Classical Music is a Visual Art

By contemporary marketing standards, both Classical Music and Jazz are considered genres or styles. The number of genres and sub-genres listed by music services is mind-boggling. I can’t even pronounce some of them, let alone know what they sound like. But unlike most genres, Classical Music and Jazz are more defined by their procedures than by their sound or style. Both have a long history, and both now have well-established means of apprenticeship. I will discuss the nature of Jazz and improvisation at some other time, but would now like to discuss the nature of Classical music, how it has evolved, and how it has affected my creativity.

visual-musicWhat makes Classical Music “Classical,” beyond anything else, is the fact that it is written down. Classical musicians can and do play any “style” or “genre” of music, as long as it is in written form. I think nearly every characteristic you can mention about Classical Music can be traced to the fact that it is Visual. Of course, it is true that for nearly a thousand years its written form has been an effective way of preserving it. But think about it, music has been passed down from one generation to another in every culture ever discovered, yet only European culture felt it necessary to write it down.

Music is an auditory phenomenon. Having music preserved in a visual format is beyond extraordinary. It changes our whole concept of it. For the rest of the world, music is an experience, but for Classical musicians, it is a “thing.” It has depth and breadth; it occupies space, and all of it exists at once. Accordingly, any part of it may be accessed at any time to be discussed, practiced, or even changed. As a result, every single note is susceptible to analysis, meaning, or criticism. You can talk about it as you would a visual artwork, or more often, a book. Of course, other arts have also been written down; drama has been in written form for 2,500 years! Choreography has a written shorthand too, though it never became much more than a memory tool. Visual art does not, of course, because the artist creates the artwork himself. But imagine if it did. Imagine if Leonardo da Vinci had written instructions for the Mona Lisa; the variety and number of Mona Lisa’s would be spectacular. Or not, because maybe the instructions by themselves would not be as inspiring without da Vinci’s realization.

Classical music is organized around ideals; this is what makes it truly “Classical.” (Not the fact that it is old!)

Because Classical music is visual, it has adopted many of the characteristics of other written art forms. It has become logically and dramatically organized, like literature. Its inner parts have become mathematically structured, like architecture. But most importantly, it has adopted Western philosophical principles as truth. Classical music is organized around ideals; this is what makes it truly “Classical.” (Not the fact that it is old!) It has ideals of rhythm, tone, balance, intonation, and structure that are absolutely taken for granted. How could a composer write a complicated score if he or she didn’t know how the rhythm would be played, or notes, or even how the instruments were going to sound? Classical musicians sublimate their individualism to their musical idealism. Even individual musical expression and musicianship are considered ideals.

Above all, a Classical musician strives for the ideal of perfection. It can be an obsession. I once heard a story about Vladimir Horowitz, where he was listening to a recording of one of his recitals and, after about a half an hour, he suddenly grimaced. When asked what the matter was he said, “That was where I hit that “g” wrong.”

Classical musicians are expected to have their own ideas on style and interpretation, but the differences in style and interpretation in Classical Music are minute compared to that of Popular Music. A Popular musician tries to create a style that is individual, no matter what the genre, while Classical musicians try to all play essentially the same way. Anybody can tell the difference between Frank Sinatra and Bob Dylan, even if they were singing the same song, but only an expert can identify different Classical soloists or ensembles.

For a Classical musician, the word “music” often refers to its written form, as in “I left the music in the car.” This borders on silly, when you think about it. But in reality, the “real” music has become a concept. The Beethoven Piano Sonatas have become ideals themselves. It is like Plato’s Cave Analogy, what we hear are the shadows on the cave wall. The ideal is, in itself, an interpretation of a written form, not an aural one, which makes it another step removed. This is why the institution of Classical music continues to play the same music over and over. It is tradition; it is an attempt at achieving perfection. It is like an athletic feat and one can always do it better. It has become something other than just music.

Yet, to non-Classical musicians and listeners, that is exactly what Classical Music is, just music. That is where New Classical Music and Composition come in. New music is listened to in a different way. It is heard for its style, its content, its cultural context, its originality, its innovation, and simply whether it’s liked or not. These kinds of questions are not usually addressed at a Classical concert; the quality of the music has already been settled. This means that to play New Music to a Classical audience is to already start with two strikes, the musicians and the audience. To be successful, a composer has to write something the performers feel comfortable playing and/or something the audience feels comfortable listening to; either of which, these days, involves a pretty drastic restriction in creativity. If a new piece is neither comfortable to play nor to listen to, then it REALLY has to be good! But even if a composer were to write a piece that everybody loved, that doesn’t guarantee that the piece of music will become part of the Classical Repertoire and reach the status of an ideal. That determination depends on cultural whim and luck, it is well beyond a composer’s control.

