Spirits in the material world

spirit soul photo

This past weekend I had an experience that will likely be familiar to anyone who’s done any amount of solo travelling. I found myself (with my family, in this case) in a new place, with a small group of new people, in a fairly isolated environment, in which we interacted fairly intensively for a few days. 

It probably helped that we were pretty off-grid, with little or no cell phone or wifi service, and so forced to be more in the moment than is perhaps the norm for most people these days in our hyperconnected (but strangely disconnected) world.

We cooked together, ate and cleaned up together, talked and sang and joked and walked and talked some more together. And the world did that thing where it gets really small – that little house in the countryside was the whole world for those few days, and those people, previously unknown, seemed very quickly like close friends.

It’s a nice thing, and I hadn’t experienced it for a while.

During our final meal together one of my new friends asked me, in the course of conversation, an interesting question. It was a question that initially made me slightly uncomfortable, since it brought up some old and long-suppressed thoughts and feelings, and I felt like I needed to give it some thought in order to properly contextualize my answer. The conversation moved along before I could do that (the problem with wanting to answer questions properly is that sometimes the world doesn’t want to wait around for you to get your thoughts together), and the moment was gone. But I’m left with the question, and it won’t go away. 

So I’m going to try to answer it here…

When is a piano not a piano?

The context of the question was that my wife and I were trying to describe a tiny, smoky, wonderfully charming and sadly long defunct jazz club here in Berlin, called the Bebop Bar. One of the best things about this place was its tiny little half-height parlour piano, a Manthey Klaviano. It was objectively a pretty terrible instrument, in purely technical terms; it was old, the action was uneven and clattery, pretty much the entire bass section was virtually unplayable and made sort of vague low thumping sounds… not, in other words, a pristine concert grand. A funky old bar piano. 

But somehow, despite all of that, it was magical. There were a couple of really great players in our circle, and we used to sit around talking about how it was somehow impossible to play badly; it just seemed to draw the best out of whoever played it. We loved it. I was trying to describe that dichotomy. 

The question that my friend asked me was, “Do you believe that instruments have spirits?”

Now, I should probably explain, especially for anyone who hasn’t read a lot of my work here, that there’s a pretty big side of me that is staunchly rationalist. I come from a family full of scientists and I tend to be very convinced by rational explanations of how the world works, and skeptical about most things overtly spiritual, supernatural or paranormal. This was not always the case, which we will come to shortly, but it’s been my primary bias for a while now. 

The person asking the question had given me the impression they were substantially more open to spiritual ideas than I tend to be, though that may be an assumption on my part. 

So of course my initial impulse was to give a kneejerk, reductionist answer: No, instruments are mechanical objects, tools, refined and beautifully crafted perhaps, interesting, charming or ‘characterful’ maybe (whatever that means)… but nothing more.

And yet…

Are you experienced?

I’ve had a number of experiences in my life that challenge that die-hard rationalist side of me, and more than a few of them have been in musical contexts. I’ve had many experiences where playing a particular instrument is a surprising, inexplicable experience, in which I play differently than on any other. I’ve had experiences where I feel like I’m watching over my own shoulder, as my fingers do things I simply do not know how to do.

Now, I’m not saying that these experiences are empirically inexplicable, or that they are necessarily connected to a specific instrument; they are likely an amalgam of the environment, the playing situation (whether solo or with other performers), in some cases the heightened focus and concentration of a performance or a recording session, my own mental and/or emotional state at the time, and so on.

Nevertheless, they are experiences, moments, that have consistently challenged my inner skeptic. They have transcended, for me at least, the boundaries of reductionist explanation. They don’t make sense. Or rather, they make a different *kind* of sense, but one that flies happily in the face of my rational bias. 

