The back story to my improvised piece “May in Mesolimbia” is a long one, and one that is still unfolding for me, but I’ll try to give you the story up ‘til now, if you are interested in hearing it. In May of 2010 I treated myself to one of my now-yearly seaside composing retreats….ostensibly to jump-start the production process for my next song album and to dig deeper into the new electronic music software I had recently purchased. When I arrived at the studio apartment I had rented up on Temple Hills Drive in my hometown of Laguna Beach, California, I was thrilled to find a beautifully appointed room with gorgeous granite floors, tables and countertops and full glass windows open towards the canyon, with a partial view to the Pacific, less than a mile to my west.
Yes, the sound was a bit ‘live’ in there with all that stone, but I spent much of the week with headphones on anyway, so as not to disturb my gracious hosts with my all-hours experimenting. The owners in the main house were a wonderful pair of Laguna eccentrics, she a French photographer, he a sculptor and stone artisan and their friendly, large dog who was very curious about this woman who had come to visit with a station wagon full of wires and strange black metal boxes!
The late spring weather in Laguna was as I remembered it from my childhood. Usually, by mid-morning the fog had rolled out of the canyon and diffused back into the offshore marine layer. As soon as I could see a line of blue on the horizon, I was off down the hill to the beautiful new pool at my alma mater LBHS (yes, the very same high school of unfortunate cable-TV renown) and I was able to get my water fix. I love to be able to swim at least once a day if I’m anywhere near the ocean. But it was yet too cold in mid May for any serious Pacific plunging, so the pool was a welcome substitute. I hope some of you have also discovered that there is nothing like the steady black line on a pale blue underwater floor to prime you for those inspiring bolts from the skybound blue.
Anyway, a few days after I got situated and acclimated to the vibe of the place, my musical gear was all up and running smoothly and a thick nostalgia had set in, as I could clearly see my Junior high school on the ridge top right across the canyon from my perch. Late one hazy afternoon I found a particularly great electronic patch and spent a while tweaking it around so that between my keyboard, my mouse and the monitor screen I would have multiple tactile access points with which to manipulate the sound. I then set the synth patch to “infinite sustain,” punched “record” on my nomadic laptop and I went at it (those of you who make electronic music know well that when you delete the “R” for “release” in “ADSR”, you have a toy of joy that you can mess with until your brain fries and the flying spaghetti monsters come home!)
Well, when I emerged from my miasmatic sonic wankfest, having pushed this poor synth patch through multiple noisy tribulations like Virgil guiding Dante through the nine circles…..when I looked up at the right corner of my monitor, I saw that nearly 25 minutes had elapsed!
What happened next is either the single most insane or inspired moment of my piano-playing history, depending on your aesthetic perspective and tolerance for rich sauces and rare red meat: I immediately enabled another “record track” on my software, switched my keyboard sound to “grand piano” and began to play along with the electronic excursion I had just recorded. Why I jumped in on piano at around minute six of the electric improv is still a mystery to me, but once I entered the tunnel of fun, my world shrank to the radius between my headphones until I found myself embellishing the last wisp of noise just as the sun was starting its early evening descent into the Pacific…and the light in my little stone temple was getting dim.
So this musical document was saved on my computer as “MX4 Long Improv” at 6:50 PM, May 16, 2010 and this is just how I found it, buried in a computer folder called “Temple Hills Backup,” one sunny morning in early January 2011 in a tiny condo on a low-glitz strip of Maui’s northwest shore. I had gone back to the same restful spot where I had sequestered myself three years earlier in January of ‘08 to complete the scores for the three horn charts I wrote for “Exchange.” FYI….the sax/trumpet/trombone chart for “Climb” will always be known as my “Three Mai Tai Trio”….maybe that will explain some of its oddball antics for those of you who are yet suspicious and concerned about my jazz ambitions. 😉
Anyway, this year, I was back in Maui to compose and swim (of course!) but also to do some critical listening to and editing of the several hours of piano/vocal material I had recorded at Fantasy studios in Berkeley in December of 2010. The morning that I rediscovered the folder of Temple Hills improvs, I was actually digging down through my files to find my orchestral mock-up template, hoping to try out some arrangement ideas for a higher-key version of Weill’s “Speak Low” that I had also recorded at Fantasy – a version and an idea that was ultimately discarded in favor of the lower-key solo version that made the cut for “Fooled By Yesterday”. But that’s another story……
I should tell you that the other task for my 10-day Hawaiian respite this last January was to do some serious foundational reading on cognitive science, and to peruse recent research on music and the brain. And, to make some final decisions about which spring semester neurobiology and psychology courses I was going to sign up for immediately on my return to California. Some of you already know that I’ve embarked on a new path of study in music cognition over the past year, but this is in-progress to the extent that talking more about it now may trap me in to corners that I’m still exploring, with words that I don’t quite know how to use yet, so I’ll wait on more explanation. Suffice it to say that my new favorite self-flagellating joke is to tell people that all this study is just to help me figure out how to create better and more memorable melodies that people’s brains will actually command them to pay lots of money for. Ha!
