Artistic expression and the unconscious

•June 5, 2018 • 1 Comment

Several years ago, I spent an afternoon at Museé D’Orsay, a museum in Paris that had been a favorite of my parents and mother-in-law. The collection was wonderful, but what most remained with me was a quotation from Henri Matisse, posted beneath one of his works: “Slowly I discovered the secret of my art. It consists of a meditation on nature, on the expression of a dream which is always inspired by reality.” (1)

“… the expression of a dream which is always inspired by reality.”

“Inspired by reality” couples perceptions of reality with subjective reflection, described here as if it were a dream. We experience reality through a complex web of sense impressions. And then through an unconscious reflective process, we respond as if drawing from a dream-like state. The artistic creation is a response to sense impressions mediated by one’s unconscious.

I wondered whether Matisse’s meaning was that one pondered the experience, as if sleeping upon it. Yet on another occasion, Matisse spoke of prioritizing the immediacy of sense impressions. He observed that his task as an artist was “to express the bolt of lightning one senses upon contact with a thing,” adding, “The function of the artist is not to translate an observation but to express the shock of the object on his nature; the shock, with the original reaction.” Shock – experiencing something as if for the first time. The response may be a reflective process, yet it must contain the immediacy of the initial perception. It is like drifting into an instantaneous dream-like state, out of time, yet responding in the moment. To “translate an observation” might be more akin to a rational explanation of an experience that is ephemeral and not fully knowable.

I read Matisse in part through the lens of philosopher Maurice Merleau-Ponty, who once wrote:

“My field of perception is constantly filled with a play of colors, noises and fleeting tactile sensations which I cannot relate precisely to the context of my clearly perceived world, yet which I nevertheless immediately ‘place’ in the world, without ever confusing them with my daydreams. Perception is not a science of the world, it is not even an act, a deliberate taking up of a position; it is the background from which all acts stand out, and is presupposed by them. The world is not an object such that I have in my possession the law of its making; it is the natural setting of, and field for, all my thoughts and all my explicit perception.” (2)

It is not that I believe that experience or the making of Art takes place outside of social, political, or cultural contexts. Our perceptions are shaped in important ways by our social existence, and by what we know, understand, and experience within the context of social status and political power relations. There are experiences to which some people may gain – and lack – access, due to their economic, racial, or cultural location in society. Cultural, social, historical, and political context are important shapers of our perceptions and, particularly, how we speak of and act on our experiences. Yet there is an important aspect of our perceptual encounters that is elemental, unconscious, and immediate. Our artistic response is something that the artist does not fully comprehend: why that shade of color, why that particular musical note, why that physical gesture shape or direction.

Matisse addressed the unknowability of one’s own artistic response, when he wrote:

“A musician once said: In art, truth and reality begin when one no longer understands what one is doing or what one knows, and when there remains an energy that is all the stronger for being constrained, controlled and compressed. It is therefore necessary to present oneself with the greatest humility…” (3)

Indeed there is a magical quality to artistic expression. It brings the artist intimately in contact with experience that is less mediated than rationality, prose, religious and/or political structures and strictures would allow. It is not surprising that monotheistic religious traditions have often been wary of the arts beyond the realm of highly structured, prescribed ritual function. The rabbis of the Talmudic period (3rd-6th centuries C.E.) and their contemporaneous early Church fathers were suspicious of instrumental music, associating it with pagan cults that may have interwoven music, wine, and sexuality.

The second of the Ten Commandments “do not make a graven image/idol, or any likeness /  image [of any-thing] that is in the heavens above, or in the earth below, or in the water under the earth” was understood as a proscription of representational Art. (4) American Jewish author Chaim Potok argued that this prohibition was a core element of monotheism (it was the subtext of a talk of his I attended in the late 1980s) and it became the focus of his novel My Name is Asher Lev. (5) In the book, Potok’s protagonist is a artistically talented Hasidic young man in Brooklyn who is drawn to representational painting. This eventually includes a crucifixion scene. Asher struggles with the ultimately irreconcilable conflicts between his artistic drives (which win out) and his ties to community and family. Personally, I believe that the second commandment can be read as a rhetorical response to idolatrous practices in the ancient world, real and imagined. Even then, the presence of representational mosaics in early synagogues suggests that figurative Art never ceased.

There is an element of Art that is potentially idolatrous because the artistic process can bring the artist more closely in contact with the natural world, unmediated by interpretive traditions or rational discourse. Direct sense impressions, when trusted as valid experience could lead one to worship nature rather than the Source of nature as understood within monotheist traditions. Yet this apprehension is based upon a misunderstanding of Art, for the artist seeks not to deify the focus of one’s experience but to commune with it. It is the immediacy of that experience, and then one’s instantaneous reflection upon it, that is at the heart of Art making. The goal is not a fixation or objectification. One can be transfixed but not leap to conclusions about its potential divinity. Merleau-Ponty writes:

“Reflection does not withdraw from the world towards the unity of consciousness as the world’s basis; it steps back to watch the forms of transcendence fly up like sparks from a fire; it slackens the intentional threads which attach us to the world and thus brings them to our notice; it alone is consciousness of the world because it reveals that world as strange and paradoxical.” (6)

Often it is within mysticism that monotheistic religions reconcile the primary experience of perception with interpretive traditions. The theological shift occurs by situating God within rather than outside of creation. A immanent theology generally (7) stops short of Spinoza’s identifying God with the world. For instance, with Judaism, the early Hasidic Rabbi Menahem Nahum of Chernobyl held that “God’s glory is manifest in His many garments; the whole earth is a garbing of God. It is He who is within all the garments.” (8) In this formulation, God infuses creation yet is not equivalent to it. The Cherobyler Rebbe implies that religion needn’t be an opponent of the primary experience of perception – to the degree that it is possible to perceive. Religious expression can in a spectrum of ways, celebrate the wonder of the natural world. (9)

To return to Henri Matisse: “A musician once said: In art, truth and reality begin when one no longer understands what one is doing or what one knows...” (10) If the artistic impulse is essentially beyond comprehension, how can we learn about our perceptions and understand something about how we translate them into Art?

