Throughout human history, the casting of various objects to ascertain divine will (cleromancy) has been practiced in many cultures. Most people are familiar with the practice through having read the Bible, and encountering such figures as Moses being told by God to have Aaron cast lots (two objects known as Urim and Thummim) to decide which of two goats shall be either ritually pure or impure (Leviticus 16:8). Casting various types of lots was also used to ascertain who broke Saul’s oath (Samuel 14:42), whose god was responsible for creating a calamitous storm (Jonah 1:7), and who was to be the replacement for Judas among the apostles of Jesus Christ (Acts 1:23). In Japan this tradition took on the form of Shinto auguring through o-mikuji (御神籤), which consists of buying a little tag randomly chosen from a box which contains a tiny written fortune/blessing. Often, since the tag is rather beautiful looking, I have seen people use them as tags on their cellphones or musical instrument cases without having ever read the fortune inside. The most famous cleromantic system though is the method laid out in the Chinese classic The I-Ching (易經), the Book of Changes (Japan:易経).
The I-Ching (pronounced ee – jing), considered to have been created sometime between 1046 – 771 BCE, began as a way of ascertaining divine insight and the proper direction in the flow of one life, as opposed to fortune telling, which I see as more of the desire to know how much luck one will have in specific situations. Since its inception, the I-ching has come to be seen as a religious, moral, philosophical, and/or symbolic work, and was even used by modern composers such as John Cage to create music based on chance processes inherent in the system.
How It Works
The I-ching is based on a system of hexagrams (kua or gua: 卦). Using a system of 3 coins for example, one flips each coin once and write down what came up: heads or tails (e.g. TTH). This first set of three flips equals one line in the hexagram (the bottom one). Do this two more times and you have created a trigram, of which there are eight classic variations, each with a different designation (heaven, earth, fire, water, etc). Then one proceeds to do the process over until they have a six line kua, two stacked trigrams. This hexagram, one of a possible 64, has assigned to it a number of mental images, suggestions and/or judgments for each line of the symbol, and the seeker thus looks up the symbol in the actual I-ching itself for this knowledge. Traditionally, the system utilized yarrow stalks instead of coins, but since its creation, coins, marked sticks, yarrow stalks and other items have been used, though some traditionalists suggest that yarrow sticks must be used if the I-ching is to be effective as an actual oracular device, rather than a mere random fortune system, like the “magic eight balls” you can buy at novelty stores.
The easiest way to create hexagrams though is using the “3 Tail” coin system. Flipping three coins and getting 3 tails gives you a broken line, 2 gives you a solid line, 1 tail is a broken line, and no tails is solid. It is not the system laid out in the I-ching, but is the easiest method to create hexagrams. This method is also the one I use as part of the project I am revealing to you now… the Improvisation (Jazz) I-ching!
The Jazz I-ching
Though jazz musicians in the past have referenced the I-ching and adapted it for use in improvisation, I myself had never done so until now. Thus, I felt the desire to create my own idiomatic version and share with you all on my blog, as yet another part of my mission as an ethnomusicologist to disseminate knowledge and creative technologies that will help others realize their own goals and desires in music.
Using the 3 Tail system, I have created a kind of musical I-ching as a guide for collective improvisation (traditional jazz or free improvisation) in a duo setting or larger (though you could use it by yourself). Thus having established the 3 Tail system for creating the hexagrams, I have gone through the I-ching and converted the information associated with each hexagram into suggestions for improvisation. Calling it an “improvisational” I-ching might be misleading though, as one has to create their hexagram(s) before the music starts then use your understanding of the hexagram as a conceptual guide, even though there are specific notes and sounds linked to each one. Thus, one might call this a quasi-improvisational I-ching, which is a fair assessment.
Having each created a set of hexagrams for themselves to use, the improvisers then begin to play spontaneously, and each responds to the music in the manner laid out for them by the hexagram. As an example of this process I have created a set of four duets, with each hexagram being created by the 3 Tail coin system.
(Note: the note assignment system for each hexagram is based in part on my multiphonic and quartertone charts exclusively for saxophone. Each instrumentalist is thus encouraged to make the appropriate changes to this system, idiomatic of the advanced techniques of their own instrument. The quartertones and mulitphonics are staggered sequentially (ascending) among the “regular” tones of the saxophone : tone – quartertone – multiphonic -tone. Also, I suggest using Kerson Huang’s “I Ching: The Oracle (Revised Edition)” published by World Scientific Publishing (2014) as your guide, since it sticks with the literal meanings of each kua, thus leaving much room for interpretation, rather than other versions that go into great detail about “exactly” what each kua means. The direct translation from Mandarin to English leaves much more room for creative interpretation.)
