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

•January 22, 2017 • 1 Comment

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

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

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

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

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


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

•August 25, 2016 • 1 Comment

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

•August 10, 2016 • Leave a Comment

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


John Mars: Memories of Barry Altschul, Anthony Braxton, and Dave Holland in Toronto

•August 9, 2016 • 2 Comments

A conversation with John Mars, drummer and artist


(Conducted and edited by Bob Gluck, with JM in Toronto, Ontario; BG in Albany, NY; via Skype; and November 19, 2014 by Skype and by email)

Segments of this interview were included in Bob Gluck, “The Miles Davis ‘Lost’ Quintet and Other Revolutionary Ensembles” (University of Chicago Press, 2016)


Appreciating drummers and discovering Barry Altschul

In the 1960’s, from a very young age, I was studying Bebop drummers, mostly all those that had been with Monk, plus Joe Morello with Brubeck and trying to learn how they managed to sometimes actually play melodically and do such amazing turnarounds. Then, I discovered Milford Graves and I learned how to be completely free floating and, how to leave time signatures completely out of the picture.  I also learned some new things about timbre from Milford’s recordings with Albert Ayler. Then there was Sonny Murray who was really propulsive. I also liked Beaver Harris who followed Milford and Sunny in Albert Ayler’s group. (1)

Next, I heard Tony Oxley on John McLaughlin’s Extrapolation LP, which came out in 1969. I liked the precision of Oxley and the crisp sound and, all the complex things that he did on his ride cymbal. He wasn’t playing as free as those guys did with Ayler, because the music was completely different, but still, there was this sense of freedom there. Some people think of Albert’s music as completely ‘free form’, but it’s not really. I don’t like the term free form at all, when I am talking about serious music that involves extended improvisations. For example, I prefer to think of Albert’s ‘time’ as like floating on your back in fast moving water. It’s not like all the players in this stream with him are never in ‘time’ with each other?  It’s just that it all changes so fast and, that Albert miraculously invented a new music where he and, all his exceptional colleagues could forget about trying to find ‘the one’ or any kind of a ‘beat’ or whatever. Time signatures, amongst many other things, completely disappeared at times. The music just floated in terms of the rhythms and, it was very spiritual.

Barry Altschul came next for me.  I certainly knew the stuff he did with Paul Bley in the 60’s, but, I really got into Barry with Circle and the Dave Holland record Conference of the Birds, with Braxton, Sam Rivers and Barry. These groups just blew me away and, right away, I knew that this is how I wanted to sound as a drummer.

Barry’s right hand work on the ride cymbal was so intricate and, really interesting to me. In terms of the stuff he was doing with his left hand and his foot; well, I probably already knew how to do that stuff, all the off beats and bomb drops. But then there was a dance-y, skippy right hand that Barry had, displaying a bop sort of influence yet entirely new. It just flew with those other ‘Birds’ [as in Dave Holland’s Conference of the Birds] in the band. Listen to Barry’s quick responses to the twisting and turning of the other players, how they could all turn around on a dime and head in another direction.

When you listen to those bands (plus the trio things he did with Sam Rivers and Dave), at times, as the band fractures, so does Barry’s right hand. But then in a way, it stays in that bop sound, too. Barry made up all kinds of new and interesting right hand bop-influenced patterns. Rather than try to learn his exceedingly complex patterns, I was just inspired to invent my own. I got a flat ride cymbal so that my patterns could be heard very clearly. With no bell on the cymbal there is a lot of definition to your sound due to a minimal drone that the bell part of a cymbal causes, and this became my sound. I used nylon tipped, long Jazz sticks. Also I worked quick little crashes into my patterns on the flat ride where I would drop/flat smack it with about the first 8 inches of the stick.

With a free form drummer like Milford Graves, you don’t hear bebop in there anymore. His drumming just floated. I certainly learned my own sense of freedom from his astonishing example, which I was able to apply in the duo I played in with the great Canadian pianist Stuart Broomer. Milford also got me into playing with mallets. With Sonny Murray, time certainly completely disappeared as well. Plus Sonny is crazy aggressive and that was an inspiration to people like Barry and Andrew Cyrille.

In Barry’s playing, we hear bebop but we can also hear the influence of John Coltrane’s music and that of his drummers. The most incredible Rashied Ali, who I think was influenced by Milford’s freedom and Sonny’s aggressive approach, must have influenced Barry, too.  That period of Albert Ayler’s music, on which Milford played, influenced Coltrane very much at the end of his life. Ayler was a revolution to Trane and he regarded him so highly that someone (Alice Coltrane maybe?) asked Albert to play at Coltrane’s funeral. During the whole hippie L.S.D. 1960’s period, when Albert and John were letting the rhythms get to this free floating thing that I tried to describe earlier, there was also the sound effect things that came from Pharoah Sanders and Roland Kirk. They played these when they weren’t blowing their horns. This aspect came into what Barry did a little bit later in the 70’s: rattling bells on chains and blowing whistles and so on. Maybe a bit of this was a Varese influence, too.

When Dave Holland and Barry played together, you also heard some of those supersonic, fractured Bebop patterns that were invented by Ornette’s groups. I’m sure that Dave must have been especially listening to Scott LaFaro on the Ornette records.   Although he was deep in a pocket with Dave, Barry was definitely also listening intensely to the notes that were flying from Anthony’s agile mind, mouth, and fingers. His cymbal work was always responding to Anthony’s genius for twisting and turning.


Meeting Barry Altschul, Anthony Braxton and Dave Holland, 1974

The first time that I was privileged to be in the company of these musicians was on Bill and Chloe (Onari) Smith’s enclosed back porch in Toronto, Sunday, December 8th, 1974. The three musicians were in town to play a concert at Trinity Church in Yorkville, Toronto. The Braxton, Dave Holland, and Barry concert was supposed to be the Sam Rivers Trio. Rivers couldn’t make it so they brought in Braxton.

During that visit, Anthony Braxton, Barry Altschul, and Dave Holland were all staying in the home of the Smith family, my friends, the promoters. Anthony, David and Barry seemed very much at home with all of us other hippies or whatever the heck we all were. In addition to the young Smith daughters Natasha and Carla, my most elegant hippie friend Shelley Gaffe was also there. She is an incredible artist in her own right (a designer of jewelry). We were all such a group of very different personalities and ethnic backgrounds there. Smith and I were quite comedic together and we were also seriously attempting to play music with each other. I’m as white as a sheet of paper towel and, of Scottish/English heritage. My friend Bill Smith is a lily-white Englishman and a Jazz history expert/publisher/producer and artist. His ex-wife Chloe is a very strong, very dark black, woman artist who is to this day a relentless promoter of the music.

