Improvised Music and Siberian Shamanism
Tim Hodgkinson © Photo by Hubl Greiner
Article by Tim Hodgkinson
...performance is special:
normal rational processes would interfere with it. The language of subjectivity used by musicians protects against such interference. But it can also be read as making explicit the parallel between improvised performance and certain types of religious experience
THE IMPOSSIBLE METHOD
While risking certain general conclusions, this article draws almost entirely on the personal experience of Ken Hyder and myself as improvising musicians. We have been working together since 1979. Near neighbours in South London, we met through a common interest in community politics and cultural action, and quickly discovered that we both enjoyed a good argument.
Aware that improvised music often relies on the constant challenge of working in untried combinations of musicians, we set out to do exactly the opposite, and committed ourselves to long-term duo work.
Over years of playing and arguing and arguing and playing, two questions seem to have occupied us the most. The first is a question for any ongoing improvising duo: What can you carry forward from one playing session to the next, that does not compromise the improvisational activity? Can you get consistently good at improvising together without repeating yourselves by using conscious or unconscious rules?
The second was perhaps more peculiar to us and to a certain social" perspective we shared: What significance, if any, should be attached to the subjective language of improvising musicians? Despite more recent analytical tendencies in the practice of improvisation, the language used by musicians is still strongly influenced by a Free Jazz subculture with a distinctly 1960s discourse in which ideas of spontaneity and magic are important.
Thus performance is special: normal rational processes would interfere with it. The language of subjectivity used by musicians protects against such interference. But it can also be read as making explicit the parallel between improvised performance and certain typos of religious experience.
"When he (a prophet) is inspired he becomes unconscious; thought vanishes away and leaves the fortress of the soul; but the divine spirit has entered there and taken up its abode; and this later makes all the organs resound so that the man gives clear expression to what the spirit gives him to say." (Philo, first century A.D., quoted in J. Jaynes.)
Making sense of this parallel now led us back to our first question. The quality of improvisation that we were looking for seemed to flow not from musical technique as such, but rather from some kind of meta-skill?an ability to draw instantly on an array of techniques to meet the precise demands of the moment. Was it, then, literally something to do with the state of mind of the players?
We had already started to focus on states of mind and psychological preparation when I remembered shamanism from my readings in anthropology. I remembered two important things; the importance attached to preparation for a shamanism performance; and the fact that shamanic performances, despite following a loose sequence of identifiable phases, were largely improvised.
It followed from this initial interest in shamanism as performance that we adopted the narrow, rather than the broad "New Age. definition of the term shamanism. The way we understood it, shamanism was a specific set of beliefs and practices in which a person became a shaman, or when following an illness and psychological crisis, and then shamanised, communicating with the spirit world on behalf of other members of the community by partially re-enacting this crisis in a dramatic scene usually involving drumming and vocalisation.
More than most religious ritual, shamanic seances had a powerful personal and improvisational dimension. Moreover, in order to re-enter the special psychological state involved, the shaman had to prepare by getting rid, so to speak, of his or her normal everyday persona.
The broader definition of shamanism as any activity involving direct contact with the spirit world by any means whatsoever seemed, and still seems, to us far less useful. I?ll therefore be using the terms shaman, shamanic, shamanise, etc., in the narrow sense in this article, and it will follow that the set of beliefs and practices I am writing about are very largely restricted to Siberian and other far-Northern cultures.
Following from our readings and discussions about shamanism, we began to use a preparation ritual prior to improvised performances. We would request a short period of time alone in a room back-stage. We would begin with a period of silence and darkness. During these moments we would allow our minds to empty themselves of all the chatter about taking care of the practical arrangements for the concert.
For the non-performing reader, I should explain that getting ready for a concert involves juggling a great many details of different kinds almost up to the last minute. Are the lights right? Can I reach this microphone quickly? Why is it impossible to find a chair in this theater? Is there somewhere to put that cable so that we don?t trip over it? It seemed to us desirable to go into an entirely different mental frame just before playing.
The period of intense concentration on the practical preparations, immediately followed by the silence in the dark enclosed space seemed to be a way of dramatising this shit. It was as if the intensified mental chatter of getting ready for the concert stood for the mental chatter of normal everyday existence in general, so that by entering our performance silence we were silencing the inner voice that sustains the everyday persona. Very gradually we would break this silence, first by small sounds such as breathing sounds, then gradually making more sound and movement.
We moved about deliberately putting chairs and other objects in the other?s path. It meant that we had to use our senses to make sense of this environment, listening to sounds of the objects moving on the floor, figuring out where they were.
