Wolfe was believed to be highly creative but lacking in talent. (44)
Next May writes about the intensity of the encounter. "Absorption, being caught up in, wholly involved, and so on, are used commonly to describe the state of the artist or scientist when creating or even the child at play. By whatever name one calls it, genuine creativity is characterized by an intensity of awareness, a heightened consciousness." May writes that the physical symptoms an artist experiences in this condition are very similar to those one experiences in any "moment of intensive encounter": "quickened heart beat; higher blood pressure; increased intensity and constriction of vision, with eyelids narrowed so that we can see more vividly the scene we are painting; we become oblivious to things around us (as well as to the passage of time). We experience a lessening of appetite--persons engaged in a creative act lost interest in eating at the moment, and may work right through mealtime without noticing it."
We shut down our nonessential systems in order to direct all our energy to a vital task. May puts it this way:
Now, all of these correspond to an inhibiting of the functioning of the parasympathetic division of the autonomic nervous system (which has to do with ease, comfort, nourishment) and an activation of the sympathetic nervous division. And, lo and behold, we have the same picture that Walter B. Cannon described as the "flight-fight" mechanism, the energizing of the organism for fighting or fleeing. This is the neurological correlate of what we find, in broad terms, in anxiety and fear."(45)But of course in this process an artist doesn't feel "anxiety and fear." May says that an artist feels "joy" during the creative process, and he says he uses this word "in contrast to happiness or pleasure." Creation creates very strong, powerful feelings in an artist.
May notes that creativity may happen on a subconscious level (he relates the "scientist discovers Nobel-prize-winning formula in a dream" story). He also writes that we experience a "heightened awareness" when we are creating, but he makes it clear that this "does not at all mean heightened self-consciousness. It is rather correlated with abandon and absorption, and it involves a heightening of awareness in the whole personality."(46) This paradox of "abandon and absorption" is interesting to me. I find a parallel to Zen Buddhism in that idea. When meditating, one must try to abandon all thought, yet maintain absolute concentration on the moment. It would seem that this is very similar to the creative process at its most intense: one must maintain an intense concentration on the act of creation, but at the same time be empty and relaxed. Such paradoxes seem to occur often in Zen, and this may be partly because there are no English words to adequately describe these ideas and feelings. Western thought tends toward strict notions of black and white, right and wrong, and unfortunately these descriptions are not enough. But by attempting to encompass two seemingly opposing ideas (emptiness and fullness, strength and weakness, etc.), creation and enlightenment can occur.
In creativity there is the central conflict of the complete freedom and abandon of thoughts and feelings and the order and structure which must be imposed on those thoughts and feelings in order to communicate them to others. Only by fusing these opposing concepts can an artist communicate effectively with others. May introduces the Dionysian principle, which he relates to these issues:
The important and profound aspect of the Dionysian principle is that of ecstasy. It was in connection with Dionysian revels that Greek drama was developed, a magnificent summit of creativity which achieved a union of form and passion with order and vitality. Ecstasy is the technical term for the process in which this union occurs. (49)This ecstasy, May says, involves a person's entire being and encompasses the conscious and the subconscious. "It brings intellectual, volitional, and emotional functions into play all together."
May then writes about how a creative person interacts with the world. Creativity doesn't happen in a vacuum; it involves communication of ideas and emotions. "A continual dialectical process goes on between world and self and self and world; one implies the other, and neither can be understood if we omit the other. This is why one can never localize creativity as a subjective phenomenon; one can never study it simply in terms of what goes on within the person."(50)
This relationship with the world is crucial to creation. May writes, "If you wish to understand the psychological and spiritual temper of any historical period, you can do no better than to look long and searchingly at its art." But he says this is true not because artists consciously try to put the world into their works. The artist's environment is a part of his creations whether he wants it to be or not. (52)
Chapter Three: Creativity and the Unconscious
Creativity often begins in the unconscious. May gives examples of phrases that represent this kind of creation: "a thought pops up," "it suddenly hit me," an idea "dawns." May notes that of course there really is no such thing as "the unconscious." The term is used to represent thoughts of which we are not aware. "I define this unconscious as the potentialities for awareness or action which the individual cannot or will not actualize. These potentialities are the source of what can be called `free creativity.'"(55)
May says that these sudden insights often occur which the conscious mind is relaxed and free. They don't happen during intense concentration. Somehow this relaxation of the conscious mind allows the unconscious mind to break through. May returns again to Buddhist ideas. He describes being acutely aware of his surroundings at the time of one of his insights. This sudden awareness is similar to Buddhism's enlightenment.
This "enlightenment" is not, in fact the creation of a new idea. It is instead a new awareness of what exists already. It's a removal of barriers which had formerly obscured the truth.
But the "truth" itself is simply there. This reminds us of what the Zen Buddhists keep saying--that at these moments is reflected and revealed a reality of the universe that does not depend merely on our own subjectivity, but is as though we only had our eyes closed and suddenly we open them and there it is, as simple as can be. The new reality has a kind of immutable, eternal quality."(68)In this sense, creation does not involve creating anything--it is an uncovering of reality. I really like this concept. To extend this, once you have experienced this enlightenment, you can communicate it to others so that they may also see what you have seen. A book, painting, song, or scientific theory can force people to take off their blinders and see things they haven't seen before.
May goes on to say that Western civilization is in general afraid of the unconscious, because in a strictly ordered, mechanized society, the "irrational" thoughts which arise from the unconscious can only create trouble ("The creativity of the spirit does and must threaten the structure and presuppositions of our rational orderly society and way of life." (71)) In fact, he says, Westerners have gone so far as to "put tools and mechanics between themselves and the unconscious world." May says that technology is not inherently bad or good; however "the danger always exists that technology will serve as a buffer between us and nature, a block between us and the deeper dimensions of our own experience."(70) I'm afraid I agree, and it seems we are already misusing technology. But that's another paper.
Chapter Four: Creativity and Encounter
May opens with his theory, which he will comment on in this chapter: "Creativity occurs in an act of encounter and is to be understood with this encounter as its center." He gives the example of Cézanne looking at a tree. Cézanne might paint a particular tree, but what he is communicating in the picture is more than that. He's putting his vision of the tree into his painting. "This vision involves an omission of some aspect of the scene and a greater emphasis on other aspects and the ensuing rearrangement of the whole; but it is more than the sum of all these. Primarily it is a vision that is now not tree, but Tree; the concrete tree Cézanne looked at is formed into the essence of tree." This vision of the tree is what one sees when viewing the painting. There is much more communicated here than if Cézanne had just painted the tree exactly as it was. (77)
May writes that an encounter has two "poles": the subjective pole, which is the artist's interpretation of reality, and the objective pole: reality itself. He writes that the subjective pole is easy to find, but the objective is much harder. It's hard (probably impossible) to say exactly what reality is since everyone imposes their own viewpoint on it. Creativity is of course not entirely subjective: even the most subjective art is just another view of reality. May also points out that the purpose of art is not to portray reality in an objective way--creative people use reality only as a starting point. "The greatness of a poem or a painting is not that it portrays the artist's or the poet's vision cued off by his encounter with the reality. Hence the poem or the painting is unique, original, never to be duplicated." (79) If that's the case, does photography require less creativity? You could take pictures of the same tree over and over again, and they would be more or less the same. But if you were to paint the tree many times, each painting might well be different. Perhaps photography is a less subjective art than painting.
May writes that the intensity of the encounter is very important.
One distinguishing characteristic of the encounter is the degree of intensity, or what I would call passion. I am not referring here to the quantity of emotion. I mean a quality of commitment, which may be present in little experiences--such as a brief glance out the window at a tree--that do not necessarily involve any great quantity of emotion.May says that this intensity must be present for creation to occur. Technique alone, no matter how impressive, is not enough. (88)
The mental environment in which creation occurs is important. May makes an important distinction between receptivity and passivity. If a poet is simply passive when he writes, his poems will reflect that; they will be bland. But if a poet is receptive and focused, he can fully experience the creative encounter.
My poet friends tell me that if you want to write poetry, or even read it, the hour after a full lunch and a pint of beer is just the time not to pick. Choose rather the moments in which you are capable of your highest, most intense consciousness. If you write poetry during your afternoon nap, it will be perused that way. (91)May then relates this subjective-objective dichotomy to his earlier discussion of ecstasy. He says that when an artist experiences ecstasy, he experiences a "temporary transcending of the subject-object dichotomy." (92) In other words, an artist becomes the outside world, and the world becomes the artist. Again, this is a fundamental teaching of Buddhism. I believe a Buddhist would say that there is no distinction between a person and the outside world. Where distinctions seem to occur, they are false separations we have created ourselves.
Perhaps art helps people to see through those false distinctions between the world and themselves. By viewing or reading or listening to art, one might experience the same transcendence that the artist felt when producing the art. There is one situation that comes to mind where the artist and audience can experience this transcendence simultaneously: a concert. There is undeniably a strong link between the performer and the audience in this situation. If listening to an album could be compared to viewing a painting, what could a concert be compared to? It seems to me that an artist can communicate with an audience at a concert in a very direct way. Perhaps this is comparable in some ways to a group of Buddhists meditating. In both cases, many barriers between the self and the world are removed. It seems to me that there are many similarities here, but unfortunately we know too little about the mind to prove anything. But I think it's no accident that I gravitate towards both improvisational music and Buddhism.
May says that this ecstasy is often accompanied by anxiety. Artists who truly experience the encounter must confront this anxiety. This makes sense. When your basic outlook is threatened, you aren't going to feel happy about it. The removal of the self-world barrier that May talks about is a very fundamental shift--perhaps the most fundamental.
