Out of Phase: What if the Restoration of our Soul and Spirit through Music is a Fundamental Need?

In modern, post-industrialist, rationalist, materialist, late-capitalist society (can you tell I’m not a fan?) we tend to think of art as a luxury item. We appreciate it as life-enhancing, sure, but not fundamental. For basic survival, the prevailing belief is that humans must have shelter, food, water, sleep, clothing, safety, and personal security, before we have the leisure time to even begin to think about making a piece of art to express ourselves. Yet anyone who has intuitively searched out their favorite album to soothe a heartbreak, sung a chant at a yoga class, put an iPod into their ears to rev up a morning run, or danced their way out of a depression with pop music (here’s one of my favorite playlists for that) is familiar with how therapeutic and life-enhancing a companion music can be.

But what if the solace and regenerative powers of music are not merely a secondary benefit or incidental function, but one of the core purposes of music? And what if that healing mechanism suggests that there is a non-vertical, holistic approach to human needs? What if we can actually meet our needs “out of order”? How would a shift in our thinking about what purpose the arts serve contribute to not only better appreciation (and funding) for the arts, but also perhaps help facilitate a shift away from our materialist, competitive values?

Certainly, music is not the only art form with therapeutic benefits. But there is something special about music. (I mean, of course, as a musician I am inclined to believe, as Frank Zappa did, that “music is the best.”) In musical experience we have a particular type of integration between the body, voice, and sound vibration that is unique amongst the art forms. This special trait of music is true across all genres; whether the sound vibrations comes in the form of songs, chants, instrumental jams, a pulsing dance floor at a sweaty club, concertos, barbershop quartets, or choirs, all of this integrates physical movement, breath, spatial awareness, and pattern recognition, which makes for a healing elixir par excellent for our brains, bodies, and emotional selves.

I always felt this as part of my inward reality, and saw that it was a general shared experience amongst other humanoids. But in my work as a Teaching Artist with Urban Voices Project, a nonprofit that provides music programs to people experiencing homelessness in Los Angeles, I had a visceral lesson in just how fundamental music truly is for human well-being.

In our workshops at UVP, we use songs and instrumental jams as a jumping off point for creating a communal setting where people can sing or play along, improvise, or just observe. Throughout the workshops, members can share what the music means to them and how it affects their emotions and mood. We facilitate just to provide structure, but not to “teach” (an orientation that required some ongoing adjustments for me, having come from many years teaching piano, music theory, and technique). One of the basic tenets of the program is that in these spaces people who are typically dehumanized, and even criminalized, for being on the street get to restore a sense of personhood through the chance to meet the need for expression, connection, community, validation, and identity. Too, I think that those of us who are housed in these spaces also get to disabuse ourselves of the false idea that people who are on the street are less human; we are not rescuers swooping in to save people from their suffering, we are simply showing up in a room and remembering, all together, that we’re all human.

The only real musical skill is listening; everything else is just preparation.

What I learned in these workshops is that regardless of whether a person is housed or not, regardless of whether they have a place to sleep that night or know where their next meal is coming from, they can still find significant emotional and spiritual restoration through musical experience.

In one lesson, one of my beginning guitar students, who has Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, kept nervously shifting in her chair and shared that she was being wracked by aggravating thought loops that were distracting her from the activity we were trying to focus on. We refocused again and again, and as she got a few repetitions of the chord progression in, something clicked.

“Oh okay, the chords are like a loop, but a nice one,” she noticed.

Using breath to help focus her thoughts, the simple pattern of switching between two chords became a new loop that had a more friendly, positive feel than the negative, harassing mental patterns she was used to. I thought I was simply showing her how to play a chord pattern, but the music demonstrated something about what it could do for the student, and the student explained what the music was doing for her, in a way that I wouldn’t have anticipated or predicted.

Two of the kids who are more advanced musicians were talking one day about how it’s difficult to make time or have enough privacy to practice their music on the streets, or to take their mind off chronic concerns about getting enough food and where they will sleep that night. All of the attendant “adulting” that kids in their late teens and early twenties have to reckon with, these kids are dealing with in hyper-drive, with zero systems of support outside of circles of friends they know on the street and, thankfully, the support organizations available (like Safe Place For Youth). As one counselor said, one week is like several months on the streets, because daily life experience is so full of obstacles and stresses.

And yet, still, all of these young artists light up with esteem, confidence, and even spiritual transcendence, when they share their musical gifts and have those gifts affirmed and celebrated by others. They might not know where their next meal is coming from (root chakra, survival needs), but they are evolving emotionally, psychologically, and most definitely in their self-realization, nonetheless. 

These are all examples of why the only real musical skill is being able to listen; everything else is just preparation that may or may not be useful at some point in the future.

The idea of a linear ordering of fundamental needs versus non-fundamental ones is of course not endemic to modern capitalism. To look to Maslow on this topic, belonging, esteem, and self-realization only enter the picture after the lower tiers of the pyramid of needs have been met. Maslow’s hierarchy is in some ways a sort of compressed, simplified version of the Eastern chakra system of seven energy centers; Maslow’s hierarchy has five sections, whereas the simple version of the Eastern chakra system has seven. But regardless of the system, the general idea in many cultures modern and traditional is that we have to meet certain baseline, foundational needs before we can fully self-actualize.

