Improvising with synchronistic experiences

Ross Bolleter and Rowan Hammond

This article first appeared in NMA 9 magazine. The authors discuss and analyse a group of improvisatory pieces where performances occur at the same time, but in different places.

This article sets out, albeit tentatively, the genesis of some of the ideas, notions, hunches and guesses that inform my preoccupation with synchronicity and music. In recent years my work as an improviser has grown increasingly out of literary and philosophical models and metaphors, not in the sense that music is some kind of programmatic translation of the metaphors, but in the sense that the metaphors and models interact with the music to set up relationships that are ironic and likely to raise questions.

The search for synchronicities and the ceremonies that are contrived to encourage their occurrence should be seen in one sense as ironic: a kind of minor theatre that informs and comments on the musical enterprise in something like the way that Satie's performance directions function in his piano pieces ( Ouvrez la tete - `open your head').

I have a predilection for audiences working out their own notions of meaning and structure in performance, and take pleasure in setting up situations whereby the audience is not quite sure whether they are getting information about the piece or whether they are irrevocably involved in it. This is an idea which has been worked in a great variety of ways by composers as diverse as Althoff, Burt, Cage and Linz as well as by Ed Harkins and Phil Larson in the music theatre duo THE. In spite of its wide currency it seems to have the potential for further development.

Another form of play which invites investigation is the subtle shifting of the boundaries in conventional concert going, especially where radios go proxy for performers, and a kind of mirror play of presence and absence results ( That Time (Simulplay II), Pocket Sky ).

Then there is the fascination with difficult or `impossible' situations: (the performance is eternal if the instructions are carried out; there will be a set of musical relationships set up even though the performers cannot hear each other; the music is created while the attention or the intellectual gaze is averted.)

As I am primarily an improviser, much of my work grows in response to highly specific, unrepeatable and always changing circumstances. As such my work has never become deeply immersed in the formal legacies of 20th Century European tradition, except as a source of pastiche (applying all the resources of total serialisation to well loved songs like La Vie en Rose ). A background in playing (un)popular accordion and cocktail piano, as well as a passion for Argentinian tango, keeps me well clear of the music departments of Colleges of Advanced Education and Universities.

Some of the recent developments in the use of Chaos Theory to generate musical structure are of particular interest. The notion in C20th Music that the overall structure of a piece can be encoded in its tiniest units and that the microcosmic aspects can be used to determine its macrocosmic design, has been around for a long time (going back at least as far as Webern's Concerto ); as a metaphor for `self-similarity' from Chaos Theory it seems to admit a variety of approaches. In Pocket Sky some of the notated stretches will play with the smallest units being encoded in the overall structure and vice versa. This derives from Bohm's notions of enfolded implicate orders and Aquinas' notion of tota simul existens where the (eternal) present enfolds all past and future moments within itself.

One of the difficulties of this kind of work is the temptation to literalise models and metaphors in musical terms. The working process is thus directed towards getting beyond the duplication of structures and into the region of playfulness where text and music can work on each other from a variety of angles - reinforcing, colliding, contradicting and occasionally agreeing.

Finally, the term synchronous is used to refer to events which occur at the same time, and synchronistic to indicate the experience of events that are connected acausally, usually taking place at the same time and meaningful to the person who experiences them.

A preliminary look at synchronicity: some definitions and general notions

Jung, whose work is seminal in this area, invented the term synchronicity to indicate the meaningful coincidence of similar or identical thoughts, dreams or other events occurring at the same time in different places. A celebrated instance of this kind of experience, which is drawn from Jung's psychotherapeutic practice is as follows:

"I walked with a woman patient in a wood. She tells me about the first dream in her life that made an everlasting impression on her. She had seen a spectral fox coming downstairs in her parental home. At this moment a real fox comes out of the trees not forty yards away and walks quietly on the path ahead of us for several minutes. The animal behavesas if it were a partner in the situation". [1]

This experience has several features that are characteristic of Jung's notion of synchronicity. Firstly, there is a characteristic `inner' state - the dream of the fox, which at the moment of its recounting is matched by a corresponding `outer' event - the appearance of the fox. Secondly, there is no conceivable causal connection between the recounting of the dream and the appearance of the fox. Jung describes such occurrences as acausal. Thirdly, the complex of events is meaningful; the appearance of the fox resonates with an immensely significant dream. It is as though the fox appears to confirm what has happened and what is happening in the depths of the psyche. Fourthly, the re-telling of the dream occurs at the `same time' as the appearance of the fox on the path (that is, the re-telling of the dream and the appearance of the fox are synchronous). In some synchronistic experiences the events take place at the same time, although this isn't a necessary condition for an experience to be considered synchronistic.

In fact, Jung and other psychologists such as Progoff and Bolen regularly include as synchronistic experiences complexes where, for instance, the dream and the corresponding event in the external world occur at different times. On these grounds some precognitive dreams can be regarded as synchronistic experiences.

Some synchronistic experiences reveal a deep connection between events that we would normally think of as belonging to separate categories of experience, for example, dreaming or thinking on one hand and the occurrence of events in the `external world' on the other. When synchronicities occur there is a sense that what happens inside (in thoughts, feeling and dreams) mirrors and connects with the world outside and vice versa. In this way our isolation from the world is overcome, at least momentarily. It may be that synchronistic experiences are like a foretaste of unitive or mystical experiences, where individuals lose to a greater or lesser degree their separation from the world.

In looking at musical phenomena in the light of theories of synchronicity I have not drawn on the foregoing classical account of synchronistic events (which involve the acausal and meaningful connections of the `inner' and `outer' worlds) but rather have chosen to work with the characterisation of synchronistic events suggested by Progoff: [2]

"When two or more events take place at a given moment of time without either having caused the other but with a distinctly meaningful relationship existing between them beyond the possibilities of coincidences, that situation has the basic elements of Synchronicity. Events of this type usually involve different individuals or groups."