According to the theory proposed here, anxiety is understandably a concomitant of the shaking of the self-world relationship that occurs in the encounter. Our sense of identity is threatened; the world is not as we experienced it before, and since self and world are always correlated, we no longer are what we were before. Past, present, and future form a new Gestalt.Of course, May notes, few people (I would say no people) ever experience this fully. (93)
Creative people, May believes, must live with anxiety, even though they may suffer a good deal. "They do not run away from non-being, but by encountering and wrestling with it, force it to produce being. They knock on silence for an answering music; they pursue meaninglessness until they can force it to mean." (93) I agree with this, though I disagree with the word choice, as would, I think, the Buddhists. I prefer to listen to silence for "an answering music" instead of knocking on it, and I prefer to allow meaninglessness to mean instead of forcing it to do so. But these are minor concerns.
Chapter Five: The Delphic Oracle as Therapist
(skipped, not very relevant)
Chapter Six: On the Limits of Creativity
In this chapter, May presents the idea that limits are crucial if creation is to occur. First he mentions physical limits, like those of death and sickness. No matter how intelligent or powerful we are, we can't overcome these limits. He also mentions limits of place (country, city, etc.) time period, and family situation. (114)
May believes that "Consciousness itself is born out of the awareness of these limits. Human consciousness is the distinguishing feature of our existence; without limitations we would never have developed it." May writes that only by limiting ourselves can we hope to expand. Without limits, we would drift aimlessly. Creativity occurs when we confront limits and struggle with them. He gives an example of this: "In a discussion of how he composed his music, Duke Ellington explained that since his trumpet player could reach certain notes beautifully but not other notes, and the same with his trombonist, he had to write his music within those limits. `It's good to have limits,' he remarked."(115)
Form is an important limit placed on artists. "Form provides the essential boundaries and structure for the creative act." Form helps the artist to create, but it also enables the audience to understand the creation. Form must be a compromise between something established, external to the artist (this allows others to understand the creation), and something the artist provides.
The form is born out of a dialectical relation between my brain (which is subjective, in me) and the object that I see external to me (which is objective). As Immanuel Kant insisted, we not only know the world, but the world at the same time conforms to our ways of knowing. Incidentally, note the word conform--the world forms itself "with," it takes on our forms. (118)Form, May believes, forces the artist to purify his ideas, to make them more universal. Rather than limiting an artist's ideas, form can expand them. And form is necessary if spontaneity is to occur. "The juxtaposition of spontaneity and form are, of course, present all through human history. It is the ancient but ever-modern struggle of the Dionysian versus the Apollonian." (120)
May writes next about imagination and form. Imagination supplies much creative material to an artist, but little form. "Imagination is casting off mooring ropes, taking one's chances that there will be new mooring posts in the vastness ahead." But how far should one let one's imagination wander? There is the risk of losing form and limits, and having no familiar landmarks to use as guides. "Will we lose our accepted language, which makes communication possible in a shared world?" (121)
This loss of limits, May writes, is something that people experience in the form of psychosis. He says that some psychotics make up for this lack of limits by creating artificial limits: they walk close to walls, keep their closets and rooms perfectly organized and always in exactly the same configuration, and when asked to write their name on a sheet of paper, always sign in the corner. If any of these rules are broken, they are unable to function. (121)
His capacities for abstract thought, for transcending the immediate facts in terms of the possible--what I call, in this context, imagination--were severely curtailed. He felt powerless to change the environment to make it adequate to his needs. Such behavior is indicative of what life is when imaginative powers are cut off. The limits have always to be kept clear and visible. Lacking the ability to shift forms, these patients found their world radically truncated. Any "limitless" existence was experienced by them as being highly dangerous. (122)Artists, May writes, are the "frontier scouts." They exist on the boundary between form and abstraction, and they push everyone else just a little farther from the existing forms by reporting back from that boundary. "We can surely tolerate their special dependencies and harmless idiosyncrasies. For we will be better prepared for the future if we can listen seriously to them." (122)
Chapter Seven: Passion for Form
The "passion for form" May writes about is present in every human. We all need form to survive. Where it is not present, we impose it.
By passion for form I mean a principle of human experience that is analogous to several of the most important ideas in Western history. Kant proposed that our understanding is not simply a reflection of the objective world around us, but it also constitutes this world. It is not that objects simply speak to us; they also conform to our ways of knowing. The mind thus is an active process of forming and re-forming the world.Of course, May says, he doesn't just mean in intellectual understanding. Our understanding of the world must include our emotions and our imaginations as well as our intellects. "It must be the totality of ourselves that understands, not simply reason." It is easy (especially in our culture) to think that reason is all that's important in our view of the world, but that's not true. In fact, imagination and emotion are at least as important in shaping our vision. (133)
May writes that this passion for form comes from our desire to give live meaning (rationally and emotionally). Creativity comes from this passion for form. All of us are creative in some way, then. Even by observing the world we are creating our own vision of it. And we all communicate that vision of the world, consciously or unconsciously, in everything we do. "Creativity is thus involved in our every experience as we try to make meaning in our self-world relationship." (134)
May quotes Alfred North Whitehead: "Descartes was wrong when he said `Cogito, ergo sum'--I think, therefore I am. It never bare thought or bare existence that we are aware of." Whitehead believes instead that we are composed of decisions, emotions, dreams, fears, etc., not just thoughts. Whitehead writes, "`I am' is my process of shaping this welter of material into a consistent pattern of feelings." (134) "Cogito, ergo sum" is a very Western idea--reason is all there is. That doesn't satisfy me, though. I know there's more to life than thought and reason, and I agree with Whitehead: "Cogito, ergo sum" is an oversimplification.
To begin to understand music we must begin with anthropology. Mathematicians and physicists can pretend, at least, that the truth of what they examine is a pure truth...2+2=4 for everybody. Hydrogen and helium are the simplest, lightest elements wherever you find them. But music is only human. Possibly it will be communicable to extraterrestrials someday; but that would be dumb luck. (96)So music is a uniquely human form of communication. It appeals to some low level of human thought, and it reaches us in a different way than spoken language. Hyde writes that "there is not even a second creature in the history of our entire evolution that seems to have the slightest clue about what we are up to when we get around to music." Yet, Hyde writes, many animals have some comprehension of photographs and other images, and some (dogs, for example) even respond spoken language. (96)
"It seems that musicality dwells in the newest, most uniquely Homo Sapiens layers of our brain. It might be our last-evolved capability." Hyde believes music can give us a new outlook on the world, a new way of organizing everything: "It may represent the filing system for the system of knowledge that will allow us to map our universe in a way that transcends our old logic as powerfully as abstraction transcended the eternal present-tense thought of the other animals." Hyde thinks we've been underestimating the power of music. He thinks music "could be another system of knowledge." (97)
Hyde writes that composers communicate themselves and their outlook on the world through their music. This happens whether they try to communicate their feelings or not, because they communicate a little of themselves to the listener with each note.
By the time you have heard and really digested the content of the million decisions made in each symphony...notes chosen, patterns reinforced or broken, voices exchanging roles phrase by phrase...and then all of the other symphonies, sonatas, piano bits...in the end would you not know a version of Beethoven, the musical mind, as well as you know your brother? And even if it isn't Ludwig, specifically: haven't you had the feeling that some musician--Dylan, Lennon, Jimi, Miles Davis--was revealed to you in complex and intimate ways? (98)Hyde goes on to guess that music may have as much of an "impact on the nature of daily life for all people and all cultures" as architecture or electrical engineering. If this is the case, we are seriously underestimating the power of music. Hyde believes that "Music is at least the equal of the other arts as a forum for philosophy."(98)
Hyde makes the point that music cannot communicate concrete facts, like "who the ninth president of the United Sates was," and music isn't a language. But it is a form of communication. Hyde writes that music "is not a substitute for verbal quantifications. But we have seen concrete transmission of a kind of data into our heads." He writes about the power music can have in affecting our emotions and thought processes, even though we often don't realize it. (99) Unfortunately all we have now is anecdotal evidence for all this. Hyde's book should be interesting, but it won't be done in time for the paper.
Bailey writes that Indian classical music is by its nature improvisational. Though there are a few rules, even these are not fixed. Thus the creation is left to the performer. The performer is, more or less, the composer.
The framework within which improvisation takes place in Indian music is the raga, a variable framework. The basic intervals used, the sruti and the svara, and the rhythmic cycle, the tala, are also variable. Consequently, the main raw materials used by the Indian musician are of an un-fixed, malleable nature. Improvisation for him is a fact of life. (8)Now that's my kind of music. Our Western Classical music is on the opposite extreme, leaving much choice to the composer but little to the performer.
An interesting component of this music is the laya. Bailey compares the laya to the "groove, swing, rock, ride" or Western improvisational music. Bailey notes that this is completely ignored in Western Classical music. The laya is fundamental to the communication of the music from the performer to the listener, as the origin of the word shows: "The origin of the word is connected with the Hindu belief in the `all-embracing comprehensive rhythm of the universe as personified in Shiva, Lord of the Dance.'" (11)
Bailey comments on the subtlety of the raga, and of most improvised music of any kind: "One further point, something common to most improvised music, is that different constituents do not have obvious hierarchical values: anything which can be considered as decoration, for instance, is not in some way subservient to that which it decorates. The most powerful expression of the identity of a piece might be in the smallest details." (12) I have certainly found this to be the case in listening to improvised music. The smallest phrase or even one note, if well-placed, can have a tremendous effect on the piece. But I'm not sure if this is unique to improvised music, and even if it is unique, I don't know what that says about improvisation as opposed to composed music. (12)
Bailey quotes from Ragas and Raginis by O.C. Gagnoly: "A raga is more than its physical form...its body. It has a soul which comes to dwell and inhabit the body. In the language of Indian poetics this soul--this principle--is known as the Rasa, or flavour, sentiment, impassioned feeling." (13) I think the lack of structure in a raga allows this "possession" to occur. In a strictly structured form of music, there is not enough room for this to happen. That is not to say that, for example, there is no room for emotion in Western classical music. But in the less-structured musical forms, instead of just playing the music, the performer can become the music. And I believe the listener can become the music as well, if he or she is open-minded enough. This is the form of communication I'm interested in. In fact, communication is probably too limited a word, but I don't think we have a word to adequately describe this process. Perhaps "entrainment," the word Mickey Hart uses in Drumming on the Edge of Magic, is better. But that might be too specific, referring mostly to rhythm. Luckily, we don't have to have a word for this phenomenon (or understand it) in order to experience it.
