Musical experience is something that is very hard, perhaps almost impossible, for us to describe. We all know what we like and do not like…yet every so often something will come along that either knocks us sideways, or takes us completely out of our musical comfort zone. This is something that happened to me when I first heard the recent release of Can’s 1975 gig in Stuttgart. Not being one for bootlegs I had never really heard the band’s live output before and was blown away with quite how different it sounded, even against the eclectic and relatively free-sounding music of Can’s studio output.
But why was it so different, and what was it about the music that just elevated this Can performance onto another plane for me? I thought about this question a lot (probably a little too much if I’m honest), but in the end I am pretty sure it came down to the improvised nature of the music… the fact that it was delivered in a single performance. Sure it had been re-mixed and re-mastered, but the fundamentals are still there.
Regular readers of this website will know that a large percentage of the music that I feature here is improvised… I like the immediacy of it… but also the unpredictability, and especially in the way that it can frequently take musicians to unexpected places… and often to the edge of chaos when the whole structure of what they are playing is on the verge of collapse. And while I mostly write about recorded music, this is also the case for the live experience… something that we have been sadly deprived of over the pandemic… and which has been hard to recreate through live streams and listening at home.
As a non-musician myself I have always been in awe of those who can create wonderful music in such a spontaneous manner, and have often wondered how this happens… what is the process? What is going on for them in that moment? Do they even know? I have a small insight into this through the way that I write reviews, which tend to be in real time as I listen to the music… I try to explain my visceral reaction to what I hear which is something that works for me, and certainly it helps me hear what is going on in the music, and in my head, more deeply than I otherwise can when not writing… and certainly I will often review what I have written and hardly remember writing it.
Furthermore, because of my background as a researcher in the Sociology of Religion, I think in a particular way in term of how I experience music, when I am doing so intently. I can see how engaging in religious ritual, particularly in the less ‘modern’ traditions, involves the idea of transition… transition to a different physical/ psychological/ spiritual state. For me getting totally into a piece of music carries some similarities… this for me may be to sit quietly in an armchair with a glass of whisky, or to be totally lost in a performance at a live gig. For others it might mean the use of stimulants… or none at all.
In summary, then, there is a lot going around in my head when it comes to improvisational music, which is why I was fascinated to hear that William Sol, otherwise known as Prana Crafter, had been working on a PhD on the subject. Entitled ‘Sonic Mindfulness: A Qualitative Study of Sense of Agency and an Improvisational State of Mind in Free Form Musical Improvisation’, Sol considers what might be going on for the musician during a moment of improvisation, as the abstract to his thesis says:
Study of musical improvisation has proven a productive avenue for exploring attributes of adapting dynamically in the moment. Research has focused on neuro-correlates and the experience of decision-making…for an improvisational state of mind. This qualitative study explored the question: How do musicians experience state of consciousness and sense of agency while freely improvising? Twenty-four experts in free form music performed a short free improvisation that was the subject of a semi-structured interview. Participants reported low sense of agency, minimal conscious thought, and decisions experienced as body-doing or subtle urges being acted upon through intuition, as well as moments of increased agency as the need arose to troubleshoot or steer toward a desired esthetic. Significant reports of focused, present-moment awareness suggest parallels between improvisation and techniques that utilize variations of mindfulness. Thematic analysis illuminated the experience of improvisational decision-making, complementing the neurocognitive perspective, while spotlighting rarely studied transpersonal dimensions of improvisation (e.g., reports that improvising music was occasionally associated with a trance state).
I wanted to find out what Will had discovered in his study, but was aware that I wouldn’t be able to access everything that I wanted to know simply by reading his thesis (which he generously sent me a copy of). As a result he was kind enough to answer a number of questions which I put to him over email, the results of which appear below. I hope that this is as interesting for you as it has been for me… and it has certainly given me a fresh insight into the creation of improvisational music, and an even greater sense of awe of what happens during that process.
