Bass Guitar, 1995-1997

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According to Robert Kubey, Stephen Cooper is the "only true musician" in The Professors. Indeed, Steve earned a BA in Music Composition from Princeton University. Steve played bass guitar for the band from 1995 to 1997, bringing with him 15 years of professional "on the road" experience and co-wrote The Professors' now-classic Foucault Funk. Steve was a doctoral candidate in the School of Communication, Information, and Library Studies at Rutgers University during his tenure with the band.

Bass line by Stephen Cooper. Recorded at Suite 16 Studios, Piscataway, New Jersey, November 1997


From Radford, G. P., Cooper, S. D., Kubey, R. W., McCurry, D. S., Millen, J., and Barrows, J. R. (2002). Collaborative Musical Expression and Creativity Among Academics: When Intellectualism Meets Twelve Bar Blues. American Communication Journal [Online] Volume 6, Issue 1, Fall 2002.

A rock band in rehearsal is an intriguing example of small group communication. When the rehearsal goes well, there are clear examples of an assembly effect and process gains (Nunamaker, Dennis, Valacich, Vogel, & George, 1991). Even when the band members work well together, however, there still can be indications of process losses (Salazar, 1995; Nunamaker et al., 1991; Steiner, 1972). In other organizational or social contexts, group communication typically includes primarily verbal communication with an overlay of such nonverbal communication as paralanguage, kinesics, and proxemics. In a musical context, however, an entirely new realm of nonverbal communication is added to the group process in the form of aesthetic qualities of the performance.

This new level of nonverbal communication within the group is of extreme importance to the group’s work. Ordinarily such variables as the volume balance of the instruments, timbre (i.e., sound color), competition within the aural frequency spectrum (i.e., masking of each other’s sounds), and temporal coordination (i.e., rhythmic tightness) are thought of solely as aesthetic considerations. Such variables also yield insights into the functioning of the band as an instance of group interaction, however. Table 1, below, begins to map constructs essential to the life world of musicians, identified here in musicians’ jargon, onto related group process variables recognized in the communication literature.

Table 1
Musicians’ Jargon Related to Group Process Variables
Musical ConstructGroup Process Variable
too louddominance
too busyattention blocking
drowning outblocking
rhythmic loosenesscoordination problems
not listeningfree riding
going stalecognitive inertia
in the pocketpositive synergy
out of the pocketnegative synergy
leaving holesair time fragmentation

It is quite interesting to note that variables associated in the literature with process losses may actually measure process gains in the context of a musical group. A striking example is the musicians’ practice of “leaving holes,” which can be seen as a form of air time fragmentation. While Nunamaker et al. (1991) categorize air time fragmentation as a process loss in a decision group, in a musical context “leaving holes” is a much-valued enactment of turn-taking and a significant contributor to positive synergy. By contrast, playing too much - in musicians’ jargon, “filling all the holes in the groove” - is a violation of group norms in turn-taking, is likely to contribute to negative synergy, and may well be a form of dominance, just as playing too loud is a form of dominance.

Collective Creative Process As Synergy

As performing musicians are well aware, even the most sophisticated musical notation simply cannot specify all the aesthetic information crucial to a satisfying performance of the work. Perhaps this is most apparent in classical music, where scores contain detailed information about pitch, volume, articulation (i.e., the attack and release of the notes), and tempo, yet there are striking differences between performances of the same score by different orchestras, different soloists, and different conductors. In a very real sense, then, a given classical musical performance is a time- and context-specific collective reading of a polysemic text, no matter how explicit the notation in the score.

In more improvisatory musical forms, such as jazz and rock music, the significance of the aesthetic information filled in by the performers is even more obvious. In these genres, the written score - if any - may consist simply of a melodic line with chord symbols and lyrics, and some minimal notation of the overall structure of the tune. The significance of the ongoing interactions within the ensemble becomes obvious, then, when one considers how much musical information is created during the performance itself in a dynamic process. Much of the decodable aesthetic information in an ensemble musical performance consists of the juxtaposition of sounds generated by individual performers. If we consider these juxtapositions of sounds as double interacts (Weick, 1979), it is apparent how very complex and multidimensional the interactions among performers are, in even the most pedestrian of performances. In improvisatory forms the performer-as-listener is necessarily attuned to minute differences and similarities in time, timbre, and volume (in addition to the more obvious dimension of pitch) which are contained in an irreversible stream of auditory information, generated in a collective creative process.

For this reason the aesthetic success of a performance is in large measure the outcome of the group’s interactions. It is appropriate that musicians often use the metaphor of “head” to describe the collective creativity of a group. This usage can be seen in the term “head arrangement” for the collectively-generated orchestration of a tune. Another example (indicating this author’s chronological age) is in the lyric of a song by the British rock group Cream, referring to that group’s creative burnout: “Do you, don’t you, will you, won’t you know when a head is dead?” While it is routine to physiologically distinguish various component parts of the brain in an anatomy book, it is by no means clear where a given thought or expression originates. So, too, is it possible to specify various dimensions of group interaction with a scholarly degree of validity, yet be unsettlingly vague about the precise nature of collective musical creativity.

In this light, the synergy of a rock band’s performance is reminiscent of the synergy in the collaborative authorship of a journal article, a spirited panel discussion at a conference, or the meeting of a wellfunctioning committee. The richness and complexity of the verbal and nonverbal communication in those contexts have been well studied. The roles, task-oriented and socioemotional, assumed by group members have been well theorized. Those groups have been conceptualized as open systems, in which the whole of the group is by no means the roster of its individual members, and the potential of the group is by no means determined by its members’ individual limitations. The same logic applies to musical ensembles.

Unusual Routines: Negative Enactments of Positive Values

Unfortunately, repetitive negative interaction patterns can also evolve within a band’s communications, interactions which Rice (Rice, 1996; Rice, Hale & Dare, 1996) and Cooper (2001) have named unusual routines. Cooper and Rice (2001) define the unusual routine as “a repetitive interaction pattern which generates negative outcomes for organization members or clients, yet proves resistant to feedback or other corrective efforts” (p. 1). Such persistent communication dysfunctionalities are likely to cause band breakups (entropy, leading to the termination of the group), changes in membership (withdrawal), or negative synergy (musical performance below the band’s potential).

Cooper (2001) found the persistence of unusual routines - their resistance to attempts to fix the communication problems symptomatic of the unusual routine - to often lie in underlying, implicit values shared by group members. Paradoxically, values which are clearly positive in intent, and about which there exists substantial intersubjective agreement as to their merit, can support clearly negative interactions within a musical group. Artistic integrity is an excellent example of such a value. The appeal and merit of this value is apparent; most serious musicians would say they share this value. Yet, musical groups frequently terminate when disagreement over the appropriate enactment of that value leads to such process losses as dominance (conflict about the volume balance of the instruments), cognitive inertia (creative stagnation resulting from conflict over aesthetic questions), and negative synergy (impaired musical performance resulting from the inability to develop shared understanding of aesthetic standards).

In sum, a rock band in rehearsal provides a surprisingly rich opportunity to apply both established and contemporary work in group communication, to a creative process not often recognized as group communication.

This page last updated July 22, 2013 by Gary Radford.
Many thanks to Kurt Wagner, Marie Radford, and Jon Oliver.