Turns Out My Improvisation is Composition After All

Why I no longer call my music improvisation

For nearly two decades now I have been campaigning for the virtues of improvisation. Actually, I have been doing it most of my career, but since 1998 I have been putting my music where my mouth is and turning out albums of solo piano improvisation.

combo portrait2It is important to me that my music is created spontaneously, but for many others, it is of no consequence. Many musicians misunderstand what improvisation is, especially at the compositional level. Even such a creative icon as Miles Davis was quoted as saying he had “no idea” what Keith Jarrett was doing when he performed his solo improvisations. I have heard people say improvisation is “real-time composition” or, one of my favorites, “composition in motion,” but this is not really the case. Many people have said to me, “Well, at some point, all composition is improvisation.” Unfortunately, this couldn’t be further from the truth.

Composition is about ideas. It is about the methodical construction of music directly from those ideas, whether the ideas are musical or non-musical. Sometimes the ideas are subtle and seemingly unimportant, sometimes they are the whole point of the music. The ideas can be motivic or harmonic, or they can be philosophical. They can be a self-driven process, or they can follow a script, film, play, or dance. They can be about social comment or be completely introverted. Or they can be all of the above. And all of these ideas guide the choice of musical material, how it is developed, and what happens to it. Emotion and expression come into play, of course, but they are nearly always part of the overall plan. Composers develop musical plans, structural plans, and emotional plans. It is the same with writing a book or creating a movie, it is about “constructing” a work of art. Naturally, there are many moments of inspiration, some of them you never hear, but mostly the process falls into the category of Edison’s “one percent inspiration, ninety-nine percent perspiration.”

But it also turns out that improvisation is difficult to define and almost impossible to discern. If a musician is not playing from music, he could be playing from memory, or he could be playing by ear. Even if he is improvising, how much of what he is doing is spontaneous and how much is planned or familiar. It is impossible to tell. I’ve heard that Louis Armstrong worked out and practiced his solos in advance. I have played with several jazz soloists who played the same or nearly the same solo every night. I’ve talked with other musicians who have said that even during free-improvisation sets, the group will, over time, revert to those things that have worked before. This was true for me as well when I tried to do free improvisation gigs early in my career. So the only real way to tell whether a performer is improvising and truly creating new music on the spot is to ask him!

Most people consider improvisation to be a technique of performance. Often the standard by which to judge the quality of an improvisation is to decide to what extent the music does not sound improvised. But this means that the improvisation must sound “familiar,” which has a tendency to be rather inhibiting. Many suggest that improvisation is merely “stream of consciousness,” and some I have heard certainly is. But good improvisation is no more stream-of-consciousness than meditation is sleeping. Improvisation takes intense concentration and focus.

Improvisation differs from composition in that it is spontaneous. It is not “about spontaneity” (an idea); it is truly spontaneous. So what difference does that make? Primarily it means that you are listening to an “experience” instead of a presentation. It means that the focus and depth of the music is happening right now, and has not been reflected upon, perfected, and polished. This much is clear enough, but how does that make the music itself different? I had only a partial idea until I started transcribing my improvisations many years ago. Improvisation, indeed, handles the music differently. Instead of the music being “deduced” from another musical idea, it evolves within itself. It uses material that is actually played rather than referring back to material that was chosen beforehand. The focus of the music changes as the music evolves. The improviser “discovers” his or her material, and memory is not always perfect. Ideas, musical or otherwise, are induced and synthesized from the actual music itself. This suggests a different philosophical concept of time, cause and effect, specifics, and abstracts, and it also suggests the idea that change, relation, and juxtaposition is more fundamental than any abstract idea. As a performer, improvisation appeals to me primarily as a vehicle for expression. Music that is conceived in real time is as honest as it gets.

In the sample below, (“Place of the Butterflies”, from my album Night Drift) listen to how each musical phrase draws upon the previous phrase and feeds the one that follows. In Japan, there is a form of oral poetry called “linked verse” in which new stanzas of poetry (such as haiku) are linked to the last stanza in some way.