In Bailey's interview with Viram Jasani, Jasani talks about how Indian musicians learn to play Indian Classical music. I find parallels to the way parents "teach" their young children to talk.
The time we spend with a Guru is purely spent in trying to understand the framework in which Indian music is set. And a Guru doesn't or your teacher doesn't, really tell you how to improvise. That is purely up to the student to gain by experience and to intuit the various methods of playing the music. What he directly learns from his teacher is the framework in which improvisation or performance of Indian music takes place. But the teacher in Indian music is not usually an academic, he's not a theoretician, therefore a good teacher is able to show you and give you guidelines as to how to perform Indian classical music. (16)Children learn to talk by absorbing the talk of others, not by learning a strict set of rules. Though there are strict rules of grammar, there are many occasions where these can legitimately be broken. In addition word choice and sentence structure are much like note choice and phrase structure. There are always many, many ways to express a thought; most words have synonyms, and sentences can be structured many different ways. The decision of how to best express a thought involves much more than strict rules. It involves our emotions and experiences.
I find that the less structure a form of communication has, the more structure the communicator must provide. And provided structure must come from the communicator's deep-down feelings. This is why improvisation involves a good deal of risk. The reduced structure of the music means that although the music could be absolutely incredible, it could also be horrible beyond belief--perhaps even both in one performance! Add to this that the communicator is exposing his most private thoughts to the audience. It takes a lot of courage to take that risk. This risk is much reduced in more structured music. If the composed music is good, the performance will probably be at least adequate. And although the performers still communicate some of their feelings, the structure of the music limits this. The composer of the music is really doing the communicating, using the performers as his medium. This may be controversial, but here's my theory: I think that you could see a classical performance on five different nights and it would be consistently good. But if you went to a free jazz performance different times, you would have some incredible experiences and some just plain boring ones. I can't remember where I saw this, but some free jazz performer said that he could tell free jazz wasn't random noise because of this range: sometimes it was great, other times, horrible. But it only works of the performer takes the risk of putting himself "out there." If he plays conservatively, avoiding mistakes, nothing but mediocrity can result.
I would also like to make the distinction between performance and creativity/communication. I think that performance doesn't necessarily involve much creativity. Some people just like being on stage, but that doesn't mean they have something new to communicate to the audience. In performing a Beethoven piece, the orchestra strives to communicate Beethoven's ideas, not their own. Creativity (changing or inventing rhythms or melodies) is frowned upon, to say the least. It is true that many performers are also very creative, and these two qualities are linked. But they are separate.
I also find it interesting that so many Eastern qualities are present in Western music (jazz, bluegrass, rock). I know I'm biased, but maybe this says something good about Eastern religion. I'm glad that in this sometimes stifling Western atmosphere, where everything must be proven and knowledge is all-powerful ("I think, therefore I am"), improvisational music has snuck in and turned everything upside down. Okay, enough ranting.
Viram Jasani points out that even though a raga is an abstract idea, one can determine whether a given phrase fits into the structure or not. There are no specific criteria which one might use to determine this--it's all intuition, just like a sentence might not "fit" into a paragraph quite the way one wants it to. "And you intuit when you're playing a phrase which is out of context, out of that framework. In other words, when you learn a raga you are really learning something which is very abstract and you don't learn a raga in terms of its tonal content." (17) The fact that some phrases don't "work" is reassuring in a way; if everything fit in, what would distinguish the good performers from the bad ones? How powerful would the music be in terms of communication? It's the same with any type of improvisation. If it were just random notes, anything would work. But this is not the case.
Jasani says that Indian classical musicians don't think in terms of theory and technique. Instead they "think of the feeling they have for the notes, and the feeling that they derive from the notes." (18) So theory and technique are useful only in the service of feeling. I'm sure Monk or Ornette would agree, although some musicians and music critics wouldn't.
Jasani summarizes, "Ours is a very intuitive music, you learn intuitively, the feeling for a raga is acquired intuitively." And then he supports my hypothesis quite well: "Because we are learning, if you like, a language of music, it comes naturally to us to think of our own phrases and our own representation of a performance of a raga." (18) Sounds right to me.
Though it may be abstract, Jasani says that there is a definite structure to each raga.
And, of course, a raga can be considered a limiting thing. How after all, do you recognise a raga? Because you recognise certain characteristic features about it. And if you are going to play that raga you can't help but play those characteristic features. So this, perhaps, is not improvisation. But your improvisation comes into play when you are trying to use the information presented to you in terms of musical facts, using your ability, and the experience acquired over the years of practising that raga, and listening to other people play that raga, to put all this together and create some new phrase or a new idea within that raga. (18)Bailey writes that, in Indian classical music, it is pointless to discuss whether reading music is a hindrance to the improviser, because none of the music is written down in the first place. He writes that there is another aspect of this lack of written music as well. "But more important than the removal of a possible inhibition or contrary discipline from the performer is the fact that the absence of a music writing/reading tradition gets rid of the composer." He writes that "Writing of a spiritual and of an aesthetic nature or poems which have inspired musicians are the only types of scripted works which are allowed to influence the Indian performing musician." (20) Jazz is perhaps similar here, with its de-emphasis of standard notation. The lack of notation serves to put the power in the hands of the performer, instead of the composer.
The performer-centered nature of Indian classical music is clear in an exchange between Bailey and Jasani. Bailey asks, "Does the amount of improvisation used increase as you go on? Would it be possible to say that?" Jasani responds, "I don't understand what you mean when you say `amount of improvisation used'." Bailey attempts to clarify the question: "Would you introduce more of your own...." Jasani replies, "The whole thing is one's own...the whole performance is one's own interpretation on that raga." (20)
Bailey interviews Paco Peña, a flamenco guitarist from Spain, and it is clear that in flamenco, as in the other forms of improvisation I've explored, technical matters are secondary. Peña says:
You should understand this: each song or each style of flamenco has a different sound, and what you must do, what you normally do, is to get involved in that sound. There is a kind of mood that you must get into--you must get inside the music. It's an abstract thing. Even if there is no rhythm, you produce something, you see. You move around and you dance. (24)This "mood" Peña speaks of is similar to the laya in Indian music. It's the unquantifiable "feel" of the music. And it is of paramount importance in any kind improvisational music. It can't be transcribed or analyzed, as Bailey writes. "For the musical theorist there seems to be no description or evaluation without technical analysis which in turn usually relies on transcription and dissection. For the description--or evaluation--of improvisation, formal technical analysis is useless." And so, Bailey writes, improvisers don't bother with transcription and technical matters. They fall back on less specific descriptions: "An abstract description of improvisation can achieve, perhaps, a sighting. Close, technical analysis leads elsewhere." (25)
Bailey wonders, "Did Paco Peña make any preparation or do any particular practising for his improvising?" Peña echoes the "technique in the service of feeling" sentiment:
Not specifically for improvising. I think I do prepare to be able, technically, to reach anything I want to reach on the guitar and for that, of course, I do my exercises and so on. But nothing specifically for improvising. (27)Of course no improvisation happens in a vacuum: the improviser must work within the structure of his chosen type(s) of music. Bailey writes, "No idiomatic improvisor is concerned with improvisation as some sort of separate isolated activity. What they are absolutely concerned about is the idiom: for the improvisation serves the idiom and is the expression of that idiom." The idiom provides the framework for the improvisation to take place, and the improvisation keeps the idiom vital. Peña says,
We have learned from our elders what they had learned from their elders. But we assimilate the music and treat it in our own way, as they did before. Flamenco is not a museum piece but a living developing art form, and as such it allows for the personal interpretation of the artists. (28)This is very important. Improvisational music must be ever-changing as its performers change. Hopefully jazz will continue to go in new directions despite the efforts of the "Wynton crowd" to standardize it.
Bailey interviewed Lionel Salter, a "well-known harpsichordist and director of baroque ensembles." (31) Salter talked about Baroque improvisation. Compared to our highly structured classical music of today, Baroque music is "out there." It seems that there was quite a bit of improvisation involved. Salter says that the musical score was only guide to be loosely followed: "When it came to slow movements particularly, of course, you find that the notes written down represent a very bare outline, and people who try and play...let's say Handel sonatas, strictly according to the text, end up with something at which Handel would probably have laughed uproariously, because he never expected it to be played cold-bloodedly, just like that." (32)
Salter's description of the purpose of continuo instruments in Baroque music was particularly interesting: Salter could almost have been describing a jazz pianist's comping!
If you have a continuo instrument, such as the harpsichord, its function is not merely to fill out the harmony and keep things together, it's much more than that. The continuo player was often the, as it were, conductor for the group. He had to provide a rhythmic spur to the other people. It was a way of integrating all that was going on....it had to fit in with the general style--with the texture, and act as a stimulus to the other people in the group. It is a two-way thing. The violinists, and the other string players in the group, spurred the harpsichordist on to invent something, and vice versa...the harpsichordist might then think of something first and they would follow him. (32)And here I thought Western classical music was so uptight. Now I know better. The similarities to jazz are surprising. Just change harpsichord to piano and violin to saxophone, and there it is. This leads me to wonder if Baroque music had a sizable influence on jazz. I have read that jazz formed when the complex rhythms of Africa and the complex harmonies of Europe met, so a Baroque influence is quite possible. Now, what about improvisation in African music? I don't think I have any material on that, unfortunately.
