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.

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.

Of the Bells Bells Bells

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Making Jazz “Legit”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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