Possibilities of New Musical Ideas to Form a Community

Rii Numata


It has been eight years since I started doing music therapy using mainly an improvisational style with people with learning disabilities. When I started my music therapy sessions as a novice, I believed that I could change the client, but while doing that I began to wonder whether using music to change someone for therapeutic purpose was appropriate or not. When I concentrate on music making itself, I feel that changes occur more often. For this reason, I started to wonder if we can have a creative place where participants can concentrate on music-making itself and be able to communicate through music. The music created in that context could be illustrated as "Music as Communication", where the therapeutic value could be considered based on how abundant the communication engendered as music is.

Reading community music therapy reports by Stige (2002), Pavlicevic (2002), Aasgaard (2000) and others, I started to be interested in adopting various ideas of musical improvisation to engender fruitful musical communication which can form a musical community. Based on this idea, I started a community music therapy project in Ashiya, Japan, with my schoolmates and others from September 2004. We decided to work towards organizing a creative place, which should not be restricted only to clients such as people with learning disabilities, the elderly, and psychiatric patients but a place where anybody in the society could come and share music.

In this paper, I will discuss the process of improvisation from theories including cultural anthropology, philosophy, and psychology. Furthermore, the importance of the experimental spirit will be discussed by introducing ideas of D. Bailey's free improvisation, Shogi Composition which has been developed by the Japanese composer M. Nomura, and Cobra composed by John Zorn. And finally, I will report the process of the project with those musical ideas with a video excerpt of live performance we did in the end.

Discussions on the Process of Improvisation

It is difficult to grasp the nature of improvisation since the meaning of improvisation differs according to the culture or individuals in the culture, and differences between improvisation and composition or performance of composed works are vague. Ethnomusicologist H. Weisethaunet (1999), musician D. Baily (1992) and others also suggest similar difficulties when discussing improvised music. To think about the meaning of this complex process in music therapy, I would like to explore the perspectives of anthropology, philosophy, and psychology. I base my discussions on the works of E. Ruud (1998), C. B. Kenny (1989), B. Stige (1998), and M. Pavlicevic (1997).

Ruud (1998) discusses improvisation from the framework of cultural anthropology. He relates improvisation to the liminal experience to explain its ritual aspects. Liminality is the term, which explains a stage of the rites of passage, proposed by Belgian cultural anthropologist Arnold van Gennep. According to Van Geeep, the rite of passage is a universal phenomenon of a passage from one position in a social structure to another, involving three phases: separation, transition, and aggregation. Victor Turner borrowed VanGeneep's concept and examined it further, concentrating on liminality ,the second stage. According to Turner, the person who is in a liminal period, is neither here nor there, but rather betwixt and between. Ruud explains improvisation in a therapeutic context as a state which transcends daily life and has many similarities with play which can change the rules or the frameworks of situations.

While Ruud explains the music therapy process as a stage in rites of passage as a means of a rebirth from the old self to a new being, Kenny (1989) proposes her own theory, called the Field of Play to formulate a language to describe the music therapy experience. She called music therapy the field of play where clients can express sounds freely and spontaneously. The field of play is a condition where therapist's and client's aesthetics overlap to form the musical space and develop the space f. The notable point of this theory is that Kenny understands music therapy as a field, not just generalizing individual clients' conditions but respects it sufficiently. This idea is somewhat similar to Ruud's idea, which examines music therapy as a liminal experience, as Ruud himself indicates. It is also important that this model represent more than just a simple line but a multifaceted model of music therapy process. Moreover, this discussion can be regarded similar to Stige's (1998) polyphony idea.

Stige (1998) considers music expressed in a music therapy session to be a process of the polyphonic dialogue between the therapist and the client. He asserts that the clients and therapists have different cultural identities, and generate meaning by negotiating on musical values through musical dialogue by sounds, gestures and words. He tries to illustrate this process in terms of Wittgenstein's Language Game. Language Game is a term which illustrates meaning of a certain word constructed through the processes being used among people. That is to say, for Stige, there are no universal aesthetic qualities. The music should not be judged from one particular point of view on aesthetics. He suggests the most important point is to create aesthetic values by therapist and client interacting in music making just like the interaction in Language games. Furthermore, to complete his discussion, he quotes the concept from M. Bakhtin and illustrates the process of musical improvisation as the polyphonic dialogue. This polyphonic dialogue can be considered to make interpersonal communication richer and more colorful. Thus according to Stige, music is a family name rather than personal name as the language game suggests. It does not indicate one particular thing, and music therapy is a process to create new aesthetic value through polyphonic dialogues.

Pavlicevic (1997) discusses the process of improvisation from her own point of view. Her analysis of the music therapy process stands on Winnicott's concept of play and D. Stern's vitality affect, both derived from the study of mother-infant interaction. Pavlicevic considers a space created by therapist and client as a play defined by Winnicott's theory, and conceives creative clinical spaces of improvisation as a process of innocent mother- infant interaction. Moreover, Pavlicevic describes vitality affects, as our internal experience, and explains that music can portray such vitality affects so we can recognize the state of others through these affects. She explains the process of dialogue in improvisation with the reference to affect attunement which is about the mechanisms of the mother's adjustment of expression to match that of her infant.