Though how my music is created is very important to me, it does not mean that I am haphazard or casual about how I treat it. Though every single note is spontaneously conceived, that does not stop me from editing the MIDI files or adapting them to different piano samples. I don’t use the same sounds while recording that I do when I am mastering so I must adapt my MIDI files to the samples and to the response of my keyboard. But I not only edit for my equipment and software, I edit to make sure the music is exactly what I want. I am a composer, and this is my only shot at the material. This has involved me making two (or more) shorter pieces out of one longer one, starting at a more interesting spot than I did originally, or even making cuts within a take (cutting 10 seconds can make a world of difference). Though these techniques are all common in both classical and jazz recordings, I have drawn heat from many improvisation purists for using them. To me, it is not about the performance, it is about the music. But I have finally decided that instead of trying to change the world, maybe I should just try to get people to listen to the music for what it is, and not for how it was conceived. So I no longer am going to call my music improvisation.

The final tipping point in my decision came not from the improvisation or jazz world, but from Classical composition. New Classical Music now readily accepts music that only exists as a recording. Many composers put out recordings with electronics, samples, field recordings or samples from other composers, real world sounds, etc. Some composers write site-specific works, even site-specific operas, and the imagination for what is included in music these days is vast. Improvisation in New Classical Music, with certain limitations, has become rather commonplace. My concern about the acceptability of my piano improvisation within this genre has become almost silly.

I mentioned before that I have transcribed my improvisations and performed them live. I have also transcribed and adapted them for other instruments, including orchestra. At that point, these works can no longer be considered improvisations by any stretch of the imagination. I have also come across other works that have been conceived as strictly for recording but have also since been adapted for live performance. One of my favorites is Steve Reich’s Violin Phase (1967), which was originally done with two tape recorders playing the same violin melody on two slightly different length tape loops, but the piece has been adapted and is now often done live. Here are two versions, one done solo with a computer Steve Reich, Violin Phase (solo violin with computer), and a second done with four solo violins Steve Reich, Violin Phase (four solo violins).

The Privatization of Music

Music has always been a social phenomenon. It has been essential in organizing groups of people to work, march, fight, or play together. Singing together strengthens the will and binds the faithful. Imagine what it would be like to pull, row, or work together without a concept of a regular beat. Drums and singing have always been a regular component of group activity. Music has arguably been one of the most essential ingredients in the development of human society and civilization. It exists in every known society.

In many societies, the musicians are simply members of the group involved in the activity. But in some societies, musicians have become specialized and professional. Even when performing, though, musicians are still involved in a social activity, even if the event itself (concert or other social activity) has become more formal.

However, recorded music began to change this dynamic somewhat. Though recorded music is still used in social situations (dance clubs and parties, movies, shows and other social activities where it has replaced live music, and also restaurants, supermarkets, elevators, exercise, and even yoga classes), in many other cases, people are listening to music by themselves. Though this is not really a new phenomenon (people have always played and sung music for their own enjoyment), the one-on-one relationship that people have developed with their chosen music has now become more the rule than the exception and is beginning to help change the music itself.

Recorded music eventually supplanted live music as the predominant form of music on the airwaves, first radio and then also television. But even though most people listened to the music in their own homes, it was still something to which everyone had access. It was a social event that was experienced privately. Though radio and TV were optional activities, they were a source of social binding. If you told someone that you did not have a TV or didn’t listen to the radio, you would be treated as if you had had a recent death in the family. “Oh, I’m sorry, I didn’t know.” People had their own record collections, but access to music was still strictly controlled and the records were mass-marketed.

earbudsBut with the Internet, iPods, smart phones, and exploding choices in cable and satellite TV and Radio, not to mention streaming sources, listening to music has become completely personalized. It is akin to the invention of movable type. Before Gutenberg, only a few people had books (or could read) and so everybody had essentially the same information. Because of this, most people within the society thought the same way. But after the development of printing, people learned to read and had a huge choice of literature. The result was an explosion of individuality because everyone read different books!

