Form is emptiness. Emptiness is form. Most people who have ever encountered Zen will have read this phrase somewhere. The emptiness referred to in Zen, however, bears a slightly different connotation than what we usually think about when we use the word emptiness in our everyday language. Emptiness in Zen refers not to nothingness, but should be understood as a state void of prejudice and expectation, ready to become anything. Emptiness is content always coming out of nothingness, and ideally always turning back to nothingness without any trace. 

It is impossible to think of an object which does not have both form and content. Content can be many things, for instance color. You can’t imagine the color yellow without a shape to go with it, and you can’t envision the form of a lemon without applying the color yellow (or a red, blue etc). A vivid imagination may also apply texture and smell as content-elements to the depicted shape or form, the rule of thumb being that at least one form-element and one content-element has to be present in order for us to shape an idea about an object. That’s just the scope of human consciousness, and it is partly how we can differ external objects from each other, lest ourselves from everything else. I recognize these two elements as the two main elements in writing and in playing music as well. 

Let me use a 12-bar blues as an example. The elements which constitute the form in a 12-bar blues are the time signature, tempo(s) and number of bars. In a 12-bar blues the 12 bars are repeated as many times as the musician(s) see fit. Very often the form is presented with some pre-determined content, also known as the theme. After the theme has been played, the musicians improvise using mainly the form, but also another pre-determined content-element: harmony. The evolution of the blues has led to a myriad of variations with harmony (and also some on form), but the elements which we have covered so far should suffice in order to make a sensible point. For a beginner, it can sometimes be hard to keep track of the beginning and the end of the form, but the more one plays it, the more familiar one becomes with it. More harmonic variations can be added without losing track of the cycle. Phrases start to go across periods instead of always connecting the end to the beginning. Accomplished players might superimpose something totally different on the original form, and for one who doesn’t know the blues, what is being played might not sound as a 12-bar blues at all. But somehow it is still a 12-bar blues. This is the magic of knowing the form. Having started out as a slave to the form, the musician now owns the form. As the form is fully incorporated, it is paradoxically also dissolved. The musician has total freedom within the boundaries of the 12-bar blues. As the blues and the musician have become one, there is subjectively no distinction between the two. Content is now allowed to flow freely, taking any form, and always reverting back to emptiness. Only when the music is about to come to an end, is the form revealed by the pre-determined content. It signals the musician’s return from (a potential) ecstasy.

The 12-bar blues is an example using a fixed form. In free improvised music the rules are a bit different. In fact there are no rules. Here the form is not set, nor is the content. In a context such as this, the musician can clearly display how emptiness is always ready to take form. But it is not as easy as it sounds, because now the musician faces a different problem: choice. There is always an underlying pattern of known things which define our choices. In this example knowledge about music and ones instrument, about the other musicians preferences and taste, about the audience, the room, about form, harmony and all other musical and non-musical parameters are in the way for the content to come out of nothing (notice that I am not discussing wether music based on active choices are bad or good — in fact, my experience is that the more people can relate to the choices being made, the more likely it is that they will think of it as good or likable. In other words: the more humanized a performance is, the easier it is to perceive what is going on. In general people like what they know. Although playing as if not choosing might have therapeutical effect on the player itself, it is not necessarily perceived as such by a listener. But I digress). All this knowledge makes us think. Thinking allows for possibilities, for choices. Free improvised music reflects modern culture in the sense that it is all about freedom of choice. As a performer I have sometimes experienced how overwhelming that feeling is. Too many choices simply leave me dumbstruck. I have no idea what to play or where to start. I think the same thing applies for people in our society who have too much freedom of choice and as a consequence end up doing nothing. Freedom of choice is not a bad thing, we just need to learn how to use it. The 12-bar blues (read: a fixed form) actually mirrors the exact opposite: freedom from choosing. I want to talk about that a little later. Back to the music: However free freely improvised music sets out to be, it always develops recognizable patterns after a certain period of time. Each piece develops its own inner logic, and that is the much needed hook. Just as with the blues there is now a framework. In order for us to be completely free, we need a reference. A 12-bar blues or an improvised piece is the same in this aspect, the only difference being that in freely improvised music, the skilled musicians outline and agree on that reference as they go.