Composers imagined new music of great imagination in a popular vein, but that is not what happened.

Today, symphony orchestras play a lot of Popular Music. The Phoenix Symphony plays Popular Music at least half the time, maybe more. There was a time when some composers thought Popular styles and music would save Classical music institutions, and in a sense, it has. Composers such as Aaron Copland and Leonard Bernstein led a push for a more popular style. Gunther Schuller led a push for a fusion between Classical Music and Jazz. Composers imagined new music of great imagination in a popular vein, but that is not what happened. Just like the Classical Music it plays, symphony orchestras (primarily) play music from Popular artists that are already famous. There is almost no originality, but everyone is happy – performers, audience, and management.

To me, this is why creative New Classical Music of the last half-century or so has tended to cultivate not only its own audience, but also its own performers. Classical music (as well as Popular music) has ceased to embody the stylistic progressive evolution that characterized its earlier periods. “In vogue” has become somewhat of a non sequitur. Since the loosening up of the distribution of recordings, and especially since the Internet, all music has developed a stylistic multiplicity that would have been hard to imagine even fifty years ago. These days, not only are some Classical musicians only playing New Music (and making a living!), but some also do their own arrangements of other styles of music, or even write their own music. Some Classical performers are even improvising. The amount of cross-fertilization of musical style and technique has almost reached the level of individual preference. Even with all those identified genres, the most creative composers and musicians are still falling into the cracks. Being strikingly creative and fitting into a mold always seem to be mutually exclusive.

brush-portrait3-fb-banner-copyIt is against this backdrop that I made my decision to pursue improvisation as my main creative outlet. For me, the Classical Music experience was too distant; I was looking for something more personal both as a composer and a performer. But I don’t see improvisation as a spontaneous Classical performance technique or real-time composition. It is its own artistic discipline with its own aesthetic and fundamentals. But improvisation is fueled by intuition, and my intuition is primed by my experience. I don’t need that experience to improvise, but my experience does make my improvisation distinctive. It is that distinction which I mean to exploit.

My music is also meant to take advantage of the one-to-one relationship between artist and listener that has become the norm in the Digital Age. Though I can and do improvise live in concert, I don’t consider that to be the main thrust of my creativity or career. I consider my art to be more private than public. It is more conversation than lecture. For me, improvisation has become the perfect format, and in recording that improvisation and making it available online, I have found the perfect vehicle.

Of the Bells Bells Bells

My most recent album of piano improvisation reverberates through some literary terrain.

Of the Bells Bells Bells has a somewhat different and more complex history than most of my albums. For most of my albums, I have used tracks that were recorded at roughly the same time.   Sometimes, they were recorded within a day or two. In the case of Night Drift, they were recorded all on the same night. But for Of the Bells Bells Bells, I took tracks that were recorded more than a year apart.

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Clicking on the album cover will take you to CD Baby where you can sample entire tracks.

One of the realities of improvisation is that once it’s played, it’s gone. If something I play is bad, luckily it’s gone; if something I play is good, well, it’s gone too. Good news, bad news. Dealing with this situation is one of the lessons of improvisation, and helps alleviate any stress that might surface about not knowing what you are going to play next. After a while, it becomes pretty easy to keep a low-key attitude, and that leaves me free to relax and play on the edge of my imagination.

However, this all changes when it is time to record. Recording can become quite stressful because I can easily allow a judgmental attitude to creep in and divert my attention from what I am doing. I can’t fool myself; I know it’s not gone. Several years ago, I realized that I couldn’t record something and then go back and listen to it, as it would haunt me when I returned to record again. Unlike a Classical recording, I couldn’t go back and re-record it to play it better. And it’s not really about my playing anyway, it’s about the music. But the temptation is always there.

So I have developed a number of habits that allow me to continue to play recording sessions over the course of a few days or weeks. One of my recording habits is to play when I am not working. I need to be able to devote my full attention to it. My work schedule naturally has holes that I can use for this, but many of them are filled with other activities. So I have found that the least stressful time for me to record is during the summer, as I have about three months off. If I have a week or two during the season sometimes I will go to my cabin where I can be in seclusion, which has also worked, but usually I record in the summer.

