‘Popular Music, Power and Play’ by Marshall Heiser.


Available NOW from Bloomsbury Academic and all good booksellers.

Once the domain of a privileged few, the art of record production is today within the reach of all. The rise of the ubiquitous DIY
project studio and internet streaming have made it so. And while the creative possibilities available to everyday musicians
are seemingly endless, so too are the multiskilling and project management challenges to be faced. In order to demystify the
contemporary popular-music-making phenomenon, Marshall Heiser reassesses its myriad processes and wider sociocultural
context through the lens of creativity studies, play theory and cultural psychology.

This innovative new framework is grounded in a diverse array of creative-practice examples spanning the CBGBs music scene to
the influence of technology upon modern-day music. First-hand interviews with Jerry Harrison (Talking Heads), Bill Bruford (King
Crimson, Yes) and others whose work has influenced the way records are made today are also included. Popular Music, Power
and Play is as thought provoking as it will be indispensable for scholars, practitioners and aficionados of popular music and the
arts in general.

“By assigning an individual fader to numerous theories on creativity, then incorporating case studies and reflections from several working musicians as filters and processors, Heiser has crafted the equivalent of a classic pop album; balancing compositional elements that proudly bear their influences coupled with new ideas and insights that spark the mind. Popular Music, Power and Play holds up to repeated listens and is a welcome addition to both popular music studies and creativity research literature.” Alan Williams, Professor of Music, University of Massachusetts Lowell, USA

Marshall Heiser is an Australian academic, classically-trained instrumentalist, producer and music-technology developer.
His previous publications explore such varied topics as sound in cinema; the interrelatedness of humor, play and creativity
theory; the music of Brian Wilson, and the phenomenology of record production.

Table of Contents

1. The Frame
2. Power, Play and Creativity
3. Pushing Humpty
4. Playframing
5. Negotiations
Case Study: Remain In Light
6. Beyond the Frame
Case Study: The Struggle Behind the SMiLE
Last Thoughts
Appendix: Interview with Bill Bruford

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Click image below to read sample chapter (or go to: https://bloomsburycp3.codemantra.com)


Lived experience as a ‘dissociative’ process: Dr Bernardo Kastrup’s Metaphysical Idealism.

In my book Popular Music, Power and Play (2021), reference is made to the work of Dr Avshalom Elitzur and his theory (1990) that humour, play and neuroses have in common a ‘confinement they impose on the person’s scope of awareness’ (p. 17). That is, in order for play to occur, a degree of dissociation is temporarily adopted in order to set the figurative stage for behaviours, interactions and experiences that would otherwise not be compatible with one’s usual identifications, social standing or cultural context. In instances of humour, the process is similarly blind to ‘reality,’ albeit in a relatively fleeting manner, and often accompanied by a cathartic punchline when the tension of incongruity is finally resolved. In the case of the neurotic, a kind of enforced ‘endless’ play endures.

It would seem that dissociation, as much as it may be considered pathology, can also be understood as a facilitator of creativity in certain circumstances, given that play and creativity are so intertwined (Heiser, 2021). Imagine then, if our day-to-day experience of life was, similarly, only possible as the result of a dissociation. That is, the dissociation of individual meta-cognitive consciousness from the consciousness of the universe as a whole: a situation that is only truly resolved at the ‘punchline’ we call death. Well, according to Dr Benardo Kastrup’s consciousness-only ontology, this is in fact the case. Nature must forget who it is each and every time it takes the world’s stage as another self-aware embodied individual. Carl Jung (1962) had the following to say on the matter:

The feeling for the infinite…can be attained only if we are bounded to the utmost. The greatest limitation for man is the self; it is manifested in the experience: “I am only that!” Only consciousness of our narrow confinement in the self forms the link to the limitlessness of the unconscious. In such awareness we experience ourselves concurrently as limited and eternal, as both the one and the other. In knowing ourselves to be unique in our personal combination — that is, ultimately limited — we possess also the capacity for becoming conscious of the infinite. But only then! (p. 44)

If you have an hour to spare, I highly recommend the fascinating, rigorous and cogent philosophical argument put forward by Dr Kastrup in the video below. If nothing else, it is remarkable for reconciling a 21st century understanding of Quantum Physics with Shakespeare’s claim that,

All the world’s a stage,
And all the men and women merely Players;
They have their exits and their entrances,
And one man in his time plays many parts,
His Acts being seven ages.

Length: 1 hr 3 min 30sec

If you found the above video stimulating enough to warrant further exploration of the topic, then it’s only fair that the other side of the argument should be explored. Let’s put the proverbial cat amongst the pigeons then and see how Dr. Bernardo’s ideas compare with those of famed theoretical physicist Carlo Rovelli and Patricia Churchland’s neuro-philosphical take on things (Professor Emeritus of philosophy, University of California). Click on the image below or https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lLc5x3v75ug to link to video.