But maybe it is a mistake to relate to any model of human health and needs in a strictly linear model, where energy only moves in one direction. And although Maslow’s Hierarchy is extraordinarily useful in many applications, even groundbreaking in its day, it can also be beneficial to reorient ourselves to a nonhierarchical view of needs — especially when such large numbers of our population are experiencing a profound emergency of one category of needs not being met.

Traditionally, the throat or fifth chakra is thought to correspond with music, singing, and public speaking, but we also activate the root chakra with repetitive drumming or rhythmic patterns, or the sacral chakra with dance, and so on. You could wager that root chakra-stimulating music, for example, can help with root chakra-oriented needs (basic survival), but my experience is that these processes are nonlinear and do not operate according to any type of verticality.

humans often intuitively figure out how to meet this need, even if it isn’t charted in official diagrams. 

There is something profound about being a part of a musical experience where people are getting fundamental needs met through song and movement in such a transparent way. Too, there is considerable value in seeing someone who often feels marginalized and disenfranchised get to enjoy a sense of accomplishment and excellence at creative expression, even while struggling with the everyday requirements of surviving in a capitalist system.

Music may not be directly helping these kids survive on a material level, but it is nonetheless fundamental to their survival. None of this is to minimize the homelessness crisis, but simply to help us remember that there are values and needs that can and do operate outside of the materialist value system. Imagine for a moment that alongside our capitalist reality there is a parallel reality where, despite capitalist values not being achieved in their prescribed linear progression, human realization is still occurring — in real time, on the streets, all around us, throughout the city.

Outsiders In: “Song To My City”

I wrote “Song To My City” in the summer of 2015. Portland had been changing for a while, but 2015 was the year I felt like I no longer recognized it. Being both a long-time Portlander and originally a transplant from California, I had a lot of mixed feelings about the rapidity of Portland’s growth.

On one hand, I’m saddened that the Rose City’s sudden popularity has led to the displacement of so many people. But on the other hand, the venomous attitude often hissed towards newcomers (especially, as always, towards Californians) feels not only small-hearted, but dangerously teetering towards the same xenophobia and Othering that has led many people to want to “Make America Great Again.” The term for this is Portland Provencialism, the cute small-town attitude that the only people who belong in Portland are “native Oregonians” (which is of course not a thing unless you descend from an indigenous tribe).

At a show that summer, in 2015, I noticed some drunk guy in the crowd was shouting his views on Portland’s changing demographic:

“Anyone who wasn’t here before 1980 needs to get the fuck out!”

Well, that counts me out; I had arrived in 1990 with my mom, from, of course, the Bay Area. But I had spent the better part of my life in Portland, to the point where a friend from Connecticut couldn’t accept the idea of me leaving, arguing that I was “the most Portland person ever,” (a comment which might have pushed me to leave all the sooner, just to be contrarian–which is, of course, so Portland.) I had been rooted in the Pacific Northwest, the backdrop of my life grey skies, lush temperate forests, the landscape decorated by so, so many dudes drinking craft beers in flannel shirts, for a long time.

I needed other places.

Unrealistic though it may be, Drunk Dude was expressing an attitude that lurks not too far down in the depths of many a longtime Portlander’s psyche: That some people “deserve” Portland more than others, and, of course, have a special claim on the city’s iconic “weirdness.” I’ve even heard the not-so-longtime residents, with only about a year or so under their belt, wax sentimental about how much the city has changed.

“It’s not how it used to be,” is a good catch-phrase to help you blend in better amongst the locals.

Talking shit about Portland’s gentrification with friends who also used to live there has become a new past-time. My friend José who visited from New Orleans couldn’t get over that there is actually such a thing as “personal isolation flotation chambers.”

“Personal isolation flotation chambers,” he restated the words carefully, in amused disbelief. This, to him, felt like the ultimate symbol of how strongly Portland has become “Liberal Disneyland.” And he was right. That cushy indie Portland of yore, now infused with a fat wad of developmental cash, had been rendered into a kitschy Port of Portlandia consumable version of itself.

My friend Kirsten recently observed, on a trip back to the city from Idaho, that “Portland about a decade ago was like a 10 year old, playing in a sandbox, just trying things out. Now it’s like a teenager, it’s changing and going through that awkward, cranky period.” If Portland is a teenager right now, it’s her party and she can cry and be snotty if she wants to.

My friend Lydia who now lives in Oakland wanted to make sure I remembered, after living in Portland so long, that, “Portland isn’t a Real City. You know that, right?”

