Jazz, Go & the Grateful Dead

At first sight, the title of this piece might sound a little audacious but stick with me.

Ever since the arrival of AlphaGo in 2016, the development of strong Go-playing AI has added weight to the view of many players that the game now rightly lives in the realm of computer science, algorithmic logic, and mathematics.

This view is held, even though human proficiency in Go, especially in classical China, was always considered to be one of the four artistic accomplishments of educated people (along with music, painting, and calligraphy).

Despite the current focus on machine learning and AI, it is my contention, that to play Go is indeed to participate in a human activity that is fully artistic at its core.

When we begin to play Go, it can sometimes seem an impossible challenge to make sense of this game that has entranced and entertained human beings for over four thousand years.

The board and its grid are uniform and rigidly symmetrical, with only the faintest hint that something different or unusual might take place in the corners or at the edges of the board. The stones themselves are equally homogenous, lacking either the ranked hierarchy of Chess pieces, or of being used in specific quantities as in games such as Backgammon, Draughts or Mancala.

For those of us that love Go, it is this very ‘nothingness’ that entices us. No game is ever the same and as we start to make progress we begin to see that within this initial field of almost infinite possibility, there are indeed consistent shapes and patterns that arise out of the intentions, placements and interactions of the players. 

It is also true, that as we make progress with the game, we start to become more aware of Go’s internal structure, and of how each game proceeds in three distinct, but melded phases.

In the opening stages of the game, known as the fuseki, the players state their initial positions, and we see arrangements and patterns that are not only familiar, but are common from game to game. This phase of the contest can continue until there are anywhere between thirty to sixty or so stones arrayed out on the board. However, this initial placement is far from placid. At any moment, the seemingly calm positioning into the corners, or developments along the sides, can break out into a vicious running fight that can either quickly burn itself out, or grow into a raging conflagration that threatens to engulf the whole board.

If this initial fire does indeed burn out, we may again see the game settle back to its earlier gentle pace, as each player seeks to strengthen their own groups or weaken those of their opponent by the efficient placement of stones. On the other hand, and in many games, this initial outbreak may mark the transition from the fuseki to the sharper more tactical close-quarter fighting that marks the chubansen – the middle-game of Go.

This middle-game is the most intense, confrontational, and often chaotic stage of the battle. In this phase, all Go games generate their own unique patterns and positions and both players are left to their own devices to improvise and work out the best moves. For the most part, they have to do this without reference to well-established and studied ‘opening theories’ that support their play during the fuseki.

To quote Go Author Richard Bozulich: “It is quite common to find a player who is extremely strong in the fuseki but falls apart in the middle game. At the same time, a player who has developed a superior fighting sense can easily make up in the chubansen those losses he suffered in the fuseki.”

From this point onwards, fierce local battles, brutal assaults, deep invasions, and desperate sieges will spill across the board, flowing, merging and breaking groups of stones apart with the relentless power of a tsunami. Then, often with the similar onset of calm that follows a raging storm, the pace slackens and the game moves into its final and closing stages, the yose or endgame.

Here, the players draw breath and renew their scrutiny of the whole board focussed on the goal of closing and sealing off the boundaries of their newly acquired territories.  Here again, in common with the fuseki, the aim is not simply to maximise the available points, but to do so in a way that enables each player to retain sente. By taking and retaining the initiative, each player attempts to obtain the vital first move in each contested area of the board in a hierarchy of biggest moves.

Again, as in the fuseki, many of the moves will be familiar to both players. A push here, a block there, a cut that threatens the life of a group offered up in exchange for a local advantage elsewhere. And so, the players work their way across the board, each move becoming smaller in value until, like ripples fading on a pond, the game ends by mutual agreement and a whispered “Pass”.

All possibilities have been exhausted. That once empty board now lies replete with stones, shining and entwining, the tangible manifestation of the invisible struggle that gripped the minds of the players – a unique work of art.

So, what does this description of a Go game have to do with either Jazz or indeed the psychedelic muse of the Grateful Dead?

