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Sound Changes

from Sudden Music, © David Rothenberg 2000, all rights reserved

David Rothenberg


 In my hours of gloom, when I am suddenly aware of my own futility, when every musical idiom—classical, oriental, ancient, modern, and ultra-modern—appears to me as no more than admirable, painstaking experimentation without any ultimate justification, what is left for me but to seek out the true, lost face of music somewhere off in the forest, in the fields, in the mountains or on the seashore, among the birds. That is where music dwells for me, free, anonymous improvisations, sung for the sheer pleasure of singing, to greet the morning sun, charm the beloved,...soothe a tired body, or bid farewell to a bit of life as evening falls.

Oliver Messiaen

Why do I continue to prefer the improvised? Messiaen says it is what one hears, and gets, from nature. But then nature inspires us to turn to our tools: There is no perfect instrument that includes all instruments. Our tools start out anonymous, but then prove their usefulness when individual people transform them: I’d rather compose for people than instruments, to keep the sound concrete rather than purely abstract. There is the sense of organic surprise, like you’re discovering life as it emerges and continues, following rules to be sure, but basically spontaneously inventing itself as it goes. No matter how much we learn about this process, in the biosphere or in the aesthetic swell, we still must marvel at it and hold onto the baby’s delight in sheer wonder at what has come out and what’s going to keep coming until we give up. Don’t give up.

How to win an audience over to something new and strange? It’s easy to see why so often the experimenting artist fails to do this. She performs as if for herself alone, looking in, mining the self for all it’s worth, staying deep down there, giving her all, but forgetting that the public must be lured in gently, won over and convinced that they really need something new. It’s always an important moment when the self-involvement breaks down and the warmth of a performer comes through.

I think of my composition teacher Joe Maneri, long known as a cult professor at the New England Conservatory for his passion for microtonal music and his pure enthusiasm for breaking the rules. In recent years, his career has been reborn as an international touring avant-garde jazz musician. Joe plays shrieky, emotional, weird music. I do find it hard to listen to on record. But live, he cannot fail to win over the audience. "My music is about love," he announces before a set with all honesty. "I love you, the public, so much. I have so much to give. I’m so happy uphere playing." And those offended by the noise suddenly warm up and realize that this is an extraordinary man up there on the stand, a man full of real joy who will walk through the crowd and play one by one for each of us, really trying to make you like it. Truly astonishing you with his desire to communicate, to get the message in the music across, the improvised, the sudden, the immediately new that sings of all the infinite possibility inherent in any moment of streaming sound.

In one way it is never so difficult. The world loves music, and does not question the worth of what a musician does. It’s when I get involved in all this talking about what the art is supposed to mean, or how saying one music is better than another might have some positive social result, that people try to stop me. Isn’t any music better than no music? Isn’t the singing through sound simply a celebration that always makes the world a better place?

There is more music available than ever before. You can own it, slap it on your machine, broadcast it, hear it inflicted upon you in every public place. But just how much is it essentially woven into our lives? Henry Miller liked to think of himself as a park, a place where others in his orbit would come to rest and collect themselves for a time. I would like my music, not my persona to be a place, a real place but no place you can find on a map. A world of living sounds that have as much order and disorder as the natural world, following nature in that famous "manner of operation" that Aristotle, Coomaraswamy, Cage, and Eno have celebrated time and again. All of my work, from music to writing to conceptualizing, can be seen as an attempt to figure out just how nature operates aesthetically, and how can we emulate it or learn from it in order to earn our place inside it.

I must stress again that being natural is no easy task for the human. Easy enough for a raccoon or a willow tree, but we people must work hard to earn our place in the living, breathing world. Whether it is history or language or machines or our bicameral mind who knows, but something has pulled us apart from the surroundings, and it is often easier to ignore them than to strive to fit in with them. Art ought not to copy nature, but should work hard to open up a place for our songs in nature, once again luring, never blanketly imposing.

There have always been artists who have seen and heard nature as the greatest good in which they wish their work would be fine enough to fit into. The organic world around is the most immanent and obvious choice for such a sense of rightness. Looking for artistic idea in the shapes of mountains or the sound of falling leaves has to been as a difficult path, because these world processes do not need us. They get along fine without our celebrations and scrawls. Nature is the toughest audience there is, because it may never be impressed by our miniscule efforts.

