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.

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.

A Change of Heart

The prevalence of literal thought in society and music sublimates imagination

A couple of weeks ago, I was watching a video on Facebook about education. It was about how recent education had stopped stimulating imaginative thought through content testing, etc. The point was that imaginative thinking was more common, more interesting, and more useful than just facts. It rekindled an idea I had pondered many times, about how modern culture and technology has fostered a “cult of the literal.” How access to, even bombardment by audio, video, and constant information has suppressed abstract and imaginative thought and somehow made it seem less important.

Our culture used to be brimming with stories, oral or written, with which you became involved. The stories taught as much as they entertained. They would exist in your mind as abstract images. They meant more as ideas than they would as literal people and places. I took my first trip to Europe this summer, and I saw places that I had heard about my entire life. But by themselves, these places were unremarkable. It’s the stories and my imaginative extrapolations that made them come alive.

I first noticed this trend several decades ago when digital watches were introduced. You would ask someone for the time and they would answer, “3:43,” where before they might have said, “It’s almost a quarter to four.” Digital watches had suddenly made precision important.

The society now has instant access to a thousand times the information that it did when I was growing up. But so much of it is a passive access. It is either video, or a search engine, or stuff roboted to your email. We don’t have to work for it or even think about it. It’s here; it’s gone. It used to take patience and skill to find things out; now if you can’t Google it, it’s not worth searching for.

The culture has changed enormously in the past couple of decades, and I suppose we really have no choice but to roll with it. But I have lived long enough to experience this immense change in my lifetime, and if I step back, I can look at how it has changed me. Because of all the tools I have at my fingertips, the role imagination plays in my work has become limited and temporary. Composers used to carry an abstract aural concept of a piece in their head for months or even years with larger works. Now our computer plays whatever we write as soon as we write it. On one hand, we don’t make big mistakes anymore; on the other hand, we don’t take any chances.

The innovation of the Suzuki method was that it taught Classical music by ear . . . Most Classical musicians at the time thought this was “cheating!”

When I was just learning music, the teaching method of Sinichi Suzuki was just becoming known in America. I can remember that my teachers were horrified. The innovation of the Suzuki method was that it taught Classical music by ear, which is the way most music is learned throughout the world. Most Classical musicians at the time thought this was “cheating!” My piano teacher advised me to not listen to any recordings of the pieces I was playing. He thought it polluted the process of creating my own concept of the piece. Today, listening to a recording is the first thing that a musician does. The Suzuki method has become standard practice. When I started my orchestral career, conductors were expected to have different interpretations of even standard repertoire. Alternate interpretations now often strike my orchestra colleagues as “wrong.”

Classical music has always lived through the imagination of its performers. Classical notation is just an approximation, and was not intended to be very precise. I didn’t think this was the case until I started using computers. Nothing alerts you to that fact more than having a computer play music from your own notation. A computer just plays what it sees – no imagination, no extrapolation. It’s dreadful. When I started recording using MIDI, I found that the computer would record the touch of my keyboard with 128 different volume gradations. It makes the seven or eight different dynamics of written music seem pretty meager. I looked at a graph of my volume values and realized I had used every one of the 128!

MIDI Screen shot
A screen shot of a (condensed) keyboard MIDI file showing pitches and note lengths above and volume (key pressure) in the pinkish area.  The pink areas are places where the sustain pedal is depressed.

But it is exactly that generalization of music notation that has continued to regenerate Classical music throughout the centuries. A musician can always imagine a better performance, and can always imagine improving his or her own performance. The imagined music is what makes the real music come alive; it is just like all those famous places I saw this summer.

Several weeks ago, I wrote on this blog about transcribing from my piano recordings. I had decided that the music was better represented if I transcribed it against a steady pulse, allowing the music to ebb and flow around what amounted to a stationary grid. Though I have been able to do this, and the music on the recording matches well with the music played by the computer from my notation, it does not embody the imaginative spirit that entices a pianist to sit down and play it. It creates the music with smoke and mirrors. If you play what I wrote, the music appears out of nowhere; not because you imagined it and brought it to life.

So I have gone back to notating the music rationally, by showing the rhythms and tempos in a clear fashion that gives a pianist something to re-imagine. Though I must show changes in tempo, I am not showing every rubato. I use the notation to show the structure, and let the pianist show the music. This is what musicians have always done, and what they do best.

Transcribing my piano improvisations

Working around the confines of traditional music notation

When I was first drawn to solo piano improvisation, about forty years ago, it was because the kind of music I heard being improvised was not available in written form. It wasn’t the style that got my attention, it was the freshness and spontaneity and the way the music unfolded. Though I spent quite a few years trying to mimic improvisation with my composition, I was never entirely successful. If I recorded some improvisations and then transcribed them, I thought maybe I could get a result that approached the feeling of the original improvisation.