The effect was one of planned disorientation. If you are suddenly whisked away blindfolded in a car and released into some strange environment you have to use all your senses to try to find out where you are. After this process of sharpening our senses we felt very freed up. When we went on stage we felt we could do anything. We felt focused. Our reactions were sharper and as far as we could tell our music got better and more consistent as a result.
At the same time as we were applying these ideas to our playing, we started to get very curious about what shamanic performances really sounded like. Not only did these performances involve preparation and improvisation, they also involved music We read ethnographic descriptions of these seances by such writers as Czaplicka and Jochelson who spoke about the extraordinary drumming and singing of the shamans, but it seemed very hard to actually hear anything.
By an extraordinary stroke of good luck, while visiting Moscow in 1989, I met Boris Podkosov from Khabarovsk in the Soviet Far East, and following from this meeting we were able to make several trips to Siberia to play improvised music, and to meet and interview shamans in the Republics of Buryatia and Tuva, and also briefly to visit the Sakha, or Yakut, Republic.
All this depended on a remarkable set of circumstances which included the rapid liberalisation of the Soviet Union and the consequent growth of ethnic cultural nationalisms in Siberia with an emphasis on the recovery and nurturing of past tradition, as well as the emergence of a network of independent music promoters to replace the old state monopoly.
Is there a defining quality to shamanic music? Before we went to Siberia we thought there was, and that it hinged on the question of tempo. Unique among all kinds of music we?d previously met with, shamanic music apparently varied constantly in tempo. This distinguished it from trance or possession music, which typically works up to climactic extremes of speed and volume, as well as from non-shamanic musics of peoples with shamanic cultures, which typically conform to the steady tempo pattern of almost all folk musics.
We also noticed that the accents produced by a shaman playing the drum followed no clearly discernible pattern. We did have a conversation with a musicologist in Novosibirsk who tried to convince us that the shamans were deliberately playing in constantly varying meters of 13, 7 or 9 and so on. It seemed to us that this was most unlikely, and conversations with shamans later confirmed our view that accents are used freely during shamanic drumming.
But why, then, did the music of the shamanic performances constantly vary in tempo? We set off into the field with an idea, but were forced to abandon it. We thought that the function of music during shamanising was largely to disorientate listeners and participants through constant fluctuations of tempo. This idea owed much to Robert Ornstein?s work in the 1960s on the experience of time.
Ornstein had demonstrated the link between the experience of time-duration, and the way in which events are perceived, grouped, and stored as information. It seamed to us that where the grouping unit was constantly unstable?as with music of constantly varying tempo?the normal habitual modes of information-processing would become generally disturbed, and the subject would then become increasingly psychologically suggestible. Fluid tempo could then be hypothesised as the technique of the shaman for setting up the audience for successive psychological identifications with spirits encountered on the shamanic journey.
The material on which we based this interpretation was extremely sparse. At the time we had only two recordings of actual shamanic performances, and our information about the survival of shamanism in Siberia led us to be pessimistic about getting any further material.
Going into the field was important not only in terms of gathering new information, but also in terms of challenging the way in which that information might be interpreted. Inevitably, as we listened to people talking about shamanism, the importance of their own descriptive language loomed larger, and our confidence in our own analytical terms correspondingly diminished.
As Western artists, we had assumed that shamanising would have some clear connection to Western art practice. We had unconsciously sought to break shamanising down into analytic categories which paralleled those of aesthetic or musicological analysis as they might be applied to an artistic performance. Consequently we?d been looking for artistic techniques, and we understood rhythmic disorientation to be such a technique.
After discussion with practitioners, however, it became clear to us that the primary reason for tempo fluctuation in shamanic seances was not to produce a deliberate effect on the audience. It transpired that shamanising involves the interaction between the drumming activity, producing a sensory input, and a sequence of psychological states in the mind of the shaman. These states are at least stimulated, if not regulated, by shifts in tempo and intensity of drumming.
But the shaman is not using the drumming in order to reproduce the same psychological evolution in an audience. Consequently the description of shamanising as a performance ? as in Western theater or music ? is misleading. This non-performance aspect becomes even more marked when several people shamanise together, as sometimes happens. In these workouts, each person follows his or her own psychological evolution, and coordination of psychological states and, consequently, of drumming tempo is exceptional. There is clearly no sense of collective responsibility for a collectively produced "musical" output.
So what exactly is happening when a person shamanising speeds up and slows down their drumming?
"A composer can?t do it; when you?re overwhelmed with these feelings, a melody, or rhythm appears, to help you perform this feeling. There are no rules; it?s in the nature of the person himself. And not an ordinary person; a shaman is not an ordinary person. The ritual depends for its form on the person who developed it." (Tuvan shaman.)
