About a month ago, I attended the first of six Harvard Norton lectures by Laurie Anderson. Her talk was unique to the Norton series not only for its content -- more performance piece than lecture -- but also for taking place over Zoom, with both its ease of access and inherent limitations. Despite the limited format, Anderson was able, through her resourcefulness, to create an experience that proved unexpectedly satisfying and immersive.
During her piece, Anderson posed two basic questions: "Why do anything?" and "How do you know what's good?" Her answer consisted of a series of loosely connected musings, while behind her ran a constant procession of animated backgrounds: black-and-white aerial shots over New York; winter forest walks through the snow and fog; slow drives down a rainy road seen through a car windshield. These Lynch-esque landscapes, hypnotic in quality, the latter two evoking a certain rural Americana, seemed gradually to eclipse Anderson's words as the focus of her talk. (Her series is aptly titled "Virtual Backgrounds"). Even while speaking, Anderson intentionally chose a delivery style that seemed to rebel against the autocratic nature of Zoom speaking, deflecting attention from herself as an authority. In moments she even went so far as to technologically delete her virtual image, creating an unlikely sense of both wonder and space as we were suddenly confronted by the combination of animated background with her disembodied words.
By highlighting this relationship between virtual background and voice, Anderson drew a seductive connection for me between inward reflection (voice) and outward-directed fantasy (virtual background), identifying internal reflection with a sense of liberated possibility. The ability to reconcile these seeming opposites -- the journey inwards with projected fantasy -- has become for me, as I expect for many, an essential component of our collective experience of this pandemic winter, for better or for worse.
These winter months have led me to some unusual places in my reading. Usually immersed in novels and poetry, I have found myself strangely absorbed in Martha Nussbaum's writing on philosophy as therapy, while simultaneously reading -- with equal seriousness -- guides to accessing the creative subconscious (with titles like "D.I.Y. Magic" and "A Field Guide to Lucid Dreaming"). Exploring lucid dreaming in particular has far exceeded expectations of mere escapist fantasy.
Lucid dreaming might most simply be defined as being aware of your dreams while inside of them. This leads to the ability to act purposefully while dreaming (and of course, acting purposefully extends to anything you can imagine, be it flying, teleportation, or spontaneous manifestation of desires). In the past week of reading about the subject and some light attempts, I've become lucid in a dream exactly once, for only a few moments. Most people at this point, upon first achieving lucidity, immediately attempt a new experience such as flying. What struck me in this moment, however, was less a sudden desire for novelty and more a deeper realization concerning personal agency in dreams, and how that immediately began to color my idea of agency in the "real world."
From a practice point of view, something stressed in the book is the idea that our cognitive experience of dreams is no different from our cognitive experience of reality. In fact, the simplest technique to achieve lucidity involves little more than asking the question regularly throughout the day, "am I dreaming?" which leads inevitably to a habit of a mind that allows us to "catch ourselves" in a dream state.
Yet the idea that our experience of dreams and reality are cognitively identical is true only in a very limited sense. It's true that our cognitive experience itself is indifferent to whether it originates in sensory experience versus in memory or our own subconscious. And yes, the possibility of recombining memories or lived experience from within our own subconscious is potentially endless, making it possible to generate entire realities in our heads. Yet the raw data of our lived experience is an infinitesimally small fraction of the possibility of experience in the outside world. This matters not so much in what our "dream experience" vs. "real experience" ends up being, but in how we get there. If a loved one causes us pain or hurt in a nightmare, it may feel just as traumatic as if it had happened in real life. Yet no matter the resemblance to reality, the actions of someone in our dream may be equally the result of a recombination of the experience of that loved one with a past traumatic experience that bears no relation to them. Conversely, the actions of someone in the real world, even when we think we can make sense of them, are often the result of reasons or causes completely outside our knowledge, because our minds are only ever imperfect models of external reality.
Why any of this matters is, again, that question of agency. To truly enjoy and appreciate our own agency, we must be convinced of our ability to act and the power of our actions to effect change in the world around us. Yet in dreams, being convinced of that agency depends not on external factors but only on our mindset. In order to effect change in a dream, we only need to direct our attention to it. This both drastically expands our agency and yet, at the same time, renders it somehow meaningless, tautological. What is our actual impact on the world around us when the world around us is us? Crucially, in what ways is this same tautology equally true of our "real lives" when our lives become artificially bounded or disconnected from others? Our virtual world offers a similar arena in which agency becomes cheap currency, but also hollow, removed from physical response.
