UNINTENTIONAL MUSIC: RELEASING YOUR DEEPEST CREATIVITY
BY LANE ARYE
PLEASE DO NOT REPRODUCE WITHOUT WRITTEN PERMISSION
A TASTE OF ONE MAN’S UNINTENTIONAL MUSIC
A good artist lets his intuition
lead him wherever it wants
– Lao Tsu
There was a winter chill in the air, though it was only October. Forty-five people sat close together on chairs and pillows at the Process Work Center in Warsaw, Poland. It was one of a series of classes on unintentional music. Someone turned on a video camera. As I looked around the room, I saw both old friends and new faces.
Tomasz (pronounced Tomash) was there for the first time. I liked him the moment I saw him. A fit, boyishly handsome man in his late forties, he had smiling eyes. He felt gentle to me, warm, unassuming. So I was a bit surprised when he spoke. I had asked for a volunteer to say something so the others could describe what they heard. Tomasz spoke in a loud, theatrical voice, making everyone laugh. That staginess did not fit my initial impression of him at all.
What I didn’t know was that I may have been the only one in the room who had no idea who Tomasz was. Something of a star in the Polish country music scene, he had recorded many records of his own songs, been on TV many times, and was the founder and organizer of an annual country music festival that had become a Polish tradition. Looking back, I’m glad I didn’t know any of that. Because when it came time for me to work with someone, Tomasz raised his hand. I’d like to think that I would not have been distracted by his fame, that I would have treated him like any other person. But I’m not sure. I may have tried to impress him, or to impress the class with my ability to work with him. Maybe not, but I’m glad I didn’t have to find out. For me, Tomasz was just another friendly face in the crowd.
The mood was playful as we moved to the center of the room. Although Tomasz spoke mostly Polish (and I, mostly English, with a translator between us), he jokingly peppered his speech with American phrases like, “yeah, man” and “cool, baby.” I was enjoying the game and thickened my New York accent. I asked whether he plays music. He said he’s a singer and plays guitar. “Alright,” I said, “me, too. What kind of music?” He replied, “If I had to name it, I’d call it folk. My own music. I started playing a little country….” The room broke out in laughter. I didn’t see what was funny, which made them laugh more.
Tomasz took out his “harp” (blues harmonica). I asked him to play something, saying that it did not really matter what he played, since I was listening for what he did not intend to play. He wiped his lip, scratched his nose, cupped both hands around the harp, put it to his lips and blew tentatively. A few notes sounded, softly, just for a second. After a moment of silence, he played a single note a bit louder, held it and bent it. Then, much louder, he played an up-tempo blues, bending lots of notes and tapping his foot to the beat. I know it’s ethnocentric, but it always surprises me how well Polish musicians can play the blues. The musicians in my band in Warsaw really had a feel for it. So did Tomasz. I had to stop myself from singing along. When he finished, the class applauded. In an exaggerated American accent, Tomasz said, “Yeah. You know what I mean, man. Tough life, ain’t it?”
I was curious about this continued joking. It was like Tomasz was playing a role, not being himself. I didn’t know what to make of it and wanted to keep the focus on the music, so I went on.
I had been most interested in the first, quiet chord – the one Tomasz had played before he really started playing. The rest of what he played had sounded intentional to me; but that soft, short blow was totally different. Tomasz smiled and nodded. “When someone expects you to say something, at the beginning it is….” He took a quick breath and held it. “I said the first word,” he went on. “I heard how it sounded. Then I knew.” I mentioned that that first, quiet sound he played was very different from the loud and theatrical sound of the first words he had said in class. Tomasz replied, “Yes, I knew then what I would say before I began. When I was playing, though, I was not certain at first. Later, I knew what I wanted to say.” I invited him to experiment with the kind of sound that had happened before he knew what he wanted to say.