This discourse was until recently dominated by the assumption that human beings are the only artistically expressive species. Yet, just as European artistic practices have ceased to be seen as universal paradigms, so too have assumptions about human artistic exclusivity. The context for understanding musical expression has in recent years expanded to a broad spectrum of human and animal cultures and intelligences.

An inquiry about musical perception and practices seems more challenging than Matisse’s visual model. Music, when limited to notes (as opposed to recorded sounds) has less referential  potential than visual Art. Musicians most often draw upon perceptions or ideas about existing music to create new music: (11) the improvising jazz musician crafts a melodic line within the musical tapestry of collaborators, the African drummer who adds a layer of rhythmic patterns upon other drumming patterns of fellow drummers, the western Art music composer who notates two contrapuntal lines, however original, drawing upon previous concepts of melody and juxtaposition of notes. There are musicians who draw upon sound models found in nature (for instance, a songbird motif), yet generally, musical motifs, at least in Western traditions, lack representational qualities, and are not capable of conveying semantic ideas. If music references anything, with the exception of lyrics, most often the object is other music.

Returning to Matisse’s paraphrase of a musician: “In art, truth and reality begin when one no longer understands what one is doing or what one knows…” Performers of fully notated understand their task reasonably well, despite mystifying language about the music moving through them, and depictions of pianists as “poets.” (12) The task is interpretive, giving sonic life to a work that has been conceived in detail in advance. Yet, the more spontaneous the music making, the more unknowable becomes our understanding of its nature. Our ability to describe it weakens. Despite centuries of philosophical writings about musical aesthetics, musicology, and cultural anthropology, music making becomes mysterious, bordering on the magical and ephemeral.

We all know the experience of “becoming lost” beyond thought while playing music. (13) In those moments, we allow ourselves unscripted musical episodes, akin to the early playful childhood musical experiences that we may fleetingly recall. I have been thinking a fair bit recently about the nature of unconscious processes during musical performance. It is now the topic of a book I am working on. The focus is on the ways that musicians translate the somatic aspect of playing an instrument into (unspoken) metaphors that influence the sonic outcome. Work on this project has led me into fascinating learning about the nature of consciousness, about metaphor, and embodied perception. Yet all explanations about that unconscious process of making music will never truly answer the question of how musicians create. If words could articulate musical ideas or processes, what would be the point of making music? At the end of the day, artistic creation remains substantially unconscious, and that is what I love most about being a musician.



  • (1) Jack D., Flam, ed. “Interview with Jacques Guenne, 1925.” Matisse on Art. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1995.
  • (2) Maurice Merleau-Ponty, Phenomenology of Perception. London and New York: Routledge (1945/1962) 2005, xi-xii.
  • (3) Henri Matisse, Jazz,translated by Sophie Hawkes, George Braziller (1947) 1992. Matisse continues: “… white, pure and candid with a mind as if empty, in a spiritual state analogous to that of a communicant approaching the Lord’s Table. Obviously it is necessary to have all of one’s experience behind one, but to preserve the freshness of one’s instincts.”
  • (4) Book of Exodus 20:3.
  • (5) Chaim Potok, My Name is Asher Lev. New York: Alfred Knopf, 1972.
  • (6) Merleau-Ponty, xv.
  • (7) The founder of the Lubavich Hasidic movement Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liady took a more radical perspective, declaring “alles ist Got” (everything is God).
  • (8) Menahem Nahum, (Arthur Green, ed.), Upright Practices; The Light of the Eyes. Paulist Press, 1982,
  • (9) The religious transnaturalist tradition of Rabbi Mordecai M. Kaplan reflects a distinctly religious humanist formulation; its focus is on human character, particularly within community, less than it does the place of human beings within the spectrum of nature: “Transnaturalism reaches out into the domain where mind, personality, purpose, ideals, values and meanings dwell. It treats of the good and the true. Whether or not it has a distinct logic of its own is problematic. But it certainly has a language of its own, the language of simile, metaphor and poetry. That is the language of symbol, myth and drama. In that universe of discourse, belief in God spells trust in life and in man as capable of transcending the potentialities for evil that inhere in his animal heredity, in his social heritage, and in the conditions of his environment. Transnaturalist religion beholds God in the fulfillment of human nature and not in the suspension of the natural order.” Mordecai Kaplan, Judaism Without Supernaturalism. New York: Reconstructionist Press, 1958, 10.
  • (10) Henri Matisse(1947/1992). Matisse continues: “It is therefore necessary to present oneself with the greatest humility: white, pure and candid with a mind as if empty, in a spiritual state analogous to that of a communicant approaching the Lord’s Table. Obviously it is necessary to have all of one’s experience behind one, but to preserve the freshness of one’s instincts.”
  • (11) Certainly, visual Artists regularly reference other artwork, artists, and traditions of art making.
  • (12) For example, a press release announcing a 1999 performance by a pianist at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill quotes music critics: “Alan Weiss ‘penetrates to the very core of the music,’” The Daily Telegraph wrote of the pianist’s London debut in 1982; as a musician, he is ‘a poet,’ reported Le Soir of Brussels.” Accessed May 19, 2018.
  • (13) This can be true of all music, including music with functional qualities or intentions, like work songs, religious hymns, or folk songs composed to be sung in groups, to strengthen social bonds or convey political ideas.