Over the past few months I've started dedicating 15 minutes of my daily piano practice to improvising. So I allowed myself a pat on the back when Anderson quipped in her talk, "improvisation is the perfect art form for the pandemic… it's unplanned; one is constantly revising expectations of what will come; and one is forced to be deeply attentive to the moment." It struck me equally, though, that improvisation might be the best art form for the pandemic, not only for the reasons Anderson described, but also in constituting a kind of creativity that is self-begetting: creativity not as a recombination of existing ideas, but as a way of creating something from nothing. And is this idea of creating something from nothing really so different from our idea of agency in dreams? Certainly the notion that we can render an entire musical world from the initial germ of an idea can feel wondrous in a way not dissimilar from our wildest dreamlike manifestations.
Two experiences I had while lucid dreaming strike me as relevant to improvisation. The first was walking through a screen door. What was interesting to me about this experience was that it was only possible when I moved slowly and deliberately. At first it felt like this hesitancy stemmed from the need to address, in the moment, my own belief as to whether or not moving through a screen door was possible. Registering this doubt, my hand paused briefly against the screen before only then, slowly, being able to move through it. As I moved, however, I realized that this deliberateness stemmed equally from needing to be able to imagine the tactile experience of my hand passing through the soft mesh. In other words, while the belief that I could move through the screen door at all was a prerequisite to putting my hand through, the subsequent imagined sensation of it became equally important to maintaining that belief.
I would describe this experience as similar to achieving the kind of flow state necessary for fluid improvisation: a state wherein doing, experiencing, and reflecting must exist always simultaneously in a kind of mental juggling act. On the one hand, there is the sense of intentionality; the momentum of will; the thrust of an idea through time. On the other hand, there is the necessity of reacting in the moment, lingering over a timing here or there, the continual feedback of the sounds themselves as they're generated and how they re-inform and redirect the existing thrust and intention of a musical line. Just as the experience of moving through the screen door unconsciously slows down our gesture as we begin to process and incorporate these new sensations, so is there a difference in improvisation between an initial intention (perhaps thinking ahead to a series of notes to be executed as a group), versus when we begin experiencing those notes in the moment on a more granular level, slowing things down or adjusting timings as we move from one note to the next. And these ideas apply equally to performance as they do to improvisation. An ideal performance to my mind is just as spontaneous and responsive to the inspiration of the moment: perfectly planned but infinitely flexible.
The best performance and improvisation, then, is fundamentally linked to attunement and peace with one's innermost self. Good piano practice to me has always felt like a form of meditation, so it makes perfect sense to me that one technique for achieving lucid dreaming also involves a kind of meditation that bridges the gap from wakefulness to sleep, a fusing of conscious and unconscious worlds.
To her statement about improvisation, Anderson adds the caveat, "of course, it's best with other people…" Besides the pang of loss that this statement evokes for many of us during the pandemic, Anderson's words also return us to this unlikely parallel between turning inward and connecting outward.
In these winter months, I've had a growing sense with each day of the pervading fragility of our virtual world. Not having a car, I've been avoiding public transportation and visiting many of my Boston friends through walks or long runs, social excursions that often require blocking off an entire afternoon. With snow and ice increasingly making this difficult, the virtual medium becomes even more necessary to preserving these already tenuous connections.
Yet here, too, perhaps dreaming and improvising offer strategies. The precarious "trick" state we achieve in lucid dreaming, when we combine a heightened awareness with a simultaneous suspension of disbelief, has become equally essential to conducting meaningful social interactions over Zoom. By a similar logic, when we remind ourselves that our conversations are a form of improvising (certainly best with other people), we regain an agency and ability to surprise ourselves even within the monotony of our virtual context.
Near the end of her talk, Anderson brings in the idea of the Hudson River as the backdrop for much of her creative work: looking out over the water to catch the perfect sunset over Jersey; listening to the tracks of a just-recorded album against the lapping rhythms of the current, asking, does the flow work?
Last month I walked out over the Mass Ave bridge to Cambridge for the first time this year and was struck with a sense of wonder and awe that the river was frozen. What inspired the awe was the way the river had been transformed by the whiteness of snow into a boundless expanse. Having grown used to being hemmed in by houses and streets, the river suddenly felt like a vast, open field, a revelation of natural beauty: directional flow becoming omnidirectional extension. What struck me most was also this idea of boundary becoming possibility: the line of the river that usually separates the two cities becoming a connective plane (plain); the idea that what initially delimits our experience can itself become the site of exploration. Perhaps this idea of transformation is the operative metaphor. What are our techniques for creating a newfound space, for externalizing the internal, whether through dreams, improvisation, or virtual backgrounds? How do we find meaning in the cracks?