This description does not buy as heavily as Jung's into the conjunction between the internal realm of dream (and desires, thoughts etc) and the `external world'. I feel more comfortable dealing with musical events as belonging to the `external world' and attempting to investigate their meaningfulness by looking at my own and other people's responses to them. This is not to suggest that Jung's classical conjunction of dreams (and other `inner events') with events in the external world is without profit in this enterprise. Indeed, musicians involved in Pocket Sky are asked to keep a diary of dreams that occur (before and after) the performance.

The background and context of That Time (Simulplay II)

Devising and organising pieces where the musicians are widely separated in space, but are playing in the same time interval, proceeded quite naturally from improvisational circumstances which arose in conventional spaces. My earliest experiences were playing with other improvisers in situations which were highly convergent, where the musicians strove to create a highly cohesive music based on listening closely to each other and staying together, as for example in modal jazz, and similarly, modal `reflective' or New Age music. As I became more engrossed in free improvisation, I discovered more and more divergent approaches to the creation of music; these included the limiting case where neither musician listens to the other, but resolutely pursues their own path. On listening back to tapes of the improvisations I discovered that what seemed horribly anarchic in performance actually jointed together quite well when one listened back, and that all sorts of subtle interconnections occurred between the players, of which I was quite unaware during the performance. From this I was led to consider the possibility that similar interconnections might exist, even if the players could not hear each other at all, say when they were playing in geographically separate locations. I thought of these interconnections, if they occurred at all, as being at least potentially synchronistic.

To test this out, in January 1987, as part of the Rooftops Projects, a session of free improvisation was arranged with Philip Kakulas (double bass) playing at a home in City Beach and myself (playing prepared piano) at my own home in Mt. Lawley. Both performances were separately recorded. We used a countdown by telephone so that the recordings could be mixed synchronously onto 1/2" tape. The recording lasted for forty five minutes and contained many textural overlaps between double bass/piano and a glorious common synchronous silence lasting some 15 seconds (about 6 minutes from the start). Each performer devised a poem for the performance. With these poems, as with the music, style and content were left entirely up to the performer. There was no prior discussion as to the nature or placement of those poems in the piece.

My poem was entitled Dim Tim and the Macrocosm (Dim Tim being the name of a kitten that I had recently met). To my intense surprise a cat turned up on the recording at Philip's end, miaowing during the reading of his poem and jumping up on his tape recorder near the end of the session and turning it off (at approximately the time I was intoning `Dim Tim'). This experience was quite uncanny. I am not sure what meaning or significance should be attached to it, beyond saying that the performance felt from my end strangely emotional generally, perhaps indicating the presence of archetypal activity.

The Rooftops Synchronous improvisation was followed in 1989 by recordings with Michal Murin and his performance collective in Bratislava, Czechoslovakia on May 1, 1989 (Mayday), and with Stephen Scott in Colorado Springs on October 1989. Both pieces were intuitive with no guidance as to style or content of the performance specified in advance. The latter piece, Transglobal Musings included an eerie cross over of myself playing in a fairly open style of solo jazz piano while Stephen Scott tuned into a radio station broadcasting a jazz program with an Australian announcer. The collaboration with Michal Murin was devoid of any musical events that might even begin to suggest synchronistic activity, interesting as it was in a theatrical-political sense.

It was in early 1989 that I conceived the idea of creating performance pieces that involved an audience who could experience intuitive performances brought to them by radio(s) from different parts of the world. The first of these was Simulplay I (September 1989) which linked Jim Denley (flute) in Linz, Austria with myself (on piano and accordion) in the the ABC radio studios in Perth. Jim Denley was playing for a live audience with myself, somewhat delayed, coming by radio in the Brucknerhaus for Ars Electronica. I was joined by Caroling Henning, a work experience student, on plastic trombone. For this performance, a timing scheme was devised, whereby Jim could hear me, but I could only hear him periodically, so the relationship between the two musicians was partly interactive and partly intuitive. Because Simulplay I is partly interactive it falls outside the scope of any analysis for synchronistic activity.

That Time (Simulplay II) : Specifics

That Time (Simulplay II) [3] is an intuitive piece for two musicians on opposite sides of a continent, playing at the same time, but unable to hear each other. There is no prior consultation as to the style or content of the piece. The two performances are transmitted by radio signal and landline to a concert audience listening via two separate broadcasts in one location. The two `absent' performers - who can't hear each other - are brought into a performance space for an audience which experiences both of them. The two radio sets take on a theatrical `performing' role.

More specifically Ryszard Ratajczak played double bass in Studio 210 of ABCFM Sydney from 11.00pm - 11.27pm on the night of October 9, 1989 while I played piano and prepared piano in Studio 21 of ABCFM Perth between 9.00pm and 9.27pm of the same night. Ratajczak's performance came via land line and mine via 6UVS FM to two radio sets in a room at the Perth Institute of Contemporary Arts (PICA), where an audience of some thirty people had gathered as part of the Artrage Festival.

Simultaneously, my performance was being sent by satellite to Sydney ABCFM and Ratajczak's was going live to air on ABCFM's programme The Listening Room in Eastern and Central Australia at 11.00pm, and two hours later on delay in Western Australia. In this regard the performance of That Time (Simulplay II) at PICA (`unencumbered by musicians') was unique to that audience and venue.

Insofar as its outcome in performance could not be foreseen, That Time (Simulplay II) was and is an experimental piece.

From the perspective of the musicians and the audience anything could happen. So it is surprising that what does happen is so orderly, so complementary and cohesive. The following general considerations may well have had an influence.

