improvisation – healing music – consciousness a review by Timothy McKamey
of Stephen Nachmanovitch’s Free Play – Improvisation in Life and Art 1990, Tarcher/Putnam, New York
I would like to make use of this opportunity to review this wonderful book in order to go a little further with the ideas it presents. Stephen Nachmanovich has done a great service, not only for artists and musicians, but for anyone at all interested in a deeper appreciation for the power creative improvisation can have in our lives. Since I am currently in training to become a healing music practitioner, I would like to specifically explore how his ideas address and inform the work of the healing musician.
We know that the evocative power of music lies not so much in the characteristics of a particular note or pitch, it is instead due to the interval, the space that separates each note. The energy generated in that space is created by the nature of the relationship of one note to another. There is the temporal measure of space across time, what we call rhythm. But there are also the infinite variations of harmony which occur in relation to the intervals of space that exist between the notes in a chord, a scale, a melody or harmonic sequence. It is not so much a C or a G or an F# that affects us as it is the intervals of a fourth, a fifth, a minor third or a major seventh.
But as important as those materials of music theory are, this book is not about those elements of music. This book discusses how we tap into the energy of the space that is within us and about us, how we can learn to listen more deeply and fully and play more completely. This is not a book about the science of music. It is about the art of expressing music in the way we live our lives and how to connect with our soul through music.
Nachmanovitch wants us to know that just as the space of intervals in music is important, so too are those spaces in our lives important. Both the ones that we create, as well as the ones the universe may deliver to us unexpectedly. In either case, these are spaces out of which creativity emerges when we begin to appreciate acceptance, surrender and gratitude. These are essential elements to improvisation, to playing freely, both in art and in life.
Sometimes we seek such a space, like the physical space of a studio, or the temporal space of a Sabbath day, a time and place for re-creation. At other times events in our lives will just pick us up and literally move us into an entirely new space without our permission. Yet even in those spaces, by learning acceptance and surrender, and eventually cultivating gratitude, even for the unexpected, we can and often do find whole new vistas of creativity and beauty in what may first appear to us as chaos. There is a time to make things happen, but sometimes it is about letting things happen. “To everything there is a season…”
It has occurred to me that when we are sitting one-on-one with a patient, we are improvising music with our patient’s condition. Like a jazz player trading riffs with other members of a musical trio, we are receiving cues and signals from the patient (and the environment) which will inform our playing and shape the music. Much of our work has to do with becoming sensitive enough and skilled enough to be able to respond appropriately to these conditions so that the music which comes forth will best honor the patient’s needs.
Even though the author is not specifically addressing the work of healing music practitioners in this book, his approach to music and life speaks volumes for the healing musician. For much of what we do is about improvisation. As musicians, most, if not all of us, come from the world of performance where stagecraft requires a particular set of skills and conditions. Playing healing music is a very different sort of work however, and we are learning that much of what served us on the stage does not apply here.
Even as we are learning to acquire new skills, we are learning at the same time how important it is to let go. It is quite a challenge to get comfortable with playing arrhythmic music for example, when we are so used to playing rock steady. It is very challenging to learn to incorporate more space and use less notes, to let go of the conventional musical notions of phrasing and embrace the phrasing of a patient’s breathing. Then there are the various harmonic modal scales with which we may create a range of variations on familiar musical themes. There is the expanding of our repertoire to include songs from many cultures, both secular and sacred as the need requires.
All this translates into letting go of our old comfortable familiar notions about what makes beautiful music, and learning to embrace new and sometimes strange and unfamiliar ideas. Along with this comes the fear of not being successful, of not sounding good, of not meeting up to preconceived expectations. This is where Nachmanovitch really helps us understand how to face up to and acquire a new understanding of music, especially in the art of improvisation.
The author readily acknowledges that our subject is inherently a mystery. It cannot be fully expressed in words, because “it concerns the deep preverbal levels of spirit.” Creativity as understood in concepts such as lila, the divine play of the gods, or temenos, the symbolic space of the sacred, is not something that can be measured or tested for.
He cites a passage from Carl Jung’s work on the Taoist Masters, The Secret of the Golden Flower which particularly speaks to a particular kind of letting go;
“What then did these people do in order to achieve the progress which freed them? As far as I could see they did nothing (wu wei, inaction), but let things happen. For as Master Lu Tzu teaches in our text, the Light circulates according to its own law, if one does not give up one’s accustomed calling. The art of letting things happen, action in non-action, letting go of oneself, as taught by Meister Eckhart, became a key to me with which I was able to open the door to ‘The Way’. The key is this: we must be able to let things happen in the psyche. For us this becomes a real art of which few people know anything. Consciousness is constantly interfering, helping, correcting, negating, and never leaving the simple growth of the psychic process in peace. It would be a simple enough thing to do, if only simplicity were not the most difficult of all things.”
