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Clement Jewitt
Category: Improvisation

Musicmaking and Healing the Breach

I – Mythmaking

In the eons long life of the world soul, each great revolution on the axis mundi corresponds to an age in the slow working out of the destiny of our own ancient but still young species. And we find ourselves now at the edge of a new circum-vivification, mythos, noumenon, world view, opening up to our as yet uncertain gaze.

In this upcoming age we hope to find a healing of that great psychic rift, collective as well as individual, which has reached its greatest expression in the European culture which now threatens to dominate the world. I refer to the tremendous split in our culture which was given clear expression in the pact tacitly formed between the Church on the one hand, as self perceived guardians of learning during the long night of the middle ages, and Descartes on the other hand, as representative of the new urge towards secular intellectual exploration.

The new scientific paradigm would be allowed to examine, analyse, all matters material, leaving everything non-material in the hands of the religious authorities. From this separation there developed the denial by science of all that could not be measured, and from the dominance of that world view, the marginalization of the unseen world, the spiritual. This sundering of what is at root indivisible, wholly interconnected, appears as much in us, in our individual psyches, as in our collective culture.

It is a deep sickness at the heart of us all, now, though, becoming more commonly visible, as personal and also cultural wound. Since there is no sharp division between the ages, no clear cusp, developing strands of the new manifest like tender roots of the about-to-be world tree, young but strong, interlaced with the old crabbed woody anchors of the soon-to-be superseded. The last century has manifested, first isolated, then more and more examples, of individual strivings towards that healing, in the arts and practices of inner care of Self and Soul, outer care for Mother Gaia.

It is all one: as above, so below, as the saying runs, means that each act or happening of connecting, re-joining, the formerly split within us has its parallel in the outer world. The workings of homeopathic medicines exactly illustrate this, pointing to the fact that every energetic function or dysfunction within us has its precise parallel somewhere else in the world, in other living beings or in non-living materials.[1]

*           *           *

Can we explore further the meaning of that rift, which we feel to be connected to our deep sensitivities? Where does it come from? Can we find its essence in the world as it is?  Or in the privacy of our psyches?

One route towards understanding is through mythology. But first we must clarify the meaning. There is a common usage of the term 'myth' which is pejorative. Myth is, in the media and in unconsidered speech, that which is unreal, perverse. I am refusing that definition, which I consider to be an outcome of the split, the breach, we are considering. Myth here is the process by which ‘… men everywhere have sought to relate themselves to the wonder of existence’,[2] a vision of the divinity in which we live. This is as true for the small boy deifying his football hero as it is for the acknowledged spiritual master, whose myths may be beyond our ordinary comprehension.

 Joseph Campbell delineated the homogeneous mythology of the ancient, oriental and early occidental worlds, where

Millenniums have rolled by with only minor variations played on themes derived from God-knows-when. Not so, however, in our recent West where … an accelerating disintegration has been undoing the formidable orthodox tradition, and with its fall, the released creative powers of a great company of towering individuals have broken forth: so that not one, or even two or three, but a galaxy of mythologies … must be taken into account in any study of the spectacle of our own titanic age. (op cit)

In modern Western civilization we pursue ‘the centering and unfolding of the individual in integrity’. We create our own individual variations on the themes of life’s journey. The formerly dominant sphere of theology has been supplanted by 'a totally new type of non-theological revelation' which has come from literature, secular philosophy and the arts, and has become 'the actual spiritual guide and structuring force of the civilization.' (op cit) Here are the sources of our myths: the poetic imagination as prophetic utterance; music as the art nearest to the divine; literature as descriptor of cultural possibilities and scrutiniser of the soul.

And so the great literary heritage of the Western world shines in our collective consciousness as illuminations of who we are, what we believe to be the essence of how our lives are lived at some more than mundane level. From Arthur’s court and the Grail legend; through the unconscious chivalry of Don Quixote; the anguished stasis of Hamlet’s self doubt; the Faustian legend of possible transcendence of avaricious self absorption through punitively costly bargains; the penetrating psychological perceptions embodied, particularly, in the works of the great nineteenth century Russian novelists; to the Joycean streams of consciousness and whatever coming after him will also capture the mythic imagination.

