Some Varieties of Musical Experience

by Bill Benzon

ScreenHunter_547 Mar. 10 09.21My earliest memory is of a song about a fly that married a bumblebee. I've been told–I don't really remember this–that early one morning I played that record so often that it drove a visiting uncle to distraction.

I don't know how many people count music as their earliest memory, but I surely can't be unique in that. For music is a basic and compelling form of human experience. Martin Luther believed that “next to the Word of God, the noble art of music is the greatest treasure in the world. It controls our thoughts, minds, hearts, and spirits.” And so it does.

Which perhaps is why we are so ambivalent about it. If it can control us, then it is dangerous. Why else would repressive regimes have worked so hard to suppress jazz and rock and roll? Why would the Taliban attempt to suppress all music?

But let us set the danger aside. It is the power that interests me.

Some years ago Roy Eldridge, the jazz great trumpeter, told Whitney Balliett (American Musicians: 56 Portraits in Jazz) about playing with Gene Krupa:

When … we started to play, I'd fall to pieces. The first three or four bars of my first solo, I'd shake like a leaf, and you could hear it. Then this light would surround me, and it would seem as if there wasn't any band there, and I'd go right through and be all right. It was something I never understood.

What's going on? I suppose we could say it had something to do with the brain and nervous system, but what?

In a similar vein Vladimir Horowitz, the classical pianist, told Helen Epstein (Music Talks: Conversations with Musicians): “The moment that I feel that cutaway–the moment I am in uniform–it's like a horse before the races. You start to perspire. You feel already in you some electricity to do something.” Again, the nervous system, getting him primed, for what?

For this?

“When I'm right and the band is right and the music is right,” [Sonny] Rollins said, “I feel myself getting closer to the place where the sound is less polished and more aboriginal. That's what I'm striving for. The trumpeter Roy Eldridge once told a guy he could only reach a divine state in performance four or five times a year. That sounds about right for me.”

A divine state? What's that – perhaps it's another one of those things that the nervous system rigs up, no? Perhaps. We might also wonder whether or not it's the same thing that Martin Luther had in mind when he talked of music as “the greatest treasure in the world.” And yet they lived in such different worlds, after all: Martin Luther, Sonny Rollins, Roy Eldridge, and Vladimir Horowitz.

And then we have the gospel singer, Cece Bullard, talking to Jenny Boyd (Musicians In Tune):

It's like you leave your body. It's like you're dizzy and lightheaded and yet right there. My hands just seem to throb, like a pulse almost. It's the best feeling in the world, bar none. It took me a lot of singing lessons before I finally connected with that feeling. The first time it clicked and I connected, I nearly fell down, and I started crying.

Is her throbbing like Roy Eldridge's shaking? When he was surrounded by light, was he also dizzy and lightheaded?

Boyd also interviewed Eric Clapton, the rock guitarist:

It's a massive rush of adrenaline which comes at a certain point. Usually it's a sharing experience; it's not something I could experience on my own … other musicians … an audience … Everyone in that building or place seems to unify at one point. It's not necessarily me that's doing it, it may be another musician. But it's when you get that completely harmonic experience, where everyone is hearing exactly the same thing without any interpretation whatsoever or any kind of angle. They're all transported toward the same place. That's not very common, but it always seems to happen at least once a show.

Bullard talked of leaving her body. Clapton spoke of everyone being transported. There's a word for that, ecstasy, from the Greek ekstasis ‘standing outside oneself,' based on ek- ‘out' + histanai ‘to place.' Clapton also notes that this – whatever THIS is – is something that that happens, perhaps CAN ONLY happen, with others.

If this is something the nervous system does, then, it must be something that happens between nervous systems as well. And, wouldn't you know? neuroscientists are now investigating brain-to-brain coupling. What happens if you have two people interacting in some way and you examine what's happening in both brains? You discover that activity in the two brains is similar. What if that activity were exactly – of if not that, very very closely – similar? What happens to the (remaining) difference between the two?