Further, Bailey's description of the figured bass (aka basso continuo or thorough-bass), reminds me of jazz chord charts. I'm sure there are other parallels as well. One parallel that Bailey mentions is a scary one: just as creativity and improvisation in Baroque music were snuffed out by a glut of textbooks, jazz is being played less and analyzed more. (35) This can only lead to stagnation, and perhaps even the death of jazz as we know it. But I'm too optimistic to predict the death of jazz. Maybe Frank Zappa was right: "Jazz isn't dead, it just smells funny."
Salter describes the importance of the live performance, saying that variables like the acoustics and the mood of the performer are very important. He also notes that it's important to take chances, even in an age where recordings produce expectations of perfection.
You may be feeling more--I don't know--you may be feeling more worked up on this occasion--you feel something brighter is needed. You go into the music in a kind of--unbuttoned way, and if you play something which doesn't fit absolutely perfectly, well, it doesn't matter too much. You've really got to be on your toes, to be alert to do something which occurs to you which may seem a good idea, and be prepared also to find that it doesn't absolutely work. But it wouldn't matter because then the thing is alive, it's got some vitality in it. (41)As Paco Peña said, the music must be alive, and this only happens when the performer takes chances. Even mistakes can be interesting. It's the creativity of the performer that is crucial.
Salter talks about the need to understand the structure and create within it: "You have to differentiate among the various periods, and very often these days, with the popularity of the harpsichord, you get a great many people who sit down at the instrument and proceed to show off their skill at continuo, and one hears something which is totally out of keeping with the genuine style of the music. So that you need, in fact, a fairly strict knowledge of the period, and then within that, you need the freedom to do what you think is fit." This, of course, is also common to all improvised music. (41)
In the section on organ improvisation, Bailey quotes from The Art of Improvisation by T. Carl Whitmer. These quotes are applicable to any type of improvisation
`Don't look forward to a finished and complete entity. The idea must always be kept in a state of flux.' `An error may be only an unintentional rightness.' `Do not get too fussy about how every part of the thing sounds. Go ahead. All processes are at first awkward and clumsy and "funny".' `Polishing is not at all the important thing; instead strive for a rough go-ahead energy.' `Do not be afraid of being wrong; just be afraid of being uninteresting.' (48)Very good advice, and it reinforces the "take risks" idea.
In Bailey's interview with Steve Howe, Howe talks about the idea of improvisation being very personal and not quantifiable:
When you start to play off the top of your head, that's when the truth is really known about people. I think that is why there is a certain amount of caution in talking about it. Somebody said that if you try to look at inspiration too closely it disappears. Well, it's like that. Untangible. (59)It would seem that improvisational music is one of the most personal of the arts. Music is an abstract form of communication, so there are no complex ideas to get in the way. And in improvisational music, there are fewer barriers between the performer and the audience. It's very direct.
Bailey's chapter on "Audience" is illuminating. In improvisational music, the audience can have a powerful effect on the performance. "Improvisation's responsiveness to its environment puts the performance in a position to be completely influenced by the audience. Invoking professionalism--the ability to provide at least a standard performance whatever the circumstances--usually has a deleterious effect on improvisation, causing it to be confined to the more predictable aspects of the idiom or the vocabulary." (60) Here again is the idea of the wide variability in improvisational music--from just plain bad to incredible--not present in other types of music.
The audience has a power over improvisational music. They can, determine the "mood" of a concert. Of course, the performer can succumb completely to this power, and the music will suffer as a result. Obviously, there is a communication of some kind between the performer and the audience, and both must do their part.
Steve Howe says, "You start kind of directing yourself at the audience. Well, you get this kind of call, almost." He also says that he finds his improvisations at home to be different from those in public. "I think when the audience is there there's a demand for it to be good, and when you're at home, because there's no demand, it's so laid back that I think you can come up with some of your best music...when there is no call." (61) So this communication changes the nature of the improvisation in some way.
Ronnie Scott, a jazz saxophonist, echoes Howe's idea that there's something special about improvisation with an audience.
You can't divorce playing this kind of music from the fact that there is an audience, you can't play it in a vacuum. It's got to be something that communicates otherwise it doesn't mean very much. I mean, you could sit in your front room and think you are playing fantastically and if there's no audience it doesn't mean anything. (61)Scott believes his performance doesn't carry the same weight without an audience: "There must be someone there, because I can't think that it means very much if you're playing to nobody, I mean even if it's other musicians in the group you're playing with." Scott says that when he's playing to an audience there is "some kind of communication on that level which is peculiar to music." (62)
Peña believes the opposite: "Playing before an audience is always a compromise." Jasani echoes this, saying that "a musician obviously will try to put on his best performance before an audience, but he feels restricted. He's very careful." (62) This viewpoint is interesting, because I had thought communication was necessary in order to make the performance worthwhile, but apparently this is necessarily not true. Rollo May wrote about creation allowing performers to live forever. But this is only true if the creation is passed on to others. For Peña and Jasani, the act of creation is enough in itself. The communication is not necessary, and in fact can affect the music negatively. Bailey writes that Charlie Parker had found a solution to this problem: he played with his back to the audience. "A bit extreme, perhaps, but musically speaking, it's doubtful if Parker would have done better prostrating himself before it." (63)
Bailey writes that jazz made a great contribution to Western music. It reminded the performer that "performing music and creating music are not necessarily separate activities and that, at its best, instrumental improvisation can achieve the highest levels of musical expression." (64) Here again is the distinction between performance of music previously composed by another and creation of music during the performance. Performance of a composed piece does involve some creation, but not nearly as much as performance of a loosely-structured piece.
"Currently," Bailey writes, "nobody seems to be sure whether jazz is dead or alive....Each successive jazz revival leaves the music more firmly established as a bulwark of the nostalgia industry." (65) This nostalgia is really somewhat sickening, and it's too bad that jazz has gotten bogged down in it. "In any event, jazz, whatever the reasons, seems to have changed from an aggressive, independent, vital, searching music to being a comfortable reminder of the good old days." (66) In other words, the creation has been sucked out, at least to some extent.
Ronnie Scott talks about the feeling of the performer being more important than the notes:
...what seems to happen is that one becomes unconscious of playing, you know, it becomes as if something else has taken over and you're just an intermediary between whatever else and the instrument, and everything you try seems to come off, or at least, even if it doesn't come off it doesn't seem to matter very much, it's still a certain kind of feeling that you're aiming for... (68)This "zone" where things just "work" seems to be what improvisers strive for. Although how one gets there is hard to say, because if you try too hard, you won't succeed. This is May's "ecstasy," the quickened pulse, the heightened awareness, the "joy" of creation.
The necessity of creation, of "living" music, is stressed by R. Strinavasan, an Indian musician: "The enemy is mere imitation without imbibing the inspiration which makes the art a living thing." This sentiment is common to just about every improviser I've read about so far.
In Bailey's interview with Steve Lacy, Lacy says, "For me that's where the music always has to be--on the edge--in between the known and the unknown and you have to keep pushing it towards the unknown otherwise it and you die." (71) Lacy is one of May's "frontier scouts," who report back from the edge and pull everyone else with them as push forward into the unknown. Lacy says that this innovation in jazz began to slow in the mid `50's with the rise of "hard bop." Lacy describes that era: "It was like--mechanical--some kind of gymnastics. The patterns are well-known and everybody is playing them." (71)
It was during this time that Ornette Coleman arrived in New York.
On the one hand there were all the academic players, the hard-boppers, the `Blue-Note' people, the `Prestige' people, and they were doing stuff which had slight progressive tendencies in it. But when Ornette his the scene, that was the end of the theories. He destroyed the theories.Lacy remembers Ornette saying, "Well, you just have a certain amount of space and you put what you want in it." Lacy found that to be "a revelation." (73)
Then Lacy describes his transition from structured playing to "free" playing:
It was a process that was partly playing tunes and playing tunes and finally getting to the point where it didn't seem to be important and it didn't do anything for you, to play the tunes. So you just drop the tunes. Any you just played. It happened in gradual stages. There would be a moment here, a fifteen minutes there, a half hour there, an afternoon, an evening, and then all the time. (73)So finally Lacy, Don Cherry, Ornette, and others reached a stage where they had reduced the structure down to the bare minimum. Lacy says that the atmosphere of the time allowed that to happen for "a couple of years." But soon the music stopped moving forward "And then the music is finished. It's a matter of life and death. The only criterion is -- `Is this stuff alive or is it dead?'" Free jazz had died, and jazz continued its ossification. (73)
I agree wholeheartedly with Lacy's thoughts on improvisation:
I'm attracted to improvisation because of something I value. That is a freshness, a certain quality, which can only be obtained by improvisation, something you cannot possibly get from writing. It is something to do with the `edge'. Always being on the brink of the unknown and being prepared for the leap. And when you go on out there you have all your years of preparation and all your sensibilities and your prepared means but it is a leap into the unknown. If through that leap you find something then it had a value which I don't think can be found in any other way. (75)So Lacy is on the edge, but he still needs that structure in order to go there.
Bailey writes about the differences between improvisers and non-improvisers. He writes that skills in other areas of playing do not necessarily indicate ability to improvise. Apparently many performers have trouble with even the concept of improvisation, because their training (usually classical) teaches them ideas that are contrary to those of improvisation. So theoretically these performers have the skills required to improvise, but they don't have the right outlook on the music. Bailey writes that the composer separates the performer form the music even more: "Somebody, somewhere, has gone through a lot of trouble to create this thing, this composition, and the performer's primary responsibility is to preserve it from damage." (85)
Bailey interviews Anthony Pay, a clarinetist with the London Sinfonietta. Pay speaks of an important difference between improvisation and interpretation:
There is a crucial difference in terms of the way in which performers approach music. If you are playing in a symphony orchestra of if you are playing a piece of chamber music, you are trying, often against fairly heavy odds, to find out what somebody has meant when they said something. And I think that a jazz player, for example, is saying what is in him. He puts very much more of his total personality into what he does. I think he's a much happier individual in many ways. (87)I think this is important. When playing composed music, the performer tries to play what he thinks the composer wants. The room for the performer's creation is quite limited. Even if the performer is feeling particularly mad, happy, or sad on a given day, he can't let that affect the music too much; he must instead play in the appropriate mood for the piece, interpreting what he believes the composer intended. A jazz performer, though, can take much greater liberties with the piece, and it is desirable for a jazz performer to express his feelings at that moment, no matter what they are. In classical music, it seems to me, this would be considered unprofessional and inconsistent. Again, of course, there is the distinction between the soloist and the orchestra. The soloist (in a concerto, for example) is allowed more creative flexibility than the rest of the orchestra. And if the soloist is playing completely alone, more flexibility is permissible.