I will record for a few days, or even weeks, but only about once a year. Recording is quite exhausting, and after a while I feel “played out.” I don’t listen to my takes for about a year afterward. I don’t want to be able to remember playing them. I need to make a fresh assessment. This is one reason why my albums were recorded a few years before I released them. The process takes some time.

On a whim I googled “five bells” and found a poem of the same name by an Australian poet, Kenneth Slessor

So when I was done editing tracks done in the fall of 2009, I had three good tracks left. In the summer of 2010, instead of recording, I had to work on a commission for an orchestral piece. I usually use an improvisation as the basis for my written pieces, and since I had these three good improvisations left over, I chose one of them as a model the orchestra piece. As I was transcribing and editing the music for the commission, I noticed that two climax points featured five bell-like strokes. On a whim, I googled “Five Bells” and found a poem of the same name by an Australian poet, Kenneth Slessor. The poem discusses time and memory in reference to the death of the poet’s friend. I had already noticed that the end of the piece made a passing reference to Richard Strauss’s Death and Transfiguration, so I gave the piece a tentative title, Five Bells (that stuck) and finished the piece with that in mind.

I didn’t get back to improvisation until late that fall with, for reasons mentioned above, mixed results. When I edited the tracks a year or two later, I realized that there were only two tracks of the first few sessions that I thought were worth keeping. Since those two tracks did not have any other good tracks recorded in close proximity, I decided to combine them with the three tracks from 2009.

About the same time, I discovered another poem, “The Bells” by Edgar Allan Poe, and thought it made a good outline for an album. (I’m not the only composer to think this, Sergei Rachmaninov wrote a choral symphony on a Russian adaptation of the same poem.) Poe wrote the poem about the times in our lives that are punctuated by church bells, other than when the bells are calling the congregation to worship or just keeping time. Three of the four sections deal with moments in individual lives: birth, marriage, and death. The other section deals with the times when bells were used to call the community to action, such as a fire, or flood, or even warfare (as in the 1812 Overture for instance). Poe arranges the sections so that each event is darker than the last, placing the call for action between marriage and death. The bells jingle and tinkle for a birth, while they moan and groan for a death.  I preferred to arrange my album around just the individual life events, so I have transformed Poe’s call to action into something more akin to work or vocation. Also I did not wish to dwell on the darker aspects of aging. Poe wrote the poem near the end of his life and was already infirm. He was already thinking a lot about that last bell.

I wanted to use the improvisation I had used for Five Bells, and work the title and program into the album plan. Poe had given me four stages of life; to that I added “Coming of Age.” The resulting improvisations are: “One Bell” about birth, “Two Bells” about coming of age, “Three Bells” about marriage, “Four Bells” about vocation, and “Five Bells” about death. I tried to choose the improvisation that best represented the subject matter.  The three earlier improvisations from 2009, each roughly ten minutes long, are the first, third, and fifth tracks. The second and fourth tracks, which are shorter, are from 2010.

One of the special features of Poe’s poem is his use of the sounds of his words, including the word “bell” itself, to give the sense of their ringing

One of the special features of Poe’s poem is his use of the sounds of his words, including the word “bell” itself, to give the sense of their ringing. The improvisations include many types of bell sounds themselves, which are a sound that I like and a sound that is very characteristic of the piano.

Of the Bells Bells Bells was released on Jan. 20, 2017, and is my fourteenth album of piano improvisation. It was recorded partly in Phoenix, AZ, and partly in my cabin outside of Ash Fork, AZ.

Making Jazz “Legit”

Jazz has been taking its shots lately. In a recent post for the webzine New Music Box, titled “In Defense of Jazz,” Patrick Zimmerli documents a whole litany of recent popular insults to jazz from sources as diverse as The Simpsons and Stephen Colbert on one hand, to a parody piece in the New Yorker on the other. Jazz takes criticism for its “wrong notes” and “crazy sounds,” for its unpopularity, and for taking itself so seriously. Zimmerli suggests that Jazz began to lose its way during the 1960’s and 70’s with 1) the rise of the jazz avant-garde, 2) the entrenchment of Jazz in the educational system, and 3) the rise of rock and roll, Beatlemania, and pop culture in general.

