Thoughts on the Way

Writings by composer and pianist Mark Isaacs

Category: Random Thoughts

Process of composition

Sometimes it flows onto the page but at other times – well – try 4 hours today fiddling around to get just 11 seconds of music down . .

The breakthrough came as I stopped trying to hear what I wanted – simply because I wasn’t equipped to do so at the point in the piece I had reached. I usually rely on my inner ear to imagine and “hear” the shapes I want, which is a very intuitive process akin to improvising phrase by phrase and alternately transcribing the results.

I had got into a passage of enormous harmonic complexity and was trying to “hear” the next phrase, but it wasn’t coming. What I could hear was anticlimactic, stock cookie-cutter shapes. I couldn’t hear beyond where I had got to: I had lost an intuitive sense of direction due to the complexity of the thicket I found myself in. I dutifully kept trying for several hours to hear something worthy of what came before.

What saved me was the sudden impulse to use an empirical device, to just mechanically transpose the phrase I already had up a minor third. The musical parameters were so complex that I couldn’t simply imagine the passage transposed with all its attendant contrapuntal and harmonic complexity, I had to physically work it out by rote transposition. And lo and behold, the sequential treatment of the phrases that resulted seemed to be exactly what the piece needed at that point. So I found myself dutifully measuring intervals, counting steps to mirror the shapes precisely in the new stratum, a quite unusually structuralist methodology for me!

It’s all as if a visual artist, who having a good eye for shape and perspective and who normally created shapes from her imagination had suddenly got to a point of complexity where she had to measure out geometrically the next shape she wanted – she couldn’t just see it in her mind’s eye. My transposition device was a kind of musical protractor and compass set.

It was an pertinent lesson for me: the balance between inner hearing and empirical working out and manipulation which can supply what cannot be instinctively created.

Interestingly, as my rote working out gave me a map and I felt secure in the new territory, I found myself intuitively changing one aspect of the sequence so that the shape was not quite literally transposed. The use of the protractor and compass was enough to again allow me to draw some freehand shapes within the strictly governed design that resulted.

First published May 13, 2004 here


Creating art while exploring the expanded realities at the meeting ground of science and metaphysics

This article is also published in Loud Mouth

All bets were off—as far as I am concerned—with the 1935 descriptions by Einstein, Podolsky and Rosen of nonlocality and entanglement at the quantum level.

This was the most important scientific discovery of all. It smashed down the walls among science, religion, metaphysics and the paranormal. And it has direct bearing on the work of a musician like myself.

The great discovery was that at the quantum level there is an unexplained “entanglement” that connects things that are not local. There are sympathetic and instantaneous responses between particles that are too far away from one another for any normal signalling to travel in anything like an instantaneous fashion. Einstein called it “spooky action at a distance” and used the phrase dismissively, because he actually didn’t believe it could be true.

Einstein was wrong. Later scientists proved it.

Because of this spooky entanglement among particles—that can’t be explained by normal physical connections—it was even theorised that there is only one particle in the universe, a particle that resides in all places at all times. The one masquerading as the many.

In music, on stage, in the composing room, and in life itself, I remain open—as much as I can manage—to this “spooky action at a distance” and try to stay “entangled” beyond my prosaic positions in spacetime. It’s the scientific way!

We now know, through nonlocality and entanglement, that there must be more channels of connection than can be reduced to the technology of our body’s five senses, and hence there are so often better things to listen to, through knowing our actual entanglement, than the chattering monkeys that live entirely locally in our heads.

Of course we are not quantum beings at all levels—our bodies as a whole are not nonlocal—but at the level of thought our neurochemistry brings us already to the lawns of the quantum world, where there is that now-proven nonlocality and entanglement. Once we are entangled and present in that, the ego can become a useful servant, rather than our (and others’) cruel master.

Yes, there seems to be every scientific reason to believe that we are entangled into the very fabric of the universe—at least through our minds, if not our bodies (though they too came up from the earth which was itself formed from the stuff of stars, and so too are they ultimately entangled)—and moreover that it follows that the full range of our consciousness transcends not only the Newtonian clockwork Universe, but even Einstein’s already “spooky” relativistic one.

There’s more: I read biochemist Nick Lane’s recent book The Vital Question and marvelled at the ATP synthase in living cells. It’s how we get our energy (ATP). Basically our bodies pump protons (we are indeed quantum beings) via what’s called a proton gradient over the exposed surfaces of tiny little nanomachines that look like water wheels residing deep inside every cell. The protons flow across the wheels as if they were a current of water, turning the wheels around and around. All this at the subatomic (quantum) level! Thus we create the energy that powers our bodies from little subatomic wheels, like gears, that are driven along by streams of protons!

