By Michael Rossman
New lips! Two flutes, an open-hole Gemeinhardt with a B foot, all spidery silver jewelry, and a North Indian pipe my old FSM friend Fred Bauer made for me special, heavy and resonant as ebony but of some industrial fiber, strong enough to step on, God forbid. Their tones, warm pools brilliant with submarine light. I slip in and swim, forgetting all....
For almost three years I haven't had a flute I liked to play, ever since I bought into an elegant bad-luck Millereau and my Indian flute merchant vanished to Oregon. It's been like making love with someone you don't really like to make love with: I stopped taking the time or chose something else when the chance came up, rather than suffer the distances of failed response, and slowly sealed over the urge to play. Dark and husky, lithe and slim, these flutes are like new lovers, individual and willing, exciting as I touch them, our shy contacts already rich with mysterious moments of transcendence. "Be kind with me and I’ll be kind with you, and free."
I don't recall when I first wanted to make music. Maybe it happened when I was four, when my folks took me to an opera and I dissolved amazed in the pageantry and glorious sound; or maybe it was a slow invisible infection from the classical air of my childhood. But I remember as vividly as shame the day the county music teacher came around to my fourth-grade classroom to test our aptitudes. She sat at the old piano and plunked out chords; we were supposed to tell her which notes were "higher" and "lower." I was one of the three in the whole class who flunked, even with prompting, and was classed as musically uneducable, forever unworthy of even a battered county horn.
Ah, what innocent arrogance! As I puzzle it out now, what happened was that I just couldn't connect with her spatial metaphor for pitch, though I had my own sense of melody and enthusiasm for sound. But her judgment was momentous, the more so for being delivered in public ritual. From that day on, I grew acutely self-conscious about however much I did wander off-key during class singing; and of course my singing got more and more uncertain, until the teacher and class were glad to excuse me to listen with the other musical dummies. A decade passed. My three younger siblings grew adept on clarinet, violin, piano, respectively; I could have taken lessons, but was no longer interested. By high school graduation, when my oboist buddy said I was the most tone-deaf person he knew, I had been niggerized enough to believe him completely. I had (in fact) no sense of smell, and apparently none of music neither.
How people are liberated from such binds is largely a mystery to me. Some find exemplary teachers; but I became a sometime musician out of a blind longing that refused to be stilled, and a kind of solitary stubbornness. Sometimes I blame it on Bach's flute sonatas, which I met when I went off to college. They seemed quite the most intimate sensuous music I had ever been taken by, and made me yearn to play a wind, however lowly.
The summer after an adolescent and turbid freshman year at the University of Chicago, I found an old recorder and locked myself in the bathroom for two months, learning to play from a simple instruction book. The pipe was badly out of tune, which didn't bother me -- by then I couldn't even tell -- but it drove my family wild, which was maybe part of the whole transaction. When I got back to school, I continued to practice regularly -- not out of diligence, but in response to mood, a certain tenor of lonesome that was good for at least half an hour of melody each twilight and often much longer, more fulfilling than solitaire if not much less aimless.
My models were the folksinger in the cafe, the string quartet. No one had ever suggested to me that playing to scratch an inner itch was musically legitimate, and for years I felt embarrassed around "real" musicians. That my lonely descant wasn't purely private, a mating cry in the night and sometimes in the girls' dorm lounge, made it more confusing, just as I used to feel that meeting women on the picket line was illegitimate to politics. Nothing made it okay for me to use music to connect with people in other ways than entertainment. And how could I take myself seriously as musician, beside those studious fellows with whom I traded symphony gossip? I envied their technique, yet could not bear to practice scales and exercises, the traditional penance of the serious acolyte. At the time they bored me stiff, it took twelve years to get hip to some of their subtler joys.
Instead, as soon as I could read the high register and had some idea of tone, I tackled the real literature of the instrument. Its Baroque emphasis offered an easy ladder of mastery, up through the heights of Telemann. I met the recorder's technical problems as they were integrated in music, and became proficient as rapidly as I might have through the grim student exercises that I continued to feel guilty about not doing. (I was lucky: no other instrument with a classical repertoire offers mastery of it so easily.) When after a few years I progressed to Bach's flute sonatas in transcription, and then dared some in the original score, it was a kind of consummation, and for a long while I practiced little else at home.
