Read an Excerpt
COMMUNICATION: THE SILENT RHYTHM
(Duos, Chamber Ensembles, Popular Combos, and Conductors)
Most of the time we feel separate from one another: we call ourselves "individuals," and we know that even our disagreements are proof that each one of us is indeed a very different person. Something happens, though, when you see eye to eye with someone, and discover rich layers of agreement on the details that other people "never quite understood"--or when your body appears able to dance flawlessly with another person, with no fumbling awkwardness, just two bodies together seemingly following the same rhythm, the same lilt and sway.
At times like these, we rejoice in finding a "perfect match," a "soul mate," a "twin."
In this chapter, I am going to make the bold assumption that this feeling of togetherness--not togetherness as in some rigid lock step, but togetherness as in dance--is vitally important in music making, and that when a duo or combo or orchestra finds this dance, being moved as one, it communicates it to the audience, and a whole concert hall full of individuals delights in being moved as one.
Soloists, chamber musicians, jazz musicians, and symphony orchestras often have to communicate with one another without speaking--and I'm not just thinking of the notes. How will a soloist come out of the cadenza and make a seamless entrance with the orchestra? How will the ensemble stay perfectly together during a subito (sudden) tempo change? Jazz musicians have to communicate spontaneously as they improvise, so that two people thinking new musical thoughts at the same time can think harmoniously. And conductors and ensemble players must convey a composer's ideas and feelings to an audience with cohesion and clarity--even though the ideas come wrapped in the feelings, and the feelings in the ideas, none of which are expressed in words. All this must be expressed seamlessly by a hundred individuals breathing and bowing and striking and plucking dozens of different pieces of ebony, ivory, catgut, horsehair, iron, copper, brass, and taut animal skin!
Musicians are not the only ones who communicate like this--far from it! The operating rooms of the world would be far less able to cope with heart failures and blunt-instrument traumas if surgeons, nurses, and medical technicians weren't also performing their own intricate choreography in the heat of an emergency. But again, the musical metaphor seems to hold well: we say they are dancing to a choreography, moving to a common rhythm, working in harmony with one another.
When conductor Leonard Bernstein takes the stage, it is as if his baton is charged with lightning, and he can light up whole sections of the orchestra with his smallest gesture. Jazz bassist Ray Brown establishes a rhythmical groove when he plays with his trio, and brings his colleagues and audience there with him. Yo-Yo Ma casts a hypnotic spell over his audiences when he plays his cello--and when he plays with a piano accompanist or different musical partner, it is as though the two of them somehow miraculously blend into one musician performing in twin bodies.
It strikes us as magical, beyond coincidence, almost supernatural even, when highly individual musicians merge into a perfect synchronized whole, as though they are all parts of a greater body, as though music itself has the beat and is passing through them. How do they do it? What is this glue that can bind the voices of a hundred artists and the silent motions of their conductor into one profoundly moving communication?
It's easy enough to say that skilled musicians have "talent," that playing together in this way is just a skill they've acquired--but that's like explaining the drowsiness that opium causes by saying the drug contains a "dormitive principle"; it names the effect in question without telling us any more about it than we already knew. Some people say great conductors can communicate this way because they have charisma--but is that any different? And meanwhile, those who prefer more mundane explanations shrug their shoulders and say it's all a matter of discipline, of practice, of rehearsal.
Oddly enough, there are more sophisticated ways of talking about this kind of blending of many into one. We speak of great moments of unity as "transcendent" moments, such as the spellbinding oratory of Martin Luther King's "I Have a Dream" speech and the rhythmic cadences of black gospel preaching from which it derived. The great psychologist Carl Jung coined the term "synchronicity" to describe seemingly coincidental happenings which are bound together by what he called an "acausal connecting principle"--something other than the law of cause and effect! And words from the religious traditions of humankind like "inspiration," "spirit," "chi," and "prana" can also give us a clue that something as lofty as devotion to a higher goal, or as simple as awareness of one's breath, may be involved when people connect or merge in their communications.