jazz-bass-copyPersonally, many of the most inspiring and moving performances I’ve ever witnessed have been from Jazz performers, but Zimmerli has a point. Jazz peaked in popularity in the 1940’s and 50’s but took a real nosedive in the 1960’s. Rock and Roll’s ascendency in popularity marginalized not only jazz, but all music with a “swing” tempo. He talks about the rise of Fusion Jazz, which has now been homogenized into Smooth Jazz, and how the steady beat and electronics didn’t ever really work. But frankly, I loved this era of Jazz. I was weaned on the music of Miles Davis, Weather Report, Herbie Hancock, Chick Corea, and Keith Jarrett. But he’s right, this music didn’t last, mostly because of Zimmerli’s second point: the institutionalization of Jazz. You can’t teach something that is happening now! Entrenching Jazz in the educational system guaranteed that students would be learning older styles and techniques. The rising stars weren’t playing Fusion, so it gradually became commercial.

Imbedding Jazz in education, however, did keep it alive, and it developed some outstanding players. The Phoenix Symphony was lucky last year to play with Wynton Marsalis and his Lincoln Center big band. I could not get over what incredible musicians these guys were, ALL of them. Marsalis turned out to be a real Jazz historian as well as phenomenal player (and composer). But really, a big band? It was a great experience and lots of fun, but I wouldn’t call it the cutting edge of pop culture.

As far as I can tell, Jazz has swapped being relevant for being an institution. For a couple of decades now, the forefront of pop culture has been a hazy multiplex anyway. “Fifteen minutes of fame” (Warhol) has been supplanted by “famous to fifteen people.” (Momus) I think Jazz can and is doing quite well in its own little corner of the universe, even if Madge Simpson does have to pay Lisa’s friends to go listen to Jazz with her!

For as long as I can remember, jazz players have been calling symphony players “legit,” as in “he’s a good soloist but he can play legit too!” I always feel that they must not realize how petrified Classical players are of improvising anything! It really is a mutual admiration society.

As for Jazz receiving criticism, I admit that a part of me wants to say, “If you don’t want to swim with the sharks, don’t get in the water!” In the case of the Jazz avant-garde, this is especially so. I remember well how, in the mid-1970’s, my roommate and I got hold of some records by Free Jazz disciples of John Coltrane and Ornette Coleman. After listening for a few minutes, my roommate said, “My God, that sounds like a zoo burning down!” It is an image I can’t shake.

But everything I’m hearing about jazz recently, I have also heard about Contemporary Classical Music. My colleagues in the Phoenix Symphony have always needled me about being a composer, and sometimes, concerning some of the pieces we’ve played, I have sided with them.

Even other composers have done their share of poking, and their needles can be sharp indeed. Several years ago, a composer named Kevin Hanlon was teaching at the University of Arizona (he’s now at SMU) while I was putting on concerts with the Arizona Composers Forum. He was a creative guy and had an impish sense of humor. He said he had several pieces that were “not serious.”

imposter-pict-2One in particular I remember was called “The Imposter.” In it, a piano quintet comes out on stage and begins a serious performance of an atonal, pointillist piece with intense concentration. After a couple of minutes, a man in a tux who is bound and gagged makes his way down the aisle, accompanied by muted shouts. The performance is halted and the first violinist jumps into the aisle, ungags the man, and converses for a few seconds. Then the violinist returns to the stage, walks over to the pianist and orders him to leave the stage. As the man who was gagged composes himself, the violinist explains that an imposter had assaulted the pianist, taken his place, and was just improvising. With the difficulty of the music and the amount of concentration involved, the rest of the ensemble had not noticed. All of this is funny enough, but the punch line comes when they restart the piece. The real piece was indistinguishable from the one with the imposter.

I, too, had an alter ego. I once received a letter addressed to “Gleem Dysloop.” Since it was addressed to my parent’s house, my mother saved it for me. She said it sent her into a laughing fit because it included, in two words, nearly every common typing error. It had two e’s instead of two n’s, an m instead of an n, d-y-s is s-t-a with your left hand moved to the right one key, misreading an o for a c, and typing only one l instead of two. So naturally the name stuck. In my twenties, I would use Dysloop as the reason to come up with all kinds of goofy ideas. For instance, one of Dysloop’s major works was The Isometric Ballet. For this the dancers would just flex their muscles according to the choreography, while the musicians would only think their parts. If you couldn’t hear or see anything, you just weren’t on the right wavelength.

Another of Dysloop’s signature works, the How Dry I Am Variations, featured what I found out later was one of P. D. Q. Bach’s favorite development techniques, endless repetition. I was lucky enough to play with Peter Schickele on a few of his passes through Phoenix, and I asked him why he didn’t harpoon contemporary music. “That’s too easy of a mark!” he said.

