The Metronome Myth

Though I am a composer and pianist to many people, I have also spent my entire career as a double bassist in a major symphony orchestra, the Phoenix Symphony.  I cannot express what a joy it is to make music with so many wonderfully dedicated colleagues in such an intimate setting.  Though an orchestra may not seem intimate, in reality, it is the same as playing with one other person only times sixty, eighty, or a hundred.  True, an orchestra has a conductor, but, in the long run, a conductor is just another member of the orchestra.  The conductor’s job is to facilitate the performance by allowing the members by keep track of what is going on – sort of a musical version of a GPS program.  Of course, many conductors are marvelous and inspiring musicians, but many performers are marvelous and inspiring musicians as well.  It is the totality of the ensemble’s attention and inspiration that contributes to a memorable performance.

Playing together in a large group is not easy.  The presence of a conductor gives the impression that he or she “makes” everybody play together, but this is not so. A conductor “clarifies” what is happening in the music so that we don’t become disengaged from the present moment.  The actual placement in time of the beats in the music is determined by the performers as they listen to each other.  We all have a concept of a “steady beat,” but that concept within an ensemble is continually being altered by how individuals and groups of musicians are playing.

The essence of musicianship is the expression of emotion.  The intensity and release of an emotion is very precise.  Often that precision lies somewhat outside the pattern of continuous steady beats and is, therefore, expressed in some sort of rubato or some other sort of time stretching (or shrinking) mechanism.  In a disciplined ensemble, this sort of time manipulation is accounted for as it happens.  

Ensemble playing is a perfect example of theory vs. reality.  In theory, a tempo is intended to be steady (most of the time), but in reality, the tempo is created by the performers as they perform.  The tempo and rhythm does not control the performance, the performers control the tempo.  The tempo or rhythm is neither right or wrong by itself, but if you are not playing with any- or everybody else, you are wrong.

The metronome was invented in the early 1800’s to help performers learn to maintain a steady tempo.  It may be surprising that most students have trouble with this.  It also was designed to help composers be more precise in their designation of tempo.  Though it has useful applications for practicing or keeping complicated ensemble passages together, many times it is more trouble than it is worth.  Specifying the tempo of a musical work is also not as precise as one might think.  The tempo in a music work will vary depending on 1) the nature of what is being expressed and 2) the nature of the musical space it is being performed in.  This has been most notoriously shown in the music of Beethoven.  Beethoven had to judge the metronome marking by sight, as he could not hear the click.  But even more telling was that he only ever heard the music in his head, which did not have a lot of reverb time!

When you are playing by yourself, a metronome can be somewhat helpful in keeping your sense of tempo honest while practicing.  Most people not only slow down when playing difficult passages, but also speed up when playing easy passages.  The metronome helps guard against those tendencies.  But when playing with others, the tempo must be a mutually agreed upon affair.  The metronome’s tempo is not the “right” tempo, it is just something which is given as being “in the neighborhood.”

The “click track,” which started as the use of a metronome in recorded music, has become a staple of contemporary life in music.  It was of tremendous value in multi-track recording studios because it allows for different tracks of music to be recorded at different times, which was of great benefit to editing.  A click track also became very useful in syncing music with movies and video, as the click track could be synced with the video BEFORE the musicians recorded their parts.  Today click tracks are integral parts of most Broadway musicals; not only syncing the music, but also the lighting and scene changes!  

Performing live movie scores with the movie has become common in today’s orchestras.  Sometimes it is done with click tracks (and conductors) with the musicians wearing headphones.  This is a huge and expensive technical challenge.  You often can’t hear well through headphones, so for orchestral playing, they started using one-eared headphones quite a while ago.  But it is still difficult because the click track and the music are not always together.  You must, of course, be with the music.  Most shows I have done recently have a conductor listening to the click track.  This can be frightening for an uninitiated conductor, as the orchestra is often not with the click track.  The conductor can’t just follow the click track, because he could derail the orchestra, so he just adjusts and tries to get by.  This is not an occasional problem, this is a constant problem!