That Time (Simulplay II) presents an `impossible situation' for the performers - a limiting case where the ordinary channels of communication are closed. My sense is that this has a profound psychological impact on the performers rather like that described by F. David Peat as `The Gambler'. [4]

"An extreme example of the release of psychic energy occurs with what Jungians call `The Gambler', the person who must risk everything on the turn of a metaphoric card. In many cases a patient is at the end of his or her tether with all resources exhausted and no hope remaining. In symbolic terms this is not unlike the person who has reached the final door in a castle, who has one magical wish left, who faces a dragon, or who is on the point of death. In such circumstances all the energies are focussed and concentrated upon the final turn of a card and synchronicities are bound to occur."

Technical problems with the lines, and the clear and irrevocable sense of not being broadcast at all, engendered a kind of resignation on one hand and a desperate energy on the other. This may have tapped into the kind of archetypal realm of `The Gambler'.

My sense too is that in this kind of intuitive piece the musicians are subconsciously straining to communicate across a great distance. This is something like the situation in C19th America where Chinamen, working as virtual slave labourers, would dig a hole in the earth `towards China', get into it, call out to China as Mother and send messages home [5] . Perhaps in a way the great isolation and sense of distance to be `overcome' activates deep levels of the psyche and puts the musicians in touch with those realms of the collective unconscious where synchronicities are likely to occur.

I hope that the foregoing considerations can count against the objections (to enterprises like That Time (Simulplay II) ) that are couched in such terms as "Might as well just tune into a couple of different radio stations and leave them both on."

The challenges thrown up by the `impossible situation' of no communication, isolation and distance may have helped the musicians tap psychologic resources normally unavailable, and this in turn may have created `an atmosphere' where synchronistic events could occur.

Then there is the issue of Ryszard Ratajczak's and my long shared background in free improvisation, going back to 1981. We would play and record regularly, and during 1981 we performed in a short lived group which played at the Perth Jazz Society. In 1985 and 1986 we played together in the two Perth Festivals of Improvised Music and recorded Another Time [6] after the second of those festivals, in April 1986.

It was certainly Ratajczak's extraordinarily free and imaginative use of the double bass, and as he termed it, his `sonoric' language which drove me to explore the inside of the piano for sonorities that would match and complement the sounds he could draw from the double bass. These effects were then incorporated into my solo playing and from there I gradually moved into using more and more prepared piano, especially in solo works ( Temple of Joyous Bones, 1985). The outcome of this was the use of prepared piano in Another Time (1986). After that recording we did not play together until 1989 ( That Time (Simulplay II) ).

Against this background of interaction it might be argued that we shared a common language and that there were bound to be echoes, overlaps and `synchronicities' everywhere. There is some justice in this charge. However, for the performance of That Time (Simulplay II) I used for the first time two pianos (one prepared, one unprepared) to be played at the same time, and strove for a much more variegated language and expressive range than hitherto, as I sensed, or thought I sensed, and increasing bulk and power in Ratajczak's playing during the period when I had not seen nor heard him. What turned out to be the case was that his playing, at least on That Time (Simulplay II) was a great deal more minimal, even tonal at times. Whereas formerly his improvisations had proceeded virtually without a break, now there were silences here and there: now too, the unrelenting fury had given way to a more lyrical approach. I am not sure what his expectations of my performance style were.

Is That Time (Simulplay II) synchronistic? In terms of Progoff's idea: [7]

"When two or more events take place at a given moment of time without either having caused the other but with a distantly meaningful relationship existing between them beyond the possibilities of coincidence, that situation has the basic elements of Synchronicity. Events of this type usually involve different individuals or groups."

There seem to be meaningful arrangements of musical events (Simulplay II) which cannot be adequately accounted for by a causal explanation. Whether the chance of such meaningful arrangements occurring goes beyond mere coincidence is not clear.

What are meaningful arrangements of musical events? For the purposes of the present discussion, the meaningful arrangement should involve the similarity or identity of elements that are

-melodic -rhythmic or metric -harmonic (with respect to chord, key or unification of musical activity around a single note) -textural -formal and structural or combinations of these elements. With formal and structural elements are included synchronous silences and regions of the piece where the musicians `impulsively' pick up the threads of a new development at the same time.

There are passages too where there seems to be a high degree of rapport between the musicians - dialogues, melodies with sensitive accompaniment and pseudo canons.

As Rowan Hammond points out in her analysis of That Time (Simulplay II), from 5'44" to 15'06 (included on the following page), it is easy to hear the piece as synchronistic merely because the elements are so complementary. There is an easy blending of sonorities between the instruments in the first place, moreover, as in the first five and a half minutes, both instruments persist with a very narrow range of ideas, the bass playing a simple slowly-developing tremolo figure and the piano heavy broken chords interspersed with short melodic figures. The rhythmic constancy of the bass's tremolo rivets the textures together and the overall effect is extremely composed.

Perhaps this indicates some deeply co-operative and synchronistic connection between the musicians. However I have, like Rowan Hammond, been less inclined to take these disparate elements into account and have paid more attention to regions where there are more `similar' elements in play.

Finally, I have only considered elements to be potentially synchronistic where they are synchronous or not separated by more than a few seconds. Even with these limitations there was a rich assortment of possibilities.

Hammond concludes her analysis by stating:

"The hardest aspect of analysing an improvisation such as That Time (Simulplay II) for synchronistic events is to try to ignore the classical notion of the complementarity of the two parts. Literally this means that the two or more parts join to make a whole, like the violin and piano parts which form equal halves of a violin sonata by Mozart or Beethoven. In detecting synchronistic events it is hard to ignore sections which occur and form a whole in this way; so it makes us question the meaning of a synchronistic event. Is it two similar events occurring simultaneously, or is it where, in music, two separate performers play complementary ideas which form a whole? This analysis has sought mainly to affirm the first question by looking in a detailed way at the most obvious section from 5'40" to 15'06" of the original and complete recording."

