Thoughts about Keith Jarrett and his “American” Quartet

•March 6, 2023 • Leave a Comment

As I’ve been reflecting on the passing of Wayne Shorter I found myself searching for friends’ commentaries on the internet about his life and music. This led me, unexpectedly to discover a very recent video interview with Keith Jarrett, which led to memories and reflections about the importance to me of Jarrett’s 1970s band, his “American” Quartet. And within the interview, I discovered that Pat Metheny had parallel thoughts.

Piano trios are particularly important to me as a listener and as a player. For me, this love really begins with the Keith Jarrett American Quartet. In college I heard the album Death and the Flower(1975), and two years later, I had the immense fortune to see the band at the Village Vanguard, playing Survivor’s Suite (release on record in 1977). I think I walked around in a daze for the next month. 

Death and the Flower was the first small acoustic ensemble album I ever purchased, even before Coltrane’s A Love Supreme, and the Bill Evans trio recordings with Scott LaFaro. I was completely hooked, and I came to think of this band, with Charlie Haden, Dewey Redman, and Paul Motian as the go-to, the ur-text of modern piano trios and quartets. Maybe all quartets, whether they were playing improvised music, or Beethoven, or rock music.

I’ve had Keith Jarrett on my mind this weekend because I watched Rick Beato’s December 2022 interview with the pianist. This provided the first images I’ve seen of him talking and, in fact, playing piano, with the one hand unaffected by his strokes. For me, the most telling moments were sequences when Beato and Jarrett listened together to performances from years ago, one an eye-popping solo rendition of Miles Davis’ “Solar,” and the other, an unreleased work composed for and performed with the Eastman Conservatory band. The camera focuses on Jarrett’s facial expressions as he listens, witnessing him experiencing those moments with intense fascination, and at times it is as if he is inhabiting the unfolding of the musical lines. You can find the interview on Rick Beato’s YouTube channel, uploaded in late February and linked below.

Early in the Jarrett video interview, Rick Beato inserted a segment of another video interview, one he did with Pat Metheny in August 2021. It led me to search out the full interview from which it was excerpted, also located within Beato’s YouTube channel (again, the link can be found below). 

I was fascinated to discover, that Metheny holds the Keith Jarrett American Quartet and its music in similar esteem. I rarely hear anyone expressing the level of appreciation that I feel for this Quartet and its music, and I think that’s a shame. Here are some excerpts of what Pat Metheny told Beato: 

“That band, the “American Quartet,” to me that was the last great acoustic jazz quartet. Nobody plays that music because it’s too hard… But that book of tunes he wrote between the American Quartet and the Scandinavian Quartet, to me that book of tunes has tunes… [even aside] from him as a player, just as songs it is the last great song book… And also, that band was such an unlikely band in a lot of ways. Dewey, you know, Dewey is such an enigma… [Jarrett] could have gotten somebody who could play inside changes in the most detailed of way. Dewey was this other kind of player, and that’s a lesson too. Don’t cast a band in your image if you have another way to do it; get people who are going to think different.” (from the 1:19:00-1:20:00 point in the video).

The band didn’t “only” provide a terrific, empathetic bouncing board for Jarrett’s pianistic excursions, but it paired him with the tremendously intuitive, responsive rhythm section of Charlie Haden and Paul Motian, and it renewed the pairing of Ornette Coleman bandmates Haden and Dewey Redman.

The compositions, as Metheny points out, are wonderful, often unfolding gradually as they move through subsequent, sometimes contrasting sections. The melodies are beautiful and Jarrett’s harmonic language, a blend of folksy diatonism with the ii-V-I harmonies of the bebop songbook, is quite distinct. Even while I was on a several year “pause” from playing the piano, I periodically sat at the keyboard and played the tune “Death and the Flower.” In the late 2000s and early 2010s, this tune, plus “My Song,” and a reshaping of the extensive first half of “Survivor’s Suite” were regularly on the set lists of two of my trio and other concerts. The stepwise moving perfect fifths in the bass periodically shows up as part of my musical vocabulary, and I hopefully approached the music from my own angle. What a pleasure it has been to know this music, as a player and as a listener. I’ve placed links to two of my “Death and the Flower” performances.

You can find a version of “Death and the Flower” I played in 2017, an outtake from a duo session with drummer Tani Tabbal, recorded at Karl Berger’s Studio in Woodstock:

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And here is another from a concert in 2014, a memorial to a great college friend, performed here with bassist Christopher Dean Sullivan, drummer Tani Tabbal, and me) – it is the fourth tune in this playlist:

Here is the link to Rick Beato’s Keith Jarrett Interview:

And here is the link to Rick Beato’s Pat Metheny Interview:

[note: both SoundCloud and YouTube often have brief advertisements for x, y, or z prior to the start of the track]

Remembering Joel Chadabe

•May 5, 2021 • 3 Comments

December 12, 1938 – May 2, 2021

When I reflect about my memories of Joel Chadabe, I find myself flooded with images, sounds, and experiences. These include memories of enormous variety: memories of events, moments chatting, projects undertaken, ideas discussed and discarded, plans made, places visited, detailed editing, meals eaten, stories shared, performances produced … The list goes on and on as befitting decades of association.

I first met Joel in the classroom when I was his student at SUNY Albany in 1976-77. When I transferred to the University, I knew almost nothing about the campus or about its music program. I knew that it had an electronic music program, and the name of its head was familiar to me from SUNY-wide arts events I had attended as a student at SUNY Potsdam’s Crane School of Music. 

I was one of Joel’s composition students (my concentration as a Music major was in Electronic Music; I may have been the only one during this period to choose this path), yet I learned the most from him in lecture/seminar settings. That’s where he was in his natural element, leaning against a desk, looking at you directly in the eye. In the studio, Joel took a more laissez faire approach to student work. 

Joel was a natural teacher who loved to open doors of knowledge to whomever who would listen. What seemed to grab him the most during that period at the University were big conceptual ideas, scientific revolutions, and stories to tell. His gifts as a raconteur were nonpareil. Joel told lively stories that included noted musical personalities, often to dramatic effect (for instance about Igor Stravinsky and John Cage). The anecdotes were often funny, surprising, revealing, and just entertaining. But they always conveyed information about ideas he wanted to convey.

Here are some of the key ideas I learned as a student of Joel’s, some of them in the 1970s, some in the 1990s:

  1. Musical ideas reflect and are deeply interconnected with the large philosophical ideas of an era
  2. Sound is all around us; we simply need to notice
  3. Among the most breakthrough musical ideas of the early 20th century were new approaches to the vertical juxtaposition of musical events (rather than related in terms of harmony), were pioneered within Debussy’s “Jeux” and Stravinsky’s “Petrushka” [I would add that equally reflects Ornette Coleman’s innovations]
  4. The paradigm of the era beginning with Picasso/Braque collages and then Pierre Schaeffer and musique concrete was “items and arrangements,” which means collecting materials/objects/”items” (for instance, sounds), and organizing them into compositions
  5. The subsequent paradigm is the idea that one can compose an instrument/system; succeeding the idea that s/he composes specific musical contents, within or crafting new musical templates/forms
  6. Music can be made and experienced within the context of interactive system: interactivity is defined as a mutually influential relationship between a human and a machine
  7. New musical instruments are ever emerging and unfolding, just as new musical ideas emerge and unfold

The classroom setting was particularly memorable for me because Joel and I constantly argued during class. It was usually about systems theory and its musical applications. I was strongly opposed to the idea that music should reflect algorithmic decision making, which was of course, his main focus during those years. My recollection of class was that it was just Joel and me; he’d talk for a while, I’d argue back, he’d smile, and continue on. I barely remember anyone else there. Years later, Joel had no recollection of this dynamic. Personally, it was a fantastic example of a professor giving space to a student’s ideas; ok, maybe too much space. Not putting that student down because you disagree, but acting as a patient agent of learning and growth. When I began working with Joel at EMF, years later, some of these arguments resumed, but around this time I began to notice the wisdom of his thinking, and before you knew it, as I’ll soon mention, I was composing with algorithmic elements, thinking philosophically about systems, and designing interactive systems for musical performance.