R2R tapeI started in the late 1970’s with a reel-to-reel tape recorder that made transcribing them no mean feat! It took weeks to transcribe each improvisation with some passages having to be played at half speed over and over again. Getting all the notes was difficult sometimes, but making a decision on the rhythm was sometimes ridiculously hard. At least the notes were real; rhythm is an abstract concept. Deriving beats, figuring the meter, and deciding where in the meter the music went are all decisions that became very difficult. This was especially true when I was playing freely, which was increasingly the case. It’s harder to find the beat when the beat keeps changing.

When a performer does not conceive of his or her improvisation as following a particular tempo or meter, transcription becomes nearly impossible. I would try to derive a sense of strong or weak beats through groupings and emphasis, see if there was consistency, and count beats through the long notes. Even after deriving the logic of what was played, all I could do was to show the groupings and write “freely” for the tempo. For a solo piano, this would be all right, but if I were to arrange it for even a small group, I would have to be a lot more definitive. I ended up making a lot of compositional decisions that didn’t relate to the original at all.

When I began to record using MIDI, it became somewhat easier because all the notes were there, but the rhythm was still a problem. People have asked me why I didn’t just let the computer transcribe my improvisations. The reason is that if you don’t play WITH a computer, (i.e. a click track); the computer doesn’t know what you are doing. It often doesn’t know anyway.

Music notation programs started becoming available about 30 years ago. They were rather basic at first, but after about 15-20 years, they had it pretty well figured out. The programs can now notate and play just about anything you can write, and can read and play slurs and articulations, dynamics, and a number of instructions such as pizz. and col legno. They can alternate between 20 or 30 different samples per line and they sound great. They all have mixing boards and notating music has become an instant recording studio. But transcription, other than easy rhythms, is still a problem, and you still have to play with the computer. Though they can change tempo on a dime to the hundredth of a metronome marking, they cannot follow what you are playing, other than rounding to the nearest eighth or sixteenth note. If you are playing freely, they are no help at all.

I was not able to get transcriptions of my improvisations to sound anything like my originals without a ridiculous amount of markings and tempo changes. I felt I needed a better way to transcribe them. At first, I thought maybe I should allow the performer more freedom and try to capture the feeling I had when I improvised them. I tried more abstract notation systems. I tried spatial notation. I tried graphic notation. I tried a more generalized form of regular notation without all the intricacies of my original. But all of these attempts had the same problem – you couldn’t practice them! All the pianists who tried to play them, including me, had to alter them to practice them. The pianist would end up deciding how they were going to play them and then change the notation to accommodate their decisions. That was not the intention.

I spent a long time, several years, on this problem. I mentioned it to Gina Genova at the American Composers Alliance (my publisher). She told me about some late piano pieces by Earle Brown where he just improvised freely on a keyboard and let the computer transcribe them. She had had a pianist clean them up and perform them and thought they had worked out fine. She suggested that I try doing my transcriptions that way. I balked. A computer transcription of my music was not only illegible it wasn’t very accurate. The computer would “round” the value of the notes off to the nearest sixteenth or whatever you chose, and make it sound really choppy.

A computer transcription was not a good choice, but what the computer was trying to do was to transcribe the music against a steady pulse instead of trying to convey the imagined pulse of the music. That particular concept became increasingly more intriguing. It would be like drawing a grid of squares across a photograph and reproducing it square by square in a painting, much like the procedure for painting billboards. Using triplets, quintuplets, and syncopation to convey the differences in meters and tempos would smooth things out and could be made to work if I was careful about it. Transcribing against a grid would capture much more of the original improvisation than using instructions and tempo changes would. The more I thought about it, the more I was tempted to try it.

p05
A portion of a free piano improvisation captured in MIDI and displayed as a “piano roll.”

My recording program displays the MIDI information on a graph that looks like a piano roll for a player piano, but it does so against the background grid of a chosen tempo. In my case, that tempo is rather arbitrary because I don’t use it to keep a beat. So I tried transcribing a few improvisations against this rhythmic grid to get a feel for what was involved. I had to be careful, I discovered, to not make the transcription too complicated. If the original was consistently just a little off from the grid, I would find a way to align it better. I was happy, at that point, to have the notation software play the transcription back faithfully for me because I could compare it with the sound of the original. I discovered that some rhythmic subtleties are difficult to determine visually when looking at the screen, but much easier to hear when I played the transcription back. Generally, it worked out much more smoothly than I would have guessed. I ran into a tough measure or passage every once in a while, but I was able to work through them and get it done.

To test the result, I practiced and learned to play the pieces I transcribed, and the results were very interesting. The transcription was different than the rhythms I had imagined when I listened to the improvisation, but as I practiced the music, my conception of the music changed! I remember this having happened with a number of other pieces I had played where I had heard a recording first and imagined the rhythm as different from what the composer had written (usually the composer was Stravinsky.) But I just re-conceived the piece once I saw it notated. Once I saw the rhythm, I was OK (usually).

Notating the music “irrationally” was not only much more true to the original, it actually brought out relationships that I didn’t realize were there. Though the process was not like clicking a button and letting the computer do it, it was not really that difficult. I could make good progress and finish a transcription of a five-to-seven minute improvisation in a few days, which was generally faster than most methods I had tried. There certainly are some tricks to it, but the process gets easier the more I do it.