The section which seems to be most likely synchronistic is the glissando duet between 11'40" and 12'31". This unanimity of purpose continues into the section beginning at 12'31" when the bass line consists of a highly lyrical melody supported by the accompanying piano part, with many notes in common between the two parts.

The whole enterprise, especially between 7'12" and the 15'06" seems uncannily cohesive, with a sense that the musicians are taking turns to support each other and are responding to each other's impulse for change. In other words there is what we would ordinarily term to be meaningful musical activity.

The gullible and the credulous like myself will find that the connectedness is acausal and that the configurations are meaningful; sceptics are unlikely to be convinced and will point to the shared background and shared musical language of the two musicians. I leave this issue to the reader and to the debate that this article will hopefully engender.

That Time (Simulplay II)

Analysis by Rowan Hammond
(This section of That Time (Simulplay II) appears on NMATAPE 9)

Piano Double Bass
5'44" Piano solo encompasses a large range. The heavy chords from the beginning are still present.
The style is lyrical and legato.
5'44" Not playing.
6'27" More percussively used here with low, short notes prepared beginning to be introduced. 6'27" Double bass joins in with pizzicati.
6'45" (Short, low notes become more dominant and seem to echo the pizzicati of the bass.) More prepared notes are introduced and this increases the percussive nature of this section. 6'45" As before - percussive and more `busy'.
7'12" After the previous section fades out the piano begins a gradual acceleration which reaches a steady `plodding' rhythm. Both instruments adhere to the same conductable pulse set up by the piano. 7'12" The bass fits in with this rhythm and cross syncopations result between the parts.
7'50" The regular rhythm decays and is replaced by short phrases separated by small silences. Both instruments play in short bursts, mostly together. 7'50"
8'16 An upward glissando signals the beginning of the bass solo. The piano accompaniment, particularly after the initial section, when it moves into a much higher register, is almost minimal and provides good contrast to the bass solo.
In the higher register more prepared notes are used.
8'16" The bass is dominant here. Pizzicato two-note chords with sustained, wide vibrato are an obvious feature of the totally pizzicato solo. Although the piano's minimal accompaniment provides contrast, the bass solo also involves similar repetition of limited pitches and ideas.
10'07" The first notes in the lower register, coupled with the short silence, seem to occur in the gaps between the bass pizzicato and arco notes. 10'07" Arco notes are introduced again in this extensive bass solo. Very fast tremolo-like bowing is used to play notes from a wide pitch range.

10'56" Glissandi introduced
10'10" Glissandi introduced.
11'40" The piano part uses mostly the prepared notes which gliss upwards after the initial attack.
This is a similar sounding idea to the bass glissandi. These prepared notes are mostly high in pitch and complement the bass part. There is also an amount of `noise' associated with the prepared notes, so this is also similar.
11'40" The bass part suddenly changes to rapid glissandi up and down, one string at a time, on harmonics. They seem to consist of chords of harmonics with some low noise. Occasionally the bass rests on single `real' notes (as opposed to harmonics) and these seem to foreshadow the next section.
12'30" Chords and notes similar to those in the previous section coincide with important notes in the bass melody. At the climax of this solo, after the staccato low note, the piano drops out completely as if to allow the bass to be more expressive. The piano re-enters with short groups of fast notes which build in dynamic and speed.
These groups seem to gather momentum until the piano is playing almost continuously. Many prepared notes are used here.
12'30" Suddenly the style changes to a slower, much more lyrical melody which is suggestive of Max Bruch's Kol Nidrei.
After this climax, the re-entry of the piano signals the descent of the bass melodic line.
The bass introduces a wide vibrato note which then gradually disappears to be replaced by isolated bowed notes.
13'41" A prepared `pedal' is set up in the left hand while the right hand repeats a much used motif three times. After the third time, the piano plays the resolving trill.
The introduction of the foreign notes into the bass part acts as a signal for the piano to introduce extra notes as well. The new set of pitches is then repeated with an acceleration and deceleration which leads on to the next section.
13'41" A bowed harmonic glissando marks the beginning of this section.
Two low, and very resonant bowed notes, played after the first and second repetitions, seem to act as `dominants' to the surprisingly tonal harmony here.
On the third repetition, the bass glisses downward, corrupting the sense of tonality with the addition of foreign notes.
15'06" 15'06"

Some compositional possibilities arising from That Time (Simulplay II)

The ABC has a policy of delaying the broadcast of programmes in Western Australia by two hours, so that programmes go to air `at the same time', eg at 8.00pm throughout Australia, instead of at 8.00pm (EST) and 6.00pm (WST). This consideration, which exists for administrative convenience, enabled the audience of That Time (Simulplay II) to experience it as a `live' performance at the Perth Institute of Contemporary Arts and then as an ABC radio programme two hours later.

As it turns out it is quite a simple procedure to get rid of the delay, or to have delay times other than two hours. This opens up the possibility of having performers in remote locations coming via landline(s) to an audience. At a given time, say five minutes later, a radio broadcast of their playing could overtake the performance being transmitted by landline and whole sets of possibilities for (ironic) cross reference and commentary can be set in motion.

Radio stations have a built-in delay for talkback programmes of 7 seconds. This allows an additional and more refined sliding scale of differentiation between performance times and seems an effective way to set up canonic possibilities especially where musicians are performing `material in common'.

Imagine a number of radio stations in different part of the world with different delay systems, for example, one that takes 5 minutes before a full 7 second delay is operating, another taking 3 minutes and so on. In this way a variety of canonic and similar processes can be engineered without the musicians having to hear each other to make it possible.