Bells on long, rattling chains sang out at you as you opened and walked through the front door of chez Smith in those days. The walls were covered in framed pictures of musicians and art. There were shelves with a couple of thousand new and rare epic Jazz LPs.  There was a lot to talk about and conversations around the lunch or dinner table were always lively, to say the least. Smith, Stuart Broomer (piano) and I used to rehearse in the Smith living room on Wednesday evenings, with a six-pack of imported beer between us. The brand of beer kept changing from week to week and so did the sounds. The three of us had just begun to play concerts together. Stu and I went on to perform together for fourteen years straight, much of that time as a piano/drums duo.

Bill and Chloe (Onari) Smith promoted a lot of new music concerts in Toronto. Cloe made it possible to hear Roscoe Mitchell and Cecil Taylor concerts in Toronto back then. Anthony was avidly promoted by Bill. Bill, himself a reed player, was greatly influenced by Braxton and Mitchell. Since the famous local “Jazz” couple was such relentless promoters, there was always an audience that was quite into all of this. A lot of concerts in the city were presented at small places downtown like A Space and The Music Gallery, where I often played with Stuart Broomer. Some concerts, at The Burton Auditorium of York University (way up at the northernmost limit of the city proper) reached larger audiences. The Smith connection with Coda Magazine and Onari Records always gave Anthony a great venue in which to promote his new music. The way that those concerts were set up gave the music of people like Braxton, Roscoe Mitchell and Cecil Taylor a first footing in this major North American city, one that was outside of NYC. In Toronto you’d better be good, because audiences there have a bit of that attitude “we’ve seen it all.” It’s like New York City in that way. These guys were crazy good, so no worries there.

I photographed the 1974 trio concert. I had just gotten my first serious SLR camera for Christmas, shortly before the concert. Because I was a musician/artist myself, I knew better than to annoy fellow musicians with a flash at a serious concert like that. I didn’t even want to hear my own camera click too many times. I just took a very few pics using only available light, employing Kodak Recording film at 2000 ASA. I always compose my photographic art by framing it through the lens; no cropping afterwards. The winning shot was one of Barry. I was really glued to what he was doing and I was feeling the music spiritually while I was at the concert. The music and especially Barry’s playing was making me feel similar to the way Albert Ayler’s music always makes me feel, like my own special version of going to church. That was a hippie period and Barry was sort of a hippie. We all were. I had a big beard in those days, too. Check out the shirt Barry is wearing in the photograph I took at the Toronto concert in 1974. We all wore those Indian shirts like that with the flowery embroidery on them.

For the Braxton photo from his March 1975 duet concert with Dave Holland at A Space in Toronto, the gallery director, poet Vic d’Or, asked me to point the lighting for the stage area. This was because I am also a visual artist. I made it very harsh and all white light, and so, I was able to get away with using Kodak Tri-X at 400 ASA, again with no flash.  As a result, Anthony is seen just slightly in motion, blowing very furious ‘sheets of sound.’ That photo somehow exhibits some of the off kilter aesthetics that I use in my oil paintings.


Anthony Braxton

On that day and on subsequent occasions, Anthony would hold court in that back porch at the Smith’s. Dave Holland would be sitting there too. I was lucky enough to sit through some really lengthy before/after lunch and dinner conversations. These things went on all day, before and after the concerts.

I’d been into Anthony’s own records for a while by then, starting with his courageous For Alto. Bill Smith ran The Jazz And Blues Centre record and book store with John Norris (CODA Magazine founder/publisher). They got all these incredible import LPs into the hands of a music hungry boy (me), the young Martian, who had recently moved into Toronto from Brantford. The double LP set The Complete Braxton astonished me at that particular time. It reminds me of all the variety in The Beatles ‘Double White’ LP; it goes from “Bebop” with Barry and Dave, to “Five Tubas,” and onwards from there. It is truly a groundbreaking set. Anthony had already mastered so many different musics.

With Anthony, I knew I was in the presence of somebody who was going to be regarded as really important in the history of music, after all of us are long dead and gone (so to say). I remember, while listening to Anthony extrapolate on the work of some musical hero of his, appreciating that the talk was not all-technical musician-type talk and that Anthony was not all full of himself. Anthony was so astute whenever he spoke about any topic. I was quite young but I’d met a lot of famous people by then, and this man really impressed me with his whole demeanor. He was a genuine fan of so many musicians from so many disparate styles, and he just wanted you to know that some special person was ‘the most incredible _____ on the planet.’ It was the first time that I’d heard this ‘on the planet’ vibe. Anthony used that expression a lot. Although he could go on and on about something that he was excited about, he wasn’t a complete ‘microphone hog.’ He had a humble way of carrying himself and that, too, stuck with me. That, in itself was a lesson of sorts.

I was playing drums with my great friend, the pianist Stuart Broomer who did some prepared piano things. Anthony told me that if I was interested in unusual, percussive type piano playing, I should listen to Henry Cowell.  As I was still a kid, I hadn’t discovered him yet as he was kind of obscure. I told Anthony that I was listening to Stravinsky, Schoenberg and, Bartok so, Anthony said that I must get into ‘Father’ Charles Ives, as he so affectionately called him. So, Anthony was very generous in that way, not just telling stories and holding court but, at about age 30, in those days already trying to be a great teacher, something that he is now certainly recognized as, working at Wesleyan, the same school that published all those wonderful John Cage books.

The direction Anthony was trying to move into with his own music was composed music. I picked up that Anthony definitely didn’t like to put music in pigeonholes. He didn’t want to call it “Classical”, just like he didn’t want to call his other, small group stuff with all the improvisation, “Jazz”. If you take one of his records where Anthony does some American songbook standards and, well-known things from the great Jazz composers, you might think of it as a fractured Jazz record when you are listening, but that’s not what is intended by him at all. Everything comes into it really, the whole history of American music is coming at you, a sometimes furious barrage of who knows what. There’s a little bit  of ‘Father’ Charles Ives edginess in any of Anthony’s takes on a standard tunes from “The American Songbook” isn’t there? I love it.

I remember thinking to myself that I was surprised to find that many of Braxton’s heroes were white guys: ‘Father’ Charles Ives, Henry Cowell, and Paul Desmond for example, were all stressed to me on that first day and during Anthony’s other visits to Toronto. I learned quickly that this man was colorblind. Braxton told me what a fan he was of Paul Desmond… It was now safe to get that Joe Morello drum instruction book back out again without worrying that some of my young, peer group, white musician friends would testily say that the horned rimmed, very white Joe guy wasn’t black and, therefore a “square” or something. To Anthony, this very white, horn-rimmed guy Desmond was very hip and, had, like, the best tone on alto saxophone. I guess I sort of already thought that myself and, now I am hearing Anthony Braxton praise Paul Desmond. Cool. Anthony definitely was not a square: he was from the group Circle for freaks sake!  He was also colour blind.