It has come to bother me, however, that the click track has become the absolute standard for nearly all music written today.  Of course, popular music for the last hundred years or so has had it’s own click track, namely the drummer.  You don’t mess with the drummer!  If the drummer rushes, you rush; it he slows down, you slow down.  This has been the truth forever in popular music.  The drummer is also usually playing loud enough that he can’t hear much of the rest of the group, so they follow him.  In an orchestra, the percussionists are part of the ensemble and are expected to play with everybody else.  It is significant that pop, rock, or jazz groups don’t have more than one drummer!

Click tracks also have a natural affinity with computers.  Computers now control nearly all the music you hear, whether in the media, recording, or live performance.  Almost all classical composers use a computer to write or at least copy their music as well.  Notation programs all produce recordings that have become more and more realistic. Everything in these programs defaults to a constant steady beat (usually m.m.=120), and as a result, almost all music shares that characteristic.  It is easier to write five against four than to change tempo.  The organic nature of accelerandos and ritards can be difficult to deal with in a digital workplace (the math isn’t that simple) so except for special circumstances, they are ignored.  The ebb and flow of tempo so common in something like an orchestra, or romantic music in general, is an obstruction for the computer.  So, as is so often the case, “the medium is the message,” and composers write for the computer instead of making the computer play like an ensemble!  The computer is a wonderful tool, but tools tend to be used in ways which are easy for the tool.  

When I record my own piano improvisations, I don’t use a click track.  I make tempo as fluid as everything else.  I do record in MIDI, however.  The standard MIDI recording interface is something which resembles an old time piano roll.  It has a graph-like representation of the metric grid rolling left to right and a piano keyboard represented up and down.  Pitches and note lengths are represented as horizontal bars; dynamics and other music elements are represented underneath.  There is no insistence upon using this metric grid, but it is used as a backdrop in any case.  Because I do not use the computer program’s grid, however, it does not know what my rhythm is.  It can’t listen to what I am playing and perceive the tempo or rhythm as a person can when playing in an ensemble.  Because of that, it cannot transcribe my music in any kind of intelligible fashion.  And my music does not survive very well being forced into the computers metrics; believe me, I have tried!  But I can transcribe it the old-fashioned way, by listening and writing it down, which is in itself an eye-opening experience.  (There are so many different ways of transcribing a rhythm when it is just a sound with no dominant pulse!)  

So where I am going with all this is that rhythm and tempo are like mathematics; they are useful tools but do not have any existence in themselves.  Their reality is a myth; and what a musician performs either by themselves or with their colleagues is the only true reality.  Rhythm and tempo are not standards to follow or by which to judge, they are suggestions which help communicate the important issues in the music, the emotional and aesthetic content.

Composing from Recorded Improvisations

For nearly twenty years, from the mid-1990’s to the mid-2010’s, nearly all of my creative efforts were focused on keyboard improvisation.  I considered my improvisation to be an extension of my composition, or rather a spontaneous compositional technique.  It was not so much my interest in abilities, as much as my interest in the compositional process and how my music unfolded which drove my pursuit.  As such, I never became very interested in performing.  I didn’t want to be a great improviser/performer; I wanted to create really good, personally authentic music!  A good performer plans and practices his or her performance.  This is not what interested me; I neither wanted to do anything twice, nor did I want to create a performing formula that would hamper, or “pre-form” my imagination.

However, it was after I developed my abilities to a certain level, that I realized spontaneous inspiration could only take me so far down the road to the music I wished to create.  Improvisation has its own ups and downs, its moments of inspired intensity as well as its lapses of concentration.  It comes with the territory.  In order to create better music, I needed to keenly edit the recordings.  And to create the music I wished, I was going to need to subject the music to some additional compositional technique. 

As a composer, I was used to taking ideas which I had created on the keyboard and developing them into music for other instruments or groups of instruments.  When using improvisation, I would need to transcribe the recording, but creating a written composition is a much more transformative process.  Unlike improvisation, composition allows me to control timing and purpose in my music, and unlike improvisation, I know where I am going.  Composing takes the music out of time, giving the music dimension and balance.  It allows me to make obvious those things that are only hinted at during improvisation.  It also allows me to make edits, cuts, or changes to notes and chords that do not fit the compositional purpose, although I find that I do that a lot less often than I expected.

