Automatic Music

pianoPerched on a stool that was too tall for me, I manage to reach the keys of the piano with the help of two large books and a cushion placed under me. I am three and already, the piano is the only truth I hold sacred. As I grow older and learn to love and cherish my instrument, I realize that it is an expression, and an articulation of everything that is on my mind. Automatically, the fingers move on the piano keys and they dance around when I am happy, and plod on wearily when I am depressed. The impulses are neurologically controlled and the change in body heat and reactance is non conscious  Procedural memory, or the idea of “wiring” something into your system with repeated trials, can do this to you. And in my case, it is about thirty years of playing my instrument and counting.

When I first read John Bargh and his notion of automated processes, I thought that this was a further glimpse of the obvious. Surely, we all know that we reach out for a switch at night we do not consciously know where it is, but its “wired” deep inside. However, it is only on detailed analysis of this notion that I understood that it has implications on how we approach music, for instance, or more broadly, emotion. Emotional processes are automatically controlled as well. A certain person evokes a bodily and automated response, as does a certain situation or a certain piece of music.

musicSo how does “new music” or a “new genre” get created? For both the musician and the listener, this requires rewiring, changing the way the body responds to music in a far more extensive way than we think. There are a select group of musicians in the world who excel at this task. We call them the renegades or the mavericks until their vibrations seep into our internal processes as well, and we start responding automatically to their sound. It’s a process that takes time, a lot of effort and in today’s day and age, more exposure and publicity.


When John Mayer took the blues and married it with the rock n’roll tradition, we got classics such as “Free Fallin’” and “Your Body is a Wonderland”. The trick has been to use certain sounds that evoke automated responses (the layered guitar intro to Free Fallin’) and then introduce the new sounds very subtly, almost subliminally. And the process of transformation begins. As the momentum grows, the subliminal becomes the dominant, and an entirely new sound and scape is created and we have entered new territory.


johnmclaughlinTake another John. In this case, John McLaughlin and his wonderful work across the past several decades. John took the world of the blues and jazz and infused elements of those domains into the experience of Carnatic music, a form that he enjoyed as much. What works for it is the deep reverence that the artist exhibits for each element of the whole. Harmonic elements and instrumentation is sometimes heavy handed, but often times, virtuosic, and in the quiet that follows several alaaps, resonant. The opening measures of the much-loved “Giriraja Sudha” from Remember Shakti flow from guitar to U Srinivas’ mandolin in a seamless glide. There is something profound in the tantalizing silence that follows. John McLaughlin is definitely not an ordinary musician. He is a philosopher, and is telling powerful stories through music. And in his considerable effort to rewire, he has created a new template, and continues to “reautomate” the listener.

I am not saying that rewiring requires a “break from” or “alternative to” traditional music and its expressions. It can happen within existing traditional forms of expressions too. To be successful, however, it requires the performer to have automated his emotional pulse through adequate effort and tooling in the traditional form to such an extent that his or her flight into new territory appears painless, and takes the listener along with it. Maybe I am getting too theoretical, and so I will stop. However, I think there are three deep thoughts here. First, that it requires a great amount of intensive practice or “sadhana” to be able to make changes or alterations to existing patterns. Second, that the listener will “automatically” follow the performer, provided the latter’s ability to guide the former slowly and gently, step by step. Last, that this process is considerably facilitated by providing “hooks” in the music that the listener is more used to, and more anchored to, and then gradually expanding his aural horizon.

After all, we have to keep creating more original music and showing the world that we are capable of great things. We are capable of creating new listeners, “rewire” the world if necessary. A R Rahman has raised the bar. Let’s follow suit.

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