There is one word, though, which to my mind tells us more than all the rest about what is happening when great artists succeed in this kind of nonverbal communication: entrainment.
Researchers have come close to explaining what happens when musicians merge their musical energies in this kind of nonverbal, rhythmic union: they call it a form of entrainment. The word was first used to describe the uncanny effect you'd get if you kept a roomful of old grandfather clocks ticking away. In 1665, Dutch scientist Christian Huygens first noticed that two pendulum clocks, mounted side by side on a wall, would swing together in precise rhythm; in fact, they would hold their mutual beat far beyond their maker's capacity to match them in mechanical accuracy. Author George Leonard says that this phenomenon is universal. In his book The Silent Pulse, Leonard explains:
Whenever two or more oscillators in the same field are pulsing at nearly the same time, they tend to "lock in" so that they are pulsing at exactly the same time. The reason, simply stated, is that nature seeks the most efficient energy state--and it takes less energy to pulse in cooperation than in opposition.
Musicians know about entrainment and other vibratory phenomena because instruments sometimes "talk" to each other in just this kind of way--you can make a vocal or instrumental sound in rehearsal that will vibrate or rattle the snare on a snare drum clear on the other side of the room. And if parchment and metal wire can do it, why not people?
The key to this kind of communication is something way beyond following a cue, or just doing what someone says. Perhaps the idea of entrainment can help us describe this kind of group communication with a rhythm or musical ideal, an actual energy shared between us. This is the key that allows great artists to play together in perfect synchronization.
When musicians entrain, they merge and synchronize their actions. These synchronized actions in turn have the potential to reach and entrain the audience as well. And when that happens, as the final crash is heard or last long note fades at the end of a piece, the audience is one, as you can tell from the stunned silence--and thunderous applause.
Just as the pendulums of a dozen clocks can entrain each other to a common beat, a dozen violinists playing the same part find it is far more difficult to play "against" one another than it is to relax and play with the beat. And yet each musician must be sensitive to the pulse if all are to play together.
Extensive research by Dr. William S. Condon of Boston University School of Medicine provides scientific support to this principle. Dr. Condon researched micro-movements between two people engaged in verbal conversation. His startling discovery of entrainment between the two individuals--even when they were arguing fiercely--may suggest how musicians can ultimately become one with one another in sound. After watching and analyzing slow-motion videotape of people talking for many hours, Condon found:
Listeners were observed to move in precise shared rhythm and movements with the speaker's speech. This appears to be a form of entrainment since there is no discernible lag even at 1Ú48 second. . . . Communication is thus like a dance, with everyone engaged in intricate and shared movements across many subtle dimensions.
Let's apply this kind of thinking to music. Perhaps we don't take our cues from musical partners or conductors in quite the simple action-reaction, stimulus-response way we ordinarily think we do--perhaps the truly important cues are operating at a far subtler level than we can be consciously aware of, so that we could say we are not responding or reacting to cues at all, but that as musicians we are linked together through entrainment.
Entrainment occurs in all aspects of life. For example, I have often been amused by how many people find partners and spouses who appear to have astonishingly similar facial or body characteristics. Perhaps they are synchronizing some of their speech and body mannerisms in just the same way. Perhaps it's entrainment at work when you notice that you eat at the same speed as your partner. When you walk side by side, you may find you are marching to the beat of the same silent drummer, and when you have a conversation with your partner, you may find yourself mirroring the crossed legs, hand positions, or way your partner is holding his or her head slightly to one side.
Rhythmic entrainment with an opponent is critical in the martial arts. Thousands of people doing rhythmic chanting can transmit energy to the home team in a baseball or basketball game--and the energy transmitted influences the players' concentration and performance. And soldiers march together with such precision that they have to break step when they cross bridges! Not surprisingly, the marching band offers us another example of rhythmic entrainment--every aspect of movement in marching bands and drill teams is synchronized to the beat of the drum corp.