Tomasz played a soft chord. Then silence. Then a soft note. He said it was soft because he was uncertain. I encouraged him to explore that soft, uncertain sound. He played a few more notes, then hit a “wrong” note. It was the first time he played a note outside the blues scale he had been using. This made him stop and look at me. I encouraged him to go on with more “wrong” notes. He started to make weird sounds with his harp on every in-breath, each time slowly exhaling without playing. This breathing created a structure. He was using the exhale as a way to keep a slow beat and to frame each experimental sound. He stayed within this form until, at the end of one phrase, he accidentally exhaled into the harmonica. Out popped a few notes that had no melody and broke the rhythm he had established. Tomasz made a face. “It was so nice until then,” he said. “I didn’t want that sound. It was not supposed to be there.”
I said I was interested in the sounds he does not like. He replied, “They’re too simple. It can’t be that way.” Why not? “It’s plebeian.” Putting his hand over his mouth as if he understood something, he said, “It must be art. Real art. I have to feel it is real, true. It should connect with my emotions. That other sound was schoolish.” He wrinkled his nose. “Like a child who takes a violin in his hands for the first time. Accidental. It’s an accident. It doesn’t fit any structure.”
I had already noticed Tomasz’ inclination to stay within a structure. His blues fit a form. The soft notes fit into a scale and the phrases had a beginning, a middle, and an end. Even when I had recommended experimenting with the “wrong” notes, he had done so in a structured way.
“That’s right,” I said. “You like structure. And that’s good. But you are also interested in art. Truth, actually. And I wonder whether there could be something true in that accidental thing, something that is not included in your structure. Maybe truth is coming from another part of you that you are not in touch with yet.”
“Yes,” he said. “I know that’s right and I don’t want it. Because it is a worse side of me.”
I didn’t know exactly what he meant, but went on. “You think it is a worse side of you. But since you’re interested in truth, why not let that ‘worse’ side play? Just for five minutes. You can always go back to playing the ‘nice’ part.”
Tomasz took a deep breath. He hesitantly put the harp to his lips, put his hands down, raised the harp again, lowered it and said “Blah!” He smiled, tried again and stopped again. I asked what was happening. He said, “It is necessary to blow.” He took a deep breath, cleared his throat, inhaled, puffed out his cheeks as if he would blow and said, “It shouldn’t be great, right?” “No,” I said. “It shouldn’t be. That’s the point.”
Tomasz immediately put the harp to his lips and blew one quick chord. Then he played the first line of “Oh Suzanna” in a very simple way. Then played some random notes. Some low, some high. I asked him which of all that was the “worst.” He said, “The fact that I don’t control it. I am not the master. It irritates me because those are not my things.” I wondered aloud whose things they were then. I asked him to play like that again and, at the same time, imagine someone who would play that way. He knew already. He said that a child, about five years old, would play like that. What it was like to be five? Tomasz said it had been painful for him. I gently asked whether it would be OK to say a bit about what was painful? He said, “Those are things I have put in order somehow. Accepted. I can speak about them easily.”
I said, “You have an incredible way of putting things in order. It is a beautiful thing about you.” Tomasz looked touched, like I had seen him. I went on. “Your ability to put things in order is an important quality in your personality, and in your music, too. I imagine that the five-year-old did not have that ability yet.”
“He had sensitivity,” Tomasz said. “I feel a potential, a creative potential there. I am limited to constructing things. It is difficult for me to release a real creativity.”
“That is the point we’re at right now,” I said. “You have a way of constructing forms that are ordered. But, like you’re saying, you get blocked in that moment when you could get out of those forms and into really creating something.” Tomasz nodded in agreement. “And in that moment,” I continued, “those unintended sounds that you hate could be helpful. The ones that break your form. That five-year-old has a lot of creative potential.”
“Yes,” Tomasz said excitedly. “Because, you know, he hears sounds in a different way. He gets to know them for the first time. In a fresh way. Yes….” Tomasz took a deep breath. “You touched. You touched something.”
“So maybe you can let him play something.”
Tomasz looked distressed. He scratched his head, then shook it. “No,” he said. “I’m not prepared to do that yet.”