But if the results of gentrification–skyrocketing real estate prices and the constant mushrooming of traffic in places it never used to be–are qualifiers of city-hood, then Portland has now definitely become a real city (I mean, right? Kind of?) And as convenient as it would be to blame this all on Carrie Brownstein and Fred Armisen, the “sudden” growth is not Portlandia’s fault and not really so sudden; it was apparently always the city’s vision to build up the central core and maintain the urban growth boundary as best as possible–in other words, for the city to get more dense, and with greater population, more commercial. A worthy goal, to prevent suburban sprawl and protect natural spaces. The less forgivable glitch is that this plan seems to require moving all the poor and brown and black people out–what many people of color experience as part of a longer history of displacement at the whim of white Portland and its evolving vision of the city (see Here’s What Four Decades of Gentrification in North and Northeast Portland Looks Like). 

Though Portland likes to think of itself as uniquely progressive, the truth is of course that we do not have much to be proud of in terms of how redlining and other exclusionary practices shaped the racial history and overly-white modern demographic of this city. In this sense, the “Portland provincialism” of today is really only a short hop from the anti-black, anti-outsider attitudes of the past.

Portland’s increased housing crunch mirrors the larger nationwide crisis in housing and homelessness; we have to remember this is an issue across the country—not one that Portland is being uniquely struck with because it is just so damn special.

What has happened in Portland, and San Francisco, and Oakland, and Seattle, and Cincinnati, and Denver, and what continues to happen in New York City, and what is driving residents inland in Miami, is still often defined by issues of class and racism. It is no mistake that it is usually poorer residents who are of color who are driven out of “up and coming” neighborhoods by extreme rent spikes; “up and coming” is of course code for white people moving in and finding a previously-undesirable neighborhood newly appealing.

I lived in one such neighborhood in Ditmas Park, Brooklyn (where I learned the difference between a typical, aggravating post office and a truly underfunded, neglected one). When I lived there, Ditmas Park hadn’t yet “tipped” to trendy, without the name recognition and unreasonable rents of other parts of Brooklyn. I often found myself wishing the process of gentrification could be frozen in place where it was, because many of the longtime residents actually welcomed the area getting cleaned up a bit, and were tired of feeling unsafe and ignored by the city government. I often found myself wishing that the elderly black people who had lived in the building for thirty years, and the younger families with kids and teenagers, could feel safe and not have to worry about drug deals going on in the lobby–without having to then worry about tons more young white people (like me, of course) moving in to enjoy the newly safe neighborhood. I mean, since our rent was low, perhaps it’s true that my roommate and I weren’t contributing as directly or aggressively to gentrification; it’s not like we were opening a posh art gallery in the building or something. In fact, we were doing what musicians in New York City have done for generations–making a one-bedroom into a two-bedroom, hauling instruments and gear up the six flight walk-up stairs when the elevator broke down, alternating our practice times across our variegated schedules, making it work. But still, I know that in the shifting sands of time, the arrival of someone who is “so Portland” like myself in the 6-story-brick landscape of Ditmas Park is a flag marking the likely-inevitable shift towards gentrification. I hoped that during my time there I made the smallest negative footprint possible, by paying a low rent and supporting as many small businesses as possible (Jamaican jerk chicken from the Caribbean deli and fruit smoothies from the Korean juice shop outside my subway station being some of my most consistent methods).

Before anyone gets too high and mighty about being the O.G. in their particular neck of the woods, it’s good to remember that, since most people move somewhere new at some point in our lives, we all have or will contribute to gentrification somewhere, in one way or another. In fact you might move because gentrification itself causes you to find someplace more affordable, to a place where other people have lived a long time, who see you as a newcomer or outsider.

In Brooklyn I had some good conversations with people who had lived in Flatbush or BedStuy their whole lives. Their feelings about gentrification ranged from anger and resentment on one hand, to a detached weariness, on the other.

“That’s just change. You can’t stop change,” one man said. Some might say that’s apathy, others might say it’s realistic.

Regardless of the political lens one takes on gentrification, perhaps it is everyone’s job to be open-minded, curious, and accepting towards new people. If we’re going to create solutions to the problems raised by increased density, we have to at least start with a basic attitude of common ground, an assumption of humanity. If we can’t do that, we’re buying into the Trump vision of America, one where people cause problems for each other more often than they generate solutions, where it is acceptable to simply reject others up front, branding them a socioeconomic problem that is taking jobs or housing or resources of one kind or another–rather than getting to know them over time, come to understand what their life is about, who they are, where they’re going.

My ambivalence about seeing my own “home” cities–Portland and the East Bay Area–change so rapidly, is why I originally wrote “Song to my City.” Moving to other cities and being the newcomer on other people’s home turf added a new layer to the song’s meaning for me. On the track, that’s me on guitar, keys and vocals, and that’s my friend Max Johnson on upright bass. Victor Nash at Destination: Universe! helped me with mixing, and then I added some more parts at Virtue & Vice Studios with Rocky Gallo in Williamsburg. The song is available through my new album, The Dreamer & The Dream, streaming now on Spotify and available on iTunes and all other places music is sold.

And here is some more food for thought on gentrification:

Here’s What Four Decades of Gentrification in North and Northeast Portland Looks Like

De-Gentrifying Portland

Is $20 Million Enough to Reverse Gentrification?

“Listening Through White Ears: Cross-Racial Dialogues as a Way to Address the Racial Effects of Gentrification”