Some exercises for playing music based on breath take place at the end of this-all. You can skip ahead if you want to scroll down. Me, I’m a fan of context. ~ 5-Track
“There is never any end. There are always new sounds to imagine; new feelings to get at. And always, there is the need to keep purifying these feelings and sounds… So that we can see more and more clearly what we are. In that way, we can give to those who listen the essence, the best of what we are. But to do that at each stage, we have to keep on cleaning the mirror.”
I started playing guitar along with my breath sometime around 1999.
Solos used to really hang me up. I didn’t like to plan them out, I wanted to keep it spontaneous when it came time for the guitar break.1 I loved to improvise, but I wanted to get it right. In the late 1990s I started having mini-meltdowns inside my head as I played: whether this or that was the right note to play next, whether everyone in the room hated the note I was playing now & thus perhaps hated me by extension.
Years later, I understand that I had a lot of reasons to feel alienated & some good reasons for misinterpreting responses to my playing; & also that this is the process of eternal refinement which any piece of music, any musician, may undergo—my basslines are constantly evolving, my guitar parts forever shifting. If I hit it perfectly one night there’s no guarantee I’ll ever play it again the same way, or if I do that it will work nearly as well.
I am comfortable with this today, but at the time it was a new experience. You could call it an initiation. Some things take decades to understand.
I got through it somehow & tapes show I didn’t play badly, but I wasn’t having fun & that needed to change. My friends & I were very hard on ourselves & on each other, very critical. I decided to be the happy guy in the band, or at least to make the effort. After every show when someone asked what I thought about how it had gone, I’d say: “That was fun!” It became a mantra. It became true.
Around this time I had been reading about meditation. I decided there was no reason music couldn’t be a meditation, & I thought that maybe the way to make this connection was to focus on my breath while I played.
I’m not sure where I first heard of meditation. It may have been from an interview with Carlos Santana. It may have been from my mother. It may have been from a library book.
I remember what Carlos had to say about it: “When you pray, you talk to God. But when you meditate? You shut up & God talks.”2
I thought that seemed like a pleasantly respectful way to relate to ‘god’, or to a god, insofar as I believed in such beings. I was raised atheist so it worried me when people I respected talked about god. But the sentiment resonated:
You shut up, & god talks.
The first meditation instructions I found involved candles & incense & it just seemed like way too much trouble.
But eventually I either read something about John Coltrane,3 or something by Pema Chodron,4 & found out about the mindful variant where you just focus loosely on your breath. (Yeah it’s very slightly more complicated than that I guess).
A good friend, an artist who lived in my town, had me listen to Miles Davis’ Kind Of Blue (1959), on which John Coltrane is one of several featured soloists. What an amazing album. What a life-changer. & the notes on the back, comparing improvisation to a form of Japanese calligraphy. Summer nights on the porch listening to Kind Of Blue again & again. What a vibe! This probably led me eventually to A Love Supreme (1965) & a lifetime of fascination…
But before that happened.
One summer weekend my friends & I played a show at a local brewery. The lead guitarist5 in the headlining group asked me after our set if I had ever listened to John Coltrane. I said that I had not listened closely but I knew who he was. The guitar player told me that something in my playing had reminded him. I’m not sure what in my playing he was responding to, but John Coltrane instantly became a huge influence on my musical thought. I thanked him for the compliment & went off to do some research.
I badly wanted my music to have a positive effect on those experiencing it—Coltrane said in interviews that he wanted to be “a force for pure good”. I felt aligned with that wish. But I was sometimes terrified during a solo that I was doing the wrong thing, sending out the wrong vibrations—& I probably was… Or I would freeze up because I didn’t trust my impulses. Up to then I’d just played what I wanted & felt great about it.
“I believe that man is here to grow into the fullest, the best that he can be.6 … As I am growing to become whatever I become, this will just come out on the horn. Whatever that’s going to be, it will be. I am not so much interested in trying to say what it’s going to be. I don’t know. I just know that good can only bring good.”
Today I am often uncertain, but also always calibrating. I have become comfortable with the process, to the extent that one can, or to the extent that comfort is relevant to the process. To be sure that I am contributing something of value means working constantly on my self, in music & in life. Addressing my fears & neuroses, questioning my views & opinions & certainties & those of others. “Cleaning the mirror.” Yes we are always falling, no there is no ground.
I read up on Coltrane, & I listened to his music: Giant Steps (1960), Live At The Village Vanguard (1962 – I bought the 4cd version which for me is a lexicon, a textbook, a grimoire, comparable to little else), A Love Supreme & then the mind-rearrangingly intense later works like Ascension (1966) & Meditations (1966) & (acid-drenched PNW-recorded) Om (1965) & (whoa) Live In Japan (1966). Meditations left my bandmate & myself, stone sober on a fall afternoon, staggering around his kitchen giggling in circles as the music hit our molecules like gamma radiation.