At the same time I was getting that this very articulate man was coming out of what was currently deemed to be the Jazz world but, that he also knew a lot about the history of all musics. When I mentioned what I was getting interested in the ‘classical’ music world, Anthony listened to my young thoughts regarding Stravinsky, Schoenberg and, Bartok.  I remember Anthony puffing on his pipe and, saying to me “ now, you have to listen to ‘Father Charles Ives’ “. So, right away I went looking for some Ives music for myself and, the first one that I found was a discounted copy of  that  Roberto Szidon record of Ives’ Piano Sonata No. 2 Concord, Mass., 1840-1860 and, I listened to that over and, over again and, I still do.  Anthony truly gave me a new inspiration there with the Ives connection and, I later got that big Columbia box set as a Xmas gift (bless my ex-wife) and, went further into the man Anthony called a ‘father’. I’m still listening to Ives avidly.  A few years ago, Hilary Hahn did a record of sonatas with Valentina Lisitsa that was quite inspirational to me.


Speaking with Barry Altschul, a shared appreciation of drummers

At one point during the 1974 visit at the Smith’s house, I was in the living room with Natasha Smith, who was then five years of age. She wanted to play tiddlywinks with me and Barry joined us on the floor, in this game. While we were playing we had a whole conversation about the drums. So, I got to ask Barry questions about his influences. Pharoah Sanders came up in a conversation about the sound effects. When it came to my wondering about the flood of detail coming from that right hand of his, I asked Barry where do all these detailed ideas of his came from? We had the same favourite drummers, but, especially, it was Frankie Dunlop, who had played with Thelonious Monk. When I mentioned Frankie as a favourite of mine, Barry looked at me with a surprised “really?!” type vibe. Barry and I talked about the melodic solos of Monk’s other drummers like Ben Riley and, we talked for a while about Shadow Wilson,  but, mostly we talked about Frankie, who we determined was our absolute, mutual favourite amongst all of Monk’s drummers. I didn’t gush to Barry about himself that day, but I should now say that no one influenced me as a drummer more than Barry Altschul, who to me is quite simply the greatest ever.



Circle was a cohesive group very much trying to work together.  There was a real unified feel. The same was true of The Cecil Taylor Unit, with Jimmy Lyons and, Andrew Cyrille,   To a lot of people Cecil and his group were all over the map and,completely overwhelming ~ Some people thought that they were all about only energy and, anarchy, but , it truly was a unified thrust that was coming over to me, with that line-up of Cecil’s group. That Unit was full of astonishing energy and, a weird sense of theatre that apparently blew audiences in Japan away during that particular time.  The music would go way up into the stratosphere and then come crashing back down to earth  and, end up sounding all delicate, all of a sudden. Those dynamic thrusts that the Unit had going on must have influenced the guys in Circle.  I think of Circle as like a round table with the four of them all around it.  You put each guy at his place around the circumference of this table…all facing each other, having a conference of the birds, I guess. Decisions were made in a conference, in a hair trigger of a second with that group and with Cecil’s group. When you play like that, there’s a little wire hooked up between your heads and, the Cecil Taylor Unit and, Circle had that little live wire well connected.

With Circle, David Holland is bringing that freedom he learned with Miles’ electric group.  where you can just start at any place on the page. I always heard some great loping/looping Scott LaFaro thing in Dave’s playing at that time. It is certainly a different way of walking the bass.

In Circle what Braxton does is bring Chick Corea into the right place. To me, some of the A.R.C.  LP with Dave and, Barry from around the same time as Circle is excellent, but some of Chick’s playing is like somebody just doing an impression of an avant-garde piano player. Some of the piano playing is top drawer but some of it just sounds like noodling to me. When Braxton comes into the picture and, sits at that very round table, he gives things a different focus that seems to come from classical music. In Circle, Chick became very involved with Anthony’s genius. With his solo For Alto LP, Anthony, in my opinion, had made a very brave statement at a very young age. He had really defined who he was. Anthony kind of reigned in Chick Corea in that Circle band and made him respond to his signals. The other guys in Circle did that too and, so, Chick’s playing with these guys to me is more interesting than it was when he was with Miles. Dave Holland got the freedom from playing with Miles and so he knew how to respond to each twist and turn, and by the time of Circle and, Conference Of The Birds, he had become a great composer.

When I was in their presence, when David and Anthony spoke about Chick Corea , they did so in as nice a way as they could. Although they joked about him a little, calling him “Chickie” Baby and,  although they obviously thought that the Scientology thing was flaky,  they were not mean at all when they talked about him. It did seem like they thought that he thought that Circle was his band and, he was the star in his own mind, while they viewed it as a collective and, I am sure that that bugged them.  Barry didn’t say a word about any of this.

In the 80s I was fortunate enough to have one of my paintings grace a Barry Altschul album cover, Brahma.  Bill Smith hooked that up.  What a treat for me.  It made me feel like the world’s number one Barry Altschul fan!  Brahma has similar energy to that 1970s record called The Trio with John Surman, Barre Philips, and Stu Martin.  You don’t have a piano player on either of those records, just this gutbucket shit coming down at you, with one horn, bass, and fantastic drumming. Any record under Barry’s leadership since then or any record with him on it, I want to hear! Putting together two recordings on which Stu Martin plays drums, The Trio and Where Fortune Smiles (with John Surman, John McLaughlin, Karl Berger and Dave Holland), I think that Barry and Stu must have listened to each other.


Anthony Braxton and Dave Holland return to Toronto, 1975; talking with Holland about Miles Davis

It was March 1975 when Braxton and Holland played [in Toronto as a duo]. At another gathering at the Smith home, I asked Dave about the Miles band. Dave said he was discovered by Miles at Ronnie Scott’s club in London and, was called to work/record with no audition or rehearsal. All that Miles would do is just whisper something like “play C” or some such root note idea and, those were the total instructions. Miles just ambled up onto the stage and started blowing and, everyone was supposed to just file in behind him and, learn the heads of the tunes/follow his improvisations as all this flew at you. I guess that Dave and all of them must have felt like it was a baptism by fire. With absolutely no rehearsal, how are these pieces going to come together? If you watch Miles in the movie from the Isle of Wight festival, a half million or so people are out there. He just walks up there with that ultra cool persona that only Miles can pull off and he starts blowing and, everyone just files in. He hired guys like Dave, Tony Williams, McLaughlin, Keith Jarrett, Jack deJohnette and Chick and, I guess he just knew how good they all were so he was not worried about how things were going to go?  Apparently Miles just gave some minimal root note suggestion, if that, and that’s all you got. And, he let YOU contribute your own directions into the fiery brew he was concocting. It sounded to me like Miles was not just throwing curve balls at his band. He was throwing a lot of knuckleballs and spitballs, too. Miles had this attitude of personal freedom and, a complete respect for each player that he invited to be in his group and I am sure Dave took that vibe into the concept that was Circle.

