Grind

A solo piano album about work

Grind coverGrind is an album of piano tracks loosely organized around the concept of work. There are many different attitudes toward work, and many different types of work, as well. Personally, my attitude towards work is rather complex, as much of it is creative and totally absorbing, and all of it is artistic. For much of my life I have been a “workaholic,” but a lot of the time my work has been self-motivated.

For my entire career, my “employment” has been playing double bass for a major symphony orchestra. For some musicians, this constitutes a pinnacle position; some non-musicians do not consider this to be work at all. Actually a symphony orchestra job can be quite demanding, though the rewards can be great as well, and it is more physically taxing than one might expect. Even so, I’ve never worked more than about 25 hours per week on the job. This, however, does not take into account all the practicing I’ve done at home. You start to add everything up – rehearsals, concerts, practicing, six days per week, working mornings and nights, driving, travel – and it starts to sound a lot more like work. Most musicians also teach lessons, which can take up most of their remaining time. I have never done much teaching because I have filled my extra time with creating and performing my own music. As I said, it’s complicated.

Music and the concept of a steady pulse are one of the great inventions in human history. It allows people to work TOGETHER. Working together involves synchronization and without music and dance, that would have never happened. My album, however, is about our personal relationship to work, rather than the work itself, and is more emotional than physical.

  1. Work Song. My music tends to not be very rhythmically steady, however, repetition and sequence are often major components. Then again, so is variation, and this usually doesn’t let me repeat an idea intact more than twice. I explained to a friend once that I tended to continually vary my ostinatos (repeated patterns), and he told me a varied ostinato was an oxymoron. The upshot is that I don’t often get into a “groove,” as the first thing I vary is often the rhythm. This track, however, does try hard to get “groovy” at times, and is about as close as I ever get to a work song. Just the same, “John Henry” it’s not.
  2. Outburst.  Of course, one of the common associations with work is stress. Even a workaholic does not like to have more to do than he or she can finish in the time available. The stress can mount and explode occasionally. That is what happens in this track. Of course, blowing up doesn’t help, and after the pressure is released, the work continues.
  3. Chorale.  A chorale is like a hymn, and is meant to be sung by the congregation. To me, hymn singing is a little like everybody doing the same work. Together. It doesn’t help that I’m such a bad singer. It is not something I am usually very thrilled about doing, but I often do it anyway. After all it’s short.
  4. Daydream.  Sometimes your mind wonders. This is especially true when I am doing creative work, as letting my mind wonder is part of the gig. I fall asleep at my desk more often than I care to admit. (My chair is pretty comfortable.) I’ve also occasionally fallen asleep at my piano. (Despite the fact it is really uncomfortable.) I even once nearly fell asleep while I was recording. (Check out “Drifting Off” from my album Night Drift.) I don’t recommend drifting off when somebody is paying you, however.
  5. Dew Point. Because this is the point (temperature) at which water condenses out of the air, I like to use it as a metaphor for creative inspiration. Sometimes ideas seem to appear out of nowhere. At other times, they don’t. I guess, sometimes, it is just not humid enough.
  6. Hard Knocks. The School of Hard Knocks can be an effective teacher, and usually involves as much work or more than any other form of education. That said, what inspired the title of this track was the series of repeated notes that take over the music about half way through. It sounds like somebody knocking, hard.
  7. Hunting For Faeries. I’ve always been intrigued by the author Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s fascination with spiritualism, psychic research, and magical phenomena. How could the creator of Sherlock Holmes get sucked in by this stuff? But he spent a great deal of effort trying to prove their existence, and he is not the only person to work hard at something preposterous.
  8. Nocturne.  I have often worked deep into the night, though as I have aged I have gradually shifted to morning. But the nighttime can be magically quiet and full of imaginative promise. The swirling of ideas and myriad of possible relationships can keep me awake even when I need to be asleep. The magic does not always make it into the harsh light of day, but sometimes it does.
  9. Intermezzo.  We all have to take breaks. We all need to rest, if only for a bit. That doesn’t mean we can shut our mind off completely. Sometimes a distraction will allow our subconscious to work out the details of something important. Then we end up working through our break anyway.
  10. Chanson.  A chanson is a rather lyric-driven French art song dealing often with more serious subjects like conditions of the working class, and is usually rather free as it follows the rhythms of the French language. Of course, my chanson has no lyrics and isn’t about anything, but it is rather free anyway.
  11. Toccata.  This is a “touch piece” as opposed to a sonata or “sound piece.” It is usually distinguished by a technical display of some sort. In other words, it has lots of fast notes. I was tempted to call this track Prelude and Toccata because, though it starts with a splash, it slows down before really taking off. I didn’t start the piece thinking “toccata,” I discovered it along the way. The toccata section continues until I get tired. After all, it was a lot of work.

