A new book project

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


~ by bobgluck on December 13, 2017.

2 Responses to “A new book project”

  1. Great idea! Have the other two and looking forward to this one too. Please let me know if you want to hook up with any of the Scandinavian musicians. I ‘ve been into the jazz amd rock scene over here since early 70’s and worked at jazz clubs, etc…so I know quite a few of them ( ECM et al ). Regards, Frederik Adlers

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