But much of my learning came through playing with other musicians. When I left the bathroom, I did the most useful thing possible: I organized a support group. The process now seems elegant; at the time, it just sort of happened. I came back to school a fair player of folk tunes, starting on the classics, using the flauto dolce for self-definition and contact. Though inside I was all confused about my motivations, from outside I must have seemed simply unabashed enough to practice in public, for other players, some quite good, came out of hiding with their books of duets and asked to play together. Three months later a dozen of us were in casual afternoon association, just beginning on the quartet literature. I reread the student handbook: we were many enough to qualify as an official student group, and with a friend I organized the Recorder Society of the University of Chicago. Big deal? In a way, yes. Here an educational institution was functioning at its neutral best: it gave us a chance to meet each other, and then gave us precious open space to work together in, an old luxurious room in Ida Noyes Hall, ours for two evenings a week. It also gave us its library, though whether its music teachers would have accepted us on our own terms is unlikely.
We never asked to depend on them, but grew and flourished as a group, becoming our own teachers. For each, the group was first of all a friendly and insistent opportunity to play. Together we learned the simple cooperations of group effort; shared our explorations of the literature; picked up trills, alternate fingerings, and niceties of phrasing from the more advanced or more record-literate. Technique from our betters, cooperation with peers: so we learned, teaching both to those less advanced. Though my cofounder was quite accomplished, even he had not made a practice of tutoring, and was newly learning what he knew in the process of passing it on. So we all were wrapped in a community of learning, unself-conscious, open and supportive, whose fruit was not only good fellowship but the rapid development of consort skills, the power of collective work.
At the time, I couldn't have said what I was getting from the experience, but it moved in me powerfully, and when I transferred to Berkeley in 1958, the next step in extending it again came naturally, as a phase in an organic process. For the first two years there I played the recorder alone, falling back on its first usefulness in my life. During this time the first wave of New Left activism was cresting, swept me up. Strained with the contradiction between my studies and my life, wanting a lover, I spent many hours pouring Bach and Handel through my open window into the night. After our first major protests peaked in 1960, I dropped out of school, got a job. I was growing into a strong political friendship with another poet; it turned out he used to be into recorder. He bought an ebony Kung Meisterstuck alto, twin to mine, and we christened them in the woods between heady workshops at the first national New Left conference that summer.
We worked on duets for some months. Life was almost calm; politics would not turn cataclysmic again for three years. We raided the mass meetings of the local recorder society, looking for compatible players, moved not purely by music's urge, but also by an awakened yearning for small communities of endeavor. Sorting through some combinations, we wound up as a quartet. For two years we worked at the Mystery together, ransacking the school's rich archives of old music, picking up tricks from our one ex-flautist, practicing the yielding cooperations of tone that meld a recorder consort into ethereal harmony. Four guys and a jug of wine every Saturday afternoon, playing a Purcell Fantasia again and again, uncounting in a heady space, in endless approximations to some perfect consonance and understanding.
During this time I was also recording secretary of the Bay Area Student Committee for Abolition of the House Un-American Activities Committee, an energetic little radical band. We did some good, but oh! the price we paid, like other left groups of the time, running in the unreconstructed Old Left mode. Argumentative and ego-proud, with little touching or fluid support, our energy working against itself -- BASCAHUAC met weekly, for as long as our quartet did, but the experience was utterly different, and drained rather than gave.
It's always been hard to recognize and take seriously what nourishes me, and how I truly grow. My consort work was, quite simply, my first experience with sustained and disciplined investigation, by a voluntary and democratic group, of a subject that mattered to us. I spent twenty years in formal schooling -- much of it even "enriched" -- without being exposed to such experience. How sad and wasteful that now seems! True, in a few colleges now, a few students can initiate investigations for a term; but that is a truncated and credit-geared imitation of a crucial sort of collective experience that most people could be ready for from the age of ten on if circumstances encouraged them. So far are we from this, and so deep the hold of formal learning on our imagination, that it's taken me till thirty-and-three to recognize how important that experience was, independent of its particular subject, "music." Seven years free of the academy, a working intellectual, I see that it was a model for the two long cooperative investigations I've shared in since, and that it trained me for my part in them better than the schools ever did.
Do we always realize afterward when we've been happiest? When young men's motions pulled our consort apart, I was lonelier than I realized, stripped of an experience I couldn't yet confess as holy. A year later, in 1963, 1 managed to pull together another consort, bonded this time less by personal affinities than by sharply musical ambition. We called ourselves the Chutzpah Trio, and thought that we were the only regularly performing recorder consort west of the Alleghenies. We may well have been; and though I never quite shook the use of tranquilizers to deal with stage fright, I know that in studio privacy we were better at our repertoire, baroque and modern, than more than one of the few consorts then being produced on records. But we were amateurs: we did not organize our lives around music, and again their motions pulled us apart before we came into our prime as a group.
