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Thoughts on the musical voice - Rowan’s contribution to ‘Finding the Key’, by Viv Goodwin-Darke

Updated: Nov 27, 2022

This is from a whole book, which is available to order by emailing

In her book ‘The Sacred Depths of Nature’, the biologist Ursula Goodenough points out that the inevitability of death is peculiar to multi-celled organisms. Single called organisms like bacteria and amoeba are theoretically immortal. They can be killed, but they have no pre-programmed death cycle as we do. It is with the development of multi-celled organisms, with a germ line (reproductive cells) and a soma (all the other specialised parts like arms, legs, teeth, brain and therefore consciousness), that death becomes inevitable, because the purpose of the soma is to ensure the transmission of the germ line, and then die. The individual cells that make up the soma can die in this cause. Countless neurons die in the development of the brain, and countless more throughout our lifetimes. Eventually the whole outlandish apparatus, and with it the thing we call “me”, dies, and the germ line is passed on, generating some other “me”.

Goodenough points out the irony that “our sentient brains are uniquely capable of experiencing deep regret and sorrow and fear at the prospect of death, yet it was the invention of death, the invention of the germ/soma dichotomy, that made possible the existence of our brains.”

Her conclusion is that...

“my somatic life is the wondrous gift wrought by my forthcoming death.”

The thing I call “me” is a kind of artefact of this process of death and growth. Everything I see and feel, love and fear and pain and inspiration, all of these exist because they are produced by an electrical process in my brain which somehow benefits the purpose of passing on the germ line to the next generation.

Thinking through the implications of this, the thing called “me” starts to turn porous and malleable. We tend to think of Darwinian natural selection as happening at the level of the individual, but biologists disagree about what the unit of selection is. The biologist and conservationist Edward O. Wilson put forward a theory of multilevel selection, which includes selection at the gene level as well as individual and group selection – meaning social groups of all possible sizes – all occurring simultaneously. Genes, individuals and groups with certain combinations of characteristics and behaviours are more likely to perpetuate germ lines. My individual consciousness is a manifestation of this process, and is fundamentally driven towards its continuation, just as a drill is designed to drive in a screw.

This implies that whilst my consciousness is fleeting and merely a biproduct of the process, the thing called “me” extends beyond the boundaries of my body. Spatially, it is inseparable from the community in which I live, and temporally, it is one and the same as the process of passing on forms and traits to the next generation at all these levels of selection. This seems to be the only way to even start to understand what we really are. It is what Nichiren Buddhists call “the greater self” - fundamentally one with the whole of life and the cosmos.

So, what should we do about all this? I think I know what we should do. We should sing! We should sing our connection and our dislocation, our unity and our fear, our clarity and confusion.

The purpose of life must be to learn to speak and sing in our own voices. My voice is identical with the voice of my community, and with the totality of life, striving in sweat and pain and futility, perpetuating itself into the unknown future.

Sincerely trying to develop our own voice is like lunging into a void. We have to burst our hearts. We have to let go of everything we think constitutes this “me” and run full tilt into vast, unbounded space. This job can never be completed. We can edge closer to the voice of the greater self, and in doing so, we can reveal more of the process of life itself. We do this together. We must call others to join us. This goes some way to explaining why, as artists, it is so hard to be satisfied with our work. The small ego cannot comprehend the greater self, or the wider processes of life, or the need to call to others. It always seeks to judge. We have to say ‘no’ to it.

I strive to develop my voice, the universal voice, through writing music and lyrics, and through playing the trumpet. The purpose of the trumpet it that it becomes a conduit for the universal voice. It should happen the way Herbie Hancock describes Wayne Shorter -

“When many saxophone players play, what you hear is a person playing a saxophone. When Wayne plays the saxophone, you hear Wayne. You don’t hear the saxophone. The saxophone becomes the medium for hearing Wayne, and that’s a big difference. When you transcend your instrument, it becomes your voice.”

So in a certain sense, we are trying to make the instrument disappear. It’s this annoying thing getting in the way. Trumpet players in particular tend to think of their instrument as an adversary, maybe even an enemy.

Dizzy Gillespie said,

“Some days you get up and put the horn to your chops and it sounds pretty good and you win. Some days you try and nothing works and the horn wins. This goes on and on and then you die and the horn wins.”

I guess he would agree that the days when you win are when you are closer to playing in your own voice, transcending the instrument. This is a very mysterious process, but it’s something to do with just playing what we hear, rather than what we can think of playing intellectually.

I also find that it is possible on the trumpet to separate my own sound from the sound of the instrument, by shifting my attention. There is a resonance that seems to come through my shoulders and neck and into my throat as I play, and it sounds like my voice within the trumpet sound. I can switch between this inner sound and the outer sound - the sound coming from the bell of the trumpet - by shifting my attention. By listening more to the inner sound, and by only playing what I can hear and not thinking about it, I can get closer to my own voice.

As I’ve noted, the thing that I am is expansive and malleable. The cells that got together to make my body weren’t content for this to be their only association. They would also like to get together with other collections of cells, making up other beings. This contributes to evolution of new forms of life through multi-level selection. I am contributing to this with a trumpet.

All the above is just a way of saying that I feel lonely and sad, and want to connect with others through music. There’s a tune on my new album where I was trying to stop myself from crying as I was playing. I’m quite happy with how that sounds, though my tone was a bit shaky. I think that was close to my voice and the universal voice.

We should all try to have the maximum opportunity to sing in the universal voice. We can all do it. That is all.

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