Length: 50min 20sec


Elitzur, A. C. (1990), ‘Humour, Play, and Neurosis: The Paradoxical Power of Confinement’, Humor, 3 (1): 17–35.

Heiser, M. S. (2021), Popular Music, Power and Play, Bloomsbury Academic: NY, London.

Jung, C. G. (1962), ‘Jung on Life after Death’, trans. R. Winston and C. Winston, The Atlantic, December: 39-44. Available online: https://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/1962/12/jung-on-life-after-death/658745/ (accessed 23 May 2023).

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New song release: ‘Citizens United’

‘Citizens United’: Written, performed, recorded & mixed mid-to-late 2022 by Marshall Heiser. (p) (c) 2022 M. S. Heiser. Photo (Capital Building, Washington DC) 14481141 © Jarnogz | Dreamstime.com


Drivin’ in my car
I’m cruisin down my street
There are placards
People voicing their opinions
So this is Liberty
Effervescing orifices chewing up the town
There are stairways unto heaven
Some climb up, but most slide down
Life is good when it’s trapped beneath my hood

Look to the right
Look to the left
Look to the right again
Wishful thinking
Won’t stop us sinking
Back to the soup my friend

Rockin up to work
About to start my shift
Does HR really need to hack our webcams?
They say it’s ‘policy’
God used to watch over us
Til Neitzsche killed him dead
Now it’s facial recognition reads
The bad thoughts in your head
Why so glum, just be glad you’re in the club.

Swipe to the left
Swipe to the right
Swipe to the left again
Jokes shall not feature her alopecia
If you want the gig my friend

See the angry mob
They’re ’bout to storm the hill
Here’s a little something should you get subpoenaed
And here’s your black capsule
Now, if you can’t admit defeat
Then repeat after me:
“God bless Fed Ex, Home Depot, GM, AT&T”.
You play nice, when your junk is in the vice.

Buy off the Right
Divide the Left
That is the dream my friend
Carvin’ up planets
Make like a bandit
Then pull the plug. The End.

(c) 2022 M. S. Heiser.

Let it Bleed: If you make music using microphones, then it’s time to make friends with overspill.

Photo by Israel Palacio on Unsplash

Beatles record producer George Martin once commented that using any more than a single mic to record an instrument compromises audio quality. Why? Well, it has a lot to do with the multi-directional nature of sound.

Upon reaching a microphone’s diaphragm (the mechanical equivalent of your eardrum) sound waves originating from any given source get summed together with echoes of themselves reflecting off adjacent surfaces. Depending upon the relative strength of the direct sound, the reflections, and the staggered times by which they arrive, each partially reinforces or cancels each other out to varying degrees. As a consequence, even small changes in mic placement can produce an easily discernible difference.

Once a second mic is used in the same vicinity, the direct sound it receives functions as a high amplitude/small-delay echo of the first. In theory, this could all add up for the better – and indeed, stereo mic techniques such as XY, ORTF, Blumlein and so on use these naturally occurring amplitude and ‘phase’ relationships to positive effect – but left to chance, two open mics do not usually sound as good as one.

When one factors in how the electromechanical design of various mics influences their performance, it’s easy to understand why recording engineers place such importance upon microphone choice and placement. Different mics will vary markedly with respect to sensitivity across the audible frequency spectrum, directionality, and reaction time to changes in air pressure. Many mics also feature changeable parameters, allowing their performance to be optomised for different recording situations.

Post-production choices will further impact phase-related issues: For eg., Will each signal emanate from a separate speaker, be blended across the imaginary stereo ‘soundstage’, or sound equally loud out of both (i.e. be summed to ‘mono’)? The interaction between each discreet mic signal will simply be a product of the degree by which each attempts to push or pull any one speaker at any given moment. Start adding further mics (such as when recording a drum kit) and all those individual sonic ‘colours’ may well mix together to produce the audio equivalent of mud.

If you can’t beat ’em, join ’em.

Even for music producers who work primarily ‘in-the-box’, mics are often needed for tracking vocal overdubs. Here, room acoustics, environmental ambient noise and headphone bleed still pose problems. While the first two issues can be addressed using relatively insensitive dynamic cardioid mics, (portable) diffusers and hi-pass filters, headphone spill is somewhat harder to eradicate. But is it really worth the trouble?

A common complaint made by young artists after having made their first recording in a studio is how the end result sounds too ‘clean.’ Many end up preferring their own home-made demos to the remade ‘broadcast-quality’ versions. Engineers and performers, it would seem, so often have competing interests: clarity vs. ‘vibe’. This is understandable, given that engineers don’t want to be misjudged as incompetent and performers don’t want to promote records that aren’t representative of their aesthetic sensibilities.