I’ve even been lucky enough to get a few of these moments ‘down on tape’, as it were…

(This is actually one of the reasons I can enjoy listening to my own music… because I feel that in many ways it isn’t ‘mine’; I was just there, a part of the moment and the creative experience to be sure, but not fully in control. If I had been fully in control it wouldn’t have come out like that. It would probably be much, much less interesting, and listening to it would be uncomfortable because I would be aware of its flaws and therefore my own limitations. Since I don’t really feel like I ‘made it’ in the sense that I think most people imagine, I can sidestep that whole narrative of self-criticism. It was just a wonderful moment that I was lucky to be a part of. 

The interesting thing, the magic, whatever you want to call it, comes from letting go of control, from surrendering to the moment and everything and everyone else involved in it. Bringing my knowledge and abilities and creativity to it, yes, but not controlling it.)

So I want to think this question through a bit more, and provide a bit more context to how I think about these things, in order to arrive at an answer I can be comfortable with.

I think there are lessons about creativity and music, and perhaps about spirituality, to be gleaned along the way.

But I’m afraid I have to start with the fundamental nature of reality, and how I understand it… so, you’ve been warned.

What on earth am I on about now? Bear with me…

The stories we tell…

We do not see the world as it is. Our eyes and ears and brains do more than describe the world. We make it. The world you experience is yours alone. It is a story you are telling yourself. It is based on sensory input, yes, but interpreted very generously. Your brain is taking in that raw sensory data and editing the hell out of it, and trying to make some sort of cohesive picture of what is happening, on the fly, as it goes along. The resulting narrative is based at least as much on what you have ‘experienced’ in the past (the stories you’ve told yourself before) as on the raw data your brain is trying to make sense of.

And everyone you’ve ever met, everyone and everything else in the world, is doing that too, through their own personal lenses. And this informs and affects the ‘realities’ that we live in on a very basic level.

This is not a pet theory of mine, it’s pretty established cognitive science.

But we tend to act very much as if the world were objectively real and exactly the way we personally think it is. We become intensely invested in, and defensive of our particular personal story, convinced that it is right and that anyone with a different interpretation is therefore wrong. And if we have any self-respect at all we need to prove them wrong, and ourselves right.

This leads to a great deal of pain and emotional violence. It’s kind of at the heart of our dysfunctional human condition. 

Without getting into convoluted discussions about confirmation bias, or the Dunning-Kruger effect, I want to bring my little question into the context of this understanding of the world.

I guess what I’m getting at is that to answer this question we need to define the term. What is a spirit? Do you and I, or my new friend and I, mean the same thing when we use this word?

High definition

When my new friend posed her question, my brain made certain assumptions about what she meant, in order to fit her and her question into the story I tell myself about the world. Based on our very limited time together, and also based on my own frame of reference on what is meant by such a term, an image formed in my mind. I assumed she meant an ethereal but sentient being, entwined inextricably with the physical object of an instrument. Of course I don’t know if that’s what she intended, but in that moment it’s what I had to work with.

So, do I think a funky old piano in a smoky Berlin jazz club has an individuated, sentient/conscious intelligence, with which I am communicating with as I play it?

The reductionist skeptic in me clearly wants to say no. But if I accept that something is happening, something that I can’t entirely explain but I can definitely feel and experience… I can also easily accept that someone might take that input and build it into a different storyline where that’s precisely what was happening. Which story is ‘correct’?

If a fellow musician told me that she experienced her performance on, say, her beloved cello (a random example), as a direct communication between herself and the spirit of her instrument… part of my brain might say privately, Whoa, that’s pretty out there… but another side of me would say, OK, fair enough! I know the feeling that you’re describing. I might not choose the same words to describe it myself, my brain might spin a different story out of those raw materials, but that doesn’t change the fact that I can accept what you’re saying and I think I understand what you mean by it. It ‘makes sense’ to me – not rational sense, but another kind. 

Fishin’ for Religion

I’ve been interested in, and investigated to various degrees, a number of different spiritual traditions over the course of my lifetime. I’m a curious person, and I managed to figure out fairly early on that life seemed infinitely more interesting, full and colourful if I stopped subscribing unquestioningly to a single interpretation of reality.