Therein lies the crux of the matter. “If only simplicity were not the most difficult of all things.” So much of what works in healing music seems to entail the essence of simplicity. And yet acquiring these skills can often seem exceedingly difficult, especially for the musician who has spent a lifetime constructing an edifice of the kind of musical complexity most of us associate with a ‘sophisticated’ musical performance.
Here again is where play becomes central. The great classical guitarist Andres Segovia, who was never particularly known for his jocularity, did say that “we must learn to put the ‘elf’ back into the self, and to put ‘play’ back into our playing. There is a great secret here. For we know that when we are most at ease, and truly flowing with the music, this is what is happening, the elf is happily playing.
For this to happen, Nachmanovitch would have us understand that we must develop unconsciously as much as on a conscious level. Generally speaking, growing up in western society, we tend to concentrate mostly on the conscious however, and without equal time given to the unconscious, we can only progress so far. He explains how “we stuff our conscious minds with knowledge and data. But only in the unconscious does this knowledge ripen. The creative process of making unconscious wisdom available to consciousness is a paranormal phenomenon. Our rational filters tend to get in the way of this process.” This is why various forms of meditation are becoming increasingly popular in the West now. More and more people are realizing that there is untapped energy and wisdom available within and are actively seeking ways to access it.
In our training as healing music practitioners we learn about the complementary modalities of healing that recognize the importance of various types of fields of energy. Where western medicine typically concentrates on the physical, these other practices from China, Japan, India and Tibet focus on the whole person, which includes more than simply the physical body. It is no coincidence that meditation is an ancient practice in all of these cultures. Achieving a state of balance with one’s chi and facilitating the flow of that energy is barely understood at all through the consciousness of western science. Yet its benefits are clearly understood by generations of healthy vigorous people throughout the world.
In the opening pages of Free Play, Nachmanovitch relates an ancient Buddhist parable about a flute player, his relationship with his teacher and his journeys through life. It is a familiar story as the student struggles to achieve that which he believes is what the teacher wishes to teach him. But no matter how much he advances technically, no matter how proficient a player he becomes, no matter how fine an instrument he plays, his teacher can only observe that “something is lacking.” In the end, after completely giving up but coming back to music years later, nearly by accident, the flute player happens to be asked to play a concert where his old teacher is present. He borrows a plain and simple flute and agrees to give it a go. His music now soars effortlessly, emerging from the soul with such strength and beauty that the teacher is heard to remark; “Like a god!” What happened in the space of the flute player’s life that brought about this change?
As we learn more about the importance of play and what we can do in our own lives to enrich this important aspect, slowly a shift occurs within us which allows us to re-prioritize what matters most in music. Hopefully younger readers will take this to heart and not take their entire lifetimes to figure this out the way the flute player had to.
For ultimately, what the author is telling us in Free Play is nothing so terribly complex or difficult to comprehend. It is simply that the values our society has instilled in us as musicians in a material and commercial culture have little to do with creating beautiful and powerful music. As important as technical ability, sight-reading and ear-training are, they are but the building blocks, the ingredients. As every good cook knows, it is up to us to transform ingredients into something tasty and soulful, and this is much harder to teach than technical skills.
I believe that nothing short of a major paradigm-shift in how we approach life and music is necessary for this work to grow into a more widely understood practice. It is so easy in our culture to be distracted from the deeper essence in music, as in life. Nachmanovitch points out how “schools meant to nurture creativity can also destroy it. All the emphasis is placed on turning out uniform, media-minded grown-ups to feed the marketplace with workers, managers and consumers.” We can learn however that every bit of our culture is school. Learning does not simply take place in institutions. Life is full of opportunities for learning. Part of what Free Play is about is how we learn from life as a whole. It’s like what Joseph Campbell said about “Life is a guy on the street corner playing a song on the violin, learning the song and how to play the violin all at the same time.”
Sometimes our very purpose for playing music can itself be the distraction that prevents us from ‘playing freely’. Nachmanovich says,
“To think consciously that we are doing spiritual art is not that different from doing art for money or fame. Any time we perform an activity for a particular outcome, even if it’s a very high, noble or admirable end, we are not totally in that activity.”