Now everybody listens to different music! I first noticed it when my children became teenagers. All of their friends had drastically different tastes in music. This was not the case when I was growing up. Some of their friends liked Broadway or movie music, some liked Classical, some had esoteric ethnic tastes, and popular music, itself, was beginning to divide into the hundreds of “genres” it is today. I remember my daughter telling me that one of her friends had stored five terabytes worth of music from Japanese Anime series! Everybody was “making his or her own taste” as one blogger puts it. My son and his girlfriend had a Y-connector on their ear-buds so they could listen to the same music. It was rather sweet, and very private, but still, I did own some pretty good speakers. Maybe it was good because I rarely had to listen to their music, but I’m a musician and WANTED to hear what they were listening to.

At any rate, this changed dynamic has influenced the way I think about the music I create. When speaking before a large audience, you have to be entertaining, and coherent, and you have to make sure you have something significant to say just to be invited to speak. But when you are in a private conversation, you are more low-key and informal, more personal and intimate, and “big ideas” are not as important as sincerity and the occasional insight. For a creative musician, these changes are huge. Sure, you can listen to a Wagner opera, or a marching band, or dance music, or any other socially derived music alone and be perfectly happy. But to take full advantage of the new dynamics of musical experience the music needs to be personal, not pompous. It needs to be a conversation, not a lecture. It needs to be expressive, not structured. A public building is an architectural monument, while a private conversation may take place at home, on a park bench, around a campfire, or even in bed.

It is a different dynamic between creator/musician and listener. It is closer to the relationship between composer and performer than the traditional relationship between performer and audience. When I play a Chopin nocturne at home, I am entering into a relationship between Chopin and myself. If I perform that nocturne in public, the dynamic is completely different.

For me, the perfect music for this sort of dynamic is individual improvisation. Group improvisation is more social and is more poignant for the improvisers than the audience. A group improvisation is best listened to when an individual hypothetically makes him- or herself a member of the group. But an individual improvisation is intimate, honest, and expressive. It is personal – take it or leave it. Though I have written chamber music, orchestral music and vocal music for many different concert and dramatic settings, I have more recently come to completely embrace this one-to-one dynamic. My solo piano improvisation has now become my major creative activity. It would be difficult for me to return.



Bridge to Nowhere

An album of piano improvisation that explores the idea of spiritual awakening.

I first heard the term “Bridge to Nowhere” during the 2008 US Presidential election in reference to the planned bridge to Gravina Island in Ketchikan, Alaska, but the term has been coined for several bridges around the world. Some other famous examples are in Norway, Kyoto, Japan, and outside Los Angeles in the San Gabriel Mountains. The artwork for this album is from a photo of a derelict bridge that appeared out of the fog on a train ride I took up the White Pass outside of Skagway, Alaska.

Bridge To Nowhere cover copyI am using “Bridge to Nowhere” as a metaphor for spiritual awakening. The experience is described in the literature of several religions and is characterized by replacing one’s image of oneself (ego) with an acceptance of one’s experience as oneself. It is a realization that we are not separate from the world. It is us, and we are it.

But the experience changes nothing except one’s attitude. Everything is the same. As the Buddhist Ch’ing-yüan puts it:

Before I had studied Zen for thirty years, I saw mountains as mountains, and waters as waters. When I arrived at a more intimate knowledge, I came to the point where I saw that mountains are not mountains, and waters are not waters. But now that I have got its very substance I am at rest. For it’s just that I see mountains once again as mountains, and waters once again as waters.

 I can’t say to have ever had this experience myself, but I have always been fascinated by what I have read about it. It is always described as a loss of self, or rather the loss of one’s image of oneself. It is sort of an intellectual and emotional suicide in order to accept the world as it is (or the world as God. depending on your viewpoint). It seems very risky. Mystical Christians have called it the “Dark Night of the Soul.”

My experience and link to understanding is through music. My music is spontaneous yet definitive. I am all the music I have played and experienced, but I also like to challenge myself creatively. It is not the same, but not different. “Not two, not one,” as the Buddhists would say.

The music in this album is more hopeful than hopeless. It is occasionally lonely, and even sometimes ominous, but is more interested in the journey than the outcome. The music is focused and detailed in a meandering sort of way. The world is beautiful, the bridge is beautiful, and nowhere is beautiful. Most of all, music is beautiful.