This album is my twenty-first solo piano album and was recorded at my home in Phoenix, Arizona.  It was released on September 7, 2018 by SMS Recordings.

Recovery

An album examining impermanence and the process of healing

RecoveryThis album is about healing, it’s not intended to be able to heal. Music can be soothing, and many aspects of music can be therapeutic. I participated in a music therapy project a couple of years ago with Alzheimer’s patients, and learned first hand the kinds of effects music can bring to those suffering and struggling to maintain their basic humanity. But that is a different subject and not what this album is about.

By comparison, my musical intention is more mundane. It deals with everyday recovery from everyday loss by everyday people. Impermanence is a fact, but it is the fuel upon which life (and nonlife) sustains itself and moves on. Being attuned to the impermanence of beauty, happiness, and peace is a gift, and it teaches valuable lessons for dealing with ugliness, sorrow, and conflict.

  1. Song of Longing. Loss is difficult; it always leaves a hole that takes time to fill. Though it brings emptiness, it also brings a flood of memories that are often beautiful. Loss does not bring happiness, but the sorrow it brings is the result of happiness.
  2. 3am, Wide Awake. Recovery can make sleep difficult, even frightening. When I am awake in the middle of the night, it is more often from anticipation than reflection. But this is not the case with everyone, and for some, sleep brings no peace. That doesn’t mean they don’t get tired.
  3. Underwater. Recovering often seems like you can’t breathe.
  4. Death of a Bumblebee. (Apologies to Rimsky-Korsakov.) Living in the desert, most of my homes have had either a pool or, in one case, a fishpond. Bees come to the water for moisture, and sometimes they end up going for a swim. Not a good idea. I save them if I can.
  5. Just Not The Same. A friend told me this once after a terrifying event with one of their children. What we miss was sometimes not there to begin with. That doesn’t make it any easier.
  6. Just Suppose. Guilt.
  7. Sleeping Dragon. Sometimes the best we can do for a while is to put the dragon to sleep. We tiptoe around and try not to wake him up. Woe to those who wake him up for you.
  8. Sleeping Princess. Where there is a sleeping dragon, there is also usually a sleeping princess. We may try to ignore everything for a while, but closing up to sorrow and ugliness is also to ignore happiness and beauty. She can awaken too, and she is not always happy about being ignored.
  9. Confession. More guilt.
  10. Bounce.  The lessons of impermanence are patience and timing. Peaks and valleys are part of everything. On the way down, knowledge offers resilience, and we bounce instead of crash, usually.

The album was recorded at my home in Phoenix AZ in November 2010. It is Album #20 and was released on June 25, 2018 by SMS Recordings SMS021.

Sound and meaning

Expression in the age of urban din

For the most part, I feel that the ascension of recorded music has been positive. It preserves performances and non-written music, and gives everyone access to music from everywhere. But one of the main downsides is that it has turned most of the world into listeners instead of participants. Whereas most people used to sing or play if they felt the need for music in their lives, now they just push a button, turn a dial, or swipe. Some people now listen to music for a large majority of their life – at work, at home, driving, shopping, walking, everywhere, but they never actually participate in any of it.

This easy accessibility comes with a price. Aside from the missed social opportunity, there is just a lack of any sort of first-hand musical experience. A lack of any understanding of what it actually feels like to make music. Though there are probably more people who consider themselves musicians now than ever before, the actual consumption of music has become completely passive. Michael Tilson Thomas, music director of the San Francisco Symphony, composer and new music advocate, once said that he thought that because nobody sings anymore, people have been losing contact with the emotional significance of the notes. As a result, he thought that many people now heard music as a collection of sounds, turning all music into percussion music. This doesn’t mean that the music is devoid of expression or nuance, but it does mean there is a general apathy toward tonal nuance.