Pay's comment on the most important difference he finds between improvisation and precisely notated music is interesting: he believes that there is a fundamental difference between the creation that happens when improvising and the creation that happens when playing notated music. The difference, he thinks, is qualitative, not just quantitative.
The difference is, as far as I am concerned, that one is unknown poetry in which I can progress. In playing written, precisely notated music I'm not actually progressing. I'm just learning to do better what I already do. (87)Pay comments lastly on the relationship between playing improvised music and notated music:
If you can understand what it means to be disciplined and to be accurate, committed, and involved with something which is purely notated, and also be capable of being free, of being able to step outside the inhibition that notation produces, and do something which is your own and relevant, then I still think that is probably the highest form of instrumental talent that there is. (93)It seems that there are few performers who can do this. Most choose either improvisation or notation and scorn or ignore the other side. I have a bias against classical music for some reason, and I'm trying to work on it. For me, the best way to get over this is to keep an open mind and to play classical music. The more I play it, the more I realize it's every bit as valid an art form as improvisational music. But it is hard to overcome the bias, whichever side you're on, and you have to want to do it. Wynton Marsalis is probably a good example of someone who can play improvisational and notated music well.
Bailey writes that the language metaphor is often used with regard to improvisers.
The analogy with language, often used by improvising musicians in discussing their work, is useful to illustrate the building up of a common pool of material--a vocabulary--which takes place when a group of musicians improvise together regularly. (126)Steve Lacy remarks on this "brotherhood of language," as he calls it.
Each player who comes along affects the common pool of language. When you hear a new player--and you make it your business to hear anyone who comes along who has something new--then you have to go back and re-think everything. (126)So this language affects how Lacy plays and listens. And it probably affects listeners and performers alike.
Bailey writes about the importance of form in improvisation. First he notes that free improvisation's critics often claim it has no form, and therefore is not a meaningful form of expression: "Adverse criticism of free improvisation--pretty nearly the only kind available--almost always aims itself at the same two or three targets and the clear favourite of these is `formlessness.'" But Bailey believes that improvisers let the music create its own form, or at least they create the form as they go along. He writes that improvisers have a "forward-looking imagination which, while mainly concerned with the moment, will prepare for later possibilities."(131)
After analyzing Lee Konitz's interpretation of "All the Things You Are," Hartman writes about the distinction (or lack of same) between the composer and the performer. Bailey mentioned this topic as well. "In Western music, as our century has received it from the two or three preceding, sharply defined roles distinguish the composer and the performer. In the paradigmatic case, the performer servers as a skilled interpreter, a scholar of one of more genres and periods of the musical repertoire, and a stage personality and presence." (18) So the two roles (composer and performer) are quite distinct. The difference between these two roles, Hartman writes, is "the difference between tenacious construction and the immediate engagement of performance." (18) Hartman writes of the extremes of composition and non-composition: "At one end, the performance of composed music defines its own goal, however complexly, as fidelity. At the other end, the performers completely abandon any constraining (or supporting) framework of prior arrangement."(21)
Hartman writes about the "voice" of a performer:
How can the idea of a voice be defined at all? In any performance, we confront not Tradition and the Individual Talent, but many voices of tradition and many constituents of individual talent. And how individual--that is, single and indivisible--can the talent be? To find a voice may be truly to find a place among voices. (21)No performer is completely isolated from the performers that went before. They all must fit into the framework somewhere. If they don't, no one will be able to understand what they're trying to say. If they fit in perfectly, though, they'll just be imitating--no creation or individuality is involved. And so finding a voice involves a balance between fitting in and doing one's own thing.
Hartman writes that "the jazz improviser's art, though instantaneous, is not in any simple way immediate. The solo is unplanned, but not entirely unprepared." (21) Then the question is, how can one learn this art, how can one "prepare." Of course the first thing is to learn the structure, and this can be readily taught. But it's much harder to say how to teach beyond that, except in terms of general rules. Creativity and self-expression are quite hard, if not impossible, to analyze and to teach. "The uninspired (that is, inattentive) moments in run-of-the-mill jazz solos may display no further ordering principle than this negative and mechanical one of avoiding wrong notes. But we demand more for real interest." (22) And who decides a solo is "uninspired," anyway? What do we "demand more" of? The subjectivity of the matter further complicates analysis.
On PBS I saw Charlie Rose interview Harrison Ford, and Ford got me thinking when he said he said that for him, acting was a craft, not an art. He said he was into carpentry and he treated acting in much the same way. He said, modestly, that he knew other actors that raised acting to an art, but he was not one of them. I'm sure that there are "craftsmen" in every kind of music. Those are the people that Rollo May excluded from his analysis. Of course, again, it's not so simple. All of us have emotions, and these affect us even when we don't realize it. So no one can be all "craftsman." Everyone's an artist, if only in small ways. It is clear that some people like the intellectual challenge of art while others like the emotional expression. Most are somewhere in between the extremes.
I don't think analysis is inherently a bad thing. It can probably be misused and have bad effects, but it can be helpful as well. However, many musicians and listeners, especially in jazz, don't agree. "For many jazz fans, jazz musicians, and even jazz critics, analysis is sacrilege: It breaks into holy places and writes on the walls. Consequently, there is very little of it, as compared with the self-sustaining industry of literary analysis." (58) And certainly American classical music has been analyzed a good deal. It seems this resistance to analysis is based in fear and not fact. Of course analysis cannot replace listening, but analysis can supplement it.
Hartman remarks on the music-musician relationship: "In the system of aesthetic thought that has developed with European music, one can insist without oversimplifying too drastically that the musical composition is more important than the musician." (71) In jazz, the composition assumes less importance, while the performer is more central. In classical music, "The performer works with details of timing, touch, and so on, infinitely subtle, variable within a range far smaller than in jazz. The virtuoso performer is one whose treatment of these permitted variables most accurately brings to life the written work." (72) So here "accuracy" is crucial; one must be true to the composer. In jazz, because the performer is the focus, listeners want to hear the performer's interpretation of the work. Accuracy is not the paramount concern.
Hartman then returns to his discussion of voice. He writes that in jazz the horn sounds most like the human voice.
The sound of the horn is the jazz performance's most literal "voice"--that term by which we assimilate music to musician, speech to speaker. The metaphor comes easily, as when jazz players talk about "telling a story through their horns," or a scholar points out the melodic influence of tone-oriented African languages. The word's transference from the human voice to the instrument is metaphorical, but barely. (72)But Hartman points out that in a way, on "Lonely Woman," Ornette's quartet is his voice. To complicate things further, each member of the quartet has his own voice, and "Coleman's and Cherry's horns converse with Haden's bass and Higgins's drums; the fact that the two groups seem at first to talk at cross-purposes, and only later discover their tentative shared ground, strengthens the impression of dialogue." (72)
Hartman considers the issue of recording versus live music. Most jazz is played and then gone, and exists only in memory afterward. Memory isn't too accurate, though, so the music, once played, will never exist in the same form again. Hartman writes that this focuses us on "the inventive prowess of this soloist in front or us at this moment." It has another effect also, and that is to involve the audience. "...jazz arose out of highly participatory music in which the audience were also performers. While we attend to the players before us, the sense remains that we are being allowed to participate in something irreplaceable." (74) This is what I like about live music. Hartman describes it well:
...unless we play it ourselves, listening to such music is the very closest we ever get to a perfectly sharp and consistent consciousness of our continuing being in time, "so that," as Eliot says, "you are the music while the music lasts." That is what the tragedy of music essentially celebrates, and live jazz never lets us forget it. (74)Shades of Buddhism again. The performers and the audience become the music. They become one. Perhaps they already were one, they just didn't realize it until the music showed them.
This may be changing now, but the way jazz musicians learn jazz is very similar to the way Indian musicians learn to play. The student learns from an expert or a number of experts, and the student learns by listening and playing.
Students face enormous challenges in mastering both their respective instruments and the complex musical language for which, until recently, there have been few written aids. Moreover, the driving passion of the experts, even those who assume the role of teacher, is, of course, their own music. None assume exclusive control over the training of their students, nor do they typically provide a program of instruction comprehensive enough to form the complete basis for the education of students....The jazz community's traditional educational system places its emphasis on learning rather than on teaching, shifting its to students the responsibility for determining what they need to learn, how they will go about learning, and from whom. (51)The student must hold up his part of the bargain--he must "pay his dues." In this way he can develop his own unique voice, independent of his teachers.
Berliner uses the language metaphor which seems to be common in jazz commentary. "Just as children learn to speak their native language by imitating older competent speakers, so young musicians learn to speak jazz by imitating seasoned improvisers." (95) Recordings have perhaps replaced teachers in some cases, though I'm not sure of the implications of this. In any case, by listening to others play, a musician can develop his vocabulary and voice, just as a writer can learn new words, phrases, and structures by reading.
Berliner explains that a jazz musician must absorb the structure of the music before he can make use of it. The musician must internalize the structure so that he doesn't have to think about it.