And yet we can engage, we can try. And in the end, given what has happened so far, we must save if anything natural is to continue to offer a place to us. Sometimes the most musical solution is simply to take a pause from the music, to know just when to stop.


Isaac Stern, in the beginning of his film about taking his violin and his music to China, asks us to put our commitment to music to the test: "If you can even conceive of just one day without music, then you shouldn’t be a musician." Well, when I heard that, I thought I probably shouldn’t be a musician. There was so much else to do, so much to listen to, so many days when there was no need to add to the booming, deep sound of the world, both billowing and silent.

I walked around for days with my head hung in disappointment: after all this exploration, all this practice, I had failed. I was not committed enough to the eloquence of sound, to the pull of them use. I did not need to do it. The seeming paralysis of questioning the whole practice was equally inviting. Transfixed by doubt, there was enough joy in wonder: does the world need this song? Would its lack, an empty space of silence, not be equally as beautiful? For years this testy remark by one of the world’s most celebrated musicians has haunted my commitment to the need to play.

And then, there’s these words of the Sufi master, Hazrat Inayat Khan, who knew when at last he had played enough music:

I gave up my music because I had received from it all I had to receive. To serve God one must sacrifice the dearest thing, and I sacrificed my music, the dearest thing to me. I had composed songs, I sang, and played the vina. Practicing this music I arrived at a stage where I touched the music of the spheres. Then every soul became for me a musical note, and all life became music.

The musical is not just a discipline but a way of perceiving the whole world. Words may be musical, life may be musical, the empty sky and tunes of blown leaves may be musical, if we learn how to see them. This is a search for rhythm and relationship, a rare kind of order that is both explicable and forever beyond explanation. For we do not read the music of the earth, never mind the spheres, as a text or a story, but we hear it and are touched by its beauty without knowing how much or how little we understand of it. Music is no universal language, but a blend of order and explanation in between rule and release, reason and emotion, plan and surprise.

Music is the art where sudden meaning can be invented, where immediate expression can take place. But my concern is not how to suddenly create art without premeditation, but how to meditate oneself into appreciation of the wonderful immediacy of the world. To feel what you don’t expect to feel, to notice what is just impossible to grasp. My stories come out of life and of art, both as problems and patterns, to become lessons of the spontaneous. This has been no guide for how to let go, but a series of clues on how we might let the world construct itself in front of us, as we go, so our plans will go awry and there will never be a lack of new discoveries to take their places.

Sure, it sounds optimistic, and that’s how to get out of the nagging fear that one has failed to become a musician because one sees more to life than music. But to be a musician is to know the musicality in all life: to struggle to learn to hear the constantly changing music not of any distant spheres, but of the immediate Earth, without beginning, without perceivable end, but a rolling improvisation whose lifting flight we can never catch up with.

When I say the world is improvising, that does not mean I listen around and hear no plan. But there is no easy to reckon structure of beginning, middle and end. In fact, the struggle is to learn to hear as music a sound world which does not cease, which has no initiation, or conclusion. You may learn to hear such as music by recognizing that there is also human music that has no beginning or end. And it may be true that most of the world’s music is like that—when a group of musicians begins it, they are tapping into a source that is already there. When they stop, they turn away from an ever-flowing composition that has no choice but to go on long after we have chosen to ride or catch it.

Music is the art of patterns, design repetition, and rhythm in the recurrence of idea and change. To exist it does not stay in one place, and must move on. Pick a day of the noisiest weather, and go outside. Straight into the most ceaseless of rains, in the height of autumn, as the brightest of leaves are wrenched down from their branches by the weight of the water. The heavy sound of beating rain does not stop, but constantly changes. I wouldn’t call it restful, I don’t imagine it to be secure, as it gets colder and colder as all clothes are soaked to the skin. But it is a continuous sound. It has always been possible, always raining even when the sun shines. You’ll remember it, and it will come back, even if you choose to stay away.