This, I think, is most apparent in pop music, dance music, hip-hop, rock, and most commercial genres, but it is also apparent in Classical music. Minimalism, though no doubt chemically inspired initially, quickly became a serious discourse. Its popularity was also derived from its urban roots. John Cage talks about all the (urban) sounds around him, with a special love for the sound of traffic. This background hum of electrical, mechanical and other activity seems to be the very essence of Minimalism. Not much tonal nuance in traffic though. In fact, the numbing trance-like sameness of Minimalism is almost the antithesis of emotional nuance, though there is a cumulative aspect to the music that can be quite powerful. The pan-diatonicism and pan-metricism with which the style began quickly became highly structured multi-leveled hierarchies. Composers quickly saw the potential in the style for the organization of pure sound. Multiple layers of minimally changing sound ideas allowed composers to organize on several metric hierarchical levels at once. John Adams, for instance, has used Minimalism to create huge, intricate, almost “maximal” compositional structures. Composers essentially turned meter and texture into the new tonality. Specific sounds became structurally significant simply by when, where, and how prominently they were used.

Traffic conductor
Italian Traffic Conductor

But this kind of use of sounds, both musical and nonmusical, has a drawback; it demands meaning. A musical representation of an urban milieu is not enough reason to group random sounds together. There has to be a reason to choose which sounds are played together, and which ones aren’t. Why start here? Why end there? Do the sounds clash? Do they blend? Composers can’t really write what used to be called “pure music” with sound. It demands justification, otherwise, it just “is.”

Because of this, many composers started to use certain sounds for their cultural significance. This included using styles or direct quotes from other composers. One of the first (and still one of the best) uses of this technique appeared in the “Scherzo” movement of Berio’s Sinfonia (1968-9), which is a masterpiece. But recording artists have been using “samples,” “mash-ups,” and “remixes” now for over thirty years. This may solve the problem of meaning (and can be really interesting), but it doesn’t provide the same kind of direct emotional involvement that people are used to enjoying from the music they listen to.

This quandary of meaning and expression is not a problem facing only Minimalism and other sound-based music; it is a problem with all music constructed in “layers.” Composers have always composed in layers to a certain extent, but I am talking about independent layers. Today, composing with layers of music has become the norm. It started with multi-track tape recorders. That methodology was brought wholesale into computer sequencing and digital recording, and has worked its way into written music as well. Composers have toyed with the idea of juxtaposing unrelated musical materials for hundreds of years. Take the offstage band in Mozart’s Don Juan, the converging marching bands in Ives’ Decoration Day, or the unrelated layers of his Unanswered Question. Of course, Mozart’s layers are perfectly integrated harmonically, even if they are in different meters, but the Ives’ layers are unrelated in every way except meaning.

Stravinsky is another composer who explored the idea of compositional layers early in his career. The opening of the Rite of Spring and in fact, the entire Part One, is a textbook example of compositional layers. (Part Two is much more linear.) It is also very effective and some of my favorite music! I have always felt, however, that the reason Stravinsky abandoned this approach was not because he had to escape through a back window, and not because of World War I and the fact he was broke, but because he saw the limitations of this approach both structurally and expressively.

One of the most interesting parts of this phenomenon deals with popular music. Popular music has always been rhythmic, but since the emergence of rock and the infusion of blues and other African influences, the music has adopted a more ethnic cultural outlook. Music in Western countries generally tends to be well integrated, with melody, harmony, and rhythm working together as a whole. Music in much of the rest of the world tends to be set up as a vehicle for individual expression set against a rather static and unchanging background. This could be a drone, a repeating rhythm or pattern, or a combination of the two. Popular music genres seem to be adopting this modal more and more. Vocal lines and solos are where all the expression is; the instrumental parts are the big bad unchanging world. This is a huge exaggeration, of course, but it seems to be one of the common and most successful answers to the problem of creating music with sound and not notes. And the music is even more rhythmic today. Hip-hop has become an art of sound collage. Of course, pop music always has words. There is never any doubt what it is about.

The drawback is that instrumental music is increasingly being pushed into the background. On one hand this has led to some very imaginative music for TV and Film, but on the other, it has led to some less than thrilling attempts at Classical music. New sound-based Classical music does well when it has an exciting soloist grabbing the audience’s attention, and has had success with new opera, dance, and video, but it is struggling getting its audience to pay attention to sound-based instrumental music in its own right. I don’t have an answer for this. But it would be a good idea for a composer to remember that a sound collage is exactly what the audience hears everyday when they step outside. In order to get an audience’s attention these days, composers must have something in the foreground. If not a soloist, or even a melody, then at least something front and center – electronics, whale songs, video, dance or some other “hook!” Otherwise, to the audience, the music sounds just like their real world and there is no reason to listen.