On a smaller scale there is a transmission delay of one quarter to half a second when satellite resources are used in broadcasting. If a precise timing plan for performance is followed, a humourous attempt at simultaneity can be set up and a vague ballet of rhythmic `interactions' becomes possible. The foregoing suggests the possibility of displacing audiences in both time and space so that they can experience different aspects of a radiophonic performance. Each of these displacements gives the audience a unique but incomplete or distorted account of the whole piece. (Indeed, where transmission delays are a necessary factor, all accounts of the piece are incomplete or `imperfect'.)

An example: a radio audience in Vienna hears only the input of musicians being broadcast from Perth and Melbourne for the first half of a performance. In the second half local musicians are heard along with those being broadcast from Australia. In Australia the reverse of this procedure operates: for the first half of the performance the radio audience experiences the musicians from Austria and in the second half they are joined by the local musicians (who during the period that they have been inaudible in Australia, have been broadcast in Austria).

Within a particular radio station the audience could move from studio to studio to experience different aspects of the piece, likewise in a performance space with landline and radio facilities.

A rich possibility exists in having individual musicians come to radio stations on an interactive grid and add their contribution. This in turn can be re-broadcast and then supplemented by other musicians coming in at other points on the grid.

In these contexts some of the compositional decisions boil down to dealing with issues like, at a given time, who is playing and who can hear them: which parts of the beast are exposed and which parts are hidden.

An alluring notion: what is the piece when the transmission delays and various occlusions are taken out? Is it possible to (re)construct it with all its elements precisely in place and in time? Suggestion: tape record each musician at source starting with a precise countdown to begin. Collect the tapes, synchronise and mix them.

Allowing for variable tape speed and human error we might be getting closer to a kind of Platonic form of the piece (which could then be compared with its local imperfect manifestations at various points on the grid).

Compositional decisions largely involve the manipulation of radiophonic resources rather than a `notes on the page' account. This leaves the musicians largely free to make their own decisions either in interaction (collision) with other musicians that they can hear, or intuitively during periods when they are playing without being able to hear others.

Some general remarks concerning synchronous improvisations.

  1. If orderly (or disorderly) engrossing music can be created without the performers having to hear each other, then we can have a change from the rituals of `live' performance. In this way new occasions, new ceremonies can be developed with radios, televisions, videos and telephones in spaces unencumbered by musicians.

  2. The audience determines its own structures, developments and resolutions in works like That Time (Simulplay II), and I suspect that the mind hungry for order finds it everywhere (as the foregoing discussion of That Time (Simulplay II) shows). In this way traditional notions of structure, all those elements that are consciously used to `unify' a piece or to give it form, can be dispensed with. (Most of these have hardened into cliche (the knitting patterns of serialism) and, at best, can be put to sardonic use.)

  3. I suspect that the passion for overcoming distance and separation (as in devising and participating in simultaneous improvisations in different parts of the world) may have its roots in the isolation and marginalisation of living in Western Australia, in a remote outpost. (My hobby is making long distance calls in the middle of the night). Devising and participating in Synchronous Improvisations could certainly be seen as a neurotic concern for connection with others where none would ordinarily exist (I am here, they are there: I am there, they are here). I am reminded of Donald Holmes' comment - "Synchronistic events are an invasion of privacy."

  4. In considering That Time (Simulplay II) I have dwelt at inordinate length on its orderliness. If the result had been wildly disorderly, it would have been truer to the way things seem - fragmented, disappointing and uprooted (with bursts of abandon).

  5. "Chances were that we would find the performance to be wildly chaotic. What a surprise to discover it orderly." Most of the talk of orderliness trades heavily on traditional notions of symmetry and patterning (melody and accompaniment, complementarity and similarity of textures and the like). In itself that is disappointing and, given how we have been encouraged to listen to music, no surprise at all.

  6. Suggestion: why not try shifting the recordings of simultaneous improvisations so that one starts a minute or five minutes later than the other? What effect does this have if any, on the feeling that the piece is synchronistic? ( Pocket Sky, October 1991).

  7. We could record for an undefined period at an undefined time and then later mix the results on tape. Perhaps synchronistic events, if they occurred, would have a pre-cognitive hue.

IV. Metaphors and the creation of Barraca

Thus far we have dealt mainly with analytic and investigative elements of Synchronous Improvisations, but these are, and should be, subservient to the creative aspect of the work. `Synchronistic Event' is a `magic thought', a metaphor designed to invest these occasions with a focus and to raise energy and expectation in the audience and the performers. For the performers it is an `impossible' situation; there is nothing they can do to cause synchronistic events to happen, all that can be done is to gather at the appointed time and place and play. Some ceremonies might help to create the appropriate climate in which synchronistic events can occur. In this context `starting at the same time' and `playing for thirty minutes' are ceremonies, and exist to impose form and raise anxiety. ( Play right now ). It focusses attention on the moment. ( How can we meet if not in the moment? ) I have sensed that beyond the convenience of knowing when to book the studio, when to have the audience seated and when to synchronise the tapes, having the performances set up as synchronous is a subtle (and perhaps futile) attempt to `invoke' an atmosphere in which synchronicities might occur.

This kind of work involves the overlaying of individual times and lives like those layers of transparencies that occur in anatomy books. In a way distance shrinks to a virtual vanishing point. From this, a new entity is created out of (what was) `same time' (synchronous) experience. `Same time' experience is embodied and given new form on tape.

Beyond the straightforward associations with clock time (we begin at 3.00pm and finish at 4.00pm) the notion of the `same time', is like the opening to a labyrinth of associations. The `same time' is `slow time' to one : to another `party time'. There are times of clock watching excruciation and times of timeless enjoyment of company, there is now and then an hour which as Baudelaire says "is not merely an hour. It is a vase filled with perfumes, sounds, plans and climates." [8]

The overlaying of times and lives (through music and speech) is the combining of these regions of famine and richness which then in themselves change each other in the creation of new forms. New and unsuspected relationships are established.

