The Magic Flute Disillusionment
How far can I take charge of my own affairs, with the balance between myself – the inside world – and my interaction with the outside world? Can I reach out from the world that’s lodged in my head, into the world of others, which is lodged into their heads? Am I really able to communicate what I feel, think and believe?
The seemingly impossible act to communicate directly and freely between inside and outside myself was a very early experience for me. I remember when I was about six years old; I was allowed to stay up one evening to listen to Mozart’s ‘The Magic Flute’ on the radio. The prospect of this must have excited me so much, because I remember the whole day dragging on unbearably as I waited impatiently by the radio. Finally, yet disappointingly, a monotonous announcement emitted from the speakers, as if the weather forecast were being read: ‘the next item on the programme is a performance of Mozart’s Magic Flute.’ I was enraged, and protested: ‘But he can’t say it like this!’ However, when my parents asked how one should announce the scheduled programme, I surprised myself by shooting up from my chair, shaking my body uncontrollably, then turning bright red in the face, in an attempt to put all the excitement I felt during the whole day into these three words: ‘The- Magic- Flute’! The result was an eruption of laughter. And so, from that moment on, I knew somehow, that what we feel and think, and how we express it to others, are two very different worlds.
What is inside and what is outside thus becomes a fundamental question to me – not only for musicians, but also for all of us, whatever we do. But as a musician, I have learned that it is a central question for me. I play for an audience who exist outside of my mind, yet I aim to take them into my thoughts if I want to succeed. How can this be achieved? It can be done, and good performers prove frequently that it is possible.
The Mind Over Matter Myth
I shall begin with the opponent to my answer’s origin, (as I have discovered that failures are a clearer route to distinguish a cause, than in the preparations to prevent failure).
Many musicians believe that music emerges from the mind – to be more precise, from the imagination – and it is believed that what we imagine is projected, (in the case of a violinist) via our arms, fingers, bow or breath, and from there, via sound waves to the audience. This is not so! Although this neat concept is a fallacy, I remind myself of the equilibrium of duality I discussed in the previous chapter, as we must forgive our mind’s ability to deceive, as it is the mirage of intangible truth with which the loyal, deceptive mind searches to capture in this book – the creative spark). However, on the immediate practicality of playing a musical instrument, “mind over matter” does not work, and it has never worked in this way!
Why? Perhaps Gilbert Ryle can introduce this discussion, in ‘The Concept of Mind’, where he sees it like this:
The clown’s trippings and tumblings are the workings of his mind, for they are his jokes……Tripping on purpose is both a bodily and a mental process, but it is not two processes, such as one process of purposing to trip, and, as an effect, another process of tripping. Yet the old myth dies hard. We are still tempted to argue that if the clown’s antics exhibit carefulness, judgement, wit, and appreciation of the moods of his spectators, there must be occurring in the clown’s head a counterpart performance to that which is taking place on the sawdust. If he is thinking what he is doing there must be occurring behind his painted face a cognitive shadow- operation which we do not witness, tallying with, and controlling, the bodily contortions which we do witness. [my highlights]
Musicians are great believers in this ‘old myth’ of an internal process – an ‘inner hearing’ and ‘emoting’, which precedes actual playing. It is practically impossible to dispel it because common sense makes us experience the performance of music as coming from our imagination.
Some hundred and thirty years before Ryle and nearly two hundred years before contemporary research begins to confirm it, the twenty nine year old Arthur Schopenhauer concludes:
I say that between the act of will and the bodily action there is no causal connection whatever; on the contrary, the two are directly one and the same thing perceived in a double way, namely in self-consciousness or the inner sense as an act of will, and simultaneously as external brain-perception as bodily action.
Some years before this, Schopenhauer expresses it even more succinctly:
Resolutions of the will, relating to the future are mere deliberations of reason about what will be willed at some time, not real acts of will. Only the carrying out stamps the resolve; till then, it is always a mere intention that can be changed. [my italics]
Mental preparation, like inner hearing is, according to this, nothing but deliberation: something that can also be changed. But let us begin with something quite obvious to understand this treacherous area in more detail.