In music, great cathedrals of sound have been erected within the western polyphonic tradition representing the spirit of each age. Bach’s soaring aspirations towards a transcendent Christianity; Handel’s confrontation of newly becoming aware audiences with the power of his invention, the oratorio; Mozart the master of kaleidoscopic half shades of emotion, prefiguring the following century when man the all-possible was delineated by Promethean Beethoven. And on into the twentieth, the century of fragmentation, full of differential leadings, perhaps, as Rudolph Steiner thought, the prelude to a new synthesis. All represent aspects of the western psyche at the edge of the humanly possible. All the strands that make up the western collective soul are represented and reinforced by performances of the great musical works.

Another function of myth is in the prescription of a moral order:

In Christian Europe, already in the twelfth century, beliefs no longer universally held were universally enforced.  The result was a dissociation of professed from actual existence and that consequent spiritual disaster which, in the imagery of the Grail legend, is symbolized in the Waste Land theme.     (op cit)

The common experience of many in the modern Western world, of growing up with an anguish of alienation from the universe, attests to this split.

Leonard Shlain in a recent book[3] argues persuasively that the invention of writing in general, and the abstraction of that into the alphabet in particular, was instrumental in encouraging the development of left brain thinking. He points to this as a major factor in the rise of the masculine dominated culture we now feel is in process of supplantation, or augmentation. Alphabetic writing is linear and abstract, requiring the left brain skills of precise visual focus and the analytical mode of thinking. We had split ourselves in two, given honour to the new and powerful tool, and relegated to the darkness, the shadow side of our culture, and our psyches, all that was holistic, non-linear, intuitive. We projected that onto those who most readily manifested those qualities, punitively: women. 

So we have been living a lie, and also denying the source of our nourishment. Double jeopardy.

But these fractures enabled by their very presence possibilities of intellectual development, of knowledge which can be symbolically expressed, embodied in the scientific world view. As is well known, this has at its core a fundamental dissociation between observer and observed. Much of great value has come from this, but nevertheless the attitude exemplifies humanity in the great divorce of spirit and soul from materiality we are here contemplating. 

And so arise the modern arts and therapies of psychology and psychiatry, needed to help heal this breach in the fabric of our being. And now at the beginning of a new century and millennium, there is a rapidly growing perception of the value of sound, and music, as energies wonderfully proficient in the task of bringing into connection and harmony that which has been torn asunder. When we talk, there is division: the speaker of the message, and the auditor. Words define boundaries, separate. There are two directions, from and to. When we collectively sing, or sound instruments, there is no ‘message’ in the verbal sense, there is ‘only’ the sound, produced by all, heard equally by all, tones transporting the verbal meaning into the inner-ness of what the word alone merely delineated. There is only one attitude: the duality of from and to is transcended by the unity of all the group in the sounding moment.[4]

*           *           *

If myth defines the boundaries of what is truly human, a mirror which shows us where we are, and therefore where we may strive towards, then the nature of our own myths will be contingent on our own inner, psychological/spiritual growth, Jung’s individuation process.

Under the old Sumerian/Anatolian originated stasis, consequent on the invention of agriculture, where life was lived collectively under received certainties, the idea of individuation could not exist. People were homo sapiens sapiens indeed, but remaining harmoniously attuned to what we now, divisively, analytically, call ‘nature’, mentally separating off ourselves. 

But in this Western world, where the idea of individuation has now its time, we perceive, and strive to come to terms with, the fact of differential growth among us. This means that my current mythology may be your clear vision, or the reverse. As we continue to grow, our perceptual boundaries widen. At those widened boundaries are fresh mysteries, requiring fresh mythmaking to provide something to grasp where rational thought cannot yet apply, and to re-create the Grail vision, the attractor towards the new goal for our spiritual journey. For feeling, not thought, is primary: we need imagery, not abstractions, to impel us on in our whole being.

That path of individuation, untrodden for each of us who set out along it, has its own excruciating rites of passage, expressed in legions of literary works (Shakespeare, Thomas Mann, James Joyce, and more recently William Golding, Robert Pirsig, to mention but a few), in music (Berlioz comes to mind, and Stravinsky), and in the visions of generations of painters and poets striving to elevate personal angst into the universal.