At first, I only liked bits of Miles’ new electric period schtuff. In A Silent Way came out in 1969 or something and, I liked it OK. Now, I think that it’s the perfect record to drive around to, in a big city at night. Bitches Brew took me a few years to get into.  For some reason Live/Evil and Jack Johnson were the ones that first captured my imagination. Now, I love ALL of that Miles electric schtuff! I’ve probably got all of it and, listen to it in my painting studio for inspiration.

Most of that 1975 Toronto duo concert that Braxton did with Dave Holland at A Space was mainly Anthony’s music. This was a mind-blowing concert. With Anthony playing seemingly every reed instrument known to man and, I was amazed. To date, Anthony maybe hadn’t had as much of a chance to put over his own music in concerts or on recordings like Dave had because he didn’t have that name connection like Dave did with a big famous figure like Miles Davis. Interestingly, Dave had gone from playing for 500,000 with Miles at the Isle Of Wight to playing for probably fifty or so people with Anthony at A Space.




(1) Beaver later got to play with Monk in 1970 and, my dad took me to the local famous club, The Colonial Tavern on Yonge Street in Toronto to see this grouping. It was my birthday. As I was a very much underage person, dad and I had to sit in the balcony. Although I had no idea that he was going to be the bass player that night, much to my surprise, I met Wilbur Ware during the day in the Jazz department at Sam The Record Man, just up the block from The Colonial.   My dad had given me some dough for my birthday to spend at Sam’s and, I wanted a couple of Thelonious Monk albums. So this little skinny Beatle looking kid (me) is going through the bins in the Jazz department of Sam’s in the afternoon and, Wilbur Ware walks in! He asks John Norris (then a clerk there) if Sam’s has a copy of the Riverside LP that he did with Johnny Griffin called, “The Chicago Sound”.  The record of his own that he needed a copy of was out of print then. Next, Wilbur sees me looking in the Monk bin and, he immediately comes over and, strikes up a conversation with the kid (me), saying “Young fella like you knows all about Monk ?!”.   He was full of excitement!  When Wilbur found out that my dad was going to take me to the gig that night he said “When you get to the club, ask for me”. I mentioned his name to our waiter and, Wilbur came up to our table that night and, after shaking my hand again and, my dad’s hand, he took one of my Monk LPs into the dressing room for me ~ I didn’t meet Monk, but, Wilbur got me a signature, something that I of course treasure to this day!  “Good luck John always, Thelonious Monk”.

Like playing, like chatting. Like chatting, like playing

•August 9, 2016 • 2 Comments

I woke up this morning remembering a term from my childhood: “kaffeklatch.” In early 1960s Queens, New York, it was a fancy word for some of the women whose young children would get together while their children were in nursery school. What would they do? I don’t know how much coffee was actually drunk, but they sat and talked. I conjured an image in my mind of some of my mother’s friends during that time and thought about what the scene would have been like. And in my early morning haze, my thoughts returned to these blog topics and a day in school in a jazz history class when we were talking about collective improvisation.

It’s class meeting day and students (well, some of them) have come in having listened to Ornette Coleman’s “Free Jazz” for the first time. They are confused. So I ask, “ok, so tell me about how its organized. And who’s in charge.” A lot of shoulders are shrugged. We listen together a bit and the conversation shifts to what seems like a different topic.

“So here’s my question,” I say. “How many of you have groups of friends?” Giggles fill the room. A few people say that they don’t have many friends. “Ok, how many of you have groups of friends or family?” Everybody puts their hands up.

“So, when you get together and talk, how is that structured?”

Two students answer: “it’s not structured.”

Me: “Isn’t there some logical order to how things flow?”


“Ok, give me some examples.”

“Somebody says something first.”

“And what happens next?”

“It depends. Sometimes everybody listens and responds to what that person said.”

“In what ways?”

“Well, sometimes they give advice. Other times they tell about a time when they themselves dealt with something similar.”

Me: “Does the group stay on the same topic for a while? Or does it move around?”

“It depends.”

“On what?”

“On people’s moods, on what interests them, on what people want or need to talk about.”

Me: “Do people take turns?”

“Sometimes. Other times people interject or make jokes. Some are looking at their phones.”

Me: “Do sometimes people talk at the same time?”

Students offer different answers.

Me: “Is it possible that different groups have their own cultures, their own rules about how to talk together? If so, who makes the rules?”

A student: “Nobody. Things just happen.”

Me: “So how does everyone know what those rules are?”

“We just know. We just talk.”

Me: “Well, you are actually describing the conversational structure of each of your groups. What you observe are what become the unspoken rules. And it sounds as if the conversations seem to change from second to second, although each of your groups seem to have particular ways you interact.”

We listen to more of “Free Jazz,” particularly sections where there are interjections within solos, where players answer back and forth, no matter whose solo it may be.

A student: “They’re talking.”

Me: “So, what are the rules when they talk?”

“Maybe it’s about the group? But they are musicians. How do they know the rules?”

Me: “Maybe it’s not different from you and your friends?”

“But its music. Music has to have rules.”

Me: “Maybe music isn’t necessarily different from other ways people relate when they get together. At least in these collective improvisatory settings.”

We listen some more. They may not all love the music, but most of the students seem to get it. Musical groups playing together can be similar to groups doing anything together. Musical improvisation can be like conversation.

One fish, two fish, red fish, blue fish: flocks, schools and musical improvisation

•August 9, 2016 • Leave a Comment

“A flock exhibits many contrasts. It is made up of discrete birds yet overall motion seems fluid; it is simple in concept yet is so visually complex, it seems randomly arrayed and yet is magnificently synchronized. Perhaps most puzzling is the strong impression of intentional, centralized control. Yet all evidence indicates that flock motion must be merely the aggregate result of the actions of individual animals, each acting solely on the basis of its own local perception of the world.” – Craig W. Reynolds (1)

An alternative model to the “collective mind” of an improvisational group may be found in flocking (birds and land animals) and schooling (fish) behavior. In a 2006 essay, physicist Daniel Sinkovits defined flocking as “the phenomenon that individuals all move with approximately the same velocity, so that they remain together as a group. Animals that exhibit flocking range in size from buffalo to bacteria.” (2) In a 1982 essay in Scientific American, B. L. Partridge (American Scientist, 1978) cites research (3) demonstrating that 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.

For fish, relative position within the group is guided primarily by vision, as each individual seeks to maintain an unimpeded view of the bottom of the body of water. (a line of hair cells located on the fish body provides an alternative means of tracking, functioning akin to the human inner ear, which detects in Sinkovits’s words, “the flow of fluid around the fish.”)

