Music as a Collective Experience

Music as a Collective Experience

Music is a powerful tool which often foreshadows future shifts within culture. It has the ability to shape and direct culture, for its ripples extend beyond its own sphere. The key element in allowing music to hold this important role is that it must reach an audience and create a dialogue within that audience. In earlier centuries, music was at the core of cultures, and was a primary source of cultural identity, education, and entertainment. As the Twentieth Century progressed, this important role traditionally held by music was diminished, particularly in the United States. With the advent of other media such as cinema, television, and the internet, combined with the key element of media consolidation by corporations, outlets for the arts have diminished significantly within the popular culture. The problem is not the media themselves,but rather the control of content exercised by entrepreneurs. This being said, the challenge for the current generation of musicians will be finding the means to present their works within their community. It will be necessary for them not only to be artists, but also educators, and advocates with visible and influential voices.

This paper will explore the relationship between composer, performer, and listener, and its importance to musical experience within a culture. It will approach music as a collective experience which is defined by its participants, provide examples of these type of experiences, and then further elaborate upon shifts necessary within the stated relationship to advocate a continuously evolving experience of music within the collective consciousness of a culture.

We do not believe in ourselves until someone reveals that something deep inside us is valuable, worth listening to, worthy of our trust, sacred to our touch. Once we believe in ourselves we can risk curiosity, wonder, spontaneous delight or any experience that reveals the human spirit.”

-e.e. cummings

Someone reveals that something deep inside us is valuable.

This statement clearly defines the relationship between composer, performer, and listener in its highest form. The composer must reveal something within the human experience that has relevance and depth. This is the reason for the listening and is the impetus for the collective experience of the music. This is then expressed through performance, whereby it is offered to the listener. Here, the performer has a responsibility to execute the experience to precision. This execution should be invocative of the intentions of the composer. In his work Culture, Crisis and Creativity, composer Dane Rudhyar comments that “performers should strive after a vibrant and effective realization of the super-personal purpose moving their inner beings.” (Rudhyar 101). Further more he states attention should be specifically given to “that which sought actualization through the creator-composer of the musical score in order to meet a collective human need.” (101)  

Here I will present a very important question. Do the performers significantly understand the intentions of the composer who’s music they are performing? As both a performer and composer myself, this question has always been of profound significance when approaching a piece of music, for it is key in expressing the essence of the collective experience of that music. However, I question how many performers actually take this into consideration.  Perhaps an analogy will elucidate what is meant by this. A person is given a series of note cards with a speech written on them. He is going to deliver this speech in two days time. He sits and reads the speech realizing he can pronounce and say all of the words and so he decides he has prepared, paying no attention to the content and meaning of the speech. Two days later, he deems that the speech was delivered successfully, as he properly pronounced all of the words.  This to me seems to apply to many performers and is extremely negligent in regards to the expression of the living essence of music. Furthermore, the performer, through his lack of understanding of the work at hand, is doing a disservice to the listener, for he has not fulfilled his responsibility of inducing the collective experience which was intended by the music.  

This is where the deepest problem lies for the expression and reception of music in our culture. Many performers are not able to make this leap of understanding the composer’s intentions within their expression of the music they are playing. As such, the reception of the listener is hindered, or all together dismissed in statements (by the listener) like “it doesn’t move me”. This “moving” has very little to do with virtuosity on an instrument or on the part of the composer (if this was the case, then a band as ragged and sloppy as the Rolling Stones would have never had the slightest success). The moving has to do with an expression that fills the listener with a sense of belief (perhaps false) in themselves, and what they perceive as relating to and reflected in their experience within the collective. This is the beginnings of a kinship with collective listening experience and is often highly dictated by social norms and status quoacceptance (thus, why I elude to perhaps a false sense of belief).

Here I will elaborate on what I called the “deepest problem” above. What is being expressed in our current trends of commercial pop-music? In terms of content and emotion, how is the collective experience of music being effected? Furthermore, if the music of a culture is a reflection of the inner-core values and the state of consciousness of that culture, what are we now saying of ourselves? To bring back the quote from Cummings, does our collective music “induce curiosity, wonder, spontaneous delight or any experience that reveals the human spirit”?