A Love Supreme was supposedly conceived during a single extended meditation session, after which Coltrane announced to his family: “For the first time in my life I’ve got the whole album from beginning to end.” The entire piece had occurred to him in a single blast of inspiration & he was able to hang onto it, able to catch it all. Composers dabbling in the visionary mode will understand how rare & special this is.
I was already aware of Jimi Hendrix’ stated sense that all religions were really one, & that music could have the power to heal—I’d already met one man who did in fact heal with music, in a way that even science could respect. Coltrane seemed to have taken those basic philosophies to a much higher level, & way before most anyone else in the “modern” Western world. Carlos Santana & others talked about Coltrane’s music as being intensely spiritual, & that was something I wanted to learn about.
(Caveat—I was very much in retreat from my body & from material existence at that time in my life. In retrospect, a balance is very important. Actual spirituality does not mean overbalancing in favor of the spirit, but striving for a balance of one’s many facets. That such a balance is impossible, provides texture & flavor to the process.)
By then I’d learned that meditation, which was in some way reputed to be ‘spiritual’, could be as simple as watching your breath. Once I flashed that music could be related somehow to meditation, it was easy to combine them. If I reached a point in a solo where I was hung up about what to play or why to play it, I would stop paying attention to what I was playing & watch my breath instead.
The music tended to take care of itself after that.
Milford Graves used to teach at Bennington College. I don’t remember the exact title of the class I signed up for, but it led me to expect a class about “world” percussion & “world” rhythms.7 I thought I might learn about some new instruments. I worried that I’d lack the facility to participate as I had very little drumming skill or experience.
I needn’t have worried—3 hours a week of captivating lecture. In some ways I wish I’d taken more notes, or recorded everything, but mostly I just sat there with my mouth open. There were maybe fifteen or twenty students in the class & we all listened while Professor Graves told us about astrology, Egyptology, herbal medicine & Sun Ra & I don’t know exactly what all else but it comes back in bits from time to time. He was vivid & he was vibrant & he argued with everyone & it was great.
One morning I woke up & slammed my foot in a door, ripping off a toenail. It was a painful bloody mess. I hobbled over to a friend’s room & asked to borrow her car to drive the mile uphill to the music building, a notably haunted mansion overlooking campus. She gave me the keys, I limped to the parking lot & got to class about fifteen minutes late. As I walked in the door, Graves was talking about astrology. He was just winding up. He gave me a sharp look & said, “Pisces got to watch out for their feet!”8
I was able to see him perform just once.9 I’d had some advance preparation from hearing his CDs, but it was still hard to take in. There were colored lights & smoke, dancers & chemistry experiments. It was in some sense a happening, designed not just as a musical performance but as a consciousness-changing ritual for all who attended.
The evening was entitled Chaos & Rebirth. A student played upright bass. Charles Gayle played saxophone. I had heard one of Gayle’s CDs as well as a few of Graves’, & while Gayle’s christian imagery put me off, I was amazed by the music. Beatless (not rhythmless tho I couldn’t make that distinction then) horn & piano improvisations, with that special thing in them that makes people scream. (See Coltrane’s Om!)
During the show, Graves stopped playing for a while & threw apples into the crowd. Then he picked up various attendees & carried them around on his back. The science department brewed luminous potions. Dancers appeared.
A few of my friends ate acid beforehand. Setting = covered, set = maybe not so much… Cos it’s what you bring to it, innit.
Graves received a Guggenheim grant some time ago & bought an EEG machine so his band could play along with their own brainwaves. He has studied acupuncture, Chinese medicine, herbal remedies among other things. He can cure a heart arrhythmia with percussion. Just knowing he exists has greatly expanded my sense of what is possible.
Professor Graves is retired from teaching now, but his experiments continue. Most recently he is the subject of the excellently abstract documentary Full Mantis (2018)—which, tho wonderful, may not be the best introduction. Interviews may serve you better for starters. Or, the music.10
One thing I’ve learned on the musical side is that rigid unswung 4/4 time is unnatural, even unhealthy. We don’t walk in 4, not really. Our hearts don’t beat in 4 & we don’t breathe in 4. You can count those things in 4, it is true, but the subdivisions are 3s, 5s, uncountable fractal fractions.11
The times in which our natural rhythms actually happen can only be approximated, & besides of which they vary constantly. No two steps, no two breaths, are ever, ever, the same.
So music which locks into 4 & never changes & doesn’t allow easily for alternate rhythmic interpretations is very much counter to our natural human life rhythms. A digital metronome might be the single worst embodiment of this, tho then again certain kinds of drum programming can be incredibly toxic.
On the other hand, many rhythms in African percussion seem to be based on “naturally occurring” sounds & events—the movements of animals, for example.12
I had studied under Milford Graves in 1994, a few years before I discovered John Coltrane, but in my mind the one informed the other to be sure.