Musicians work in a subtler but similar way. They need to follow each other's tempi, dynamics, and levels of expression. When they allow themselves to entrain or merge with their partners or sections, they become a part of a greater musical unit, and speak as one musical voice.
I recently attended a concert with legendary singer/conductor Bobby McFerrin. Bobby walked into the audience, put his face within one or two inches of a complete stranger, and began feeding him pitches and gestures. In no time, Bobby would sing a phrase and the stranger would repeat what Bobby had sung. But the man was accessing a range, quality of voice, and musical ideas directly from Bobby. He even seemed to mirror Bobby's style and imagination, and his voice sounded almost as good as Bobby's! He not only sang "with Bobby" as one voice but also dialogued with Bobby. It was as if there were two Bobby McFerrins! It was phenomenal--an amazing demonstration of the power of entrainment.
I was amazed at how Bobby could cast this spell upon an audience. He had established an atmosphere in which everyone was willing to go wherever Bobby wanted to go. Bobby told me that before he goes out in the audience, he spends a considerable amount of time onstage establishing a level of trust. Within ten minutes everyone is singing together. Bobby described how natural it is to entrain with the audience in a concert. He said that when he attends a concert as an audience member, he is always "finding his part in the music" and beginning to sing quietly under his breath.
I have this fantasy of what it would be like to be up there onstage participating actively in whatever is happening up there. I have a feeling that everyone in the audience is going on their own journey in their own way, participating in the music. I have a sense when I'm onstage that everyone is also taking a musical journey with me in their own way. Basically, I'm inviting them to open themselves and be vulnerable and share what this musical experience really is. And believe it or not, most people are willing to do that.
Bobby believes that when people come together for a musical event, they are willing (and even striving) to be a part of a whole new community. Before the days of television, live musical events were occasions for a lot of emotional sharing and storytelling. Bobby believes that this contributes to people's willingness to merge into a musical union, whether it be two people or an entire audience.
This process of merging with another individual in a duo or a larger group of musicians, or with an audience, is the essence of communication. There has to be a willingness to participate that comes from trusting or letting go to the energy and spirit of the music, whether you're a performer or a member of the audience. This communication is made possible by the silent rhythm that connects everyone. This is what allows for spontaneous magic to lift people into a state of perfect synchrony where everyone can perform and experience the music as one.
Musicians who play in duos, chamber ensembles, combos, and large orchestras must learn to entrain with their colleagues: this is the glue that binds them together, and gives each individual the ability to play precisely in time with the others. I have often marveled at the way two percussionists, out of visual contact with each other and separated by quite a distance, can pick up the pulse and character of the music from the conductor and play exactly together.
What ensemble musicians are doing is tapping into a common rhythm communicated to them by the conductor. The individual percussionists, who are positioned far away from each other, somehow internalize this rhythm in their own bodies, then they respond to the flow of this common pulse or rhythm and play with it. They are not simply responding to the conductor's cues. Playing within this established rhythmic flow or pulse allows them to stay in perfect synch with each other and the orchestra.
The Duo Relationship
The simplest partnership in music exists between two people playing a duet together. The duo ensemble is an ideal demonstration of the principle of entrainment, which can then be applied to more complex ensembles.
For many years I enjoyed playing solo bass recitals composed of mostly original bass music with a variety of different partnering instruments: guitar, harp, flute, organ, bass, bassoon, percussion, voice, and piano. Since I was always changing accompanist, I didn't get the opportunity to develop a strong relationship with a single person. But this changed when I met James Hart--a pianist who is my current musical partner, and best friend of ten years.
Our partnership produces a musical chemistry the like of which I have never experienced with any other instrumentalist. From my first rehearsal with Jim, I have experienced something with the bass that I had never known was possible. I would play my part and Jim would be playing his part--but right from the beginning it was as though I were actually playing his part myself. He was "in my head"--our partnership feels that close! If I so much as thought something, it seemed Jim was already doing it.
From the Hardcover edition.