Rhythm isn’t only something audible—it’s visible all around. The track of a blown yellow leaf across a forest of red, the concentric strokes of the wind on the water, as if some great animal under the surface is trying to push its way up toward the sky, fighting on, dancing out from the center of the impeccably round pond, ringed with the reddish-green blueberry leaves glittering right up to the water’s shore.

You may of course hear what you want in this tempest. Beethoven, Debussy, gamelan, or Pink Floyd. Storms have always led straight into music, as music confronts nature with its own range of rules, and struggles to fit the tumult of natural variation into our limited sense of what we will ‘enjoy’ listening to. Still no one is unmoved by the sounds of thunder and catapulting water. You might hide under the bed and softly howl, or bolt out the door and run straight into it against all odds, but it is hard to ignore.

The world makes sense of change with an underlying sameness, a cycle to hold onto or a reverberating thrum. It is too composite even to hear, and I can’t see or diagram it though I sense it is there, a music of time that is as much a way of sensing the world as it is a way to play it. There should be a musicality not in words but in thought, and don’t look only in musicians for a way to hear it. It is your choice as much as anyone’s: you may hear the world as music, and tune a place in it so that the best reason to live may be sung. Don’t look for saving grace in a pretty tune, but learning to listen will help you chart the right course in and around the clouds. Sometimes you will hear through them, and sometimes they will block all the senses. There is a time to work, and another time to go outside and forget.

Chance can be a powerful guide to order, as any student of evolution will tell you. Invention rapidly leads to places you can’t expect. The evolving sound around you may have no purpose beyond to tell you just where you are. And, after a lifetime of unsettlement, that might be enough, as it is no easy goal: to hear just where you are, to understand just what it is that the rain hits to make those drops sound, whose footsteps pad on the floors above, whose doors are slamming before dawn outside in the street, what birds they are that fly south overhead in flocks, sing at odd and even hours, which ones are in cages and which are in flight?

To feel each change as if it has a meaning, even as all things happen for so often no good reason. What would it mean to hear the light suddenly strike the brick wall across the street, after a long, restless and windy night. Even the ceaselessness of dark weather eventually ends. If there is an order to the change, if you sense a meaning, it is an improvised meaning, a sudden choice, a discovered art.

Yet it is rare that art looks like nature, sounds like nature, mirrors nature in any but the most mundane ways. When I first heard of this mimesis idea, that we humans in all our drive to create were just trying to ape the infinite power of the creator, I didn’t get it. Art was art, nature was nature, why should one ever be like the other? After years of walking toward the wilderness, still never sure if I have ever been there, I at least feel the difficulty of trying to fit in. We do not easily know nature, and there may be no nature that readily wants us. But to feel at home in the widest sense of the world we have to let it play us, we have to feel we are the music as the music lasts. And it will outlast us, all of us, no doubt about that.

These words are all fragments of things heard before. The silences and sounds seem the hardest things to describe, as even our language points to things and says "look!" prejudiced toward the visual, the push toward the world as a collection of objects. Imagine instead a challenge of sounds, and then ask who will take charge, and make sense of the stream and the peal.

Rain dripping all night in the gutters and on the roofs, now the sky is silent and fingers dance over plastic keys in the next room, forming virtual words on a screen somewhere. The two sounds are not all that dissimilar, both rhythmic tappings that surge and then fall, while down in the street once in a while a car rolls by. Then, maybe, the screech of the old brakes of a truck or a bus, for this is, you know, right on Main Street in the midst of a small American town, still a place where the full realm of sounds might possibly make sense. Looking up tracing the ridge from the rooftops toward the rolling clouds over the mountain’s summit, I can see a soft movement of tiny twigs and the trees’ final tips: not to hear the wind, but only to see its results. A delicate sound must be out there, muffled behind storm windows, fingering the air. Does it all hold together?

To hear the world you do not need much information. You need only to believe there is something worth listening to. Turn off the music machines and hear everything around as a music in which each of us has a part to play, one at a time or in groups. What is the plan behind what is heard? What are its qualities, and how do we fit in?

At dawn the strange blend of the approach of a whistling train heading north and a flock of geese going south. Meeting right out the window, or at least that’s what it sounds like. All around this meeting the morning is silent. The sounds blur together and they have nothing whatsoever to do with each other, except that they cross right at this exact point. I’m startled awake, caught suddenly by the canceling out of opposite journeys.