Youngsters develop comparable ease as soloists only after they have assimilated the conventional harmonic movements of jazz and have become adept at determining the tonal models that provide effective pathways through them. As with every operation in jazz requiring choice, it is each artist's "musical intelligence"--an "inner essence"--that directs the decision-making process. (179)Berliner writes of the communication inherent in a solo.
Among the myriad resources that soloists filter through their imaginations, one of the most striking is the vibrancy of the human connections that inhabit the piece--myriad inflections, personalities, voices, fingerings, and stances, coursing through the mind and into the musical performance. Such varied imagery informs and deepens every story in the telling. In a sense, each solo is like a tale within a tale, a personal account with ties of varying strength to the formal composition. (205)It's these small, perhaps even subconscious things that give a solo its power. And each soloist has his own inflection.
Again May's concept of "ecstasy," that transcendental feeling, is mentioned. Berliner quotes Emily Remler, "When the rhythm section is floating, I'll float too, and I'll get a wonderful feeling in my stomach." Berliner writes, "Within the groove, improvisers experience a great sense of relaxation, which increases their powers of expression and imagination. They handle their instruments with athletic finesse, able to respond to every impulse." (389) This experience is rare but almost universally sought-after among improvisers.
A group of musicians must have a certain rapport in order to find the groove. When this happens, the group joins to become something more than the sum of its parts. "At such times, the facility artists display as individual music thinkers combines with their extraordinary receptiveness to each other. It is the combining of such talents in the formulation of parts that raises these periods of communal creativity to a supreme level." (389) Curtis Fuller: "When you're really listening to each other and you're performing together, it's like everyone is talking to each other through music....When those special moments occur, to me, it's like ecstasy." This is the exact word that May used. Lee Konitz: "Relating fully to every sound that everyone is making not only keeps the improvising spirit going, but makes the experience complete. To hear it all simultaneously is one of the most divine experiences that you can have." Ronald Shannon Jackson: "This music is really about the relationships between all the players. When the relationship is happening. you don't hear piano, bass, and drums....You hear the total communication of individuals." (389)
So this communication leads to the ecstasy which is so prized. But in order for the communication to take place, everyone must know the language. In fact one must not just know the language, one must be fluent in it. So a player must put in a good deal of work to be able to converse freely and openly. A player must also leave his ego at the door, because communication involves an exchange of ideas. Only when all the players are group-centered (not self-centered) and fluent in the idiom can this powerful communication (and communion) occur.
Berliner provides a few more examples of this ecstasy. Melba Liston says, "I don't know if I can describe it, but I know it when I feel it. Just one night, everybody can feel what each other is thinking and everything. You breathe together, you swell together, you just do everything together, and a different aura comes over the room." The performers, Berliner writes, no longer control the performance; instead, the performance controls them. Buster Williams confirms this: "With Miles, it would get to the point where we followed the music rather than the music following us." (392) And then it's back to Buddhism with Ronald Shannon Jackson:
With certain groups, like Albert Ayler, Cecil Taylor, Ornette Coleman, Blood, and now my own group, The Decoding Society, there is a level of playing which we try to reach which is the same thing that people do when they do transcendental meditation and yoga. They talk about "out of the body" experiences. That's what this music is. It's chanting; it's meditation; it's yoga. It's all these things. In order to play, something transcends. Something happens with the physical, the spiritual, and the mental state in which they combine, and their energy is turned free. It's a cleansing experience which in a religion they would say, "It's of another world." The state I'm talking about even transcends emotions. It's a feeling of being able to communicate with all living things. (393)I like that quote enough to type in the whole thing. Perhaps music is another route to enlightenment or Nirvana. Leroy Williams feels the same way as Jackson:
It's almost like there's a oneness. You and your instrument are one, there's no separation. And it's like a oneness with the music. It's like you're in tune with the universe. (393)Paul Wertico also sees a religious connection:
It's like I'm in touch with something so big and the joy is so incredible. And I don't even know why. It's not like I'm looking up and I know there's a heaven and a hell, but it's like I'm thanking the big picture for just the opportunity as a human being to feel this way--which is incredible. (393)It's surprising how similar all the performers' experiences are. There's definitely something powerful going on, and it's related to communication in some way.
In India, much of the art is not "for art's sake," but is instead intimately connected with religion. The music does not exist in a vacuum. Instead it serves a specific purpose.
Some scholars argue that nothing in India can be regarded as completely secular and separate from religious connotation. Social structure, eating habits, in fact every action is related to a religious philosophy, be it Hindu, Muslim, or another. So it is with Indian music. Before a musician of the classical tradition begins to practice or to perform he offers prayers, and the musical training of a child begins with worship. (83)Unfortunately there is no more information on this subject in this book. But obviously in India there is an acceptance that music can be more than just entertainment. This is true of some types of Buddhism as well, I think, and I'm sure there are other cultures where it is the case. I will have to try to find more information.
Again the voice metaphor pops up. Corbett even mentions this: "Here, again, we encounter the language metaphor as univocal structuring." Corbett mentions that, in jazz at least, each musician must develop his own voice in order to express himself.
Expression, in jazz, is linked to the cultivation of a "voice," which, in instrumental jazz, is held to be representative of the individual who deploys the instrument. It is the jazz musician's primary form of self-identification. Thus the instrumentalist has "signature" elements of style unique to his or her playing, such as tone and phrasing. These are held to be the imprint of a singular subject; they mark off the jazz individual by means of a personal vocabulary. (80)In Corbett's interview with Han Bennink, a drummer, Bennink talks about creativity. The way he phrases it, it reminds me of May's assertion that creativity uncovers reality. Corbett says, "You can make anything swing and be interesting," and Bennink responds,
It's not true. I have to work myself up to a sort of level into a concert where I feel free to do that. It's not like: Now I'm gonna do this or that. It has to come in a sort of way, it has to come spontaneous to me. There has to be a hole that I can think "Wow! Oh yeah..." There must be a sort of tension. Yeah, I can pick up some sticks and play with them, but that sort of opening or hole is not always there for other material, you know? (261)It seems to me that there are connections in this to what May talks about. Bennink is attempting to describe what creation is for him. Perhaps this "hole" he describes is a hole in subjective reality through which he can see objective reality. And the "tension" results from the conflict between subjective and objective reality. Of course I'm reading in things that might not be there. But surely creative people must feel this tension because they are presenting new things to their audiences. This is where May's "courage" comes in. Bennink needs courage in order to face this tension-to undergo the creative "encounter" as May puts it.
Related to this "tension" is the fact that Bennink always tries to push the envelope and do something new. "When it's all going too good I don't believe in it. It's going too smooth....You have these disconnections, but it's good for the music `cause the next day you play much better." Corbett responds "That keeps the music fresh." Bennink says, "Sure, sure. When it's not like that, forget it. Then you're telling the same story each time. I like it as fresh as I can..." So Bennink does what he can to keep the tension, to keep things moving, to keep the creative process happening. (266)
"In India, art is religion, religion art. Her arts are strictly utilitarian. Their purpose is to inform and transform. Inform us of the way things truly are, and transform us into what we might truly be." So this ties in with the idea of "uncovering reality." Music can help us understand objective reality (if there really is such a thing)--what we are and what the world is. It's unfortunate that music is often regarded as simply entertainment, when in reality it can be much more than that. But in India at least, the power of music is more widely recognized.
"We must realize that through the ages, most Indians we illiterate, that their sacred texts were not in written words, for the most part. They were in sculpture, painting, dance...The truths came through not so much the mind, with its cerebrations, but through the eye, through the ear, and kinesthetically, through the dance form. India never had the notion, until our century, of art for art's sake. Art was a spiritual technology." For the Indians, art is a very important method of communication, because they can't rely on printed words. The Indians relied on music to communicate very important ideas. Our culture is so different that I have trouble grasping this or believing that it really worked. But it's true that all the evidence I've found suggests that music is more powerful than I had thought.
"But art, as I say, when it's great art, and really working, what it does is to transport us, lift us to a different state of consciousness from which the world looks very different. And from that different state way in which the world looks, we find spontaneously we want to behave decently." I have found this to be true, but this transition to a "different state of consciousness" happens to me rarely. It happened briefly near the end of the second half of the classical Indian performance on Friday, and it was incredible. It also happened to me a Phish concert. I have a feeling the performers felt it too, but I have no way of knowing. In the case of the Indian concert, it was especially cool because I knew so little about the music. This, I think, is one of the most powerful things about music: it reaches everyone, even those who know little or nothing about the technical aspects. One doesn't have to know the voicing of a chord in order for that chord to cause an emotional reaction. Musical knowledge doesn't necessarily correspond to musical enjoyment. I'm not sure how much of a "universal language" music is. To some extent, different people hear things differently. Sometimes very differently. But I can't help thinking that there's something more to it. I think if one approaches a new type of music with an open mind, it's possible to, on some level, understand this "foreign dialect." The low level on which music communicates sets it apart from spoken and written language, which require much study to comprehend. But this is all speculation and not too useful in a paper, unless I can find someone else who agrees.
Smith described the Buddhist monks' "multiphonic chanting" as "lifting the human spirit to the level of the gods." Smith was, in fact, the first Westerner to record and document this chanting ("A first, a third, and a barely audible fifth coming out of a single larynx.") Smith says again, "This is obviously not art for art's sake, it is more like spiritual technology." This is what Smith said of the Hindu art and religion as well.
Smith relates the monks' description of their feelings during the chant: "They tell me that at first it sounds like they are making the music. The second step it's like the deity is making this music, and if their meditation reaches the climax, then all distinction between deity, lama, and sound collapses, and all there is that one holy tone." For these monks, music is a form of meditation, a way to transcend the barriers of their minds. A communication with their god and each other, and finally with all things. It seems that in religious circles the power of music is recognized more readily than in a secular setting. However, even though secular musicians don't talk about such issues very often, it's clear that some of them are quite aware of music's power. The quotes from the Berliner book and the Bailey book make that clear.