Free Play is about presence. It’s about being in the moment, in the zone, in the space where creativity flows effortlessly. Even our identity as a healing musician can distract us from this capability and hence interfere with our effectiveness if we are not careful about where we are focusing our energy and our intent. This goes against the conventional wisdom that says “never take you eye off the prize.” I think indeed that there are times when we must take our eye off the prize in order to realize that we are already holding a treasure of great value right now in this moment. Then as we proceed from that realization, everything else flows from that understanding of gratitude.
In the final section of his book, Nachmanovitch talks about the fruits of Free Play. Among these are nothing less than the generative powers of Eros and creation. Because healing involves wholeness and regeneration, there is much to be gained from a deeper understanding of this aspect of the creative force in music. Sufi Master, teacher and musician Hazrat Inayat Khan is quoted as saying;
“Music, the word we use in our everyday language, is nothing less than the picture of our Beloved. It is because music is the picture of our Beloved that we love music.”
Nachmanovitch reminds us that Eros – the divine principle of desire and love – surges from our deepest evolutionary roots; the urge to generate new life, to create. In The Marriage of Heaven and Hell, William Blake said;
“Energy is the only life, and is from the Body; and Reason is the outward circumference of Energy. Energy is Eternal Delight.”
I think that these two quotes express both the sacred and secular aspects of the creative and regenerative power of music. The work of the healing musician involves both these spheres of experience. Even if we are playing secular folk melodies for a dying atheist, we are involved in a sacred act of creating a space within which wholeness may occur for another fellow human being. The arc of Reason which Blake speaks of can be experienced in the circumference of the space defined by our musical geometry. Our patient may not “picture the Beloved” as Inayat Khan refers to. But they will benefit from the Energy nonetheless. If the patient does come from a spiritual tradition, then the geometry of Reason may be translated as the picture of the Beloved. Either way, music is a wonderful vehicle for the transmission of Divine Energy in whatever form is most suitable for the task at hand.
Music can be used in so many different ways. It reminds me of a Swiss army knife. Its utility lies in its unlimited flexibility, its propensity for variation and its capacity for transformation. In the art of improvisation we learn how to become sensitive to the environment in order to let the music go where it needs to go, rather than directing it where we think it should go. While practice and drills and development of skills is essential, these techniques involve control, they are analogous to the grasping reflex, taking hold of something and making it do what you want it to do. Improvisation on the other hand is about opening up and letting go. If there is any holding happening at all, it is the simple gesture of the open palm as a butterfly lights for a moment, then takes off again. It may be possible to grasp a butterfly, but what would be the point of that?
Free Play teaches us the value of the full range of the sound possibilities music offers. As musicians, it is only natural for us to excel at certain things over others and be drawn to certain types of music over others. But we can learn to use all the tools on our Swiss army knife, why be limited to just the knife blade and the screwdriver? In the practice of healing music we find the need for a full range of applications. Sometimes we will need to be supportive and steady. Sometimes we will need to provide calm relaxation and comfort. Sometimes we may not even know what is needed from one moment to the next and must be able to let the patient’s condition shape the music to the greatest extent possible. This is where the technique of Unitative Listening comes in. Though the term never comes up in the book, Free Play is all about acquiring those skills that will increase our effectiveness as Unitative Listeners and enhance our ability to provide healing music.
Along with Eros, another fruit of Free Play is lila. Nachmanovich explains how lila, the word for the playful activity of the gods in the Hindu tradition, is the spirit that draws us hypnotically into the deeper and more sacred areas of the psyche. This is the feeling of entrainment we experience when we are carried away, or rather carried inward, by music. Whether we are simply listening, or involved in creating the music, both require that we be swept up and away by Eros if we are to experience the music fully. It is like falling in love. You give yourself completely to the process to get the most out of it.
Yet another of the fruits of Free Play is desire, which comes from de-sidere, which means ‘away from your star’. It is the feeling of being pulled back towards your source, like an emotional form of gravity. These seductive elements of playfulness and desire play an important role in the myths of Krishna in India and Apollo in Greece, both gods of music but also symbolic of light and the creative force. Nachmanovich tells us how in the Sufi tradition,
“the beloved is the friend we love, while the Beloved is the Friend, God, and they are one. Love is the state of resonance between absence from and nearness to the beloved.”
G.K. Chesterton explains the difference between construction and creation as this; “a thing constructed can only be loved when it is finished, but a thing created is loved before it exists.” There’s a great line in a Merle Haggard song that goes, “I love my old guitar like God loves the poor.” This is the kind of desire of the beloved that Free Play can bring out. Nachmanovich says “Desire grows artwork out of us in order to see itself.” He suggests thinking about the Apollo Space Program as one of the most ambitious examples of Performance Art ever conceived. We put people on the moon so we could get those amazing pictures of the Earth from space. Humanity “reached out to see the symbol of our own yearning to reach out.”