Ok so here’s where this rambling story about me and my swimming trips gets sort of interesting, and what follows is probably why I decided to expose and publicly document this improvised music, so utterly privately conceived and in some ways, glibly and unpreparedly executed. The day prior to the morning that I discovered the “MX4 Long Improv” file, I had purchased a “Kindle” version of cognitive scientist Steven Pinker’s 1997 classic book “How the Mind Works” for my beloved iPad. Naturally, I had started first with his chapters about music and art on the beach that afternoon. 😉
So, that morning after my reading day on the beach, very curious about this improvised thing I had tucked away on my computer in Laguna eight months earlier, I opened the music file. As the musical track window opened on the screen I was astounded by the title I had given the electronic part the previous May: “How the mind Works”.
Yes, I’ve gotten better and better at spotting synchronicities but this one was a screaming, neon-bright beauty with golden scarabs fluttering all around it. And after listening to all 25 minutes of the thing, I determined right then that this piece of music was indeed quite a document about something in my life, though about what I wasn’t yet sure. And also, I really liked it as a piece of music, thought it definitely had a discernable large-scale structure (which surprised me), some pretty cool sounds, and some moments where I really could not believe that I had played those things. Me? That chord? Where did THAT come from?
As for the final title that I chose, “May in Mesolimbia” : I’ll tell you just a little bit more here about the relevant neuroscience of music stuff. Some of you may know that earlier this year, new research out of a Music Cognition lab at McGill University in Montreal found proof through an FMRI/PET brain-imaging study that the powerhouse neurotransmitter dopamine is deeply involved in mediating the human pleasure-response to music. Valorie Salimpoor and Robert Zatorre have coined this the musical “chills response” and you can read much more about it here:
This had been suspected, of course, as dopamine is well-known as an urgent messenger of the Mesolimbic “reward pathway” in the brain’s deep subcortical limbic system structures and is implicated in substance addiction, in psychotic disorders, and in mediating motivated behavior in general.
I am quite sure that what I physically and emotionally experienced when playing/creating this piece was actually “chasing the dopamine down.” That’s how it felt; a craving to follow every building tension with a release, like following the highs with more highs until I sated myself momentarily and could go back to tension for the next round. There really was no calculation about what or how to play the piano. My brain simply followed what my ear told my mind it wanted to hear so that Emily the listener (not the improviser) could feel good and get her reward for playing something she liked for herself.
Tell me all you solo improvisers out there, isn’t this what it is really all about?! Are you willing to admit that it is mostly about this, even during those spectacular moments when you are jamming with world class jazz players X, Y and Z and assuring me it is really all about high-level language-like communication in a very specialized musical syntax? As in life, so in music: even in the most reasoned, most cognitively, frontal cortex-driven behaviors, can we really ever tune out the dopamine howl? Schopenhauer certainly would have a few words to say about this. Hmmmm….wonder what Wagner and Messiaen would add about the topic were they around to get in on the discussion and check out a few FMRI scans?