I grew up going to a Christian church but have since explored (without ever really practising any of them) various flavours of Buddhism, Shamanism, Hinduism, Sufism, Gnosticism, various Native American traditions, and so on. I would never position myself as any kind of expert on any of them, but I’ve been interested in all of them at one point or another. Each is a story about the world, and holds a particular wisdom and specific insights. None is ‘right’, none is ‘wrong’, in my opinion. They are narratives, or perhaps more correctly meta-narratives that underpin their adherents’ personal narratives. 

I guess the belief that my piano – which is around 100 years old, and carries its history in every nuance of its soft, gentle sound – or the one I grew up with, built in 1898 and in my family for generations, which I recorded my latest solo piano album on – or the Steinway that I chose for my first fully improvised concert recording – the belief that they have individual spirits, with which I commune when I play, might be considered a form of Animism. I’ve always had a certain attraction to Animism; the part of my brain which doesn’t quite accept reductionist thinking has always felt like it makes a certain kind of sense. Not rational sense, but another kind. 

The way we imbue certain objects with ‘sentimental value’, the way we might love an old hat, or a favorite walking stick, or a beloved house… this acknowledges that an object can be more than an object, can have more importance than its strictly practical utility. It carries the weight of its history, of the feelings we associate with it.

So I guess in the end I have to say yes. I believe that an instrument can be much more than the sum of its parts, can be more than a collection of strings and wood and felt and brass, or whatever it’s made of. And given that I believe that, I find it perfectly acceptable to describe that ‘something more’ as a spirit, or in any case in spiritual terms. How else to describe it?

I think any object can be seen through this lens, and certainly any object deeply entwined with the mysterious and transcendent experience we call creativity. 

I like the idea of seeing and feeling the creative process as a dialog with something mysterious, whether I see that as living specifically in my instrument or as a larger, Universal force or energy. I’ve always liked this idea – the aliveness of music. I wrote about it in the extensive ‘liner notes’ of my first album, Passage, 25 years ago. 

spirits photo

Reduce, reuse, recycle. 

So I guess that also means I have to accept putting limits on rationality. SOME limits. In very specific circumstances. Not throwing the baby out with the bathwater, but accepting that it’s not always and everywhere and in every situation the best or the only way to think about things. 

I think for the most part science is still our best tool for making sense of the world around us in a way that circumvents our inbuilt tendencies towards confirmation bias, towards blindly accepting narratives that reinforce what we’ve already decided to believe. I think most people, and the world at large, would be better off if we were more rational and less emotional.

BUT I think that reductionism is still just a narrative. It’s one way of interpreting the data. It’s enormously useful in most ways, in most situations… but not necessarily the most helpful interpretation when it comes to creative work.

Let me put it this way. It’s probably entirely possible to reduce what happens between me and a piano to its technical components – the physics of the instrument and of sound, the biomechanics of my body and muscle memory of my fingers, the neurons firing in my brain, the peculiar applied mathematics of music theory… 

But none of that describes the experience I have when music starts to happen, when the ‘aliveness’ of the moment starts to tell me (in ways I cannot describe but which most creative people will recognize) which way it wants to go… and above all, when I surrender to that and let it happen through me.

A spiritual narrative, much as my rational brain balks at it, simply fits my experience of that moment better. It’s more interesting, and more fun. 

The reductionist model is kind of boring. It doesn’t inspire me. It makes me hyper-aware of all the flaws in my technique, the limitations of my musical knowledge, the imperfections of my instrument. It doesn’t acknowledge that the specificity of all of those things can lead to strange and inexplicable magic. That kind of sucks. 

The spiritual model invites me to play with a mysterious, elusive but fascinating partner. Call me crazy, but that’s a whole lot more enticing. 

And with that, I’m going to go play my piano!