I began by asking him to explain what he meant by the term ‘agency’ which seemed to be key to what he was discussing in his thesis:
William Sol [WS]: After diving into the research on sense of agency, I went with the definition by a team of scholars named Vogeley and Gallagher who defined it as: “the sense that I am the one who is causing or generating an action”. It is basically the idea of actions that we intentionally author versus those that occur without conscious awareness of authorship. For a lot of people, I think driving a familiar route or walking a family route, is a good example of when sense of agency can be low, or it may be the act of dancing for some people. On the other end of the spectrum, increased sense of agency are those moments when we are very intentional about our actions and when we carefully author them into existence, like playing that game “Operation” where you can’t let the tweezers touch the sides, so you are concentrate on every micro-movement with control. In terms of music, it’s the difference between intentionally playing something, bringing a specific sound-idea into existence, versus “letting go” and allowing the body to play without your conscious intention being as involved.
Fragmented Flâneur [FF]: Having established this (for myself as much as anyone) I continued by expressing my own preference for improvisational music, and wondered why this might be the case.
WS: Yeah, I am the same way. For some reason I just like music better when it was spontaneously born in the moment (or at least has some novel aspects born in the moment). You would probably be interested in some recent research by Dolan et al. (2018) who did a mixed-methods study on improvisation in classical music. They measured the musicians AND the audience. They used EEG (which is not typical, usually neuro imaging studies on music use fMRI (functional magnetic resonance imaging)), some type of kinesthetic tracking software (that kind of sounded like how video game cameras work these days with kinesthetic games), and then some qualitative reflection. Anyway, they found that the musicians and audience members had a different “state of mind” when improvisation was occurring.
Fragmented Flâneur [FF]: That is very interesting, and something that I very much recognise when listening to live music in particular; and when writing about music to a certain extent. How does this link in with the notion of mindfulness?
WS: Dolan et al. (2018) defined “state of mind” as a basically a certain neural configuration that is maintained for a specified period of time. Which is a definition that is sooooo close to my favourite definition of state of consciousness, one that was put forth by American Psychologist Charlie Tart back in the 90s. Tart said that “awareness” is the basic recognition that something is occurring, so similar to basic wakefulness or bare, fundamental, awareness in Buddhism. Then consciousness is the modulation of awareness by the structures of mind.
FF: So the suggestion is that there may be a relationship between consciousness and music, this certainly seems to be something that I could get on board with. To what extent has it been studied over the years?
WS: This question about the relationship between consciousness and music seems so obvious to some of us, but it has been a struggle in musicology and music education over the years to have that acknowledged. Ed Sarath is a trumpet player and jazz music professor from the University of Michigan who served on my examination committee. He has done a lot of work over the years in music educational pedagogy to show how important one’s state of mind (consciousness) is when playing music that requires improvisation. He has a course there in the music department focusing on Creativity and Consciousness, which is just amazing, lucky students….
FF: That sounds pretty amazing, certainly the sort of course that I would love to sit in on if I could. Now we have got a flavour of what your work is about, can you briefly tell us about the methods that you used in your research?
WS: My research was a pretty straight-forward generic qualitative method. I wanted to understand how these musicians were experiencing their state of consciousness during free form improvisation, specifically their sense of agency. So what I did was have each musician (24 in all) perform a 3 minute free form improvisation on the day of our zoom meeting, which I listened to live and recorded. We then had a semi-structured conversation about their experience with that improvisation as well as past experiences that the questions brought to mind. The conversations were between 45 minutes and 2 1/2 hours, depending on how the banter was going. I then, painstakingly, transcribed every interview and conducted a thematic analysis. For those who aren’t familiar, this is a process by which you read through transcripts several times, isolating “meaning units,” which just means chunks of text that have specific meaning behind them. You then assign codes to these meaning units, refine them on a list, and eventually after you go through all the transcripts, you have a list of themes with corresponding behavioral definitions. It’s a tremendous amount of work but it does become fun once your list is really on-point, because you start to see how people are talking about the same things, using different terms, their own language. To be sure that you are staying true to their actual words and sentiments, you also include verbatim quotations along with each theme. Then, of course, you eventually analyze your themes in the context of your literature review.
