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Actor, receptor, witness

Pedro de Alcantara is a musician, writer, and teacher who travels the world giving seminars and master classes. He is currently in New York for “Songs & Soundscapes: A Musical Exploration,” this Friday at the Tenri Institute. (Tickets available here.)

“This program of original compositions and improvisations explores the frontier between the ordinary and the sacred in music, a place where nothing is as you expect it to be. The voice becomes a trumpet and beacon, the cello becomes a harp and a lute, and the piano becomes a resonating chapel of vibrations and oscillations.”

Curious what exactly that means? Here’s just a taste of what you could expect:

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Among the many hats he wears, Pedro de Alcantara is the author of Integrated Practice: Coordination, Rhythm & Sound, an excerpt from which is featured below.

Actor, Receptor, Witness


We all play three roles in every moment of our lives. As actors we move, speak, push and pull, make decisions, and otherwise engage in any number of activities animated by our goals and desires. As receptors we use our senses to listen, smell, touch, get pushed and pulled, and react emotionally to other people. As witnesses we observe everything going on around us, analyzing, synthesizing, describing, explaining, and understanding the world in which we live.

It’s nearly impossible ever to stop being an actor. Even when asleep you’re an actor of sorts, snoring and leaning your body against your lover’s. It’s also impossible to stop being a receptor. Biology makes sure that our senses permanently receive information, from the external world and from our own inner selves. Your witness function requires that you be conscious, but some people would argue that while asleep you still witness a great many things. Proof of it is that upon waking up you can describe one or more dreams in detail.

The three roles are a permanent fixture of your life, but a completely harmonious interplay of all three is difficult to obtain. An actor can be so vigorous as to overwhelm the receptor. Some receptors are insensitive, others sensitive to the point of paranoia—which is no better. A witness may be handicapped by judgment and emotion, or even a simple lack of vocabulary: How to bear witness if you don’t know how to articulate what you see and hear?

Your actor does any one thing. The action has consequences and effects that reverberate all around you. Your receptor senses these effects, and your witness analyzes the information your receptor has gathered. Then you act again, perhaps in a slightly different manner because of what your receptor and witness told you. The cycle of action, reception plus witness, and new action never stops, and the passage from one to the other can be lightning fast. Often the three happen at the same time.

It’s not possible to receive every last bit of information from every last action. Sensory overload is actually dangerous, so we all have means of diminishing the sensitivity of our receptor functions. The difficulty lies in keeping your receptor alert and adaptable, neither sluggish nor thin-skinned.

The ideal witness has no feelings, expresses no preferences, and passes no judgment. The witness says, “I’m using a MacBook Pro laptop computer as I type.” The receptor says, “I love my computer.” Your witness’s capacity to observe neutrally is essential, since it’ll moderate your receptor and guide your actor, helping you make fewer mistaken judgments. If your witness function doesn’t guide you dispassionately and help you pick the right guy out of the lineup, then you risk sending an innocent man to the electric chair.

A good actor balances “doing” and “allowing” within the same gesture. Playing with a yo-yo illustrates the point. The actor actively throws the yo-yo; then the actor backs off and allows the yo-yo to go down and up again; then the actor becomes a little more active again and refreshes the yo-yo’s oscillations with a pull on the string, timing the pull according to the information gathered by the receptor. If the actor “did” incessantly, the yo-yo’s oscillations would soon come to a halt.

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