For me to consider `same time' within the context of one life rather than several, brings me to Borges' experience of the timeless in a nameless, humble suburb of Buenos Aires. This experience is in turn the critical element in a complex of synchronistic experience based around the word Baraaka (Baraka, Barraca, Barracas) . Whereas hitherto we set up musical situations as a net for possible synchronistic experiences, now the terms are reversed and the synchronistic experiences become the ground for the creation of the music. To make this clear it is first necessary to tell the story of Baraaka.

A tango band comprising violinist Angela Dillon, double bassist Andrew Tait and myself on accordion was formed primarily to play the tangos of Astor Piazzolla, the Argentinian bandoneon master and composer of innumerable tangos. (Additionally he is one of the pioneers of New Tango (Tango Nuevo) in his country). One problem that beset the band was its lack of a name. A fellow musician, Kavisha (Paola) Mazzella stepped in to resolve our doubts with the suggestion that we call ourselves Baraka (this became Baraaka, as we wished its pronunciation to be obvious).

Baraka is an Arabic word which is richly connotative of both mystical and musical energy. Two extracts from an article in Rolling Stone magazine entitled Into the Mystic by Robert Palmer, give something of the power of the notion of Baraka in its religious and musical contexts:

"Now the enormous speaker of the Mosque Mohammed V Crackle and the honey voiced Muezzin's cantillation of verses from the Koran ricochets off the white walls of the city quieting the dogs. The chanting forms a sonic grid that focuses or perhaps completes the City as Ideal Form:

"The community of the faithful is being irradiated by harmonics of degree and distance. Tangier's cunningly balanced architecture of surfaces, arches and crenelated towers serve as a kind of transformer of the spiritual energy of the Muezzin's call. In Morocco there are different kinds of electricity. This kind is called Baraka, a kind of psychic current that certain holy places, sounds and people absorb and hold like storage batteries..." [9]

The musical sense of Baraka as it fuses with the mystical in Palmer's story is expressed in the ritual music and dance of the Master Musicians of Joujouka. As Palmer puts it:

"Joujouka has been a hot spot in the world's spiritual geography since earliest antiquity; the hills around it are dotted with Phoenician temple ruins. In a sense the Master Musicians were reconnecting with some of their deepest roots...The rites practiced in Joujouka have to do with fine-tuning or equalising the male-female polarities of the Old Earth's spiritual change. The whole mountain top is said to be one great storage cell for baraka." [10]

The article culminates with Palmer's mystical experience, of which Baraka is an element. It is too long an account to quote here but it gives some taste of the powerful spiritual and musical associations of the word in Moroccan culture.

Soon after Baraaka's first gig I found out the Spanish meaning of Baraaka (`Baraka') - Barraca means shack, shed, hut or barracks in Spanish.

During the same week I began composing a tango entitled Labyrinth in the style of Astor Piazzolla, to be played by Baraaka. The working title Labyrinth is a reference both to its structure and to the title of Jorge Luis Borge's collection of beautifully crafted tiny stories, parables and essays.

I also began collecting references for this article on music and synchronicity and recollected that Borges had an essay entitled A New Refutation of Time dealing with the simultaneous experience of an event in the past and the present. This linked up thematically with the idea of synchronicity (and had a more than passing resemblance to Swann's experience of time past and present in Proust's A La Recherche du Temps Perdu ). I suspected that Borge's essay is in the collection entitled Labyrinths.

I went to the Alexander Library only to find that they didn't have it on their computer catalogue and nor, I suspected (correctly) did the suburban branch libraries. Resigned to having to order the book from overseas or chase it down among friends I continued to work on the tango composition Labyrinth. A few days later I found the book at the Inglewood Library (this overrode the strong doubt I felt... "After all I had checked the catalogue ...)"

I opened it to the essay A New Refutation of Time and found Borge's account of his experience of eternity in the humble streets of a suburb not far from where he grew up. Looking on a street of low houses indicating both poverty and contentment he writes: [11]

"I kept looking at this simplicity. I thought, surely out loud: This is the same as thirty years ago... I conjectured the date: a recent time in other countries but now quite remote in this changeable part of the world. Perhaps a bird was singing and for it I felt a tiny affection, the same size as the bird; but the most certain thing was that in this now vertiginous silence there was no other sound than the intemporal one of the crickets. The easy thought "I am in the eighteen-nineties" ceased to be a few approximate words and was deepened into a reality. I felt dead, I felt as an abstract spectator of the world; an indefinite fear imbued with science which is the best clarity of metaphysics. I did not think that I had returned upstream on the supposed waters of Time; rather I suspected that I was the possessor of a reticent or absent sense of the inconceivable word eternity."

He goes on to define the experience: "...That pure representation of homogeneous objects - the night in serenity, a limpid little wall, the provincial scent of honeysuckle, the elemental earth - is not merely identical to the one present on that corner so many years ago; it is, without resemblances or repetitions, the very same. Time, if we can intuitively grasp such an identity, is a delusion: the difference and inseparability of one moment belonging to its apparent past from another belonging to its apparent present is sufficient to disintegrate it." [12] The suburb in which Borges (or his protagonist) experiences the timelessness where past and present experience are utterly indistinguishable, utterly the same, is not named: but the suburb in which he spent the afternoon was Barracas - "a locality not visited by my habit and whose distance from those I later traversed had already lent a strange flavour to that day."