“Yet,” I said. “That means you will be able to do it later?”
“Yes. I’m getting closer to it. I know I’m in a process. I’m getting closer.”
“I’m not going to force you to do anything,” I assured him.
“I’m afraid,” he said. “I’m afraid to release emotions that are very deep. I would despair. Well, I am not sure if fury is stronger or despair.”
“That sentence,” I observed, “is the adult trying to order whether the feeling is fury or despair. The five-year-old just has emotions and does not wonder what they are. He just has them and expresses them.”
“But, you know,” Tomasz said, “ when you let out emotions at that age, things are not so smooth.”
I could have asked what had happened when he had let out emotions as a child, but I decided on a different route. “I hear you backing off, so I am not going to push you into anything,” I repeated. “But I’d like to ask you something else. You said you are not ready yet. That means that later you might be. I wonder what will be different later.”
“It would be the same.”
“Then why later?”
“If I would be in this group for some time. If I knew people….” Tomasz looked down at a woman sitting on the floor. They both smiled. He kneeled down with his arms open and asked, “May I?” She responded warmly and they hugged. “You looked at me so nicely,” he told her.
“How did she look at you?” I ask.
“Warm. I got support.”
“That touches you.”
“Women have supported me my whole life.” He looked pensive, then continued. “But I don’t want that now. If she supports me, I will run away from myself and into her.”
“Does that mean,” I guessed, “that your wish to have the group’s support is also not good for you? That you need to do it anyway, with the support or not?”
Tomasz paused for a long time, put a hand on the back of his neck and smiled. “Yes,” he said slowly. “I just don’t know what is real. First I produce a sound and later a sound pulls me. I don’t know when I am true.”
“You don’t know me,” I started. “You never met me before. You have no reason to trust me. But in my experience, the things that happen beyond our intentions when we play are real. In the moment, those unintended sounds are outside of your form. But they are coming from somewhere. I’m guessing that they are trying to teach you a new form. You don’t have to do it now. You don’t have to do it at all. Or you can do it when you are alone at home. Or you can do it now. It is up to you. I just want to put that little seed inside of you.”
Before I could even finish my sentence, Tomasz blew a note. Then another. I said, “OK, you decided to do it now. Go for it.”
He played a very soft note. Then a loud bent note. Then more, getting louder, faster. It sounded expressive, explosive, angry. Then he kneeled down on the floor. I asked what had happened. He said he felt weak.
I said, “OK. You played something that was not weak. Then you felt weak. So now play something that is weak.”
Tomasz started to play very softly. The notes were breaking up. It sounded imploring, aching. Like a baby crying, moaning. It got louder again and faster. Then softer again and slower. I don’t have words to describe the music he played. It was blues, but not in any form I had ever heard. I just know it went right through me and made me shiver. Tomasz stopped. He wiped his eyes and nose of tears and snot.
“Real,” he whispered.
IN HIS OWN WORDS
Tomasz’s work really touched me. More than that, Tomasz himself moved me. I was impressed by his courage, by his ability to go deep, and especially by his realness. What may not have come across in the description was the authenticity of what he did. Sure, at the start of the work he was fooling around. He seemed to be putting on some kind of act. But soon afterwards it became very real. He never jumped into something just because I suggested it. At each moment he questioned whether what he was doing was right for him, whether it was true in that moment. Even when he was saying that he did not want to let the “worse” side of him play, that was real. In fact, it would not have been authentic if he had just done it, against his better judgment or against his will. He went step by step, staying close to his feelings. And when he finally did decide to let that other side of him play, he totally let go and went with whatever happened. Not only could you hear the difference. You could feel it in the air.
That authenticity made me want to have more contact with him. We arranged to meet and jam. We had a great time sipping scotch, singing old songs, and listening to each other’s originals. By then my friends had told me who he was. This piqued my curiosity about whether our work together had any impact on his music-making. About a month after the session, we met again and talked about just that. Here is a sample of the things he said that evening. If some of the language sounds a bit awkward, it’s because we were speaking a combination of English and Polish, with no translator.