Noise, distortion, and technical limitations were once inseparable from the studios where the roots of today’s popular music arose. As a result, so many of the recordings indelibly stamped into our collective audio consciousness endure, not in spite of their technical limitations but, in no small way, thanks to them. What was once necessity now informs purely aesthetic choices. Sounds that were once undesirable by-products of makeshift studios and self-trained recordists have come to signify a ‘legitimacy’ and ‘outlaw’ chic, like faded pre-torn denim in a upmarket boutique.

Making mic bleed your friend

A much overlooked aspect of the recordings of yesteryear is ‘overspill.’ Limited available tracks on tape recorders meant that performers had to play the bulk of their music together in close vicinity. Despite the use of baffles, a high degree of mic ‘bleed’ was always present, and consequently gave these records a sound that so often eludes those who would recreate it. Like so many things, however, there is good spill and bad spill.

In the case of recording using a single microphone, judgements can be made relatively easily (given sufficient time). Plug in, move the mic – and/or the performer – around to hear the variety of sounds on offer. Try different rooms, different mics and variations at the source (different amplifier settings, different plectrums, strings or drum sticks). Maybe drape tea towels over drums, or put foam dish-washing pads under bass strings. Ask performers to sing or play softer or louder to change their timbre.

When a second mic is added, it should be judged together with the first mic still open, so their blend can be heard from the get-go. In this way, overspill is simply ‘factored in’ for positive effect rather than eliminated.

If it sounds good, it is good.

If such a scenario seems daunting and has you running back to the safety of your samples collection, then take solace in the knowledge that addressing such issues empirically is a reliable strategy. Even though experience will eventually inform time-saving ‘go-tos’ and a sense of where best to look for sonic bliss, one shouldn’t forget that only hearing is believing.

Oh, and by the way, depending on the type of audio feedback that the performers are receiving – for e.g. headphones, no headphones or live PA-style speakers-in-the-studio (believe it or not, a great many albums have been made using PA-style monitors: listen to Elvis Costello’s ‘Blood & Chocolates‘ or Talking Heads’ ‘More Songs about Buildings and Food‘ as cases-in-point) – not only will bleed be a factor, but their performance, articulation and timbre will vary as a result.

Watch this informative video from ‘Sound On Sound’ magazine to hear how microphone placement, and the number of microphones used, influences recording and performing. Whether you use only one microphone (or one hundred) on your next project the issues raised herein will be pertinent. Enjoy.

If you use microphones as part of your music-production process, then this video from Sound On Sound magazine will be enlightening, regardless of what style of (popular) music you make.
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Get Back: Watching the Beatles at Work (and Play).

November 25th sees the premier of Peter Jackson’s Beatles docu-series ‘Get Back’ on the Disney+ streaming platform. With the exception of some hotch-potch footage captured during the recording of the ‘A Hard Day’s Night’ and the February, 1968 ‘Hey Bulldog’ session, this presentation amounts to the only footage chronicling the Beatles at work in the studio.

While much has been written about the Fab Four’s creative practice in the studio, little has been said about a key ingredient fueling the band’s creativity: their sense of humour and playfulness.

As the ‘Sneak Peak’ footage released late last year illustrates, the Beatles (together with celebrated keyboardist Billy Preston) were adept at lifting the mood of what can so often can be a laborious and exacting process (in this case: having to write, arrange, rehearse and perform an album’s worth of new material in about a month – in a new studio that didn’t initially work – and all the while being shadowed by a film crew). The Beatles’ ‘group glee’, irreverence, self-effacing humour and child-like enthusiasm enabled them to make the best of what was a trying situation.

Humour and play didn’t just keep the Beatles’ unified and motivated during difficult times. Framing work as play was a core component of how the band came up with their ideas and further developed them: as writers, arrangers, performers and (uncredited) co-producers of their records.

Watching ‘Get Back’ will be a wonderful opportunity not only for those wishing to learn more about the Beatles’ creative practice in the studio, but creativity in the arts in general.

Admittedly, the original ‘fly on the wall’ concept of the Get Back film has limited validity since the band would have no doubt ‘hammed it up’ for the cameras, making it difficult to ascertain precisely which playful behaviours were standard fair for a Beatles’ session and which were ‘for the viewers’. However, a few points come to mind: (i) Peter Jackson has confided that the original ‘Let it Be’ director was skilled at subterfuge in the name of art: often filming the band while they were unaware the cameras were rolling. (ii) Bootlegged studio outtakes from previous Beatles Albums (including ‘Rubber Soul’ – available on the internet) document a band that was habitually playful during recording sessions (particularly, during vocal overdubs).