Composing from an improvisation is a different kind of compositional process, more inductive than deductive.  It is about discovering relationships and connecting ideas, rather than creating the ideas first and using them to construct a complementary artistic product.  It is about distilling, enhancing, and expanding what is there, instead developing a cohesive structure from smaller building blocks.

I feel that this process is inherently more relevant.  Music composition developed as a deductive process; think a Bach fugue or a Haydn motivic sonata movement.  It became a building process, an idea-driven creative process.  A mathematician or logician uses “deductive” reasoning to develop theorems or arguments using tools of the trade and given assumptions.  It is a powerful tool.  On the other hand, a scientist USES mathematics to try to explain what he has observed in the real world.  If a scientist has explained something correctly using mathematics, he should be able to PREDICT an event in the real world.  This combination of observation and directed mathematics is the essence of “inductive” reasoning. 

In my creative process, I use my spontaneous intuitive improvisation as my creative “reality.”  I then use my compositional training to show and enhance what I see and find in the improvisation.  Both methods create good composed music, but I like the fact that my methods draw upon music spontaneously created in real time. 

Just making music, however, is not all there is to composition!  A composer writes music for different combinations of instruments and for different occasions or purposes.  So in composing with improvisations, there is also a not insignificant element of adaptation!  In essence, the original improvisation becomes a sketch or first draft.  It changes and develops as the end product becomes clearer.  Although the compositional craft in working this way essentially remains the same, the starting point and the uses for that craft are considerably different.

Though my creative process is somewhat similar to the process of observation used by a scientist, that’s as far as it goes.  I am not interested in formulating a “theory” of how I put things together while I am improvising.  I am not interested in mimicking or recreating the improvisatory process using composition.  One of the most useful roles of science is when theory predicts the existence of things which we would normally not be looking for, such as black holes or dark matter.  Similarly, one of the more rewarding aspects of working with improvisations is when it leads me into ideas and textures that I had not thought of otherwise.  In my early years of composing, I did devise some processes that, I thought, mimicked how my improvisation unfolded.  But it turned out that the spontaneity was just not there.  Some of the pieces were pretty good, but not because of the process!  Creative formulas are just not creative!  A scientist, I think, would readily admit that science can only explain certain things, and cannot predict what is actually going to happen in the real world.  There are too many variables, and the universe is simply way too complicated and time sensitive.  Improvisation also is complicated and time sensitive.  There is no way to predict what spontaneous creativity is going to come up with.  Though it might be interesting and instructive, there wouldn’t be any fun in that anyway!

(For an example of composing using a recorded improvisation including composition(s) and the original improvisation, see my previous post Restless In Loops.)

Private Music

The intimate world of individual musical performance in the pandemic

With the world in the throws of public health lock-down, and public gatherings of any sort unthinkable, music has taken on special attention.  Concerts, big and small, are gone, and even rehearsals and casual musical gatherings are untenable.  But music survives and adapts.

As a composer, personal and orchestral musician, the uses and adaptations of music are of keen interest.  Traditionally, music has always found a place at public events, whether political, spiritual, or casual, and has provided the necessary special mood.  Music has also accompanied theatrical events, plays, opera, ballet, and even film before the music was incorporated into the film itself.  Music has also taken the stage by itself, with concerts of music from single musicians all the way up to symphonies of a thousand.

With all of the public uses of music shut down, however, the emphasis has shifted to music available in the home.  Music for public events becomes mood or background music for home activity.  Music for theater becomes music for video (even video games).  Concert music becomes personal listening.  The interesting thing about this transformation is that the music that has adapted to the home environment is different than its public cousins.

Public event music, generally, tries to ramp people up, while private background music tries to wind people down.  Music for video is subtly different, generally being less grandiose, but generally provides the same function.  (Because the experience of watching a film is so engrossing, it strikes me that home video systems have done as much to become more like a movie theater experience as the art form has done in adapting to the small screen, which has also happened.)  Never-the-less, “grand” just doesn’t make it better on a video.  All music comes from the same speakers, and therefore, is perceived as equal.  Intimate music can be very effective in video.  A love scene doesn’t need to whip up the volume and the violins to get the message across.