For me, the motion was political again. Looking back I see that, as I was mostly a loner through high school, my first serious experience in organizing was the recorder society I brought together as a college sophomore. The following spring, in 1958, what I'd learned by this came into play, when I helped lead a short-lived but urgent campus movement for educational reform. Its issues were uncannily prescient of those which arose six years later, when this cycle was repeated. This time what I was gladly swept into was the Berkeley Free Speech Movement, the first major campus revolt. As much moved as moving, I came to be part of the leadership, a member of the steering committee. It was an amazing experience: for two months, riding a great surge of cooperative effort in a community of action, we worked together at the center every day in a fully realized way that I have seen only a very few groups achieve since, whether in politics or in commune. Musicians in two domains, we improvised an endless conversation, pragmatic yet exploring all the avenues of politics that were to open in the late sixties; and orchestrated the tactics of mass action, indulging joy and ritual. It was real, there was conflict and bitterness as well as love among us; but it was also magical, our radically diverse personalities and viewpoints and efforts were fused in some transcendent functional harmony. That is a fact of history. I don't know how to pin that magic down. But I think it likely that for my part in it I was prepared not only by some years' odd accumulation of organizing experiences, but by the years spent playing in quartet and trio, exercising myself at deep levels in cooperation and melding.
The purest cooperations of my life have been made in music. Making love is not more intimate or immediate, and all larger teamworks have seemed clumsy in comparison. Perhaps shaping sound together is no more universal than many other experiences. But few others display so clearly and elegantly the processes groups go through in learning to do coordinated work. How the pace is set; how starts and stops are signaled; the subtle cooperations of volume, tone, and temperament; the resolution of their conflicts both on the spot and over time; how work is chosen and its interpretation determined; how this changes, deliberately and otherwise -- all these processes and more, all the roles, rituals, and strategies of interaction that we employ wherever we try to meld diverse energies into integral ensemble, have their models in music, formal or improvised.
If music is so pure a school of team creation, I think it's because there is a literal and encompassing sense in which a group's energy is made one in the act. Even on the gross material plane, each player is embraced by every other, tangibly, intimately, and continuously. I breathe sound; my wind strokes you through your clothes. Creature in a sea of air, feeling my waves with your whole skin, my vibrations causing minute fluctuations in your brain waves, your endocrine balance, feeding back to you also the instant and equal reflection of your mood in me -- are we not fewer than two, and integral? Playing trios, when we reached a certain plane of consonance, the peculiar tonal properties of the recorder enabled us each to hear and feel not only the voices of the other two, but other simultaneous voices -- belonging to no one, formed from the interaction of our overtones in permutation, precarious yet independent, so that sometimes we three were six-in-one, welded in dense harmonies that extended through high strange registers and beyond our hearing.
Those disembodied voices ringing in our ears, resonant in our skulls, a high spacey feeling, sense of consciousness expanding outward from the body, merging, becoming something without words to describe itself. Recorder players have the fortune to hear clearly those voices of interaction, but they are always present in music. Their physical effect on the players, subtle but rich, literally integrates them into a gestalt organism, in transcendent feedback.
On a higher plane, I am coming to understand, the matter is more direct. One's energy body, normally contiguous with the physical body, expands in literal ecstasy: an aura extends in haze and streamers sometimes visible to the clairvoyant, the "self" merges in part with other "selves" similarly transported by the musical stream. There is no reason to suppose that such phenomena of interpenetration are not subject also to technological investigation, or that we will never see an authentic movie of a jazz band revealing it as one body of energy with many tentacles, waving like a sea anemone.
Whatever the mechanism of interconnection, the process of learning in music is always audible, and is displayed as clearly only through dance and some other sports of the body. Making music with someone new, I hear more nakedly than we could ever say, how we feel each other out, the intricate play of offers and testing, textures of give and rigidity, sudden reciprocal excitements, energy building or frustrated, the step-by-step of teaching and learning licks from each other. Frame-by-frame analysis of short films of social interaction, by psycho-anthro-kineticists, has illuminated an amazing theater of body interaction, almost the glue of social reality. Perhaps such microscopic attention to musical interaction would yield insights as precise and deep.