Certainly, human actions differ greatly from bird, fish, and other animal behavior. As Reynolds (1987) notes: “The basic urge to join a flock seems to be the result of evolutionary pressure from several factors: protection from predators, statistically improving survival of the (shared) gene pool from attacks from predators, profiting from a larger effective search pattern in the quest for food, and advantages for social and mating activities.” (4) Musical improvisation is certainly not governed by these same motivations (with the possible exception of survival within the music economy!) Human improvisers are also not constrained by issues of proximity — unlike physical space, musical space is endlessly flexible, allowing for all sorts of juxtapositions, from synchronization to simultaneities that seem to lack obvious relationships. All sorts of pitch and time-related relationships are possible, although some musicians may perceive unconventional pitch, time, or sonic relationships as collisions that would be disastrous for birds in flight.

Animal flocks can show astonishing flexibility; for instance, the collective is able to  expand in size without limit. Scheffer [1983, quoted by Reynolds, 1987] points out: “when herring migrate toward their spawning grounds, they run in schools extending as long as 17 miles and containing millions of fish.” (5) Additional fish can join the group, growing the school without changing its nature. Yet animal flocks seem impervious to many of the collective dynamics that affect members of human groups [according to Partridge, birds are primarily aware of just those flying closest in proximity].

Unlike animal flocks or schools, the very nature of a human group changes as the collective grows in size: a musical trio or quartet functions very differently from a group of ten, never mind an orchestra of one hundred. We understand ourselves and behave differently when we are with a small group of friends than when we are in a meeting with thirty people, or in an auditorium with 250. The ways that human beings  interrelate varies in part depending upon the setting, something that differentiates us from fish or bird flocking and schooling behaviors

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. It is limited not by physical proximity but by our auditory ability to hear surrounding sounds, be they individual, collective, or hazily ambiguous in their source. When collectively improvising, we can respond to any material or our choosing, in any combination. In a group of five, our attention can shift in an instant from one individual or subgroup to another.

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, a topic I will return to at another point in my writing.


(1) Craig W. Reynolds, “Flocks, Herds, and Schools: A Distributed Behavioral Model,” Computer Graphics 21(4), July 1987.

(2) Daniel Sinkovits, “Flocking Behavior,” (2006, University of Illinois Urbana Champagne),

(3) B. L. Partridge, “The Structure and Function of Fish Schools,” Scientific American 246, 1982; Patridge cites E. Shaw, “Schooling Fishes,” American Scientist 66, 1978.

(4) Reynolds cites E. Shaw, “Schooling in Fishes: Critique and Review” in Development  and Evolution of Behavior. W. H. Freeman and Company, 1970.

(5) V. B. Scheffer, Spires of Form. Glimpses of Evolution, Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1983, cited by Reynolds.

Collective improvisation: me and we

•July 31, 2016 • 1 Comment

A paradox lies at the heart of collective improvisation.

On one hand, 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, whether these comprise a sequence of notes or a series of sonic responses to the playing of others. Collective improvisation may provide the listener with a musical whole rather a collection of individual parts. But at the same time, every collective is the sum of individual players. A series of notes may not sound like a conventional melody yet likely have a musical logic internal all their own. Collective improvisation may at times require giving away a degree of individual autonomy in service of the group, yet it needn’t mean compromising the uniqueness of every member’s personality.

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. Let’s consider more extreme performance settings in which concentration has higher stakes: in gymnastics or high wire acrobatics, losing one’s bodily and mental attention could mean falling or injury. In performances of well-known and prolifically recorded solo or chamber music, all ears are on the accurate replication of the score. Reviewers will not treat kindly error-riddled performances or musicians who veer off the inherited manuscript. Effective performance in these domains requires tight internal focus. And so does improvised music, solo or collective.

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. It can be more like driving a racing car, except that each individual musical navigator is aiming more for synchrony with the others than out driving them! Well, ideally.

Thus the paradox: to attend simultaneously internally and outwardly.

An analog to the internal aspect of this dichotomy – admittedly not one that most of my musical readers will expect, but then again, I am also a rabbi — may be found in mystical religious experience. A tradition with which I am familiar is a strand of 13th and 16th century Jewish mysticism, likely sourced in part within Sufi meditative practices. Early in this historical development is Rabbi Abraham Abulafia, and later, the circle of Rabbi Isaac Luria, known as the “Ari.” The Lurianic “school” was centered in S’fat, in the Galilee and in other towns along the Ottomon silk trade route from the late 1500s through early 1600s.

Among the Lurianic rabbis are Rabbis Moshe Cordovero (known as the “Ramak”) and Chaim Vital. Their mystical practices include a technique called “hitbodedut,” rendered in English by scholar Moshe Idel as “concentrated thought.” (Idel, Studies in Ecstatic Kabbalah, State University of New York Press, 1988, 105). Some contemporary Jews may know this term from its subsequent development within Hasidism. Hitbodedut required varying degrees of seclusion, but often not physical separation. Certainly it required an internal separation from physical sensation and from every day thoughts. Many traditions of meditation throughout the world share this kind of internality. This act of separation prepared one — or (in varying traditions) served as a component of — practices obliterating the veil between human person and divinity.

The Lurianic circles drew upon Abulafia’s ideas and practices, specifically combining permutations of letters comprising the Divine name. “Permutation” may sound familiar to lovers of saxophonist John Coltrane, particularly his late period. Consider his method of selecting brief collections of notes and building solos by repeatedly and with great intensity, varying their order. Some of his most trance-like playing (think A Love Supreme, Sun Ship, late performances of My Favorite Things…) draws upon this technique to create textures that were ritual and dream-like. Salim Washington (2001), Eric Nisenson (1993), Lewis Porter (1998), Carl Clements (2009), and others have sourced Coltrane’s techniques within Hindustani raga traditions. Nisenson and Clements point to Coltrane’s use – as early as the late-1950s — of Vedic melodic permutation (vikriti). Coltrane’s goal seems to have been partly musically expressive and partly religious in scope.

Coltrane provides a fascinating example for reasons that may now seem obvious – musical structure and materials, and a ritual element and process — but also because of his approach to group dynamics. I think of Coltrane’s two great Quartets as “soloist within a group” more than the more collectivist attitude made famous by Ornette Coleman and expanding within the Art Ensemble of Chicago and other AACM-related (Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians) bands in Chicago and New York. Coltrane’s approach represented one — maybe in fact a more conventional — avenue to the dilemma we are discussing here: how to relate simultaneously as an individual voice and that of the collective. Coltrane’s Ascension (1965), building upon Coleman’s conceptual recording Free Jazz (1960) represents a more collectivist approach than his classic quartet, privileging the group, yet allowing substantive space for the soloist. In each of these recordings, the ensemble does not strictly provide a supportive background for the soloist, but engages in freewheeling calls and response, interjections, and crafts swirls of textural material, more akin to gaming in a video arcade than playing alone on one’s iPhone.