FF: To what extent did what they said meet your own expectations?
WS: I was most surprised by two things:
The first was that almost everyone felt that improvising was a meditation practice for them, which shouldn’t have surprised me, but it did. I think the reason is because I have been a meditator for 25+ years using both Zen and Vajrayana (different schools of Buddhism) methods, so I guess to me improvisation and meditation are in a sense the same thing, but I hadn’t ever framed it that way within my own mind. I guess I usually lean toward the absorption in bare awareness type, Shamatha-style, meditation. Here I am, as Kalu Rinpoche (a Tibetan Buddhist master who taught extensively in the ‘West’) put it, resting in natural great peace, this exhausted mind, beaten helplessly by karma and neurotic thought! And improvising is this dynamic creative unfolding, something more like a vapassana-style meditation I guess. So although, yes, of course when I improvise I am in-the-moment, completely, it is this adventure; it isn’t resting in natural great peace, my exhausted mind.
FF: Before you go on to the second point I am really interested in the distinction between ‘being in the moment’ and ‘resting in great peace’? However, because they are both relatively intangible concepts I wonder how they can be triangulated (perhaps not the best word but I hope you get my drift) with experiences when improvising?
WS: This distinction here is something that is mainly only pondered by people who are researching meditation, either personally or formally. In psychology, for the last 20 years the idea of mindfulness (awareness placed upon present moment experience with a non-judgmental attitude) has become more and more popular but more recently people started pointing out that there are different things being called “mindfulness” and there are some differences that could suggest some of these different variations could be leading to slightly different states of consciousness. Among the variations, an important one is between Shamatha meditation and other types of mindfulness. Because informal mindfulness practice (as it’s called in western psychology) can consist of bringing present moment awareness to nearly any activity, on the other hand, Shamatha (abiding or resting in peace) is a specific type of mindfulness of naked awareness that aims to dissolve thinking and mental striving into the emptiness of oceanic like awareness. The reason I got into that during my research was because my chair was challenging me on whether I could use the term “mindfulness” to relate to improvisation because she felt that when improvising musicians were not being “non-judgmental” and so I needed to show how mindfulness could mean different things related to present moment awareness (e.g., present moment awareness upon a task versus present moment awareness focused upon resting the mind in naked awareness in the words of Kaygu Rinpoche “rest in great peace, this exhausted mind, beaten restlessly by karma and neurotic thoughts”).
FF: Thanks for that clarification, that’s really helpful. Please go on and talk about the second part of your findings that surprised you.
WS: The other thing that really surprised me was to the extent that most of the musicians had a very potent experience of hearing the music they were creating, in-the-moment, as an observer. They tended to say it was like listening to themselves play, more-so than feeling that they were doing this thing, moment-to-moment, making something. But of course it is this in-and-out where there are clear moments of strong agency and intentional decision making, but the overall experience seemed to be more of body-doing while they listened to what their body had just created in the milli-seconds that preceded the listening experience. The fast pace that this all occurs at makes things very complicated in terms of the subjective experience and sense of agency. Many theorists believe sense of agency is just an illusion and that we pre-consciously make most if not all decisions and our perception that we intentionally author is a little illusion created to make us feel consciously in control or help us make sense out of our pre-conscious interactions with the environment.
FF: I find that fascinating. And it makes me want to pick up on the question of whether musicians need to go through some sort of ‘process’ in order to achieve a certain state of consciousness when they are improvising?
WS: Something else that came up for quite a few people was this idea of purposefully trying to shift one’s state of consciousness to get into an improvisational state of mind, into an improvisational zone. This has been something I’ve always struggled with because in the wrong setting, I just can’t get into the right mind set and that makes the music suffer, at least in my perception of how it ‘feels’ So, hearing so many musicians talk about this has caused me to take it even more seriously and realize that state of consciousness really is critical to improvisational music.