Though professional interest has found me watching opera, ballet, and concerts in video, it is not because I find them more interesting.  As a rule, I find them to be rather awkward and inappropriate for the medium.  Large scale concerts are perhaps the most out of sync.  The larger the scale, (orchestra, chorus, etc.) the smaller the images become.  The big extravaganzas at the Olympics or the Super Bowl are the worst. The screen and the speakers never change.  The physical limitations of the medium inhibit the ability and intent of the composers and musicians to impress, and makes them concentrate on the emotional message they are trying to express.  A large ensemble actually has trouble communicating on a small screen, something it can do very well when the performance is live.  A good video producer understands this and usually shows an orchestra, for instance, as a series or shots of individual members, a full stage shot appearing only occasionally.  A Super Bowl-type event video will also concentrate on shots of the soloist and not the thousands of people performing behind them.

The special circumstances of the present lock-down have come to emphasize the private nature of individual communication.  And this has held true for music as well.  The internet has become a godsend for musicians and listeners alike.  Individual musicians, performing from their homes, have become the norm, casual, one-on-one, intimate.  Large-scale Zoom ensemble performances don’t really make it for me.  For one, they are not real.  You can’t play live in ensemble because of the delay (known as “latency”).  The takes have to be individually recorded and specially mixed.  Music teachers can’t even play at the same time with their students on Zoom or Skype.  The delay across a stage can be difficult, the delay online is impossible.  But also, “large scale” simply takes away the great advantages of the medium. 

Individual soloists can perform uninhibited, and I have already seen a number of wonderful examples.  Whether there is one person watching or millions, the experience is always personal.  Expression is everything, especially now.

Below is a performance of a friend of mine, cellist Sarah Walder, alone under lock-down, in the attic of her apartment in the Netherlands.  Simple.  Moving.



A solo piano album of reflection and hope

Retreat coverAs I write this, staring at the wall weeks into a stay-at-home order, I pray it helps bring some empathy, comfort, and maybe even a little hope to all of us trying to collectively dodge the grips of this dreadful disease.  May we all stay well and remain cheerful when we finally venture from the shadows.

All of the music on my solo piano albums start out as free improvisations.  Much of my written music starts out that way as well, but music for my piano albums are recorded in MIDI and stays that way.  As a composer, I have written music in a number of different ways, some more traditional and some more unusual.  I settled on improvisation for inspiration because I found that it encourages me to be more original.  Many musicians find that when they improvise, they tend to use musical styles and formulas that they know well; I find that for me, the opposite is true.  Though I indeed use some of the musical syntax I have gathered from a lifetime as a classical musician, I find that improvisation challenges me harmonically and stylistically to follow paths I wouldn’t normally try. 

One of the advantages of being a career symphony musician is that you have a lot of time off in the summer.  So I would use my summers to record my improvisations, often early in the morning before my children awoke.  I did this continuously for three or four weeks.  I wouldn’t listen to them right away.  In fact, I didn’t listen to them until at least a year later.  I wanted the music to be fresh when I heard it, so that I could give it an unbiased listening.  I would throw out some that I didn’t like, or that I thought were not interesting enough.  Sometimes, I would do some rough editing – split them in two if they were too long, chop off an unrelated opening; different pieces would suggest different processes.  This would often take several months for a summer’s worth of recording.  Then I would let them sit again, for a while, before doing the final editing and mastering.

I started doing and releasing these piano recordings in 1998, and have been self-releasing them since 2002.  Though I did not record every summer, I did record most summers from then until 2016.  Some summers I produced up to ten or eleven albums worth of material, while others not so much.  I have been trying to release them fairly regularly, but for various reasons that doesn’t always happen.  Still, Retreat, will be my 26th piano album, but, as you can imagine, I have a lot of music accumulated and I have fallen behind.  Retreat was originally recorded in the summer of 2012.  One of the questions I get most often is, “Why are you doing music from so long ago?”  The simple answer is that I am behind, but I also take quite a long time working on them.