The following poem was conceived more than a decade ago, a time when I was woken up to the terrible rent in the fabric of my being, and beginning to perceive that that was (and is) not just my own tragedy, but endemic in the culture:

I weary of lonely light years voyaging
To the far edge of imagination
In search of reality in truths
Which did not touch me.

In payment is the price
Of re-entry to the human race;
For all the loss of shared experience
 And the ways of touching 'strangers' — all our kin.

Ask then shall we, from these unlooked for crossings
  our  orbits  in  this,  life's  galax
(Each high parabola overcharged)
 Careen away, decay?

Or, greatly fearing,
Suffer the sliding turning moment,
The terrible slingshot seizing us fast
Which hurls us to ourselves, and to each other?

*           *           *

This article is about one of the modalities in which, in small groups, concerted action springing from positive mutual regard leads to collective experience of the numinous, communal touching of the divinity which is in us, and in which we are. These are reflections on that form in which (o miraculous day!) I encountered the shared experience of the divine: group musical improvisation, a microcosm of life, and therefore a therapeutic environment for change.

Effort is required to achieve the depth of mutuality and trust wherein the numinous can appear, riding on the sounds and silences communally created: only sufficient time spent together, working to truly hear each other, can work this miracle. And the rightness of place, as well as time, also plays it’s part.

Such music making has nothing to do with virtuosity: all of us are innately musical, whether ‘trained’ or not. The purpose in such groups is to transcend or bypass the ego in order to find the soul’s purposes, a tender flower each one of us has in the recesses of our hearts. The yearnings there may be so sensitive that there are no words soft enough to express them. But deep longings can be expressed musically, wordlessly, within the holding crucible of a trusting group.

So if we can accept that we are our own myth-makers, that myth-making is the process by which we define ourselves, then when we are gathered in the developed improvisation group we are myth-making via the collective engagement with sound actions, which are simultaneously within the structure and part of it, the container and what is contained. We redefine ourselves, or in James Hillman's phrase, we are soul making.

The myth involved here, I suggest, is precisely the view from each and every pair of eyes, the hearing in every pair of ears, and the feelings both given and received in every heart. And that sensing, feeling, is of ourselves as and in the group, in full flow of sound and balancing stillness of silence, perceived and contained in an aura of numinosity. We are not our ordinary selves. We have found connections between us which we have not experienced before. Not love in the common sense, but something more impersonal, though as profoundly moving, as deeply felt, and unobstructed by the projections of ego. Is this the true divine unconditional love? 

When such work gels in this way we achieve what Mircea Eliade describes as an irruption of the sacred into the profane: that point of irruption is the hierophany.[5] We become that hierophany. We are, temporarily, a pantheon: we embody our own collective mythical event. This at its fullest expression is something so profoundly meaningful in the deepest, most embodied sense, that us ordinary mortals can bear it only briefly. We must, shortly, leave it: there is no appeal. But when we leave and return to 'ordinary' profane life, we nevertheless carry the memory of where we have been, what has touched us in those small but infinitely large hours. This is our myth, our defining marker: we want to go there again: it points to where we wish to be.

II – Sensing

What actual perceptual possibilities do we bring to collective soul making activity, enabling conscious awareness of the experience? In group musical improvisations there is naturally hearing, but beyond that other senses play their part. Smell, and possibly taste, no more than in any other group situation, subliminally or even consciously inform us about the emotional states of our fellows, part of our knowing the extent to which trust may be given in the situation. Vision and the tactile sense, however, have more direct roles, as has proprioception.

In the flow of active participation, as well as listening to what sounds others are making, we also look at them, against the background of where we are working. We read facial expressions and body language, clues to the trajectories of supportive or interpolated sounds, data for our judgements on the placings of our own contributions, supporting the information from the sounds flowing all around.

The tactile sense, clearly, is part of the way we are able to play instruments. We feel our fingers on the keys, down the pipe, or on the strings and bow. This becomes unconscious as we advance our skills, necessarily, so that precise and rapid physical movements are removed from the inefficiency of conscious control. It is though, I believe, also part of the way in which making music enhances our sense of well being, via the joy of movement: enhanced when within the mutual support of the trusting group.