Systems and algorithms, baked into hardware and transitioning into hardware-software hybrids were Joel’s core interests in the studio setting at the University back in the 1970s. His focus at the moment wasn’t student work tied to the “items and arrangements” paradigm (that remained my focus), but the new ideas and instruments he was engaged with in his own work. This made sense given that SUNY Albany was and remains a research university and Joel was always pushing the frontier. Joel was efficient at delegating responsibility when it came to technical details, but generous with his time when it came to thinking broadly about his students’ compositional work. The latter took place in the analog Moog CEMS (the Coordinated Electronic Music Studio System) studio that Joel developed between the studio’s opening in 1966 and 1969, when it was installed in the newly opened Performing Arts Center (PAC). This system was an early systematized modular instrument, one of his vehicles conceived to explore ideas about musical systems, the role of weighted randomness, and interactivity. It was realized on equipment designed and built by Robert Moog to Joel’s specifications. Shortly before my arrival, Joel had completed his compositional interests in the CEMS system, and transitioned to the digital PDP 11/10, an early mini mainframe. During my final semester at the University, he purchased the first Synclavier ever sold, and he was just beginning his work with it.

I arrived in Albany during a period of programmatic quiescence following era of tremendous activity in the University’s Performing Arts Center, in full bloom with the opening of the PAC in 1969. Substantially due to Joel’s imagination, his friendships with musical colleagues, and funding initiatives, the early 1970s programming Joel produced featured artist residencies by a raft of the most important, cutting edge composers, performers, and multi-media artists. Under the banner of Free Music Store (a name borrowed or maybe shared with programming at Pacifica Radio’s WBAI in New York City), illustrious musicians performed, among them John Cage, David Tudor, Eberhard Blum, Alvin Lucier, Lejaren Hiller, David Gibson, Salvatore Martirano, Frederick Rzewski, Alvin Curran, Richard Teitelbaum, Kenneth Gaburo, Bulent Arel, David Behrman, Larry Austin, Pauline Oliveros, Tom Johnson, Charles Dodge, Morton Subotnick. Among the visiting composers were Lukas Foss, John Cage, Bernard Rands, Vivan Fine. A highwater mark was the performance and recording of John Cage and Lejaren Hiller’s multimedia work, HPSCHD. Joel’s achievement was a model display of cutting-edge musical ideas, albeit dependent upon his personal initiative and willingness to raise funds, sometimes from within the SUNY system.

I lost touch with Joel during the 1980s, a period when I went on extended vacation from music. In the early 90s, I began to explore music software on my first Amiga computer, mostly early sequencers, and found them uninteresting. Soon after my family moved to the Berkshires, I dropped Joel a letter, asking his advice about what was new in electronic music. In other words, I was asking about what had happened in the 15 years I kept my distance from what I soon learned were incredible advances that had taken place in electronic music. 

Joel invited me to visit him at his Electronic Music Foundation (EMF) office in downtown Albany, to chat and have lunch. Joel, ever excited by new ideas and an inveterate entrepreneur, was eager to demonstrate the software application Max (soon to become Max/MSP). Max seemed to me at first to be a clever way to design and run algorithms that could generate musical materials, but after making my purchase, discovered that Max opened all sorts of doors to new approaches to making music. Joel had explained to me an idea we had discussed years before, how semi-randomized processes could result in musical outcomes that varied in their predictability. This could be an avenue to further collaborations between humans and machines. I became enthralled, composed my first new compositions in years, and soon began to design new software, and soon hardware-software hybrid instruments. I essentially went from musically indifferent to musically super engaged. It was only a matter of time before I rethought my life direction and was headed back to graduate school for electronic music.

Joel and I periodically met between that 1994 visit and my arrival in 1998 at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute’s iEar Integrated Electronic Arts at Rensselaer master’s degree program. I immediately began to work for Joel at EMF. One of the more entertaining aspects of working at EMF, at times closely with Joel’s son Benjamin, was Joel’s fascination with the fact that I was a rabbi. Sometimes when visitors came to EMF, Joel enthused about the organization having its own rabbi in-house! What began for me as work writing descriptions of recordings gradually morphed into co-editing a historical website to document the history of the field of Electronic Music. 

Thus began many years of meaningful collaborations and of discussions with Joel about the history and about historiography, how history is told. We debated a wide range of topics, sometimes agreeing, sometimes disagreeing. Joel was open to being challenged on historical issues about which I felt strongly, for instance my sense of an over-emphasis on European and Euro-American origins of electronic music, and about the importance of considering music through a lens of the environment. In turn, Joel pressed me to deepen my exploration of interactivity, and the importance of oral history, something modeled in his 1997 book Electric Sound. Most important, Joel taught me that facts become most significant when organized into patterns representing a meaningful whole. Why something mattered was more important than the fact that it took place. It was in this period that I substantially honed my ability to write professionally. I credit Joel’s mentorship with my developing career as a writer of musical histories. 

During the ensuing years, the 2000s-2020s, my relationship with Joel matured in one of peers. In 1999, I began to teach at SUNY Albany, recently renamed the University at Albany. I moved into the office Joel had occupied until his retirement in 1997. By 2003, I had become Assistant Professor, and served as director of the studio Joel founded. During this period, Joel’s company EMF Media released my first three recordings and his produced some of my early public concerts. Once I became associate and then full professor, Joel and I often commiserated about our experiences in academia. My family became regulars at Chadabe family parties, hosted by Joel’s spouse, Francoise, herself a gifted teacher and talented cook.

During many of Joel’s years at UAlbany and following, he also taught at Bennington College, and for a time, at the Manhattan School of Music. During his final decade, he joined the adjunct faculty at New York University (NYU)’s Steinhardt School. These late career teaching experiences fed and excited him, renewing the energy that fed his initial teaching career. Joel’s enthusiasm translated into his desire to write new books and initiate a publication enterprise. For me, the door opened to new opportunities to discuss and debate with Joel about a widening range of issues, from musical to organizational, artistic, and personal. 

What I always appreciated the most about Joel was his optimism. There was a constant twinkle in his eye. Something was always percolating in his mind and he’d sometimes become lost in his thoughts. He’d squint a little and suddenly say, “… have you ever thought about… maybe you should try….” 

Joel had an eye for beauty and novelty. He’d point out fascinating and beautiful looking things that grabbed his eye, from people to objects. He was excited by good food and brilliant colors. He loved to photograph everyone and everything. He was eager to ask people to tell their stories. 

