Into the Out

Michael Stroh
June 01, 1992

Inside a tiny, windowless room overrun by journals and research papers, 32-year-old Julian Thayer remembers the first time he saw jazz drummer Pheeroan ak Laff play. "The image I had was like he was tip-toeing on the drums, and I thought: Man, I'd love to play with this cat." Thayer pauses for a moment, and then shakes his head. "It was a peak experience."

b&w photo of a man playing bass

Talk to Thayer long enough and you'll find he has three distinct ways of expressing his likes. The word "man" is his grammatical equivalent of a superlative; he says man a lot. When Thayer is really moved, however, something is "wild." A subject that Thayer currently finds "really wild," for example, is chaos theory. But for his most profound reactions, Thayer reserves the phrase "peak experience." The term originates in psychology, but Thayer uses it to express something more metaphysical. "It's really a very spiritual type of thing," he says, "like a direct experience of God or The Universe, or whatever you want to call it. And for me that's what life, music, science . . . everything is about."

Music and science are literally everything in his life. Thayer is not only an assistant professor of psychology at Penn State but also a semi-professional avant-garde jazz bassist. What makes Thayer unique is that his research is not merely performed to support his music, and his music is not merely a hobby to take his mind off research. Thayer has combined the two disciplines, and he has been very successful. Recently he was asked by sculptor Rob Fisher, and internationally recognized artist who combines art and technology, to play bass for a multimedia work he is creating that fuses together jazz, sculpture, and high-tech video technology. Typically, Thayer was excited about the opportunity for two reasons. Thayer the Scientist believes the project "may tell us a great deal about how humans work," while Thayer the Musician is ecstatic because he will finally have the opportunity to play alongside Pheeroan ak Laff, who was also recruited by Fisher.

Also this week a colleague in Amsterdam called to say he had verified Thayer's preliminary findings on the physiological link between music and emotion, a project Thayer has spent his entire academic career studying and which comprises his most significant scientific contribution to date.

Despite these accomplishments, Thayer regards himself as somewhat of a maverick. And in some ways he is. Most academics don't sport an earring and a small pony tail, as he does. Furthermore, some people probably find the way he mixes the language of jazz with that of science to be atypical as well—how, for instance, he can use "Cool, man!" and "nonlinear dynamical systems" in the same sentence.

But Thayer's sees himself as a maverick in a more holistic sense. "I am an outsider," he says. "My colleagues—most people—really don't know what I'm doing."

Although born in New York City, Thayer relocated to Delaware with his family when he was young. He lived "out in the middle of nowhere," he says. "I ended up having a lot of time to sit around, so I always read a great deal—really broad, wild kind of reading. Freud. Feynman Lectures on Physics. Math and history. I had two older brothers who were in college. When they took a class, I would read their books."

But Thayer admits his early academic interest sprang from a deeper need than relieving boredom. "Being Black has had a major influence on the way I've approached things," he says today. "Early on it was necessary for me to sort of try and get an understanding of what the universe was like. There is so much information given to a person about who they are, and growing up a minority in this country you sometimes get information that makes you say to yourself: Wait a minute, that's not me. So for me it was necessary to understand why those things weren't true and what in fact was true."

Music was also a significant part of Thayer's childhood, often providing him with a much more spiritual release than did reading. After graduating from high school Thayer knew he wanted to do something involving music but wasn't sure exactly what. On the basis of a somewhat vague interest in film scoring he decided to enroll at the Berklee College of Music in Boston because he knew composer Quincy Jones had studied there. After being accepted to the school and taking a few scoring classes, however, Thayer lost interest in the subject. Although ironically these classes would later prove useful for Thayer's first serious psychophysiological experiment, he never took a film scoring class again.

But Thayer still loved to compose music, and so when he was not practicing his bass he was composing. Although Berklee was by no means a bastion of conservatism like Julliard, it still taught composition as a body of rules to be followed. Instinct was considered a sign of inexperience. Trust the rules, Thayer's composition teachers seemed to say. After all, look what they did for Mozart?

