by Bill Benzon
ASC, “altered states of consciousness” – I don’t know when the term was first coined, but I became aware of it late in the 1960s. I took it as referring primarily to states of mind induced by psychoactive drugs, such as marijuana, mescaline, and LSD, and to states induced by meditative practice. It presupposes “ordinary consciousness,” which is hardly a single thing when you consider that one can ordinarily be daydreaming, working a math problem, eating a meal, perhaps a good meal, perhaps one that is merely tolerable, hiking in the woods, and so forth, for a long and various list of activities, all of them ordinary.
Music is one of those activities, one I treasure a great deal. I my experience states of musical consciousness can be quite various, some tending toward the ordinary other rather extraordinary. When I was eleven or twelve I read the this is Jean-Baptiste Arban’s Complete Conservatory Method for Trumpet, originally published in mid-nineteenth century France, and variously edited and reprinted since then. Arban is expressing his hopes for the instrument:
There are other things of so elevated and subtle a nature that neither speech nor writing can clearly explain them. They are felt, they are conceived, but they are not to be explained; and yet these things constitute the elevated style, the grande ecole, which it is my ambition to institute for the cornet, even as they already exist for singing and the various kinds of instruments.
What was he talking about? What does he mean by “grande ecole”? I doubt that I sought out an English translation. Whatever it was, it seemed important, albeit mysterious. Perhaps even, important because mysterious.
Does this grande ecole involve an altered state of consciousness?
Rock and Roll
During the early 1970s, while I was working on a master’s degree at Johns Hopkins in Baltimore, I played with a rock band called St. Matthew Passion. We modeled ourselves on Blood, Sweat, and Tears and on Chicago, bands that blended elements of jazz with rock. Thus, in addition to a four-piece rhythm section (guitar, bass, keyboards, drums) we had three horns: sax, trumpet (me), and trombone.
We played our first gig at a party hosted by a poly-sci professor, Rick Pfeffer. We set up in a corner of his basement and played three sets over a period of four hours. I don’t know how many people were there, 30, 40, 60, more? But they danced and we played and we fed one another. It was wonderful, marvelous, joyous. One of the best evenings of my life. Most of our gigs weren’t that good, not quite, but they generally pretty good. For the purposes of argument let’s say they involved ordinary states of musical consciousness.
The very last gig we played was different, at least for me. “She’s Not There” was one of the tunes we played. Somehow we had evolved an arrangement that began with the three horns improvising freely, energetically, without obvious rhyme or reason, until the keyboard player cued the first bar of the written arrangement. And then it was straight-ahead rock and roll, with added horns.
On our last gig it was just me and the sax player; the trombonist couldn’t make it. The sax and I started our improv. The music got more and more intense until Wham! I felt myself dissolve into white light and pure music. It felt good.
I tensed up.
It was over.
After the gig the sax player and I made a few remarks about it — “that was nice” — enough to confirm that something had happened to him too, at least I think so. I didn’t ask him, explicitly? Just what question would I have formed? One guy from the audience came up to us and remarked on how fine that section had been. Did he know what had happened? Or, if not ‘know’ exactly, did he sense a special magic in the performance? I ask because performers and audience often have a very different ‘sense’ of the same performance. Perhaps the guy was just complimenting us on our ‘freak-out’ chops, not on any magic in the music.
Whatever had happened, let us say, for sake of argument, that it involved an altered state of musical consciousness.
Altered States of Musical Consciousness
How common are such altered states of musical consciousness? What’s their relationship to the ordinary joyous musical consciousness of that first gig? I don’t know. Nor, I believe, does anyone else.
But we have stories. Over the years I’ve been collecting them from various sources – which I’ve collected into a single document, Emotion and Magic in Musical Performance (PDF). Here are some anecdotes which Jenny Boyd, who was sister-in-law to George Harrison, collected Musicians In Tune (1992).
Patty Smyth (p. 161):
When I have had those experiences, I’m singing by myself. I’ve had those moments when I do feel the voice coming through me, and I know it’s coming from out there. It’s a certain tone in that voice that makes me feel that way. It chokes me up.
Cece Bullard (pp. 161-162):
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.