Does anybody care about tonal organization anymore?

Every composer has a different answer

 

Atonality, as a replacement for tonality, I consider to be a failed experiment for the most part. Today for someone to criticize music as atonal seems rather archaic. It’s not that composers are writing more music that is tonal or atonal (though some indeed are doing so), but it is more that composers are just no longer very interested in that sort of organizational manipulation. Composers organize their music, of course, but not in the same way as composers writing in the great age of tonal music, or atonal music for that matter. In general, music today seems less linear and more environmental. Composers still tell stories, but it is usually done more as background music rather than with an interaction of musical characters.

Tonality developed at the beginning of the Baroque Period in response to the need for a way to organize instrumental music. Until then, written music was primarily vocal and was organized around the text. Though Renaissance music was tonal “sounding,” its sense of key (and musical structure) was entirely based on the emotional (and sometimes literal) impact of the text. Baroque composers writing instrumental music decided, with no words to fall back on, to make the music about the key and gradually developed a large interrelated structure of key relationships. Then they also borrowed from Classical Rhetoric and created “musical subjects” upon which they could expound.

Though the Rhetorical characteristic has remained nearly to the present day, the tonal aspect was challenged early in the 1900’s and remained a source of contention among not just composers, but all musicians. Though composers were at first interested in finding a replacement for the system of tonality, gradually the approach to pitch became just another original aspect of how an individual composer would organize his or her music. Often the approach would vary from piece to piece by the same composer.

But still, the way we listen to notes and their relationship to each other has not changed much, even if composers are using and organizing them in different ways. I believe it is possible to treat pitches as sounds, in the same way you would write for a percussion ensemble, for instance.   But the composer must be careful to keep the pitches identified as individual units, which is not easy. The (pitched) music of Edgard Varése is probably the best example of this that I can think of, but still, you hear a (tonal) relationship between the pitches he uses, even if they are treated as static sounds. I don’t think you can change the way people hear the relationship between the notes themselves.

Serialism, music using the twelve-tone method, tried to organize music in a different way. It tried to replace a tonal relationship with one based on order. I have no problem with the effort; I just don’t think it worked. It was a very versatile technique, and fed directly into the creative imagination of several composers, but it now seems rather dated. Its problem was that it was, at best, only barely detectible in the music. Because you couldn’t hear the ordered relationships of twelve-tone rows, you tried to hear the music the way you normally would.  Listeners still try to hear tonal relationships.  If the method was more obvious that might not be the case, but it just isn’t.  You can take tonality out of the music, however, you can’t take it out of the listener.

In many pieces, serialism seems to neutralize tonal relationships with speed. The composer seems to circulate through the twelve tones so quickly as to cause the listener to experience tonal vertigo. I think it is this overloaded tonal dizziness that most listeners associate with atonality. It is like a cat in a speeding car; he is born to detect motion, but the whole world is moving!

An interesting and somewhat quaint description of tonality and serialism appears in The Book of Laughter and Forgetting, by the Czech author Milan Kundera. A character in the story, who happens to be a pianist, relates how his father had taught him tonality. The tonic was the king, and the dominant and subdominant are his right-hand men. All the other notes were members of the court, and each had its own relationship to the king. But each note also had its own court, with its own relationships. A composition, therefore, was a drama played out among all these players with intrigue and romance, and even occasionally the threat of treason. He then goes on to criticize twelve-tone music as being like Socialism by trying, and not succeeding, to make everybody the same. Kundera was not a big fan of Socialism.

It’s my opinion that one of serialism’s fatal flaws is its blind acceptance of enharmonic equal temperament as truth. Declaring all F#’s and Gb’s as identical severely restricts the variety and scope of tonal possibilities available. It also clearly ignores how Western ears hear tonal color.

Even on an equal-tempered piano, we hear pitches as being a sharp or flat based on the context in which they appear. This is often demonstrated melodically (C# moves to D, Db moves to C, etc.), but is also true harmonically. If you play the two chords below, alternating back and forth, the F# and the Gb are clearly different notes, even though they are exactly the same frequency!

2 chords2The first chord opens outward as the resonance and surrounding notes create a clear F#. In the second chord, however, the Bb and Eb clearly redefine the target note as a Gb, which seems to contract back toward the same C major chord in the left hand, creating a completely different effect.