Next we see what Huston Smith was talking about: religious art as a substitute for religious text. "Religious `texts' have been sung, not written, throughout most of human history; and religious behavior has found musical articulation in almost every religious tradition. Navajo priests are `singers'; the primary carriers of Sinhala traditional religion are drummers and dancers; and the shamans of northern Eurasia and Inner Asia use music as their principal medium of contact with the spirit world. Through the centuries, priests, monks, and other specialists have sung the Christian masses, Buddhist pujas, Islamic calls to prayer, Hindu sacrifices, and other ceremonies that form the basis of organized religious observances in the world's major religions." (164) I hadn't realized music was important in so many religions. I have neglected these other religions so far, but I only have so much time.
Just as Smith said, Ellingson writes that in other cultures music is used as a technology rather than an art: "In many religious contexts, music is less an expressive `art' than a technology applied to produce practical results, from the storage and retrieval of information contained in religious narratives and teachings memorized in song to the attraction of animals in hunting, increase of harvests, curing of diseases, communication with the divine, supplication, and control of the various levels of psychocosmic experience. While aesthetic beauty may or may not be integral to such technologies, individual self-expression plays little part in them and may be detrimental to their intended results." (164) Ellingson goes on to write that our Western conception of music as an art comes from our focus on the individual, the self, and the ego. Where we see music as self-expression, others might see it as the product of a group of people or of the gods.
Ellingson also notes that in the West we tend to see the ideal music as independent of any outside factors, while some Eastern religions take the opposite view. "One group of Buddhist texts takes music as the archetypal embodiment of impermanence and conditioned causality, dependent on external sources and conditions, in order to show that there can be no such thing as an individual self. By contrast, modern Western scholars tend to view music, at least in its ideally purest forms, as fundamentally independent of external causes and conditions; they draw a sharp line between `extramusical' elements such as symbolism, function, purpose, and so forth, and `the music itself,' which is supposed to consist of pure arrangements of tones." (164) This is the way I am accustomed to looking at music; music exists for its own sake, and not for a purpose. This idea that the music doesn't have a purpose seems unnatural to me, but I still can't quite believe that music can have a clearly defined purpose and function. When lyrics are added, sure, but in terms of "pure music," I have trouble with it. Which is funny, because the idea of this paper is that pure music can be used to communicate--in other words, it can indeed have a purpose. I see the evidence that this is true, but I'm still not totally convinced. I just need some more practical experience in this area.
In the introduction, Cone writes, "I grew up in a small black community in Bearden, Arkansas, where black music was essential for identity and survival." (1) So just as music is an essential part of the Buddhists' lives, music was crucial for blacks. Most people I know would not say that music is essential in any way. In fact, I probably wouldn't say that. But the influence of music is hard to pinpoint, and it's probably stronger than I or most people realize. Cone, in any case, is convinced of its importance.
Cone's community "needed to express their moods and feelings, their joys and sorrows. They needed to refresh their spirits in the sound and rhythm of black humanity." (1) Music drew the blacks together; the blues was a common language, in a sense. Music tends to do this, it seems. At a concert where the performers are really communicating and the audience is involved, I feel a kinship with the rest of the audience. Of course some types of music push many people away. But the ones who remain, move closer together.
Here's a beautiful connection to the monks and Buddhism: "Black music is unity music. It unites the joy and the sorrow, the love and the hate, the hope and the despair of black people; and it moves the people toward the direction of total liberation." (5) The unity of opposites, a very Buddhist idea.
And then a parallel to Huston smith's notion of music as a "spiritual technology": "Black music is functional. Its purposes and aims are directly related to the consciousness of the black community." (5) Music, in other words, isn't just for fun. It serves a purpose, though this purpose probably can't be very clearly defined.
Back to the "unity of opposites" idea, Cone points out that this idea is prevalent in the blues: "I love the blues, they hurt so nice." And: "I can't stand you, Baby, but I need you,/you're bad, but you're oh so good." (5) It seems to me that even the idea of the blues is a contradiction: music about sad things that makes you happy.
More one the "spiritual technology" aspect of black music: "Black music is also theological. That is, it tells us about the divine spirit that moves the people toward unity and self-determination. It is not possible to be black and encounter the Spirit of black emotion and not be moved." (6) Just as it was in the East, music was used by the blacks to communicate religious ideas.
"In Africa and America, black music was not an artistic creation for its own sake; it was directly related to daily life, work, and play. Song was an expression of the community's view of the world and its existence in it. Through music, Africans recorded their history, initiated the young into adulthood, and expressed their religious beliefs. When Africans were enslaved in America, they brought with them their culture as defined by their music." (30) So these practical uses of music extend all the way back to the Africans.
"Writing about the essential nature of music is like writing about the essential nature of life-before the investigator has probed very far, the subject has ceased to have and life to examine, and only a corpse is left to study." (11) My problem exactly. The solution, I suppose, is not to go too deep.
McLaughlin writes that music is unique among the arts in that it represents almost nothing directly; music has very few external associations. "Even the most abstract of pictures, for example, may contain patterns which are significant to us because they correspond to some real object which is emotionally important...and words cannot help having strong everyday associations, however idiosyncratic their arrangement in poetry or prose." (15) This sets music apart from the other arts. If it's not communicating via references to existing objects, how is it communicating?
McLaughlin continues: "Music has no such roots in the real world: this is probably why Schopenhaur referred to it as the true voice of the Will (the Lifeforce, the great motivating quality in Schopenhaur's philosophy) while all the other arts were only representations of aspects of the Will." (15) This would be the deep, primal spiritual aspect of music. That's what really draws me to it. It's something I don't get from the other arts (others probably do, but I don't). Even though music can't convey representations of real objects very well, "most people would still contend that it expresses something which is deep and valuable and which can be communicated from the composer to the listener in such a way that it conveys some aspect of the composer's creative thought." (15) This is why music is used in religion: it's very effective in communicating these "deep and valuable" ideas.
McLaughlin presents the opposing viewpoint: music is less powerful than the other arts because of its lack of representational possibility; it can be enjoyed on its own terms, but it is not as effective in communicating new ideas as the other arts. To some writers, "music expresses nothing except itself and our pleasure in it consists only in recognizing the beauty of the proportions or of the technique. These ideas go back as for as Pythagoras, who saw music as the voice of universal harmony, in which we are allowed to share, at times, at a due distance, by the grace of Aoide and the composer." (15) Music keeps things `in sync', in a mathematical sort of way. "The idea of music as `audible arithmetic,' registering for humankind (however imperfectly) an ideal of proportion which is universal and superhuman, is very comforting to a certain type of mind, and this view has had champions in every age." (16) Perhaps this explains, at least partially, the surprising number of mathematically-minded people who like music and often perform it (especially classical music). But I am attracted to music's chaos and emotion, its Dionysian aspects, at least as much as I am attracted to its Apollonian side. That's why this paper is not on acoustics or theory. I do find those aspects interesting, even fascinating, but for me they are not most important parts of music.
McLaughlin quotes Edmund Gurney (from The Power of Sound, London, 1880, which the College's music library has (the original edition!) under ML3845, and which I intend to check out): "...the prime characteristic of music, the alpha and omega of its essential effect, namely its perpetual production in us of an emotional excitement of a very intense kind, which yet cannot be defined under any known head of emotion. So far as it can be described, it seems like a fusion of strong emotions transfigured into a wholly new experience, whereof if we seek to bring out the separate threads we are hopelessly balked: for triumph and tenderness, desire and satisfaction, yielding and insistence, may seem to be all there at once, yet without any dubiousness or confusion in the result; or rather elements seem there which we struggle dimly to adumbrate by such words, thus making the experience seem vague only in our own attempt to analyse it, while really the beauty has the unity and individuality pertaining to clear and definite form." (102)
Gurney makes two good points: the second, and less important, is that writing can't convey the full depth of music. In fact, even the best writing only hints at the full scope of the musical experience. The first point is again this fusion of emotions: Gurney even uses that exact word. It is in my experience a sort of raw emotion which contains aspects of all the emotions. I can't think of a song that only makes me feel only one emotion. While one emotion might be dominant, there are always others present. Of course this is all very "soft." To analyze the music further, though, is to lose its essential quality, for analysis by its very nature involves creating distinctions, and music by its very nature involves a transcendence of these distinctions. And even if a more factual analysis is possible, I don't have the skills, tools, or time to do it. I'm not trying to analyze what cannot be analyzed. All I'm trying to do is describe what is indescribable.
McLaughlin writes that music works on many levels at once, and he writes that music can bring all those levels together so they function in harmony: "the patterns of music, translated, analysed, shorn of detail, are able to simulate the patterns of emotions on many levels simultaneously, thus bringing various hierarchical states of consciousness and unconsciousness into harmony with one another during the existence of the music for us, whether this is in a performance or purely in the memory." (104)
When this occurs, one feels focused and "together." "As this happens we experience the sense of unity which arises from the cessation of conflict between conscious and unconscious." (104) McLaughlin takes this a step further; we experience not only unity within ourselves, but unity with all people. "And because we are able to detect in music analogies to the deepest and least individual layers of the mind, we become aware also of our unity with the rest of mankind." (105) Given this theory, music is representational like the other arts, only on a deeper level. Where a painting might represent a person or a tree, a song might represent a mood or an emotion.
McLaughlin mentions the work of Koestler (Insight and Outlook, Macmillan, London, 1949, B1646.K77 I55 1949 v. 1 at McCabe, and The Act of Creation, Hutchinson, London, 1964, BF408 .K6 at McCabe), which seems very relevant to May's writings on creation. "[Koestler's] basic point is that the conditions for true creation, whether in the form of a work of art or of a fruitful scientific concept, are set up when an idea or external precept is suddenly seen to fit into two systems or planes of thought which seemed previously to have little or nothing in common." (106) This is, as I recall, very close to what May wrote. Great discoveries were often made after long periods of intense concentration and study. These sessions provided raw material. Then when studying ended the creator's brain could "relax" and fit things together. That was the time when things which had never fit before jumped into place. I see in the act of creation the same fusion of opposites that occurs when listening to music. The distinction between performer and audience is then blurred. The audience creates and the performer listens. In this sense, both audience and performer are the "frontier scouts," and both are "uncovering the truth" simultaneously.
