Music and Language

This week dear friend, Terri Murphy, sent me a link to an old Radiolab podcast on Musical Language. I am a Radiolab virgin and I have been anticipating listening to a broadcast soon, so now seems a good time.

The program was chock full of interesting stuff and, of course, I LOVED the sound based format, which went very far in illuminating THIS topic. One section focused on the work of music psychologist Diana Duestch who studies the relationship between tonal languages and musical abilitites. She demonstrated an interesting phenomenon with tonality, music and language. She took a recording of her own voice talking about her work and isolated a phrase where she put a distinct tone with each syllable. When this phrase was looped, it became a song fragment. The show really emphasized the song fragment by having musicians and singers add harmonies and improvisations over and around the fragment. Then she played the recording of her talking where this phrase was used and the brain hears her burst into song at the moment of the phrase. I laughed out loud when I heard it. I am always looking for “sound jokes” and this was one. It is the shock and joy (there’s a concept) of re-cognition. She has CDs of sound illusions, which I am going to check out.

In another segment, a neuroscientist has recorded the sound of the electrical firings in the brain when we hear sound. When we hear harmonious, consonant, rhythmic sounds these firings are very steady and even. When we hear sounds that are dissonant and arrhythmic, the firings are more erratic. Now current scientific thought is that consonance and dissonance are fixed positions in the ear. Radiolab asks the question, “What if the auditory cortex is more malleable than science thinks?” Then the hosts used the premiere of Stravinsky’s “The Rite of Spring” as an example of the possibility that people’s auditory cortex can be shaped by exposure to new musical relationships. At the Paris premiere in 1897, the audience rioted and left the theatre. A year later, the Paris audience sat enraptured. This example is fraught with cause/effect issues (a provocative ballet choreographed by Najinsky and artistic rivalries all factored into the premiere, but were not a part of the performance a year later), but the idea that the pounding, dissonant chords that drive “The Rite of Spring” contributed to the flare up is not too much of a leap for me. Especially when they talked about the neurons whose job it is to “render things pleasant” in the auditory cortex. One of the hosts even goes so far as to throw out the possibility that music/sound artists are in a tug of war with the brain. Given what we are learning about neuroplasticity, this may be the case.

There have been times when I have worked on a piece of music and cringed for a moment at some chord or passing tone that did not sound quite right to my ear. Most of the time I bring it in line with the tonal center, but, occasionally, I leave it and listen to it 5 or 6 times as I am working. If it passes this test, then I put some time between listenings. If on the next listening, it is still working in a quirky way for me, I will leave it. At these moments I feel like my auditory cortex is being redirected and reshaped to allow in some new and strange relationship. It feels expansive and I usually go for the expansiveness.

Here is a link to this very fun podcast. Enjoy !

Being in C: A Midyear Pause and Recalibration

Last week I realized that I am half way through this year long celebration of Terry Riley’s “In C” and I want to take stock of where I am. In the beginning I talked of this as a boat launching out into a vast expanse of unknown water. Being in the midst of this piece of music feels more like white water rafting at times, but I am enjoying the journey. I haven’t played it publicly as much as I thought I would, nor worked with other musicians as much as I thought I would, but it all feels OK. I am still envisioning an all night version in the Fall, but the details have not yet materialized.

As the year has progressed, the blog has come to represent something else as well. When I titled the blog in January, the thought crossed my mind that “C” often stands for cancer. In which case we needed a different title than “My Year ‘In C'” Then I got real with myself and called the blog what I wanted and didn’t give it another thought. As it turned out there was a bit of prescience happening, because cancer has made an entrance into my life. The first tap-tap-tap came when I got called back for a follow-up mammogram and was told I have a suspicious mass, schedule a biopsy, and “nice to meet you, sorry it is under these circumstances.” Well, that got my attention! What circumstances? At this point, we really do not know anything. Even though that comment did arouse some suspicion in me, I went ahead and scheduled the biopsy. The nurse accompanied me out the backdoor, making small talk and scanning me for a potential breakdown. When I hit the fresh air, I pondered my experience.