Nanotechnology is at the very cutting edge of what we hope our science might evolve into, but nanomachines already roam the earth in the form of every living thing here. And so our cells, including our brain cells, have been demonstrated to do their main energetic work in the quantum world, where, again, all is entangled into All. Fascinating, no?

More still: I recently rewatched the 1999 movie The Matrix, with its breakthrough idea that you could live in a virtual reality without knowing it. Our perceived “reality” is given to us by no more than the electrical signals present in the brain. If the electrical signals were changed, we would experience something else again as our reality. This already happens with hallucinogenic drug use and in delusions arising from mental illness.

These transformed versions of reality lack a universal consensus of being real, but there is no reason why a reality that had our own wide consensus could not nonetheless be virtual. Indeed some scientists, such as Thomas Campbell and Brian Whitworth, have theorised that reality as we know it is indeed just that, virtual, like a running computer program (or computer game) that we are inside of. (Their writings are very complex, but for an easily grasped summation in graphical novel form, you can read Alexander Marchand’s The Universe is Virtual.)

Already we know for sure that the universe is not smooth and analogue, but digital; it’s chunky and granular. If it were analogue and smooth there would be no absolute minimum distance and minimum time. But in fact we have found that there are indeed minimums, which are described as the “Planck length” and “Planck time”, beyond which you cannot go any shorter in distance or in time. It doesn’t really resonate with common sense why there should be these minimums.

However, if we were indeed inside something like a computer program and investigating our reality by analysing the “screen”, we would discover a minimum “Planck time” as the “refresh rate” of the monitor (nothing can happen faster than that) and a minimum “Planck length” as the screen’s pixel size (nothing can be smaller than that). I find this an absolutely fascinating analogy.

So I get my jollies at the meeting ground of radical science and metaphysics, which are one and the same thing: Science’s theory of Dark Matter is as spooky as anything in my metaphysical books. In turn, I am ultimately expressing my fascination and engagement with the mysteries of Existence in music.

I deduce my art from these first principles, as far as I can make them out. And naturally I love to turn directly to artists themselves who have marked out their magnificent paths in detail throughout their works. How many similar wonders have I found there!? And what steadfastness they have, even in the face of adversity!

I have even found along the way a scientific basis to ethics, since, like everyone leading an “examined life” (as Socrates put it), I am very concerned with how I live and act in the world. There is the thermodynamic Law of Entropy, which states that all things are ultimately in a state of decay and will break down. High entropy (any form of destruction) is experienced by living things as pain. Non-ethical behaviour is simply a wilful adding of conscious intention to natural entropy. Now that’s a useful idea!

As well as the new science, I study contemporary metaphysical teachings to help order my thoughts, decisions, words and actions, so that they don’t, as often, add entropy into the world that is traceable to conscious intent.

Like a cycle of symphonies, each of these teachers emphasises a different focus, and taken together they begin to add up to a whole; while each work itself may be more relevant to the needs of a particular time in life’s journey.

The Gnostic Christianity of A Course in Miracles stresses forgiveness. Brother David Steindl-Rast’s emphasis is on gratitude. Adyashanti focuses on the path itself, Eckhart Tolle is in “the now” just like Melbourne-born Leonard Jacobson with his “presence” mantra. To name a few.

In creating art, we create areas of low entropy where, rather than things following their natural tendency toward breakdown, living tissues are born and reborn and can breathe and speak poetically (on a good day!) to all those who might care to listen.

They will all pass, all of these good works. It’s as sure as night follows day that we’ll all disappear in time! Not just “we” as individuals but the human race itself, all life, the earth, the sun, the universe.

In the meantime, artists do their own bit to keep entropy lower for just a little while in certain spaces and times, which opens further ways for Love (as creation) to ascend to its perennial starring role on the main stage.

Love being, of course, the ultimate “low entropy state” (and as unromantic as that might sound: trust me, I remain a pathological romantic!).

Art and intention

We have bound the idea of art up into the idea of intention. Art is made by a person who sees themself as an artist, with no other agenda informing the process other than the making of art. This has become the prerequisite for the creation of art. It’s a very new idea – about 200 years old, a time-span which is a pimple on the body of human civilisation.