Remembering Julius Lester

•January 18, 2018 • 3 Comments

Julius Lester (January 27, 1939 – January 18, 2018) was one of my favorite friends. We became pen pals in 1985 or 86 when I wrote him a letter about his newly published novel Dear Lord Do Remember Me, not knowing that this would open a conversation spanning many years. The book (loosely based upon the life of his minister father) was profoundly meaningful to me as a rabbi-in-training. I was overjoyed to finally meet in person a couple years later, when Julius visited Philadelphia to speak at the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College about his book Lovesong: Becoming a Jew. While sharing a meal, we discovered that we were both born on the same day of the year (January 27), sparking a practice—that lasted until recently–of writing or calling that day.

I confessed that Dear Lord wasn’t actually my first exposure to his work. I had listened to Julius’s show on WBAI Pacifica Radio when I was a teenager, during which time I had also read his early books (Look Out Whitey…To Be a SlaveBlack Folktales, and others). I still have some of those Grove paperbacks on my bookshelf. Many years later, we discussed that period of his career in greater depth, but the truth is that Julius’s ideas, and his gutsy way of fighting for the freedom of expression have touched my life for fifty years.

Over the years of our friendship, Julius and I corresponded, chatting over the phone, and met up when I was in Massachusetts. Our conversations spanned Jewish identity, Black history, theology, academic politics, writing, becoming a parent, and how to be an effective religious service leader. His magnificent gifts as a writer and story teller were exceeded only by the masterful way he projected his beautifully resonant deep singing voice when he led prayer. Hearing him sing was always a highlight of the annual Conference on Judaism in Rural New England during the 1990s. The congregation he served in St. Johnsbury, Vermont was graced by that beautiful voice, his thoughtful words (at times we discussed our respective sermonic ideas), and loving presence from the pulpit. Julius very much wanted me to succeed him there when he could no longer lead High Holy Days, and I know how disappointed he was when I had to decline; I sincerely regret not fulfilling his wish.

One of my favorite memories of Julius dates to the time when he and my daughter met. Allison was quite young at the time. She loved Julius’s re-casting of the B’rer Rabbit tales (he strove, very successfully, I believe, to reclaim their folk core, while freeing them of their racist baggage). Yet, wishing that some of the characters were female, Allison asked Julius whether he would introduce B’rer Sister into future stories. From that time onward, Julius referred to Allison as B’rer Sister Allison.* Years later, when Julius lovingly inquired about Allie’s recovery from a major auto accident, he revised her nickname to “Sister Rabbit.” This became, for him, her permanent nickname. I will never forget how much Julius’s support meant to me during that period, and following my father’s death.

I have always loved and admired Julius Lester. I cannot imagine January 27 as anything but our joint birthday. He has been the favorite pen pal of my life, and his friendship has been one I’ve most cherished. His humor, insight, and kind spirit will live on through his many books and his wondrous photographs. May his memory be a blessing.

*Addendum (January 21, 2018): I had not remembered, when writing this remembrance, that Julius sent Allison a copy of his newly published “Sam and the Tiger” (1996) as a sixth birthday present. Here is his inscription: “To my friend, Brer Sister Allison – Brer Rabbit came by my house a few days ago + he said, ‘Bet you didn’t know my buddy, Brer Sister Allison, is going to have a birthday soon.’ ‘I didn’t know that,’ I responded. ‘You best be sending her a book or I’ll eat up all your carrots.’ ‘I don’t have any carrots,’ I answered. Brer Rabbit chuckled. ‘well, maybe not anymore.’ Both Brer Rabbit and I wish you a very, very, very, very HAPPY BIRTHDAY! Your friends, Julius / Brer Rabbit.”


Music and human caring about all living things: thinking further about Paul Winter

•December 20, 2017 • Leave a Comment

I have spent much time during the past few months thinking and writing about musical expression among animal species. This follows several decades when my focus was on the sonic expression of one specific species, human beings. I think of this seeming change as less a shift than as a broadened focus. If there’s one thing that religious life has taught me, it is that we humans are not at the center of everything. Thus, human music becomes not only a multicultural collection of myriad human song, but forms of sonic expression among many sonically expressive and no doubt musically diverse species.

We may never know if sonically expressive species have lived in our planet’s ancient past. Yet as we discover an increasing number of planets in other solar systems that hold the potential to host living species, it is only time until some emerge whose life forms are sonically expressive. This era may become known, if human history continues to be recorded, as – alternately – a time when humans destroyed the life-sustaining potential of our own planet and thus the sonic expression of the species that it hosts.

Of course, we needn’t look far to encounter intelligence and sonic expression among non-human life forms; they already surround us. Someday, if days remain possible at all, it may seem shocking that humans are, or were, so self-referential as to not notice, right before our noses, and ears, the abundance of forms and expressions of intelligence different from our own.

Beginning in the late 1960s, scientists have come to recognize that many animals, even some insects, perceive their world in intricate ways that transcend instinct, communicating, and expressing themselves sonically, visually, and with physical movement. Just as fields within the Humanities now acknowledge that human expression is culturally based, so too are we beginning to recognize the multiplicity of animal expression.