Some years ago, in March of 2003, I participated in a large anti-war demonstration in Manhattan, where I met Charlie Keil in midtown and followed the demonstration to Washington Square in the West Village. I had my trumpet and Charlie had his cornet, and a bell or two as I remember. As we walked with and through the demo we encountered other musicians too, drummers, bell players, and horn players. Some had come together as Charlie and I had, and had a few routines worked out. But we all were looking to join up with others and see what happened.

There must have been two dozen or so musicians in the stretch where Charlie and I settled. Sometimes we were closer, within a 5 or 6-yard radius, and sometimes we sprawled over 50 yards. The music was like that too, sometimes close, sometimes sprawled.

Sometimes the music made magic. The drummers would lock on a rhythm, then a horn player–we took turns doing this–would set a riff, with the four or five others joining in on harmony parts or unison with the lead. At the same time the crowd would chant “peace now” between the riffs while raising their hands in the air, in synch.

All of a sudden–it only took two or three seconds for this to happen–thirty-yard swath of people became one. Horn players traded off on solos, the others kept the riffs flowing, percussionists were locked, people changed “peace” and the crowd embraced us all. But no one was directing this activity. It just happened.

What was going on in our brains? Did the crowd become, in some way, one mind? That's a real question, real in the sense that one day investigators are going to be able to “instrument” a crowd, collect a boat load of data, and figure out what's going on.

Let's push the issue a bit further. Some years ago the late Wayne Booth, a distinguished professor of English, wrote about his experiences as an amateur cellist, an avocation he shares with his wife Phyllis: For the Love of It: Amateuring and Its Rivals. In November of 1969 Booth was grieving the recent death of his son. In the process of “trying, sometimes successfully, to regain his lost affirmation of life” Booth began drafting a book about life, death, and music. Concerning a performance of Beethoven's string quartet in C-sharp minor, he said:

Leaving the rest of the audience aside for a moment, there were three of us there: Beethoventhe quartet members counting as one … Phyllis and me, also counting only as one whenever we really listened … Now then: there that “one” was, but where was “there”? The C-sharp minor part of each of us was fusing in a mysterious way …[contrasting] so sharply with what many people think of as “reality.” A part of each of the “three” … becomes identical.

There is Beethoven, one hundred and forty-three years ago … writing away at the marvelous theme and variations in the fourth movement. … Here is the four-players doing the best it can to make the revolutionary welding possible. And here we are, doing the best we can to turn our “self” totally into it: all of us impersonally slogging away (these tears about my son's death? ignore them, irrelevant) to turn ourselves into that deathless quartet.

We've seen some of this before; Clapton spoke to the merging of selves and Eldridge and Horowitz spoke to separation from everyday time and space. Beethoven adds another factor into the mix. If distinctions between one self and another are lost in the, then what difference does it make that it was Beethoven then and Phyllis and Wayne Booth now?

And let's grant that it's all a matter something happening in the nervous system – Beethoven's, Wayne Booth's, Phyllis Booth's, members of the quartet, the rest the audience, you, me, everyone. So what? On the one hand, until we actually know what's going on in these many nervous systems, referring such–strange, interesting, compelling–phenomena to the nervous system doesn't actually explain anything. It just shoves them under the intellectual carpet.

But one day we are going to understand these things in a way we do not now, perhaps even in way we cannot now imagine. What then? What if our best current approximation to that advanced understanding is that, yes, in that performance of Beethoven's string quartet in C-sharp minor the boundaries of space, time, and person collapsed and Wayne Booth, Phyllis Booth, the performers, audience, and Beethoven became one? What would Martin Luther say to that?

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Back in the 1980s Leonard Bernstein directed a recording of West Side Story using opera singers. That recording session has been documented on DVD: The Making of West Side Story, Leonard Bernstein, Tatiana Troyanos, José Carreras, Kiri Te Kanawa, BBC Television London, UNITEL 1985. And clips from that DVD are on the web. The performance of “One hand, one heart” is devastatingly beautiful:

If you doubt your own experience of that performance, read through some of the comments.

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Bill Benzon's blog, New Savanna. Here are posts on music and here are posts on coupling.