Few realise that The Beatles were originally signed by George Martin to EMI Records’ comedy label Parlophone in 1962 (after being rejected by every other major label in Britain – even the independent producer Joe Meek passed on the band) on the basis of their charisma and wit rather than their ability as performers or songwriters: He elaborates:

[The Beatles] had a zany sense of humor … Without that sense of humor, the Beatles wouldn’t have existed, and certainly we wouldn’t have hit it off as well as we did. Even after the Beatles, I did covers of certain songs with [comedian] Peter Sellers … so it’s a kind of tradition. I don’t think there’s much difference between a performer in music and a performer in spoken word or humor. (Larry the O 2009)

My new book Popular Music, Power and Play: Reframing Creative Practice (Heiser, 2021) features a case study exploring the Beatle’s use of humour and play throughout their career, including their creative practice in the studio. Furthermore, the book unpacks the precise mechanisms by which humour and play facilitate creative flow in music making and record production. If you’d like to read a sample chapter go to https://bloomsburycp3.codemantra.com or click on the image below.

‘The Beatles: Get Back’ screens over three nights starting November 25th, 2021 on the Disney+ streaming platform.


Heiser, M (2021). Popular Music, Power and Play: Reframing Creative Practice: New York, NY: Bloomsbury Academic.

Larry the O. (2009), ‘To Sir with Love’, Electronic Musician. Available online: http://www.emusician.com/gear/1332/to-sir-with-love/40689 (accessed 17 February 2010).

Interview with Bill Bruford

An interview I conducted with drummer, bandleader and author Bill Bruford has today been published as a feature by the online Journal on the Art of Record Production (JARP) (you can read in for free at the site). As well as having been a key member of the bands King Crimson, Yes and UK, and a bandleader with Bruford (featuring Alan Holdsworth) and Earthworks, Dr. Bruford has also played with Ralph Towner and Eddie Gomez, Patrick Moraz [Moraz Bruford], Genesis and Gong. His latest scholarly title is Uncharted: Creativity and the Expert Drummer (2018). His autobiography Bill Bruford – The Autobiography: Yes, King Crimson, Earthworks and More is also available and highly recommended for both fans and anyone interested learning about the ins and outs of life as a professional musician, co-creator and recording artist. Enjoy.

‘The fetters of tormented mankind are made of red tape.’

I was watching David Cronenberg’s film Naked Lunch last night. I haven’t seen it since its cinema release back in the 1990s. I must confess I went to see it at the time for the wonderful Howard Shore/Ornette Coleman musical score as much as anything else. I was curious to see if it would still have the same (somewhat disturbing) impact that it had on me all those years ago. Yes and no. The impact was there but of a wholly different kind.

Whereas, I had originally interpreted the wry horrors of William S. Burroughs’s landmark work (upon which the film is partly based, along with Burroughs’s journey leading up to writing the book) as the inspired ramblings of a narcotically numbed schadenfreude; now I saw detachment and cool-headed observation of a more journalistic (though of a hazy surreal) kind. In particular, I was surprised that I hadn’t made the somewhat obvious connection between Burroughs’s novel and Kafka’s Metamorphosis, given all the bugs.

So, this morning, I thought I’d do a quick search to see if Burroughs was in fact alluding to Kafka’s work in The Naked Lunch and found the following wonderful journal article ‘”One of the Great Early Counselors”: The Influence of Franz Kafka on William S. Burroughs’ by Adam Meyer at JSTOR online. If you’d like to read it for free, you can at https://www.jstor.org/stable/40246758 without the need to subscribe (at the moment).

I highly recommend reading Meyer’s article particularly if you have ever thought that books like The Naked Lunch overstep the mark when it comes to shock-tactics. After all, there is nothing in it you won’t see in your daily news bulletin (anthropomorphic transformations coming soon: give or take 50 years 😉 ). As the rockband Skyhooks once sang: “It’s a Horror Movie right there on my TV…shocking me right out of my brain…it’s the 6.30 news”.

Try it. Open up any reputable online news site (for example: https://www.abc.net.au/news/), read what has been served up to for your consumption and delectation: Kafka and Burroughs begin to seem like optimists. As Jack Kerouac said when explaining why he came up with the name ‘Naked Lunch’ as an appropriate title for Burroughs’s tome: you get to see what’s really on the end of your fork.

One might well feel ‘triggered’ after reading some of Burroughs’ more unsavory passages, there is, however, equally the invitation to wake up from numbness and complacency. There is, also, the possibility that one might resolve to choose autonomy in place of being a social and cultural automaton. Does the daily news bulletin invite the same reaction? Indignation and self-righteousness are more likely responses.

Meyer’s most timely observation (keep in mind this article was written some 30 years ago) is perhaps:

Burrough’s is “trying to define what it is that’s really anti-human and evil, and he basically pinpoints it in the self-righteous, censorious, repressive mind,” the same place Kafka located it.