When 19th-century anthropologists examined artifacts that showed rare beauty from older and/or non-Western civilisations they often saw these as objects of art. Often they later learned that they were functional objects, created by artisans to serve a particular need, process or institution within the culture. Did this then disqualify them as art objects? These cultures that lacked people who saw their function as solely the creation of art without intersection with any other functional purpose, did they then have no art?

For example: an argument, sometimes put, that music in advertising can’t be art because of advertising’s seedy history and intention, is a moral one that cannot possibly be sustained. On the one hand any fair reading would say that advertising can sometimes be benign – a simple entreaty to conduct an exchange, often for things most people would agree are valuable. (Coltrane’s performances and recordings were – and are in the case of the recordings – advertised). On the other hand advertising can be sinister, pervasive and steeped in greed. Even if you argue that on balance advertising comes out as pernicious, does this then disqualify those that serve it as being artists? If we say it does, that leads into some problematic areas if we are prepared to be consistent.

Organised religion can sometimes be a benign force. But few would disagree that in the long historical view it has often – probably mostly – been the very opposite, and in a way that makes the institution of advertising look like a school picnic. I don’t recall any powerful advertisers using torture and murder as a means of dealing with apostates and heretics who do not believe in their products! So if one strictly accepts that kind of “moral” argument put about the pedigree of art, then anything created in the service of organised religion is open to the same kind of critique. There goes Bach and Messiaen for starters. Also the aristocrats of 18th century Europe were morally bankrupt by any reckoning. There goes Papa Haydn and Mozart.

One can imagine a story of extraterrestrials hundreds of thousands of years in the future unearthing artifacts from a human civilisation long since extinct:

From his remote viewing platform, Grock delighted in the recently-discovered images of the human form presented before him. In the reverence for proportion and nuance, the play of light and shade, he saw the handiwork of inspired minds, as he did in listening to the rustling pitches that emerged from the sounds that accompanied it, creating a powerful synergy. He felt the creative power of the universal spirit blazing forth. As his rapture reached its apotheosis it was suddenly interrupted by the voice of his assistant. “They used it to sell soap” said Kandor. Grock made a note and returned to his reverie, which was not thereby diminished.

In the twentieth-century we questioned every assumption about art, except the holy grail of “intention”. The point is not to make a case for advertising as the new location for art – not at all. But since advertising is the last place we would expect to find art according to our received 19th century wisdoms (advertising is about commerce, and twentieth century critical theory is steeped in Marxism) it is a useful way to underpin a polemic. If you wish to confront an orthodoxy (in this case forms of critical theory) with a heresy, sleep with the enemy!

One personal story to end. I once visited a gallery with my wife, a visual artist. I am a bit of a philistine when it comes to visual art, and was keen to be educated. The particular exhibition was typically radical in a way of a certain brand of contemporary fine art. The paintings were just simple designs. A red square inside a yellow square. A blank canvass with a few dots on it. I resisted the work. My wife urged me to suspend my ideas about what art should be be. To not dwell on the artist’s skills, or lack thereof. To not be bound in expectations about what a gallery should contain. To simply allow my senses to be impinged upon by the interplay of colour and shape per se. So I forgot all my ideas about art and I had a deep aesthetic experience. However, I remained in that frame of mind when I left the gallery and the first thing I saw was a colour advertising poster. Maintaining my non-judgemental frame of reference I simply saw proportions and colours colliding. And my aesthetic experience continued.

Art spills over into and through life itself. There are no “restricted areas” where it cannot flow.

Naive and Sentimental

The great contemporary composer John Adams wrote a wonderful orchestral piece called “Naive and Sentimental Music”. It was brilliantly polemical titling on his part as he proudly described his music in terms that were complete anathema to the modern art movement (both in classical music and jazz) where the right thing for art to be doing – especially post-WW2 – was being tough, edgy and cynical. Or at least world-weary.

Adams pointed out that the word “sentimental” has only quite recently come to mean tacky. It used to mean filled with human feeling, a pretty good call for an artist. Similarly with “naive”. It has a patronisingly pejorative tone now. It used to mean “without pretension”, not a bad thing at times. Modernism has a lot to answer for and art can be enriched by the taking down of some of its received wisdoms (without necessarily rejecting its very real fruits).

The Italian composer who recently died Gian Carlo Menotti despaired thus about the artistic times he lived in: “To say of a piece that it is harsh, dry, acid and unrelenting is to praise it. While to call it sweet and graceful is to damn it”. He found that odd. I think it is odd.