We all agree that playing music has something to do with listening, which is as central to music as looking is to art. Yet there are two forms: hearing and listening, just as there is seeing and looking. Hearing is what we do always, whether we pay attention or not. Listening however involves attention, and to go deeper still, there is also an internal version of listening – we are able to hear and make up sounds in our mind. Now, many musicians are convinced that listening to the sounds coming from the instrument as well as from the musical imagination makes it possible to impose and direct internally heard music onto body and instrument. Some very enthusiastic musicians even believe that inner hearing is all that is needed to bring good playing about. How then, do we listen, and how much does musical imagination, or the ‘inner singing’ as it is sometimes called, allow us to take charge of playing an instrument?
Turning up late to your own funeral
To begin with the overt form, which consists of listening to the notes we play, we are often told by teachers and ourselves, that actively listening to every note helps to detect and correct flaws before they disturb the performance. How is this possible? Simple commonsensical reasoning tells us an entirely different story. The problem is certainly vexing. Shouldn’t I need to have a sound before I can listen to it, in order to influence it? Shouldn’t I have to play before I can hear something? And so, does this mean that musicians begin their performance with a shot in the dark? Because this contradicts practical logic, surely it can’t be listening that makes me play a good, first note.
But the worst is to come! Music is a continuous flow of sounds, which follow each other at often very fast speeds. By the time I have listened to the first sound, already many other sounds have escaped my violin and filled the concert hall. Should I rely on listening alone, I would be always behind my playing.
And yet there is still another delay. In the second chapter we have followed a sound entering the auditory cortex. It is a complex process, and however fast the ear responds, it still takes time! A sound that goes through all the transformations in the ear has a journey to undertake. Many relay stations have to be passed before it is translated into a recognisable sound. In fact, the brain requires around 0.5 to one second of cortical activity to fully process a sound. Even the fastest response to a life-threatening sound, like that of an explosion near us, takes 0.2 seconds until the first involuntary reaction (a twitch of the muscles near the eyes) can be measured, so we will always turn up late to our own funeral so to speak. Now, even granting that a performer has developed a listening ability that is constantly at high alert, there are nevertheless still 0.2 seconds unaccounted for – and if somebody feels uneasy with this figure because they believe they possess a faster reaction time, they are missing the point here, because regardless of the speed at which you respond, there will always be a delay, and you will always be behind. Further still, the time required from hearing a faulty note to translating it into physical action, is far too long to be of any immediate help. We have to conclude therefore that listening, blocks a fluent performance, by counter-progressive brain activity concerned with what has already happened before we’ve even heard it. Relying on listening alone would endanger us, not unlike a driver who looks exclusively through the rear mirror – his past actions, and not his journey’s goal. So, considering that good performers play most of the time with perfect notes before they are able to hear them, it would seem that music has to take place elsewhere than in our ears.
As for the musical imagination, or inner hearing, a musician usually insists that music is not performed by listening to what we have already played, but by imagining what we are going to play before we begin. This is usually understood as a conscious act of the musical will, which the performer then transfers into body and instrument. Body and instrument are, in this context, understood as passive recipients to the ‘orders from above’ – the musical mind.
Having explored sounds that reach us from the outside world, we can now ask a question concerning sounds that come from within, and whether the brain has a certain degree of autonomy in this matter. Can we imagine a musical line at will and then impose what we have imagined onto body and instrument?
