Thursday, December 2, 2021

It Shook Me, the Light

Bump! This post is from 2010, but it's been on my mind lately. So I'm bumping it to the head of the queue.
During the early 1970s I'd played for two years with a rock band called St. Matthew Passion. Modeled on Blood, Sweat, and Tears and on Chicago, the band consisted of 4-piece rhythm section plus three horns: sax, trumpet (me), and trombone. On “She's Not There” the three horns would start with a chaotic improvised freak-out and then, on cue from the keyboard player, the entire band would come in on the first bar of the written arrangement.

On our last gig it was just me and the sax player; the trombonist couldn't make it. The sax and I started our improv. The music got more and more intense until Wham! I felt myself dissolve into white light and pure music. It felt good.

And I tensed up.

It was over.

After the gig the sax player and I made a few remarks about it — “that was nice” — enough to confirm that something had happened to him too. One guy from the audience came up to us and remarked on how fine that section had been. Did he know what had happened? Or, if not ‘know’ exactly, did he sense a special magic in the performance? I ask because performers and audience often have a very different ‘sense’ of the same performance. Perhaps the guy was just complimenting us on our ‘freak-out’ chops, not on any magic in the music.

That's the only time I've ever experienced that kind of ego loss in music. For a few years I was very ambivalent about that experience, wanting it again, but also fearing it. A child of the 60s, a very geekish child of the 60s, I’d read quite a bit about altered states of consciousness, as they were called in the scientific literature. I read around in the secondary and tertiary literature on mystical experiences, and even a bit of the primary literature – though just exactly what’s the point of reading a mystic’s account an ineffable encounter with . . . . well, with what, exactly?

I knew such things happened. And now, in little more than a couple of heartbeats, now I too knew. But what is it that I knew?

Other than the experience itself, I knew that what all those people had been writing about was real. It’s not that I doubted it. Still it’s one thing to read about walking on the moon, even to see video footage and photographs of space-suited men walking about. It’s another thing to be there oneself.

But how can one experience be so powerful, so polarizing, that it haunts your thoughts and echoes through your soul for years afterward? What is the human nervous system that THAT can happen? In attributing the experience to the nervous system – as opposed, say, to an encounter with the divine, I do not thereby mean to dismiss it – oh, that? that was just a burp of the nervous system. We cannot dismiss it. The nervous system is us.

Now the memory's faded & the ambivalence too. But I'm playing better music now than ever I did back then. I’m talking not so much about technique – that comes and goes – but about expressive power, about ‘authenticity.’ Is that authenticity and echo of that experience?

Who knows?

* * * * *

Such experiences are common enough among musicians. Over the years I’ve collected accounts from books and articles. Here are some from Jenny Boyd, with Holly George-Warren. Musicians In Tune. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1992.

Patty Smyth (p. 161):
When I have had those experiences, I'm singing by myself. I've had those moments when I do feel the voice coming through me, and I know it's coming from out there. It's a certain tone in that voice that makes me feel that way. It chokes me up.
Cece Bullard (pp. 161-162):
It's like you leave your body. It's like you're dizzy and lightheaded and yet right there. My hands just seem to throb, like a pulse almost. It's the best feeling in the world, bar none. It took me a lot of singing lessons before I finally connected with that feeling. The first time it clicked and I connected, I nearly fell down, and I started crying.
Sinéad O'Conner (p. 164):
A lot of times I shake uncontrollably. I can't control the shaking, and it's not because I'm nervous, it's because I'm singing. It's because it's coming out and it's making me shake. It feels like being drunk, it's like an out-of-body experience. There are times when I've done gigs — and it doesn't happen every time you do a show or every time you write something — but they've told me stuff I've done onstage that I'm not aware I've done.
Branford Marsalis (p. 173):
High, you feel high. It's easy to do it physically, but it's hard to do it mentally. I feel that musicians who say it happens every time they play are full of shit. The sublime cannot be routine. Three times, and you never forget them. It's with a combination of musicians, it's never just me.
Ringo Starr (p. 176):
It feels great; its just a knowing. It's magic actually; it is pure magic. Everyone who is playing at that time knows where everybody's going. We all feel like one; wherever you go, everyone feels that's where we should go. I would know if Paul was going to do something, or if George was going to raise it up a bit, or John would double, or we'd bring it down. I usually play with my eyes closed, so you would know when things like that were happening . . . you've got to trust each other.
Huey Lewis (p. 179):
I find it more of a group experience for me. You look around and all of a sudden the song is playing and singing itself. It’s just like a wave that you ride. It’s tremendously exhilarating; it doesn’t take any energy and you look around and say, ‘Yep, this is it!’ It happens quite often but not for long periods of time. Almost at every gig that will happen somewhere for a fleeting moment. Some gigs it happens more often than others, and those are the good gigs.
Eric Clapton (p. 185):
It's a massive rush of adrenaline which comes at a certain point. Usually it's a sharing experience; it's not something I could experience on my own. . . . other musicians . . . an audience . . . Everyone in that building or place seems to unify at one point. It's not necessarily me that's doing it, it may be another musician. But it's when you get that completely harmonic experience, where everyone is hearing exactly the same thing without any interpretation whatsoever or any kind of angle. They're all transported toward the same place. That's not very common, but it always seems to happen at least once a show.
I don’t for a moment think these musicians are all describing the same thing. But just how many different things they’re describing, that I don’t know. Branford Marsalis says, “I feel that musicians who say it happens every time they play are full of shit.” Eric Clapton says that “it always seems to happen at least once a show.” Are they talking about the same thing? How could you tell?

Whatever it is, this family of musical experiences, it visits us in this devastating performance of Leonard Bernstein’s “One hand, one heart” by Jose Carreras and Kiri Te Kanawa.


  1. I use to take pleasure in zoning out speaking verse before I was trained, It was viewed as not a good thing to do. You were brought down to earth with a bump when you did it.

    Trance like states were seen as an unwanted side-effect of some of the breathing techniques
    used without care. Repetative movement was also seen as another factor.

    Singings a bit diffrent, when you are projecting properly and the sound starts to blast out through youre chest and amplify through every bone in youre head and starts to really fill a large space; it is an odd sensation coupled with the crowd and emotion of the song.

    Playing with other people who you jell with and get perfect timing is a joy, as you can forget about technique and just do it. It's why you put in the work for thise rare momments when it all just comes together and flows as if without any effort or work.

    Also a joy to watch. i.e The Sopranos,Finest t.v example of this in action I can think of.

    When the connection is not there it is hell itself.

  2. p.s bill the Welsh, Awen, poetic inspiration comes from the Indo European root to blow.

    Modern flatulance derived from Latin Afflatus, 'a sudden rush of creative impulse' often thought to be of a divine nature i.e. divine afflatus. "a pious effusion of air"

    “And now had Fame’s posterior trumpet blown,
    And all the nations summoned to the throne….”

    Alexander Pope.

    The indo European for blow which develops in Irish as 'to fart' takes a diffrent route in the middle east where it becomes 'to pray'

  3. Ah, to fart, to pray, perchance to dream.