I asked Tomasz about his general impressions of the work.
“I was trembling at first because of the group. Someone recognized me. I felt I had to be good to confirm my status. I was frightened. It was like an exam. I felt I had to show people what I know, what I can do. You helped me. I saw you were friendly and open to me. I could be playful with you. At the start, it was kind of a game, but then I gave up the game and started to work seriously with the sound.
“I blew and the sounds appeared. I heard it but didn’t control it. It was very irritating. It had to be good. It had to have a melody. It sounded childish. I felt I had to show you the highest possibilities of my art. But you let me play this way. You let me play my inside. I know I started crying with the harmonica.
“Before, when I was playing the blues, it was only a type of song. Blues. But when I was playing at the end, it was more sad, more tearful. I found more feelings inside of it. I remember the taste of it. Because it was mine. Not an African American sitting on a dock in Louisiana somewhere. It was mine. My sadness. My blues.
“There is a kind of border. I sometimes balance on it. On one side there is me: educated musician, singer, composer, lyricist. The commercial me. On the other side – sometimes I am on the other side – the real creation, the real truth happens on the other side. It’s not that I’m lying when I am commercial. But that first side is craftsmanship. On the other side – where the truth is, where the real feelings are -there is a kind of creation. It’s like Zen archery. Shooting happens by itself. It shoots itself. It is the same with that kind of creation. It appears. It appears without my conscious thinking. That’s what I’m looking for. I have only had a few moments like that in my life. But that is what happened in our work together. It played itself.
“After our session, I remembered the strange emptiness of it. And I knew that when I would try to do it again, I would have to call back that emptiness. How to describe it? I was clear. Something like I forgot about the scale, about harmony. I forgot my musical knowledge. My criticism. There was only sound.”
I asked Tomasz what had helped him to get to that point.
“You told me with your body, with your eyes, with a smile, that nothing bad will happen. That you accept everything. You told me, ‘Show me everything you want to. It doesn’t matter what will be because everything will be good and proper. Everything that you will do is important and has its own value.’ That was a kind of message. I remember your eyes. I remember my embarrassment when I played that wrong note. I looked at you in a quick glimpse. Then I looked in your eyes, but very deeply. I think I was trying to check if you were serious, if I can trust you. You were waiting for me with kindness. That was the first step for me. You told me, ‘everything you do will be good.’ Unconditional acceptance. As a result of that, I was able to give that acceptance to myself. I am used to something else. When I am good, they treat me right. When I am bad… you know. But you told me, ‘There is no old rule now. Be yourself. I accept this.’ That was a relief.”
I asked whether his music had changed since our work. At first he wasn’t sure. He had not given it much thought.
“I’m not sure it happened in that very moment, but in my last concerts during the last month, I feel more calm. Something made me more sure of myself. Oh, I can build self assurance artificially. For a long time I behaved like that. But now I feel it is more true. I had a TV concert two weeks ago. In the past, in such situations, always I felt very nervous and was thinking what would happen and how it would be. This time I just made the program for the concert, went there and played. That was all. I felt very calm. I’m not sure it is a result of our work, but maybe yes.
“I also started to be more brave in concert. There have been a few moments in concert where I started to break the forms. Using my voice in a different way. I started to interpret the songs more. I caught a few moments that fly out of the structure. They are still within the composition but I treat them more easily. Not conventionally. It goes without my consciousness. I let myself be more elastic. An unintentional ornament. I sing the old song, but with fresh notes. Maybe only a couple of times in a song, but it is fresh. I let myself do something out of the rules that I used before. I gave myself the right to treat notes more freely. I like it.”
What about his compositions, I wondered. Had he written any songs in the past month?