I still make music with others when I can, but it's been seven years since I've had the time and will to be part of a regular group. Activist commitments and travel, the solitudes of writing, the whirl of our days all teach me a bare lesson: what cannot be integrated into life is stripped away. Had others in our loose commune been into music, we might have sustained a group. As it is, making music has become again for me what it was at first, a way of centering my energies, and mostly private. Especially when I travel, in that space of intense disjointed interactions, I depend on the flute to tell me where I am with my self, duck into odd corners of the day to draw my substance back around me, breath by breath in the trembling tube.
I think again of how the schools teach performance, not connection with essence. Though all along I'd been trying to do it, I couldn't really grasp how vital a function centering was to me until I had a language to conceive it. That language grew in a cultural underground, scorned as graffiti by the institutions of education but survival lore for us; I didn't come to understand my relation with the flute until I had escaped them.
But what the schools teach about how to learn continues to direct our efforts outside them. When I took up the recorder, breaking through the mystifications of being an official idiot and too old to learn anyway, I chose a more adventurous course of learning than graded exercises, and was largely my own teacher. Still I was scared and timid, and subject to a deeper mystification: that the way to learn to make music was to learn to play the music that others had made.
So I tackled the masters with dutiful joy. I can't express in words how much my practice in Bach has enriched me, dull apprentice though I've been. But it imprisoned me as well. However rich the play of modulations upon the expression of another's spirit might be, at heart I wanted the well of music in myself. Trained by schools to be a student, and awed by the craft of musicianship, at first I was unconscious of the desire. As it dawned, I turned to the forms I had recently learned, expressing the urge to create by long sets of baroque variations, most notably on the melody of "Greensleeves." For seven years I got little further than this. I'd learned I had the power to play music, but aspiring truly to make it was something else. When I tried to improvise, I fell into timid adaptations of the narrow range of styles I'd learned to play. I grew less innocent about jazz, but how could one begin? When I ventured one step looser in variation and set my fingers free to play blues with a guitarist, they kept repeating the patterns and rhythms they'd learned in the eighteenth century.
Dear Bach, what is recorded enforces the tyrannies of history, as well as being its fruit, and stifles the spirit, at least by the way we use it. I was a prisoner of the page, of my own literacy, having learned to play music exclusively from a written score. Had I gotten rather skilled at sight-reading? It cost me a deeper spontaneity. For more than my self-effacing mastery of the literature inhibited my inventiveness. I had conditioned myself to the process of reading my motions from a page and translating them through my mind into my fingers. When I tried to unleash my energy without the page, my motions formed first in my mind, almost as if I were constructing a score, before their expression through my body and breath. I didn't know how to let them spring from this ground directly and unthought.
I have no dread of literacy's power: what matters is whether it is disposed in balance. Had I begun music, even so belatedly, by making it as much as I played what was written, learning in each dimension as I went, my development as a whole musician might have been easier and more natural. As it was, it took radical change to spring me from the box.
I was driving home over the Bay Bridge one day early in 1965, barely a month after the triumphant sit-in and strike that climaxed the Free Speech Movement. We were all heady with a sense of collective energy and empowerment; the universe of the possible had suddenly opened up. Now as we turned back to our personal lives, the opening continued. I had yearned to play the flute ever since finding the Bach sonatas, but its classical stature and difficulty were clearly too much to dare, so I had settled for the humble recorder (which I grew to love in its own right). Whenever the fantasy rose again, I quelled it with the thought that I hadn't the time, and anyway was too old at twenty-four to learn a demanding new instrument. This time when it seized me, in air rich with broken mystifications and revealed potentials, I drove from the bridge straight to a music store to rent a flute and buy an instruction book.
I followed again the familiar track: learned basics from the book, practiced exercises and simple tunes until I felt I had the skill to start reading by myself. This time it took longer, the recorder had involved none of the delicate problems of forming an embouchure with my lips. A sloppy, enthusiastic student, I consulted my distant flautist friends too seldom, though one sweet lady gave me a mantra for the muscles of my mouth that has served me ever since. As soon as I could, I left the book and turned to Bach to pursue my tone. But for all the joy of learning, there was also a despair. I had come to play one instrument truly well; it was torture to be playing another with little skill. Yet to master the flute equally would take two hours a day for a decade, or something like that, and I couldn't imagine my life holding this still even for a month. Nor did it, in the late sixties. Still I went on. Through eight years of playing, backsliding, rare weeks of steady practice, the pain of that discrepancy has lessened, but it still flares up.