Several practitioners told us that shamanising involves following your feelings. We also heard a great deal of visual description of the psychological phases. That is, shamanising seems almost invariably to involve seeing. When, during an interview with Alexander Salchak, who specialized in acting the role of shaman the Tuvan theater, we asked whether people sometimes mistook him for a real shaman and invited him to their homes to shamanise, he replied, "A real shaman has to have an inner vision. I don?t see, so I refuse."
It is tempting therefore to surmise that the drumming activity is a psychological tool for modifying the energetic substratum of emotionally and/or semantically valenced visual images occurring in the mind of the shaman. Once again, however, there is a danger of importing inappropriate Western categories, only this time assimilating shamanism into psychology and not into art.
It is true that some Siberian shamans have stated to us an equivalence between shamanism and Western psychology. Nevertheless, I suspect that they would recognize the following distinction as fundamental. Considered as practitioner, the psychologist maintains unified and continuous conscious control, and the procedures of psychology in no way place this control in question. While it would certainly be incorrect to deny the shaman a priori any measure of conscious control, it is clear that the consciousness involved is not, and is not intended to be, unified and continuous in the sense of that of the psychologist.
The point here is to avoid assimilating the shaman?s ways into, Western concept of techniques or tools whether in artistic or psychological context. It was indicated to us that a shaman?s way shamanising is something akin to a negotiation between voluntary and involuntary aspects of cognition. Shamanising is conceived as providing a channel for a force that is not only in the shaman. As Ay-Churek, a practicing Tuvan shaman, put it: "I give energy to people through the drum, but I get energy from the spirits."
MYSTICISM IN MUSIC
We have found no easy way to inscribe the ways of shamanism onto the traditional map of Western musical practice and its aesthetic priorities. We cannot treat shamanism as a symbolic description of processes which make sense within the context of entirely different objectives.
I would like, at this point, to identify the two distinct approaches of Western music to mysticism. In the first, music takes the content of mystical belief as its own content. There is moment in the process of making the music when metaphysical beliefs are encoded into the music in such a way that they will have some manifest presence, significant for the composer, in the completed piece.
By this I mean that the music wholly or partly consists in the performance or transmission of a ritual, or of a metaphysical structure. The clearest examples of this approach are those Western composers such as Olivier Messiaen who have encoded metaphysical structures into their work.
In the second type, the intervention of mysticism is primarily into the productive process as process. If we define rituals as those organized activities whose meaning derives from metaphysical considerations, then what we are speaking about here is the intervention of ritual into some dimension of music making.
This distinction can now be given several further dimensions. To begin with, mystical experience itself polarizes towards a revelation of divine order, on the one hand, and direct contact with a spiritual force or being on the other; the difference being that the former may provide a content which can be integrated into rational discourses, whereas the latter may be far more disruptive. But if we take a very broad anthropological perspective, the situation appears a bit different.
What is disruptive for a settled agricultural society with a hierarchical priesthood is normal for a herding or hunting society with an egalitarian shamanhood. When Messiaen puts three massive chords to symbolise the Holy Trinity, he doesn?t seem to be compromising his musical structure; in fact he is subscribing to a ancient and once central tradition of Western music which goes back through the Renaissance musical languages to the Pythagorean theory of cosmic harmony, which Pythagoras in turn inherited from the first settled agricultural civilisations.
When, on the other hand, Albert Ayler (and I?m going to speak about Ayler?s music rather than our own here) keens through his saxophone, he seems to be in an ecstatic state, and the music that he plays seems to belong to a world in which direct spiritual experience is a real possibility. He is taking the mystical dimension straight into the process of music-making, and this process is visible and audible because he is making the music right there in front of the audience or microphone.
It is of course possible to take sides on this question, and I can pretend for the sake of argument that Messiaen would have regarded Ayier?s music as inferior because functional, that is, organized around priorities that could not be said to be really musical. But history, if nothing else, demands that we go beyond this position.
Ideas, world interpretations, perceptual worlds, exist in relation to real human communities located in time and space. The Western world is relentlessly imposing itself on all the other human worlds on this planet. As individuals, we can?t alter this process. But we can modulate what this world of ours is, we can ensure that the friction between worlds which should take place really does take place and that the other worlds are not simply crushed in silence.
