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"Improvisation, Creativity, and Consciousness" by Ed Sarath

8 April 2010

In the Winter 2000 semester, I proposed a Bachelor of Fine Arts curriculum in Jazz and Contemplative Studies at The University of Michigan School of Music, Theatre, and Dance. It seemed like a perfect fit: jazz’s improvisatory core brings the field into close proximity with the heightened presence that is commonly associated with meditation practices, and the jazz tradition boasts a long legacy of artists—e.g. John Coltrane, Alice Coltrane, John McLaughlin, Don Cherry, Wayne Shorter, Yusef Lateef, Sonny Rollins, and Herbie Hancock—who have engaged with meditation and related spiritual pursuits in order to harness the synergistic interplay between these practices and their work and lives. The wide range of contemplative practices now available, as well as a burgeoning body of research into the neurophysiological, psychological, and health-related aspects of these practices, not to mention the ample literature that deals with their cross-cultural theoretical/philosophical underpinnings, added to the resources that this program of study could draw upon. Combining a full slate of coursework in jazz and overall musical training with about 25 credits of coursework that included meditation and related practices and coursework in psychology, philosophy, religion, and socio-cultural studies; this curriculum would not only be the first of its kind in musical studies but in overall academe. It would also be significant in embodying a number of the important themes—diversity, interdisciplinary studies, creativity, and spirituality—in higher education at large.

Despite this reasoning, the curriculum stirred a debate of epic proportions that essentially riveted this major school of music for weeks on end. Some colleagues argued, perhaps predictably, that there was no place for meditation in an academic setting, that it smacked of spirituality and mysticism, and would surely compromise any standards of assessment and rigor. Other objections seemed to defy logic, as when a colleague from an area that specializes in music from the 18th and 19th centuries, admonished that the curriculum would “set the school back 50 years”. Another colleague proclaimed that “you can achieve the same results (as meditation) with Prozac!” 

Fortunately, there was also strong support for the proposal, with a number of faculty members viewing it as one of the most forward-looking ideas they had encountered in their academic careers. When the votes were tallied, the curriculum was approved by a solid two-thirds majority, and in the years since it was put in place, a number of Michigan’s brightest and most talented music students have followed this pathway. I believe an important factor in the approval of the curriculum was my ability to respond convincingly to the questions that were raised. As I subsequently argued in several publications, and will of course elaborate in this book: Contemplative studies can be approached with the same kind of systematization and rigor as any conventional topic, is rich in cross-disciplinary connections, and because it involves a wider epistemological range than most academic areas, promotes levels of engagement, meaning, assimilation, and transformational impact that are rarely achieved through conventional pedagogy. Contemplative studies offers robust means for assessment, including writing, reading, and classroom discussions. Most important, contemplative studies offers a means whereby students can transcend the turbulence and pressures of academic and everyday life, invoke experiences of the most exquisite inner silence and expansiveness, and thus return to the realm of mental, physical, and social activity with enhanced awareness, clarity, joy, confidence, and a commitment to contributing productively to the world around them. 

The approval of the Jazz and Contemplative Studies curriculum was important to the subsequent establishment of a campus-wide Program in Creativity and Consciousness Studies (PCCS) on the University of Michigan campus, pointing to ramifications inherent in this work that extend far beyond music. I have long been convinced that the next frontier in higher education will involve probing the innermost dimensions of the knower—consciousness—and the mission of the PCCS is to illuminate this common core to all fields of study. At which point, an adequate conceptual framework is needed to guide the transformation process. 

[...] I propose an emergent worldview called Integral Theory as such a framework. Among the compelling features of an integral developmental, and thus educational perspective, are the juxtaposition of first-person, contemplative epistemologies with second-person, creative and interactive processes and third-person, conventional intellectual/analytical engagement. In other words, an education that spans “I,” “we,” and “it” realms, which may be correlated with spirituality, art, and science—that are central to integral thought. Integral Theory also sheds light on the roots of the patterns that prevail in conventional education; it is one thing to observe that exterior/objective approaches to knowledge pervade the academy, it is another to penetrate to the roots of these patterns deep in the conceptual bedrock of the educational world. 

Integral Theory also provides a framework for understanding how the arts, and as I contend in this first appropriation of the theory to music, improvised musical art, have the capacity to emerge as catalyst and template for this kind of paradigmatic reform. Which brings us back to jazz, the pre-eminent improvisatory genre of our times, as a uniquely rich integral catalyst. Jazz encompasses a robust creative expanse, bridges rigorous attention to exterior detail with enlivened inner experience, traverses wide-ranging cultural boundaries, navigates the ongoing interplay between tradition and change, casts individuals in leadership and accompanying roles, and invites connections to richly inter-disciplinary domains.

As humanity wrestles with an unprecedented slate of challenges to its very survival, as well as opportunities for progress, the need for foundational overhaul of our educational systems becomes increasingly evident. It is difficult to imagine a more vibrant proto-type for change than jazz with a contemplative component.

(excerpted from the preface of "Improvisation, Creativity, and Consciousness: Jazz as Integral Template for Music, Education, and Society," a book in progress by Ed Sarath)

Ed Sarath is Professor of Music and Director of the Program in Creativity and Consciousness Studies at the University of Michigan. He is actively nationally and internationally as performer, composer, and recording artist, and author. His most recent recording features the London Jazz Orchestra performing his large ensemble compositions. His articles appear in music, education, and contemplative studies journals. His book Music Theory through Improvisation was published by Routledge in September 2009, and he is currently completing Jazz, Creativity, and Consciousness: Toward an Integral Vision of Music, Education, and Society. He is founder and president of the International Society for Improvised Music.


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