Sunday, August 27, 2017

Instrument Matter in the Musician’s Mind: Part 2, How to Construct a Spirit

Culture has produced some strange things. Supernatural spirits is one of them. I'm bumping this post to the top of the queue just to get it on my mind, as I need to think about these things a bit more while I contemplate writing a book on cultural evolution.

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Call it “animism” if you wish, but it will no longer be enough to brand it with the mark of infamy. This is indeed why we feel so close to the sixteenth century, as if we were back before the “epistemological break,” before the odd invention of matter.
—Bruno Latour, An Attempt at a “Compositionist Manifesto”

In lieu of an environment that surrounds culture . . . picture an ontological field without any unequivocal demarcations between human, animal, vegetable, or mineral.
—Jane Bennett, Vibrant Matter: A Political Ecology of Things

About two weeks ago I posted some remarks on how one thinks about and plays very simple percussion instruments, claves and bells, and told a story about some mysterious tones that sometimes arise in bell choirs. I also promised a post in which I “attempt to construe those sounds as spirit voices.” This is that post.

The Magic of the Bell, Recap

The phenomenon that interests me is that of certain high frequency (around 2000 Herz and above) ‘twitters’ that arose during a certain rehearse I attended some years ago. As I explained in that post, there were four of us, each playing a different bell. Three of us play set patterns, time and again, while the fourth improvised freely over those patterns.

At a certain point, when energy was high and the music was rocking, we all heard these high twittering sounds. None of us was playing them. That is, they didn’t coincide with the patterns any of us were playing. Rather, they somehow arose through the interaction of the patterns the four of us played. We’d played together many times before, and many times since, but that was the only time we heard those sounds.

What were they? The purpose of this post is to explore what’s involved in asserting that they were some kind of ‘spirit.’

What phenomenon are we trying to name and explain?

This is a matter of drawing a boundary. Perhaps the easiest play to draw the boundary, dare I say it? the natural place, is around the sound itself. If we had had a recorder playing during that session, bounding the phenomenon in this way would be very easy. What we’re interested in would be what’s on the recording; nothing more, nothing less.

Then we could examine the recording to determine just what those pitches were like, their dominant frequency, just when they happened, and so forth. That is to say, we would be treating those sounds as nothing but mechanical vibrations, which we are examining in the standard ways. This is, of course, an entirely legitimate thing to do. It’s done all the time.

But THAT’s not the phenomenon that interests me. That’s not where I want to draw the boundary. That’s only one aspect of the phenomenon that interests me. It’s the aspect that tells me that THERE’S SOMETHING ELSE GOING ON.

Remember my description? I said that this happened when the energy was high and the music rocked. That doesn’t always happen. It’s not rare, but it’s not automatic, and for some purposes it’s neither necessary nor desired. So high rocking energy, that’s within the boundary of the phenomenon I’m talking about.

But drawn that way, the boundary isn’t tight enough, it’s not precise enough. For those twitterings didn’t always happen when the music rocked. They happened only that one time, though, as I indicated in the earlier post, Ade (the leader) recognized the phenomenon. He’d experienced it before, but the others of us had not. Ade was (and is) a very experienced percussionist. He’d toured and performed professionally in his youth and has a wide circle of musician friends, including drummers expatriated from West Africa. He knew those sounds, and simply called them “the magic of the bell.”

Other than the sounds themselves, what’s the difference between rocking music and magic music? Whatever that difference it, I’m going to call it spirit.

So, what do I think REALLY happened? Well, I don’t think some ghostly beings from another dimension entered our bodies and guided our playing. But I don’t have a positive account to offer. I think the place to look is in the micro-timings of our movements and in the neural activity in subcortical regions of our brains, perhaps even in the core of the core of the brain, the reticular activity system and, certainly, in the cerebellum. That’s where I think the action is, but that’s no more than an educated guess.

So in saying that those twitterings are manifestations of spirit, I am, in effect, projecting some subtle group-level neuro-muscular activity onto those sounds that serve as a diagnostic indicator of the phenomenon. To say that those twitterings are spirits, or voices of spirits, is to speak figuratively, where the figure is synecdoche, using the part (the twitter sounds) to stand for the whole (group locked in very intense musical activity).