Some philosophers have imagined we speak the Earth into existence, wanting humanity to be essential to the world as all evidence points to the contrary. How about listening to the world, hearing its presence, not making oneself necessary but finding a way to be tolerated, finding a part to play, a reason to jam.

The geese run against the path of the train, the fluid arrow of the chorus of flying voices against the steam sounding whistle over the grinding diesel engine, then the polyphonic screech of the brakes halting the speeding metal. Can you always tell a natural sound from a human sound? I used to think so, but now I am not so sure. There are birds in Australia that improvise concertos for their solo voice and insect orchestra, and the forest of cicadas in Java sing a different song after the nightly gamelan performance is done. One listens for patterns, some sense oforder to hold onto: the universe must have a plan, and if it’s there we ought to be able to hear it.

There is a seventy-minute recording of nothing but the sound of spring peepers captured and then played back at different speeds. Repeating tones, audible cycles. Nature’s minimalism that sounds so much more alive than the machine-like repetitions of synthesizers or human musicians programmed to play like machines, even, exact, no allowance for surprise construed as error.

Nature’s amazing order is marked by imperfection. No wave crashes exactly when it is expected, no snowflakes are alike, no one has enough words for snow, no sound is perfectly in tune with any other. No rhythm out there knows how to keep time, but if we alter the rigidity we can learn to join in. It’s always got that swing if it blows in the wind, it always fear exactness, but it knows how always to be the same and not the same.

The goal is to find the songs without looking for them. Sounds out of place are not interesting in themselves, but only if you hear an interaction, conflict, or resolution between them. You can find these meetings or you can create them. Should both kinds of mixtures be called music? Or do we only trust our own human minds enough to call them music? Birds sing because they want to, and for no other clear reason. But why does the waterfall make music—does it sing if no one ever pauses to notice it? And who plans the tones, the arpeggios of the wild?

Biologist E.O. Wilson describes how scientists get the idea that life has some plan to it, as he’s peering through the rainforest for something to discover: "weaving ideas from old facts and fresh metaphors and the scrambled crazy images of things recently seen." Out of the rush and roar of the world comes the search for a pattern. Only after finding the pattern do the paths of scientist and musician diverge. The scientist needs a reason for what she’s seen. The musician wants to find a way to keep the pattern present even after it has receded beyond memory. To hear the continuity always by turning it into something similar than the inspiring sound in the world out there, something that will grab you, guide you, point you in the right direction toward resonance with the world.

T.S. Eliot said we ought to be the music while the music lasts. The harder thing is to be the music after the music stops. That happens with music that teaches you how to listen to the world as music. I’m not sure whether this just makes life more interesting to listen to, or teaches us our truer place in the planet. No need to make extravagant claims here, or everywhere. Think of John Cage, master of attunement, living in a sparse, Zen-like loft in downtown Manhattan. No music was ever played in that apartment. There was no sound system. There were no instruments. "Music?" He would smile, and force open the window, bringing the jarring sound of traffic and commerce wafting up into the room. "That’s all the music I need." That part of town is being given over to superstores today. The noises are still there. Cage is no longer around and like the best of teachers has not trained disciples, but opened us up to find our own paths.

I do not want to hear the din of the streets. I slam the window down, move to the country, listen for waterfalls, try to hear the sunrise. There is a comforting hum underneath all to be heard, and it isn’t the 60 hz cycling of electricity or the whir of the computer’s cooling fan, or the heartbeat or the swish of blood circulating or the tiny tappings of feet above and below this floor. It’s the push of life, the lift of the moving river. Flows toward the sea, then the tide brings it back. Always moving, never exactly the same. Know only enough about the patterns so you may still join in.

Music brings comfort out of the environment by bringing order to sound. And then over time it explodes its own rules. Anything becomes allowed, and either we forget how to listen or we hear everything anew. Drone and forgetfulness, drone and escape, drone sounds negating and dull, and yet it plays off of the few set ways and rules of how sound reaches us, how there are octaves, fifths, fourths, twisted thirds and pure intervals beyond. There’s something ‘natural’ here among the laws of physics, the properties of sound. Music closer to these relationships, echoes heard in the sound of wind or the breaking of iron wheels against rails, this must be closer to nature than sounds that have bent or smoothed out the imperfections that are part of the truth, tempered instruments like the chromatic scale and the universe of the piano.