Even more fundamental is the acknowledgement, sadly not universally agreed, that humans cannot serve as a standard against which all perception or expression can be judged. This requires a shift away from anthropomorphism. This seems obvious and simple, but this evolution of thought has been slow and grudging. Animal behavior continues to fascinate us when we can assess it in relationship to human abilities and concerns. This human default methodology simply points to the limits of our ability to comprehend non-human forms of perception. It is a hubristic fault that endangers the entire planetary enterprise.

The aspiration to understand animals takes many forms. For religious people, it is connected to a hope to better comprehend the nature of divinity as a creative force. From this perspective, we hope to gain knowledge of our place within a created cosmos by gaining a broader comprehension of the “mind” of its creator. Science could ideally find common cause with this religious perspective because new discoveries should enhance, not diminish, our capacity to experience wonder. Unfortunately, a competing, currently more dominant and intently anthropomorphic perspective is recklessly indifferent to wonder, interested largely in the domination of other species. Methodologies, be they religious (texts assigning humans to exploit the land) or scientific (technologies to extract resources from fragile environments) are applied to legitimate the killing of animals, directly as commodities and indirectly by destroying natural habitats. Most endangered species and environments don’t face potential extinction due to a natural course of events. While religion and science “could” meet for life-giving reasons,  they are instead each exploited for distinctly economically opportunistic purposes.

It may be that animal perception will always remain unknowable to humans. We can observe other species, recognizing how distinct their structures of mind and body are from our own. Maybe we can identify historically distant shared ancestral systems and potentialities that have taken diverse or parallel courses. Every species has developed in its own manner in response to specie-specific contexts and needs. Who knows what interest animals may even have in understanding us, beyond for their primary need to protect themselves from humans. Maybe other species experience wonder; if so, they could remind us of a similar potential we hold within ourselves and upon which our future depends.

Recent articles (Elizabeth Kolbert in The New Yorker, and Thomas Gilovitch in The New York Times)* point to the powerful role that confirmation bias leads people to resist changing their opinions. Creators and performers of art, music, theater, and dance know that the Arts are one of the few means we have of reaching people in the face of group think. This is because the Arts can uniquely impact on human emotions. People can be sonically moved to engage with the cause of endangered species when they feel emotionally moved by music. However, there is an inherent problem in achieving this directly, simply through exposure to the expressiveness of other species. Beyond the referential recognition that a sound reminds them of their own human expression, or maybe of a pet, it is difficult to move people beyond an unsustainable “how cute” stage. It is easily possible to recognize the beauty of a songbird’s expression but few listen in a sustained manner and even fewer translate that appreciation into a commitment to policy in the face of inconvenience or economic cost. Few people venture to remote environments to listen to songbirds, and even fewer ride in boats equipped with hydrophones that enable close listening to the voices of whales. It might be that unless animal voices are accompanied by electronic beats or guided meditations, few will listen even to recordings.

Translating admiring listening into compassion and caring for those life forms requires something more. This “something” is a shift within human perceptions about animal voices, towards a recognition of the  parallels that exist between non-human expression and that of human beings.

Human beings have for centuries been embroiled in debate about what is music, what is “Art,” what is artistic… and conversely, what is not. It has long been my contention that such debate is little more than an attempt to establish cultural norms. Such discussion becomes heightened when the question of animal expression is added to the mix. “My culture’s norms should define what is music” becomes “how can one speak of animals making (the lofty thing designated) Art?” None of these discussions interest me. The question I prefer to ask is how can we adjust our understanding of our own musical capacities and interests, considering the sonic expression of a broader range of species? What term can be crafted to expand conceptions of “human music” to the expanse of music of many species? How can our understanding of music reflect our membership within the many species of our planet (if not beyond)?

This task requires a tremendous conceptual leap, despite mounting evidence to support the idea; confirmation bias inhibits such a shift (“everyone knows that people make music; animals, except for my own pet, lack capacity beyond making meaningful, organized sounds”). But an appeal to the intellect is not the only means of conveying what may be termed the musical nature of (at very least some) non-human species.

A more effective appeal is a call to the emotions. There are many strategies, but here I will mention but one, an enterprise at which Paul Winter has excelled. Winter listens closely to animal sonic expression, identifies attributes that can be produced by human instruments, treats motifs as expandable melodic phrases that can be set to humanly-engaging harmonies, and intertwines the resulting musical expressions of human and animal. Human beings can recognize animal motifs as musical as well as beautiful. As a result, humans can feel empathy for the animals whose voices are the musical source.

One of Winter’s most significant contributions is his ability to craft a bridge of empathy that connects human emotion with a mindful acknowledgement of other living beings.*** Humans are wired to enjoy music because it feels good to us**. Paul Winter playfully subverts this capacity, shifting it from our hubristic interests towards common cause with other life forms on our shared planet.

As I discussed in my previous blog posting, I am in the midst of writing a book on these themes. Stay tuned!


*Thomas Gilovich, “The Trap of Confirmation Bias,” The New York Times, December 22, 2015; Elizabeth Kolbert, “Why Facts Don’t Change Our Minds: New discoveries about the human mind show the limitations of reason,” The New Yorker, February 27, 2017,  ttps://

**A topic for a future blog: is it true that humans alone engage in sonic expression for enjoyment, while other beings do so strictly for reasons of individual or group survival?

