Saturday, December 15, 2012

The Magick Muscle

"...improvisation onstage...where the real magic takes place".
                               ~Jimmy Page [1]

Mage Music 32

Improvisation is creating something new on the spot, seemingly without preparation, practice - or even thought. If there is one thing that Jimmy Page is known for, it is his incredible improvised solos.

Improvisation is composition, two sides of the same coin. One takes place over time, the other in the moment. Composition is the creative act of making up something new that has not existed before. If creating something that wasn't there before isn't Magick, it would be hard to understand what could be.

Emphasis on “seemingly”
Just playing any random combination of new notes won’t do it, of course. A musician comes up with great improvisation based on music that has been played before and what is known to work. A first time guitarist is not likely to come up with much more than noise because practice and more practice is needed until the instrument is a seamless part of the creative process rather than another obstacle to it. Thus although the inspiration may pour out from the soul (or, according to Mr. Page – out of the ether [2]) it helps if the musician can perform so well that conscious thought is not involved and the mind is free to create. For this, muscle memory is required.

Muscle memory is a very cool thing. It's what lets you tie your shoe and what totally screws things up if you think about tying your shoe. It’s what allows you to get the forkful of spaghetti in your mouth instead of in your eye. It is what allows an artist to not have to think about the how of creation and instead allows the creation to flow freely.

Automatic behavior
Ouija boards, automatic writing, improvisation, Magickal ritual: They all work best when there is no conscious control of the tools involved. We say that practice “teaches” muscles to perform without conscious control, but what is really happening is that repeated behaviors, ones that are corrected each time in aiming for ideal results, are cemented into different neural pathways than the ones used when learning to perfect them. As the repetition occurs, the brain’s direction of these performance tasks are moved from working (conscious) memory to parts of the brain that handle other automatic tasks, such as breathing, walking, and feeding yourself with silverware (or chopsticks or any other tool), and in doing so free the mind from the need to pay attention to the physical processes involved.  By relegating these tasks to automatic behavior systems, the conscious mind can be involved with other things.

Interestingly – or perhaps unsurprisingly - some of the areas of the brain involved with muscle memory are the same as those involved with ear worms and other behaviors that we have no control over. That limbic system comes into play again, the more primitive part of the brain involved with emotions and emotional behavior. Scientists think that the limbic system plus the other adjacent parts of the brain involved with muscle memory evolved to free us for thinking so that we could use tools for survival purposes such as building shelter and hunting – and the creative processes.

Magick Muscle
A Mage must perform ritual without allowing the ritual to become an obstacle to the desired results. A musician, too, must perform solos without allowing the musical instrument to become an obstacle. Muscle memory frees the Mage Musician to perform the creative arts that result in Magick.

It is muscle memory, too, that allows the musician’s signature sound to remain consistent over time, so that we recognize who it is that is wielding the guitar. It is muscle memory that allows the guitarist to recognize when he is playing outside his identity, outside the ideal that inspires him and that he strives to bring to the light.

"Well, I'm not trying to be flippant here, but I just play the guitar, don't I?", says Jimmy Page in an interview in Guitar World magazine, October 1988. Indeed.

Suggested listening: Outrider (studio album) as well as the Outrider tour.  Forget the vocals, forget the rhythm section.  Just listen to that guitar.

*“The whole improvisational aspect, the riffs coming out of the ether ... it was a magical vehicle collectively soaring into the stratosphere.” Jimmy Page, as quoted by Cameron Crowe in the notes for 
The Song Remains The Same (Remastered / Expanded) (2CD) reissued version, 2007.

Thank you Sue C for the muscle memory suggestion.

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