Joel was the most forward-looking person I’ve known. For Joel, there were always new concepts to consider, new sounds to hear, new angles to approach anything and everything. There were always ideas coalescing in his mind, each of them pointing to concepts for new music to compose, new enterprises to consider, and new books to write. 

Joel was a good friend, a great teacher, and a mentor to many. Joel was a person for whom every day offered the potential to discover a new horizon. The world is a better place because of Joel’s presence.

Preface to the 2020 Italian edition of “The Miles Davis Lost Quintet and Other Revolutionary Ensembles”

•February 28, 2020 • Leave a Comment

Miles Davis, il Quintetto Perduto e altre rivoluzioni by Bob Gluck, Quodlibet/Chorus (Spring) 2020

Italian edition of The Miles Davis Lost Quintet and Other Revolutionary Ensembles by Bob Gluck (University of Chicago Press, 2016)

Preface by Claudio Sessa (editor), Quodlibet/Chorus


This is not a book on Miles Davis.

There are several books on the great trumpet player, also in Italian, and satisfy almost all the needs of his many admirers. But this is not a book on Miles Davis. This is a book that tells how a specific, magnificent, revolutionary musical season of Miles Davis has been inextricably connected with the historical period in which it was immersed.

At the end of the sixties, while his group (the historical one with Wayne Shorter, Herbie Hancock, Ron Carter and Tony Williams) was slowly reconfiguring, Davis for some time wanted to document on disk truly “special projects” that they would transform in a sensational way the idea of ​​jazz album itself: in particular the studio works In a Silent Way, Bitches Brew and A Tribute to Jack Johnson. In this way he never had the opportunity to bring the new stable group into the recording studio, with Chick Corea, Dave Holland and Jack DeJohnette with the leader and Wayne Shorter. Years later, this formation would be remembered as the Lost Quintet (which in fact, as told in this book, over time became a Sextet and finally a Lost Septet, thanks to the inclusion of Airto Moreira and Keith Jarrett).

What profoundly distinguishes this group from the previous one, as documented by several live recordings, is not only the personality of the individual members, but the radical experiments that the ensemble made with electronic instruments applied to increasingly free forms. Here is what has previously been missed: according to the standard narrative, Davis, in the late sixties and early seventies, relentlessly moved from very adventurous jazz to the so-called “jazz-rock”, or rather to a music very influenced by funk. But this is not an accurate interpretation. For a long time the trumpeter developed a multi-layered aesthetic strategy, not at all linear, simultaneously exploring very different territories. And of this research the Lost Quintet is one of the most fascinating chapters.

Bob Gluck, noted scholar and musician, who had already explored in his previous book (You’ll Know When You’ll Get There: Herbie Hancock and the Mwandishi Band) another sector of this adventurous universe, helps us comprehend this anomaly. In Chapter 5 he describes the introduction, played live by Corea on an Fender Rhodes electric piano, to the song “Directions” by Joe Zawinul, which at the time was Davis’ opening theme song. We are in March 1970. The public is hit by something that “concerns pure sound experience. And it is wild and otherworldly (…). At first, the Fender Rhodes sounds like a bus honk, sharply articulated and insistently repeated. It is more an electronic than an electric sound, calling to mind more of the electronic music avant- garde than rock, pop, or funk. Its level of distortion is different in kind from fuzz guitar. Fuzz emphasizes a sustained albeit ‘dirty’ sound; these articulations are brief and sharp edged.”

Miles Davis and his musicians were pushing the limits of consensus gained by a large audience. But the constant attention that the group received is not only due to the charisma of the great trumpeter; it also has to do with the aesthetic resonance, we could say ideologically connoted, of an entire generation.

Gluck is not satisfied with reconstructing the profound meaning of the Lost Quintet within the development of Davis’ poetics. He senses the link with everything that happened in the boiling cauldron of that historical period, and shows that there is a network of relationships between seemingly very different groups. Starting, of course, with the most spontaneous and at the same time most unexpected fruit of the Lost Quintet. That is, with the exit of Corea and Holland from the group, the formation of their own trio which later became the Circle quartet. The new band seems, on the face of it, to be the exact opposite of what most listeners assumed to be true of Miles Davis’s music.

Corea and Holland came in contact with Barry Altschul, a drummer centered in the world of free jazz and in particular the pianist Paul Bley; shortly after, the three enter into a relationship with saxophonist Anthony Braxton, a member of the avant-garde association of Chicago AACM. As it happens, the association also includes the drummer of the Lost Quintet, Jack DeJohnette. And by pulling the threads of this intricate ball of yarn, Gluck cannot help but get to another group that emerged from Chicago, the almost unknown (and extraordinary) Revolutionary Ensemble formed by Leroy Jenkins, Sirone and Jerome Cooper, respectively violinist, double bass player and drummer , but all capable of alternating with various instruments.

Following the actors of his lively scenario, Gluck builds a dizzying and fascinating path. On the one hand, Davis’ music emerges from the most glorious past of jazz, from Charlie Parker to John Coltrane, who in turn in his complex itinerary represents a point of reference also for all the others; on the other hand we see the icons of new youth music arising, Jimi Hendrix, James Brown, Sly and the Family Stone. After all, Davis ‘pupils’ were now creating a school of a distinct flavor. We think of Hancock, Shorter and Zawinul’s Weather Report, John McLaughlin: English like Holland and Jack Bruce of Cream, who will enter Tony Williams’ Lifetime. Williams’s “discovery” was greatly assisted by Sam Rivers, another musician who in these pages continues to re-emerge in ever-changing roles. But this is not all; the impression, up to this point, is to have gone through various areas of popular music, but in fact Braxton’s experiences bring us to the heart of the post-academic avant-garde, from John Cage to Gordon Mumma to the group Musica Elettronica Viva (Alvin Curran, Frederic Rzewski, Richard Teitelbaum), onward to Stockhausen and Schoenberg. From here, if we observe the roads traveled by electronics (at the center of the experiments of the Lost Quintet), we can even meet Keith Emerson, Wendy (or Walter) Carlos, again Paul Bley; if we explore the research that goes beyond academe, we find the AACM with Wadada Leo Smith, and then Frank Zappa, Evan Parker (also British), and great older men like Cecil Taylor, Sun Ra and Bill Dixon. Not to mention the African American Diaspora in Europe (Art Ensemble of Chicago, Marion Brown) or various forms of independence from the music business, about which Gluck allows us to observe interesting cases such as those of Dave Liebman and Karl Berger, in addition of course to the three members of the Revolutionary Ensemble.

In the background, almost to represent a sort of “anti-Miles” that marks the beginning and the end of the book with his personality, the great heretic Ornette Coleman is always present, of which Gluck says that ultimately all the musicians of whom he spoke are “children.” There is therefore a sense of cosmic circularity in this essay, which is configured as a map to cross the great experimental season between the sixties and seventies: a season that had as a luminous and fickle referee Miles Davis.

So this is a book on Miles Davis.

Notes and Sources for Bob Gluck’s “The Musical World of Paul Winter” (Intelligent Arts, 2019)

•March 30, 2019 • 1 Comment

The Music World of Paul Winter, released in March 2019, is my third book, but my first written with a general audience in mind. Thus, the text is narrative in focus; no footnotes are included. The nature of ebook formats lends itself to text and to images, but it accommodates limited sourcing or bibliographic references. Much of that information may be found in this blog posting, below.