I later learn that Barracas is a port suburb of Buenos Aires where it is commonly thought that poor immigrant workers in the late nineteenth century developed the tango. Barracas in this context literally means `sheds' referring to the huge storage sheds for storing wool and wheat.

Finding Barracas (the word and the place) in Borge's A New Refutation of Time was like discovering a new star in a familiar constellation. Seen one way Barracas gathers up and completes the maze of tango associations (Astor Piazolla and Baraaka as well as enfolding the Labyrinth Tango on which I was working in my back shed ( Barraca )); seen another way, Barracas illuminated the themes of time and eternity in Borge's essay from the odd angle of "It's distance (from the unnamed suburb where he encounters the experience of timelessness in the evening) had lent a strange flavour to the day."

I had accepted the obscure invitation of a tiny labyrinth in my search for Labyrinths in whose maze I hoped to find an account of the fusion of past and present as an example of synchronous experience. What I got from the discovery of Barracas was a synchronistic experience illuminating two major areas of my creative life as well as the cluster of friendships and working relationships that are concentrated around the performance of Astor Piazzolla's tangos.

Further down still, Barracas gathers in the primal image of Baraka with its complex of powerful spiritual and musical energies; and Barraca, Baraaka and Baraka are all illuminated in the same light and run through with the same skewer.

As a pedant it's interesting to note that Piazzolla has written a tango-based score to a dance piece based on Borge's stories, entitled The Rough Dancer and the Cyclical Night, and that Borges has written a history of the Tango where he argues that it was born in the brothels of Buenos Aires between 1880 and 1890, casting doubt on Barracas being the birthplace of the Tango. The issue is unresolved at the time of writing... [13]

Borges might have appreciated the foregoing tiny labyrinth running in and out of his volume Labyrinths. Apart from the large and clearly signed labyrinths of stories like The Garden of Forking Paths and Death and the Compass, the essay A New Refutation of Time contains its own `maze of metaphysics' with its `author' lost in it. There is also a reference to a string of his earlier attempts to refute (the idea of) time for which his essay is meant to provide a basis (another kind of minor labyrinth within the essay).

Borge's Labyrinths with its own labyrinths gave birth to my own labyrinth of Baraka and its associations with tango and time.

This clustering of events resembles what Mendilow terms points de répère, moments of experience when past, present and sometimes future time are brought into contact; where "the gleaming pin points of time gather together the fragmentary impressions and straggling associations of life and give them value." [14]

Jung gave credence to a similar clustering of events in his own lifetime. One such clustering involves the motif of the fish:

"... In many European countries April 1 is referred to as April Fish Day. On that particular day Jung happened to be working on the symbolism of the fish and when his patient arrived Jung was shown a picture of a fish and a piece of embroidery with a fish on it. On the following day another patient told him of a dream of a large fish that had occurred the night before. While writing down these accounts Jung went for a walk beside the lake and saw a large fish." [15]

Jung himself gave prominence to this pattern of fishy occurrences which to others may seem like simple coincidences. Their importance for Jung arose from the strong sense of meaning they had for him.

The Baraka Labyrinth cluster had a similar change of meaning and value for me, not only illuminating the past (lights suddenly flaring further back down the labyrinth) but also suggesting the possibility of a deeper investigation in the future. By sensing the underlying pattern I realised that it could become a source, a metaphor out of which a piece could be generated. Whereas I had set up That Time (Simulplay II) as a net for synchronistic events, this time I could use a cluster of synchronistic events as a net, a metaphor out of which a piece could be generated.

Synchronistic events come unbidden. They cannot be brought about by deliberate purpose; nevertheless, psychologists such as Progoff and Bolen have indicated that certain psychological states and atmospheres are conducive to the occurrence of synchronistic events: [16]

"(Meaningfulness in a synchronistic context exists in) the restructuring of situations across time and beyond causality in terms of the re-ordering element at the depth of the psyche."

The manner in which this meaning for restructuring takes place is elusive, primarily because it cannot be brought about by deliberate purpose. Atmospheres can be set up in which it becomes more possible for it to happen, but no definite script can be written in advance, since causality is not involved in it."

Again, referring to individuals who had better than chance scores on the Rhine ESP experiments, Progoff notes that the interest that the person took in the test and the sense of relationship that they felt towards the experiment as a whole were important factors in them scoring better than chance. He goes on: [17]

"On the whole, those persons who entered into the experiments with a belief in the value of the work and especially with a hopeful attitude for the success of the tests, tended to have better scores. They apparently contributed something of their own psychic selves to the work."

In the light of these remarks, ceremonies will be devised to heighten the experience of performing a current work, Pocket Sky, and as far as possible provide the appropriate `atmosphere' for its performance.

These ceremonies will include:

  1. The performance of Labyrinth Tango, a composition whose form and context is derived from a synchronistic experience involving its performers. This will serve as an invocation to Pocket Sky, and hopefully will sensitise the audience to the events which follow.
  2. Keeping a diary and noting any synchronistic events which occur during or around the performance itself. My hunch is that when a net is set up for synchronistic events to occur, they are more likely to occur just outside the net (as when children digging underground cubbies cause cave ins nearby). This diary additionally can be used to record dreams and waking fantasies connected with Pocket Sky.
  3. Consulting the I Ching and then using its divinations as part of the performance. As well as being an ancient source of wisdom in areas as diverse as farming, psychology and good government the I Ching functions as a labyrinth of synchronistic potentialities. In its divinatory role it connects the individual and the cosmos and reflects that situation in the moment of asking. The I Ching will also be utilised to create numerical orders which will generate notational elements in Pocket Sky.
  4. It is hoped that the foregoing ceremonies together with the special tensions amounting to `impossibility' of the performance situation will create an appropriately nourishing environment for Pocket Sky.
  5. Finally, the scored elements of Pocket Sky will be derived in part from elements in F. David Peat's metaphysics which has its roots in synchronistic experiences. In the broadest terms he expresses the relationship that he established between synchronistic experiences and the theory of reality as follows: [18]
"Reality... is pictured as a limitless series of levels which extend to deeper and deeper subtleties and out of which the particular explicate order of nature and the order of consciousness and of life emerge. Synchronicities can therefore be thought of as an expression of this underlying movement, for they unfold as patterns of thoughts and arrangements of material processes, which have a meaningful conjunction when taken together."