If you are not familiar with the Grateful Dead, there is more than enough written and musical material out there on the internet to satisfy even hard-core fans. By way of introduction, it is enough to say that they were active, playing and exploring their own hybrid genre of music for more than fifty years from 1965 to 1995 until the death of one of the founder members – guitarist Jerry Garcia. Since then, the rest of the band have remained active and still regularly perform under the name Dead and Company.

The Grateful Dead 1970

At the core of the Grateful Dead’s success and longevity lay their ability to musically improvise. In a similar manner to games of Go, each concert they played was a unique event, in which not only did the number, variety and order of the songs vary, but so did the actual performances of those songs. Although each piece had familiar opening and closing arrangements, often including a traditional verse/chorus structure, each one also had the potential to act as a springboard for a collective group improvisation that never repeated.

To illustrate this idea, we are going to take a look/listen to one of their best-known song/improvisation platforms – ‘Dark Star’, and in particular the live recording from February/March 1969. (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-Xic-CHInek)

The performance begins with the musicians feeling for each other, pushing ideas backwards and forwards, before the two drummers pick up a rhythm and the band coalesce around a groove. This is the equivalent of the first dozen or so moves of a Go game, as the players stake out the corners selecting from the 4-4, 3-4 or other corner points that will subtly push the flow and development of the subsequent game.

Then at around two-minutes, a bright, descending guitar arpeggio rings out that signals the first musical theme. Like the first corner approach and the joseki that follows, this figure is familiar to both the musicians and their audience and both signals and confirms their commitment to the song.

After a further five minutes or so of tonal development and improvisation, this opening section closes with a poetic lyric (6:05) that indicates the transition into the mid-section of the song that will be marked by further melodic explorations, periods of almost silence, clashing atonal discord (12:04) all punctuated by rhythmic interjections from the two drummers (17:00). Here in the midst of the ‘Dark Star’, nothing is the same, but everything is familiar. Each musician is alive to the possibilities of playing in this space, whilst at the same time, drawing on their experience of dozens of other ‘Dark Stars’ to navigate a course through this vibrating wall of sound.

Occasionally, a refracted hint of the original melody may break surface for a moment, only to submerge just as quickly into the roiling ocean of sound. Then, as if all further musical possibilities were for this time now exhausted; at (21:30), out of almost silence, the voice refrains the lyric, almost whispered, rather than sung, before the epic ends on a series of once again familiar rising scales and arpeggios amidst the silvering hiss of brushed cymbals.

After twenty-three minutes of sonic exploration the tune ends. But, in the way of the Grateful Dead, this ending is only temporary, a respite before the next song, mounted on its back rides into view.

Structurally we have been on the same journey as in a game of Go. From the familiar opening plays of the Fuseki, on into the wild improvised ride of the mid-game and then, almost at the moment of maximum chaos – the peak of discord, when almost all possibilities of the stones and shapes have been exhausted, we make the breakthrough into the final phase and the once again familiar plays of the yose – before the struggle comes to its gentle, natural and final end.

This particular parallel is only one of many we can draw with music and art. Alongside improvised psychedelic rock music, post-bebop Jazz also shares this commitment to continuous improvisation as a means of exploring the ‘now’. There are way too many examples of this to investigate in detail, but ‘My Favourite Things’ by the John Coltrane Quartet provides a perfect illustration. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UlFNy9iWrpE)

Taking as their starting point the whimsical, almost trivial, children’s nursery song from the ‘Sound of Music’, the music once again develops along a now familiar timeline. The musicians open as an ensemble, playing out the main melody, gauging its rhythm and shape before once again at around the two-minute mark, the explorations and adventures begin. We can hear this particularly in the interplay of the saxophone and piano, but behind them we also detect the drums and bass, listening hard and looking for opportunities to make a move. Once again, if we were experiencing synaesthesia, we would be hearing the visual equivalent of the opening moves of a Go game, as the players state their positions and intentions before the first Joseki blaze erupts.