“Yes, of course! I wrote two songs I really like. You touched something there. I didn’t realize it started to work. It is like a clock hanging on the wall with the pendulum standing still. You moved it. You told me, ‘Why not play with sounds?’ I said, ‘I can’t play stupid tones. I have to play the right tones.’ You told me, ‘Why don’t you treat music like fun, playing with the tones?’ So I started to play squeaky, strange sounds and tones. I hated them at the beginning. I am a serious musician. I have no time for stupid tones. Later, I found it interesting. I think that was very important for me. It was a kind of possibility.
“Maybe that is why the last two songs I wrote appeared as a result of playing, as a result of fun. For the first one, I used an Indian harmonium, a squeezebox. It makes a solid background with one chord. Because there are only two tones – the fifth and the tonic – you can use any scale. I sat down with this text I had written and started to play the squeezebox. It went so easily. I sang it from beginning to end, the first time. Usually I treat composing rather seriously. I build something, make it. But this was so natural, obvious, evident. I didn’t put up borders or limits. I didn’t think about forms. There were no rules. Only fun. And I really like the song.
“In the other song, I used my guitar in a different way than I used to. I always use triads, chords with three tones, and make a structure with a basis of three or four chords. This time I used chords with only two tones, the tonic and the fifth, repeated in octaves. It’s simple. I use the same fingering but in different positions on the neck of the guitar, with very small variations. It amazed me that I can do it in this way. Because I moved beyond my own structure in composition. It’s like I changed the rules. It’s not that I planned this. No. It’s just how it played. It played itself. Usually I try different ways to work with a text or music. But this time, like with the squeezebox song, it just wrote itself. I felt it happened outside my consciousness. That was a special kind of fun.”
I asked whether this kind of fun was similar to his playfulness at the beginning of our work.
“The fun that happened in my songs is different from the funny one at the start of class. That was a funny person made by me. That was not a real one. It was the clown. I know my clown. He is made for the other people. To make them laugh and make them treat me right. It’s for sale. These two songs, though, are not cheating. I know that they are the truth. I, myself, had fun writing them. It was not that I made someone else have fun. I didn’t think of others. I was glad to sing them, to play with the notes, with the words. I know that when I’ll sing the squeezebox song, everyone will be laughing and it will be fun for them, too. But more important for me is that it was fun for me.
“There are two ways of creating: touched by Apollo or touched by Dionysus. Dionysus is this one I am talking about. With fun. Without thinking about it. Without heavy, hard work. Just like this,” Tomasz said, snapping his fingers.
IDENTITIES, EDGES, AND GETTING OUT OF THE BOX
Tomasz identified himself as being a professional musician – which meant, for him, playing well, being an artist. It was important for him to know what he wanted to say with his music before saying it. There is nothing wrong with that. In fact, I wish more musicians would care about what they are saying instead of just producing a bunch of notes. But sounds that did not go along with Tomasz’s identity showed that the dreaming process was stirring his soup.
Those uncertain, out-of-tune, out-of-control tones were so irritating to him. “Plebeian,” ”schoolish,” and “childish” were words he used to judge and put down the strange sounds. Tomasz would much rather have controlled everything and kept the music within a known structure. I was excited, though, about these “mistakes” that did not fit into any form, especially when I heard how adamantly he dismissed them. His strong reaction was a good indication that something important was hiding in that “childishness.”
One of the striking aspects of the session with Tomasz was that the work seemed to stall a few times. He stopped and would not, or could not, go on. For instance, he did not want to let what he called the “worse side” of himself play. He raised and lowered his harmonica a few times, smiled, tried to start, stopped again, made strange faces and sounds. In process work we would call this being on an edge. An edge is the limit of your identity; it is the limit of what you can do, the limit of what you know. On one hand, Tomasz did not want to play because he did not like that “worse side” of himself. But, he also could not do it, because he did not have the slightest idea of what kind of music that other part of him would play. It was so far away from anything he knew, that he must have felt like he was staring out into a vast nothingness. Tomasz’s strange behavior was more than understandable – even typical – given the circumstances.