After a few months of practicing breath work in a rural bar band context, it occurred to me to have the music itself follow the breath.
During a recording session, I gave the band a piece that was more like a conceptual composition. I had everyone play along with their own breath—not just listen to it, but follow it musically, whatever that might mean to them in the moment.
I don’t remember for sure, but I guess I must have figured that if meditation was good for you in some way, & if meditation was partly about breath, then music that was about breath would be good for the listener in some way. Maybe for the player too. Maybe god would talk through the music.13
We often liked to start a set or a session with some kind of improvisation, to clear the palate. It helps boil off all the psychic crud that’s built up, to get all the ego juice out of everyone’s system. It gives an audience the heads up that something unusual is happening,14 & maybe weeds out the folks who don’t get it. Retaining, with luck, the friendly experiencers.
For this improvised-or-channeled astral-clearing session, I requested that each band member play along with his own breath, rather than with each other. We often did listening exercises at band practice & worked hard to pay close attention to what each player was doing at any time; now I was asking us to apply those same skills to our individual internal rhythms, in hopes of tapping a higher energy of some sort.
The results were amazing. They hold up to this day.
It began as electric freejazz, guitar goo & some gentle electronics, occasional cymbals or gradual cascading drums. After about five or six minutes of intense ambient sound, we abruptly & without prior plan locked into a unified groove which continued (with ambient guitar over the top) for… Don’t know how long cos the tape cut off after 12 minutes. The level of inspiration, of ego-free agenda-less musicianship, was much higher than we usually achieved at that time.
We never made the breath jam a regular part of our set because it had the potential to clear a bar. But it worked nicely from time to time if it was placed carefully in the setlist—& the approach definitely informed our musicianship thereafter.
For me, the breath jam has become a standard. Any band I’m in will have to try it eventually. The results are very nearly always strong.
I tend to attribute the frequent lack of ‘dead’ spots in breath jams to the constance of the breath. No one is ever without (literal) inspiration, because their breath is always there to fall back on. There is always ‘life’. This also provides the resulting music with a unity.
Sometimes these pieces can go on for 45 minutes or an hour. There are surprisingly few dull moments for such lengthy rock jams—though fear of a dull moment is especially dangerous in this setting. When one is not making many conscious decisions, one’s need for control will assert itself. Smile at fear! Keep breathing!
An audience with some openness to experimental music will usually respond very well to this.
Among musicians, I have known a very few people for whom this approach does not work at all, perhaps because it requires a lot of letting go of ideas & expectations & work-ethic puritanism & control; but it’s been liberating for most.
I’ve recorded some breath-based duets,15 & also led a few rock bands through live or recorded breath-based excursions.16 It’s something that I teach to any student I may have. Variations can include assigning a specific chord or scale to the in-breath & another to the out-breath, or playing only on the out-breath. This has the potential to be very relaxing for both the player & the audience, to be the soundtrack to massage or to a nap, to take a player or listener gently to a new frame of mind. Or to awaken one rudely, to produce an anamnesis.
It works as a solo exercise as well, one I practice regularly. Here’s the recipe:
1) Listen to your breath.
2) Put your hands on your instrument (obvs for vocalists this’d be a little different).
3) Make sounds to accompany your breath.
You are likely to have thoughts while doing this exercise. Observe them as they pass. Gently label them “thinking” & then return to your breath. It’s OK, even inevitable, that you will be distracted. That’s totally fine.
Advanced bonus version:
2a) Focus on an intention—freedom from suffering for all sentient beings, or love to everyone affected by this music, or alignment with the True Will of your Holy Guardian Angel (if that’s your jam). Return throughout to this intention as well as to your breath.
You can record the results if you want to. Some folks get hung up thinking they should then use the recording to generate new compositions, & you can if you want to. But the point is to do it, not to accomplish anything in particular. That’s the thing about meditation…
The purpose of a recording in this case would be less about generating product than about finding out what happened.
If you want to try it with a band, then assume all of you have now worked your way through steps 1-3…
4) Continue while other players do the same.
5) At some point you may find the music is happening as if on its own, without any conscious participation from the players.
6) Ride this wave.
7) A number of things may happen… You may find yourself unexpectedly playing complementary parts with another player. Or a groove may happen. It’s OK to go along with these things. These are your thoughts made audible.
8) Gently & unhurriedly release these musical thoughts—label them “thinking”, then return to your breath. If need be, gently forgive your self for being distracted.
9) The interplay that results from various players tuning in & out of their breath, or in & out of each other’s sounds, or in & out of their intentions, will with luck result in compelling music or at least in a compelling experience.
There are a few other breath-related exercises I like to do.
The simplest goes like this:
1) Breathe in. Breathe out.