He continues: The reason this mind set is so evil is that … it always requires one person’s being under the domination and control of another person or force. (1990 p. 215-16)

Having been born in what is a former penal colony (Australia) and having spent the formative years of my life living in a ‘police state’ and seemingly perpetual ‘state of emergency’ (i.e. Queensland as ruled by premier Joh Bjelke-Peterson for some 20 years!!) I can attest to the truth in Burroughs words when he says that ‘… a functioning police state needs no police.’ Bureaucracy, paranoia and conformity, on the other hand, are essential components.


Burroughs, W. S. ([1959] 2016). The Naked Lunch. Penguin Classics.

Kafka, F. ([1915] 2013). Metamorphosis. Random House US Group.

Meyers, A. (1990). ‘”One of the Great Early Counselors”: The Influence of Franz Kafka on William S. Burroughs’, Comparative Literature Studies Vol. 27, No. 3 (1990), pp. 211-229 (19 pages).

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Just say Know


DISCLAIMER: The following blog entry in no way condones the use of hallucinogens, or any other drugs for that matter (not even aspirin). It does however look at some interesting parallels between anecdotal accounts of the psychedelic experience and (to a very limited degree) phenomenological interpretations of adult play and creativity theory.

Lately, I’ve been doing a bit of research into the 1960s counterculture. As well as looking into the influence of movements such as the Beats, Fluxus, Pop art and the Situationists, I decided to find out what I could about the work of clinical psychologists Dr. Timothy Leary, Dr. Ralph Metzner and Dr. Richard Alpert (Ram Dass) who researched the effects of psychedelic substances at Harvard in the early part of that decade. A few very interesting weeks were spent reading about their work and exploits. I also looked at the Gay Dillingham documentary ‘Dying To Know’ (2016).

Two aspects of Leary, Metzner and Alpert’s ideas presented in their ‘The Psychedelic Experience’ (1964) have resonance with my own thoughts regarding the phenomenology of creativity: their use of the ‘game’ metaphor and the concept of ‘set and setting.’

The Game:

This first relates to the idea (also shared by Csikszentmihalyi, 1990) that participation in society and within any type of culture has much in common with the playing a game; each with their inherent roles, rules, distributions of power, challenges and rewards. To realise that, in play,  such elements are limited to the bounds of a field or stage or other such zone is nothing out of the ordinary. However, to be able to objectively see the rules, roles and tools of day-to-day life as having validity restricted to a particular time and place is usually not so easily done: the ego is (rightly) so invested in the game (that is its job). The psychedelic experience and ego-death, however show the game for what it is: a (social, cultural, political and historical) construct. The psychoanalyst Carl Gustav Jung discusses the tendency for those heavily invested in ‘the game’ to identify with, on a personal level, that which, in fact, resides outside the individual:

the humourless way in which many men [sic] identify themselves with their business or their titles. The office I hold is certainly my special activity; but it is also a collective factor that has come into existence historically through the cooperation of many people and whose dignity rests solely on collective approval. When, therefore, I identify myself with my office or title, I behave as though I myself were the whole complex of social factors of which that office consists, or as though I were not only the bearer of the office, but also and at the same time the approval of society. I have made an extraordinary extension of myself and have usurped qualities which are not in me but outside me. (1953, 7:227)

This is not to ignore or refute the fact that human beings clearly have needs related to belonging, being loved and for self-esteem that, if not met may give rise to trauma, neuroses and maladaptive behaviour. The humanistic psychologist Abraham Maslow (1970a) comments:

All people in our society (with a few pathological exceptions) have a need or desire for a stable, firmly based, usually high evaluation of themselves, for self-respect, or self-esteem, and for the esteem of others. These needs may therefore be classified into two subsidiary sets. These are, first, the desire for strength, for achievement, for adequacy, for mastery and competence, for confidence in the face of the world, and for independence and freedom. Second, we have what we may call the desire for reputation or prestige (defining it as respect or esteem from other people), status, fame and glory, dominance, recognition, attention, importance, dignity, or appreciation…Satisfaction of the self-esteem need leads to feelings of self-confidence, worth, strength, capability, and adequacy, of being useful and necessary in the world. But thwarting of these needs produces feelings of inferiority, of weakness, and of helplessness. These feelings in turn give rise to either basic discouragement or else compensatory or neurotic trends. An appreciation of the necessity of basic self-confidence and an understanding of how helpless people are without it can be easily gained from a study of severe traumatic neurosis. (p. 45)

Set and Setting:

Psychedelics leave the user highly susceptible to initial (and changing) inner and outer conditions, as well as suggestion. Leary, Metzner and Alpert therefore emphasise, in their ‘manual’ The Psychedelic Experience (1964), the importance of what they call set (the inner state of the participant) and setting (the direct environment at the time of the experience), as well as the solemn role of a guide who can help orientate the participant when they experience trouble, likening the former to a figurative air-traffic controller of sorts.