So, though Zimmerli’s article is worth reading, I don’t really believe Jazz needs defending. It is music; some is good, some is bad. Whether Jazz, Contemporary Classical Music, or any other genre, good music leaves a lasting impression and is worth doing and listening to.

Points of “Arrival”

Two or three weeks ago, now, I went to see the Science Fiction movie, Arrival. It’s definitely a movie worth seeing – insightful, intelligent, and surprisingly emotional. Without giving away too much of the movie, I can say that a sub-plot of the movie revolves around a rather obscure theory of linguistics, of all things, that says, “The languages we learn tend to shape the way we think.” I had run into this theory before in reference to translations of Chinese texts, especially older ones. The pictograms of Chinese are much more versatile than words in Western languages, and can be used as nearly any part of speech. This tends to lead to more verbs than nouns and more verbs as nouns. It tends to give the language more sense of process than a noun-rich language such as English, which emphasizes things.
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What struck me most about this theory was how similar it was to one of the axioms of the philosophy of Marshall McLuhan, that the tools with which we learn shape how we learn and think. (Or as he so famously stated, “The medium is the message.”) Language is, of course, a major tool but it’s only one of many.

McLuhan’s main interest was how the print-based society ushered in by Gutenberg was being supplanted by the electronic age emerging in the twentieth century. He claimed that a print-based culture was very linear and logical because written language, as printed, was very logically organized. He claimed the electronic age, where we learn from electronic media, presented many ideas and sensual data at once and therefore promoted a more intuitive but emotionally connected mode of thinking. His first book of many on the subject, Understanding Media, was published in the 1950’s and made a splash on the pop culture of the 1960’s. It had a very real effect on me and made me acutely aware of how I was thinking as much or more than what I was thinking.

McLuhan was a favorite philosopher of mine in my early twenties, as he seemed to help explain the social and especially artistic turmoil that was taking place at the time. Though he was not a reason for my interest in improvisation, I was quite aware that improvisation, as a methodology, was more associated with the electronic age and that written composition was more associated with the past.

In 1999, I wrote an orchestral work around one of McLuhan’s notions, that at the intersection of these two distinct cultures would be a seminal generation or two of thinkers who would be influenced by both cultures. As an example of this supercharged cultural hybrid, he pointed to people like Shakespeare, Michelangelo, Galileo, and Monteverdi who were able to combine the newly unleashed logicality of the Renaissance with the old intuitive sensibilities of the Middle Ages. The piece, Millennial Opening, simulates gates at the opening and closing of the era. The piece itself was a compositionally written work that was based on an improvisation, both in its musical material and its structure. It was truly a hybrid of the two creative modes of thought, stimulated by this intersection between cultures.

I had started to combine composition and improvisation in this way in 1993, and felt that I was onto something. I wrote several works during this period, but what I didn’t anticipate was that my own hybrid opening would also close. As I was writing compositions on my improvisations, I was also becoming more comfortable with improvisation. As my improvisations affected my writing, so my resulting compositions also affected my improvisation. The way I manipulated the improvised material worked its way into the improvisations to the point where I found myself as a composer trying to manipulate the manipulations

.Around 2003, these two trends met head-on. I wrote a couple of pieces that were not manipulations but variations on improvisations, and then I wrote a couple more pieces that were not much more than adapted transcriptions. I had reached a point where what I wanted to do compositionally and what I was improvising were similar enough that I no longer saw the point of filtering them through any sort of compositional process. I didn’t see the point of writing them down. Technically, aesthetically, and musically, they were basically the same.brush-portrait3-fb-banner-copy

Of course, I improvise on the piano, not string quartet or symphony orchestra. However, I could always base a work for another medium on an improvised piano transcription, and I have continued to do so. Certainly adapting and modifying improvised transcriptions is less trouble than composing from scratch, if less engaging, but the creative spirit will always find a way to affect just about anything it’s allowed to touch.

Beyond all else, a creative act is always a learning experience. You always remember the stuff you make up yourself. If how you learn is how you think, then how you create is an even more convincing inculcation. My improvisation has, in a sense, assimilated my compositional hybrid experience and become a hybrid of its own. When the linguistics professor in Arrival found herself being able to catch glimpses of her own future, it did not change how she experienced time, only how she thought about it. Improvisation has not changed my experience of music, but it has changed how I think about it, how I think about its creation, and how I see it’s role in my future.