There are also internal sensations. The movements of muscles and joints as we bodily express the flows of sound, and the changes in breathing required by our alert state in general, and the needs of singing in particular, all are stimulants for our proprioceptors. In fact while making music we tend to breathe with the rhythms, whether or not we are singing or playing wind instruments. Our heart and pulse also do this, tending particularly to entrain with the beat, if there is one. Body sensations are integral to the wider experience. In fact one definition of the nature of spirituality is that we become more fully embodied, more fully focussed in the conscious, aware present moment, concerns with past and future marginalised by the aliveness of the now!

I note here merely that it is simply not possible to make music effectively, whether improvised or pre-composed, without being fully present.

But we are in essence creatures of vibratory energy. Atoms vibrate at enormous rates, causing the molecules they make up to vibrate coherently both mechanically and electro-magnetically, but at a lower rate. Molecules emit, therefore, sound, and light in the ultra-violet range (UV), but both of very low intensity. Surrounding molecules entrain vibrations, imparting energy to the cells, and so to organs and through them to the body as a whole. From atoms through to the whole body, vibrations occur in harmonic relationships, stepping down in frequency with increasing mass, according to Itzhak Bentov.[6] And the mechanical and electro-magnetic vibrations find connections through the transductive qualities of a number of crystalline structures in the body, having similar properties to quartz, such as liquid crystals in the blood, salts in fatty tissues, colloidal structures of the brain, the pineal, and crystalline bone components.[7] Homo musicus is a naturally resonating system, a system which reaches out beyond the body, via resonance with it’s surrounding electro-magnetic field (the aura?) to interact with the fields of other persons and things.[8] Not strictly a sense, and entirely unconscious except for certain sensitives who ‘see’ or otherwise sense auras, nevertheless it is another mode of connection between us, which will play its mysterious part in the group work. 

And in the developed group, in which all participants are fully focussed in the sounding moment, actively listening to each other, then in that heightened reality all senses are more acute, more finely discriminating, the cleared pathways for the mythic connections discussed in Part I. We may in that golden time once more become aware of our finger and tongue movements, without, however, returning to the awkwardness of early learning: now it is no inhibition, it is an added richness. We may very well become aware of our heart beats and body movements as other modalities accompanying and enhancing the musical sounds. Hearing will become more acute, and at our fullest functioning, vision too. We achieve a multi-modal experience. We may perhaps, through heightened sensitivity, even become aware of the finer vibratory workings, perhaps manifesting as intuitive knowledge of what someone else is about to do musically: we spontaneously connect our rhythms or pitches, for example.

On the other hand, if the circumstances are appropriate for a particular individual, the group music making can also overwhelm. The sounds themselves may transcend all other modalities, becoming an irresistible cathartic force.[9] The group may inadvertently sound the ‘personal note’ of an individual for whom some psychological or other block is approaching the moment of clearing. I believe this to be more likely if all in the group are vocalising, most likely toning, though purposive drumming can also achieve the result. The topic is not enlarged further in this essay.

Heightened sensing will occur within what I have called the developed group, whether or not detailed recall is possible after the event. That depends on the energetic nature of the individual heightened reality. This subject is also not covered here. Valerie Hunt’s work may be referred to for detailed information and comment. (op cit)

*           *           *

Beyond the obvious senses and skills, what additional resources may there be to engage with the sounds we make?

Lyall Watson describes and reflects on his sojourn in a small, remote, Indonesian fishing community. There he finds an extraordinary twelve year old girl, Tia, whose dancing with the village gamelan (a metal orchestra) was astonishingly and totally compelling.

Here he talks with her, walking on the beach. She is telling him the colours of sounds:

 “Brown is the sound of katak”.

Katak was the local toad [which] produced a derisory sound which was indeed rather brown.

The idea was beginning to grow on me.

“What makes a black sound?”

“Buffalo, and thunder."


“The sea where it touches the sand.”

Now I was really hooked. Tia was giving me these examples without hesitation, as though she were used to hearing sounds in colour. …

I thought of the tawny roar of a lion; of the scarlet scream of a macaw; of the deep bronze boom of an important bell, and of how the little ones that tinkled tended to be silver.  . . .

“All sounds have colours?"

“Astaga! You did not know?"


“How can you listen to talk or music without colour?"