Even though the pitch is the same, how we perceive the pitch is different because of the surrounding environment. Most atonal writing either ignores this, or tries to neutralize it by making the music so dissonant that the relationships are of little consequence. Making tonal relationships moot can be very effective, in, for instance, the early music of György Ligeti or Krzysztof Penderecki. But writing tonal relationships and then ignoring them is a questionable compositional practice that promotes listener confusion and frustration. It is a practice that a composer uses at his own peril.

 

Waiting into the Night

An album exploring the tragedy of worry

Waiting into the Night coverThis album of spontaneously composed piano music follows the unfortunate trail of worry through several different situations. It is usually the worry and not the situations that make things uncomfortable. Whether obsession, jealousy, phobia, or guilt, the formula never seems to end well. Often tinged with love, wrought with fear, and infused with a distinct lack of self confidence, the reaction usually causes more pain than the original action.

The music is somber and often sad but not melodramatic. It also has a number of moments of elegance and beauty, as much of the subject matter it touches is meaningful. Personally, worry has not played an important role in my own life, but I have seen enough of it in my friends and loved ones to know its pain and consequences. I tend to worry more about my own abilities than the actions of others.

1. Obsession. The first track explores the poison of obsession. Though I tend to think most good musicians tend to be rather OCD anyway, a real obsession is cancerous. The track starts with some passionate sweeps of inquiry, but quickly becomes infatuated with a descending fourth and will not let it go.
2. Waiting Into the Night. The title track takes us through the daydreaming, insecurities, fears and anticipations of waiting alone. The longer you wait, the worse the result, which is often much worse than the reason you’re waiting.
3. All is Forgiven, Don’t Do It Again. This is probably the most volatile track of the set, but also has some of the most touching sequences. Love, when accompanied by fear, makes for some difficult moments.
4. Woulda Coulda Shoulda. Worry can also extend into the past. If only . . . It tends to make you feel that you have already doomed yourself to disaster. A healthy dose of the present is the only cure. “A journey of a thousand miles begins beneath your feet.”
5. The Monster Under the Bed. In a book of vignettes about music practicing, I remember a short image by Itzhak Perlman. He said those passages that you have not fully mastered are like monsters under the bed. They come out to get you at the worst possible time. The same could be said about any ignored problem.
6. Romance and Regret. Nothing is sadder than worrying when things go right! Falling in love is one of those moments.

This album was recorded at my home in Phoenix, Arizona in the autumn of 2010.

Changing music from events to processes

It changes the way music is organized and experienced

I first became aware of the role of emotional oscillation in music sometime around 1980, through the work of Manfred Clynes. (See my blog post on Music and Emotion.) His research suggested emotion was expressed through music using very specific oscillations of intensity and release. After becoming acquainted with his work, I challenged myself with the question of how this was accomplished in music.

Oscillations, or waves, form the very basis of music through sound, but how the music is performed or created to convey a specific emotional oscillation is a little different. Sound by itself does not possess these qualities though, of course, the voice, for instance, is very inflective. I had to examine the relationship between sounds to find the amount of motion necessary to express waves of emotion, which can vary from less than a second to over five seconds. To express these relationships you need at least two dimensions. One is of course time, but the other would need to be a musical field or parameter which has defined polarities, i.e., high and low registers or loud and soft dynamics. Oscillations could take place on single notes (i.e., crescendo/diminuendo or a glissando) but would primarily take place through the comparison of the relationship between separate events. This is not usually perceived consciously by the listener, and often falls more into the realm of performance rather than composition. But still, there are oscillating parameters that are commonly manipulated by composers. In fact, once I started to look for them, I found so many that it quickly became apparent I would not be able to keep track of them all at any given moment.

I began to think about the possibility of creating music using verbs instead of nouns.

Music is traditionally analyzed and organized according to its identifiable items: Keys, chords, motives, rhythms, etc. These items are given status or function (i.e., primary, secondary, cadential, etc.) and are often organized into hierarchies. Some hierarchies are traditional and enveloping, such as tonal and metric hierarchies, and others are set forth by the composer relating directly to the structure of a specific work. But my search for oscillating parameters had me now looking for processes instead of items. I began to think about the possibility of creating music using verbs instead of nouns.