If Thayer ever observed even one of these rules in his compositions, his instructors never found it. It's not that Thayer wasn't able to understand the rules, he just couldn't validate them. In fact, even some of the most fundamental musical ideas were difficult for Thayer to believe in. "I could never relate to the idea in music school that you play a rhythm to a metronome—to a regular beat," Thayer says. "Life isn't like that! Recent heart-rate studies even show that a regular heartbeat is pathological: It's unhealthy. And irregularity is healthy. So I always knew that my music was a more natural and organic phenomenon than a lot of the contrived stuff." The only kind of music that Thayer could relate to then was avant-garde jazz.

Borrowed from the French, the word avant-garde literally means "vanguard"; when applied to jazz it is a highbrow way of describing music that is completely spontaneous and unconventional. Of course the musicians who play avant-garde jazz regard the term as unhip and generally use it only when talking to an outsider. The expression they prefer is "playing out."

Unlike traditional or "in" jazz, musicians who play out generally hold a very nihilistic view of fundamental musical concepts like melody, harmony, and rhythm. Consequently, avant-garde jazz often bears little resemblance to what is conventionally thought of as a musical composition. Some might unjustly label it noise.

Thayer's favorite place to hear noise in those days was Michael's Pub. Michael's was located near the Berklee campus and attracted lots of its students, as both the club's audience and its acts. On Monday nights, however, and avant-garde jazz trio whose members were not students but instructors at the College performed. They called themselves The Fringe.

b&w photo, man with ear clip and scrunched up face, left hand on neck of bass.

Thayer was introduced to The Fringe through his bass instructor Richard Appleman, who was in the group. When Thayer heard the group play for the first time, he was shocked: "Those cats were just monsters," he remembers. "They pushed the envelope so hard. It pushed me to think about things and to feel things. Sometimes I'd be listening, and I'd have to leave because I'd feel like I was going to explode. I wasn't tired or bored. I was just in such a state of shock at what I'd heard that I just couldn't handle it. There was so much information contained in what they were doing that I'd have to digest it, so I'd just get up and leave." It was a peak experience for Thayer. From that day on, he never missed a Monday at Michael's.

It wasn't long before Thayer formed his own avant-garde group and began playing at local clubs. "The group was actually a quintet," says Thayer, "but the name of the group was The Baryon Octet. That's because a baryon octet is a family of subatomic particles which happen to have certain characteristics we liked: They tend to appear sort of spontaneously in a vacuum, like out of nowhere. And we were doing that with music. We would play improvisational music that basically would come out of nowhere. All of a sudden you'd hear a very well-formed musical composition, but it wasn't premeditated in any way. So we thought the name was appropriate. But audiences often wondered: 'Hmmm, there are only five today. I guess three of them couldn't make it.'"

In some respects The Baryon Octet was Thayer's first scientific experiment. He used the band to test the veracity of those famous rules of composition he had been told to follow. "I was writing some wild stuff, breaking all the traditional rules. And my composition teachers were telling me: 'If you write this, using this traditional rule, people will feel a certain way.' I didn't believe it. People responded to music without knowing all those rules. Needless to say they must be responding to something a little more basic. And that was one of my early motivations. I was writing all these compositions that broke all the rules, and yet people were having very strong reactions to them. I asked myself: So what are they responding to if I'm not following any of the rules that supposedly lead to this stuff? What's going on?"

Although this question—What's going on?—formed during his days with The Baryon Octet, it didn't become a well-planned scientific inquiry until later, after Thayer had left Berklee and transferred to the Indiana University at Bloomington, where he entered the honors psychology program.

The decision to leave Boston was not easy. Thayer knew his group was "right on the brink of doing some major stuff," and by leaving Boston he was not only forfeiting his own chances for commercial success but jeopardizing those of the other band members as well. But at the time Thayer's need to understand the psychological side of music outweighed any immediate desire for success. Luckily the other members of The Baryon Octet were understanding and so Thayer left.

At Indiana Thayer began to work closely with a psychologist named Robert Levenson. Levenson, now a professor of psychology at the University of California at Berkeley, also happened to be a musician and so understood Thayer's scientific interests. When it came time for Thayer to complete his undergraduate honor's thesis, Levenson became his advisor.

