Is it only our ears that listen? — introducing a conversation about playing music together
How do improvising musicians know how – or what – to play when they are playing together? This question was the subject of my December 22, 2015 blog. Both of my books – about the Herbie Hancock Mwandishi band, the Miles Davis ‘Lost’ Quintet (and, to lesser degree, the Davis quintet of the mid-late 1960s), Circle, and the Revolutionary Ensembles — were really about this question. In that December essay, I considered some of the musical ideas musicians listen for, including: “call and response, variation, contrast, adding to something that is happening or has already taken place; tracking what is changing, and adjusting or responding… exactitude, similarity, variety, contrasts; Thinking of unison more broadly… imitating other players’ sound qualities / timbre.”
Certainly, groups that draw upon song or Blues forms have cyclical structures to guide their interactions. In situations that embody conventional roles, a drummer keeps the beat; a bassist girds the harmony; a pianist or guitarist spells out the harmony… roles that may demand less spontaneous invention from the collective. But even here, different groups play the very same tunes quite differently; bands and individual players bring their own distinct approaches to similar ideas and structures.
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? Certainly, they can also visually sense each other’s movements and facial expressions. These are particularly important for groups playing notated music, where visual cues can help musicians know when to begin, pause, or end; how to shape phrases, when to speed up or slow down… But there are many improvisatory groups whose members rarely if ever look at one another. If non-auditory information is being shared, it is not being transferred by means of sight. More commonly, musicians speak about their use of intuition to guide each member of the collective. But what does the word “intuition” actually mean?
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?
Collective improvisation, unlike composition (and I question the popular idea of improvising being “spontaneous composition”) requires close attention to everyone and everything around. It demands spontaneous responses by a group of individuals to constantly changing, new information. I believe that improvising musicians sense and exchange information that extends well beyond what our ears can hear. Collective musical improvisation is not completely different in kind from other types of communication.
A project I am now engaged in delves into this question. 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. We think of music making is an activity of mind and emotion, but not really of our bodies. The body’s role is often viewed as ancillary, a way we move to the beat or in sympathy with the motion of our fingers. I believe that we sense music in every pore of our bodies – yet we lack a clear language to translate what we experience.
Only a portion of what we musically perceive can be understood in conventional musical terms. Music, part of a broad cluster of means of human expression, is tied to other perceptions and means of communication, among them our sense of touch, taste, vision, body temperature, balance… Music evokes emotions broader than the ones we usually speak of. Beyond sadness, joy, fear, relaxation is a whole world of sensation.
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.
Within the mysterious web of perception and association is what we refer to as musical intuition. Intuition is no mystery; it simply doesn’t align with the ways that westerners have come to understand music. Over the coming months I will continue to expand upon these ideas. And in the meantime, musicians, attend more closely, beyond your ears, while you play; notice how your body guides you towards what and how you play.