*** Particularly ones that have no apparent need for or interest in us.

A new book project

•December 13, 2017 • 2 Comments

It has been nearly a year since I last posted a book blog entry. During this year, I’ve recorded and released a new duet recording with drummer Tani Tabbal, and otherwise been primarily engaged in political and moral issues of our time. But… I have also been working on two book projects. Maybe it’s time I told you about one of these.

My two previous books have been explorations about collective improvisation: how bands can function as a “group mind” while maintaining creative space for every individual musician. For groups that step outside of song forms and other conventional structures, I ask, how do the musicians “know” what to play: what is the role of intuition, of shared musical ideas that evolve within a band, of musical devices that provide structure, how a band’s cultural milieu impacts on the musical bonds they form. Such has been the focus of You’ll Know When You Get There: Herbie Hancock and the Mwandishi Band (2012) and The Miles Davis Lost Quintet and Other Revolutionary Ensembles (2016, just out in paperback), both published by University of Chicago Press.

While working on these books, I’ve asked myself a range of questions that I generally haven’t placed in print; some have found space in this blog. To name two: how does somatic experience (for instance, a player’s physical relationship to their instrument) impact on improvisation, and, what can we learn about group musical behavior from models in non-musical disciplines. Some of this thinking reflects many years of my avocational reading interests, among them Social Work group theory, and scientific literature (within primary research and secondary sources). During these past two years, much of my scientific reading has been devoted to animal behavior. One of the topics that has migrated into this blog is bird flocking and fish schooling behaviors. My thinking about music making has steadily broadened, increasingly viewing it as a phenomenon that encompasses the expressive sonic behavior of many living things, not just human beings. I’ve been questioning myself about what can we learn a. about animal perception and expression in the absence of direct evidence from the animals themselves (who seem indifferent to our interests), and b. about the nature of human musical practices when viewed within broader-than-human spheres of music making.

Some ask the question: how can one posit that music could be anything other than human activity? We alone, it is said, are capable of aesthetic concerns and performance practices. I remind these questioners that there are very few generalizations one can make cross-culturally about human music making; and that a growing body of research suggests distinct sonic practices by other species that share commonalities with certain human musical behaviors. To offer a handful of examples: the clearly discernible presence of musical structure within humpback whale song; the transmission of new annual songs across populations of whales; the learning process by which songbirds develop their skills; the degree to which songbirds individually develop and perform elaborate, ornate, expansive, and seemingly aesthetic songs. I could go on and on. To suggest that solely biological functions drive animal song while primarily aesthetic motivations drive human music universalizes culturally-bound human practices while subjecting all human cultures and species to those understandings.

My objections about treating European Art Music practice as a universalized lens to interpret all forms of sonic expression arose (without my being aware of it) very early in my life. I spent many years of childhood study at the Julliard Preparatory Division. But my prior musical experiences reflect cultural expectations and musical values differing from what I learned there. My first musical memories took place when I was five-years old: participating in group folk singing to launch Freedom Riders, and my initial impressions while playing the piano, prior to taking lessons. The folk singing experiences were collective and social, functional, non-performative, with little ear to aesthetics; at the piano, my primary perceptions—ones that have continued to play a major role in how I approach improvisation–were tactile and somatic: the resistance of the keys under my fingers, the reach of my arms outward, up and down the keyboard, my placement at the center of an array of sound actuators… all of which were in intimate relationship with the sound produced.

My next musical influential experience occurred in Hebrew school, where the primary function of singing was ritual and religious; collective, monophonic, call-and-response in structure, reflecting textual/poetic forms; when I first heard musical forms within Black culture, certain aspects made immediate sense to me in light of the textually-based music of the Jewish people.

The problem of universalizing European Art Music emerged in my consciousness (more confusing than clarifying) when I publicly asked my Julliard Music Theory teacher “what about Jewish music?” I was told that this referred to folk material that, in the hands of a composer, can be turned into “music” (Miles Davis relates a similar comment by a Julliard Music History teacher in 1942, who termed Black music a folk tradition, not really music, for a sad people). So much for Julliard being the underpinning of my musical understanding (which it indeed was for technique).

Regarding debate about whether the term “music” should be applied to animal song, I am reminded of a (maybe apocryphal) interchange with Arnold Schoenberg reported by John Cage. Schoenberg disparaged Cage’s skills as a composer. Cage reports his response: in that case, he would be happy to refer to his work as “organized sound.” Cage’s lack of attachment to the term “music” is something I share. If criteria that one asserts to define “music” is lacking, I am content to dispense with that title, and speak in terms of “organized sound.” But then, if the word “music” is reserved for very specific forms, settings, and aesthetic ideas, then what meaning does it retain? If electroacoustic music, Haitian ritual music, work songs, group folk singing, and performative Art music require a single umbrella term, then why not call it all “music?” And if so, if substantive aspects of the songs of whale, bird, and other species share attributes with human music, we must either modify the word “music” with the adjective “human” or admit that music is a cross-species phenomenon. Too much time is wasted by people referring to music they do not like, do not understand, or for other reasons disparage, as “not music.”

I question the idea that human capabilities and interests should serve as the standard and context through which all forms of sonic expression are judged and interpreted. As we continue to explore the potential for intelligent life on other planets, we cannot even imagine how our assumptions about sonic expression may be stretched and changed. The formal structures of humpback whale song might not have been noticed by humans had not a scientist’s musical experience and knowledge helped find meaningful patterns in the sonograms. It was by chance that the sounds were detected at all (in a search to detect underwater military submarines). Up to that point, whales were of interest to humans largely as prey, to mine materials from their bodies (and, by extension, as the subject of a famous novel).