Tomasz eventually did play something, which he said was music like a child would play. Then he came to the next edge. Although he said that the five-year-old held the key to the real creativity that Tomasz longed for, he would not let that kid play. At such moments, it is important to be gentle but firm. Be gentle in the sense that you should not push yourself (or another person) over the edge. Don’t force yourself to do something that is not right for you in the moment. Edges are useful and should be treated with respect. Without them, we would not know who we are. But edges also limit our wholeness by cutting off parts of ourselves that do not go along with our sometimes narrow identities. So be firm in your awareness. Don’t forget that you are on an edge. Stay there and discover everything you can about it. Because that edge is the place of growth, both musically and personally.
I met a visual/performance artist today who knows nothing about process work. When I told her about this book she said, “Mistakes are where the exciting things happen in art. But there’s a certain amount of bravery involved. They take you to places in your soul where you don’t always want to go.” Tomasz was standing at the gate to one of those places. When he summoned his bravery and stepped in, though, he found it was not as terrible as he had feared.
That evening in class, the five-year-old taught Tomasz how to play with deep feeling. Possibly more important for Tomasz’s work as a musician, though, the child got him out of his box, out of his structure. That boy knows how to listen in a different way, to hear sounds as if for the first time; he has what Zen Buddhists might call a beginner’s mind about music. It is not surprising, then, that Tomasz compared the experience to Zen archery and recalled the emptiness, the clearness, the music playing itself. This state, this quality of listening, breathed new life into Tomasz’s music. The blues was different than he had ever played it. His old songs became elastic and fresh. He found new ways to play his guitar, to write songs. What Tomasz had thought of as childish and unworthy of his talent turned out to be a divine child with a whole new approach to music.
How can it be that after feeling and expressing such deep emotions in class, Tomasz played with such fun and ease at home and in concert? Do those experiences have anything to do with each other? Remember that Tomasz identified himself as an educated and serious musician. He worked hard at crafting and building his compositions. Letting a melody play itself, letting a song write itself, went against his normal way of seeing himself and making music. I asked Tomasz about this. He told me, “When you are a child, parents give short sentences that lie inside you for a long time. For me, it was, ‘Nothing comes easily.’”
In essence, Tomasz was hypnotized by this sentence at an early age, and it became rigidified into a belief system that kept him locked into his “normal” way of thinking, playing, and composing. Such belief systems lie at the foundations of our edges, keeping the walls in tact, keeping us in our place. If “nothing comes easily” and everything good comes from hard work, then it makes sense that Tomasz would look down on melodies that appeared effortlessly, like gifts from the wine god.
Luckily, the five-year-old remembered those magical times before that unfortunate sentence existed. When Tomasz thought about being small, he remembered the pain, the anger. But perhaps there was another part of that child as well – the original joy, the unbridled playfulness, the time when everything came easily. No, it was not surprising that Tomasz could now write fun-filled songs. But thinking that fun was the point of his process would trap us in yet another box.
Remember that Tomasz did not know what would come out if he let the child play. “I am not sure if fury is stronger or despair.” He was trying to name the experience in advance, in the same way that he liked being certain of what he wanted to say before he played. Later, though, something different happened. Music came out fast and furious, until weakness made him sink to his knees. When he followed the weakness, he played the tearfulness inside him. Tomasz had become a Taoist, able to move fluidly from one emotion to the next and back again. It could have been fury or despair or joy or humor. He got out of the way and let it play itself, whatever “it” was. This is why the music was real, not a product of his thinking or an artful interpretation of a pre-existing construct. It was a fluid expression of his moment-to-moment experience.
“I remember the taste of it. Because it was mine.”
- Pick up your instrument and test it before starting to play. Or hum a note just to test your voice before starting to sing.
- Notice the quality of this music that happens before the “real” music begins.
- Try playing something, anything, with this same quality.
- Is this different from the way you normally make music?
You can do this same exercise with any medium. For instance, pick up your brush, charcoal, pen, or pencil and test it before you start to paint or draw. Or test your balance or your weight on the floor, or make random movements before you start to dance. Or test your computer or pen by writing random words before really starting to write. Then continue the exercise in your chosen medium.