These discussions from different perspectives suggest basic and important ideas for therapists when interacting with clients in music. The recognitions shared in these discussions are that for changes in the clients, their musicality should be respected first, and as a result of interactions in sounds, the new self, conditions, aesthetic values, or relationships are expected. To guide these changes, I think, it is necessary for therapists to have their own viewpoints in various styles of music.

Methodology of Improvisation

Therefore, what methodology do we need to assure these processes? One important thing for music therapists is to provide clients accessibility to the music. Many therapists developed a way to communicate with a variety of clients with less difficulty concerning the technical problems to play music. I will offer an overview of the development of musical languages that have been developed by music therapy pioneers.

P. Nordoff (1999) started music therapy using tonal music. He said:

Although it's interesting, naturally, to see what is happening today- to be contemporary, so to speak- and listen occasionally to concrete music, electronic music, synthesized music, atonal music, and all the rest, it's more important for us as therapists really to get in our grasp the essentials of the greatness of the music of the past. (Ibid. 88).

He believed in the inherent power of the tonal system and explored its clinical relevance. Although he tried to work with a wide range of emotions, he never introduced new musical ideas. That is to say, Nordoff developed harmonic and modal language in the context of music therapy sessions.

In contrast, some music therapists found values in contemporary music and tried to use this idiom for therapy. M. Priestley (1994) for example, used modern and contemporary musical language because she thought that it was necessary for the expression of the psychiatric patients' states of mind. She actively used atonal idioms from expressionism to express the negative or inexplicable aspects of emotions, which cannot be fully expressed with normal tonal harmony. Her use of atonal idioms brought music therapy new musical tools to interact with clients. The emotional spectrum that Priestley depicted in her book shows how she sought to follow complex human emotions.

More recently, C. Lee (2003) has worked at the forefront of providing new musical ideas for therapeutic growth. He introduced ideas from experimental music such as John Cage and developed new musical language for music therapy sessions. He explains how new music can create a new level of relationship and music making. Taking Cage's Sonatas and Interludes as an example, Lee states:

If taken as a basis for musical resources the Sonatas and Interludes could also provide specific musical components. In expanding clinical repertoire these sounds could be invaluable in broadening a music therapist's musical palette. Music therapists should always be open to creating new sounds and textures (p. 180).

R. Darnley- Smith and H. Patey (2003) also note the potential use of Cage's musical idea in music therapy session. They quote Cage's word "any sound is acceptable" and explain that the music therapist similarly takes all sounds that are available in their style of music. Darnley- Smith and Patey mention that Cage's Musicircus. Musicircus is a performance played by many musicians in one place, at the same time but not playing the same music. It is like doing a circus and sounds somewhat chaotic. Darnley- Smith and Patey explain that Cage's radical views of contemporary aesthetic can change therapist's attitude by quoting a case vignette. The vignette shows how various sounds such as different percussion or conversation could exist together in the room. As seen in these descriptions, music therapists have been pursuing a new musical language to make communication or improvisation with clients more fruitful.

Ideas From New Music

Next I'd like to introduce the use of D. Bailey's (1992) idea of free improvisation in the music therapy field. Bailey is a musician worked in London and he started to make the style of improvisation, which is totally free. He categorized improvisation into idiomatic and non-idiomatic improvisation in his book, and called the new style free improvisation around 1960's. Although Bailey's notion of the spirit of free improvisation has not yet been conclusively developed, the musical style of expression in a music therapy session can be considered to be exclusively dependent on the idiom of each therapist and client.

There are other new music concepts from composers, which can be used in music therapy. I will introduce two examples: Shogi Composition which has been developed by the Japanese composer M. Nomura, and Cobra composed by John Zorn. Nomura explains Shogi Composition as a kind of recipe for collaborative composition among various people with different musical backgrounds and various musical abilities. Shogi is a Japanese board game like chess. Like in the game, the players of the Shogi Composition compose his/her short passages one after another. The passage does not need to be written down on music sheet and it can take various styles like sentences or pictures. When the first player has finished writing, he/she hands the paper to the next player and continues playing his/her part until his/her turn comes around again. The next player composes listening to the music already made and as such, the composition continues until the paper fills up.

For examples of the score of Shogi Composition by Makoto Nomura see http://aloalo.co.jp/nakazawa/method/g017nomura.html.

As you can see, the important point is that it is open to everyone and accessible to compose for everyone. The feature of Shogi Composition is that it cannot be composed by one particular idea, but values by every participant are equally reflected. Even though you try to direct musical character in your turn, the next person will put another character. Accordingly, the composed works often sound like polyphony of the various musical values.