But the payoff was more important. Switching to the flute freed me to improvise. However transferable some basic skills of fingering and diaphragm were, its lip and odd posture made the flute a different enough experience from the recorder so that learning to play it was learning music on a fresh ground. Even at first, I spent as much time playing from the moment, eyes closed, as from a score. At first I was simply trying for tone, and found I could lead it out purer than when I was trying to follow something external. This playing of tones acted as a centering, some valve within me opened in response. As months passed, the tones were followed by music welling out: at first largo and timid in its compass, scarcely differentiated; then expanding into the open fields of color and texture and intricacy. (Ever since, making music alone, I begin with some such progression, re-capitualized and ritual, evoking and mirroring the flow; it is also the natural pattern of the raga.)
Wandering over the unfamiliar terrain of a new instrument, my fingers broke free of their recorder habits, to new rhythms and patterns, reflecting what I'd heard but born from the moment. I could wave them freely -- not always, but enough at times to express what was in me. Sometimes still, jamming with others, when I am down or ill at ease, I can hear myself "going through the motions," appearing to make music in a whole when actually my mind is checking off the chord changes and dragging familiar licks out of storage for my fingers to permute. But if we start cooking together, I can feel almost a click in me as another system takes hold in response, and energy flows from within through my fingers, which leap their baroquish walls to skitter across the keys, chasing the wind.
I've made it sound as if my ability to improvise evolved from scratch once I turned to the flute. But, as is often the case with people's empowerment in capacities that have been repressed, there was an earlier and violent breakthrough experience that re-infected me with desire and a sense of the possible, gave me an image of my potential state to work on slowly, till I could bring it about at will. (There were also, as usual, related liberations, impossible to divide as "cause" and "effect": during the time learning to improvise on flute, I was also learning to move my whole body in free dance, by a process parallel in most details.)
One night back in 1963, after the Chutzpah Trio's weekly show, I had gone off with some guitarists to jam as best I could, i.e., play blues. I wasn't prepared for them to pass me a joint, but the night was mellow and I thought, Why not? What a glorious loss of virginity! The room spun in changes, I made such music, soaring leaping line in the circle of sound, free-flowing, Indian, atonal. Next day I doubted my memory's ear: you were under the influence of a drug; was that beauty really there? Well, aesthetics is subjective, but the body doesn't lie: I knew my fingers had never before moved with a tenth the lithe freedom. It was my first encounter with the power of the psychedelics as tools to break open habituated patterns of perception and behavior, and permit new syntheses to form.
Later, I learned that grass was also useful for disciplined focus on tone production, though it got me enough into the experience of playing to interfere with my ability to play prepackaged programs, whence miscues twinkled my Bach allegros. Grass continued to facilitate improvisation, and the softening of the ego that permits one to merge in group creation. But these effects were much less dramatic than on that first night, which was, like a first orgasm, an experience of unexpected deliciousness and absolute power, and was not to be re-attained before slow years of growth. When I tried thereafter to make music on the recorder, even when stoned my fingers kept falling back into the old baroque dances, less than before but still too much; I had to switch to the flute to start them learning their freedom soundly.
Thus psychedelic drugs, like other agencies of breakthrough experience, open doors but don't take you through them. They may continue to light the way; but only the slow deliberate cultivation of new habits and technologies will move you along it.
One of my nameless hero teachers is a young man I saw in a doorway on Telegraph Avenue a year or so after I began the flute. Lost to all, he was into his flute, playing it strangely, not like it "should" be played, but as if he were a Martian with a Terran artifact, a metal tube evidently designed to produce and modulate sound -- finding out what sounds it could make and playing with them, tripping out eerie arpeggios in the forbidden overtones. It was a revelation to me. I mean, I'd gone to hear Archie Shepp, but the lesson didn't penetrate until a peer faced me with it. I went home to play, another classical Western mystification shattered, one degree more free.
It was around this time that I began to understand the secret of Etude. I came to the flute scared of its difficulty, believing that to be serious about technique meant becoming a student in a traditional school and mastering its full curriculum of studies. I leafed through them in the music shop: velocity studies, chromatic studies, etudes of double-tonguing and trills, arpeggio lessons, endless slim green-bound volumes. I was fresh from twenty years in a system where they set before me prepackaged, bleached chunks of information in neat sequence and told me, "Take this course to learn this, the next one to learn that, hand in your homework every week, and someday you'll graduate," but I never did. Really, it was out of the question. And yet I knew how indispensable was a methodical mode of work at technical skills.