The topic Thayer chose was "The effects of music on psychophysiological responses to a stressful film." Not only could Thayer now examine all his intuitive theories about music under the rigors of the scientific method but because the project required a new music track to be added to the film, he would finally have use for those film scoring classes.

Thayer's experiment was designed around a 12-minute black-and-white industrial safety film that had been a stress-research classic since its introduction in 1962, guaranteed to cause stress in the most stalwart of subjects. Called "It Didn't Have to Happen," the film plays like a Sinclair Lewis novel: Opening with a scene where a factory worker lacerates a finger in a jointer machine. The camera moves to a different part of the factory where another worker amputates part of a finger on a sanding machine. Finally for a climax, a table saw propels a board through the abdomen of a passing worker.

Thayer showed his subjects three different versions of the film. In the first version Thayer created a sound track that accentuated the accident scenes. In the second he created a sound track that deemphasized the accidents. Finally, he made a control version that had no music at all. While his subjects watched the film, Thayer measured their physiological responses—things like heart rate, skin conductance, pulse, and movement. When he later analyzed his data, Thayer found that the intensity of his subjects' reactions to the accidents was directly related to the music that was used.

Thayer finally had scientific evidence on a relationship he had speculated about for a long time. Levenson was impressed. "A lot of undergraduate students get interested in highly integrative kinds of questions like the relationship between mind, body, and music. Things that bridge the creative arts and science. But most of those ideas never undergo real scientific research because of the rigor and discipline that's necessary to actually study something like that in the laboratory—which usually takes the fun out of it for the average person.

"What was refreshing about Jules," Levenson said recently, "was that he was not cowed by scientific discipline at all and was quite comfortable doing what was necessary to test out his ideas in the laboratory." Eventually Thayer's experiment was published in the journal Psychomusicology, a feat almost unheard of for an undergraduate research project.

Since coming to Penn State in 1984, Thayer has studied many music-related issues, looking at subjects as diverse as the role of music in traditional African healing to the effect of music on perceived exertion and mood during aerobic exercise—but the study that currently makes him the proudest is his general study of the psychophysiological relationship between music and emotion.

"One of the problems in doing emotional research is that nobody has figured out a way to induce real emotions in the laboratory," says Thayer. "Previously people would say things like: 'Imagine a happy situation.' You know, and have people imagine it and then ask them afterwards, 'How happy were you?' That's a bit of a problem.

"So what we do is we play music ranging from avant-garde jazz to Bach to Japanese flute music, but we don't tell them anything about the music. Then we ask them afterwards how they felt; of course, we were recording physiology the whole time. And what we find is that each emotion has a particular pattern of physiological activity and verbal reports associated with it."

When Thayer's colleague in Amsterdam, Lorenz van Doornen, repeated Thayer's experiment, he used different music and measured different physiological responses. Since his findings and Thayer's have coincided so closely, the studies provide tentative evidence that people do respond to something in music that transcends both culture and genre.

In the spring of 1991 Thayer was in Norway—"the hither regions of the planet"—doing some research at the University of Bergen as a Fulbright visiting professor, when he had another peak experience. "I was living in a dorm," he says. "I've never lived in a dorm before: There was no TV, no phone . . . no nothing. So I had a lot of time to think. Suddenly the relationship between music and emotion really solidified. And the way I'm looking at it now is in terms of what is called chaos theory."

Chaos theory is the popular term for a developing branch of science concerning the theory of nonlinear dynamical systems. Basically, it studies the order and patterns that lurk inside systems—any quantity or set of quantities that undergoes a change, like the weather, the stock market, or a violent river—formerly considered random, erratic, and unpredictable.

Chaos theory revealed the fuller implications of Thayer's data. During his studies Thayer found two qualities that affected 75 percent of a subject's emotional response; he called them activation level and hedonic tone (or intensity and pleasantness). These qualities could be directly manipulated, he learned, using two distinct qualities of music—tempo and pitch. So just as radio music is affected by the tone and volume controls, emotions are affected by independent levels of pleasantness and intensity. And these levels—these dials—can then be manipulated by tempo and pitch. "So now we can use music to explore this state space—the whole emotional range—and see how the organism responds. It's really wild. It's really wild."

