ED SARATH: Embody the new paradigm


Ed Sarath, University of Michigan, is active worldwide as performer, composer, author, and change visionary. He is founder and President of the International Society for Improvised Music. His most recent book is Improvisation, Creativity, and Consciousness (SUNY 2013), the first to apply principles of Integral Theory to music. His most recent recording is New Beginnings, featuring the London Jazz Orchestra performing his large ensemble compositions. He is a fellow of the American Council of Learned Societies, MacDowell Arts Colony, and National Endowment for the Arts. Recent keynote addresses include National Association of Schools of Music, Society for Consciousness Studies, and University of Melbourne.


Interview by Lawrence Neil


What were your first creative impulses, and what drew you eventually to jazz?

I recall my first trumpet teacher, named Donald Burr, having me write compositions, way back when I was probably 10 or 11, in addition to my basic exercises and etudes. A few years later, he tried to get me to improvise, but I would have none of it. The irony of this is notable as I write these words from Korea where the International Society for Improvised Music, which I founded, is celebrating the end of its first decade in existence!

But I recall occasional instances where I would hear other students improvise, and I was captivated, even if I would not try it myself.  I was developing nicely as an aspiring classical trumpeter, gaining All-State honors even as a freshman in high school. Toward the end of my high schools days, our band director had someone come in from a local university one day and do a workshop on improvisation. I recall being enthralled by the groove he laid down on the piano, and also the frustration of not being able to do much with it. But as I think back, I remember my experience of hearing a kind of music, and approach to being a musician, that spoke deeply to me. And then the summer after I graduated from high school, I got hit with the jazz bug — it was like a tsunami that entirely swept me away.  Classical music remains important to me, however, from a compositional perspective.

But jazz is the center, which opens up to a musical worldview that I call “jazz writ large” — jazz as an aperture to the entire musical landscape. I think of it in terms of continuum that extends from jazz per se, encompasses the outer edges of the jazz tradition and its improvised music outskirts, at which point a creative and conceptual infrastructure is in place that is receptive to influences from and engagement with an unlimited scope of influences and traditions. And of course there are untold philosophical connections, which is the basis for my book Improvisation, Creativity, and Consciousness: Jazz as Integral Template for Music, Education, and Society (SUNY Albany, 2013) which is the first to appropriate to music principles a consciousness-based worldview called Integral Theory.


How did you first discover that jazz and your meditative practice were connected, and what sparked you to continue practicing and teaching them in tandem?

I got hit with the jazz bug around 1971, began meditation practice in 1974, which from the outset involved not only regular practice but regular attendance at meditation retreats in order to deepen the practice. It took a while before I would overtly see the connections between jazz and meditation, but I think intuitively I must have been aware of them early on.

Of course now I have a fairly elaborate analytical model of the relationship — improvisation is a parts to whole modality for inner-outer wholeness, meditation a whole to parts approach. In other words, improvisation proceeds from intensive physical, emotional, creative, active engagement (the parts) and penetrates to interior experience (whole) from that vantage point. Meditation proceeds from silence and wholeness which over time informs creative activity. It is a powerful complementary.

I’m fascinated with the flow state, while simultaneously frustrated with the way it can seem so elusive. How would you personally define the flow state, and what type of processes do you teach or practice yourself to strengthen your connection to it?

I prefer Maslow’s peak experience to Csikszentmihaliyi’s term flow, though they are both talking about roughly the same thing. Mind-body integration, transformed sense of time, oneness with self and environment, noetic experience, well-being — those are some of the common features. Meditation and improvisation are two primary means for getting at this for me. It is also important to conduct one’s life with an intention to function and exist from this heightened inner-outer experience.


Your approach acknowledges the nondual relationship between human consciousness and cosmic wholeness – more simply, as you write in your book, that there is “no separation between individual and universe in a broader scheme of reality.” How have you experienced this in your own life and work?

I feel very fortunate to have come up through a Vedantic lineage in which this account of nonduality is central. Although all meditation systems have value, and of course anyone can invoke temporary nondual experiences whether in meditation or not, I think when it comes to really cultivating this experience in an enduring way, one that informs the totality of one’s activity, grounding in a tradition in which individual-cosmic wholeness is explicitly at its core is ideal.




You founded the Program in Creativity and Consciousness Studies at University of Michigan, an interdisciplinary initiative exploring the nature and development of human consciousness and creativity. What is your hope for how these types of programs will impact or integrate into our current system of education?

We are at an exciting time in the history of education and the world. In my book, I describe this as a revolution in creativity and consciousness, which is key to humanity’s addressing the unprecedented array of challenges — and opportunities for progress — that are unique to our time. Key to this revolution is to establish pockets that embody the new paradigm. The U-M Program in Creativity and Consciousness Studies was formed with this idea in mind. It (PCCS) an organic extension of our BFA in Jazz and Contemplative Studies curriculum, which is a very localized manifestation of the same idea — in this case one that focuses on music students (though key coursework in the program is open to students from across the campus).


What does your ideal future look like?

A harmonious, peaceful world, where sustainable practices — culturally, economically, ecologically — prevail, and humanity is grounded in a spirituality that — at once — both transcends cultural boundaries, yet recognizes and celebrates culturally-mediated pathways to this unifying, connecting ground. While many clamor about the “ills” of organized religion, particularly in light of extremist interpretations and corresponding violence, the solution is not to — were this even possible — eradicate religion, but to go deeper into it. The same thing needs to happen with science and technology, where approaches that stop short of the deepest dimensions of the consciousness of the practitioners, and the understanding of the discipline, result in thinking and action that is disconnected from the wholeness that is key to a sustainable future. There is just as much fundamentalism in science as there is in religion. The solution, however, lies not in the repression of science, as I suppose religious fundamentalists would have it (fundamentalism in one domain begets that in another), but rather a deeper science. I believe art, which of course can have its now fundamentalist patterns, has the capacity to catalyze the emergence of these expanded, integral paradigms of spirituality and science. And within the arts, jazz is uniquely endowed with creative and spiritual features that are key to this transformative function.

Here is also important to recognize the extent to which America has been disconnected from jazz, which in essence entails the nation being disconnected from its soul. I have a series of projects I will be soon launching on this theme. One is called Black Music Matters, which I will frame as part of the Black Lives Matter movement; BMM will be part of a broader project called Jazz on Earth, which I will launch as part of the International Society for Improvised Music. While to be sure there will be social justice aspects to this work, never far from view will be the capacities inherent in black music to penetrate to interior dimensions of human consciousness. That is the ultimate frontier.


images courtesy of Ed Sarath

Published: October 14th, 2016

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