When I do the final editing for an album release, though the music is still a MIDI file, I go over it with a fine-toothed comb.  I not only get the music just the way I like it, I often must adjust the file to a different sampling program.  Just as classical pianists adjust their performances slightly to different pianos and performing spaces, I adjust the MIDI file to ever-improving collections of piano samples and software.  When I first started releasing my albums, I called them improvisations, but in fact, after all the editing I do on them, they are not.  And any jazz enthusiast would say as much.  This is why, even though they start as improvisations, I consider them Classical music.  Both Jazz and Classical music are great art forms and can display considerable emotional depth.  Classical music brings the depth of reflection, as all musical relationships can be pondered and altered.  The depth found in Jazz, on the other hand, is a depth of experience, as every decision is made in the present moment.  I attempt to bring both to my music, a musical hybrid.

When I first started putting together Retreat, I was thinking of the title as more of a spiritual retreat.  The first track, Enlightened Moment, fits this mold rather well.  (Watch Video)  However, as I got further into the album, the title came to mean more of a personal retreat.  With Romance, it becomes a retreat for lovers.  I’m not sure what type of work I was thinking about for Work Song, it must have been more mental because it doesn’t seem to be very physical.  With Mourning Music, the character of the album changes as this is definitely music that accompanies personal tragedy.  This event then overshadows the rest of the album.  Heebies and Jeebies deals with the uncertainty that follows such an event.  Finding Our Way is an attempt to come to grips with the situation.  Silk and Incense is an another attempt at healing.  With Morning Music the couple begins to start anew on a new and different life. 

Retreat was recorded and edited at my home in Phoenix, Arizona.

Hold That Thought

Hold That Though cover2


Many of my albums have been organized around a specific idea, such as time, innocence, worry, recovery, or loss of self. This particular album focuses more on the ideas themselves. There are many different methods of composing spontaneously, even when not starting with any preconceived musical material or purpose. Aesthetic quality in spontaneity is achieved through depth of experience, and, as a rule, that is achieved through focused attention. It is similar to meditation, and just as there are many different ways to meditate, there are many different ways to proceed with an improvisation.

Focused attention seems to be often mistaken for trance. Trance is where listening or some other experience occupies space in your mind but doesn’t demand your attention. If you are playing a repeated pattern, for instance, your attention can become detached from the process (mental auto-pilot) and your mind will actually wander sometimes. This is almost the antithesis of focused attention. I have had students, for instance, who have thought that the point of practicing is to reach a point where you are just listening to what you are doing and not thinking about it. Actually, the point of practice is to allow you think in ever-greater detail. Practice allows you to think about how you are going to play every single note!

When you are focusing, you must focus on something. When you are improvising, you are focusing on what you are playing, of course, but you are also creating and managing the direction of the music. This means that you are using the music you are hearing to create new music. You can repeat the “old” music, vary it in some way, or react to it with something either complementary or contrasting. With the piano, there is also the element of musical space and texture so that you have the option of moving things around from one hand to the other or varying the accompaniment, harmony, or context of the original idea.

This sort of spontaneous compositional methodology tends to result in musical pieces with certain characteristics, some of which occur on this album. The most commonly occurring structure is what I like to call the “Spring” and is related to the Linked Verse technique used in Japanese (group) oral poetry. It is where older material is always being varied and reacted to so that the music moves forward while referring back at the same time. Since the older material is being continually revised, the whole structure moves forward. The circling back is like a spiral, but because the whole thing moves forward it is more like a Spring. The first, third, and fifth track of Hold That Thought conform to this sort of structure while being completely different types of pieces.

  1. Prelude is also focused on melody, and is akin to a soliloquy or opera recitative with a minimal accompaniment. The melody emotes plaintively or with flourish but always refers back in linked verse fashion.
  2. Intermezzo is a complicated and varied track whose references to older material are interspersed with impetuous flourishes and extreme shifts of register. Older material does not mean vanilla.
  3. Rhapsody is also somewhat impetuous but is more like a sung epic poem with an ending more like Ulysses returning home rather than Caesar returning from Gaul.
  4. Sequenza developed a little differently. The material I begin with just happens to be simple, distinctive, and easily remembered. Its chromatic nature lends itself easily to variation and transposition, hence it becomes like a huge sequence. I use the term “sequenza” with apologies to Luciano Berio who used the title for a whole series of virtuosic solo works for different instruments. Instead of moving like a spring or spiral, the piece seems to move like a rogue planet that keeps swinging next to the sun and getting thrown off in a completely different direction.
  5. Emergence also focuses on a single melodic idea, and though the idea can be heard in the early portions of the piece, it doesn’t become prominent until about halfway through the piece. At that point, it is repeated and sequenced in a manner reminiscent of Richard Strauss. Hence, it is as though the musical idea was discovered in the middle of the piece, much like all of a sudden becoming attracted to someone you’ve been working with for quite a while.