Music is a Verb

What has happened in American culture is that there has been an incredible disconnect between the listener and the performer. Music is rarely an active experience; it has become more of a commodity of everyday existence, a mere form of entertainment and space-filler. One might easily argue this point, making reference to the abundance of ipods and that the distribution and sharing of music through the internet has greatly expanded the musical experience. However, I will state this argument as a reply: Over time I have realized as a listener, from both going to live shows and listening to recordings, that if a given performance conveys great intensity on a CD, the experience in the room was at least three to four times that. Making a recording that is emotionally potent is no small ordeal, and I believe that this is often overlooked by many people, due to the fact that they lack the experience of both the living presence of the act of music and the collective experience of listening with other individuals. The latter is of prime importance.  Through collective experience we begin to brush sleeves with something beyond our immediate selves. We begin to experience (though often not consciously) an essence of the human mind as it exists collectively. There is an opportunity to open into a conscious experience of the Human Entity which is often untouched (consciously) in modern society. Here the intuition opens pathways into realms of the abstract mind which lack the limitations of linear thought processes of the concrete mind, and the listener(s) begins to experience something of the so called “mystical” aspects of music. As J.H. Masserman points out “Music in all ages has given man a sense of mystical but immediate kinship with the transcendent and the universal.”

One venue within the popular realm of music which for a period of time was able to supply this type of collective experience was the “Jam Band” scene that had its roots in the mid 1960’s and continued, until the demise of the band Phish in 2004. This movement became a somewhat self-sustained subculture devoted to a musical experience. This movement supplied something of great importance to the American Collective Unconscious which has been strongly overlooked. It supplied a continuos exploration of abstract thought processes which are essential to the development of creativity within the mind, and this, done within a large collective of people for an extended period of time, kept alive within the larger American Collective Conscious an element of that abstraction which bares within it the potential of significant cultural growth.

The music was of prime importance to this whole experience, but it was not all of it. There was also a sense of community, a collective which traveled together and explored their lives in a space which was created by a culture which revolved around a perceived enlightenment through the medium of music. This collective experience had the potential to align time and space in a manner similar to that of meditations on the “astral realms” or the “Formative World” of Yetzirah in Kabbalistic cosmology. Perhaps one could argue here that to some degree, this was drug induced for many of the participants. This is true. However, how do drugs, in particular hallucinogens, effect the individual? They may induce curiosity, wonder, spontaneous delight or any experiencethat reveals the human spirit (see footnote) . In short, they may open individuals to being more receptive to that collective which exists beyond and within themselves.

What the above argument fails to look at is the intention of the participants (composer, performer, listener). People drink alcohol and/or do drugs in a multitude of settings while experiencing music on a regular basis (see your local bar). What was different about this collective of participants was how their intention and direction of thought created a culture of migrants on a supposed exploration of a lifestyle within the mainstream of society. Here it must be pointed out that there were many people who were profoundly effected by this experience and continued to pursue it without the use of drugs.  To elucidate a deeper significance to the Collective Unconscious within the North American continent in relationship to this discussion, I will point out the following: The American continent has a long history of migrant tribes of people. Until quite recently, there was a constant motion of Native American peoples who lived non-sedentary lifestyles following game and weather patterns throughout the shifting cycles of the year. This however, came to an end with the (forced) advent of reservation life in the late 19th century. It would seem this lifestyle had all but disappeared from the American landscape. However, this is not so. It could be argued that the American fascination with the car was a continuation of this mode of existence in. 

(footnote: I am not condoning the drug use in this statement as necessary to the musical experience. Furthermore, drug use may have quite the opposite effect in an individual for a period during their experience.  What I am describing is a potential, which was often achieved within this setting.)

Also, if we look at the constant construction/destruction of buildings (i.e. gas stations, buildings still in working order) within the US, we see a possible hint of the nature of flux and directive within the larger collective experience of cultures on this continent. What I am pointing to here is that there seems to be an innate quality within the land in America, through centuries of nomadic existence, not only amongst Native groups, but also of Europeans as they migrated West, to travel and be in a continuous state of motion. This continues until the present day.

Here I will ask a key question for the future of our collective musical experiences. Where today in America do you find an environment in which people may come together and experience abstract states of mind as a collective through music? Where is the environment in which a large collective of people can travel (migration) together throughout the country on a yearly basis (shifting seasons)with a collective experience that is evocative of and has the potential for a direct experience of the abstract “intuitive” realms of the mind? And most importantly, what kind of effect did the continued experiences of this collective of abstract participants have on the Collective Unconscious within America?

Collective Experience

Where is the environment in which a large collective of people can experience a music that is evocative of and has the potential for a direct experience of the abstract, “intuitive” realms of the mind?