I thought that it was interesting that this young radiologist had already marked out the path my life would take from that moment onward because it looks like I might have “breast cancer.” He knows the varied ways this journey can unfold and he is the usher for the first step on the path. I am very grateful to him for overplaying his part, tipping his hand and prompting me to look a bit more closely at “these circumstances.”

As it turns out, there is alot of shifting going on in the whole cancer screening industry. While I know in my heart that the intention behind cancer screenings is a helpful one, cancer treatment itself has become a product and, as consumers, we are encouraged to buy in. So, while the technology for screening evolves faster than our understanding of what we are seeing, an industry has been built around cancer prevention and treatment. And once things get institutionalized, new information has a harder time getting in. This is especially true if the new information indicates some problems with accepted protocol and/or goes against the mission.

In my research, I found that breast screenings are now searching for “Stage Zero” cancer in the form of Ductal Carcinoma In Situ (DCIS). In 2012, the National Cancer Institute issued a paper stating that DCIS is not an actual cancer. Now this information, based on an overview of studies and measurement outcomes from the 1970s through the present, is not making its way into the minds of those who do screenings. The main reason for that is that they are in the “business of preventing breast cancer.” That is their mission and they go at it tenaciously with surgery, chemo and radiation. This was the path the young radiologist envisioned as my new “circumstances.” The business of cancer prevention is thriving, and it is efficient and effective. And research that suggests anything else is not given much credence. Look, this is how we do it, and that doesn’t fit what we believe to be true, which is what we are basing what we do on.

My brother, Paul Casseday, gave me the idea of technology evolving faster than our ability to understand what we are seeing. Some of the most recent scientific thought has been focused on actually trying to see and understand cancer. What exactly is it? Most people know cancer as an “invader.” There is this sense of a hostile takeover of the body. Our current understanding creates mistrust between mind and body, as if there isn’t enough of that already. I understand cancer to be our own sweet body’s cells, doing what they do, but way over doing it. They can only keep going and they have forgotten how to die. A tumor is a proliferation of cells. So- not an invader- just our bodies trying very hard to maintain their existence. And there is evidence that cancer cells can begin to form and then go into spontaneous remission. Why are the cells reacting in this way?

One theory that is just beginning to be investigated is that the cells are having a primal response to a hostile environment in the body. The body processes have gotten so out of balance that the cells go into an atavistic reaction mode and just reproduce. It is like all the smaller creatures that create lots of babies for survival of the species. The cells are on overdrive because they feel threatened with extinction. And, of course, there are all kinds of theories as to what might trigger this reaction. Environmental toxins, processed food, bound emotions, and Monsanto products all are key figures in creating the toxic soup that feels threatening to our bodies.

Another theory that dovetails with the one above, is that cancer is an autoimmune response. This is the Functional/Integrative Medicine approach to cancer. So the toxic outer environment triggers an aggressive immune response which creates backlogs of mucus, acids, fungus and changes in cells. Detailed blood sample panels can indicate imbalances in the body. These imbalances can be successfully treated with diet, exercise and minimal supplementation. Here I must point out the one component that few people give much credence to, but it is the linchpin in all disease – thoughts and emotions. Guilt, anger, contempt, grief, anxiety and fear can lodge in the body as a variety of illnesses including cancer. I believe cancer in particular to be an emotionally driven disease. So I cancelled the biopsy, and am working with a Functional Medicine practitioner to make changes in my diet, taking certain supplements, and using journaling, Emotional Freedom Technique and meditation to help me process emotions to a free and clear space. So my path has brought me brilliantly to here.

While I was reviewing my situation, a good friend was going through the exact same thing (even the same breast) but she had the biopsy. I accompanied her to meet with an exceptional oncological surgeon who seems to honor the idea that there might be more options than the one offered by the cancer-prevention community. While my friend’s biopsy indicated DCIS, the fact that it did not show up on an MRI was good enough to warrant a “wait and see” approval from the doc. Oh, yes, and this doctor said that statistics indicate that DCIS has a 30% to 40% chance of developing into “invasive cancer” (an oxymoron to me.) So I flipped those stats to see that there is a 60% to 70% chance that DCIS will not develop further, which my gambling gene says are pretty darn good odds.