To me there is room in art to welcome the sentimental as there is room in life for the sentimental. We quite readily recognise how cold-hearted it would be to reject all sentimental gestures in life, but not always so easily in our aesthetic stances. All of us are moved regularly by the sentimental in our personal lives. My wife cut carefully and lovingly around the body figures in a photo of my daughter when she was six sitting on my knee with her arm around my shoulder. She then superimposed the figures over cut-out pictures of flowers so that Dad and daughter looked like they were floating in an enchanted forest. She then framed it and presented it to me. Everything about it was sentimental in the extreme. And I love it.

From the personal to the artistic: much music I love is sentimental. Schumann, Chopin, Ravel of course but also some of Bach, Beethoven and Mozart who are not thought of as “romantic” but still managed to include it with everything else they do. Bartok can be sentimental. So can Prokoviev. And Schoenberg. The entire so-called Great American Song Book is sentimental and I consider it one of the major treasures of twentieth century music, to rival any collection of art songs of any time. When Coltrane plays “My One and Only Love” and Johnny Hartmann sings it the song is of course elevated greatly from its pop origins. But to me that elevation has the effect of making it even more sentimental along with everything else it does. The song expresses an incredibly sentimental idea – the deep wells of unflinchingly steadfast devotion and adoration found in long-term romantic love – and when Coltrane and Johnny do it I feel that the sentimental core of the song is even more strongly brought to the fore, along with the more powerful intellectual and spiritual content they bring to it. One doesn’t cancel out the other. They don’t improve the song by taking out the sentiment – they do so by ultimately making it even more sentimental and in a more lasting and multi-dimensional way.

Religious Experiences

Published by Sunday Herald Sun

Keith Jarrett ‘Belonging’ Band
Village Vanguard, New York City, May 1979

“You’d better come down real early if you want to get in”, said the man on the telephone from the Village Vanguard, New York’s legendary jazz club.

I had come to the Big Apple for a sojourn of indefinite length at the age of 20, and in order to make my savings last was slumming it at the Bryant, a seedy residential hotel  that was also used as a ‘halfway house’ for prisoners on parole. Hearing my jazz heroes in the flesh was one of my main reasons for coming.

Back in Australia, I had practically worn out my vinyl copy of My Song, by pianist Keith Jarrett’s European quartet (or ‘Belonging’ band). And here they were playing in what amounted to the next suburb!

Never one to take well-meaning advice lightly, I took my place at the top of the stairs that descended to the jazz cellar a full three hours before show time. I had stopped in at a second-hand bookshop on the way for some reading material to pass the time, and somehow ended up with a copy of an esoteric book called The Hollow Earth. As a queue formed behind me that ultimately wound around several blocks, I read crackpot theories of strange civilisations inside the Earth, allegedly accessible by holes at the North and South Poles. It certainly prepared my mind to be truly accepting of what it was about to receive.

When the doors finally opened, the nice man from the club seemed genuinely taken aback by the length of the queue. America loves a winner, and my place at the very head of the queue got his vote. “You must have been here all day” he said, as he waved me in without charging me.

Having the club fully to myself for a minute, I rushed to the best seat in the house. Well-known to musicians, it was right at the side of the stage next to the drum kit. It felt like you were virtually onstage and from the position of the piano, which was facing vertically into the band, I knew I would be staring Mr Jarrett straight in the face from a few metres away.

The ensuing performance was beyond revelation. More like an epiphany – the band played with so much spirit that they seemed no longer to posses bodies. At one point Keith, whose back was to the audience, looked momentarily horrified, and spun around to look at the assemblage. It was like he had forgotten that the audience was there and needed to check that they hadn’t gotten up and left. I was stunned when Jarrett moved from piano to timbales (small drums on stands played with sticks) to add some percussion. It was some of the most exciting drumming I had ever heard.

I tumbled out of the club, my head ringing with the potent melodies and rhythms that seemed to transcend ‘jazz’, or any other form of categorisation. I felt I had heard a universal folk/art music, a musical voice of the planet itself (this was years before so-called ‘World Music’ became a mere record industry category).

Back in my one room, with its rented upright piano, I poured out my impressions and interpretations of that experience for days. I was good friends with a black American pianist named Lance Hayward who lived in the room next door. He was blind, and I often used to escort him down to his regular gig at the Village Corner, where he played solo jazz standards and knocked back little shots of vodka like they were prescribed medicine. More than forty years my senior, and having approved of some of the more traditional music I had played for him, he banged on my door and said “I don’t think that’s jazz, but it sounds pretty nice”.