This question is of key importance to the modern composer, and I would go so far as to say, in regards to the latter portion of it, that his survival is dependent upon it. I will state here that I have since the beginnings of my explorations of music always strongly gravitated towards the music of the 20th century for one specific reason: It is invocative of and sets in alignment time and space, and the Collective Consciousness of the listeners.  When I was in the beginnings of my musical exploration, Schoenberg and Debussy immediately spoke to me because of their ability to invoke this atmosphere. Their music was so potent that when faced with it, I could do nothing but engage it. There was no discussion (in the sense of chitchat) allowed while the music played, no wandering of the mind toward the mundane, but rather, an intense inward spiral was experienced that placed me in a direct confrontation/contemplation of my own existence. 

This experience is what has drawn me to the so called Avante Garde musics time and again. Whether on recording, or in live performance, these pieces invoke and align time and space on a nearly meditative level similar in quality to that of a priest (one who knows what he is doing), guru, or shaman who is setting forth in ritual. The reason for this, in my opinion, is that they are doing in essence the same action. That action is an alignment of a pulse within a collective of individuals, and this alignment prepares the collective for an understanding of a state of existence/being/mind which goes far beyond the bounds of the concrete mind, which is constantly enhanced and pandered to in the construct of our current culture. This experience of the abstract mind is therefore paramount, not only to the understanding of these musics, but also, to their continued existence within our society. If the participants (composers, performers, and listeners) lose or never acquire the ability to engage the abstract processes within their own mind, how are they ever to engage a music that has its origins in these realms? And, then even if they can “appreciate” these musics from an intellectual level, how are they to truly express their (the musics) depths which stream forth from the intuition?

This question is similar to a meditator who knows much about a practice theoretically, but has never done the work to engage the practice and embody the essence of it. Is it by the intellect alone that music is understood and communicated amongst a group? Aaron Copland commented on this same subject that “Music demands an alert mind of intellectual capacity, but is far from being an intellectual exercise. Musical cerebration as a game for its own sake may fascinate a small minority of experts or specialists, but it has no true significance unless its rhythmic patterns and melodic designs, its harmonic tensions and expressive timbres penetrate the deepest layer of our subconscious mind.” (Bonny 90-91)

There is an intangible understanding that one comes to individually and collectively which has very little to do with the intellect, and much to do with that essence of existence/mind/being which is an experience of the collective of the larger Human mind, or collective consciousness, and has been defined by the collective intention of the participants (composer, performer, listener). This understanding bridges intellect with intuition, and for any music to be understood and conveyed with clarity and depth, this bridging must be attained within firstly, the composer, secondly, the performer, and thirdly, the listener.  This brings us back to the original question of this discussion: Where is the environment in which a large collective of people can experience a music that is evocative of and has the potential for a direct experience of the abstract “intuitive” realms of the mind? These environments are in need of development at this time. Outside of a select few circles in major cities, I do not know that they exist sufficiently. Furthermore, are we (composers, performers, listeners) facilitating this experience as practitioners of the art which Beethoven once called “ahigher revelation than all wisdom and philosophy?” How do we begin to elucidate the necessity of this collective “experience” within our culture for musicians, performers, and composers?

Alternative Pedagogy

Composition and Improvisation

It has become increasingly necessary of both performers and composers in the current era to be adept in improvisation. Improvisation plays at least some role in almost every form of contemporary music including, jazz, rock, electronic and composed acoustic works. The arts of composition and improvisation are highly related; the skills of the improviser are innate in the composer and the reverse is also true. Furthermore, composition in its infancy is improvisation, and improvisation when fully matured is composition. The seemingly key difference between these two subjects lies in the time in which one has to go about preparing a work. The composer has the luxury of whittling away at a work for years if he wishes, while the improviser seemingly composes spontaneously without the grace of edits. This however, in regards to the improviser, is only partially true. Anybody who has ever known a serious jazz musician would know that improvisers spend years perfecting their craft, and as such, the editing process exists within improvisation as well.

What is hoped that we will see in the future is a more concise blending of these practices within Academic institutions. The beginnings of this have been established to varying degrees of success over the course of the last fifteen to twenty years. One attempt at this in particular that I will explore is George E. Lewis’s work done in the mid-1990’s at UC San Diego. In the book Arcana, a compilation of essays by several diverse musicians edited by John Zorn, Lewis discusses some of his course developments at this time. In particular, he makes note of his class 201B, which provides a pedagogical site for not only the development of improvisers, but for the articulation of multi-voiced creativity. (Zorn 94) Here, he notes that “students are challenged to combine critical methods, intercultural practice, and interdisciplinary experimentalism in an environment that , instead of subsuming the practice of improvisation as a subcategory of the Eurological notion of “performer,” explicitly centers improvisation, improvisers, and improvisative practice.” (ibid.) This class as he describes, begins as more of conceptual seminar than a traditional performance class. Along these lines, courses must be developed to fill what is a gap for composers within most academic curriculum.