Clearly, a shift in human perception has occurred, due to the hard work of scientists, environmentalists, animal rights activists, and … musicians. This book began as a study of saxophonist Paul Winter, arguably the most prominent and influential of musicians to take an interest in the song of endangered species. Winter identifies himself as first and foremost a musician (rather than as an environmentalist or a scientist). But his work places front and center the act of listening to, and incorporating within human music, the sounds of other species. Winter offers similar attention to spaces within the natural world. He is not the only musician with these interests; others include musicologist/violinist Hollis Taylor (who studies the pied butcherbird of Australia), David Rothenberg (who, even more than Paul Winter, has played his horn to and among whales), Hildegard Westerkamp (who listens to and composes with the sounds of sonic environments), David Dunn (who engages sonic environments to create works), and others, several of whom are discussed in my book.

After completing some initial writing about Paul Winter, the focus of my writing shifted beyond the work of any individual and more towards questions about the import of this work and its attendant philosophical issues. Paul Winter’s interests continued to offer a framework and a main case study. His work has inexplicably received limited scholarly treatment, and his human aesthetic treatment of field recordings have helped mold public discussion. Winter’s premise is that the primary goal of involvement with endangered species should not be learning about them for the sake of learning. Rather, music may have the power to engage human emotions and thus generate empathy for other living beings. Human beings are the sole species actively engaged in eradicating entire species and their natural habitats, directly and indirectly. We also are the sole species with the power to protect those affected. Argumentation has not successfully changed official policies that impact the future of this planet. Maybe music can play a role where discussion has failed; or rather, maybe music can increase the impact of that discussion, leading to more decisive action.

A chapter of my new book traces the music education efforts of Paul Winter and his circle, particularly David Darling and Susan Osborn. Their shared goal is expanding the range of human expression. In Winter’s terms, humans can cultivate “sound play” in their lives; in the form of his own workshops, Osborn’s “Seeds of Singing,” or Darling’s “Music for Everyone.” A fascinating attribute of animal song is the playful qualities one finds among some species’ sonic expression. Learning to appreciate bird or whale song requires an appreciation of the playful qualities of that song, and of the minds and bodies that bring it forth. To achieve this, humans must learn to treat our own sonic expression as first and foremost a playful, expressive act. Playful thinking can ideally open us to recognizing playing activity in other life forms. Appreciating the nature of species, so different in kind from ourselves that we can barely conceptualize  their sounds as musical, requires an imaginative leap.

You’ll be hearing more about the topics within my new book in the coming months.


Protecting the word “improvisation” from a new president’s (allegedly) “improvisational style”

•January 22, 2017 • 1 Comment

“New President Is Improvising Wave of Edicts,” declares a New York Times headline (January 22, 2017). The “improvisational” style of the inaugurated one has been much “trumpeted.” But this not at all what I mean when I refer to musical improvisation.

I remember hearing, years back, people making this claim about Cecil Taylor: “any child can play like that; it’s just random.” What is meant is that this music sounds unfamiliar to these listeners. Rather than reflectively acknowledge this unfamiliarity, and commit to close and patient listening, why not smugly toss out a one-liner.

Vastly different from the highly intentional structure of Cecil Taylor’s compositions and improvisations, young children sitting at the piano do indeed play quite randomly. The piano becomes a playground filled with sound toys that offer instant feedback when physically manipulated. What fun – and if only more adult pianists could remember the playful abandon of young children!

But child’s play, however improvisational, has a strong element of impulsivity. Improvisation implies close listening and response to one’s surroundings, sonic and other. Improvisation with other people is responsive to fellow ensemble members. Improvisation is emotionally sophisticated behavior. Impulsive playing is self-centered, a constant recycling of favorite tropes, random, non-responsive. This is the antithesis of great collective improvisation. It is akin to an experience most people know: choosing a window seat on a train, bus, or plane, and being joined by a prolific, self-referential talker. One can chose to strategize about where to insert a comment, despite your inability to choose the topic, to firmly (or subtly) disengage, or to tune out. The results may not net a real conversation, one you have chosen, or a comfortable ride.

A self-centered stream of riffs is not improvisation. It is impulsivity with a platform. And when you witness action that is as strategically consistent action as this, it is certainly not improvisation. Look out and listen to the world around you and notice how it changes in every moment.


An intuitive improvising musician gives a serious look at neuroscience… really?

•August 25, 2016 • 1 Comment

“The Social Principle: human beings create a uniquely human social space when their nervous systems are coupled through interactional synchrony.” – William L. Benzon


When I was in high school, there was a period when I read supernatural horror literature. I came upon a novel by Colin Wilson titled “The Mind Parasites.” Wilson was best known for his existentialist work “The Outsider,” which led me to this novel. It was a creepy book, well suited to its genre. I forget the exact storyline, but basic idea touched on Wilson’s idea that human beings were essentially minds and that our bodies were essentially vessels for those minds, and they would eventually become superfluous. Needless to say, what teenager could believe that?

Wilson ceased to be on my mind for many years, until this summer, when I embarked upon a survey of the literature about neuroscience. This was part of my ongoing exploration of collective musical improvisation. Since I tend to favoring intuition, I’m naturally suspect of studies that quantify musical or other sensory experience and expression. On the other hand, I have a history of engagement with science: I was very interested in organic chemistry as a teenager, nearly double majoring in it in college, and I continue to read a literature about astrophysics. I read scientific books in the same way that some people read novels.