While many articles about Paul Winter have appeared in the press over the years, most focus on specific events. While a number of these include brief quotations, Winter has only periodically given extensive interviews. All Winter quotations in my book draw upon this public record and each of these sources is listed in the bibliography, below. The most significant interviews given by Winter include those conducted and published by Michael Bourne, Duncan Heining, Meagan Meehan, Patty Lee Parmalee, David Rothenberg, and Tony Vellela. I found, while working on the book, that these sources offered a comprehensive public record of Winter’s statements to date regarding his musical development, family history, musical evolution, and life mission.

All quotations from David Darling, Susan Osborn, and Jim Scott are from interviews I personally conducted. Writing this book naturally involved extensive research beyond the first hand accounts contained in these interviews. In addition to searching the public record and published accounts, research included substantial close musical listening and reflections upon my own personal experience of Paul Winter’s musical career. This was in numerous ways, a truly rewarding project. I emerged with even greater admiration for the work of Paul Winter, particularly in the context of these difficult times.

For information about the book and how to access it in your favored eBook format, see:



Preface.  Whale song

use of the term “song” from bird song research

“Spectrographic analysis shows, however, that all prolonged vocalizations occur in long, fixed sequences and are repeated with considerable accuracy every few minutes. Because one of the characteristics of bird songs is that they are fixed patterns of sounds that are repeated, we call the fixed patterns of humpback sounds “songs.” The principal differences between bird and humpback songs are that bird songs usually last for a few seconds, while humpback songs last for minutes; and one song of a bird is usually separated from the next by a period of silence. whereas humpback songs are repeated without a significant pause or break in the rhythm of singing.” Payne and McVay 1971, 590.

Chapter 2.            An aspiring young jazz musician

Winter developed a reputation as a soloist

Soon after taking up the clarinet, Winter and his sister Diane, a pianist who later became a Suzuki piano teacher, began to perform publicly as a duo. A fall 1949 performance was reported in the local newspaper. The Rhapsody in Blue performance as a pianist was preceded by an appearance as clarinet soloist (in “Dizzy Fingers”) in seventh grade; each of these with the high school band.

access to the music and to this community of musicians

Winter adds: “I had the advantage of having a whole city to draw from; and it was a great jazz city, then. Lots of bebop happening; the South Side of Chicago was just roaring with bebop. I spent most of my nights driving from Evanston on the North Side of Chicago down to the South Side, hanging out in jazz clubs. I was just enthralled with that music. And we just had a super little band.”

pianist Warren Bernhardt, bassist Richard Evans, and drummer Harold Jones

Evans was an early member of the Sun Ra Arkestra, and then a studio arranger/producer, and professor at the Berklee College of Music; Jones was most notably a five-year member of the Basie band, and band member backing Sarah Vaughn and others. The Sextet was Bernhardt’s first recording credit; subsequently he recorded with folk and jazz musicians (Tom Rush, Tim Hardin, Richie Havens, Carly Simon… and as a band leader.

arrangements were purchased from Jimmy Heath

Others were written by band members bassist Richard Evans and pianist Warren Bernhardt; Winter himself did arrangements for their recordings Jazz Meets the Bossa Nova and Jazz Meets the Folk Song). Winter also loved saxophonist Stan Getz’s Focus: “with strings… you don’t know in those pieces where the improvising begins and the writing stops, you don’t know which is which. That’s my standard.”

In 1961, the band won first place

This victory, in May of his senior year, came as a surprise, although the band’s placed second in the Notre Dame Collegiate Jazz Festival, a month prior.

Chapter 4.     A new Consort: Road, and Icarus

guitarist/pianist Ralph Towner

In an interview with Mario Calvitti, Towner recalled: “… my mother was a piano teacher but I was such a stubborn child and I refused to take lessons from her, I would just listen to all the piano lessons in the back of the room. I always had this particular gift; composing and improvising is something I did naturally from the very beginning.” He learned jazz standards on trumpet, accompanied by his mother; he learned the music by ear from his brothers’ big band and from Nat King Cole Trio records. He told Anil Prasad: “I played trumpet in Dixieland, polka and swing bands from the time I was seven or eight years old. I would improvise in my little school band during the concerts. It was always during the school songs and marches. So, I could always improvise. That was my strong suit as far as jazz time feeling. It’s a tricky thing to get. You really have to play your way into it, I think.” Towner continues to describe himself as “a piano player who plays guitar. It’s always been my approach to the instrument.” Again, from the Calvitti interview: “[My] improvisational style] comes from being a pianist. My intention was to use guitar as a piano and with the same approach, including being able to play each note in a chord, control the volume of every note (like bring one note out and let the others perfectly even). This is a piano technique, classical, when you play an accompaniment for yourself and you have the main line you don’t play the accompaniment so loud that you can’t hear the theme.”

David Darling

Jim Scott, a member of a subsequent incarnation of the Consort said: “When David Darling plays, the music’s going along and he plays just one note. That’s not necessarily ‘David the virtuoso’; it’s that the music was going along one way and then ‘the cello comes in!’ And he makes that life-changing.”

even though we began playing Ralph’s music

Darling adds: “Ralph wanted us to play more of his music, but there was some resistance from Paul from time to time.”

Winter invited producer George Martin … to oversee the album.

Chris Michie: “The interesting thing about the Paul Winter album was that, when it came back to AIR London for mixing, there were multitracks of the songs from two sets of sessions, done at different times in different studios, edited together, basically bar by bar. They had totally different sounds, so the bass sound would change from one cut to the next. It was mixed edit by edit: they’d set up a mix and mix that section, and then, of course, the tape would run on into the next section, at which point the mix would totally go to hell. Then they’d set up for that next section and try to match the one before and so on, then edit the 2-track tape together at the same point as the multitrack edit. It was a very painstaking process.”

Chapter 6.  Electric Winter

David Darling continued to perform with Winter until 1982

Darling relates: I grew up into life touring with the Consort and raising a family, at the same time. In the very beginning my family traveled with us. When we just had one baby we were on the road together. One, Jessica, when she was four, she was ready to go to preschool. That’s when we settled into a place in Bethel, Connecticut; she went to preschool there. They said at school, they would say “Jessica won’t talk to the other kids, she only wants to talk to us adults.” Jessica, of course, grew up talking to adults all the time.”

Chapter 8.     Winter and Wolves

Bernie Krause invented the term “biophony”

Krause engages in recordings of natural environments around the world; earlier in his career, in 1964, Krause and Paul Beaver worked with the early Moog synthesizer; their work includes The Nonesuch Guide to Electronic Music (1967).

This was not a domesticated animal by any means

Susan Osborn: “This wolf’s name was Slick and was born in captivity, so it was never really suited to live in the wild. But it still smelled wild. You could smell, you know, a scent of wild animals. And this was a wild animal and just barely on the side of civilized. I didn’t really ever feel like I was in danger in any way. It was just that this animal was smarter than me in a lot of ways. We had the opportunity to tour with Slick during one season. The thing about this particular wolf is that he didn’t like men, and he really liked women. He would go to women. I always felt that it was scent; there’s some biochemical thing going on, a difference between men and women that the wolf sensed. I didn’t feel like this was a dog in anyway. This was not; the only thing tame about this animal is that it was willing to be on a chain, and would come, you know, would follow his handler. But this was another thing.”