Later that year, I found out that the performance had been recorded, and it was released on the ECM label under the title of Nude Ants. Interestingly, I bought the record and was intensely disappointed. It just wasn’t the same as being there. Maybe that demonstrates that a true ‘religious experience’ only occurs when you decide to get off your backside and actually go to ‘church’.

Honourable Mentions

McCoy Tyner Band, New York City, 1979
Chick Corea, ‘Return to Forever’, Regent Theatre, Sydney, 1977
Bill Evans Trio, Bottom Line, New York City, 1979


At the point that I can not only refuse to object to, but can celebrate, the success of someone (even on my own instrument) who has – and always will have – a bigger audience than I do (whatever their aesthetic or lack thereof) there begins my real integrity as an artist.

Art and manipulation

Years ago on a web forum I created and managed, there was some squeamishness, not to mention downright hostility, toward the fact that I was quite comfortable with the idea that not only could art be manipulative, it should be.

I suggest that the reason much of our current music is so listless is that it has the same squeamishness about this idea of manipulation. Either squeamishness or just lack of means and/or the will to bring it about. Creating a generalised mood – often just a single mood for an entire song or movement. – is often the extent of its flirtation with manipulation. Lacking the tools of truly sophisticated harmonic, melodic, rhythmic and textural vocabulary and without real control of foreground dynamics or background overall formal design, no truly momentous narrative journey results that could evoke a spectrum of – yes, manipulated – emotional charges, detonations and defusions.

I expect to be manipulated by art. When a great artist manipulates me it’s the spiritual equivalent of a great lover manipulating my body. Bring it on please. If a mediocre artist manipulates, well, it’s less than extraordinary but rather better than a poke in the eye with a blunt stick. However, if my lover is not interested in manipulating me, or sanctimoniously finds the whole idea of manipulation unsavoury, then frankly I’m not interested.

To paraphrase Woody Allen on sex: Is manipulation dirty? Only if it’s done right.

I don’t necessarily mean to deploy “manipulation” in the sense of “deviousness”. But, hang on: there are benign and wonderful forms of deviousness in art, too. Giving the impression that a crescendo is going to peak to a shattering climax and suddenly surprising us by letting it drop away to a whisper is devious. And manipulative. And it works a treat.

“Communication” and “engagement” – touchy-feely words that many people might prefer to use in relation to an artist’s intention – are fine and dandy, but connote a more balanced axis where each side has the same affective latitude as the other. For example communication and engagement occur much more readily within a performing ensemble, although manipulation can be necessary there too!

Generally in art, one side – the artist – tells the story and the other side, the audience, is there to experience an affective response to that story. To this extent the story-teller is the manipulator. It seems pretty elementary to me, even a stating of the obvious. Of course it’s not quite as simple as that, particularly in live performance and particularly again in jazz where there is more freedom for audience participation. Stuff travels back the other way too. But it could be argued that an enthusiastic audience that palpably eggs on a jazz soloist is in turn manipulating the artist! But, on balance, it is the artist who manipulates the audience.

I think the squeamishness we have about the word “manipulation” could be to do with issues surrounding the idea of “power”. But willfully consenting to be taken and manipulated by a power you trust is sublime. That’s what I do when I go to hear a great symphony orchestra play Mahler. But at the same time I don’t consent to the manipulation of attending a rock stadium. Aesthetics aside, I don’t give my assent to having my hearing permanently mutilated.

Freddy, my somewhat sanctimonious and cranky web interlocutor, asserted that:

Manipulation implies cynicism and/or exploitation. There’s no way of getting around it.

Here’s a little vignette I wrote in response, cast in the Australian vernacular. It attempts to show – sometimes by quite obvious propositions – my various ways of “getting around it”:

Yesterday arv I went to the doctor and he manipulated my shoulder and that bloody sore muscle felt much better! Came home but – bugger me – still don’t know how to set the VCR timer to tape the movie we wanted to see after the kids went to bed. Fortunately my wife came home and she was able to manipulate the remote control and all was well. Watched the movie with her after dinner and boy can that Swedish cinematographer manipulate a camera, such beautiful shots! I love a good thriller, and it was great the way the script deliberately manipulated us into believing that the farmer’s wife had killed all the livestock; what a payoff in the denouement to find out that it was the nephew all along! This morning that grumpy old bugger Freddy tried to manipulate me into accepting that each and every one of those things that happened to me yesterday involved “cynicism and/or exploitation”. But I didn’t mind that he did that. That’s his way and I can cop it. She’ll be right mate.