McLaughlin writes that music brings forth past memories and thoughts, and synthesizes from them a completely new concept. "This is in itself a new experience, and one which is very much more profound and stirring then the individual experiences of which it is composed. It is in truth, a mystical experience, and we might say of it what William James said of the religious mystical state: `The keynote of it is invariably a reconciliation. It is as if the opposites of the world, whose contradicoriness and conflict make all our difficulties and troubles, were melted into unity.'" (108) I'm beginning to wonder if music is a religion. The connections are obviously very strong. It is telling that after a couple hundred pages of factual analysis, McLaughlin ends with this comparison to religion. Again this "unity", this "fusion" is mentioned. It seems to be fundamental to all types of music, and fundamental to this paper as well.
From the preface: "This book deals with the ancient notion that music is in some sense sacred or magical...I am less concerned with whether jazz is at bottom otherworldly than with the fact that many listeners have regarded it as such and acted accordingly." (ix) And then a bit later, "I do not argue that jazz is inherently sacred or that religion lies at its heart, only that it often stimulates religious or quasi-religious feelings and behavior and answers needs commonly associated with them. I hope the results help illuminate the role of music in our lives and the nature of religiously linked behavior in this supposedly secular time." (x) That's certainly a promising beginning.
Leonard compares jazzmen to shamans: "The shaman transported listeners to upper and lower worlds where they visited gods or consorted with the dead, and jazzman [sic], like other performing artists transported their audience to heights and depths inaccessible through ordinary experience." (36) Again May's "frontier scout" idea is relevant. The musician can take the audience out to the frontier, a place the audience might never reach under other circumstances. The shaman, and perhaps the preacher, serve similar functions. "As with his shamanistic forebear, the jazz prophet's chief characteristic is his power to evoke ecstasy, the source of his charisma or magic attraction, giving him the power to legitimize his message with the sanction of a higher authority." (36) It's not so surprising that the concept of ecstasy pops up so often, but I'm surprised that the specific word occurs so frequently. Either everyone uses the same sources, or they all happened to arrive at that word independently. In any case, here it is again, as well as a reference to that notion of "possession" by (or at least help from) a higher power.
"The jazz hero resembles Max Weber's `exemplary prophet,' who makes no binding demands but offers an inspirational model. He is not the instrument of the deity so much as its vessel and inspires an elitist following among those seeking superior religious status." (36) It seems to me this comparison to a prophet is even more appropriate than comparison to a preacher or shaman. Where a preacher or shaman might at times be an instrument of a higher power, the prophet carries the higher power with him.
The power a skilled jazz musician has over his audience is great, but the influence of that musician on his audience continues even after the audience has left the club.
But if the jazz prophet's magnetism was strongest onstage, his charisma often spread elsewhere. With or without his instrument he could electrify the atmosphere. Duke Ellington radiated glamour. "There was some sort of magic to him you wouldn't understand," declared drummer Sonny Greer. "In my whole life, I've never seen another like him. when he walks into a room, the whole place lights up." Sometimes the charisma was even more enigmatic as in the haunting attraction of the introverted, saintly John Coltrane. But whatever the prophet's personality, the magic was an extension of his ecstatic music." (38)Leonard writes that the prophet was often forgetful, but this only reinforced his apparent "otherworldliness." "Perhaps the best example is Bix Beiderbecke, whose young face had the look of a consumptive Romantic poet...and who often seemed totally preoccupied with transcendent concerns. `Everybody loved Bix,' said fellow bandsman Russ Morgan. `the guy didn't have an enemy in the world but he was out of this world most of the time.'" (39) Leonard mentions Monk, and of course Sun Ra also comes to mind. Sun Ra especially fits this "prophet" metaphor.
"Successful religious prophets view themselves not as the deity, but as its agent, and jazz luminaries are no exception. As drummer Billy Higgins put it, `Music doesn't come from you, it comes through you.' Singer Abbey Lincoln agreed, `Sometimes I hear the sound coming from me and I know I'm not controlling it. It's like being a medium. It uses me.'" (41) Whether music comes from God or just deep inside us, these statements still hold true. We can't even begin to understand where music comes from, but we can agree that it flows from some deep, fundamental source.
Dizzy Gillespie combines the comparison to religion with the frontier scout metaphor: "There is a parallel with jazz and religion. In jazz a messenger comes to the music and spreads his influences to a certain point, and then another comes and takes you further. In religion--in the spiritual sense--God picks certain individuals from this world to lead mankind up to a certain point of spiritual development." (41) "And pianist McCoy Tyner, one of many post-boppers who blended his Muslim faith with his belief in the jazz ideal, or gnosis, regarded Charlie Parker and John Coltrane as emissaries charged with bringing sacred truths to earthlings. `John and Bird were really like messengers. In other words, God still speaks to man." (42) Perhaps Art Blakey was thinking along similar lines when he named his band the "Jazz Messengers."
More on the jazzman as preacher:
A good deal of such ecstasy--reminiscent of a shamanic seance with its rhythmic kinesis, music, words, and audience participation--carried over into jazz. And in some ways the jazzman was like a preacher. Guitarist Danny Barker noted, in connection with Bessie Smith, "If you had any church background, like people who came from the South, as I did, you would recognize a similarity between what she was doing and what those preachers and evangelists from there did, and how they moved people. Bessie did that same thing on stage...she could bring about mass hypnotism." Charles Mingus liked to thing of the bandstand as something like a pulpit. "You're up there...trying to express yourself. It's like being a preacher in a sense."Leonard points out that these are only comparisons to religion; jazz is unique and must also be considered on its own terms. "It's supernaturalism existed independently, in its mysterious power to evoke ecstasy. The responses it drew varied according to the listeners' background, sex, age, psychological makeup, and social situation, but all believers found in it some degree of transcendence or catharsis-particularly in the blues." (48)
Leonard writes that music is sometimes considered magical instead of sacred. But this is really a technical distinction, I think, and both comparisons move toward the same conclusion: The fundamental nature of music can be felt, but it just can't be explained.
While he admits that jazz can be discussed in logical terms, pianist Cecil Taylor, a graduate of the New England Conservatory of Music, maintains that "part of this music is not to be analyzed exactly. It's about magic and capturing spirits." And this supernatural aspect is what fascinates him. "Music has those qualities which transform the environment," he believes. "It certainly transforms the players." Taylor himself once worked on a book, Mysteries, which emphasized that "Art works in really mysterious ways." (53)Music is all the more attractive to me because it resists analysis. Instead of being stuck at the surface, I can dig deeper. It would be so boring if we could explain the true nature of music!
Leonard writes of the "flow" the a group can experience when the conditions are right:
Especially mysterious was the nature of musical performance. When things went right, it took its own course, without apparent guidance or plan, sweeping the musicians up in its inscrutable path. A performer might come in off the street, cold or unprepared, and be caught up unconsciously in the serendipitous flow, inexplicably playing notes beyond his ken. (53)Leonard returns to the nature of ecstasy, and how it relates to jazz.
...the sacred or magical nature of jazz expressed itself in ecstasy, which liberated the self from the confinements of ordinary space and time and aroused feelings of supernatural vitality or power. Ecstasy is related to many emotions, most obviously those linked to sex, art, battle, and sports, and it can be induced with the help of hypnosis, drugs, hyperventilation, and other agents that detach consciousness from the senses. But essentially it is something "other," incomprehensible to ordinary understanding and experience, and as such has important religious ramifications, its most powerful and enduring forms providing the prophetic sparks which ignite sectarian beginnings and stimulate concern in established circles about its blatantly irrational nature. (56)Ecstasy is accompanied by emotion, often by many emotions. It really is possible to feel happy and sad at the same time, and this occurs when one is in a state of ecstasy. Ecstasy can be subtle or sublime, but it always changes our perceptions.
I'm pretty sure that at its most basic level music can't convey specific emotions. We know that a piece is "angry" or "sad" because we have been conditioned in that way. A slow piece in a minor key is "sad." A fast piece in a major key is "happy." These ideas are very limiting, and I just don't agree with them. There is happiness and sadness in every piece. "To most listeners in the Forties, bop was dissonant and abrasive, anything but tender and affectionate, but when asked once if it were fighting music, two of its founders emphasized it was not. Drummer Kenny Clarke replied, `No, no, by all means no!' and trumpeter Dizzy Gillespie added, `It was love music.' Even the bitterest hard-boppers, whose dissonances lacerated unattuned ears, felt the same way." (65)
Leonard quotes John Coltrane on the importance of the audience: "It seems to me that the audience in listening is in an act of participation, you know. And when somebody is moved as you are...it's just like having another member of the group." So the audience really becomes a part of the performance. And the communication is universal. "Whether or not the listeners truly understood did not matter, as long as there was some feeling of communication, Coltrane explained, adding, `the emotional reaction is all that matters.'" (69)
Leonard provides another name for "channeling" or divine inspiration: "flow."
Not all performers are so mystical about improvisation, or course, but to all it is inexplicable and absorbing, related to what psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi calls `flow,' a mental state in which events follow one another in unified, organic fashion without our conscious interference. We feel in control of the situation yet fully immersed in it, oblivious to distinctions between self and surroundings, stimuli and response, past and present. Consciousness and behavior seem as one, and life becomes engrossing and meaningful. (75)This is the same universal concept with a different name. Leonard quotes pianist Mose Allison, "That's the challenge every night; trying to work toward that spot where it's all flowing. Sometimes it comes easy, sometimes it comes hard, sometimes it doesn't come at all." (75)
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