In this piece, the moment arrives at around (3:45), when McCoy Tyner, the pianist, begins to play a series of staccato variations on one note, with the double bass pulsing gently behind. To me this has the sound and feel of our two Go players, making a series of repeated one-space jumps out of a corner and into the centre of the board, each seeking to get ahead, before one of them takes fright and plays a shape move. At around (7:00) we fully move into the mid-game, as the saxophone re-enters the piece. Once again, the opening melody is repeated before we voyage out into ever more experimental and, at times discordant play. All the players are now committed and are working right in the ‘now’ of the piece.

Then at around (9:42), almost without warning, the opening theme returns. Just like our Go players, hunting across the board, hoping to squeeze a few desperate points or a game-winning advantage out of  the end-game, the musicians come to the realisation that, for now, all possibilities have been exhausted. At (12:19) the ensemble reprises the melody for one last time, before bringing the enterprise to a final and tumultuous close.

So, what brings together our three seemingly disparate realms of: Jazz, Go and the Grateful Dead?

In each of them we find a unifying structure of opening, mid-section and close. In all three examples, both the opening and the close have a gentler, almost semi-formal content, whilst the mid-section manifests as something more dramatic, often experimental and at times, downright chaotic. In addition, in each art form, at the peak of the mid-section, when the multiple threads we’ve followed to this place are fully entwined, there emerges a sort of peace amidst the chaos. It is in this stillness that the players and the musicians are able to take stock, draw breath, and move towards a conclusion of the piece… at least for this time.

In addition to this structured opening, experimental mid-section and formal close; Jazz, Go and the Grateful Dead, all share a common commitment to the art of improvisation and being in the ‘now’. Although the concept of ‘mindfulness’ – full focus on the present moment – has recently acquired a slightly ‘woke’ reputation, it is actually a very ancient spiritual practice. It is also the mindset behind all creative art, where even despite often meticulous planning and preparation, as in the case of a theatrical or orchestral performance, the energy and vibrancy of the piece emerges from the absolute commitment of the performers to the ‘now’.

There is also one further dimension of Go as art to consider. It is well known that our brains are structured with two hemispheres that manage or control different mental functions. The left side of the brain is responsible for controlling the right side of the body. It also performs tasks that have to do with logic, such as in science and mathematics. On the other hand, the right hemisphere coordinates the left side of the body and performs tasks that have do with spatial awareness creativity and the arts. One of the reasons that Go is so valued as a pedagogical tool in China, Korea, and Japan, is its ability to ‘work’ both halves of the brain simultaneously.  Go requires us to not only think logically and analytically, for example when we are counting liberties in a life and death semeai, but also to view the board spatially. There is not a Go player alive who would not agree that at times, they played a stone, because; “It just looked like the right kind of place.” This was almost exactly the phrase that Lee Sedol used to explain his wedging play, move 78, in his fourth, and only winning game against AlphaGo in 2016.

Lee Sedol plays the magic move 78

And this is also true of poets, painters, and musicians. To develop creative skill in any art, you first must study the rules of the form; scales chord structures, harmony, and counterpoint. You then have to put these rules into practice so that they become almost second nature. Then and only then, can great artists break these self-same rules and create something, original, new and inspiring in the way of a Picasso, a James Joyce, a John Coltrane or a Jimi Hendrix.

And once we understand these principles, then many other areas of life and art are brought into focus. Indeed, our own lives, and that of all self-organising systems, share these self-same patterns. They are indeed universal.

For many of us, our childhood feels safe and structured, embedded in the love and support of our families. As we move into adolescence, a world of possibilities opens before us, but we also encounter many of the constraints placed on us by our culture and the structure and norms of society. Our middle-game is hopefully a period of achievement and attainment, but is also marked by great challenges, unrealised opportunities and sometimes sadness and disappointments. But then, often amid these struggles, a new paradigm emerges as we begin to move into the gentler period of relaxation and reflection that characterises retirement from the world of work and the struggles of economic necessity.

Although not all of us can become great artists musicians or performers. We can all become Go players, and in doing so, give ourselves a route to that clear moment of grace, that absolute and timeless experience of ‘now’, and the peace it brings.

And so for me, despite the impressive playing ability of AlphaGo and other AI programs, the practice of Go will always remain an art.

The patterns of Go – Pandanet 20th September – 1st October 2020

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