From the point of view of the rational technological society, both the cosmic hierarchy that inspires Messiaen and the shamanic ecstasy that inspires Ayler are simply irrational superstitions. But both these kinds of mysticism are ways whereby a musical culture which addresses a Western audience can acknowledge other worlds lying beyond the pale of Western rational supremacism. The point is that the friction should be real, that the touching surfaces should not be dissociated from their roots in social life, and that the impact between different musical cultures should therefore be thoroughly worked through. Only in this way can we avoid the kind of impressionistic world music now being produced by some of our more careless contemporaries.
In fact, both Messiaen and Ayler are engaged in complex processes which involve the interplay between different modes of encoding and transmitting information. Mysticism is one possible intervening layer or phase in these processes. If, for a composer, this intervention might be a way of fine-tuning the work of composing, for an improviser it might be a way of fine-tuning the work of improvising. The difference is that in improvised music, the music is made in performance, and the intervention therefore happens in or around performance.
What I earlier called the traditional map of Western music has never explicitly acknowledged the negotiation between voluntary and involuntary aspects of cognition to which Siberian shamanism is akin. But this dimension is surely present in the origination of all kinds of music.
Perhaps a clue can be found in the following direction. While it, had been our mistake to think of shamanic music overly within the framework of Western music, we did after all take something out of the experience and apply it to our music. What we took was to do with the very close connection that shamanic philosophy draw between the natural environment and the inner states of a person?s being. In the cultures of shamanism, listening to natural sound and becoming aware of inner psychological states are intimately linked.
The kind of listening involved is quite different from the abstracted sensibility towards nature, whose variants are expressed in Western classicism or romanticism. It is a kind of listening which derives from the direct presence of the listener within nature as a person who needs to be able to grasp all the detail of natural sound in order to survive. This means that the organization of natural sound appears directly within the aesthetic of the music of shamanic cultures.
When we played with some Yakut musicians we found that their aesthetic approach allowed them to apply the irregularities of nature to their music without any difficulty. In complete contrast to this, it is an axiom of Western musical aesthetics to distinguish musical sound from noise, not only by the regularity of the vibrations of musical tones but, more significantly, by the regularity of the relations between musical tones.
Let us imagine for a moment that the map of Western music is a map of the Western mind and that it reflects a reductive order, an imposition of consciousness on the entire matter of human life, and a tendency to substitute the necessarily selective and partial contents of this consciousness for the whole. Now imagine this map transforming itself, inscribing onto itself the natural lie of the land.
The old map could never have acknowledged the wind, the birds, and the waterfalls; they simply do not elect to perform in a recognized musical key or rhythm. Yet in the context of a walk in the country, such natural sounds and their acoustic and temporal relationships seem to suggest patterns which in turn associate themselves with shifts in the way in which consciousness gains knowledge of the multi-faceted totality of the human mind.
It turns out that the way we can best integrate our Siberian experience into a continuation of our work here is by reference to those currents in contemporary music that address themselves to these questions of acoustic and psychological organization in the most radical way.
There are countless examples of the ritualisation of performance within the world of classical music. I?m thinking of Glenn Gould warming his elbows, or Furtwängler refusing ever to rehearse on the day of a performance of the Ninth.
Mysticism refers us to metaphysical regions, that is to say, to types of organization and experience which are only implicit in the structure of physical reality as known. It is typical of the discourse of mysticism that an explanation for the former in terms of the latter is neither provided nor regarded as desirable.
That is to say that mysticism not only accepts but often welcomes the fact that its content is ultimately mysterious. Where this is expressed as a pseudo-rational discourse it becomes the equivalent of a reification of the limitations of reason and as such merely provides ammunition for the historical supremacy of rationalism. Where it is expressed as a placing of reason into nature into an ecology of mind, it can be understood as rational in a broader sense.
Tim Hodgkinson trained as an anthropologist before becoming a musician and composer. He has published articles in "Musica/Realtà" and the RE Quarterly. Last year he released Each in Our Own Thoughts a new CD of compositions, and in 1995 his pieces were performed in Nancy, Montepulciano, London and Trondheim.
- CZAPLICKA, Aboriginal Siberia, Oxford, Clarendon Press, 1914, p. 235
- JOCHELSON, W., Religion & Myths of the Koryaks, p. 49
- ORNSTEIN, ROBERT E., On the Experience of Time, Harmondsworth, Penguin, 1969
- AYNES, JULIAN, The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind, Boston, Houghton Mifflin, 1977
This essay was first published on MUSICWORKS 66, Fall 1996. The italian translation comes from "Musiche" (musiche (at) tin.it), N. 18, Spring 1997. We thank Tim Hodgkinson and Alessandro Achilli, co-editor of "Musiche" and author of the Hodgkinson's photo, for the permission of publishing