Her eyes were full of pity. “When the drums talk, they lay a carpet of brown, like soft sand on the ground. A dancer stands on this. Then the gongs call in green and yellow, building forests through which we weave and turn. And if we lose our way, there is always the white thread of the flute or the song to guide us home.” [10]

He finds that all the other children also have this facility, though none so clearly as Tia. Reflecting on this, he comes to the conclusion that these are not simply mental associations, but complementary sensory inputs.

The study of synaesthesia is in renaissance now that Behaviourism has been largely superseded together with the scientific refusal to recognize internal events. Current findings are that parallel sensing exists, as distinct from imaginative figures of speech: it is an involuntary, unelaborated, primarily emotional experience. Colour hearing seems commonest, others such as smell/tactile sensations being less common. Even rarer are experiences involving more than two senses. There is no agreement among synaesthetes on the precise nature of their sensory parallels: for example the same sounds provoke different colours in different persons. The matter is quite idiosyncratic, and mysterious.

Seemingly female synaesthetes predominate, and the experience is prevalent in children, possibly 50%, adults maybe one third as many. As a group they may be more susceptible to ‘unusual’ happenings than the rest of us: clairvoyance, déjà vu, a feeling of ‘presence’; and may be among the more creative. A number of artists, writers and musicians may have been synaesthetic, such as composers Liszt, Rimsky-Korsakov, Scriabin and Messiaen; poets Basho, Rimbaud and Baudelaire; painters Kandinsky and David Hockney; and novelist Nabokov, together with his wife and son – there would appear to be an inherited factor.[11]

A straw poll amongst people known to me revealed three female and one (slightly uncertain) male synaesthete. For one, AB, music evokes tactility and olfaction:

When I hear music, I have strong tactile sensations though not necessarily in my hands. Music for me is characterised by being hard, soft, itchy, curved, stringy, sandpapery, etc. There is an olfactory link here too - Wagner’s music definitely triggers an olfactory nerve. Some smells produce the same sensations in me as music- e.g. my handcream evokes the same sensations as certain kinds of abstract jazz and roses the same sensations as Brahms symphonies (slow movements) … The sensations are memorable, involuntary, the same each time I hear a particular piece of music. I've always had this kind of reaction, not realising that it was not absolutely 'normal' until I was in my 20s. Not imagined, not overwhelming, and if I think about any feeling too hard, evanescent.

My own synaesthetic experience is completely singular (so far). At a guitar and flute recital some years ago,[12] in a small intimate venue, one of the works played was Takemitsu’s Towards the Sea, utilising the alto flute with its warmly rich sound characteristics. Halfway through the piece Takemitsu scored a handful of flute chords. Most wind players tend to blow through chords, producing the effect of arpeggios, but this player, Clive Conway, succeeded in the tricky task of holding the breath steady in the exceedingly narrow pressure band that produces a genuine chord. He succeeded for less than a second for each rich chord of many sounds. As each one sounded, a colour spectrum appeared fleetingly in my head. Never before, not since!

What meanings can be drawn? Richard Cytowic suggests that synaesthesia may be a premature display to consciousness of an early stage in the sequence of normal cognitive processes which for most of us do not manifest until the sequence is concluded. He emphasises that the limbic system, associated with our emotions, has many more neural connections flowing to the neo-cortex (humanity’s prideful centre of ‘higher’ cognition) than flowing from. This perhaps illustrates the reality of the statement made in Part I that feeling is primary. During synaesthetic episodes blood flow to the left hemisphere cortex is (in at least one study) dramatically reduced, indicating apparent reduction in activity .[13]

Psychotropic drugs also induce the phenomenon. This is reported in many places, famously by Baudelaire on hashish. Synaesthetic components to shamanic experiences induced by drugs are also documented, notably all over South America where the vine banisteriopsis is part of the ‘brew’.[14]

So, while traditional peoples not yet over-run by western culture may well retain the experience, as suggested by Lyall Watson’s report, we in the occident may have largely lost it owing to overlaid inscribing of neural pathways relating to masculine left-brained analytical thinking during early social development. Homo logicus is a dominant part of our cultural myths, as discussed in Part I. Cytowic describes the process as the overlaying by more flexible, therefore dominating, cognition, and of course he is right as far as that goes. Watson surmised similarly a process of loss from childhood. And since left brain thinking is dominantly associated with the masculine, and therefore males, here may be the explanation why female synaesthetes predominate.