The tracks for this album were recorded in 2010 at my home in Phoenix, Arizona.

Bridge to Nowhere may be previewed on SoundCloud, YouTube, or CDBaby.

Music and Emotion

How the research of Manfred Clynes inspired and refocused my musical career

I was helping a friend of my son’s with her music theory. She was a first year theory student and her assignment was in figured bass. She was a sharp girl and seemed to have no problem with the material, but was obviously distracted. Finally, she shut the book and sighed. “I don’t care a thing about figured bass,” she said, “what I want to know is why, when I play Tchaikovsky’s Romeo and Juliet, it gets me EVERY SINGLE TIME?”

Clynes picSometime in the late 1970’s, I was in my doctor’s waiting room looking for something to read. I thumbed through a copy of Psychology Today (slim pickings) and discovered an article by Manfred Clynes. He had been doing research on emotion by asking subjects to think of situations that would cause them to feel love, joy, anger, etc., while recording their reactions as pressure on a finger sensor. I was struck by his intuitive knowledge that emotion was a timed phenomenon of tension and release. I later discovered that besides being a psychologist, neurologist, inventor, and computer whiz, he was also a concert pianist!

Subjects were able to generate emotions at first by visioning and later on their own, and Clynes was able to identify specific waveforms for a number of different emotions. These waveforms were the same among all of the subjects. Clynes then was able to secure a grant to test subjects of completely different cultures (Central Mexico, Japan, and Bali). His results were still the same. His research led him to presume that these waveforms, or sentic forms as he called them, were innately human and a part of the central nervous system. (Here is an article he wrote on sentic forms, with some illustrations.)

Being also a musician, he decided to play recorded music for his subjects. He found that the listeners responded emotionally to the music all in basically the same way, at the same points in the music, across different cultures. OK, now he had my attention.

As musicians, we know that we respond to music emotionally. It is part of the natural camaraderie between musicians. But it was news to find out that everybody responds to music in the same way, with the same emotions!

When Clynes first started experimenting with his finger-pressure device (sentograph), he had musicians “conduct” (on his device) while imagining different pieces of music silently. His first subjects were Pablo Casals and Rudolph Serkin, so he was not fooling around!  He soon found that a specific composer’s music generated a unique waveform that permeated all of his works.  A different composer, however, would elicit a different waveform. It was almost like a fingerprint. For a composer, this is very interesting!  For a performer, this helps explain why musicians can identify most composers after only a second of two of listening to their music.  Later, while doing his emotional research Clynes noted the interplay of the emotional waveforms with the previously noted composer waveforms and noticed some interesting results. In Middle-period Beethoven, for instance, which is often angry, the emotional waveforms usually ran counter to the composer waveforms; while in Beethoven’s later works, which can be nothing short of transcendent, the waveforms tended to run concurrently.

Clynes found these sentic forms, being biological, to be exceptionally specific. An expression of an emotion in music that wasn’t quite precise, would be perceived as less strong. If it is off a little more, the expression would be perceived as false or fake. Off even more and the emotion isn’t perceived at all. This speaks to the difference in “musicality” between performances. Musical expression turns out to be a very specific skill. Predictability also seemed to diminish the strength of the emotion. This speaks to the difference in skill among composers. Even emotional expression can become tedious! Tchaikovsky’s Romeo and Juliet, after probably 200 career performances, doesn’t get me “every single time” anymore, but it is still surprisingly affective even though I know exactly what is coming!

While working at the University of California at San Diego, Clynes developed a therapeutic discipline for emotionally disturbed patients that involved expressing a whole cycle of emotions with the assistance of his sentograph over a period of about thirty minutes. These sentic cycles are essentially both biofeedback and therapy. Learning to recognize, control, express, and develop intimate knowledge of these emotions, as well as allow patients to express and release these emotions in a safe environment, had a significant effect on patients. (These therapies are now readily available on the Internet.) Though the patients seemed to be getting better, however, the research ran counter to other research at the institution funded by drug companies and his funding was not renewed. After which, he was offered a position and lab in Sydney, Australia, where he concentrated more on music, emotion, and electronics.