I discovered that research to date about the brain and musical perception remains rather primitive. Often the focus is on idiosyncratic case studies and the search to identify areas of the brain that become active in the course of music making. As most musicians will confirm, the studies generally show musical perception to be lacking any single neurological center. Why would there be a “musical center” in a brain when so many of our ways of perceiving, being, and acting overlap?

As I’ve written in previous blog essays, while some theorize that music making originates as a mental activity, my own experience is deeply embodied. Some of my essays have sought to connect this idea to other perceptual and expressive modes of being.

Benzon, in his 2001 book Beethoven’s Anvil: Music in Mind and Culture, offers helpful connective tissue between these ideas. He begins with the brain: “the central nervous system operates in two environments, the external world and the internal milieu, and it regulates the relationship between the external world and the interior milieu on behalf of that milieu… as a vehicle for expressing emotion, the body presents the inner experience of individuals both to the external world and to higher brain centers.” So far, this is a view that we are each, at our core, a network of neural structures. For Benzon, human action externalizes information that is generated by our neural structures – beginning with what it gleans from internal sources and from our sensing of the outside world.

This would seem like a computing model in which the CPU collects, processes, and outputs information. My own view is less mechanistic, less data-driven, but if internal sources include embodied experience, then maybe we are not so far apart. In fact, Benzon believes that they do. He cites the work of Antonio Damasio, whose “theory of emotion includes assessment of the body state through direct sensing of the internal milieu and through somaesthetic and kinesthetic sensing of one’s muscles and joints.” Our emotional connections with other people are related, according to Damasio, with pairing on two simultaneous levels. These include what we perceive within our bodies and via the “subcortical and cortical systems within individuals.” The two are linked.

Damasio views music and dance as core social bonding activities that exemplify these somatic and neurological linkages. “This is the arena where music and dance forge a group of individuals into a community sharing a common culture–a culture that is, first of all, a means of sharing and coordinating emotions.”  [Antonio Damasio, Descartes’ Error: Emotion, Reason, and the Human Brain, 1994] Each individual’s neural processing becomes synchronized with that of another person, with the evolutionary purpose being the social survival of the group. For Benzon, if we lacked this “capacity for interactional synchrony… many if not most cues about the inner state of others are invisible.” Benzon concludes: “Musicking, by its use of neural structures at all levels in the brain, facilitates interactional coupling.” Music is thus one of the ways we become emotionally transparent and accessible to other people.

Where Benzon’s thinking becomes most interesting for musicians (beyond his definition of music as a core and essential human activity, not the most popular idea these days!) is how the process of interaction unfolds. He suggests that each musician’s nervous system engages in a “reorganizational activity” that “is responsive to the sound made by each and every person in the musicking group. I am attuning my motor and emotive system to the sound that is the joint activity of this group, and each person is in turn doing the same thing. Each player, merely by being a conscious musician, is making minute adjustments to his or her nervous system in response to the sounds that all are creating.”

What Benzon offers is a neurological conception of collective music making. What this means for collective improvisers is that we each constantly change in response to the sounds we perceive from one another (and from the entire group). Since we sense our physical bodies and, by extension, the musical sounds we make, as simultaneously internal to us and part of the external world – it becomes difficult to separate the individual from the collective. Maybe this is what we mean when we speak of moments within collective improvisation that seem like “group mind.”

In The Miles Davis ‘Lost’ Quintet and Other Revolutionary Ensembles, I describe a 1967 Paris performance of Wayne Shorter’s tune “Masqualero” by the Davis band of the 1960s. I consider the role of each individual musician to this spontaneously unfolding collective two minutes of music. I observe: “This reconfiguration of mood, texture, and intensity occurs again and again throughout the performance. It happens next at the start of a Wayne Shorter solo that begins with a beautiful yet simple figure, juxtaposed with an equally lovely Hancock accompaniment. Again, it is difficult to tell who initiates the change. Thirty seconds into his solo, Shorter reaches into a higher register to play a variant of his starting motif, then descends slowly. Before we know it, another moment of musical grace unfolds, beginning with a spontaneous, new Shorter melody, maybe a recasting of the previous one, joined by Hancock. Williams and Carter are immediately present to capture the subtle shift in mood. For most of the solo, Williams has played a repeated-stroke snare figure, akin to a very gentle military march. With only a slight shift in volume and intensity, the same material has been transformed into a perfect complement for the new emotional tone.”

From Benzon’s perspective, this might be a useful example of how musicians can interlock but never exactly understand the choices they are making. I don’t mean that “this” chord or “that” note or beat isn’t a logical response to something that was just played. But why “this” chord rather than an endless array of other possibilities? And if “that” note was chosen intuitively, or as a somatic response projected upon a musical instrument, can we speak of it as the product of analytical decision making? In a way yes, since a skilled and experienced musician is well aware, intellectually and somatically, of some of the possibilities. But a spontaneous action that happens too fast for conscious thought, one that is neither simply reflexive or rehearsed, cannot be explained quite so rationally. It is deeper than that. Benzon (and Damasio’s) idea that we adjust our nervous systems in response to internal sensations and those we receive from musical partners, seems like a pretty fascinating suggestion to me.


Improvisers not by our ears alone; the limitations of hearing; attuning to a multiplicity of senses

•August 10, 2016 • Leave a Comment

“We perceive that there is a physical space in our universe within which we move about; as we move, we change our relative positions over time with respect to various objects in the environment. And in this environment the objects themselves also may move relative to each other as well as relative to us. Objects heard and felt, as well as objects seen, are perceived as external, as existing out in space. When a blind person explores a portion of the external world with his cane, what he feels is an external array of surfaces and substances, a world outside of him, not an array of sensations in his hand and arm.” – Lawrence E. Marks, 1978 (29-30)


We musicians perceive ourselves, during the act of music making, as projecting an accurate reflection of our musical ideas out into the sonic world. This seems like a simple idea, but is it actually so?