Do not decide what to hear or when to stop. There are no fixed parts in the orchestra of the world. Sure, there are many wrong notes, few right ones, just like anything worth hearing. But no one knows what they will be in advance. This is how the sudden music, the improvised life, gives the most to look forward to. I don’t know how to explain it any way but the methods of surrealist Ren Ž Daumal, who saw his own writing as analagous to diagrams of true relationships that could never be expressed in the world. As also Wittgenstein wrote that one could only talk around the most serious truths, never reveal them. How’s that for the directness of philosophy? Listen to the spaces between words. Listen even more closely to things that appear to make no sound at all.

The weaving track on the cliff top, the sense that the reflections are there even after the sun goes away. Then, why is the sea so much calmer at night? (A scientist said because we can’t see the roughness—not a good answer) Remember landscapes and imagine how long they might last, and how no one really controls what will become of them.

The continuous, and the moment, our eyes and ears are touched by surprise: the sunbow is exactly the right angle away from the sun. The trail leads to a pond in the middle of nowhere. The round swirl of leaves on the sidewalk is back. Every year it’s the same and not the same. There’s a single hawk out of place in the sky.

There was this idea that the moment when one overcomes the need to always play more, to add to the surfeit of sound, is the moment that the world sings back at you. That you will hear all you’ve been missing. I thought there would be hums and hisses, grounding tones "in the rhythm of the universe," like Stockhausen once wanted. But as you listen it refuses to sound still. Put a beat to the change and maybe it will have meaning. Keep a record to music and that’s how music begins. Yet we’re still focused on when it ends.

A certain capture by the sensibilities of music means you may struggle more to listen to the world, than to impose order upon the possibilities of sound. And that may be the time to stop making music, to realize how little we can possibly know about the depth and meaning of even a single sound. The brilliant sitarist and guitarist Amit Chatterjee leaves a message on my machine: "you won’t be hearing from me for a while. I can’t play tempered music anymore." He’s going back to his roots in the ways of pure sound, the resonance of the whole before the violence of fret and modulation. "It’s okay," I call him back. "I want to untemper the rules too." Composer David Lumsdaine quit writing music when he heard the songs of the pied butcher birds of Spirey Creek in New South Wales. This bird was improvising concertos backed up by the whole ecology of the stream valley. Jazz saxophonists, worn out from playing too fast for too many years, retreat to the pure tones of the shakuhachi with its singular, separate tones, each striving endlessly to evoke the purity of the wind struggling to sing. Either the purest music, or the opposite of music.

All these players are running, running away. They have heard too much, and forgotten how to listen. Time to tune into the world.

Isaac Stern put a challenge to the musician: be obsessed with music or else leave it. That is not the right approach. Change the world into music and you will do much more than your own work ever could alone. Listen for constancy in the world and you will hear change. Choose instead random implausibility and try to walk somewhere new, you will retrace your tracks and discover new possibility with the same strange method life itself has availed itself of to evolve.

The truest mark of genius is not to follow your bliss or your talents but to do what is least expected of one and thereby to teach the world a lesson. One of the finest examples of this is the career of pianist Glenn Gould, who abandoned the concert stage just short of his thirtieth birthday, when he achieved the greatest prominence. But the public act of music took him away from music—he vowed to spend the rest of his life in the studio, assembling perfection out of many takes and retakes of the same pieces. This method, originally thought to be radical and removed from the life of music, has since become standard in the assembly of precise classical performances.

Gould found a solution. To what? The artistic and life dilemmas of our age. Technology makes perfect art possible, but what use have we for it in an imperfect world? Where people fail to pay attention to the human fugues that surround us, where we become afraid to listen. We seem to need people whose lives exude paradox to shock us into a deep and serious laugh at the wildness of the moment, to realize what only our peculiar instance in time makes possible.