Playing Bach for two years was one mode, but as I improvised I came to another. Free, my flights always bring me to some current boundary of my skill, and frustration defines a problem to work on next. Say it is leaping octaves. I will leap them awhile, trying to focus on their gist, and then start playing around: leap them up chords, leap trills, leap trills up chords, begin filling in the spaces between leaps with odd riffs, meld riffs and leaps into melody as energy rises, build in the problem I worked on last time, admit all the eternal ones, making melody of it all, until leaping is in context again as part of an integral music within which the spirit plays.
In this mode I integrate also what I learn from other musicians and what I invent. And one day I realized that Etude was no longer a mystery to me. This was how those books of studies -- the good ones, not the hack exercises -- came about. Some cat got cooking on a technical theme, and liked his product enough to write it down. If he had stature he could just put it out as music (many deep works besides Chopin's Etudes record methodical steps in worrying a technical problem, and Bartok made a Mikrokosmos out of such.) An unknown musician might prune his creation for market or use in his teaching, passing it on to be used with the inherent message, "I got skilled enough to make this, you repeat it and you can too, that's the way." Meaning well, no doubt about it.
This is not the place to hash out the merits of classical teaching disciplines. Use whatever seems useful, I say. I spent half my life in a rigorous mathematical apprenticeship, developing skill step-by-step; I do not scorn the power of that way. But something clearly has been lost from the institutions which embody it -- a certain engendering vitality, which is starved in their toils. When it comes down to teaching people music, from kindergarten carols to the finishing academies of orchestras, we simultaneously skill them to repeat the past and strip them of their human power.
For I believe -- with the crude fierce solipsism of having won to the knowledge late, through no talent but will -- that man is music maker. (And woman too, even more deprived now musically, second fiddle.) We are born able to express our feelings in sound, quickly learn to depend and delight in this, and in the skill's cultivation. Where does the separation begin? Back in the roots of our tongue, where our language dropped pitch and inflection as essential, preserved them vestigal with rhythm and timing, while stripping down to its oh-so-recordable phonemic skeleton? Education recapitulates cultural evolution: early on, the child learns that to make sense in sound involves stripping it of all the aspects of song, or else talking funny. Just as she learns that dance is something special, not the everyday motion of bodies, so she is taught about singing, and that to make music one must become a composer or a songwriter. And the separation becomes complete, though sometimes still she sings in the shower, a nameless hymn of invention with the water turned up to cover what she thinks of as her off-key wail, or perhaps some deeper nakedness.
We are all music makers, until we are stripped of the power. Lord knows what use that serves! I hesitate to connect it to the pervasive evils of capitalism and industrial culture. But surely our individual disenfranchisement undergirds the whole system that presents music to us as a commodity that we consume. Like the education industry, the music industry -- from opera to radio to half-time to Muzak -- depends on a mass of impotent and passive consumers; an army of professional specialists whose capacities have been developed to fit sharply limited roles in production and distribution; a small elite of creators, maintained by their ability to make what sells; and institutions ordered to support and preserve this condition. Outside this net, some people do sing and play ready-made music, alone and together, for no reasons other than need and desire; but except around the campfire and at parties, it is fairly isolated from the rest of life.
Many of us get the late chance to make up timid lullabies. But only where people manage to pursue their own training in small collectivities, relatively unscathed by involvement in even the innocent fringes of the industry, and not wedded to old scores, only here does the power we all have to invent music in cooperative groups become real in our culture. The occasions of that power are few and sharply defined. Group invention by rock, jazz, and folk ensembles follows the forms modeled in the commodity market, by and large, and tends readily to be integrated into it and reduced to entertainment. Group music-making in certain domestic religious practices, mostly Black, is more firmly rooted in people's lives.
The most complete image from my own experience is the Grateful Dead jamming at a be-in on Mount Tamalpais, with a thousand people dancing freely in the sun. But perhaps a dozen times I have seen the genuine Calliope sweep down on ten or a hundred people involved in politics or labor or chaos or joy, the muse seize them with surprise as she turned their energies into sound, using their voices, their bodies, bottles, guitars, ashcans in spontaneous intricate music that flowed for hours. Oh, we all are hiding something, but sometimes we forget: I know this at such times, or when out of the blue we sing to each other in greeting, in unanticipated harmonies, words from some strange language we understand perfectly. Are there really quaint societies whose people all make their own music as a natural and integral function of their lives, where they grow up hearing it made this way, by aunts and peers, cooking everyday dinner, in praise of the stars, riding loin to loin? Or am I foolish to imagine that some such society might yet evolve from ours; and that it might also produce some Bachs and Dylans to do what they do for us; but that if it did not, we would still be the richer, reconnected with elemental power and grace?