In their forward to Alan Watts’s 1962 book ‘The Joyous Cosmology: Adventures in the Chemistry of Consciousness’ (1965) Leary and Alpert had the following to say about the importance of set and setting and the potentialities of the human cortex (as opposed to any drug):

For the last two years, staff members of the Center for Research in Personality at Harvard University have engaged in systematic experiments with these substances [i.e. mescaline, lysergic acid, and psilocybin]. Our first inquiry into the biochemical expansion of consciousness has been a study of the reactions of Americans in a supportive, comfortable naturalistic setting. We have had the opportunity of participating in over one thousand individual administrations. From our observations, from interviews and reports, from analysis of questionnaire data, and from pre- and postexperimental differences in personality test results, certain conclusions have emerged. (1) These substances do alter consciousness. There is no dispute on this score. (2) It is meaningless to talk more specifically about the “effect of the drug.” Set and setting, expectation, and atmosphere account for all specificity of reaction. There is no “drug reaction” but always setting-plus-drug. (3) In talking about potentialities it is useful to consider not just the setting-plus-drug but rather the potentialities of the human cortex to create images and experiences far beyond the narrow limitations of words and concepts….The drug is just an instrument. (pp. vii-viii)

The concept of set and setting is also key to a technique that I’ve developed for freeing up creative action based on the work of play scholar Brian Sutton-Smith: in particular, his ideas regarding how play is an act that temporarily negates the usual framing classes. That is, to play is reframe experience and negotiate (amongst other aspects) what will be allowed inside the conceptual frame and (and, arguably, more importantly) what won’t. This framing may often be externalised and reinforced by corresponding physical or systemic boundaries and markers that clearly indicate where play is and where it isn’t. As Apter warns, adult play must have its time and place (1991) if it is not to lead to inappropriate responses to real events with real consequences.

Turning off:

Leary, Metzner and Alpert’s lives may have been very different if not for the creativity scholar and psychologist Frank Barron. As a friend of Leary’s, upon hearing that Leary and Alpert had planned a trip across North and South America, including Mexico, he recommended contacting an anthropologist who knew about the Teonanácatl mushrooms used in shamanic ritual by the Aztecs (Dass, 1971). It was Leary’s experience with these natural psychedelics that inspired the trio to research the effects of lysergic acid diethylamide (LSD): originally synthesised (and accidentally ingested) by Albert Hoffman at Sandoz laboratories in the late 1940s.

Interestingly, LSD itself is not responsible for the quality of the psychedelic experience, but acts as chemical key suppressing certain neurological patterns and structures associated with day-to-day living and survival. It is this suppression that allows other ‘levels’ (for want of a better term) of mind to be experienced. It should be pointed out that Leary, Metzner and Alpert were psychologists not neurologists. Oliver Sacks has some interesting insights (in particular, regarding hallucinations) that stems from a contemporary Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI)-research-informed perspective, along with his own personal (think ‘swinging sixties’) experiences.

The turning off (or rather, idling) of select brain function(s) is, in some ways, congruent with the aims and means of meditation. It also has interesting parallels with my own findings (albeit on a much smaller scale) regarding recent advances in the phenomenological understanding of creativity and play, which are similarly proscriptive in nature. That is, play helps artists to reframe experience by excluding otherwise dominant and habitual socialised behaviour and perceptions.

Heaven and Hell:

Leary, Metzner and Alpert’s attempts to map out the terrain of the psychedelic experience in a methodical manner were unsuccessful until they noticed that subjects responded well to the Bardo metaphor encountered in the ‘Tibetan Book of The Dead’. As the text provided key points of orientation, it was used as a basis for a manual to be developed.

Leary and Alpert’s experiences would eventually inspire them to follow very different life paths and personal quests for transformation. Alpert asserted that he was never able to find sufficient, lasting change in his personality or the answer to his burning questions with prolonged hallucinogen use. Ever the rebel, Leary continued to follow (and proselytize) the LSD path throughout his life. Alpert famously embraced Eastern mysticism, meditation and service as his liberation vehicle of choice, swapping LSD for LSR (“Love, Serve, Remember”- at the advice of his guru, Baba Neem Karoli). Alpert renamed himself Ram Dass (‘servant of G-d’) and went onto write the ‘countercultural bible’ Be Here Now (1971).