This is pretty much what I’m doing when, in another context I talk of graffiti as manifestations of the spirit, or kami (in Japanese) of the site. When I do that, I’m NOT asserting that some being from another dimension comes through the wall, enters the graffiti writer, and directs his activity. Rather I’m saying that we cannot understand how and why graffiti ends up in this or that particular place without taking into account, not only the nature of the surface itself, but lines of sight and access, general location and neighborhood traffic, legal status (e.g. is it posted as no trespassing) and past history. All of that is important to the sight and I want to treat all of it as an indivisible gestalt. The easiest way to do this is to talk of the spirit of the site.

There are, of course, differences. The spirit of the graffiti site is, by definition, resident at the site. The twitter spirits don’t seem to have any residence at all. They just come and go. But there’s an overall similarity in the mode of construction, both are assemblages of heterogenous components: walls, paints, footpaths, laws, writers and viewers in one case; bells, strikers, and musicians in the other.

Spirit Possession

Now, let’s up the conceptual ante a bit. There are musically driven ceremonies all over the world in which people are said to become possessed by spirits. Such ceremonies have been observed and documented in photographs, sound recordings, film and video. The details of these ceremonies differ from place to place, but the central phenomenon is the same: some person or persons become possessed by some other being.

This other being is generally well-known to the community. It has been entering people for generations. Often many such beings will be known in a community with different people being devotees of different spirits. Let me quote a passage from Beethoven’s Anvil where I in turn quote a passage from Gilbert Rouget’s classic Music and Trance (p. 157):
... the ritual celebrant is not an active music-maker, but dances to music made by others and, in time, becomes possessed by a spirit:
The trance itself, in other words the period during which the subject settles himself, so to say, into his other persona and totally coincides with it, has, on the contrary, quite a stable relation to music...Here the function of the music is obvious. It is due to the music, and because he is supported by the music, that the possessed person publicly lives out, by means of dance, his identification with the divinity he embodies. The music ... is essentially identificatory. By playing his “motto” [a rhythm characteristic of a particular divinity], the musicians notify this identity to the entranced dancer, those around him, the priests, and the spectators....Music thus appears as the principal means of socializing trance.
Rouget was not thinking in neural terms here but about social function. The key word is “identity.” It is the music that signals the identity of the divinity. But the music is more than just another kind of name for the divinity. The identification is deeper than that. The music is a vehicle for a collective intentionality, one that slips beneath the barriers of individuality and the imperatives of autonomous selves. Music is a means of sharing what is otherwise an individual, private experience, that of trance. In music deeply, shared my rhythms and your rhythms are the same. And thus we are the one.
Spirit possession is thus quite different from the bell spirits I’ve been talking about. For one thing, in the particular case of bell spirits, none of the four musicians were raised and socialized in a bell-playing culture. Hence, perhaps, the adventitious nature of the phenomenon. It was a one-time occurrence because none of us was raised in a culture where such experiences are available almost at will.

For another, there was no possession. We all retained our full individuated identities. No one disappeared into a spirit identity.

Thus, an adequate explanation of the bell spirits is not likely to extend to spirit possession. But it might help, because it will be an explanation about how music works, and it will have details about timing, timing of the sounds, timing of motor activity, and details about the nervous system, in particular, about those parts responsible for elevated mood. Such things will, I believe, necessarily be a facet of any explanation of spirit possession.

What would such an explanation be like?

Explaining, or Explaining Away?

We don’t know. What interests me is making a difference between explaining and explaining away. By explaining away I mean the search ‘beneath the surface’ for ‘hidden causes’ which Latour finds characteristic of the sociology of the social, and, I might add, the psychology as well. What’s going on is group solidarity, it’s resistance to hegemonic forces, it’s the unconscious, or, it’s neural modules being used for purposes for which Nature did not intend them (this last is a favorite of evolutionary psychology). Whatever it is, it IS NOT spirits because spirits don’t exist. We have defined them out of existence.

From my current point of view, one big problem with all these explanations is that they don’t account for the surface phenomena in any interesting way. Sure it’s the brain, sure it’s social structure, but just HOW does that work? We don’t know. I note also that we cannot even account for ordinary mundane consciousness, the color taste feel and smell of an apple, for example. So one might be tempted to say that pretty much most of psychology is explaining things away.

One reason I’ve been at pains to present a variety of details on bell playing in that earlier post is simply to indicate a range of tangible phenomena we must take into account, that we can take into account if we’re so willing. Even more phenomena must be brought into play to account for spirit possession, some of which I’ve indicated here and there in Beethoven’s Anvil. I don’t know how far we could get by pursuing these lines of investigation, but I’m pretty sure we will learn something new.