So let’s say that a trumpet player (left side) and a saxophone player (right side) wish to create an improvised I-Ching duet and end up creating the following hexagrams in Duet No. 1 (top left in the image above): 48, 53, 1, 61, 54, 9, 47, and 55. They each read up on the kua and think of ways of musically realizing each one.
Starting on the left, for example, the trumpet player then begins to play CHING (No. 48): The well – drawing from any/all sources of musical knowledge and inspiration. This implies that he or she can utilize a wide array of non-idiomatic improvisational techniques, drawn for example from Korean sanjo music, bluegrass mandolin, or the late string quartets of Beethoven while encouraging their partner to do the same. The note that they wil use as the basis for their improvisation is assigned by each hexagram, in this case the note E (in the second octave). The saxophonist meanwhile is focused on the fulfillment of CHIEN (No. 53): gradual development – like a wild goose in flight, free and strong, but remaining dedicated to working with the trumpet player, and receiving input from them as they create something unique within the duo relationship. This relationship, on their part, centers on the 21st quartertone: D half flat in the second octave.
The trumpet player would then reciprocate with the next hexagram in their series, CH’IEN (No. 1): creation. Utilizing everything in their power to adapt and reformulate what they have thus received from the saxophonist, they turn this information into something fresh and interesting; building upon what both are creating (leading from the foundational note Bb). The saxophonist responds with CHUNG FU (No. 61): emptiness – beginning anew, with fresh ideas, and leaving the safety of what they have already played/built into the soundscape. Leaving behind preconceived ideas, they now acts bravely, reacting in the moment without worry whether the notes are “right” or not, beginning with the note C, now in the third octave.
The trumpet player now can act on KUEI MEI (No. 54): maintaining the relationship – their job now being to react to the CHUNG FU activities, with modesty so as not to aggressively steer the music towards their own end (centered around the note G in the second octave). The saxophonist now moves into a counterpoint, using HSIAO CH’U (No. 9) to exercise restraint – holding back until the right time to play is the wisest course of action. If they draw this kua, they must seek ways to interject without necessarily introducing a new direction; lead without leading, and wait until the right time to continue the musical train of thought (using multiphonic no.3).
KUN (No. 47): Oppression is the final hexagram for the trumpet player– there always being a moment or two in any improvisational endeavor where one is not satisfied with what they or others are doing. They then must ake stock of what currently dissatisfies them in the moment. Whatever has been held back or questioned, now is the time to sit back and let the other(s) play while they consider new material, just as their partner has done with HSIAO CH’U. They must use this time now to reevaluate the overall duet improvisation thus far and reengage using the 18th quartertone; an A half flat in the second octave). The saxophonist then responds with “great abundance” FÊNG (No. 55), (based on the 22nd quartertone: a half flatted C# in the second octave). Their patience and restraint is now rewarded as both realize the last kua in the duet, and thus have the opportunity to bring it to a close. Now is the time to enact wu-wei, letting go of all desire for glory or attention as they let the piece close naturally, together, which also means letting the other finish the duet by themselves if the mood/feeling is right; acting without conscious effort, letting things be.
THE 64 KUA
Though I have not yet completed an analysis of all 64, here are a few of the finished kua I have adapted into this system:
CH’IEN (No. 1): creation – utilizing everything in your power to adapt and reformulate what you think (and hear), turning this information into something fresh and interesting and building upon what you or an ensemble are creating; leading from the foundational note Bb.
K’UN (No.2): open/forming – being receptive to any/all ideas and beginnings. This kua is the ultimate partnering form, and within it everything has its time and place. This is the time to be guided by your inner musical urges as you take in your environment, centering around the first quartertone in the series, D half flat.
CHUN (No.3): difficulty – beginning with caution, this kua suggests letting the seed of an idea germinate, not merely playing an idea for a few moments then coming up with another idea. Let your first thought/sound guide you in an exploration of all of its potentialities; linger and then move when the idea is fully realized, beginning with the first multiphonic.
MÊNG (No.4): inexperience – this is the time to experiment and make mistakes. Be bold and try new things but be cautious. Innovation and wisdom comes though many errors, so make sure you learn from what is not working, and especially, learn to know the difference between the correct approach in the moment and error. This effort begins with the note B in the lower first octave.