And yet here even, psychoanalyst Carl Jung warns (at least for the Westerner) that perils await those who dabble with disciplines appropriated from other cultures without the associated sociological, cultural structures and guides in place to support them in their efforts. Here, again, we see set, setting and guides being as essential :

I do not doubt that the Eastern liberation from vices, as well as from virtues, is coupled with detachment in every respect, so that the yogi is translated beyond this world, and quite inoffensive. But I suspect every European attempt at detachment of being mere liberation from moral considerations. Anybody who tries his hand at yoga ought therefore to be conscious of its far-reaching consequences, or else his [sic] so-called quest will remain a futile pastime. (1964, 11:825-826)

Jung goes on to specify how attempting to manipulate consciousness can, at times, have unexpected repercussions (such as ‘inflation’):

Positive inflation comes very near to a more or less conscious megalomania; negative inflation is felt as an annihilation of the ego. (Jung 1966, 16:472) … An inflated consciousness is always egocentric and conscious of nothing but its own existence. It is incapable of learning from the past, incapable of understanding contemporary events, and incapable of drawing right conclusions about the future. It is hypnotized by itself and therefore cannot be argued with. It inevitably dooms itself to calamities that must strike it dead. Paradoxically enough, inflation is a regression of consciousness into unconsciousness. This always happens when consciousness takes too many unconscious contents upon itself and loses the faculty of discrimination, the sine qua non of all consciousness….It seems to me of some importance, therefore, that a few individuals, or people individually, should begin to understand that there are contents which do not belong to the ego-personality, but must be ascribed to a psychic non-ego. This mental operation has to be undertaken if we want to avoid a threatening inflation. (1968, 12:563)

L to R: Ram Dass (Richard Alpert) & Timothy Leary, reunited at Harvard in 1983 (a good-humoured-but-lively debate).

Leary, Metzner and Alpert’s initial attempts to map out the terrain of the psychedelic experience in some kind of methodical manner were unsuccessful using their usual 20th century psychological frameworks. Later, they noticed that subjects taking part in sessions responded well to guidance based upon a ‘Bardo’ metaphor derived from the Tibetan Book of The Dead, an ancient text mentioned in Aldous Huxley’s The Doors of Perception (1954). Key points of orientation could now be communicated between guide and ‘voyager’ and the ancient text was subsequently used as the basis for a psychedelic ‘manual’: The Psychedelic Experience (1964). This appropriation of religious symbolism from the East (including also use of the Tao Te Ching), though sincere, helped serve a secondary, somewhat more pragmatic, purpose. By framing their research group as a religious organization, with the psychedelics as ‘sacraments’, they hoped to avoid trouble with the authorities. Leary (2001) recounts:

wisely or foolishly, we got sacred off this scientific approach. After being expelled from Havard, Mexico, Antigua, and Dominica in the late spring of 1963, we cravenly decided that the authorities were not ready for the 21st century concept – Every Citizen a Scientist. So we fell back to the familiar historical turf upon which most earlier freedom movements had fought the battle – religion (p.2) …The lawyers agreed. There is nothing the Bill of Rights to protect scientific freedom…but there was a First Amendment protection of Freedom of Religion. (p.4)

The most dangerous man in America:

President Richard Nixon once called Timothy Leary “The most dangerous man in America.” High praise indeed! One particular Leary anecdote concerning his run ins with the US government seems stranger than fiction today. In the late sixties, Leary ran for Governor of California (opposite Ronald Reagan) but was allegedly “framed by the ‘man'”, duly incarcerated and asked to fill out a psychiatric assessment metric that he himself had written many years before. Armed with the knowledge of how to answer so that he would be placed in a minimum security prison with light duties, he filled out the form accordingly and later escaped with the help of Leftist militants, the Weather Underground.

After decades of bad publicity fueled in no small way by Leary’s proselytizing and well-publicised ‘recreational’ use of psychedelics within the West Coast sixties counter culture (not to mention the documented horrors of the CIA’s MK-Ultra program), much of the hysteria surrounding the topic of psychedelics has subsided to a point where research into their effects has resumed in both Britain and the US with the help of non-invasive MRI technology.

Timothy Leary: The Game

While Leary’s later writings verge on mysticism-cum-science fiction, his ideas may yet turn out to have, or at least inspire, practical applications in the distant future (areas such as transhumanism come to mind). As is the nature of science fiction, today’s fantasy may well become tomorrow’s reality. In his later years, Leary became interested in the possibilities of cyber-space, computing and games. If you can get past the retro user-interface you might enjoy playing Leary’s Mind Mirror game developed together with Electronic Arts in 1986 (and which sold some 65,000 copies). It’s a virtual experience in the most rudimentary sense (something more like role playing with cards than a computer game). It isn’t quite an acid trip, but it does help you to explore the plasticity of ego-constructs in a really fun (and funny) way.

You can play the game (online) here. Enjoy.


Csikszentmihalyi, M. (1990). Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience. New York, NY: HarperCollins Publishers.

Coleman, G., Dorje, G., Dalai Lama XIV, and Jinpa, T. (2009). The Tibetan Book Of The Dead. London UK: Penguin UK.