The genius performer turned away from his gift and retreated into his private world and windowless monad of a recording studio, where he could make one-sided music on his own time, detached from the public that completes the artistic equation, that prevents art from wallowing in therapy or self-absorption. How dare he? Is perfection only possible in a place devoid of essential humanity, the implacable, the messy, the delayed, the unpleasant, the unsuppressable cough? Take music from its context and you have mind without body, mathematics stripped of passion, idea minus emotion.

With his brilliance, Gould transformed himself into the opposite of a virtuoso. He said: "I don’t even like the sound of piano music that much." The music is more than the sound. What’s important is where it takes you. It took him away from direct contact with people and eventually back again.

Gould does not need to speak to be part of the conversation. He does not even need to play. Once played, the work of art proliferates through mechanical reproduction. The artist may seek a specific distance, discover the right place to hide. Then he might be best left invisible, so the work may speak for itself. Is this an accurate description of Gould’s flight from the public ear? Not really. We always know it is him. He has cut and spliced and aimed for perfection, an inhabitation of the music itself. And there’s always that gentle humming underneath the piano’s simple tone. Does that emphasize his care? The late Yehudi Menuhin said that Gould exaggerated the morality of his decision to cease performing. He found Gould’s life limited, too involved, inward. "Perhaps I would feel differently if I was an artist of his stature. But I am not. I am too interested in living."

With the music internalized, cut and pasted in silent rooms, Gould set himself up to hear the world in a new way. In diners he ate his lunch alone, eaves dropping closely on the voices around him. He learned to hear conversation as music, the lilting lines, the rhythms everywhere up, down, and around, what Bach does to our sense of talk. There are two part inventions in words, themes and variations in the quarrels of couples and the tales told by friends. Gould met the world on his own terms, and he was fascinated by this way of listening to human voices as if they were a musical interplay, not participating in a conversation but taking it all in, as an audience.

His radio piece The Idea of North is just this: a series of independent stories of life in the high latitudes blending in and out of synch with each other, so we hear the words first as stories and then as a general sense of mood, like tuning into many radio stations at once, or being able to grab the frequencies right out of the air. The idea of The Idea of North is more successful than the actual work. It becomes frustrating to listen to, hard to remember. But the film 32 Short Films About Glenn Gould at last makes this particular obsession clear: You see Gould smiling over his "usual" in the diner, eavesdropping not for gossip but for timbre, melody, and counterpoint of voices. Bach has taught him how to listen for patterns, and this is one valid way of hearing the world. Gould turned away to accept himself and be true to the forms. Ironically, he made music sacred by letting it be just another part of the world.

Even Arnold Schoenberg, perhaps the most grim genius of twentieth century music, professed to be impressed by "the elect who refuse their mission." Don’t do what they expect of you and then you will really teach them something. In 1949 Artie Shaw made a small group recording, and decided that night after the studio shut down: "That’s the closest I’ll ever get to perfection. I quit." Though he became a national archery champion, wrote several novels, and is still alive today, he never played the clarinet in public again.

It is not right to simply admire these people, who changed one gift into unexpected presents. Did they all turn from their public and retreat to the self, or did they open up to a larger world, and reach it in a deeper, more humble way? Resist the obvious lesson. Emulate no one, find your own road, and if you’re careful enough to find the right one, this is the only way to fit in.

So my task has been to integrate the musical, the natural, and the improvised. It is still probably impossible. The argument is likely to make sense to no one but me! But that won’t stop me from trying, even if the efforts are like banging one’s head against the wall of the world. But it’s an obsession much larger than just me. Could the Earth itself be improvising, keeping time along its own rules that no human will ever fully know? How, then, can we hope t be a part of it, to honestly join in? Even if we stop singing, the music itself, the fact of improvisation, might be an image for how humanity can find our right place in the scheme of things.

Recently there have been a few writers who have suggested that the fluid, surging, organized yet sudden art of jazz music might have some specific lesson for our environmental crisis.

Norwegian ecophilosopher Sigmund Kval¿y was sent to New York in the sixties to study electronic music, but the sheer human domination of the city deterred him. Where was the surging pulse of the nature in the great city? He found it in jazz, in those C’s against C sharp’s of Thelonious Monk, in the organic movement and constant surprise. Jazz, though supposedly an urban music, works the way nature works! Here in this piece of the city we might then a find a key for how to tune in to the accidental exactness of the real natural world.