If you are organizing music around specific items, you must of course play and use those specific items. Oscillating parameters, however, are in use all of the time. Sometimes they are prominent, sometimes they are more neutral, but they are always available! A structure using these parameters would consider which ones are being used prominently and when. It would also keep track of the types of emotional content being expressed. This is not only a very broad spectrum of possibilities; it is also a very different kind of spectrum. The expressive parameters will be changing quite a bit, but the structural parameters will likely be those that remain static for a while (i.e., upper register, very soft or loud, all the same articulation, all the same color or chord or scale). In a structure of this type, the actual items of musical material carry less importance, though they can be organized traditionally, if that is preferred.

I also turned to improvisation because it is honest! The music I am playing, and emotions I am expressing, are actually being experienced.

My interest in musical processes eventually led to my exploration of process in both philosophy (i.e., Alfred North Whitehead and Charles Hartshorne) and Eastern Religions (Buddhism and Taoism). I don’t profess to have learned a great deal about any of these subjects, but my inquiries did turn my artistic activity in a different direction, namely, toward improvisation. Improvisation, being a realtime activity, allows for a much more acute awareness of these emotional oscillations. In fact, they are a constant source of inspiration. It also allows for continual exploration of identified oscillating parameters. The realtime free flow of ideas itself is the epitome of process and the artistic antithesis of constructivism. I also turned to improvisation because it is honest! The music I am playing, and emotions I am expressing, are actually being experienced. Not every musical listener will be necessarily interested in the emotions I am expressing, no matter how well they are expressed. However, I am much more comfortable expressing real emotion than conjuring up a contrived feeling through the manipulation of a musical magic show.

Listening to music as a process allows you to focus on small-scale momentary expression and yet make a note when new parameters come into play. You become more aware of increases and releases of intensity and their interplay, expressed often simultaneously in different parameters. In fact, music allows for multiple expression of the same parameter in different voices. There is never a lack of things to listen to, but it is not the same kind of listening. It is not a matter of keeping track of ideas and their manipulations; it is a continual unfolding of expressive creativity. It is not the usual intellectual exercise; it is a sequence of emotional experiences. It does not always have a point, but it is often well worth knowing.

Lessons learned from transcribing improvisations

The limits of music notation and the structure of spontaneity

Despite serious reservations about the merits of transcribing my improvisations, I have nevertheless done so, off and on, for forty years. These days, because I usually record to a MIDI file, I am able to easily access all the notes that I played and I have a good picture of the music in what’s known as a “piano roll” representation on the computer. But because I do not record with a click track, the notational algorithms of the various recording programs are rendered nearly useless. However, I have been transcribing my improvisations since before there were computers to capture them. My early efforts at transcription, from reel-to-reel tape recorders at half speed, taught me many things about both music notation and myself that I don’t think I would have learned otherwise.

The first thing I realized was that nearly all music that is notated was conceived that way. Composers are taught to write music deductively; that is, they are taught to derive more music from smaller bits of music whether it is motives, sets, sounds, or whatever. This process is carried out on paper (or more often on computer these days) and is done using music that is already notated. Even though music notation has been greatly expanded and enhanced these days with graphs and other formats, it is still an expanded use and development of ideas that are already in written form. Music is also taught in this written form, and so composers naturally have been conceiving of music in this way for hundreds of years.

I began to understand that, like mathematics, rhythm and pulse, though very useful tools, were not real in themselves.

When I first started to improvise, I used the ideas that I knew. I played in keys, meters, tempi, etc., but soon began to realize that that wasn’t really necessary. I found I didn’t need to think in a meter, I could think in phrases. I used a concept I called “macrometer” in which I thought of the focal point of the phrase as the “downbeat” and the rest of the music as leading either toward or away from that point. When I tried to transcribe these pieces, I found that putting the music back into traditional metric structures was difficult. Not only was it difficult, but it also could be done a number of different ways! I found that meter was a very fluid concept and not the musical foundation I thought it was. I began to understand that, like mathematics, rhythm and pulse, though very useful tools, were not real in themselves. They were concepts, but do not actually exist outside of the music that defines them. The pulse is defined by the music and not the other way around. This has been a very helpful concept to understand in ensemble playing as well. Members of an ensemble are not following the pulse, they are following each other! Collectively they are defining the pulse and the rhythm, not the other way around.