Dass, R. (1971). Be Here Now. New Mexico, US: Lama Foundation.

Dillingham, G. (2016). Dying To Know: Ram Dass & Timothy Leary. [Motion Picture]. US: Alive Mind Cinema.

Heiser, M. S. (2015) The playful frame of mind: An exploration of its influence upon creative flow in a post-war popular music-making context. (Doctoral dissertation). Brisbane, Australia: Griffith University.

Huxley, A. (1954). The Doors of Perception. New York, NY: Harper & Row.

Jung, Carl. 1953-1974. The Collected Works of C.G. Jung. Translated and edited by G. Adler and R.F.C. Hull. 21 vols. Bollingen Series. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Leary, T., Metzner, R., & Alpert, R. (1964). The Psychedelic Experience. New York, NY: University Books.

Leary, T. (2001). Your Brain is God. Berkeley, CA: Ronin Publishing.

Maslow, A. (1970a). Motivation and Personality. New York, NY: Harper & Row.

Maslow, A. (1970b). Religions, Values, and Peak Experiences. New York, NY: Penguin.

Watts, A. (1965). The Joyous Cosmology: Adventures in the Chemistry of Consciousness. New York, NY: Vintage Books.

Why should Brian Eno have all the fun?


When I was studying composition at the Qld Conservatorium of Music in the late 1980s, all I ever heard about was “Brian Eno this,” and “Brian Eno that.” All of the students (and teachers for that matter) were so enamoured of Eno and his work (especially the ambient material) since it was “clever” (good) but didn’t sound anything like the fingernails down a blackboard of Ligeti or whoever-else was considered important at the time (even better). For the record, I love Ligeti’s work (you may have heard some in Kubrick’s The Shining)…fingernails and all.

With Eno’s music you got to have your musical cake and eat it too. You got the procedural kudos of John Cage et al combined with the sensuality of a Debussy. Eno could even make Pachabel’s Canon sound good (that is, after putting it through a procedural wringer!).

Gaining insight into Eno’s work and ideas became a lot easier with the release of Eric Tamm’s very fine book Brian Eno: His Music and the Vertical Colour of Sound (1989) (remember, this was before the internet). Perhaps, the most striking revelations contained therein related to Eno’s down-to-earth character and his “somewhat superficial knowledge of the classical tradition and his disdain for its institutional infrastructure” (p. 20). Kudos!

Eno has remained productive in the years since and is (arguably) even more influential today. No doubt, he is also a lot wealthier thanks to his work with U2, and remains at the vanguard of popular music creative practice thanks to his embracing generative music and open source programming platforms (together with Peter Chilvers).

If you haven’t already read Tamm’s book, you might not be aware that Eno has made a living all this time by running away from a day job. That isn’t to say he’s not a hard worker. As a case in point, his slow and meticulous gradus ad parnassum approach to building up soundscapes was very much at odds with collaborator David Bowie’s first-take-is-the-best-take approach (see the hilarious video below). He is also capable of capriciousness: For example, if his infamous Oblique Strategies cards (developed together with painter Peter Schimdt) tell Eno to erase everything and start all over again, he’ll do it.

Eno: A Practitioner of Play

What I want to get across is that you’d be in error to put Eno on a pedestal. Anyone, can do it! That is, if you have the guts to go against all usual, well-meaning ‘advice’ from family, friends, loved ones and vocational guidance officers to get your life together. Do you have the wherewithal to devote 8 hours a day (or more) to play.

Instead of clocking on at the office, crunching numbers or pressuring pensioners into life insurance they don’t need, can you see yourself devoting that same amount of time to fiddling around with your DAW, Max/MSP, Pure Data or whatever musical means you prefer: juggling ideas, procedures, and sounds that – more often than not – will result in nought but creative dead ends? Probably not, given the low social status and financial instability that are for contemporary artists and musicians constant reminders of a comfortable life that might have been.

You’ll also need a refined and discerning sense of aesthetic appreciation. This is where Eno and John Cage’s procedural approaches to creativity diverge. Cage was happy to live with the results of his chance music, accepting it on its own terms, whatever the hell it sounded like (anyone for another 8 bars of ‘Fingernails down a Blackboard?’). Eno, ever the aesthete, instead spends a great deal of time reflecting upon the artefacts of his play before releasing them to public scrutiny. So much so that Tamm’s considers listening to be Eno’s “primary compositional activity” (p.49).

If you’d like to read more about Eno and his playful approach to creative practice check out my forthcoming book Popular Music, Power & Play: Reframing Creative Practice.


Heiser, M. (2021). Popular Music, Power and Play: Reframing Creative Practice. New York, NY: Bloomsbury Academic.

Tamm, E. (1989). Brian Eno: His music and the vertical color of sound. New York, NY: Da Capo Press.