HSÜ (No. 5): holding back – biding your time and being patient will help you find what is right to play in the moment. Trust what you and/or the others are doing and this reticence will lead to positive results, especially if you are fully aware in the moment and can sense that silence will sound better than thoughtless note-forming. This process begins with the second quartertone (Eb half flatted).
SUNG (No. 6): dispute – this kua suggests that you consult with a “wise person”: a teacher, a technique book, a recording, or some other sources of information that will help you create something unique. Don’t show up to an improvisation unprepared, as no one is a complete improviser unto himself or herself. More than your own urges and desires inform the best works, so create no conflict by being unable to understand what is being played. Create opportunities to learn from others and share what you have learnt like wise, beginning with multiphonic no.2.
SHIH (No. 7): collective forces – working together to make something special, creating/drawing this kua means you are to encourage others to work with you, praising them for their efforts. Make known that you appreciate the contributions of others by focusing on the material that they are providing and developing it further. Being supportive of the collective/others will create a receptive and positive mood, which is vital for ensemble improvisation. If the mood is waning then seek to reenergize the moment with positivity, not enervate with negativity. This kua is based on the note C in the lowest octave.
PI (No. 8): uniting wavelengths – this is yet another time for unity, in this case with one member of the ensemble. Whomever you feel you have kinship with is the person you will focus on in the collective improvisation. This is because there will be times when you are improvising with other that you are just not on the same wavelength, not able to agree. Thus, this kua as an improvisational tactic suggests honesty and sincerity, based on the third quartertone (E half flat).
HSIAO CH’U (No. 9): restraint – there are times when holding back until the right time to play is the wisest course of action. If you draw this kua, seek ways to interject without necessarily introducing a new direction; use it as a chance to lead without leading, act without acting (using the third multiphonic in the series).
LÜ (No. 10): walking the path – is to tread on the tiger’s tail if not careful. To walk your own path as you walk with others is to do it in harmony with your peers, negotiating individual strengths and desires for the benefit of others doing the same. This process begins from C# in the first octave.
SUI (No. 17): Leading/Following – following the advice and guidance of another. One could take this as a directive: to engage in improvisational dialogue with another instrument: sharing credit for the music that ensues. The dialogue begins from the sixth quartertone (G half flat).
K’AN (No. 29): Danger – is to prepare for a lack of cooperation; dealing with themes and directions from another musician that you disagree with; learning to dispense agreement or authority without ego. This process begins with the tenth quartertone (C half flat)
SUN (No. 41): Decrease – the waning of an idea before the next collective direction. When an idea has run its course, it is time to introduce a new musical “topic.” Help the process along by both suggesting and being open to suggestion. This process begins from the fifteenth quartertone (F half flat).
KUN (No. 47): Oppression – there are always moment in any improvisational endeavor where you are not satisfied with what you or others are doing. Take stock of what currently dissatisfies you in the moment. Whatever you have held back or questioned, now is the time to sit back and let the other(s) play while you consider new material. Use this time now to reevaluate the overall improvisation thus far and reengage using the 18th quartertone; an A half flat in the second octave).
CHING (No. 48): The well – drawing from any/all sources of musical knowledge and inspiration, this implies a wide array of non-idiomatic improvisational techniques, drawn for example from Korean sanjo music, bluegrass mandolin, or the late string quartets of Beethoven, all centered around the note E (in the second octave).
CHIEN (No. 53): gradual development – like a wild goose in flight, you are free and strong, but remain dedicated to working with others, and receiving input from you as they create something unique in the moment. This relationship centers on quartertone no. 21: D half flat in the second octave.
KUEI MEI (No. 54): maintaining the relationship – your job now is to react to the activities, with modesty so as not to aggressively steer the music towards your own end. If you are performing solo, remain open to new directions even if you are enamored with what you are playing in that moment, which is centered on the note G (second octave).
FÊNG (No. 55): great abundance – (based on the 22nd quartertone: a half flatted C# in the second octave). Patience and restraint will be rewarded as you bring what is in the moment to a close and let someone else have the chance to take the lead. Let what feels right dictate the improvisation, not just what feels right to you. This approach will engender further trust in your skills by others, or create new opportunities for yourself in a solo context. Let things spontaneously occur at this point, letting them be what they will be as you focus on the living moment without due concern for your image or reputation.
CHUNG FU (No. 61): emptiness – beginning anew, with fresh ideas, and leaving the safety of what they have already played/built into the soundscape. Leaving behind preconceived ideas, others around you now act bravely, reacting in the moment without worry whether the notes are “right” or not, beginning with the note C in the third octave.