FF: As you know my academic background is in Eastern and Modern Religious Movements. You have already talked about the role of meditation and/ or mindfulness in improvised experiences, but it strikes me that there might be a wider idea of what might be called ‘transitioning into the moment’. By this I mean going to that ‘other place’ during a ritual, for instance.
WS: Yes, because a lot of cultural examples of spontaneous music (raga, gnawa, gamelan, shamanic spontaneous musical performance, the list goes on….) are as much about the musician and/or audience state of consciousness is of the utmost importance, sometimes it IS the whole point of the music.
FF: So trance-like states for instance?
The trance state thing was important to me because of the connection of that to indigenous forms of improvisation. I’m not sure if you’ve read it, but Rouget wrote an amazing book called “Music and Trance” and there were a couple others that were big for me as well, one by Kapchan about Gnawa trance music and then one called “Through Music to the Self” by Hamel in ’79. All of these go into the connection between music and trance… some of the musicians I interviewed did talk about going into a trance, even if they didn’t use those words. Some described the absence of both sense of agency and ownership, which suggests a trance-state.
During my research I also came upon this guy called Jeff Pressing who was a musical and academic savant who died in the mid 90s. He is, no doubt, the most cited theorist on the cognitive mechanisms of improvisation, literally he is cited in almost every neuro-imaging study on musical improvisation. Anyway, during my research I found out he was really interested in consciousness, psi, and their connection to music! I found this paper he wrote that had never been digitized and I was able to get the University of Trobe in Australia to digitise it and send it to me. Within it, he outlined his hypothesis for how trance occurs in ritualistic gamelan music. Basically he believed that the same way sensory deprivation can alter consciousness, so spontaneous music, because it is unpredictable and also hypnotic, can perturb the perceptual balance and thus alter consciousness. He believed that this is why after dancing ecstatically to gamelan, some individuals are able to plunge swords into their bodies without feeling the pain….pretty fascinating and I believe the only hypothesis out there on how trance is operationally achieved through music. This made me think about Andrew Weatherall’s old saying “seeking transcendence through a persistent beat”
FF: One of the things that has fascinated me the most in terms of studies of religious practice is this idea of transition between states, and the existence of liminal states. This, for me, came out of Victor Turner’s anthropological work on ritual in the late ’60s/ early ‘70s. I think of much of the music I listen to in terms of this idea… that it takes us somewhere else. This, I think, equates with the idea of trance, in the same way that during a ritual the participants are somewhere else (something that most ‘Western’ religion has now lost). Did the musicians talk much about this idea of transition?
WS: I found myself specifically probing the [idea of] “transition” in order to get people talking about different, possibly subtly nuanced, states they experienced while improvising. For the purposes of my research, since it was focused on sense of agency, trance was differentiated from other states of consciousness by including both a drastic decrease or extinguishing in terms of sense of agency as well as sense of ownership. Sense of ownership was defined by Vogeley and Gallagher (2011) as the sense that one is the owner of their actions, so this is distinguished slightly from sense of agency, which has to do with intention and authorship. A person with low sense of agency could not feel like they are intentionally authoring a movement, but they still know it is their arm moving about during the dance, or it is their hand turning the steering wheel, even when on auto-pilot. When sense of ownership is significantly decreased, then a person doesn’t even realize it is their body that is moving, there is a type of amnesia-like phenomena involved, and this is what I was referring to as fully atrance, so in my study, if it says “trance” it means the person described both sense of agency and ownership as being significantly decreased. One participant, whom is a phenomenal UK acoustic guitarist, recounted a time in which she lost sense of ownership of her hands and looked down at the end of a song to see saw dust that her fingernails had created by thrashing about so hard on the guitar!
FF: I certainly found myself creating something a bit like a ritual environment during lockdown (which I have only realised in retrospect) through my ‘House in the Tall Grass, and have continued to do. Is this something that you recognise in your findings?