It’s a cool idea, something that might explain why so many of us wilderness lovers also resonate with jazz. Kval¿y asks us to imagine that we’re playing in the back rows of an orchestra, reading the score closely for forty-seven measures, waiting patiently for our turn to come in. We wait. We follow orders, the conductor guides us and the music beforehand is all planned out. That’s the prison of mechanical civilization for you right there.

Sure, this kind of music also wants to emulate nature. Mendelssohn, Holst, Messiaen, there are many classical images of the wild. But the writing down can have the result of freezing the inspiration. Look even at the avant-garde: Karlheinz Stockhausen once wrote in the piece that the flutes should at one point "play in the rhythm of the universe." "Mr. Stockhausen," asked the second flute, "how will I know when I am playing in the rhythm of the universe?" "Vehl," glared the great composer. "I vill tell you."

Jazz at its best does not work that way. It’s a give and take, knowing the rules and breaking them. Acting in the moment, dancing to the time. It has happened before. It will never happen again. It is sudden music, and if it works, the world after it will never be the same.

Memory never encompasses change. The world lives on, and we make only a little difference to it all. But if we can just catch a piece of the excitement, of the Earth on its edge, moving, changing, singing to us and us singing back, then we have lived, then we have saved, then we deserve to live on.

The idea of jazz as a way surfaces time and again. Most recently Evan Eisenberg culminates with it in his mammoth Ecology of Eden, a fascinating and epic book. For Eisenberg, we ought to play the changes of nature but not dominate them. We should not control nature, nor worship nature as an ultimate good, but jam with nature into some necessary human groove:

Ditch your notated score—whether ascribed to nature or yourself—and learn to improvise. Respond as flexibly to nature as nature responds to you. Accept nature’s freedom as the premise of your own: accept that both are grounded in a deeper necessity. Relax your rigid beat and learn to follow nature’s rhythms—in other words, to swing.

It’s not a prescription so much as a suggestion. Listen to the moves of the world and you will then know just what to do.


Platitude or genius, how specific should this idea be? First it sounds like earth jazz is just an environmentalism of relaxation, where you don’t take your theories too seriously and refuse to be regimented by your well-laid plans. The information’s not available to the mortal man! Things don’t work out the way we expect, and we must adjust and not follow the book. Learning as we go, we will not remake the world entirely in our own image. We will learn to slip and slide along with it, to be just one more part of nature, not the boss of nature. A reflective, creative part of it, true, but still being able to howl in astonishment like the coyote in the meadow by the light of the moon.

A suspicious part of this perennially hip but somewhat spare jazz metaphor is that it seems to preach a kind of moderation in all things environmental: go with the flow as you try to make your way through all the adversities. It’s easy advice to be flexible in order to go for the balance. But is it gripping? Is it a vision? If seeing jazz in the Earth is to mean something it’s got to be more than those pop business books that advertise "leadership jazz" or "jamming" as a way to suddenly and collectively go through the motions turning tricks out therein the world.

Jazz is fine as far as it goes but the forces within it today want to stop it from going far. It’s becoming a repertory music, like ragtime or disco, the record of a period whose peak has past. It’s sad that it’s going that way but that may be the fate of all genres through time. If so, it’s likely to become a metaphor that will soon sound dated, that already looks for a previous music as inspiration to remake our future world. What do you think, does that angle seem doomed to fail or be incomplete? If jazz becomes a period music, how can it ever hope to save the Earth! The open side of jazz is what still inspires.

I started out with the chance encounter, and the sense that such accidental moments can be full of meaning, of inspiration for the taking of artistic chances. As the pages go by I have a hunch it won’t be enough just to say "improvise!" whatever clues we have to call the changes of our lives. I will always prefer the sudden music, but now it is a music that begins with listening to the world. Which will co-create music with trees whose voices can barely be heard. Where people and animals speak the same language, only it’s not quite a language but a song everyone knows a bit of, while no one remembers the words. The words are not the point. The point is not the point. It’s a dull, but warm feeling that comes when the melody sweeps down upon us and the harmony comes from the colors and shapes of the leaves, and the ground.