First, when we generate a sound (acoustic or electronic) through some kind of physical gesture–for instance by pressing a piano key, blowing across the mouthpiece of a flute, or initiating a computer algorithm–a sound results. When we hear it, we perceive that sound as as if it has become part of the external world. We hear a sound that we ourselves have made  as something outside of ourselves. That is not unlike looking at ourselves in the mirror and seeing a physical body that is one of a myriad of physical objects that exist in the world. Think about it; it can be rather startling.

Are our perceptions of the sounds we make an accurate reflection of our musical intentions? Do others perceive the musical content of the sounds we make in the same way that we do? What is the role of musical perception in how we exchange musical information with others? Is there any objective projection and reception of sound between people? And of course, our cultural understandings about sound, musical interplay, communication (for instance, signifying) and other aspects of social/cultural/racial/political context are greatly relevant (explored in depth by great musicologists, among them, George Lewis, Olly Wilson, Ingrid Monson).

Further, sounds we make may—or may not—reflect something we hear in our heads. I have written previously about the role of physicality in how our musical decision making unfolds in real time. Sometimes we hear our sounds only after we have made them. To some degree, our decisions on a muscular level are at the root of our musical choices. This may vary between players. Certainly there is much interplay between what we physically “do” and how we mentally conceptualize musical ideas.

But let’s return to the idea of how we and others perceive the sounds we make. There is a certain degree of variability, and sometimes distortion, in how two people will hear the same sound(s) (and beyond that their culturally-related meanings; a topic for future essays).

Lawrence E. Marks, whose book The Unity of the Senses: Interrelations among the Modalities, (Academic Press, 1978) was a bouncing board for some of the ideas in this essay, documents the way that vision can distort the appearance of objects; consider the effect of looking at a stone or shell that is underwater. Marks writes: “objects are perceived in accordance with their optical size rather than with their tactual size.” Are there parallels in how we perceive sound? I believe there are.

We hear low frequency sounds as if they are softer than high frequency sounds. After listening to very loud sounds, the sensitivity of our ears change, at least temporarily. If distracted for even an instant, we will not notice sounds that transpire at all; it can be as if they never sounded. If we focus on one of multiple layers of sounds, we will miss other layers. Depending upon where we are sitting or standing, there will be variety in what combinations of sounds are foregrounded. Thus, fellow players will hear a very different “mix” of the sounds that each other make, and modify that further by paying attention to different aspects of those sounds. Another player may not even be aware of a musical gesture we’ve made that to us is of highest personal significance.

What we hear also does not operate in isolation from the rest of our perceptions, even if we close our eyes. Pinpointing the spatial location of sounds is one example. Marks cites the work of S. S. Stevens and Newman (1936) to note how difficult it is to identify this attribute of sounds. Marks observes: “… Under normal circumstances spatial information obtained from different senses is coordinated. Auerbach and Sperling (1974) concluded that perceived direction in vision and perceived direction in hearing derive from a single, common spatial representation… Evidence has been presented to suggest that infants as young as 30 days of age manifest a common auditory and visual space (Aronson & Rosenbloom, 1971) …” (p. 31) Marks offers this conclusion, one that is counterintuitive to many musicians: “We tend to hear sounds where we see them.” (p. 32) Here is another example relating to frequency: all of us have experienced the Doppler Effect; we perceive sounds approaching us in space as not only becoming louder, but also increasing in pitch. In short, acousticians do not treat the words frequency and pitch as synonyms, although we musicians and listeners do exactly that.

Simply put, different people, even members of the same band, playing together, may perceive the sounds produced in the same room quite differently. Marks offers as parallel relative experiences of people’s taste buds, for instance how sweet two people may perceive a food item to be, and color, such as how two people may identify the hue of an object or the brightness of lights.

The differences between our relative sonic perceptions is a reason I am interested in musical perception from a non-literal, metaphorical perspective. I introduced this idea in a July 26, 2016 blog essay. There, I discussed the work of Lakoff and Johnson and introduced the “center-periphery” metaphor. I treated the physical sensation of sitting at the piano, perceiving the keys immediately surrounding middle C as physically, in pitch terms, and metaphorically as “center” and those further away as “periphery.” I explored some of the meanings that we associate with that metaphor, socially, emotionally, and otherwise, and their interaction with a physical relationship playing the piano.

Marks (p. 107-108) reports a 1970 study [Owen and Brown] interrelating how people report the complexity of multi-sided geometrical objects. The group was divided into those reporting tactile and others, visual experience. Both sets of subjects correlated “the number of sides, perimeter, and distribution of angles” with a factor that the researchers termed “jaggedness.” Is there an analogy to be found with angular melodies? Do we perceive musical gestures in differential degrees of jaggedness, and does this translate for some into metaphorical terms: complexity, multi-dimensionality, variability, (sudden) changeability, our bodily positioning in space—-and maybe quickly changing emotional states?

The more we pay close attention to the musical responses to the sounds and gestures we make as improvisers, the more we can learn about how those sounds are perceived by our peers. The closer we listen, and not just with our ears—but as part of a constellation of perceptions that guide musical experience—the deeper our ensemble playing can become.