The second example is called Cobra by American composer John Zorn. Cobra is a game piece played by around 10 players and a conductor, called a prompter. Players improvise following the guidance, written on the cards, which is cued by the prompter, and the prompter chooses the cards according to signs given by players.

The sign of rules written on the cards are things like "play freely", "certain people play", "change music", "change players but not music", "memorize the phrase", and so on. It is composed for professional musicians, so it sometimes is hard to play for people who are not trained or who have difficulty understanding rules. Applying the rule in community music therapy is valuable because players who have different musical backgrounds can play together. Moreover, by changing rules easier for players who have various abilities, I think the idea itself is applicable.

Figure 1. Musicians and Prompter playing Cobra (K. Makigami 1998: 109.)

Musicians and Prompter playing Cobra

Ein Scream!

From September 2004 to March 2005, I participated in a Community Music Therapy Project in Ashiya, Japan. During the project, the idea from free improvisation, Shogi Compositionand Cobrawere adopted so that every participant could take part and play freely and lively. The project was funded by Hyogo prefecture and aimed to be open to the public and to create relationship beyond therapist/ client or player/ supporter. Over 50 people were involved in throughout 10 workshops, and finally about 20 people of them performed its outcome Ein Scream! in a jazz live house. The participants included people with learning disabilities from the age of about 5 to 40, musicians, music therapists, students of music, composers and so on. This report is based on the report written by academic advisor of the project Yu Wakao and music therapist Hiroko Miyake (Wakao & Miyake, 2005).

At the beginning of the workshops, we tried to improvise freely so that every participant who had hardly played musical instruments before could play together. It seemed that they certainly enjoyed playing, but the improvised music was somewhat chaotic and it was difficult to listen to each individual sound. To solve this problem, Yusuke Kataoka, a percussionist who has a lot of experience in the music therapy field, was invited to the 5th workshop. With Kataoka's vigorous beat, the participants became really enthusiastic. All of the participants seemed to have no confusion about what to do. Their sounds were together in Kataoka's beat. After this workshop, the staff decided to perform a work with the most gripping parts of the music created during the workshops. Kataoka commented that music staffs should play more powerful sounds and suggested incorporating the idea of Shogi Composition.

At the meeting held the day before the Sixth workshop, eight leading staff members made music by Shogi Composition, playing video recorded at a previous workshop. When played in the workshop, it created a space with more intention in the sounds than previous workshops. Moreover, Shogi Composition has a polyphonic feature itself, the composed work harmonized well with free improvisation by various members. This part finally became the beginning of the work Ein Scream! The title was chosen after the word that one participant shouted during this music making workshop.

The idea of Cobra was tried at the Seventh workshop to give all participants an opportunity to play together within the structure. It was hard to make all of the participants understand the rules of Cobra, but by trying to conduct using not cards but gestures or body actions, it became easy to understand, and the music changed to become more dynamic. Changes of dynamics became possible, new parts like all players harmonizing with one particular player or solo; duets or trios were made and sometimes the conductor even changed. This part was also included in the final performance.

We then continued music making workshops and finally appeared on stage on February 15th 2005. The program was as follows: 1) Shogi Composition by three main staff members composed at a meeting for a workshop, 2.) Duo improvisation by a lady with learning disabilities and a musician, 3.) Music composed by Yusuke Kataoka and played by music staff members and 4.) Ein Scream.

The performance started at 7:00 pm. Thirty-two performers appeared on stage in all. And there were fifty-five audience participants. The performers with learning disabilities were very excited from the beginning when they entered the live house, exchanged greetings like professional musicians. Although it was a first experience for all of them to play in a jazz live house, and even late at night for them (already sleeping time for some of them), they showed intense concentration for playing as you see in the following video excerpt.

Ein Scream starts with Shogi Composition part by music staff members. After a while, people with learning disabilities join the music playing freely, and then Kataoka's drum part starts. This drum part is played by drum and voice back and forth and ends with care worker's lines. The Cobra part starts with conductor to make solo or small ensemble parts and so on. The final part is a song developed by many participants including people who don't appear on the stage. Within this work, many small parts which were developed by participants of the workshops were included.

A movie clip of Ein scream

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Ein Scream was an outcome of an experiment in organizing a music community with new music ideas and improvisation techniques from music therapy. Based on the discussions about the process of improvisation, we tried to interweave each participant's musical resources into the music. When doing free improvisation, participants seemed very happy to play instruments, but to make the music worth listening for audience, the music staff members had to play more professional sounds as guest musicians, as suggested by Kataoka. Ideas of Shogi Composition and Cobra added tension and structure to the improvisation. After the project, the chief care worker reported that all children said that they enjoyed the live performance, and their expressions were all great, if not possible to say in words.

My motivation in this project was to create a place where participants can concentrate on music-making itself and be able to communicate through music. This project aroused my interest on how it would be if music therapists, people with learning disabilities, and musicians who play free improvisation work together to create new music. It is still not known how participants will be if not intending therapeutic change but concentrating on exploring new musical expressions.


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