I am not at all satisfied with the way I am describing this. Indeed, often I start to feel that music, when it works, has nothing to do with language at all, particular the language used to bolster the art when the art itself seems to dive into the clouds of uncertain genre and purpose. The art itself should convince you, alone, and in its conviction and direction it should make you want to listen.

We can never spend enough effort learning to notice things. Only through greater attention to the songs of the world can we know what song we ought to sing. We may not be able to consume our way out of an ecological crisis by eating the right foods or buying the right clothes. But we can sing and dance our way into the solution by listening and knowing just when to join in, and learn just how it is that humanity cannot stop the endless music all around that wants us, that needs us, that is waiting for us.

It may be that all earth jazz can teach us is a different way to notice things. To listen to their interaction—and not to simply smile, enjoy, and take it all in as Cage and the soundscapers would have it, but really to suggest a way in which to fit in—musically, culturally, individually and collectively. To respond, to wend a way inward. To develop a tradition where all past traditions give up the ghost and shrug their shoulders. No one has confronted these problems before. No time has been so global and less local. In the specific act, we presume, or evoke the general. You must earn the right to be an animal, to have a habitat, to own a song. You must learn to let go as much as you learn to hold on. The music and philosophy are one. The song and the solution are one. There are no words to forget, no one melody either to learn. There is a sensibility, a sound that meets all comers, a way of finding your niche, your route.

In Scandinavian languages there is a word musisere, to musify, to music, to make everything musical by musically remaking a human place in the world. It’s not as simple as singing along with the birds, and it’s not as easy and trusting yourself enough to compose a song. You can musicalize experience, treat all that happens as a moving, spontaneous, but somehow structured work of art. It’s all improvised and new, but has bendable rules and evokes a tradition that defines itself only through the present right on to the future.

Maybe we shouldn’t call this music ‘jazz’ anymore after all I’ve said. But what is the name for the world’s total music that makes itself up only as it goes along? Maybe no one will play with me, after all the criticism of the self and others I’ve insisted on inflicting along with my art. But I hope in the next century not to be reduced to playing alone. The time and the turn of the time are too precious for that. You too can listen, and get ready to join in. I’m still afraid that I don’t welcome the appearance of most music, perhaps because so much of it is designed to be put on in the background of our lives. Like most musicians, there is enough noise going on in my head as it is. The problem is to figure which part of the inner thrum is worth giving voice to, worth putting out there in the hopes that anyone else might care.

Those few things I do like cannot be predicted. They glimmer accidentally from open windows, bass-heavy ghetto car stereos, endless remixes of the music of the past into the music of the future. Who knows where they come from? They are not now from one kind of music or from another. They do sometimes sing of a natural world, a whole world where my song also might join in. I’m with the band, I have a place, I meld into the sounds even if it’s complete as It is.

There are not many of these songs. Is this my tragedy or a decided effort to be different, to turn away from most, to not be one of the crowd? I hope not. Everyone has not just their favorite tunes, but the melodies they need in order to live, to sustain, to breathe, to walk on. Sometimes these are songs everyone likes, often they are things no one else can stand.

Sound changes. The moment you think you’ve caught it then it’s gone. At last you learn how to take a dissonance to be an assonance, and then it moves somewhere else, and you’re no longer so sure. When looking at nature you see its contours, shapes, and edges. While listening outward you soon learn the motion cannot be seen. But there is always more to be heard.

Once in a while I hear something out there, and sense that it’s not quite enough, and I bend its’ end or beginning just a bit. And with the change, it seems I need it, and I belong to it, and it repeats endlessly in my head. And it won’t go away. And I am. I become the song, and become the creator of one piece of a world I will own up to, into a place it’s clear I belong.

That’s when you find you’re an improviser, in the instant of sudden music. That’s when the music finds its way out into nature. What a surprise to then know that it’s been with us all along, that we have just forgotten how to hear it in the rain, and the wind upon the trees, and to listen to what it says to us about how we ought to live.



the improvisor
The International web site on free improvisation

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