Certainly the loss reduces the wealth of sensory experience (though an excess can interfere with cognitive functioning.[15] But could it be that we do not actually lose synaesthesiae, so much as cease noticing, because it is not part of the prevailing definition of what humanly being is, not part of our mythology. If this is so then it joins those other still small voices which it may take half a lifetime for us to take notice of, the voices of intuition, of 'that of God within', describe it how you will.

The route to uncovering, re-covering, our forgotten perceptions will then be via finding our way below, or round, the rational brain to the other side of being, with which we know now our culture must reconnect.

One arena for this is the musical improvisation group.

*           *           *

In the work of healing the breach between estranged and impoverished mankind and the earth that in the rage of our estrangement we have raped and pillaged, is it too far fetched to suggest that as we reconnect with the true ground of our being, in parallel with that healing we may recover lost abilities and perceptions that maybe once we took for granted, or were simply unconscious of, which may, consciously perceived, marvellously enrich our interactions with the world?

So, for those of us who work through the modality of sound at that breach, may we be conscious in all possible fullness of the vibrations of what we are doing, in hearing, vision and body awareness. But also that we who lack the synaesthetic enrichment may become open to the possibilities of parallel sensings? Not in over confident materialistic minded either/or thinking, but with an attitude of 'allowing', maintaining and developing a certain watchfulness, an awareness at the edges of our consciousness in order to catch faint traces of the unexpected, gifts in embryo, and to hold these in memory, half understood, without attempted analysis, the better to relate to them when next they come. We may become aware of what is in the spaces between our sounds and silences. That way we may help ourselves to open to beneficial transformation, not caught unexpectedly by sonic force majeure, but when we are ready within our being, and only then losing ourselves in divinely elaborated energetic interactions with all we are really, truly connected to, in order to find ourselves where our souls reside.

Into the labyrinth, with Orpheus as psychopomp!

The following poem, written in 1993, expresses reflections made on several transformational experiences over the previous decade, which by the time of writing could be clearly seen for what they were: necessary, and inevitable, inner development.

In that dark pool where coldest secrets are
A needle point of heat has had to form:
Through time unmeasured gains against the dark:
Slow forms a roil, in long still waters born.

Vague insubstantial presagers of change
 (Small messages let loose by turbulence)
To consciousness by secret routes ascend,
The fifty thousandth, only, making sense.

These signs, foreboding ends and startings, heed.
Do not think to quash that awe-ful pressure
(Formed sure, from in your life's beginnings, deep)
Which could then erupt in dreadful measure.

No, that fate upwelling fear not, nor blench.
Face fear and yield: therein does lie your strength.

*           *           *

The last, appropriate word will be given to this well known Zen koan:

Take away sound and sense, and what do you hear?

© Clement Jewitt, Sparkbrook ©1999/2000

First published in Music & Psyche Journal, Nov. 2001, pp27-39

[1]           Whitmont. The alchemy of healing. 1992.

[2]           Campbell. The masks of God: creative mythology. 1968

[3]           Shlain. The alphabet versus the Goddess: male words and female images. 1998

[4]           Zuckerkandl. Man the musician. 1973 (Sound & symbol, Vol 2)

[5]           Eliade. The sacred and the profane. 1959.

[6]           Bentov.  Stalking the wild pendulum: on the mechanics of consciousness, 1977

[7]           McClellan.  The healing forces of music: history, theory and practice, 1991

[8]           Hunt. Infinite mind: science of the human vibrations of consciousness. 2nd ed. 1996

[9]               Neher. ‘A Physiological Explanation of Unusual Behaviour in Ceremonies involving Drums’ - Human Biology 34(2)pp151-160

[10]          Watson. Gifts of unknown things. 1976

[11]             Baron-Cohen & Harrison (eds). Synaesthesia: classic and contemporary readings. 1997

[12]             Which as it happens I was reviewing

[13]          Cytowic.’ Synaesthesia: phenomenology and neuropsychology - a review of current knowledge’ - Synaesthesia: classic and contemporary readings (ed Baron-Cohen & Harrison). 1997

[14]          Reichel-Dolmatoff. Rainforest shamans. 1997   &   Roney-Dougal. Walking between the worlds             (Lecture series). Tape, n.d.

[15]          Luria. ‘Synaesthesia’ in Baron-Cohen & Harrison op cit

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