I’m also sure that some of what we learn is going to seem very strange, which was the point of my post about the Curse Of The Linearizing Amulets. That post was buried deep in ideas from Walter Freeman’s neurodynamics, technical ideas I just barely understand (and I’m not the only one who just barely understands them), but exciting ideas. I think we’re on the verge of crafting empirically grounded (and computer modeled) explanations that are every bit as foreign to us as the idea of ghostly beings inhabiting our world and possessing us.

Except that the idea of such other-worldly beings is not really strange at all. It’s quite familiar. But also distasteful to us scientific materialists wise in the ways of reductionism. I’m not at all suggesting that we must learn to swallow such distasteful ideas. I’ve not done so myself, nor do I urge you to do so.

But I AM suggesting that we dispense with reductionism. And I’m suggesting that the better explanations, the deeper ones, the ones about the nervous system and high dimensional state spaces, that those explanations are genuinely new and strange, perhaps even a bit frightening. I know I quivered a bit when I pondered the implications of what I was writing in Beethoven’s Anvil, and in some of these blog posts.

And those explanations, I submit, will allows us, no force us, to move away from explaining these phenomena away – bell spirits, possession. They aren’t going to be over there any more. They’re going to be in here.

Home Strange Home

Let me quote another passage from Trance and Music. Rouget is quoting a long letter about opera written by “a young ethnomusicologist from Benin” who is writing about the opera. Here’s the opening (p. 242):
What an adventure! I went to the Opéra yesterday. I thought I’d gone raving mad! No one had warned me, so I had no idea what I was in for: imagine my surprise when I found myself bang in the middle of a possession ceremony! You would have thought you were in Porto-Novo, in the Place Dèguè, attending the annual feast for Sakpata, or at Alada attending the ceremonies of Ajahuto, or at Abomey for “The Grand Customs.” Of course it’s not the same thing at all, that’s obvious. Of course the differences are immense. Never mind! I still think that a performance of at the Opéra and a vodun ceremony in Benin are in many respects fundamentally quite comparable.
The letter goes on to make the comparison a great length, talking of the singers, those very intense singers, as being possessed.

If we are going to explain spirit possession and bell spirits away, then equity demands that we explain opera away, and drama, and all of literature. And of course, we do so all the time. We’re very good at explaining it all away—capitalism, patriarchy, the unconscious, signs signs and more signs, that’s what’s REALLY going on—all this explaining away, as though we know what we’re talking about.

We don’t. We’re just familiar with opera and novels, for example, and familiar with our modes of explaining them away. And so we take it for granted.

Now, it’s not that I want to dismiss all these hidden causes. Sure, I think some are nonsense, some not. But I don’t know how to draw the line, not in any systematic way. What’s important is how we think about these ‘hidden’ causes, how we frame our thinking.

I suggest we think in terms of construction, of composition, to follow Latour (PDF). Those hidden things, the ones that stand up to further investigation, are not really hidden. They’re just not obvious on the surface. We need to think of them as some of the ‘stuff’ from which spirits and such are constructed, with collective neurodynamics also being on the bill of construction materials. The very challenging task of getting ‘right’ on the neurodynamics will force us away from explaining away and toward explaining. For that attempt will estrange us from our comfortable intellectual platitudes.

Those bell spirits, those people possessed by spirits, they’re no stranger than Shakespeare or Verdi. And we no more understand Shakespeare and Verdi than we understand spirit possession and magic bells. It is time to admit our ignorance and adventure toward new thoughts.


  1. I think here of the molimo, played (or heard?) by the Mbuti pygmies in the Ituri forest, as described in Colin Turnbull's The Forest People, and I seem to recall being told by one of Turnbull's friends that while it was audible to all, its sound didn't show up on tape-recorders..

    Here, for reference, is a song the Mbuti sing that's related to the molimo..

  2. It occurs when hearing high notes.

    It is bird -like but very high pitched, a musical twitter that lasts for the duration of the high note.

    Give's the sound a feeling of depth, vibrating outward in a number of directions, like it is outside but surrounding the central sound giving it a wider depth of field or range.

    Would be my description of a sound I sometimes hear
    if I pay attention to human voices speaking in a certain way.

    Central sound is coming our of the head with a sort of twitter like birds flying around it.

  3. I never thought to relate it. The shared feature would be the sing song note is related but distinct.
    More than the sound produced, disembodied but it has a spatial quality which relates it. Its like you are catching how it fills the entire space and how it is moving, in the same moment in time.