The Psychedelic Era and the Spirit of Free-Form Experimentation in Music

There are a few reasons why people still point to the psychedelic era of music, in the late 1960's, as the halcyon days of experimentation. Many of the most magical, transcendent moments in music, for both performers and audience, occur spontaneously, with maybe only a hint of forethought or sense of direction.

Some musicians understand this and seek to invite this "visitation of the unknown" through free-form experimentation. This bold and risky approach - handing over the reins to the Muse and embracing whatever terrors or wonders She might choose to reveal - reached its initial heyday during that late '60 psychedelic era.

Music Reflecting a New State of Mind

The psychedelic experience in many ways expressed itself most naturally through free-form musical experimentation. Trippers were journeying with fragmented egos, which meant that the facility for attachment to the things of the world, to goal-oriented thinking, was greatly weakened. What else to do, under such circumstances, but dive into the river and let its flow take you?

This turn of consciousness characterized much of the music that was born out of the free-form experimentation of the times. Extended jams banished all sense of time; poetical excursions broke away from the linear world of cause-and-effect; words suggested subjective states of mind rather than concrete movements and events.

Some Standard-Bearers of the Movement

The Grateful Dead forged their early reputation in this way. The Syd-Barrett era Pink Floyd filled such "Underground" London clubs as Middle-Earth and UFO with aural landscapes that often began with mere sketches of song structure - maybe a beginning and ending verse - then filled out with Syd's inspired eruptions of the moment, as the rest of the band struggled to follow his frenzied improvisation.

Jim Morrison probed the new emerging musical landscape with words, sung or recited, adding / removing / rearranging snatches of poetry throughout The Doors' largely free-form sets. This approach culminated in the creation of theatrical epics like The End and When the Music's Over.

The Risk of Failure

Free-form experimentation could lead to a lot of stale ideas and aimless repetition. But it could also potentially shatter the musicians' notions of what music should be, what they were capable of, and how far the audience was willing to let the music take them. In that space of surprise and wonder, a wider world of creative possibilities could be glimpsed and pursued.

My protagonist throughout The Edge of the Known, Brandon Chane, lived by this creative ethic and sought to implement it within his own band. As he says in What Casts the Shadow? :

Only familiar things can be stuffed into the mental category of the “known” and thereby lose their power to move us. When the mind is caught off guard, when it’s confronted by something that it can’t label, then there must be an opening onto direct apprehension. New ideas, sensations and mental landscapes all have a chance to slip through the cracks. Spurred on by this inspiration, I told Tim and Tommy one night during rehearsals that we should have certain songs - or at least, certain movements within our songs - which we never played the same way twice.

“We’ll just create the space for whatever wants to come through in the moment,” I said. “And then we’ve got to run with it - that’s the thing - even if it takes us to some scary places.”

Inviting - and Promoting - the Unknown

Oftentimes, the most powerful art is as much a surprise to the artist as to the beholder. But this can only happen when the space is ready. If too much is planned then the spontaneous fire can't get through.

In Brandon's case, the approach worked in some ways because he was desperate enough to forsake safety and pursue the Muse at all costs. One of his earliest supportive critics wrote:

The band’s manager is off to my right, by the bar, weeping her eyes out at the sight of it all. One cocktail waitress is standing spellbound in the aisle, the forgotten platter of drinks in danger of slipping off of her shoulder. Brandon is soloing majestically behind the wall of his hair one moment and then telling us all about a ladyfriend of his who’d beaten cancer the next. You never know which way this guy is turning. It HAD to be utterly spontaneous; and yet his telepathic bandmates - Tommy Visconti on bass and Carlos Rodriguez on drums - respond to his every mad swerve as if this was all something that they’d rehearsed a dozen times over the night before.

The Aftermath

After the revolutionary fires of the '60s died down, the spontaneous fire found voice in pockets of the punk movement, in the erratic passion of Patti Smith, in the mind-bending free-form musical tapestries of Sonic Youth...

The dream-scapes that lie beneath the thresholds of reason will always seek release. Sometimes they find it; and. if we're really lucky, there will be artists who are awake enough to capture that Presence within their music.

Those tend to be the songs that we remember longest, the songs whose fire is made to endure the world longer than us.