"But in fact, it is the essence of this whole vision of the universe that synchronicities in themselves are no longer unique, for a similar complexity is enfolded within each element of matter, each region of space time and within the consciousness of each individual."

The notion that each element enfolds and encodes all reality within itself is at the centre of a mystical vision of reality. We find it in St. Thomas Aquinas's tota simul existens, where the (eternal) present contains all moments both past and future; we find it in David Bohm (on whom David Peat leans heavily in making use of Bohm's enfolded and unfolded implicate and explicate orders).

"As with consciousness each moment has a certain explicate order, and in addition it enfolds all the others, though in its own way. So the relationship of each moment in the whole to all the others is implied by its total context: the way in which it `holds' all the others enfolded within it." [19]

In the Zen Buddhist tradition there are similar themes which can be summed up as `Eternity is in the now', or in the most general terms, `The Universal is in the Particular.' This sense is conveyed in William Blake's verse: [20]

To see world in a grain of sand and a heaven in a wildflower. Hold infinity in the palm of your hand and eternity in an hour.

And more particularly from the tradition itself in Dogen's lines: [21]

"Enlightenment is like the moon reflected on the water. The moon does not get wet, nor is the water broken. Although its light is wide and great, the moon is reflected even in a puddle an inch wide. The whole moon and the entire sky are reflected in dewdrops on the grass, or even in one drop of water...

"The depth of the drop is the height of the moon. Each reflection, however long or short its duration, manifests the vastness of the dewdrop, and realises the limitlessness of the moonlight in the sky."

A similar insight is there in Leibniz's monads, each of which is "a perpetual living mirror of the universe" and in Jung's own cosmology especially as it is vested in his account of Synchronicity.

One kind of musical `analogy' for the foregoing that could provide a beginning for experimentation is as follows:

  • Devise a short theme which is composed of the notes which are the successive pitch centres of the composed sections of Pocket Sky. Say A flat, G, B flat, A (this encodes the whole).
  • Sample A flat, G, B flat, A and then trigger it by the successive notes of a longer theme, say that of the Labyrinth Tango (the whole enfolded into individual units).
  • Sample short elements of the Labyrinth Tango theme which already contain the A flat, G, B flat, A and then trigger these samples by replaying the theme of the Labyrinth Tango (second level of enfoldment). This progress can be continued ad infinitum.
  • Sample the words `Eternity is in the now' and have it triggered by playing Labyrinth Tango theme.
  • Counterpoint D with elements of B and C and set this against spoken or sung text (for example the quotation from Dogen earlier).
What is likely to result is a highly complex electronic account of `the universal within the particular', set against its clear statements in spoken or sung forms. Plenty of opportunities for (ironic) juxtapositions should result.

The kind of metaphysics based on synchronicity, that F. David Peat proposes, suggests that at the deepest level all human experience is synchronistic (and that normally we catch only the odd sparks of a great fire). Perhaps these investigations may help those involved to warm their hands a little near the rising and the falling flames (or better burn these pages for a moment's warmth).


  1. Jean Shimoda Bolen, The Tao of Psychology Synchronicity and the Self, Harper and Row, New York, 1979, p 20. return
  2. Ira Progoff, Jung, Synchronicity and Human Destiny, Delta, New York, 1973, p 131. return
  3. From Ross Bolleter, Ron Muir, Ryszard Ratajczak, JINX, PICA AUDIO CASSETTE 1, 1990. return
  4. F. David Peat, Synchronicity : The Bridge Between Matter and Mind, Bantan Books, New York, 1987, p 28. return
  5. Maxine Hong Kingston, China Men return
  6. From Ross Bolleter, Ron Muir, Ryszard Ratajczak, JINX, PICA AUDIO CASSETTE 1, 1990. return
  7. Ira Progoff, ibid, p 131. return
  8. Poulet, Georges, Studies in Human Time, (trans. Elliot Coleman); Harper and Brothers, New York, 1959, p 315. return
  9. Robert Palmer, Into the Mystic in Rolling Stone. return
  10. Robert Palmer, Ibid, p 58. return
  11. Jorge Luis Borges, A New Refutation of Time in Labyrinths, Penguin, New York, pp 261-262. return
  12. Jorge Luis Borges, ibid, p 262. return
  13. Jorge Luis Borges, Evaristo Carriego Dutton & co, NY 1984 pp 131 - 2. return
  14. A.A. Mendilow, Time and the Novel, Peter Nevill, London, 1952, p 137. return
  15. F. David Peat, Ibid, pp 26-27. return
  16. Ira Progoff, Ibid, p 163. return
  17. Ira Progoff, Ibid, pp 100-101. return
  18. F. David Peat, Ibid, pp 214-215. return
  19. David Bohm, Wholeness and the Implicate Order, Ark Paperbacks (Routledge and Kegan Paul), London, 1980, p 207. return
  20. Chang Chung-Yuan, Original Teachings of Ch'an Buddhism, Vintage Books (Random House), New York, 1964, p 47. return
  21. Dogen, Moon in a Dewdrop (edited by Kazuaki Tanashi), p 71 (Canticle 8 of Actualising the Fundamental Point ). return
    © 2005 NMA Publications, Ross Bolleter and Rowan Hammond. Back to NMA magazine index.