Then a woman with whom I have a relationship that I can not even describe in words was diagnosed with ovarian cancer. She and I have not communicated in over twenty years (although I have paid attention to her various moves and achievements and we are Facebook friends) but I felt an immediate rushing back in of our loving friendship. She is blogging about her experience and I eagerly read and reread her eloquent expressions of herself and her daily experience. I comment sometimes, but mostly I am a loving witness to her process.

So “My Year ‘In C'” has resonated into the realm I had momentarily acknowledged in the beginning. But you know what? By setting aside my fear and naming the blog as I wanted, I am seeing this as an expansion of the adventure of this amazing year. I am even more interested in sound/vibrational healing and making connections between the harmonics of “In C” and healing the body.

Chinese Orchestras, Chamber Ensembles and Rock Bands, Oh My!

Over the course of the last 50 years, “In C” has been given voice by a group of what might be termed “strange bedfellows,” from the Shanghai Film Orchestra to a chamber ensemble of voices and marimbas to The Styrenes, a 1980s punk/prog rock band. So this week, I am listening, and having fun.


Here is The Styrene’s version of “In C” that was (according to the liner notes) decades in the making. “In C” was always on Styrene’s founder Paul Marotta’s radar, “From the first time I heard it, I imagined “In C” as played by a rock band.” Marotta pays wonderful tribute to the piece in stating: “On any musician who came of age in the mid-sixties, Terry Riley’s “In C” exerts an immense influence.” The Styrenes version begins with a low C bass thump playing along with the familiar high C eighth note pulse, suggesting some funkiness ahead. And it doesn’t take 30 seconds for the drums to come in. This is a rock band after all. However, these drums are not about backbeat, the rhythms are all from the score and the drummer plays through each and every pattern from the first to the last.

In the liner notes Paul Marotta states that he “knew right away” that he wanted to use a mallet instrument, and he wanted to keep the sound as “rock as possible.” To this end, he loaded up on guitar players – four to be precise. I was impressed with the guitar playing on the recording, as they all maintained an ensemble feel for the most part. Recorded in 2000, multi-track overdubbing allowed for an incredible wave of sound from ALL the instruments, and the guitars drive it beautifully.

The modulation around the introduction of F# into the piece is really breathtakingly orchestrated. The Pattern 14 long tone phrase, which initially asserts the F# into the mix, swells and rolls in a time lag loop. Then that F# tone is overcome by the driving rhythmic movement of Patterns 15 through 19, which are dominated by 32nd notes in short runs or solitary notes. Even as this drowning out of Pattern 14 is occuring, a lone voice continues to toss Pattern 14 out in the background. Then the lovely Patterns 22 – 26, with their dotted quarter notes driving the pulse, rescue the F# by swirling it upward in a supportive tonal framework- WOW! It is a like redemptive journey for the F# tone. Another example of the stories that unfold in each moment when deeply listening to this piece of music.


Paul Hiller orchestrated “In C” for mallets and voices in this 2005 Ars Nova recording. This is Ars Nova Copenhagen, a vocal ensemble and the Percurama Percussion Ensemble as directed by Hiller. Hearing “In C” through human voice is like a whirling dervish of sound. The CD cover visually replicates the wave of energy that is stirred up in the listening. This is what “In C” makes happen! I am using this CD to help me vocalize with the piece, which I intend to do next time we play! I am very excited to feel these tones rushing through me. Another thing adding to the feeling of “evoking other realms” that this recording elicits is that Terry Riley provided the singers with some sacred syllables to sing. So this recording really represents a whole other vibrational level beyond any other recordings to date. Remember that Terry is opening up a vortex for us. At the very least, this a chakra stirrer for sure! And it is stirring up more, I feel. I have not been this high in years!!!!!