All of these different approaches require focus and, of course, imagination to be effective. An improviser learns that sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn’t. But you try to choose the ones that work for an album.

This is my 22nd solo piano album and was recorded at my home in Phoenix, Arizona.

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.

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.

The process of improvisation

The value of nonthinking

Even for experienced improvisers, the process of improvisation is somewhat of a mystery. Riding the edge of creation, which is what the process of improvisation feels like, is not something to be questioned too analytically. It is a bit like the centipede that was paralyzed by the question of which foot comes after which; thinking too hard can throw you off completely.

The centipede was happy, quite,
Until a toad in fun
Said, “Pray, which leg goes after which?”
This worked his mind to such a pitch,
He lay distracted in a ditch,
Considering how to run.

I usually tell people that you play one note, then another, and then another. Anything more than that often results in a mess. You make each decision based on how you “feel.” You react in accordance with how you feel the phrase should go. You can’t really think too much about the music specifically, thinking takes too much time. I have personally always felt that thinking was overrated anyway.

Nothing ever goes exactly the way you expect, and even a small change can alter the direction, scope, and effect of your original idea.

About twenty years ago or so, I ran across a scholarly article about the process of improvisation and how it works. It had diagrams and flowcharts and feedback loops with options and conditionals, etc., etc. I figure it was meant more to help someone program a computer with an improvisation program rather than to actually help someone try to improvise. It was not very enlightening, but it did get some things right. It emphasized the reactive nature of improvising as opposed to that of following a plan or focusing on an abstract or musical idea. It is a process, not a production. This is an important part of improvising that an improviser needs to fully digest. At any moment while improvising, a performer is reacting to what he or she has just heard, trying to take it where they think it should go. But before they get there, they must react to the new music. This is true, even if you are improvising by yourself. Nothing ever goes exactly the way you expect, and even a small change can alter the direction, scope, and effect of your original idea. Playing one note softer than expected changes the emotional course of a phrase, and provides (or sometimes necessitates) the opportunity to go in a new direction. Improvisers learn that no idea is sacred, and it is more practical to just avoid thinking too much. You can have the most magnificent vision and insight into the next eight bars, but by the time you’ve reached the eighth bar, you have already altered that plan at least three times. Vision wasted.

This phenomenon of continuous reaction can become a joyous experience when improvising with others. The music can be constantly enhanced by the inspiration of multiple minds, and it can also be thrilling to be part of many uniting as one in a common inspiration. Musical interaction can be thrilling when you know what everybody is doing, as is the case with Classical music. But that interaction can border on nirvana when everybody is improvising. The music is always, however, on the verge of chaos. It is only through collective effort that it stays alive. This fact enhances the thrill you receive when it works.

A dear friend of mine, who happens to also be a composer, asked me a question after I had played seven or eight chords in quick succession upon which you could have wasted fifteen pages of analysis. He asked, “Do you know what you are doing when you play those chords or are you just moving your fingers?” The simple answer was, “Yes.” I am just moving my fingers and know what I am doing. The more useful answer was that I am not doing a theoretical analysis of each chord, but I am listening hard to what I am playing and reacting accordingly.

Any improviser will say that when he or she is playing well, the music seems to be “playing itself!”