So far we have discussed forms which are both fixed and free, but what about a form that is flexible? Nakama’s second album Grand Line explores this in more detail. Each track on the recording is set up with a form composition and a content composition. The form compositions are roughly speaking a series of choices referring to the pre-determined but freely interpretable content-composition. The two compositions always reflect one another, and are interchangeable with any other form- or content composition using the same system. In this situation the musician is trapped between the two worlds we’ve already discussed so far: There is always the freedom to choose between one or more alternatives in the form composition, but at the same time the musician is always forced to follow the structure of the form and the content provided. This overall structure takes up a lot of mental capacity, and the liberation of the musical creativity described above seems to be miles away when playing. There is just too much information that needs to be processed. Still, our experience from playing this music is that even a structure such as this allows for the musician to break free. As performers we are finding ourselves in a scenario trapped between obedience on one side and the encouragement to be creative on the other. The tension between those opposites either lead to enslavement or liberation. Because the music doesn’t really work if you do only one or the other, we end up (either individually or collectively) discarding everything and go with whatever’s there. This allows spontaneity and the coming of nothingness for a moment. This is possible because of what has been established before. Then we turn back to the reference, and the dualistic world of inflicted form and content continues.

My point in all of these three examples is that there is always a need for some underlying structure or pattern in order for the musician to take off. In order to jump, we need solid ground. In the 12-bar blues the form is already laid out for us, in the free improvised setting we make it up as we go, and in the Grand Line-example we simply disregard the known structure because it is too demanding (I want to add that it is too demanding only because we don’t know the compositions well enough. This can be compared to a player who doesn’t know a 12-bar blues. Complex forms needs rigorous practice). These examples are three different vessels, but they all rely on a known element in order to escape into the unknown. That element is form: form as form, form as content, or form as form and content (In respective order to the three examples given above). Content by itself is not sufficient as a vessel because (1) form is the container for content and (2) we can’t make form without producing content and (3) producing content is what musicians do.

My fascination for form has its roots in religious practice. It seems that above all, religious practice (not theory, which I would argue has very little to with religion and its original function for humans and societies) is concerned with limiting the aspect of human nature which acts according to the ego’s irrational cravings and not according to the necessities of ones surroundings. Zen practice is a good model to describe this because it is a very refined system of limiting our choices. At first this system seems to be limiting our freedom, but in reality it only makes it clear for us that our wanting to be free is in fact what is stopping us from being free. We are a slave of the wild horses of our desires and aversions. Furthermore we see that this wanting is an illusion, a product created by the ego, and that it is this wanting which in fact is the root to our suffering. Being human is in its very nature suffering. We can’t escape the processes of our human brain (the neocortex), but we certainly can experience that being human is not solely limited to these processes. It is so much more. By submitting to the strict form provided, we find freedom beyond choices, beyond beliefs. By having a finite reference point, we can get a glimpse of, even a taste of, the infinite.

Big words. Please see through them. In fact I find all of this very, very simple. Humans have it with complicating things, adding confusion to what is readily accessible. One of the main contributors to that confusion is language. As I said in the very beginning of this text, the content of the word emptiness is by large lost in translation and our everyday use and understanding of that translation. This is true for so many of the words we use in order to describe the aforementioned religious experience. Soul, heart, mind, love, god, spirit, compassion, freedom and so on. It’s all just approximations from a much older language constructed to deal with the subject of religion. For instance we unconsciously interchange the word love in these three examples:

  1. I love banana
  2. I love my spouse
  3. I love God 

These are three very different scenarios and if we do not understand the context in which the word is used, we will not understand the message. Instead we get lost in the metaphor, which is more often than not the case in the third example above. The real challenge is communicating what our ancestors have compiled in a clear way that does not seem esoteric or mystical, because the fact is that it is not. I like words though, and I’ve probably used way too many already. I wanted to use music as a metaphor to explain the relation between form and content, because music is something we can all relate to. Zen is just another metaphor, another tool which in a practical way can get us in a state of absolute freedom. Practice — doing — is the key. Not words, thoughts and ideas. Not subjects, but verbs. Practice, devotion, submitting. These are qualities which when applied make the form (whatever the form is) work for us. It simply becomes a reference point for us to explore emptiness. In Zen that reference is ultimately ourselves. We are life, and life is form. A true understanding of that form, and a true understanding of human nature and our surroundings (external form) and a true understanding of our position in this world (the content in the form) is the source of genuine creative output (content making). Let me illustrate with another zen-proverb: To study Zen is to study ourselves. To study ourselves is to lose ourselves. To lose ourselves is to find ourselves in the myriad of things.

To wrap it up, let me finish where I started: Form is emptiness. Emptiness is form. But that is just the first half of it. The other half goes like this: Form is form. Emptiness is emptiness. How can form be anything but form, and how can content be anything but content? It is the human mind which separates these two elements. We recognize our own ability to do so, but must also recognize the fallacy which comes with it. Ultimately there is no separation to talk about. Even though we perceive form as emptiness and emptiness as form, it does not exist beyond or perception. In the end there is no 12-bar blues, no forms and no content. There is no me or you, and almost no music.