I guess I really do believe that the untethered, untamed creative mind in a state of flow is just a few neurochemical variations away from the mind of an addict hunting down the next hit, a psychotic in florid delusional disarray, or a mystic in ecstatic trance. Artists rarely make their most extravagantly interior works public because, well, they are often too idiosyncratic and insular and yeah, hard to parse for those whose brains didn’t soak in the same cocktail that day. But I make this music public here because I think it is a fascinating journal entry; if nothing else, it’s a photograph of my musical mind at mid-life, altered by a particular nostalgia-infused solitude. For the first time in many years, I found my way back to the naïve artistic bravery I knew as a kid in pretty, seaside Laguna, before I had tangled with the Zeitgeist and had been advised that my music was just too weird, uncategorizable and demanding for commercial consumption.
Yes, I’ve been making music since I was five years old, a tow-headed beach kid living three blocks from the sea, fearlessly diving into those big Mexican hurricane waves every summer between swim pauses for the Beach Boys, Evita, Seals and Crofts, Joni and Blondie, Queen and Cheap Trick pounding from boomboxes on the hot sand while we stuffed our Husky Boy Burgers down the hatch with yellow mustard seaweed hands, wiping off the black oilspill tar from our soles and souls with mom’s clear rubbing alcohol, selling cheapo jewelry to touristas on cool ocean breezy nights down at the Sawdust Festival, craving and crushing on tanned surfer boys with puka-shelled necks, bleached hair and pink-burned noses oxidated with zinc, crusted all over with sweat and Pacific salt. Hey I’ll even admit to running back home from the shore for TV and fresh-baked brownie seances in front of “All My Children”, back when glamorous Erica was a decade and a half younger than I am now.
Living on the edge of the continent, I always thought I had access to something really big and wild out there just beyond the horizon. All grown up now and not quite so sure any more….still…. being able to identify my own rare moments of creative grace and access to the big beyond goes well along with getting better at noticing those big synchronicities when they pop up in the most banal format, like a small line of text on a computer screen.
And maybe my “Mesolimbia” is that enchanted maze of endless transmission corridors that comprise the still-mysterious interface between my big mind and my small brain. Does my mind instruct the dopamine neurons to “hurry up and make more juice” so that annoying little brain can work? Or does her majesty My Brainyness decree just how much of the elixir she will instruct her neuronal minions to generate today so that poor little embodied mind can even exist at all? Whether you trust Dennett or Descartes, Penfield or Penrose, Damasio, Dawkins, Plato, Pythagoras, or any of the investigators of mind throughout the centuries who’ve even obliquely stared down the Hard Problem of Consciousness, (which looms largest, IMO, when contemplating creativity and the whole improv state-of-mind thing…..) Whether that mind-brain interface is more like a receiver, transmitter, limiter, conductor, filter, reducer, amplifier, tuner or, does not even exist at all…there’s something thrilling about reveling in the pure experience of how it FEELS to be creating and transmitting an original musical idea to the world for the first time.
My hope, despite this long explanatory rambling, is that you can still hear this music from both “inside-out” and “outside-in,” as it were. That hearing it might make you forget the image of the lady with her electric toys on an arid California hillside and that it may shoot you out to somewhere on the Pacific horizon line above, below or inside the waves. And please try to find and read Jeffrey Kripal’s stunning book “Authors of the Impossible,” the one that I mentioned in the liner notes for FBY’s “My Magnetic Sleep.” If you read anything at all from it, read his Conclusion. And then work back from there and see if things look different next time you stare through the plane window out at the curving sky, deep into the billowing bows and flows….or into the mirror, down through your own convex, fathomless eyes, into Mesolimbia.
One last technical explanatory note about how I prepared this piece of music for your loudspeakers/headphones: what you hear on the final, mixed version of “May in Mesolimbia” is the completely unedited piano part (played on the Ivory piano-sampler instrument) and a “mixed and processed” version of the improvised electronic part. And by mixing and processing I mean that I added some EQ, extra filtering and sound massaging to the electronic part, varied its dynamics and even dropped it out completely in places in order to highlight the piano during certain passages. So yes, there was a degree of end-stage composition which would not have been possible in a truly live improv situation on stage. And I do mean to present this as a duet of equal partners – it was not my intention that this should be heard as a piano piece with electronic accompaniment. Thanks so much for listening with open ears!
Piano and electronics by Emily Bezar
Recorded and mixed by Emily Bezar
Mastered by Ken Lee
Photos by Emily Bezar
Brain/Music image from the internet…please advise how to credit if you know?