Chapter 10.   Communing with whales

“Celebration of the Whale”

California governor Edmund “Jerry” Brown Jr. hosted the “Celebration of the Whale” on November 20, 1976. Several-thousand people attended what Brown referred to as “[an] opportunity for people to enjoy themselves, to learn, to celebrate” whales. The Governor expressed the hope that “as a mammal, their survival is symbolic of our own.” While the fair, comprised of “exhibits of environmental groups, state agencies and private firms,” was reportedly funded by big businesses, an evening concert at the Sacramento Memorial Auditorium “was the real money raiser. Those fortunate enough to obtain a $4.00 ticket were treated to six hours of entertainment which included a beautiful color documentary of whales narrated in person by researcher Dr. Roger Payne. In addition, there was the kick-ass music of Country Joe McDonald, the spirited Paul Winter Consort, John Sebastian, the lamentable Fred Neil, and the headliner, Joni Mitchell.”

For want of a better concept we call it intelligence

For another, non-musical, example of sea mammal intelligence, consider Dudzinski and Frohoff’s observation: “dolphins can recognize themselves in mirrors; only humans, some of the great apes, and elephants have been demonstrated to show this ability with dolphins. In other words, although humans and dolphins lack a common ancestor, they have evolved similar cognitive abilities, possibly for comparable social or communicative reasons.” Joan McIntyre points out that “what we test and recognize is limited by the questions we can devise and our ability to conceive of a system in which those questions are meaningful.”

human music could build upon adapted whale motifs

There are numerous examples of human musical compositions, in addition to those of Paul Winter. Here is a brief description of two of the best known examples, each dating to the early 1970s. Descriptions of Winter’s music based upon whale motifs appears in the Chapter 11.

Alan Hovhaness’ symphonic poem “And God Created Great Whales,” Op. 229, No. 1 (1970) combines unison pentatonic melodies, quartal harmonies, and at 2:40, humpback whale recordings by the Paynes (soon to appear on Songs of the Humpback Whales), joined by rapid melodic figures in the strings. A string and percussion crescendo leads to a grand unison melody in the brass section. At 4:20, there is a brief passage of downward horn glissandi, imitative of whale motifs, followed by a return of the busy string activity. This segues into a full minute of unaccompanied recorded whale song. A brief interlude of orchestral bells and harp provides a transition (at 7:05) to delicate flute and string interplay, and then solo violin glissandi, calling and responding. The whale sounds return at 7:50, soon joined (until 9:45) by quiet, textural violin interplay. A closing pentatonic melody in the strings (10:05), punctuated by sharp sustained tone brass clusters, and (at 10:35), a series of long crescendo alternating with textural passages, presaging (at 10:25) low pitched recorded whale motifs, increasingly joined by busy string and then brass figures. A crescendo of percussion provides a dramatic closing.

George Crumb composed “Vox Balaenae” (“Voice of the Whale), for Three Masked Players (amplified flute, cello, and piano) in 1971. Black eye masks garb the human presence. Like many of Crumb’s works (I have performed several, including “Vox Balaenae”), the composer makes broad use of extended instrumental techniques, among them singing into the flute, strumming and plucking the piano strings, holding down and sliding a finger over the piano strings while playing a note, the use of harmonics on all three instruments, lip whistles. The music is more suggestive than imitative of whale motifs. Pizzicato cello notes slide from one to the next over a ringing drone made by a scraped piano string in the lower register. Ringing, percussive strikes of the piano strings suggest the depths of the sea. Echoing cello harmonics, played simultaneously with descending glissandi suggest sea gulls. The music encompasses a broad range of pitches, suggesting the frequency span of whale song. Overall, this sparse, often quiet work sets an otherworldly mood, maybe one of the depths of the sea.

Chapter 11.   Celebrating the music of whales 

As the composition begins

This writer, a fan of the grainy, at moments broken, timbre of late-period John Coltrane’s tenor saxophone wondered about how similar is the second whale sound (the response) and that of Coltrane.

Rare among Winter’s music, it features a vocal

Other examples include, from the early period of the Consort, “Minuit” and “The Silence of a Candle”; from Common Ground, the title track and “Ancient Voices”; from the late 1970s, the songs associated with Susan Osborn and Jim Scott, among them vocal segments of Missa Gaia; collaborations with the Dimitri Prokofsky Singers and with Pete Seeger; and most recently, songs with gospel singer Theresa Thomason.

“I’m a musician, not a naturalist”

Winter commented in an interview: “…It’s so much more intriguing for journalists to talk about wolves and whales or going to Russia, but these are just things we’re enthused about that happen to be reflected in the music. Most pop music is based on people’s enthusiasm for their lovers. It’s really no different to be enthused about the Grand Canyon. What I’m most interested in is the music itself.”

Chapter 12.   Musical Spectacle

the “Noss Jollity Company” vaudeville troupe

The Times (Philadelphia) announced the vaudeville troupe’s Philadelphia performance: “A bright and sparkling entertainment is announced for the Standard Theatre this week, when the Noss Jollity Company will present for the first time in this city their fantastic musical comedy, ‘The Kodak [in Three Snap Shots].’ As the title indicates, the play is a series of snap-shots at all sorts of people; queer, quaint and curious. The plot, though not featured, is more distinct than is usually found in a farce comedy, and tells a story that will appeal to all.” “[It is a] new fantastic musical comedy… as bright as a dollar fresh from the mint….”

the population of Altoona reached 40,000

Located in south central Pennsylvania, Altoona was, from its inception, a railroad town. Pennsylvania Railroad founded the town in 1849 to house its main train construction and repair facilities. Steam engine trains moved coal, consumer goods, and as the Civil War began, Union troops and munitions. At the time, the railroads and canals, such as the Erie Canal in New York State, vied for dominance as a form of transportation. The town was strategically located near Allegheny Mountain foothills, en route to the expanding American west. The construction of the nearby half-mile-long Horseshoe Curve, in 1854, allowed trains to safely traverse the mountain slopes connecting Eastern and Western Pennsylvania, giving railroads an edge. As train tracks were being laid at a rapidly expanding rate in Pennsylvania, train construction steadily boomed, and with it, Altoona.

The Winter family was civic minded; Paul Sr. joined the Altoona Rotary Club a year after his marriage to Beulah Harnish, and remained a member for the latter 51 years of his century-long life. Arthur was a charter member and served as its 11th president in the late 1920s, and as its district governor in the early 1930s. Many years later, in 2003, their store was recognized as a “Heritage Honoree” of the Blair County Business Hall of Fame honoring companies in business for more than 25 years and showing “a lasting impact on commerce generated from Blair County.” Paul Sr. and his wife, Beulah (Harnish) were involved in their son’s school’s music program.