At any rate, I was lucky that day in the doctor’s office that the doctor was quite a bit behind schedule and I was able to finish quite a bit of the article. I was so excited that I stole the magazine! A few years later, Clynes’ book Sentics – The Touch of Emotion was published and I ordered it. But I kept the magazine for many years, through a number of moves, and I may still have it somewhere.

No John, it’s not the sounds that are making love! Words and pictures don’t make love either, but they can break your heart!

As a professional performer, I have always known that it is emotion that makes music tick. Without emotion, there is no reason to listen to music at all. John Cage scoffed at the idea of emotion in music. He joked that some people thought the sounds were making love. No John, it’s not the sounds that are making love! Words and pictures don’t make love either, but they can break your heart! Music is sound, but it is sound in motion, and it’s the motion that is important. It is the ways that those sounds change which trigger our biologically wired emotional impulses. It is the verb, not the noun, where the action is.

Clynes has done some composing, but his musical interests are primarily interpretive. His later work involves programs that analyze music for its emotional content and shape the intonation, vibrato, and metrics to conform to that content. He wrote a program called “Superconductor” that allows someone to conduct a piece and alter it according to not only the tempo, but the emotional content contained in the conductor’s motions.

Though I can understand his excitement about how his work relates to musical interpretation, I am more interested in his theories from a creative standpoint. For me, he confirmed that emotion was the language of music. Emotional forms are very specific and unforgiving, but they are hard-wired into all of us so we already know what they are! How to create those forms in music takes a little skill, but whether or not the music is expressive takes more intuition than knowledge. Considering his research showed that composers are leaving an emotional record and a personal inner pulse within their music, it seemed to me that the most important characteristic for a composer to maintain should be honesty. At a time when music was being flooded with the importance of Ideas and Processes, it became clear to me that to keep an intimate knowledge and identification with the music I was creating was the only way to insure its emotional integrity.

I don’t think that the sound of the music is the only way music can have an emotional impact. Juxtaposition of style, texture, placement, social concerns, stark contrasts, and innumerable other techniques can all cause emotional involvement of a different sort by suggesting situations which trigger emotional memories, fears, or responses. But even by just manipulating the sound, I think there are still vast untapped resources for emotional expression.

As for that first year theory student, I was able to give her some hints about what was going on in the music, but mostly I just reassured her that she was on the right track. She had discovered the magic of music herself. Dr. Clynes has shown us the mechanism with which it gets us. It is up to the creative ingenuity of performers and composers to devise methods with which to deliver that magic to us all.

Disposable Music

Value in impermanence and depth of experience in improvisation

Improvisation has a disposability problem. Our (Western) civilization values longevity in general, and the art world is no exception. I sat on the Phoenix Arts Commission for a while in the 1990’s, which administers the city’s public art program. I made several attempts at convincing the other commissioners to consider commissioning music or another performing art as part of the public art program, but they could not get over the fact that after a single performance, the work’s visibility and association with the capital expenditure would vanish. A work of visual art is solid, always at the site, and a constant reminder of the commission’s insight. I never asked them about improvisation, but I am pretty sure it would have not received much more than a chuckle.

Because improvisation is impermanent, some people have a lot of trouble taking it seriously.

Because improvisation is impermanent, some people have a lot of trouble taking it seriously. Nobody carefully unwraps their candy bar because they are going to throw the packaging away, no matter how wasteful they think it is. We kick the tires and slam the doors when picking out a used car, but we don’t do that when calling a cab. The impermanence of improvisation bothered me for a while. I felt I had to turn my improvisations into written music for them to command the respect I wished them to have. I remember once entering a transcribed improvisation into a composition contest. When I received written comments from the judges afterward, I found that one judge had written, “It sounds like an improvisation!” I was a little unnerved.