As music is metaphor, so its patterns of learning mirror our lives intimately. Take love, for I've been describing a love relationship. Adolescent, unsure, we start out imitating the written score, the roles and strategies of relationship offered as standard. To some extent we never can shake the habit, and many never feel the need. But for some there are radical breaks -- between relationships or within them, sometimes triggered by collective conditions -- which free them one stage further to create the unique extension of their love, rather than have it exist in nuances of interpretation of the standard scores. For such lovers then, life together becomes a continuous etude, an improvised and working music that constantly surfaces technical problems, like how to deal with anger. Sometimes these must be worked on in a mode of crisis/isolation/concentration. But it's possible to shift the balance more toward a process of consciously daring the open edges of problem in the everyday flow, working on them in integral context while all else is going on, learning technique in the moment of expression -- being borne by the music, opening their selves to their limits, yet graceful enough not to overstrain these. And so the parallel goes, in much richer detail than I sum up here, look back and see. Of course, I am describing the progress of friendship too, and also of mathematics; of poetry, sport, and the building of small communities -- in short, of most learning that matters to people and society.
Sometimes it seems that every part of my experience with music is equally pregnant with insights. I cross the register-break in a dying pianissimo slide from B to E near the start of Debussy's La Fille Aux Cheveux. I undercut, lips too fluff-lax in anxious relaxation. Ears mark the distance from some Platonic standard, tuned more to the difference in timbre (weak, husky with exotic overtones) than in pitch (a bit flat). Lips tighten a trifle at the corners, pull the air-stream flatter, harder; hands roll the trembling tube inward a little, not quite enough; cheeks and elbows, shoulders and hips shift minutely in support and sympathy. Sound steadies and bells in the room, and I attack the next note.
Playing the flute, I am constantly seeking that relaxation which permits the basic problem-solving cycle -- evaluate/formulate/assess/decide/implement/evaluate -- to proceed properly, not in my mind alone but through my whole body. Each instant of a note's life is a microcosm of choice; grass and attention slow the process enough to observe. What are the traps? If I am anxious for the next note, or about it, I do not listen to the one I am in. Be where I am. If I am anxious to hang on to the goodness of where I am, for fear any change may make the note more sour, my body translates this into frozen fingers and lips that cannot move. Don't be afraid to let go; learn to have nothing to lose. To move in holy indifference is not to be passive: I choose the changes I press on that sound. But only after actively being where I am and free to move, with neither fear nor possessiveness (which also is fear).
I enter a note over-tense, try to relax, let go too much control; my lips are seized with a sudden subtle trembling. Later in the phrase I am loose enough to leap a ninth with no change in timbre. Holding that looseness, again my lips begin to quiver erratically: unable to control themselves gently, haunted by the muscle-memory of tight control, a legacy of cramping now released to rage through the tissue walls. That is always the problem in learning: how not to freak and pull back while beginning to create anew a new control in the chaotic space liberated from the grasp of an old order. How, dogged by the ghosts of my own state, to ride with the uncontrollable vibrations of energy, hoping they do not tear apart my tone or self while new order is being created from within.
Yet sometimes the music itself leads me forth, embracing even my tremors and contradictions in something whole. Playing free, every so often I realize that the note I have just begun is not the one "I" had intended and sent out orders to produce, but a different one chosen confidently by my body to extend the music -- quite independently of the listening-and-scheming me who flashes with resentment at the mistake. Losing control upsets him, he thinks he is responsible for making all the music, when much of the time he is merely nodding in smug agreement. But when I am conscious enough to follow the flow of energy, rather than balk with a part of my being, such deliberate "mistakes" become integral in the music, instantaneous pivots in a field of infinite choice. Playing written music, I had learned with painful slowness to ignore mistakes, to not react to them nor let them affect the music's flow. Here I reverse the habit. Running, leaping, swaying, in this state of grace even a genuine stumble becomes an occasion of creation, can be resolved in a way which takes it to extend the sense of the music.