Winter assembled a 17-member Consort to celebrate Ives’ 100th anniversary

A year after this 1974 “Musical Town Meeting,” Winter brought a second edition, “Para-Desa,” to the Mathews farm. The Ives homestead performance was repeated subsequently at Yale University, at a 1976 American Bicentennial at Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C, and taken on tour.

the Indianapolis Symphony

For the third of the Consort’s engagements with the Indianapolis Symphony (a previous collaboration was the final performance of the second Consort), Jim Scott did the arrangements on short notice and limited budget, drawing upon music from Common Ground and Callings. Members of the Consort furiously copied parts at the last minute. Scott recalls young conductor Paul Polivnik giving the orchestra an impassioned speech to rally their spirited engagement; at the time, convincing orchestras to engage with new music could be challenging. In this case, the perceived difficulty was no doubt heightened by the inclusion of recorded sounds from wolves and sea mammals. The concert was ultimately received well by both the audience and by members of the orchestra.

Chapter 13.   Solstice

the Lindisfarne Association

The Schumacher Center for New Economics website, which hosts transcripts of talks given at the Lindisfarne Association, offers this historical background: “In 1972 William Irwin Thompson founded the Lindisfarne Association as an alternative way for the humanities to develop in a scientific and technical civilization. Lindisfarne became an association of scientists, artists, scholars, and contemplatives devoted to the study and realization of a new planetary culture. Lindisfarne began its activities in Southampton, New York, in 1973, then moved to Manhattan in 1976, and finally in 1979 to Crestone, Colorado, where today the Lindisfarne Fellows House, the Lindisfarne Chapel, and the Lindisfarne Mountain Retreat are under the ownership and management of the Crestone Mountain Zen Center. In 1997 Thompson retired from the presidency of the Lindisfarne Association; in 2009 the Association disbanded as a formal not-for-profit organization. The Lindisfarne Fellows, however, voted to continue their fellowship as an informal association of creative individuals interested in one another’s work…”

Canticle of Brother Sun

Scott included within this movement “the Canticle… an instrumental riff that we played with the Indianapolis Symphony. Paul said, ‘what if we use that in there as the melody; can we use that?’ So that ended up being in there.”

Later during the 1980s, Winter Solstice opened with

This particular example is from a December 17, 1988 radio broadcast.

Winter spoke of an early conversation with folksinger Pete Seeger

Paul Winter had become interested in folk music while touring Latin America in the 1960s. He was impressed by Seeger’s music when he sat, at John Hammond’s invitation, in the recording booth for Seeger’s 1964 Carnegie Hall concert. Winter was invited by a friend of Peter Yarrow, Andrew Tracey, to join him as one of three Amadinda (Ugandan log marimba) players at the 1966 Newport Folk Festival. There, he met Pete Seeger. They became long, term friends and, in 1996, recorded and produced the record Pete in Winter’s barn.

as documented on the recording Silver Solstice (2005).

Previous Solstice concerts were released on the recordings Solstice Live (1993), Celtic Solstice (1999), Solstice Gems (2002).


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John Beyer PP and Dick Fruth PP, “Rotarians in the Blair County Business Hall of Fame.” February 2013, 152-153.

Tim Blangger, “Paul Winter’s Nature is to Change Musical Environments.” The Morning Call (Allentown, PA), September 1, 2000.

Michael Bourne, Paul Winter: One World Music, Down Beat, May 1986, 26-28, 56.

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Bernie Krause, The Great Animal Orchestra: Finding the Origins of Music in the World’s Wild Places, New York: Back Bay Books, 2012.

Bernie Krause, Voices of the Wild: Animal Songs, Human Din, and the Call to Save Natural Soundscapes. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2015.

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Larry The O, “To Sir With Love.” Emusician, January 7, 2009. Accessed June 5, 2018.

John C. Lilly, “Toward a Cetacean Nation,” in Toni Frohoff and Brenda Peterson, ed., Between Species: Celebrating the Dolphin-Human Bond. San Francisco: Sierra Club Books, 2003, 77-85.

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Jeff McLaughlin, “Paul Winter’s Voyages,” Boston Globe. April 28, 1988, 90.

Bill McQuay and Christopher Joyce, “It Took A Musician’s Ear To Decode The Complex Song In Whale Calls” NPR radio interview, August 6, 2015. Accessed October 28, 2017.

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David L. Mech, “Leadership in Wolf, Canis lupus, Packs.” Canadian Field-Naturalist 114(2), 2000, 259-263.

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Music for People website, Accessed November 20, 2017.

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Payne, K., Tyack, P., Payne, R., “Progressive Changes in the Songs of Humpback Whales (Megaptera novaeangliae): A Detailed Analysis of Two Seasons in Hawaii,” Payne, R., ed., Communication and Behavior of Whales, Boulder: Westview Press, 1983.

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“The Musical World of Paul Winter” newly released ebook

•March 22, 2019 • Leave a Comment

My blog posts over the past year have focused on a book project (current working title: “The music of human improvisors among all living things”). Part of that text addressed the work of saxophonist Paul Winter, particularly relating to his engagement with endangered species and natural environments. Several months ago, I decided to separate this project into two distinct books, one dealing with improvisation from two perspectives: embodiment and metaphor, and situating human music as one example among living species. That work remains in process. The other book became devoted exclusively to Paul Winter.

I am pleased now to announce the release of the Paul Winter book. It is available exclusively in ebook formats. Press releases and announcements from the publisher, Intelligent Arts, are going out today. Here’s a taste. And you can access links to the book here:


“The Musical World of Paul Winter”

will be of great interest to music lovers and people who appreciate the songs of whales and howls of wolves, lovers of the outdoors, jazz aficionados, and everyone who cares about the future of the planet.


Bob Gluck, pianist, composer, writer, traces Paul Winter’s early career as a jazz musician, his discovery of Brazilian music, his concept of a musical “Consort,” and his engagement with whales and wolves as endangered species. He explores Winter’s ancestral roots in musical spectacle and the evolution of the Winter Solstice Celebration in the Cathedral of St. John the Divine in New York City.


This book blends academic scholarship, musical reflection, and captivating narrative. In Gluck’s words, Paul Winter addresses issues about endangered species and environments from a place of love and empathy and his music is aesthetically beautiful and enchanting.


Accessible to all readers, “The Musical World of Paul Winter” is available as an ebook from Apple Books, Amazon’s Kindle, and Barnes and Noble’s Nook ($7.99). More information about the book, including a sample of the music, can be found at:


Bob Gluck is the author of two books about the experimental periods of Herbie Hancock and Miles Davis, both published by the University of Chicago Press.


Remembering Alvin Fielder (1935-2019)

•January 7, 2019 • 3 Comments

This is from a series of interviews I did with drummer Al Fielder in late 2010. I was working on “You’ll Know When You Get There: Herbie Hancock and the Mwandishi Band.” Reggie Willis had told me that Al was one of the few AACM members to attend the Mwandishi Band shows at the London House in Chicago in 1970. What ensued was a series of wonderful conversations with Al. We talked about doing some playing, which unfortunately never happened. He was just a delight and I’ll miss him. The text is edited as a first-person narrative.


I was one of the original fifteen or seventeen members of the AACM. Most of the AACM guys came out of the Roscoe Mitchell Quartet. With the exception of me, Muhal Richard Abrams – and I worked with him a lot – Jodie Christian, Malachai Favors, and maybe my neighbor, Steve McCall, they were musicians who couldn’t play bebop; some couldn’t really swing in the 1920-1960s tradition. AACM members didn’t go to the London House because the music was too conservative for them, as they saw it, and the place was expensive.

