You may have heard or read my view that music is communication. Now I’m going to dig deeper. I go so far to argue that this form of communication is separate from language. We have this lovely claim that we share wide and far that music is a language, and it is a nice idea: it creates this idea of a universal community around music. But I don’t believe that’s the whole truth.
I argue against language because the more I learn about language itself, the more I learn how it separates us. I listened to a program on NPR about how Yiddish was used to create barriers: in a family, the parents didn’t want their children to learn or speak the language at all, and would use it to talk amongst each other about the things they wanted to keep secret, such as money. This idea was introduced to me months earlier and I couldn’t shake it. The philosopher and musician Jonathan Day often plainly states that language exists to keep secrets. The story of the Tower of Babel also references this.
Music communicates without these barriers. Notation and Western theory are a separate issue. Minor scales only make us think sad due to familiarity in culture: we need to remember the completely varying tonalities used throughout the world: quarter tones in Middle Eastern melodies, the widespread tuning system on Gamelan… rhythmic values having very different meanings: our mathematical organizations are not stronger in effect than Indian rhythmic cycles, just different. What is universal is that it has historically been a part of human life, regardless of culture. In Iraq, music was largely banned during the war, yet the people were aware of the negative effects of that and wanted it back.
I fundamentally believe that music has a communicative power stronger than language. That’s why I wouldn’t call it a language. There is a lot I’ve said in music that I simply cannot say in words. This is why I compose. These realizations drew me to the possibility of a project using the power of this communication: a keyboard-centered program on mental health.
Feeling Not Thinking will combine interpretations and improvisations on Bach’s Cello Suite IV in Eb Major (existing recordings of the Prélude and Gigue) with contemporary works related to topics of mental health. The spotlight piece being Alicia Jane Turner’s brand-new work for marimba and fixed electronics: Splinter, delivered last week. Other works that will cycle through the program include Samn Johnson’s it comes in waves, Stephanie Orlando’s 2 from big, 1 from small – a percussion solo with live electronics for pill bottles, Dave Maric’s Sense & Innocence, Guusje Ingen Housz’s Knock Knock, and Mirage pour Marimba by Yasuo Sueyoshi.
Why mental health?
I’ve suffered my own fair share of problems, and see it happening everywhere around me. I’ve cried at things, not knowing why, and feel inspired to create an environment where listeners can engage personally, with what’s going on in their life. I interpret the music my way, and the listeners can open up and feel the music in their way.
In other words: the individual’s experience with mental health varies drastically from an occasional nudge in one’s thinking to violent actions and harm elicited from significant imbalances and trauma. We are not consciously aware of many of these pathways of thought: perspectives consistently defined by our past, the critic based on only the beliefs and knowledge we have been exposed to, and even physical responses to mental stimuli. When we’re not fully aware of what we’re thinking (according to cognitive neuroscientists, we are only conscious of about 5% of our brain activity), it is certainly challenging to communicate our emotions through language alone. Perception, listening habits, interpretation, and the limitation of vocabulary factor into these communicative barriers. Music is an alternative, powerful medium for communicating these complex thoughts.
Sounds great. So what’s next?
Well to be transparent, aside from practicing, I haven’t worked it all out.
Here’s what I know: I have a couple performances over the coming months where I will be digging into the Bach improvisations. I’ve been exploring a few approaches, namely a harmonic/theoretical one, and a completely intuitive, almost spiritual one. I’ll be trying these in front of audiences to learn more about what approaches are most effective – my interest is in emotional effect.
The first is Emanation on February 16, 7:30 PM at Century Mallet. Chicago, come out!
Another is the Indiana Day of Percussion on April 4 where I will present this program paired with my Guided Improvisation clinic.
Here’s what I’m working on: I’m speaking with University professors, High School directors, and venue directors in nailing down dates for a tour, and a few one-offs. This is moving in the right direction, but I’m not in a position to make any public announcements. I’ve also submitted to a few festivals.
I recently got some sound advice about picking a project and sticking with it. Freelance life is full of one-offs, and the quality of a one-off is naturally not going to be as high as something developed, rehearsed and lived with over a long time. This is the program I’m committing to: certainly through the end of 2020, and perhaps into 2021 – although at this stage I don’t have ideas on what opportunities I would pursue after 2020.
Here’s what I haven’t done: I want to work on this program alongside a Psychologist and add a research component to it – to either validate the parts of these claims that are true, or determine whether they are measurable at all. People’s tastes and personalities differ vastly in response to music. I don’t have any contact with a psychologist right now.
I want to make this program a benefit, citing a recent article on icareifyoulisten, “Art for Art’s Sake: Steps to Prevent Tone Deaf Social Justice Concerts.” Music for a cause is great but doesn’t do anything on its own (besides raise awareness), without a call for action. I’ve mentioned this idea once, but haven’t taken any action or done the research: I want to engage and collaborate with mental health organizations – particularly local ones in each location I perform – and enroll them in this concept. A portion of the profit from these performances will go to them, and this will help make audiences aware of these organizations, encouraging involvement. Collaborating with organizations could bring audiences unfamiliar to contemporary classical music, or even the marimba, to the performances, and I hope to meet these people and learn about their experience.
If you are interested in hosting this program at a school, venue, concert series, etc. and/or have an idea to contribute to it, please do not hesitate to send me a note at: firstname.lastname@example.org
That’s the current state of Feeling Not Thinking. I just shared that without having it all worked out. Bold.