“In the mystical transcendence of selfhood….we stop the world, we stop being separate selves and become an activity, an open field of sensitivity. Love of the beloved, and the Beloved, along with the pain of separation and alienation, teaches us how we are part of something much larger than ourselves.”
Free Play is about getting back into that Unitative space with music and art and with all of life. Nachmanovich says that when Eros leads to this expansion of the self, then we are able to experience compassion, that state where what we see is not something separate from ourselves, but part of our self. To have this experience with our music and our art is just like the experience of embarking on the adventure of love with another person. We grow together and learn from each other. We learn to listen and let go of trying to control the outcome. By cultivating this receptivity we develop a mutual feeling of freeing-up one another. Nachmanovitch invites us to “transfer this receptivity and compassion and free flow of mind to everyone and everything we touch.”
As healing musicians we are looking for resonance, and that occurs when there is identity with what sings. Optimally this works simultaneously, when we identify with the patient, and when the patient identifies with the music. We can observe that we have two ways of doing, seeing and being present in our hands; to make and to sense. This can be said for the heart and mind as well, for our hands are nothing if not tools for the heart and mind. We achieve resonance then when our hands produce the music that identifies with the patient identifying with the music. (What can be said for the hands of a musician is true of course for the singer’s voice as well.) When this resonance happens between musician, instrument and patient, we have a true sense of how music and sound literally touch us.
Nachmanovich points to the current state of affairs in the world politically, spiritually and economically, the fear and rigidity that have taken hold of culture in so many ways. There is a separation of values and a separation of the sacred from life. Culture is dis-integrating. Contemplative mystics work only on the self, artists work only on materials. He suggests that a way through this impasse is to practice art for life’s sake, not just for art’s sake, “creativity extended into more moments of time and into the lives of more people.” The art and science of the creative healing musician is a clear example of practicing art for life’s sake.
“As long as we choose to consider sounds only through the commotion they stir in our nerves, we will never have the true principles of music and of its power over our hearts.” – J.-J. Rousseau, Essay on the Origin of Languages
Processes that relate (re-ligio) us back to life, to context and environment, are art, dreams, religion, and other roads to the unconscious. These processes help correct the inherent narrowness of conscious purpose. In the last several hundred years, humanity has become dominated by conscious, purpose-driven motivations rendering us nearly incapable of having any purpose whatsoever in life beyond the material. As we delve deeper into the art and science of healing music, it becomes more apparent all the time that there is more going on than simply vibrations of sound exciting (or calming) the nervous system. As in the other complementary modalities of healing, sound and music involve the whole person, extending to extrasensory fields of energy, a sense of the sacred, and the collective unconscious structures of culture. Free Play by Stephen Nachmanovich is a giant leap forward towards a truly holistic understanding of the importance of creative improvisation in art and in life.
In the final chapter, Heartbreakthrough, the author suggests a lesson we can take from the creation myths and from motifs of redemption. He says,
“In the creative life cycle, we pass through at least three stages: innocence (or discovery), experience (or the fall), and integration (rejuvenation or mastery). Birth, blockage and breakthrough.”
As children we have the innate and innocent ability to become completely absorbed in play. Then come the difficulties and the distractions of growing up. But finally, as a mature artist we may experience a breakthrough, the moment of return, “the samadhi of reorganized innocence…recovering our original mind-of-play which has nothing to gain and nothing to lose….we become a carrier wave a vehicle for the music that plays us.”
Nachmanovich suggests the formula for achieving this is to simply identify the impediments, the disappointments, the distractions and then set them down like “an overburdened suitcase we have been carrying far too long.” If our hands are full of our own limited conceptions of selfhood, then they are not free to play. When we become unperturbed as the clouds, we are free to flow, and become able as our old friend the flute player, “to play as the gods.”
It sounds so easy, and in fact it is all about ease. It is about easing our way into a new way to experience life through our music. Reminds me of the lines from Bob Franke’s song Thanksgiving Eve;
“What can you do but work and hope, let your dreams bind your work to your play? What can you do with each moment of your life, but love ‘til you’ve loved it away? Love til you’ve loved it away.”
We have countless examples of the power and mystery of music. They abound throughout history. It happens in every culture, in every style of music to some extent at least, where all the elements come together in such a way as to transcend the elements themselves and transport us into the amazing magical space where music really lives. I plan on going there more often. I hope you’ll join me.
– Tim McKamey, July 1, 2013