When I am free to uncover in the instant the dancing logic of those next notes that will weave the slip into consonance, make it have been inevitable, I feel involved in some transcendent mathematics. To reduce it to the simple case of improvising alone, it is as if, on some cosmic abscissa and ordinate, I were living out the construction of a complex curve while simultaneously deriving its equation, unifying induction and deduction in a way inverse to their unity while playing Bach. The curve comes to a point not predictable from the equation as known up to that moment; rather than reject the point as anomalous, a discontinuity, I continue the curve through it and beyond in a way which yields a new equation, one containing its previous version as a limiting case valid up to that odd point, one embodying a deeper notion of continuity. And so it goes, when I am moving in the spirit of a world in which chance and accident and will are subsumed in higher order.
Having involved myself so personally in these music lessons, I find it hard to exit gracefully. Etude, in progress, is what it is. I took up the guitar reluctantly at twenty-nine, vowing not to get involved with the intricacies of its spirit, as I had trouble enough keeping faith with her for whose love I had left the recorder. But I simply had to learn a few chords. Late sixties America had gotten to be too much. Driving to the Chicago Democratic convention, lifedeath words pent for months in my head suddenly blurted out, too much even for poetry to contain, unprecedented heat and pressure leaving diamonds in my mouth, a few songs. I had to follow them out, and found myself back at beginning again.
Ah, how I long to sing. Not just to make skillful me-noise on this instrument, but all of it, words too. I don't remember how I got afraid, but the fear's so deep. (Were all my woodwinds surrogates, for what I dared not breathe directly?) Howling in a car across America, torn by the break with my lover, the inhibition vaporized; home, it recondensed. Seeking a way to work through it, I turned to the guitar. I wanted to set the songs and sing them, have the support of the instrument's sure pitch and momentum for my uncertain voice to grow on as I coaxed it out; in time perhaps an easy flow of music from my hands would sweep me up, releasing the songstream I had glimpsed within.
These ambitious programs! Was the guitar a diversion? I felt like a graduate student, reluctant to enter the world, scuttling back for yet another degree. Soon I found I had kidded myself about getting by cheaply. How could I have the guitar as my helpmate, without recognizing, courting, and reaching accord with her spirit? And the task was seductive. It was fresh pleasure to apply what I'd learned from recorder and flute about how to learn an instrument, but more clearly and coherently. I put off dealing with my voice, got into free etudes on the guitar, let them consume the energy that should have gone into replacing my bum flute. Something in me languished in this easy liaison. It took the usual two years to move me to action. Finally I cut the guitar back, made myself start seriously learning to sing the written songs I love, resuming an old apprenticeship. And now new flutes. The will to make music quickens again through them, but I restrain it, divert it into writing, for the weeks of this essay playing mostly just long slow notes, rarely venturing beyond the bottom octave, feeling in slow motion for tone's precision and the supple involvement of the whole being that underlies it, relearning the act of music from the ground up. It is a ceremony, renewing the vows of a marriage tested and building, with all the time we wish for foreplay.
As for song making, it continues in its fashion -- no thanks to my program. Not with the guitar, but in the car or stretching in the morning, under stress or in some momentary emptiness, when my mind is not on singing as such, fragments of song will spring complete in me and sometimes out my lips. A few times a year I am loose or purposeful enough to pull the rest of one out, smooth it, set it, and practice it with the guitar. Mostly they just float by. I know where they come from, that coruscating eternal well of form within: a few times I have broken through to it for hours, letting the sainted baby babble flow, wondering if Dylan and Bach knew how to turn the faucet off. Were I really serious about turning it on in song, I think I'd go off in the woods, where no one could hear what a crazy man I am, to chant and howl -- to find out what sounds I can make, make them, reinventing melody and skill in some peculiar way, while voicing senseless syllables that evolve into meaning as my self comes out to inhabit these clothes.
Meanwhile, I sing to my son. Only with him do I feel sometimes free enough to let the true stream of invention flow, almost at will, in lullaby mythologies. An unmenaced tenderness dissolves my fear, he does not mind my uncertain pitch, tight breath, and awkward spontaneous rhyme. In the end to sing is to stand naked, at least for me; I am ashamed to say how difficult I still find this, but perhaps he will find it less hard.
First published as “Music Lessons” in American Review #18, Fall 1973; reprinted with new afterword as “Learning Without a Teacher”, Phi Delta Kappa Fastback #45, 1974.