Playing Without Expectations

Once in a while I consult the I Ching, the Chinese Book of Changes. In fact this book was my original reason for deciding to learn Chinese way back when. Yesterday I drew the 25th hexagram, Wu Wang (无妄), a title which I see has been translated in a variety of ways including “Innocence”, “Conscious Innocence”, “The Unexpected”, “Without Embroiling”, “Without Entanglement”, “Without Expectations” and even “Acceptance”. In my French edition it comes out as “Spontanément”. I think “Without Guile” might be nearer the literal meaning, or in muso language “Without Ego”.

This hexagram offers a ton of food for thought for would-be improvising musicians. For anyone out there considering having the Chinese text tattooed on their persons (see some cautionary tales here), here it is:


A rough translation gives: Without guile. Thoroughly auspicious. Perseverance pays. Where integrity is lacking there are pitfalls. It doesn’t pay to have a destination. In the fifth line, 有眚 you sheng literally means “there is a cataract” (in your eye), and by extension, the sort of slip-up you get when you can’t see where you’re going. But you could understand it as meaning you are blind to your own shortcomings.

The word I have translated as integrity, zheng, is also used in a musical context to mean “being in tune”. So the phrase could mean “When you’re out of tune, you are blind to it”. This can be taken at whatever metaphorical level you want. Being in tune is a spiritual state where you are fully aware of what’s going on around you, and you are free from neediness. For the performer this means you are not playing to earn approval or status, or as part of some agenda.

Confucius said if he had another lifetime he would use it to study this book. Composer John Cage claimed to have used it in his compositions, which you can find out more about here.

For improvisers of a more practical bent, the I Ching can be used to find random scales or rhythmic patterns. One method that I offer in my Shortcut to Improvising Fluency uses twelve squares arranged in six pairs. Each pair represents one of the six tubes making up an octave on a whole tone panpipe. The yang lines (7) represent the open note, the yin lines (8) the shaded notes a halfstep lower. A 9 give you both notes on that tube, and a 6 means skip that tube. Changing lines (6 and 9) are used to generate a descending scale. On this occasion I had a 6 in the second line (counting from the bottom).


This gives us a 3 3 2 2 2 scale ascending with a major second on the way down:


In my book you can also find formulae for working any random scale in every which way. And for anyone in a hurry there is my random scale generator, which deep in its javascript bowels uses the same mathematics borrowed from the I Ching.

While practising the scale you can ponder the meaning of the text. And maybe I’ll get an appointment with the eye-doctor to check for cataracts. Who knows, the literal meaning may be the right one, after all.

About jazzpanflute

jazz panpipe pioneer and designer
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