I recognize that a more obvious parallel to consider is Black Holiness churches. I have experienced charismatic religious settings but I choose here to write about models that arise within my own religious tradition (rather than either Christian or Vedic traditions). Jewish traditions are what I know and can more authentically and personally speak to. Also, I find the Lurianic mystical practices to be particularly useful in exploring the questions I am raising. This is because unlike many religious traditions that emphasize the individual worshipper, Jewish traditions tend to be communal by design. Most Jewish prayer requires a “minyan,” a quorum of ten, and Jewish mystical prayer practices are often extensions of conventional prayer.

“Individual within the group” dynamics characterized Lurianic rituals since these circles functioned as communities, sharing communal mystical practices. This is in keeping with the generally collective nature of Jewish religious activities. The Lurianic community was unusual in developing practices beyond the traditional times and settings of prayer, including an innovative ritual called “gerushin.” These were collective wanderings of rabbis through the fields. By taking walks following a spontaneous, unscripted course, the rabbis sought to reenact the religious and existential experience of exile. While walking, the rabbis discussed biblical verses and individuals among them experienced spontaneous insights, novel textual interpretations (often in the language of Jewish mystical symbology). Moshe Cordovero recorded accounts of these experiences, noting some of his interpretive insights that arose during those occasions.

Can one speak of Lurianic “gerushin” as a collective mystical improvisational activity? Were these ritual activities more like the collectivist Ascension and Free Jazz, or more akin to a conventional soloist supported by rhythm section of the Coltrane Quartet? Since insights during gerushin arose within each individual rabbi, is the collective aspect just a group induction of mystical experience or was the revelatory experience itself collective in nature? In other words, did the enactment of collective wandering generate individual insights or were the results collective?

Further, did each insight result from the shared walk or was it a consequence of the successive insights of each rabbi’s peers? Were other people’s words the spark – was it conversational? — or merely the context – the accompaniment — within which individual insight arose?

In short, were the rabbis of S’fat engaged in a supportive activity for solo expression, or something closer to a collectivist expression?

Were gerushin a collective trance? Can collective musical improvisation can be thought of as trance-like? If so, how does individual agency occur? What is the source of the individual voice? Certainly it is less likely to be the kind of conscious, deliberative mental process that western aesthetics privileges. But this raises the question of how people can simultaneously function musically as individuals and part of a group. Is there an individual process within what some term “group mind”? Is there such a thing as “group mind” and if so, it is the sum of its parts (or, borrowing from Buckminster Fuller, greater than the sum of its parts)? Or is it something else entirely? What guides each individual musician’s fingers, mouths, and throats when we are embedded within a musical collective?

I interviewed saxophonist Dave Liebman for my book The Miles Davis ‘Lost’ Quintet and Other Revolutionary Ensembles (University of Chicago Press, 2016). Liebman spoke of the activity at his 19th Street New York City loft around 1970 as “free jazz in the style of Coltrane’s “Ascension” and late period.” Liebman explained: “meaning a lot of horns playing all the time, cacophonous, free form jazz.” The implication is one of more parallel play than close mutual listening (I’ve listened to recordings). In this music the listener perceives the whole becomes foreground; one cannot attend as fully to the individual parts. Yet the attention of each player seems to be more on his/her own individual playing than on the overall sound. This represents one approach to collective improvisation.

Another band addressed in my book is the Revolutionary Ensemble (Leroy Jenkins, Sirone, Jerome Cooper). RE was a small ensemble that often engaged in another form of parallel play. But here, each musician listened very closely to the others. In that setting, the listener toggles back and forth between the individuals, pairs, and the trio. I pair RE with the Miles Davis band (1968-1970) and Circle (Chick Corea, Dave Holland, Anthony Braxton, Barry Altschul). Each of these bands continually shifted back and forth between a range of modes of individual/group interplay.

Comparing these four ensembles showed me both commonalities and differences between how bands may approach the question of how to “think” individually and collectively at the same time. What my approach did not seek to answer is how musicians can simultaneously attend on both levels. And that’s what brings me to considering Lurianic mystical groups in search of non-musical analogies. If you are a musician, how do you think “locally” and “collectively” at the same time? Every musician who plays with other musicians experiences this paradox.


Playing and listening through the body, music and metaphor

•July 26, 2016 • Leave a Comment

I know the world through its sounds – and I hear those sounds through my hands.

My first indelible memory of playing piano is embedded most distinctly in my hands. It is not the usual image of a young child flailing with wild abandon at the keyboard. True, playing entirely from instinct, I had not the slightest idea what I was doing. What I remember so clearly is the weight of the keys giving way beneath my fingers. The ivory giving way to the weight of my fingers as I press down into the keys. I can feel it right now in my muscle memory as I think about it and write. What I recall is that it felt like moving mountains, sheer satisfaction of making my imprint on the world. What seemed like a huge wooden expanse, dark hammers and shiny strings before me responded together to my effort – the piano made sounds; I made sounds. Amazing, I thought. Let’s do this some more!

Playing the piano has always been a fundamentally physical activity for me. Feeling the keys resist my finger pressure is at the core of the experience. When I listen to music, the sounds echo in my hands as I hear them in my ears. As I listen, I have a sensation of weight, of sounds evoking muscle memories–whether or not their source is a piano. I do not have perfect pitch, thank goodness; instead, musical sounds evoke in me a kinesthetic awareness. Often my musical decisions are driven by the physicality of the means of making sound. It is no wonder that in my late teens, I so loved cutting and pasting magnetic tape. While some speak of composing as an ethereal experience — some composers hear sounds in their imaginations — it rarely works this way for me. I feel it in my hands and imagine it in a very physical way.

Consider my first experience listening to John Coltrane during college; the recording was A Love Supreme. I was with a group of people sitting in a darkened room. The volume was turned up loud so that the floor rumbled. The kinesthetic image I imagined was of Coltrane carving his melodic lines into a sheet of steel. Grasping a broad knife in his hands–again the hands–the saxophonist gauged into the metallic substance. I had a similar perception the first time I heard pianist Cecil Taylor incising phrases, insistently repeating groupings of notes, twisting and turning them, again like a knife in hand, cutting into steel, a chisel scraping stone, focused weight breaking through the resistance of a physical surface, carving a fine, deeply etched line. I could visualize it as patterns and shapes projected onto a wall.