Tempo is also quite fluid. While transcribing improvisations, I found metric modulations, rubati, multiple tempo referencing (referring back to previous tempi) all turn out to be common and make the music quite complicated to notate. Because I conceived of the music using phrases instead of meter, tempo rubati happen often and are difficult to deal with. I still have not worked out a very good way to transcribe rubati. Recently, I tried transcribing all the rhythm against a fixed pulse so that different tempi were notated as tuplets or different note lengths. The method is more accurate but it is complicated, and the internal logic of the music becomes obscured. The difficulty of transcribing abstract rhythms and tempi has been a continuing problem and has caused me to return to the drawing board many times. I am beginning to think maybe I should be looking somewhere else.

I have heard conductors tell me to play exactly what the composer wrote my whole life, but a computer really does play what is written and it sounds terrible.

When I started using a computer and used a software program to play back my notation, I began to realize how very generalized music notation really is. I have heard conductors tell me to play exactly what the composer wrote my whole life, but a computer really does play what is written and it sounds terrible. There is no tempo inflection, no dynamic shading, no phrasing, no balancing, no shading or coloring, nothing other than the notes on the page, some articulations, and six or seven volume levels. To get the program to play my written notation so that it sounded like my improvisation took so many tempo markings, articulations, and dynamics that the music became hopelessly complicated and over-marked. I then would try to back off and leave some of them out, but where do I start? Classical music performers, especially pianists, interpret music by adding these things to the more generalized representation that a traditional composer writes. It is very difficult to try to make a recorded performance less specific and more generalized! I must try to imagine how much notation a performer would need to make what I actually did as an improvisation a legitimate interpretation. This is not music – it’s psychology!

Some of the most interesting things I learned from doing transcriptions were about structure, musical material, and memory. It is perhaps not very helpful to say that improvisational structure is “organic,” but that is the best word for it. The way the music is organized is not hierarchical but “linked.” New phrases both react to previous phrases and borrow material from them. Musical ideas seem to hang around for several phrases and then give way to newer ideas. Sometimes older ideas would be referenced, but not regularly. A new idea would be like throwing a stone in the water; it would ripple strongly for a few phrases and then peter out, giving way to newer material. There often seemed to be a subconscious attempt to balance new material with old material, though that pendulum would swing in either direction from time to time. “Organic” in this sense means a gradual unfolding of new material mixed with and as a reaction to older material.

Before I went all in on improvisation, I went through a period in which I would use an improvisation to craft a larger composition. What I tended to do with my improvised phrases, when I used them in my composition, was to stretch or extend them into larger phrases or sections. In the meantime, when I wasn’t composing, I would continue to improvise. However, the work I was doing in my composition slowly worked its way into my improvisation to the point where I no longer felt that lengthening or extending the phrases was necessary. It was at this point that my improvisation became my composition.

However, this “organic” structure was not just one continual process. There were sections and larger sections that were identified by texture, cadential syntax, or other distinctive changes. I never am aware of the larger structure while improvising, though I am aware of the changes, which I often identify as opportunities. I do often have a certain “feeling” about where I am within a structure, somewhat analogous to the feeling of direction you get when hiking in a forest. Of course, sometimes I end up wandering in circles, but I don’t transcribe or even save those improvisations!

When you are composing and building your musical structure with motives or other types of material, that building-block material doesn’t change. Any alteration that is done would be inferred as deliberate, which implies “with good reason.” Even if you did decide to “transform” the material, it almost always would remain recognizable. There is little reason to not do it that way. When you are improvising, however, you must rely upon your memory, and memory is fickle and impressionable, especially when distracted by the constant act of creation. What you remember from what you have played may not be its most distinctive characteristic, or maybe you don’t remember all of it. You may get the intervals right but not the rhythm, or vice versa. And when improvising, the music is much more likely to be altered by context, not to mention an occasional accident.

As a result, the musical ideas change. The ideas that do appear seem to “evolve” out of what comes before. Sometimes, referencing that material is identifiable, but sometimes it is not. It is a little like the childhood game of Pass The Secret, where you whisper something to the next person and they to the next until it returns to the original person completely changed. [A fun variation on this game is to copy a phrase or story (a joke is especially good) into a translation program and take it through several languages before translating it back to the original language!) When we retell or reference something, we often tell it in a different way. In music, I have come to the point where I think this type of development is more natural. The music grows, instead of being constructed from identical musical bricks. To me this feels more honest, while constructed music feels somewhat affected. Nowadays, I grow weary when I hear composers using the same material all the time. When you do a lot of improvising, composed music sometimes begins to sound rather “contrived.” Such is life.