Over time, I have found it ironic and of great interest to explore the course offerings of different specializations within Music Schools. For instance, if you were intent on doing an advanced degree in Music Education or Musicology, there are a large number of classes readily available and specifically oriented towards the work in those fields. Conversely, the typical offerings for a Composer include a Composer’s Seminar, and perhaps two to five other classes.  The notion is that composers will study theory from theorists, music history from musicologists, and so on, to fill out their studies. Though studying with specialists is of great benefit, it is fundamentally wrong for the composers. Composers need to study theory with other composers for the sole reason that our intention is directed towards a different end; an end which is creative, rather than strictly factual. Theory is an incredibly intuitive and imaginative subject for the composer who is adept in it. It is a gateway into the abstract poetic interplay of its constituents within the chromatic set, a process which will later yield the fruits of applied intuition, imagination, and intellect.

Beyond the study of the mechanics of theory, there should be an open discussion of conceptual works. Concepts, whether abstract projections or concrete pictures, often provide diverse and new directions for composers/improvisers in their explorations. They can also serve to give a depth of impact to a piece through their intention and the composer’s relationship with that concept. The works of others may also be explored through a discussion of concept and intention. For instance, in discussing specific works on Cage, would not a discussion of the IChing be in order, and how this and other systems similar to it can be a catalyst for the churning of the creative wheels in the mind? In studying Messiaen’s modes, would not a discussion on his concepts of symmetry and the ear be in order? And then furthermore, a testing of this concept through collective exercise amongst a group of composer/improvisers.

What I am pointing out is that the laboratory for intellectual exploration must also function as a studio for throwing paint on the wall. And further, this is advanced by the engagement of a collective of advanced minds who’s perspectives challenge each other, in the sense of pointing to multiple directions of equal validity. Composition is conceptual; color, tone, and further compositional choices proceed from this. Whether this happens intellectually or intuitively differs from piece to piece. For the composer, harmony may proceed as a stream of sound gracing the ear in a moment as he tries to relay the celestial pictures of the moon. What takes him moments, the theorist will toil over for years. In these statements, I do not intend to devalue the work of the theorist in any manner, I am simply saying that the process by which these concepts are explored differs and should differ in some key ways for composers and improvisers. In this way, the traditions of composition and improvisation have suffered a somewhat similar fate to that of exoteric religions; its practitioners have often been poorly instructed by people who themselves lack a sufficient manner of knowledge, and connection to the rich inner practices of the traditions of composers. A broadened curriculum which specifically engages composers with concepts and approaches akin to the creative process has therefore become necessary.

Curriculum Development

At present, there seems to be an increasing push within Universities for developing interdisciplinary curricula. This could be incredibly advantageous to the development of our culture as a whole, but specifically here, musicians. Through their exposure to and understanding of diverse fields such as World Religions, Psychology, Literature, Culture, and the Sciences, they will begin to understand what so many of the great composers of our lineage were striving towards and invoking within their music. Furthermore, an individual’s creative capacities can be heightened through exploration of these diverse areas. This in turn, may enrich and enhance the depths of the performer’s experience of life, which can then be translated into their offerings of performance to the larger collective. This curriculum would extend a certain amount of freedom to the students in the design of the course work to suit their interests in an unhindered, in depth exploration of their interests. They would be supplied with an atmosphere which allows them to engage their various interests while being required to uphold a high level of artistry as performers/composers. Through this, their art and their expression of life would be enhanced greatly. The ultimate goal of this curriculum is to develop a visionary capacity within students which allows them to continually expand both musically and philosophically throughout their career. This over time would have the potential to stimulate a cultural renewal of interest and reverence for the act of music as something beyond a shallow form of entertainment, poorly understood by both its listeners and practitioners, and would become reflective of an evolution of the broader human collective action in its supposed evolution.


The relationship between composer, performer, and listener is of great importance in the development, and continued evolution of a music. It provides a cultural context for the participants which enhances a collective experience. This collective experience is perhaps the life blood for the long term survival of any form of expression. As we move through the 21st century, this relationship must be fostered, and then directed within the larger collective culture toward musics that enhance and stimulate the higher faculties of the human being. Possibilities have presented themselves for various modes of expression, and perhaps directions for the current generation of composers to pursue. Through their pursuance of these directions, they may have the capacity to continue the stimulation of that abstract portion of the larger human collective which will in turn enrich our larger culture.

copyright schurgermusic 2007

Aside | This entry was posted in 20th century music, collective consciousness, composition, hippie scene, improvisation, music, music curriculum and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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