I was the odd person in the AACM. I always wore Brooks Brothers suits – the blazers, the grey trousers; I was a pharmacist, too, plus I was in the stock market and I was a collector, so I had a little extra money and could take my wife to the London House and it wouldn’t hurt us too much. I was going around to London House and the other clubs, like the Pershing and the Rendezvous, two, three, four nights a week. If there was a good drummer, I would have gone, I knew the house drummer at London House, Leroy Williams, so I’d go hear him, as well as Marshall Thompson. [Even as a teenager] I would go to proms in school with no partner and just watch the drummer.

I’ve got a motto: if I play free music, I try to play it as tight as possible; if I play bebop, I try to play it as loose as possible. For me, the so-called free music is really an extension of bebop; Sonny Murray and his rhythmic concepts comes from Art Blakey and Elvin Jones. Andrew Cyrille comes from Max Roach and Philly Joe Jones.

Herbie [Hancock] and I met in 1960. He had just gotten home from college. I don’t remember how we met but we became friends. We put together a group that included my brother William, Reggie Willis and Reuben Cooper. We would audition for the owners of the clubs to get jobs. After a while that group broke up and we joined John Hine’s group. During that time or shortly afterwards, Herbie worked with Coleman Hawkins at a club when he came to Chicago for a week or two. After that I think Donald Byrd came to town and used Herbie and later took him to New York City.

Afterwards I had seen Herbie with Miles several times. Then I heard he had formed Mwandishi. I was in Chicago to visit my in-laws while Mwandishi was at the London House. I knew Billy Hart was with the group and Billy was a good friend. I had heard him with Jimmie Smith and West Montgomery and I was in admiration of his looseness and his conception. I first met Billy Hart at an AACM concert. I was working with Anthony Braxton and Kalaparusha and Charles Clark. He’d come by a concert and I’d let him play. He’d let me play at his gigs, too.

I went to see Mwandishi [at London House in Chicago] and sat on the bandstand near Billy to watch it. The music was special, different and right on the edge. The music covered many bases touching on bebop, post-bebop, avant-garde, Latin, colors, and so forth. What I heard from Mwandishi was new to me, and my ears. The music was everywhere and the flow was just phenomenal.

Everyone in the group was strong, precise and creative, which is what happens when all the musicians are in synch. I especially remember the sound of Billy and his floating feel, his touch and how he would stretch rhythms. His time was like a rubber band. In any musical situation, I knew I would love his swing, feel and conception. Also, he’s such a warm and humble person. I was fascinated with the rhythms they were playing. It was based on rhythms not necessarily being played by the beboppers. The rhythm was loose and so was the music, like stepping over stones, leaping over lakes, going from one mood to another, without any effort.

Billy Hart has a grasp of many styles of drumming. I heard a lot of hip Latin, I call it “U.S.” Latin because drummers in this country add another stacket to it; there’s still another type of swing to it. Billy was adding the bebop feel and the post-bebop feel with somewhat of a Latin feel, and the “Blue Note” funk, the way Billy Higgins’ but a little looser; somewhat Pete La Roca. Billy has a floating feel. He uses a lot of cymbals for colors and he gets many tones out of his drums. Every drummer comes from a combination of Max Roach, Roy Haynes and Kenny Clarke. Billy Hart is a combination of Roy Haynes and Tony Williams, who himself was a mix of Jimmie Cobb and Max Roach.

Bennie Maupin was a good friend of my friend, drummer Freddie Waits, and I was familiar with the album he did with Jack DeJohnette (The DeJohnette Complex, 1968). Julian Priester was one of my favorite trombonists. Eddie Henderson, one of my brother’s favorite trumpet players because of his abilities, was playing looser too. Buster Williams brought something else to the group, like the slurs (slides) on his bass and his conceptions.

They all came from the post-bebop thing, but when you put them all in the mix, it was like looser post-bebop on firm ground. Even though the music was somewhat a little post-bebop, rhythmically, Billy and Buster gave it a looser thrust. The front line was tight, although they were playing loose. The base on which they played was firm. I was really knocked out when I heard it. I wish Herbie had kept it together instead of going other places. It was one of my favorite bands.


thinking about unconscious aspects of musical improvisation… the new book

•August 20, 2018 • Leave a Comment

This past week, I brought two book manuscripts to a point of rest. The first, a book about Paul Winter, is now complete (info coming soon). The second is a book about unconscious processes that help guide musical improvisation. In “The music of human improvisors among all living things” (working title), I follow two parallel tracks: ways that musical performance is an embodied by which we translate a wide range of sensations and perceptions into sonic creations; musical models from other species that help inform the nature of human music making. I’ll be writing more about these topics in the future.

I found it interesting today to notice how this second manuscript has evolved over the past three years, using my blog postings as a way to track my unfolding thinking process. In a sense, I have been considering these topics for many years. But this concrete manuscript, and its treatment of topics as a single unified presentation, only began to take a clear form late this spring and summer. Here are some excerpts from blogs over the past three-plus years that plot this trajectory. Maybe my readers will find the development of these thoughts to be interesting.

December 3, 2014: [Our late dog] Max had not been a successful alumnus of dog training academy. [When we went for walks,] his pace was essentially his own, filled with bursts of energy and enjoying to pull and tug. But the closer I paid attention on this particular day, the more I realized how cognizant Max was of the space around him, and of our respective walking paces. What I noticed was that while to me his patterns were seemingly random, they were in fact not that at all. Max closely perceived where I was, where he was, how fast we were each going, and taking all that into account, decided how he wished to proceed. This calculation was constantly changing. What struck me more than anything was that his use of space and time was substantially relational and all I needed to do to relate to him with mutuality was pay attention. From that point I began to listen to musical groups differently, becoming more conscious of how non-verbal and not even obviously musical features played a role in how the players perceived and responded to one another. I began to analyze and describe music in fundamentally relational terms. I noticed how people unconsciously perceive the movement of other people coming up behind them, even when their sounds cannot be heard. There was far more to perceive relationally than what we human beings think that we think about. But dogs know this well. Thanks to Max, that remains my project as a teacher and writer.

August 4, 2015: We improvisers prefer to consider what we do as intentional translations of thoughts into sounds. And there is something to that… Honestly, I think that much of what we improvisers do is unconscious. Often, we play before we are even really cognizant of what we’ve played. Among the modes of improvisatory cognition is muscle memory. Some may define this as “habit,” and sometimes it is. But there’s an element to playing, at least for me, that is substantially physical. It arises in the ways we shape or move our fingers, our lips, mouths, feet, doing so in ways that our body knows are right. This isn’t necessarily the same thing as habit; it is simply another way of intuiting and knowing. I find that what I play is more often what my body wants to do than is usually acknowledged by musicians (including me)… Placing trust in my fingers and arms does not come easily since I was rigorously trained to trust only in sheet music. So much so, that it was hard for me to even trust my memorization of sheet music. Only in mid-adulthood did I rediscover my early childhood free abandon at the keyboard, before ever starting lessons… One of the gifts I discover when trusting my body’s judgment is that I allow great latitude to making mistakes.