It is important, too, to not separate your brain from your fingers. Playing any instrument is a physical process and we relate the motions we make to the sounds that we hear. Any improviser will say that when he or she is playing well, the music seems to be “playing itself!” The process is flowing freely without the stifling interference of any intention. There is an unfortunate concept in classical music called “muscle memory,” which can supposedly happen when you practice a passage so much that you can play it without thinking about it. This can sometimes have unintended consequences, ostensibly because the performer is not in control of his or her fingers. This fosters the idea that one’s fingers are both untrustworthy and separate from one’s brain. The brain’s job seems to be to whip the fingers into shape and then lord over them to make sure they don’t go astray. This is nonsense. There is no way you can “think” your way through scales, arpeggios, or any other passagework without trusting your fingers to do the work. The true danger is not that your muscles will betray you, but that your mind becomes lazy. Paying attention is the foundation of any skill, and listening and guiding are attentive skills demanded of any musician. While improvising, the listening is more open and creative, and the guidance less rigorous, but it is still the fingers that do the work. When improvising, control over how you play your instrument needs only a very loose tether because there is no planning to be done. You are simply listening and reacting, over and over. I don’t think, therefore I improvise.

Spontaneous Composition?

Improvisation that aims to create rather than vary, elaborate, or derive

My music is spontaneously conceived, but it is hard for me to call it “spontaneously composed.” It meets the broad definition of improvisation, but because it is neither haphazard nor flighty, using that term tends to give people the wrong impression. One reviewer described my music as an “intriguing (and, at its best, also successful) exercise in instantaneous composition,” but, to me, that phrase is essentially an oxymoron. Gregory Hall, a composer/improviser friend of mine who also finds himself in this situation, calls his music “compositional improvisation,” which is maybe only a little better. My favorite description of music of this sort is by the composer and clarinet wizard William O. Smith, who calls his improvisation “composition in motion.” The problem is that “composition” implies something almost antithetical to improvisation because the music is usually reworked and reimagined until it is barely recognizable from its original inspiration. However “improvisation” alone is not enough as it implies a carefree, almost careless attitude. The term “improvisation” is also so broad as to be used for everything from playing by ear to sonic chaos.

But if I use the term “spontaneous composition,” at least it conveys a certain serious attitude about what I am doing.

But if I use the term “spontaneous composition,” at least it conveys a certain serious attitude about what I am doing. And since compositional procedure is nearly as broadly defined as improvisation, I must resign myself to the idea that my music is located somewhere within the intersection of the two disciplines. I remember my children bringing home math problems in set theory. They would have diagrams of two overlapping circles and they would have to color the little section where they intersected. That little section is me.

Earlier in my career, I tried to capture the structural aspects of improvisation (as I saw them) in my composition, but despite many different approaches, I could not replicate the process. There is a spiritual component to improvisation that simply cannot be recreated. Even when I transcribe the improvisation faithfully and re-perform it, it is a different experience. When you know the end of a story, you tell it differently. And when a listener knows the performer knows the end of the story, they listen differently. A recording, I suppose, is the most authentic re-creation, but even so, it is not the same, and it is listened to in a different way.

I can understand those who decide to only improvise. Improvising becomes a way of life; it is in the moment and free. Relationships developed while improvising seem to be cemented forever. But I have never been able to truly make the transition from composition all the way to worry-free improvisation. I realize this could be considered a psychological hang-up or philosophically “impure”, but it’s just the way it is. I prefer to emphasize the benefits of “hybridization.” More specifically, even though my music is spontaneous, its creative impulses seem to be inevitably aimed at recording. I am too much of a composer to continually throw away the end product; I see the reality of spontaneous conception, conversely, as my only opportunity to work with specially created musical material.

I consider my music in the same light as that of an electronic composer. It is music created in sound and manipulated as such. In the 1960’s, electronic composer Morton Subotnik envisioned magnetic tape as the new score paper. Today, the computer has supplanted tape, but the idea is basically the same. My music is created and organized directly as sound. Sounds can be altered with effects, reorganized, stacked and juxtaposed with other sounds, but they are not abstract. Any attempt at notating sonically conceived music would not be any more than a rough approximation. As it is already recorded, its preservation is not in doubt. The only convincing reason to transcribe this type of music would be demand.

I choose spontaneity because of its special characteristics. It is organic, it naturally flows from one idea to another, and it is always on the creative edge of discovery. Earlier in my composing career, I sometimes found myself writing what is known as process music, that is, music that unfolds through an underlying consistent process. I tried to create a compositional process that mimicked improvisation. In a sense, I now consider improvisation to be my compositional “process.” Technically, I guess I have just gone “wholesale” and eliminated the middleman.