Two weeks later Julian Thayer is standing on a stage inside a shabby old building on Manhattan's Lower East Side preparing to manipulate the state spaces of the 150 or so organisms (people) that have filled the small avant-garde jazz club The Knitting Factory. He is tuning an acoustic bass that's twice as wide and almost a full arm's length taller than his own willowy six-foot frame, and which requires him to stand in such a way that he appears to be embracing a very robust, violin shaped woman. Next to Thayer, a stocky percussionist with dreadlocks—Pheeroan ak Laff—checks the tension on his drum heads, while an owlish multi-instrumentalist named Scott Robinson blows tentatively into a saxophone.

The performance about to take place is called "Flying Carpet: A Page from the Book of Skies," which its creator Rob Fisher describes in his notes for the show as a "jazz-driven video." That the performance won't be typical is clear from the arrangement of the stage. Directly over centerstage a projection screen has been lowered from the ceiling, while in front of each musician a video monitor has been set up where a music stand would normally be. Most noticeable of all, however, are the microcomputers and video disk players set up behind the musicians, and which are currently being monitored by three technicians who look like mission controllers at NASA preparing for a launch.

Soon the house lights dim and the crowd becomes quiet. Then moving images fill the projection screen. A sweeping expanse of desert. Caravans of camels. Waves of sand. It's a collage of images. The three musicians are motionless for what seems to be a long time, staring at their monitors.

Suddenly, Pheeroan ak Laff begins. Using his thumbs, he softly taps a set of bongos. Then Julian Thayer gently massages the strings on his bass. Finally Scott Robinson blows softly into his horn.

As the musicians play, the computers behind them monitor their music, changing the sequence of images in response; new images fill the screen. Temples. Arabesques. Calligraphy.

The performance is more a conversation than a composition: The musicians are using their instruments to have a dialogue about the images on the screen. As the music increases in intensity this dialogue becomes a shouting match; when the music softens it is a whispered secret.

Thayer stares intensely at the screen in front of him, sometimes attacking the strings of his bass savagely with a pick in response, other times slicing into them with a violin bow.

The performance lasts for 90 minutes and when it is over the audience looks drained and stunned. Like a Rorschach inkblot, the performance seems to have affected everyone differently. One man turns to a friend and postulates that the three musicians "got together before the show and asked themselves, 'What's the most annoying sound we can make?'" While elsewhere in the room a couple could be heard receiving a harsh "if you wanted to do that you should've stayed in your hotel" lecture by an older woman sitting behind them. ("A bit repressed. Don't you think?" the man said to his date after the older woman had left.)

After the stage is cleared a large group of people involved in the performance—including Fisher, Robinson, ak Laff, and Thayer—gather in the back of the room. Since it is only 11:30 someone suggests heading downtown for a drink, and everyone agrees. Meanwhile more people have arrived at the club to see the next act scheduled to play.

Thayer continues to socialize with friends and admirers until the act is announced, then he quietly slips away from the group and sits down at a small table near the stage. Soon a stout and grizzly saxophonist walks on and begins to play, and Thayer's friends motion to him that they are ready to go.

But on stage George Garzone—saxophonist of The Fringe—is playing like a monster, pushing the envelope toward what definitely looks like a peak experience. So Julian Thayer once again chooses to be left out.

Julian F. Thayer, Ph.D., is assistant professor of psychology in the College of the Liberal Arts, 416 Moore Building, University Park, PA 16802; 814-863-1763. His research has been funded by the Pennsylvania Council on the Arts, a Research Initiation Grant from the Pennsylvania State University, the Minority Faculty Development Office, the Fulbright Foundation, and the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism. Michael Stroh, a former R/PS intern, received his B.A. in English from Penn State in 1991. He is currently a science-writing intern at Science News.

Last Updated June 01, 1992