2) Play ascending phrases as you breathe in—notes from low to high.
3) Play descending phrases as you breathe out—notes from high to low.
You can reverse this if you like & play ascending phrases on the exhale.
For additional variations, try louder on the inhale, softer on the exhale; faster on the inhale, slower on the exhale (or vice versa), etc. As before, you may insert an intention.
* For drummers, work your way clockwise or counter-clockwise around the kit; or play cymbals on the inhale, toms on the exhale; etc.
& for one more level of complexity, this one loosely inspired by raga:
1) Breathe in. Breathe out.
2) Play major scale phrases as you inhale. If so inclined, limit your self to ascending major scale phrases.
3) Play minor scale phrases as you exhale. If so inclined, limit your self to descending minor scale phrases.
You may substitute any other scale of your choice—Dorian on the way in, whole-tone on the way down, or whatever you like. You may flip it around & play descending runs as you inhale. There are many possibilities.
* For drummers, play a rock beat as you inhale; a waltz or swing or afrobeat or latin or freetime rhythm as you exhale. Remember to gently label thoughts (including self-criticism & aesthetic judgement) as “thinking”, then return to your breath.
Further variations (some of these are especially good for group jams, whether everyone or only you is playing off their breath):
ONLY play when inhaling; ONLY play when exhaling.
Play melodically when inhaling, dissonantly when exhaling.
Play with grumpathy when inhaling, love when exhaling.
Think about one person or place when inhaling, a different one when exhaling.
Play from your feet as you inhale, your throat as you exhale (&/or substitute other body parts).
Play air as you inhale, water as you exhale (&/or substitute other elements or symbols or planets or animals or so forth).
Finally, your breath can be used for timekeeping.
Suppose you have a simple two-chord change, like A to D. A as you breathe in, D as you breathe out. Or, a 4-chord change—A, D, E, G—A for first inhale, D for first exhale, E for 2nd inhale, G for 2nd exhale.
With a 3- or 5-chord sequence it gets stranger, as the chord you inhale first will eventually become an exhale. A D E G C / A D E G C, for example, where the first A is an inhale but the second is an exhale, the first D is an exhale & the 2nd is an inhale, etc.
You can play the chord & let it ring; strum it freely or with some particular rhythm; or solo while it resonates in your mind. Many choices.
1 Around age 12 when I figured out the guitar breaks on some of my favorite records were not spontaneous, I was all kinds of put out.
2 It’s from a video called Influences. Can’t find the exact quote but here’s some similar ones from elsewhere:
“What kind of relationship do you have with God if you only talk and God don’t talk back?” ~ Carlos Santana
“If you want to be successful, just meditate, man. God will tell you what people need.” ~ Carlos Santana
3 Don’t know what… But my favorite books on him are the one by Lewis Porter & the one by Bill Cole. I think both are called John Coltrane.
Also check out the interviews collection Coltrane On Coltrane!
4 Most likely The Wisdom Of No Escape.
5 He’s also a tree surgeon, how cool is that.
6 I am confident here that Coltrane meant “humanity”—his intention was to include everyone, not to exclude anyone. We hadn’t most of us really got to examining the language yet by mid-1960s.
7 Long before I ever heard anyone suggest that to refer to all music outside of Western popular culture as “world music” is a bit, ummm, imperialistic?
8 Do I even need to explain that he was right on. I have no idea if he knew my sign in advance, but I think the magick of that moment stands regardless.
9 Have had the good fortune since to attend a single workshop. Difficult to make the trek from Seattle!
10 My favorites include Grand Unification (1998), Beyond Quantum (2008, with Anthony Braxton & William Parker), Percussion Ensemble (1965), & Back In No Time (2014, with Bill Laswell). Albert Ayler’s Love Cry (1968) also features Graves & is well worth anyone’s time.
11 A quick www search will reveal many interesting things.
12 You can count anything in anything, any way you want to do it, if you’re so determined.
13 See Francis Bebey’s African Music for more on this.
14 Can’t rule it out I guess.
15 We were playing in rural bars for the most part, keep in mind.
16 Here’s a particularly floaty one with Jennifer Ng on percussion. https://cosmicprimitive.bandcamp.com/track/jens-breath
Listen for an enthusiastic attendee throwing a chair during part 2.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Urban legend 5-Track is currently singing songs & cooking dinner in Tangletown, Seattle, when not playing bass for PEG and BEYOND CAPTAIN ORCA! and MKB ULTRA and all, guitar for ARGAN BAND and WALKING FACES and ASTROL WATERS and whatnot, broadcasting reiki-like vibrations by way of strings, & wood & mostly tube-driven amplification, making musick to sleep to (SLEARP), telling fortunes by guitar & aspiring to do all the above with love or at least compassion. Non-dude. Anything he says is just, like, his opinion. http://cosmicprimitive.com