thinking about unconscious aspects of musical improvisation… the new book

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….

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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~ by bobgluck on August 20, 2018.

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