This is something I would have loved to probe more into but didn’t think of it at the time (i.e., the ritual around music). Certainly people spoke a lot about trying to get into a certain state of consciousness, which I think implies ritual to some degree. There is an interesting paper I covered in my literature review. It was ethnographic research on Siberian shamanism where the researcher realised that the shaman’s do rituals to shift state prior to their shamanic performances (that includes music) and so he wondered if intentional ritual would have an effect on musical performance (he was a musician). So he and a colleague did an experiment in which, before a performance, they would move furniture and objects around the room spontaneously, then they would turn out the lights and attempt to navigate around the room via non-visual senses and by doing so, get in touch with their intuitive senses and thus heighten those senses before the musical performance.
FF: Although it is something that we are both really into, and a lot of people we know are into, improvisational music is also pretty niche. Do you think that some people have a natural predisposition towards it? Like mediation, is it something than needs to be worked on to be practiced effectively I wonder? You talked about sometimes not being in the right mindset (and that your findings challenged you in this sense), which brings up the level of spontaneity which may be involved.
WS: Before my research I would have said that it just has to do with how experienced someone is. Not formal training, but lived-experience with playing music in-the-moment. That’s basically what a lot of the developmental musical literature suggests, and what is supported by the neuro-cognitive literature, basically that improvisational ability is linked to years of experience and that in terms of a hierarchy, being an ace improviser is at the top of the pyramid. After my research, I now also think about individual personality traits as well because thrill seeking seemed to be part of the draw for a lot of the musicians, and if not direct thrill seeking, at least this drive to experience novelty and create new, fresh, experiences as well as a desire and love of being in that special state of sonic mindfulness that musical improvisation requires. It’s an interesting risk to take, to get out in front of people without a plan and just go, so I think there are plenty of highly skilled musicians who can’t improvise well because they are too in their own head with the self-critic, or afraid to take the risks involved. It makes me wonder about epigenetics [the study of changes in organisms caused by modification of gene expression rather than alteration of the genetic code itself] and how personality type and environment influence someone’s ability or desire to take risks.
FF: Has your research influenced your practice? I mean this I both senses of the word… meditative practice and musical practice (are they different?)?
I became interested in this topic because at some point in my music making I realized that the best thing I could do was get out of the way and just let my body and in-the-moment mind do what they wanted, without me strong-arming from a conscious, egoic, place. So I wanted to understand how the sense of agency related to spontaneous music making and how this influenced state of consciousness.
Furthermore, I couldn’t possibly spend that many hours talking to really phenomenal musicians without picking up some pointers. It really concreted for me that improvisation is a type of meditation and that we (other psychotherapists like myself) really need to take a hard look at what we are missing out on by not helping our clients to become better improvisers in life, to be better able to dynamically adapt to life. In my private practice, I use experiential musical improvisation as a meditation aid and a way to increase distress tolerance and learn to trust our spontaneous intelligence. In terms of playing music, it has caused me to take the ritual/ intentional shifting of state of consciousness aspect of performance much more seriously. I always felt it was important, but often in a gig, the environment is just awful for being able to get into a meditative state, so it has just made me realize the importance of shifting state and that it needs to be attempted, no matter how challenging the setting makes it. Or, it’s just hitting me know, maybe the key is to make the first few minutes of a set an intentional sonic meditation for yourself (and the crowd)…
Well there really is a lot to take in there, and I really do not want to unduly add to it. One of the purposes of writing this was to try to understand how I listen to music and what is going on when I do so. I have also got to understand this idea of agency much better in relation to music… and seem to have a lower sense of agency when I am absorbed in it when writing about it and when experiencing it live.
In a sense this interview raises more questions than it answers because we have only been able to scratch the surface of Will’s work. What it has done, at least for me, is set a number of ideas running around in my mind that were not there before, which is something that I value… hopefully it might have inspired some of you in that way too.
Most of all, though I have come to a better understand of what is maybe going on for musicians when they are creating these amazing spontaneous sounds and, if anything, has increased the mystique of what goes on during that creative process.
Lastly I would like to that Will for being generous with his time and his work to answer my questions and let him have the last word with one of his wonderful albums…
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