In the seventies of the last century, a shudder went through the intellectual world. It was provoked by a scientific experiment known today as the Libet-Kornhuber experiment, which states that subconscious brain activities precede consciousness by a third of a second. Here is neither the place to discuss it in greater detail, nor is it to consider the controversy sparked off by it. For our purpose, it suffices to point out that, according to this experiment, freedom of will seems to be a problematic concept. If it is true that brains initiate all action before the onset of conscious awareness, then we are not free to decide for ourselves. What appears as a willed, conscious decision is nothing but an after-effect (a kind of echo) of subconscious brain activities. This sobering insight causes enormous problems for musicians, who believe that performing music is a free willed, conscious act of the musical imagination. Playing an instrument must, like everything else, be entirely out of our conscious control. We play, if Libet and Kornhuber are right, first of all on a subconscious, automatic level. Only one third of a second later do we become consciously aware of what we are going to play or have already played. There seems to be a temporal disparity between what we do and what we think we are doing. If music emerges in us before we imagine it consciously, imagination has no immediate artistic value. The most we could say is that we give in to the subconscious brain and allow it to do whatever it wants. This hidden world, rather than our overt imagination, so it seems, is the driving force behind a performance. But does this mean we are automatons, rather than creative artists? Well, it needn’t feel like that if we are willing to shift from the now redundant mind over matter concept, to the creative nurturing of matter which the mind has surprised us with.
A conscious mind gathers no moss?
The fundamental power of the subconscious brain has only been acknowledged very recently. Previous generations considered the subconscious brain to be a remnant of a primitive past, which can be kept in check by our rational faculties. Nowadays, however, we know that the rational part of the brain is entirely dependent on the subconscious brain. Without it, no acts of cognition are possible. This is especially so, when we are involved with outside stimuli. All sounds from my violin go directly into the subconscious part of the brain. Here, they are scrutinised, amongst others by the amygdala and the hippocampus and only if necessary pass, via the thalamus (the central clearing house of the brain) into the part where conscious experience becomes possible. This is also true for imagined sounds, which emerge always from uncontrollable, hidden sources. We can then conclude, that subconscious actions precede conscious ones.
The cortical world is vastly autonomous. Brains are parsimonious in their contact with the outside world, but extravagant in creating their own world. There is a definite reason for this: survival. Should we rely entirely on conscious responses to outside stimuli, we would probably not survive the first few minutes. Survival requires speed, something that is not within the scope of conscious judgement. Thinking is cumbersome and slow, and we have to be thankful that nature has barred us from it – at least where it really counts.
What nature has given us instead are ‘memory banks’. This storage of past events must not be understood as definite places in the brain but rather as its ability to create vast nets of connections, a procedure that takes mainly place in the limbic system. By combining the powers of the amygdala (the part in our brain which tells us whether we should be afraid) and the hippocampus (in which the messages from the amygdala are linked to past experiences), the brain responds exclusively to stimuli from its memory banks. It acts thus entirely from within the subconscious limbic system, which is out of our reach. Brains hypothesise on what is already known and only then test this hypothesis on the hard facts of reality. Crudely expressed, they shoot first, and ask questions later.
Music, like everything else, is thus driven by past experiences and not by what we wish to do. Our wishes and what we imagine are memories clothed as willed action. We are always at the mercy of our limbic system.
Free will and artistic freedom seem thus not available.
What, then, is available?
Read the chapters of the book:
- The Ladies of Bundanon – Chapter 1
- Is The Earth Flat? – Chapter 2
- Turning up late to your own funeral – Chapter 3
- The Performer in the Stages of Rigor Mortis – Chapter 4
- Breathing dreams like air – Chapter 5
- The Celluloid Soldier – Chapter 6
- The missing leg – Chapter 7
- The mindless brain and the Sea Squirt – Chapter 8
- Your body is the enemy – Chapter 9
- Conclusion of Part One – Chapter 10
- The Magic Eye – Chapter 11
- A new world-material without being real – Chapter 12
- The artist’s longing – Chapter 13
- Ink to Paper – Chapter 14
- A portent black squiggle – Chapter 15
- The Sunflowers – Chapter 16
- God is Gay – Chapter 17
- Extra Science – Chapter 18
- The Aleph – Chapter 19
- Chained chaos, broken forms – Chapter 20
- Matter and Memory – Chapter 21
- A Leibnizian Universe? – Chapter 22