September 25, 2015: We musicians operate only to a limited degree in cognitive, atomized ways while playing with others; beyond that, our minds dig into the subconscious or we think too quickly to really detect individual thoughts. What we do is equally a reflection of the group mind and the product of unplanned events. This is why playing improvised music can feel so magical. Collective improvisation shares something in common with the innocent parallel play of young children, where the growing sense of self seemingly emerges in isolation. This unfolding occurs not within individualized boxes but within a collective space. Collective improvisation among adults is far more conversational, like communication between intimate friends, where trust allows the unpredictable to happen. It is in that place where, to use Buckminster Fuller’s term “synergy,” the whole is greater than the sum of the parts. I no longer really know the origin of my personal expression because it roots draw – at least in part – upon the collective. At the same time, I learn to assert my own voice in the thicket of others who are equally assertive and self-searching.

December 25, 2015: If improvising involves mining one’s emotional interior, as many would suggest, how does a musician achieve something so intimate, collaboratively, in public? Musicians enter into a process of externalizing inchoate feelings and sensations into sounds. The player projects a trial balloon beyond oneself, as if tossing something against a wall and seeing what returns. Does it bounce back intact, is it altered through the engagement, does it change form entirely? It is as if one generates a hypothesis and tests it by means of experiments, except that the feedback is instantaneous and the target is moving. The act of creation and response to new information creates a complex feedback loop.… Listening is actually a far more detailed and subtle skill than what is implied by definitions of musical technique offered by music educators. Here are some other factors I think about regarding how to listen better:  Learning: flexibility, adjustment & openness to change; how does the sound, articulation, concept, structures and direction of others impact or influence mine? … Empathy: how to show others that you are listening? Knowing something about what one’s own distinctive sound is like; what is it that one’s musical partners are hearing when I play–and then noticing what are the features of the distinct sound of the other people.… Perception: being open to potential multiple perspectives and possibilities of meaning… Structural concerns to listen for: noticing what are emerging larger musical structures, but also the small details within larger structures … Surprises: noticing unexpected musical events, opening one’s perceptions wider to inexplicable meanings… Broadening one’s musical vocabulary: (melodic contour … details of dynamics … how time passes)… Belonging: merging into a group sound, maintaining one’s identity in the group, sticking out/contrariness… Dialog & Response: call and response, variation, contrast, adding to something that is happening or has already taken place; tracking what is changing and adjusting or responding…

July 24, 2016: The information that musicians exchange while musically “conversing” is, of course, sonic. Musicians use their ears to hear each other’s playing. But is hearing the only sense perception that musicians utilize to communicate? …  Musicians I’ve spoken with tend to define intuition as “what I feel,” “what seems right,” “a shared knowing,” “how I follow others.” Some speak of a “group mind” or a kind of clairvoyance. Others use religious language: “I’m guided by spirit,” “I’m just a vessel.” Others yet draw upon a language of unknowing: “it’s a mystery.” These are very intangible ways of explaining intuition, are they not? Can we leave it at that, or is it possible to dig deeper into understanding what musicians mean by intuition? … I am convinced that musicians engage multiple senses when playing together. Musicians are trained to translate what we hear in strictly musical terms. For one thing, we hear not only with our ears but also with our bodies. Our stomachs, muscles and tendons tighten and relax when we are in the presence of music or even think about music. Our inner ear structures are an electro-mechanical sensory apparatus. They vibrate sympathetically with highly localized changes in air pressure (which we call sound waves). What we sense transcends audio frequency and amplitude information. The stereocilia within those structures move and change in length: hearing involves microscopic moving hairs. We sense changes on our skin surface. Our fingers are not only vehicles to realize musical ideas but also sensory structures. They perceive as well as transmit information. In a sense, we can hear through our fingers. We are not taught to pay conscious attention to non-auditory musical information, but we make use of it all of the time… The metaphors we use to describe music (when speaking in non-technical terms) are the very ones we use to describe other mediums and experiences, among them height and depth, brightness and temperature, density and intensity, levels and degree of activity. Musical dreams arise in our imaginations and musical memories evoke a myriad of sensory data, but none of it is heard through our ears.

July 26, 2016: I have recently been exploring how musicians listen and respond to band members through the work of Lakoff and Johnson (1980). I would like to better understand how I process musical information through my hands, and more generally, conceptualize the world through bodily experience. For these two writers, human thought and language are each constructed of metaphors. This is how we translate “our bodily movements through space, our manipulation of objects, and our perceptual interactions… [into] structures for organizing our experience and comprehension” (Mark Johnson, The Body in the Mind, 1986). A relevant example Lakoff and Johnson offer for a metaphor based upon somatic experience is “center-periphery”. As I sit at before the keyboard, by the center of the keyboard array, I am intuitively aware that the most physically natural way to play is to reach for the keys right before me, at the center of the keyboard. To reach the lower or higher ranges requires either moving my arms outward or moving my body in one or the other direction… “Center” is in fact our emotional reference point for everything in life. How many stories are built upon a narrative that begins at home and involves travel – physical, emotional, existential – away and then returning home? We return, having learned from our experiences away from home, and we then consolidate and reflect upon them when we are back in the center.

July 31, 2016: … for the individual player, improvisation requires the same kind of internal focus that all performance demands. Each individual arrives on stage bringing a life of musical and other experiences to bear, awaiting the music to begin. A high level of inward concentration is required to craft a sequence of sound events… Expressing one’s individual voice, even as one of many within a collective, requires internal focus – and this involves some degree of shutting out the world outside oneself… Yet… collective improvisation demands attention to one’s surroundings in an intimate, often conversational manner. Musical depth requires registering and responding to nuance on multiple levels. What one plays (or doesn’t play) next may depend upon the actions of any individual or some combination of one’s fellow performers. Acrobatic groups require the same, although players in improvisational settings (are there improvisational acrobats or high wire acts?) have no rehearsed script to rely on… Thus the paradox: to attend simultaneously internally and outwardly.

August 9, 2016: An alternative model to the “collective mind” of an improvisational group may be found in flocking (birds and land animals) and schooling (fish) behavior… although flocking behavior appears synchronized, when three or more fish swim as a group, each fish makes autonomous (and changeable) decisions about its spatial position within the group. Members of the flock remain in close proximity yet do not crash into one another. No individual leads or follows, yet each is able to exert influence upon the behavior of the whole. The group can effectively and collectively change direction and maintain a uniform rate of motion, even when accelerating… Our human quality to be affected by, if not dependent upon, the behavior of fellow group members lies at the heart of collective musical improvisation. Our sonic awareness of fellow musicians—instead of our ability to grow in numbers–is expansive… Still, there are moments in collective improvisation, when musicians can suddenly play, unplanned, synchronously. For a moment, it is as if we reach back, early in our evolutionary history, to flock behavior, as if we are birds or fish. I have begun to explore musical examples that demonstrate moments of flocking behavior.

August 10, 2016: 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 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… Simply put, different people, even members of the same band, playing together, may perceive the sounds produced in the same room quite differently. [Lawrence E.] 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 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.

August 25, 2016: … [William] 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.” … 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.

December 13, 2017: … 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… 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…

December 20, 2017: … 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… 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…

June 5, 2018: … 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… 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. In those moments, we allow ourselves unscripted musical episodes, akin to the early playful childhood musical experiences that we may fleetingly recall….








Artistic expression and the unconscious

•June 5, 2018 • 4 Comments

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.