As I sit at the piano, I am aware of my spatial relationship with the instrument. I am at the center of a contiguous array of white and black keys. Towards the right, the pitches rise and to the left they fall. Each key has a front-back orientation: to their rear is the main body of the piano; directly in front of me, the white keys are closer to my torso. As my hands hover over the keys I’m aware of the differences in height between the black keys, which lay to the rear, further “into” the keyboard, and the lower white keys closer to my body. To touch the rear portion of the white keys requires placing my fingers in between the black keys. To play any of the keys I employ my arm, and shoulder muscles to strike the surface with my fingers, bringing sufficient weight to trigger the hammer action.

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.

My physical position at the center of the keyboard aligns with a more general human perception of the world around us. From our vantage point, we are looking, leaning, feeling as if we are positioned in the central position of our world.  We perceive ourselves within concentric circles of proximity to a center point. We sense that our torso and the organs within our bodies are at the center (literally “the heart”) of our physical being. In contrast we call our hands and feet “extremities,” a reflection of their distance from our center but also an acknowledgment that our blood flows outward from the center. We project this inward perception of our physical being into spatial relations around us. “He stood in the middle with his friends forming two circles around him, the outermost on the periphery.”

We translate this physical dimension into how we conceptualize sonic “frequency”, commonly perceived as pitch. Pitched sounds are relative to one another, along a spectrum of “lower” to “higher.” Of course there are non-pitched sounds, for instance those generated by membranes such as drums, or sounds we define as noise, such as a rushing stream; think of water. When playing more than one note at a time, we perceive pitch relations. On the simplest level, we conceptualize these are higher and lower. An individual note situated within a group of notes, a chord for instance, sounds higher or lower than its surrounding notes. But it can also be situated in terms of the “center-periphery” metaphor: “The note she played on her saxophone was in the middle of a dense chord played by the horn section; way on top was the piccolo and on the bottom, the bass clarinet.”

At the piano, lower notes in a chord, when played with the right hand, are most easily accessed by fingers closest to the thumb; higher notes are played by fingers more to the periphery of my hand. The left hand is a mirror of the right. Thus, the way a chord (or, if speaking of non-harmonic structures, a tone cluster) sounds is reflected in the way it “feels” to my fingers and hands. I am somatically aware of how close the notes are situated together or, conversely, how far apart they are spread, and whether the notes are evenly distributed. Some chords or clusters may have two contiguous notes on the bottom, but upper notes further separated in distance (perceiving physically as a greater muscle stretch). To play notes louder requires exerting more energy to propel the hammers at a higher velocity. Muscle activity translates into the production of pitch, loudness, articulation (for instance how percussively a note is struck), chord/cluster density and composition (and thus harmony).

In improvised music, where the goal is not the realization of a notated score, perception on a muscular level can be important, even central; certainly it is underrated. True, it can also be overstated. It is difficult to assess the place of physical perception in John Coltrane’s choices of melodic lines in A Love Supreme. I spoke earlier of my own metaphorical interpretation as a listener. Coltrane was a highly analytical, mathematical thinker. He constantly rehearsed numerous combinations and permutations of note groupings. It may — or it may not — be accurate to suggest that the physical perception of his fingers played a role in his choices. It would not be possible for Coltrane’s muscle memory to have not played any role here. But might some of what he conceptualized musically have evolved within his fingers on the keys, his hands supporting the saxophone, his mouth and tongue on the mouthpiece, his lungs breathing air into the instrument?

These physical elements surely figure prominently in my own playing and, by extension, in how I personally perceive Coltrane’s work. Certainly, to play a minor third at a particular position on the piano keyboard requires a certain calibrated muscle stretch. One may create that musical sound by thinking “I am going to play a minor third at the center of the keyboard, C-Eb” and adjust the fingers accordingly. But I am equally likely to select those notes not as the consequence of mathematically conceptualizing the musical interval — from sensing and creating a muscle stretch and hand shaping that just happens to result in playing that interval. There is an intimate relationship between the two acts, the cerebral/intellectual and the physical/somatic. Improvising repeated patterns of notes can reflect choices from the perspective of mentally chosen notes or intervallic relations, and from the pure physicality of muscle and tendon experience and, might I say, decisions.

But how might this metaphor of center-periphery or high/low translate into a concept more meaningful than “which note might I hear or play” – and to what degree? Let me suggest something beyond the two translations I offered above (of pitch or the placement of a note in a chord or cluster). In the center, I feel at home, at rest. My hands in that position are the least physically stressful. As I extend my arms outwards from the center, my muscles contract; this is a less restful position. It is a comforting spot to be. My elbows drop, my back curves, my head sometimes drops forward from my neck. This is somewhat akin to settling into a comfortable sofa, at least compared with moving my arms left and right. I feel safe and secure. I’m not surprised to hear many pianists use the center of the keyboard as a reference point to place grounding chords while playing jazz tunes. It is more than convenience or convention!

“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.

We all know what it is like to be at the center of a group of people or in the periphery. We feel a sense of greater belonging at the center than in the periphery. True, some of us are loners and may prefer (or seem to prefer) standing outside and there is power in having the perspective of an outsider. But one may look in from the periphery, with mixed emotion, even longing, at the embrace of those who sit in the center. The center can also be a source of negativity; it can be home to callousness towards others outside the circle, hostility to those on the periphery. This is a risk of being in the center.

Moving away from the center is where adventure unfolds. Life’s journeys take place when we leave home and explore the world. OK, this may sound like a truism, but I’m not sure how else to articulate the idea. When I lift up my arms at the piano and they move outwards towards notes a distance from the center, there is a level of expectancy. I honestly cannot tell exactly where they will land. Yes, I have trained myself to know in my body how to find certain keys, and when I learn notated music, this is a necessity. But I can never know for sure. And when I am improvising, I privilege the potential for “mistakes” or unintended landings, upon which I will musically expand and build. I celebrate those moments because they are the source of much creativity and an antidote to over planning and rehearsal.

When I hear – rather than play — music, I often listen through my body. In a sense, I am never a passive listener; listening activates my playing instincts and muscles. In addition to my ears, my receptors include my fingers and arms. I feel those parts of my body activated as I listen. I can completely lose track of the aural aspect of music yet find myself continuing to perceive it in my body. One of the things I feel in my bones when I listen is the position of my arms, where they rest in space, whether they are anticipating or at rest. When I pay close attention to how I am perceiving music, one of the ways that I “hear” in my body is through the center/periphery metaphor.

I am not suggesting that every time a pianist plays at the center of the keyboard – or hear musical sounds in a center register – s/he is expressing a thought about being at home or away. None of this is really about “thoughts” per se, but about unconscious processes. I am exploring, with Lakoff and Johnson, the possibility that thinking is not separate from our embodied lives. Certainly, shared, inherited conventions play a substantial role in how we speak and play, but even these are not things that arise out of a disembodied history. We have no history that is not in some close relationship to our bodies. Humanity has never existed outside of our bodies.