Sinéad O’Conner (p. 164):
A lot of times I shake uncontrollably. I can’t control the shaking, and it’s not because I’m nervous, it’s because I’m singing. It’s because it’s coming out and it’s making me shake. It feels like being drunk, it’s like an out-of-body experience. There are times when I’ve done gigs — and it doesn’t happen every time you do a show or every time you write something — but they’ve told me stuff I’ve done onstage that I’m not aware I’ve done.
Branford Marsalis (p. 173):
High, you feel high. It’s easy to do it physically, but it’s hard to do it mentally. I feel that musicians who say it happens every time they play are full of shit. The sublime cannot be routine. Three times, and you never forget them. It’s with a combination of musicians, it’s never just me.
Ringo Starr (p. 176):
It feels great; it’s just a knowing. It’s magic actually; it is pure magic. Everyone who is playing at that time knows where everybody’s going. We all feel like one; wherever you go, everyone feels that’s where we should go. I would know if Paul was going to do something, or if George was going to raise it up a bit, or John would double, or we’d bring it down. I usually play with my eyes closed, so you would know when things like that were happening . . . you’ve got to trust each other.
Huey Lewis (p. 179):
I find it more of a group experience for me. You look around and all of a sudden, the song is playing and singing itself. It’s just like a wave that you ride. It’s tremendously exhilarating; it doesn’t take any energy and you look around and say, ‘Yep, this is it!’ It happens quite often but not for long periods of time. Almost at every gig that will happen somewhere for a fleeting moment. Some gigs it happens more often than others, and those are the good gigs.
Eric Clapton (p. 185):
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.
I don’t for a moment think these musicians are all describing the same thing. But just how many different things they’re describing, that I don’t know. Branford Marsalis says, “I feel that musicians who say it happens every time they play are full of shit.” Eric Clapton says that “it always seems to happen at least once a show.” Are they talking about the same thing? How could you tell?
Whatever it is, this family of musical experiences, it visits us in a devastating performance “One hand, one heart,” from West Side Story, by Jose Carreras and Kiri Te Kanawa. This is from a studio session conducted by Leonard Bernstein in, I believe, the mid-1980s:
At about 3:30 Bernstein remarks in a voice-over:
The final take of “One hand, one heart” just destroyed me. One of my children, Nina, who was sitting at the session and who is as hard-boiled can be … came to the podium, broke into tears, I never heard anything like it.”
I do not know how it felt to Carreras or Te Kanawa.
What’s It All About?
Let’s return to my final gig with the St. Mathew Passion, the one with those few seconds of musical ecstasy, if that’s what it was. That’s the only time I’ve ever experienced that kind of ego loss in music. But, as that small handful of anecdotes should make clear, it is one of an undefined set of experiences that can happen while making music.
For a few years afterward I was very ambivalent about that experience, wanting it again, but also fearing it. It was just so strange and therefor unsettling. A child of the 60s, a very geekish child of the 1960s, I’d read quite a bit about altered states of consciousness. I read around in the secondary and tertiary literature on mystical experiences, and even a bit of the primary literature – though just exactly what’s the point of reading a mystic’s account an ineffable encounter with … well, with what, exactly?
I knew such things happened. And now, in little more than a couple of heartbeats, now I too knew. But what is it that I knew? Other than the experience itself, I knew that what all those people had been writing about was real. It’s not that I doubted it. Still, it’s one thing to read about walking on the moon, even to see video footage and photographs of space-suited men walking about. It’s another thing to be there oneself.
But how can one experience be so powerful, so polarizing, that it haunts your thoughts and echoes through your soul for years afterward? What is the human nervous system that THAT can happen? In attributing the experience to the nervous system – as opposed, say, to an encounter with the divine, I do not thereby mean to dismiss it – oh, that? that was just a burp of the nervous system. We cannot dismiss it. The nervous system is us.
Now the memory has faded and the ambivalence too; it was half a century about. But I’m playing better music now than ever I did back then – at least when I’m playing. I’m talking not so much about technique – that comes and goes – but about expressive power, about ‘authenticity.’ Is that authenticity and echo of that experience?
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Consider this post a sequel to one of my earliest posts at 3 Quarks Daily: Some Varieties of Musical Experience.