Mind, Body, and Music
What we perceive to be our cultural inheritance, our perception of who we are in relation to what has come before, shifts according to the stories we tell about the past, the present, and the future. For musicians, the performative act is tied up with ideas and stories about interpretation, interaction (with the audience as well as with other musicians), and aesthetics. These stories, in turn, shape the institutions within which musicians function, within which they develop and share their craft.
The act of storytelling is, then, political as well as cultural, shaping the largest institutional frameworks as well as the most personal and creative interactions. Shifts in narrative perspective spark questions and conflicts, produce forces and counter-forces that stoke the fires of our psychological, emotional, and even physical beings. Narratives are dynamic forces that drive our concepts and experiences of space and time, past, present, and future. In this respect, they are bound up with our experience of vitality, as defined by Daniel Stern as "a product of the mind’s integration of many internal and external events, as a subjective experience, and as a phenomenal reality".4 According to Stern, forms of vitality are psychological, subjective phenomena that emerge from "the encounter with dynamic events and must have a basis in physical action and traceable mental operations".
We use words – create stories – to express our physical and emotional experiences, but also to shape and reshape them. Our fear of something (in the mind) will determine how we approach it (in the body). Likewise, embodied psychological and emotional (as well as physical) experiences (from the past), determine how we respond both physically and emotionally to stimuli (in the present) and even how we create and imagine (the future). So narratives, stories – beliefs – shape our bodies but are also shaped by them.
As forms of vitality are subjective phenomena, they arise from how the mind processes dynamic experience from any source ("real" or imagined). The experience contains an inferred, subjectively felt force that is experienced as acting "behind" or "within" the event and throughout its course.5
Central, then, to the investigations I undertook with the musicians for Mouvance II: Intonation was the relationship between memory, visualisation, the body – and sound. It began ("once upon a time...") with a desire to find out what would happen if a musician’s relationship to her body was (in manner of speaking) turned on its head: if, instead of being at the service of good sound production (which is a cultural story in itself), the body became a tool for investigation, of which sound would be merely a kind of by-product. Lakoff and Johnson propose a relationship between mind and body drawn from recent developments in cognitive science which were key to my research:
The evidence from cognitive science shows that classical faculty psychology is wrong. There is no such fully autonomous faculty of reason separate from and independent of bodily capacities such as perception and movement. The evidence supports, instead, an evolutionary view, in which reason uses and grows out of such bodily capacities. The result is a radically different view of what reason is and therefore of what a human being is (...)
These findings of cognitive science are profoundly disquieting in two respects. First, they tell us that human reason is a form of animal reason, a reason inextricably tied to our bodies and the peculiarities of our brains. Second, these results tell us that our bodies, brains, and interactions with our environment provide the mostly unconscious basis for our everyday metaphysics, that is, our sense of what is real.6
I imagined the first sound – first cry, perhaps! – ever uttered by a human being as a response to, an expression of her environment; an expression of a particular sense of space and time, of fear, exhilaration, sadness, or joy. The story I tell myself also goes that this sound, this song, is the seed from which music – our definition of what constitutes music – has evolved. Like a kind of feedback loop, this first sound has perpetuated itself, developed and expanded through reiteration and repetition. It determines how we experience (physically as well as emotionally) the world around us – how we see it, feel it and express it. But it also plays in role in how we continue to develop and construct it – how and why we create the public and private spaces, modes of interaction, and institutions that we do. We sing about the world as we see it and create the world as we sing it. In the beginning was not the word, but a primordial noise from which the rise and fall, the push and pull, the tension and release of words, of language and of songs, music and other aestheticised sound and noise evolved. These songs, these musics are not only inherited from the past but also determine how we experience the present and imagine the future.
Making up stories is one thing; attachment to them as truth or fact is another. The further we go back in history (musical or otherwise), the more brittle are the foundations of our stories, the more subject they are to the unpredictability of memory and of storytelling itself. This fragility, this instability is something we experience physically, too. Disorienting the physical senses – the body – disorients the mind. Conversely, when something we believe to be true is revealed to be false – when one of our stories is blown – we (momentarily at least) feel ourselves physically falling into the abyss of the unknown. Mind and body cannot be prized apart.
An embodied concept is a neural structure that is actually part of, or makes use of, the sensorimotor system of our brains. Much of conceptual inference is, therefore, sensorimotor inference.7
This disorientation is an interesting and powerful tool for me, and something I set out to develop with the musicians during the course of my research. Investigating strategies for remembering – or more specifically, forgetting – attempting (and failing) to enact or re-enact, reconstructing and thereby discovering approaches to interaction and performance were at the heart of the work we undertook as part of Wheels within Wheels.