(Focus, Jude! End blog post soon.) But first, I must say that I appreciate Robert Carl’s presence on this path. His book, Terry Riley’s In C, has been a wonderful companion to dialogue with about this incredible sound generating forever morphing work of sonic art. His writings are insightful and always give me much to think about.

And I hope to bring more recordings to your attention in the future. Like that Shanghai Film Orchestra – I really want to hear them!

But, till then, check out the second half of The Acid Mothers Temple version of “In C.”



Observations While Pacing the Lawn

After having outsourced the lawn mowing for the last two summers, I am back in the yard with a brand new battery powered mower – a Black and Decker v36 – and a renewed attitude about yardwork, or, as as I call it, “beating back the out of doors.” All the cutting and lopping and weeding seems as futile as dusting, but that is another story. Lets just say I do only as much yardwork as I absolutely have to. When Carlito said he needed a contract to mow every two weeks, that was my cue to get on board with the mowing again. The lawn does NOT need mowing every two weeks, at the most, every 3 weeks; and, during those drought summers, once every 2 MONTHS. Who knows what this summer will bring? Trudie got a mower and I am back pacing the lawn once again.

Today is the perfect day to do yardwork. I have all day. I know what I want to get done. The temperature is 75 degrees and the humidity is low. Bright blue sky with moderate amounts of various sized puffy white clouds over head. The mowing experience is much better this time round cause it is battery-powered, not electric, which means no more waltzing with the power cords. I love being able to mow a straight line all the way across the yard, and then turn around and walk back. Simple.

The grounds around our house are gorgeous thanks to Trudie, who tends to them daily. She loves checking on her little plants, giving them water, weeding and watching them grow. It is so sweet. She is growing some food, which is very exciting to both of us. I, on the other hand, I love the way plants take care of themselves. Only occasionally do they reach up and say, ” Give us a hand here, will you?” and that is my sign to take tool in hand and shear them back to a comfortable length. The rest they do on their own. And I am grateful!

So many thoughts come and go as I pace squares, curves and circles through out the yard. Mowing is quite meditative in a highly stimulating way. There is noise, movement, and numerous obstacles to shake up the center peace of the whole situation, but I keep moving and breathing. It really helps to feel my body alignment, what muscles are working and when, as I squeeze the handle, push, stop, and pull the mower. Breathing into those physical energy centers thins the flow of thoughts.

Then I start to really notice things. How thick the grass is, all the growth patterns in the yard, the baby crying next door, cars going round the culdesac. Suddenly, a black swallowtail butterfly flashes its neon blue and circles my head, twice. I stop the mower, so I can watch. She flies up on to a small, thin outcrop of branch and sits with her wings closed. She is shaped like an arrowhead and points toward the sky. I meet her for what seems like an eternity. When I speak her name. she flies up, around and away. That is how delicate and instantaneous our connection is. Too much effort and it shifts, sometimes more than I want it to. Just like my relationships with people I deeply love.

Recent meditations have revealed another “foible of me” – I have a nurturing disability. I am not a “born” nurturer. My nurturing instinct is called forth in certain times and with certain people, but it does not feel readily available to me. Nurturing feels like an important aspect of unconditional love. I know that my goal is to love unconditionally, so, for now, I sit with the question “Who is nurturing? ” and wait for a truth to reveal itself.

The lawn is shaven and looks neat and trim. This is a satisfying look, as it does appear tended and serene. I prefer it long, thick and wispy with the white clover tops showing. Ultimately. they are both only looks. Hahhaha- the lawn probably appreciates both! Lessons from the lawn!

What does all this have to do with “In C?” I haven’t been near the piece for weeks. One of my mowing thoughts was about how we can love something so intensely and magically that sometimes we just need a break, a breather, some still time away. I still fear the overwhelming aspects of surrender that deep engagement will lead to. So this week has been focused on completing a music project for a friend’s retirement party and reflecting on the healing power of love. I will get back to “In C” soon.