We know something on a somatic level when our hands are placed at different locations on the keyboard relative to our center. Parts of our body, not the cognition we identify as thought, just might be the site of this aspect of intelligence and knowing.

We lump our somatic knowledge and metaphor together — when we are even aware of any of it – under the rubric of intuition. Our musical experience seems so mysterious to us until we begin to take closer note of our bodies and fleeting thoughts and reflect upon them. Much of it can never be cognitively interpreted. The power of metaphor is that it resists interpretation; it is multiple, elastic, and not specifically defined. The idea of home, for example, is multiple and contextual. It means different things to us dependent upon context: our momentary mood, the period in our lives, memories evoked, our physical location, who we are with, what we are thinking about… What is wonderful about music is how it, too, resists concrete cognitive meaning. Music is suggestive and malleable. It moves us in ways we cannot cognitively comprehend.

Yet one of the ways we can experience musical knowledge is through our bodies. The many metaphors our bodily experiences evoke may provide access points to how we listen and how we play, individually and in groups. A question I wish to consider is how metaphor may provide a key to understanding how musicians perceive and respond to each other’s musical ideas.

What about you?

Is it only our ears that listen? — introducing a conversation about playing music together

•July 24, 2016 • Leave a Comment

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.

Together in this historical moment

•July 14, 2016 • Leave a Comment

This presidential election cycle features a coded appeal to an era when white supremacy easily resisted challenge. We hear yearnings for a time when white men wielded unquestioned ownership of the keys to the country. Control over the lives of the vulnerable was, as it remains, enforced by violence and the threat of violence. In previous elections, this was the famous Nixon, Reagan, G. W. Bush “southern strategy”. Politicians exploit the irrational fears of white people who perceive themselves as endangered. Remind me: who is actually at risk?

My blog generally addresses musical concerns. My readers share my perception that music transcends questions of technique, form, or artistry. Music is an expressive vehicle that mediates our relationship to the world and, as much as politics or other endeavors, is intimately tied to the historical, social moment.

I have, in my recent blogs, used the phrase “white supremacy” as a mantra. White supremacy, white supremacy, white supremacy. Speaking these words aloud seems anathema to many people who look like me. Resistance to the word pair seems like an allergy with no natural source. As my students and friends know, I believe we need to bring the phrase “white supremacy” (there it is again) into our daily discourse precisely because it describes an essential daily reality. Not speaking these two words diminishes the logic of our speech and compromises our understanding.

Unmentionable ideas seem to travel in packs. Intimately linked to white supremacy is the male exertion of power and control over women and its exercise over other men who can be made vulnerable to domination. The slogan “make America great again” is a whistle call, recalling an era when the dominance of white men was understood to be the way things worked, how things go when societal wheels turn “smoothly”, undisrupted. It is not by chance that the Trump campaign draws its support and strength substantially from white men who express aggrievement with contemporary America.

In truth, this well-oiled machine was supported by the misuse of human bodies, the abuse of women and of people of color. Its foundation was American slavery, the source of labor that built this country. The structure of plantation life was defined by the dominance of the male owner over “his” slaves and over “his” women. Enslaved women were at the intersection of cascading vulnerabilities.

This brings us to the debate about the recent spate of mass killings. Amanda Taub writes in the New York Times (“Control and Fear, what mass killings and domestic violence have in common,” June 15, 2016): “Domestic violence, experts say, often occurs when an abuser concludes that violence is the best tool to solve his or her grievances. That might mean a husband who perceives his wife’s failure to do the laundry as a challenge to his rightful authority, leading him to try to re-impose his will through violence.” Violence is chosen as an implement because it works. Violence is instrumental because its power, once wielded, hovers as a continual threat. Encoded is the message: “I can intimidate you to obey my rule. I hold over you the threat of harm if not death; you will lose anything and everything whatever I choose. All choices are ultimately mine. You will not be believed if you try to stop me.”

Domination by white men unifies the ideology and practice of white supremacy, power over women, and hatred of those viewed as a threat to hyper-masculinity. This confluence explains the historical stigma of being LGBTQ or Jewish. Reclaiming the term “queer” has been of value precisely because it highlights how threatening gender and sexual nonconformity is to a system of male dominance.

Within this system, Jews and Blacks are stereotyped and stigmatized in a manner that is highly sexualized.

Jewish men have been historically caricatured as impotent yet hyper-sexual. They are supernaturally financially adept; populist mythology continues to label Jews as controllers of world power and finance, a dynamic that periodically turns economic success from being an entry point to whiteness into a liability. Jewish women are labeled domineering and frigid.

Black men are mythologized as ignorant, out of control sexual predators and angry murderers; Black women as drug addicted prostitutes, mammies, and exotic sexual objects. Societal safety and the purity of white women are said to be constantly under threat; twisted logic of the Jim Crow era rendered sexual disfigurement a constant element in the public lynching of Blacks, and at times, Jews. Donald Trump’s rhetoric about Mexico sending rapists across the border ties immigration into this web of white male dominance and control.

My personal experience of these dynamics was gained when my mother was forced to seek work as a public school teacher outside New York City. This was an era when, in an unspoken rule, women were excluded from American History teaching. Consequently, I spent my adolescent years in an unfamiliar suburban environment: a thin, small Jewish boy. I naively allowed myself to be identified in equal measure with Jewish and African American concerns (accurate but, as it turned out, risky). I was not cognizant of the rules of an all-white, largely Christian environment. I sounded like a New Yorker, looked like an outsider, and was thus marked for abuse. The details of that experience await another day.

The experience alerted me to what it meant to be stigmatized and vulnerable—labeled nonwhite–to the violent behavior of white men who rigidly asserted their dominance. The level of fear I experienced brought to mind earlier experiences when I was very young, of late nights at our summer colony in Golden’s Bridge, in the company of freedom riders who spoke of their coming perilous journeys. Our very real fear was that we would never see them again. Here I was in middle school, doing nothing heroic, challenging nobody, yet reminded of this same level of fear.

These experiences lead me to take personally the spate of killings of Black men and the rash of mass shootings. This is not to say that I conflate the present, constant vulnerability of Black America with my own safety. Protected with reasonable security by my white male skin, I do not.

Certainly, the language of this present election cycle frightens me. The antidote to perceived threats to this system of dominance is said to be a return to a mythical past when men were men, when their control remained unchallenged, and what lay between civilization and chaos was firepower.

Most important here is that I am reminded that I, like many, are capable of empathy during this difficult present moment. Like many who are not Black, I—like many other people—know what it feels like to be vulnerable, and we can draw upon those experiences to take the side of those at risk. We can use our own personal memories to craft a shared societal wake up call.

We all share a  stake in the death of so many Black men on our nation’s streets. We can have common cause in the harassment of immigrants and people of Islamic faith and in the mass killings at the Pulse gay nightclub. We can choose to be in this together.