Wyrd music – Instrument as Mask

“The ash grove how graceful / how plainly ’tis speaking / the wind through its branches / is language for me…” Old songs like ‘The Ash Grove’ can remind us how music can be found anywhere, everywhere, not just in the birds and the branches but in the hubbub of the morning traffic, or the irony of Penguin Café’s classic ‘Telephone and Rubber Band’. Yet we’re more more familiar with ‘music’ being expressed through instruments expressly designed to do so: the guitar, perhaps, or the piano, the djembe, the melodeon, the rec or the shakuhachi.

Each instrument has its own character, its own characteristic sound. That’s true not only for each class of instrument, but of each individual instrument – even mass-produced recorders can sound very different from each other after a short while. Some great instruments are like great wines, and quietly improve with age – a Stradivarius violin, perhaps, or a much-loved folk-harp handed on from generation to generation – whilst others, such as a steel-band drum or a cheap guitar, sometimes seem to thrive on their coarseness and crude construction. Each to their own – just as with people. Weird…

We can take the weirdness a lot further, into new musical realms, when we recognise that the instrument is not just a means to play music: it’s our musical persona, our ‘per-sona’ or, literally, ‘that through which we sound’. The Latin word ‘persona’ is literally translated as ‘mask’: not just as something to hide behind – though that in itself creates other themes that are worth exploring from a wyrd perspective – but as a device which allows us to work more closely with the wyrd, and provides its own language, its own vocabulary of sounds and senses, through which to do so.

It’s a weird process that’s been little explored in the musical milieu: it’s well-known, though, and better understood, in the drama environment, especially through the teaching of improvisers such as Keith Johnstone. In his classic book ‘Impro’, Johnstone draws a careful distinction between full-face masks, such as in the ancient Greek or traditional Japanese No theatre, and half-face masks, which he tends to emphasise as Masks. The full-face mask has a fixed expression, and fixed character; the half-face Mask (always covering the upper face horizontally, not vertically as in ‘Phantom of the Opera’) has its own character, but interweaves that character with the character of the actor, creating something that is both Mask and actor. Each Mask, Johnstone found, had its own vocabulary, its own range of gestures: different actors would find themselves acting out the same character when wearing the same Mask. Masks would also learn new vocabulary over a period of time; but Johnstone also noted that when one actor put on a particular Mask after a gap of several years, the character started “exactly where he’d left off, as if he’d never left”. And the range of different characters embodied in quite similar-seeming Masks was far wider than expected: some seemed almost brutal in their behaviour, whilst others needed coaxing to create anything at all. The parallels with musical instruments are striking, and weird…

The parallels become even more striking once we realise that in traditional cultures throughout the world, Masks are most often used in conjunction with trance states, or in related types of social or religious ritual. It’s the task of the person wearing the Mask to ‘keep out of the way’, to allow the Mask to act through that person: which is exactly what we’re doing when we aim to ‘let go to the music’, and relax enough to let the ‘body-knowing’ that we’ve built up through musical practice allow the music to speak through us, through our fingers, our voice, our heart. And yet it is still our choice, our music. More accurately, it’s an interweaving of choices: that of the Mask – the instrument – and ourselves.

A practical understanding of the weird nature of Masks can help us in understanding how we interweave our choices with those of our instruments – and allow them their choices, to create a deeper music between us. So one process we’ve been experimenting with at Wyrdsmiths, as part of the Heart of Music project, has been to work – or play, rather – with wearing half-face masks as Masks whilst playing our usual instruments. (Half-face masks can be worn whilst playing almost any instrument, including wind-instruments such as flute or trumpet.) The effects have been immediately noticeable: one Mask demands a strict precision – a Saturnian style, to use an astrological metaphor – whilst others allow much more freedom, and another drifts off into other tunes at the merest possibility of a musical pun.

We’ve deliberately chosen simple Masks so as to be able to identify more easily their differences, and minimise associations based mainly on appearance. The main set we’ve used have been mass-produced vacuum-mouldings in thin gold-coloured plastic: some have been plain, blank faces, some are bird-like, others have caricature faces with hooked noses, whilst two others carry symbols of the sun and moon. What’s been interesting has been the lack of correspondence between appearance and character: it was one of the bird-like Masks that was most pedantic in its demands, whereas old Hook-Nose was the freest – usually!

We believe it’s a process that’s worth exploring, in almost any musical environment. But we’d also add a quiet word of warning: when used in this way, Masks do have their own character – and it’s not always a helpful one. If you do choose to explore this process, watch carefully the character you develop whilst wearing a Mask; and as with any other form of formal ritual, be careful to ‘put the character away’ when you take the Mask off – just as an actor needs to ‘put away’ the part when walking off-stage. There’s always a choice, says the wyrd, but there’s also always a twist: being aware of that kind of twist can be very important indeed!

Related pages