Though I am a child of the 1960’s, I didn’t learn about Buddhism and Taoism until I was in my forties. I had returned to graduate school during shaky times in the symphony business, and was taking Composition lessons from Chinary Ung. He is a native of Cambodia with a Buddhist background, and I was having trouble communicating with him because we had different ideas about fundamental concepts such as creativity. To remedy this, I began reading about Buddhist, Zen, and Taoist philosophy and discovered an entirely different attitude about spontaneity and impermanence, not to mention desire, time, concentration, and ability. I knew that I was not the first Western artist to discover these ideas, but it opened up a whole dimension to many artistic movements I had not previously understood or paid much attention to.

dark-roseImpermanence, being a tenet of Buddhism, is one of the fundamental aesthetics of Asian art. Spontaneity is more important to Zen and Taoism, but is a staple of their art as well. The Japanese, in particular, have a special eye for spontaneity in poetry and visual art that I can’t say I fully understand. But as a musician, especially one who improvises, I do understand the magic of moments of inspiration, even in written music. In a sense, my attraction to music has always been about those magical moments. Though knowledge of music has enhanced some of these moments, it is their emotional content that drew me to music in the first place.

Eastern religious philosophy started to appear regularly in Western art in the middle of the last century, and has flowered in my lifetime. Impermanence in visual art such as ice or sand sculpture, moving or living artworks, not to mention movements such as Performance Art, have become rather commonplace. Improvisation in dance and drama, as well as music, is common and now rather widely respected. But still, it is the existence of photography and audio/video recording that has allowed these arts to flourish. The old adage, “If a tree falls in forest and no one hears it, does it make a sound?” is very real when it comes to impermanent art forms. Without audio and video their impermanence would be lost as well!

When I perform, it is generally for Classical audiences. I had an audience member ask me once, “Could you play that piece again?” I told her I could improvise a different piece, but not that one. “Hmmph,” she said. I asked if that was good or bad; she said, “I don’t know.”

The ability to improvise has always been considered a performance skill. There is no doubt that there is skill involved beyond the ability to play the instrument in the first place. However, my interest in improvisation has always been as a compositional technique. I had a long back-and-forth with a good composer once when he asked me if I was really improvising. He said that the shape of my pieces was always so good that he couldn’t imagine that happening without planning. I told him that this was one of the mysteries of improvising; the overall shape was not only intuitive, but also subconscious. I suspect being a Classical musician for fifty years has something to do with it though. I told him that the trick was to trust my urge to end when it felt right. There was no preplanning, and it didn’t always happen but that was all I could tell him. Different parts of a piece feel different, and when it is time to end, it’s time to end.

Using improvisation as a composition technique comes with several complications, however. Though some improvisers like to work with given motives or even tunes (creating improvisations on something else), I always start from scratch and “discover” the musical material I am using. But things happen. Sometimes I don’t remember the material very well or transform it, sometimes I get distracted and forget it completely, sometimes I am remembering musical material from some other improvisation, sometimes I have even found myself playing parts of McDowell’s “To A Wild Rose”, or Barber’s “Violin Concerto” or some other piece. But all this is part of improvisation. When it is going well, I seem to be playing from one phrase to another, either drawing from or reacting to the last phrase. There is focus, but not planning. I end up where I end up.

Though not always, a composer can spend months or even years finishing their pieces. It is difficult to convince somebody that the quality of an improvisation could be as good as that of a composer spending so much time on it. To me, the quality of spontaneously generated art is different than that of deliberately created art. Music, drama, dance, or literature that is created piece by piece acquires the quality gained by continuous reflection. The creator goes over and over the work until it has reached a level of completeness that he or she feels comfortable with.

Quality in spontaneous creation is gained through depth of experience.

Quality in spontaneous creation is gained through depth of experience. How strong is the focus and concentration? How honest is the expressive content? Is their imagination engaged and taking chances or is it just routine? Do they take advantage of discovered material or just pass through them? These are the kinds of aesthetic questions that need to be addressed with spontaneous art. I can’t say that improvisation takes more concentration than composition. Working on a piece for hours and hours, keeping several different things in mind can become almost hypnotic if not meditative. But I can say that the concentration has a different type of intensity. Both take serious artistic effort, and need to be taken equally seriously.

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.

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.

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.