Click to see the same passage in Rational (Traditional), Spatial, and Irrational Notation 

The end result is that I am more than happy doing my piano transcriptions this way. I think the clincher came when I realized that the concentration level I used when performing the transcriptions was close to the same level I needed to create them in the first place. Of course, I was concentrating on completely different things, but the feeling was very much the same. A performer needs to be able to concentrate on enough detail to properly provide an involved performance. The level of concentration achieved by a performer is an important consideration in determining how much a performer enjoys the experience. And a happy performer makes for a happy composer!

So I am now in the process of transcribing some “suites” from my albums. The transcriptions are actually true enough that I can use the original recording as an example. Having a written version of the music available is of no consequence to the casual listener, but if you play piano, it is always considerably more enjoyable to play through the music yourself. Being an improviser has been very rewarding musically, but it is a little lonely. People either like or don’t like what you do, but it is all on a surface level. When your music is written down, musicians get to know it better and thereby, get to know you better. It is more rewarding for everyone.

When Improvising, Music Theory Becomes a Verb

Relational structures are the practical choice for music improvisation

I knew I wanted to be a composer when I was in Junior High School. My parents found me a couple of teachers my last couple of years of high school. They were both well respected composers. The first teacher showed me Hindemith’s Theory of Interval Hierarchy on the first lesson. The second teacher waited until the second or third lesson, but then brought me a short treatise on Information Theory. Though I was totally baffled, these two events were actually a pretty good introduction to how many composers think about music.

Music composers and theorists have riddled music with a litany of systematic hierarchical structures. Tonality and key, harmony, meter and rhythm, form, and many more complex all-consuming theories are all systems of organized structures meant to impart logical meaning to emotional content. It is an idea borrowed from writing, and it is a visual concept. A large written work is organized into parts, chapters, sections, paragraphs, sentences, words, and finally letters. Each letter and word has its own function and meaning, and this becomes extended to sentences, paragraphs, etc., until every part has its own place and role. Most composers think of their music in the same way, with each note, phrase, or layer having a special function and meaning, and playing a part in a larger whole.

brush-portrait3-fb-banner-copyBut it is impossible to retain this kind of detailed attention to multiple levels of musical structure while improvising. You can keep track of what is going on for a while but at a certain point you reach the Too Much Information point and things fall apart. With no pre-planning, the amount of information, levels, and functions add up until you are overwhelmed. At that point, you just give up and think about something else, because, after all, you are creating everything on the spot, not just the structure.

So when improvising, the amount of actual musical information you can pay attention to is limited. This is why many improvisers prefer to improvise on given themes or motives, because when doing that, the emphasis shifts to creative manipulation for which improvisation is excellent. But all of traditional musical theory treats music as information, so when freely improvising, you have three choices: 1) limit the amount of information you keep track of, 2) not care, or 3) keep track of your music in a different way. Choice No. 1 very quickly becomes a precondition. Limiting means making choices, usually in advance. This is how most of the world improvises, with limits of key or mode, tempo, meter, harmonic choices, etc. It narrows the playing field so that the improviser can concentrate on expression and creativity. Choice No. 2 pollutes the imagination and eventually becomes a choice. I believe that a lot of Free Jazz or Improvisation has become like this, where making an organizational choice of any sort becomes taboo.

It is not the music itself but its relationship to the surrounding music that gives it meaning.

I found that, as a composer, the only choice open to me was Choice No. 3 because I didn’t want to make pre-conditions and I did care. So instead of treating bits of music as information, I started treating them as relative values on the sliding scales of several simultaneous musical “fields” or parameters. Every bit of music I improvise is louder or softer, higher or lower, faster or slower, darker or lighter, more or less resonant, more or less dissonant, denser or more open, flatter or sharper, etc. than the music which is sounding simultaneously or adjacent to it. It is not the music itself but its relationship to the surrounding music that gives it meaning. Because emotion is perceived as a specific oscillation of intensity and release, and oscillation in many forms is a fundamental component of music, these relationships make excellent expressive tools while improvising. Most importantly, because their focus is very specific, they become tools that are actually possible to use while improvising in an intelligent way.

Because music has multiple dimensions, and these dimensions can be creatively manipulated simultaneously, the creative possibilities are nearly endless. An improviser can also create his or her own expressive parameters just by juxtaposition (i.e. more temple block and less triangle). Thinking about oscillating parameters encourages an improviser to concentrate on what he or she is doing at any given moment rather than creating the mental distance it takes to keep track of specific information over a longer period of time. This is exactly the mental attitude it takes to improvise well!

Of course, identifiable ideas do emerge. But instead of treating them as informational Legos to build things with, I treat those ideas as relational focal points that are altered and changed at every appearance. The information relates to itself. Large-scale structures do emerge too, but I don’t often think about them consciously. Sometimes I will deliberately bring back an idea from earlier within an improvisation if it is particularly prominent (and I remember it). Sometimes I will bring up an idea from a different improvisation or even another piece. But I seldom find that when I do it has any real or special impact. I find I can use and trust my musical instincts to control large-scale shape, contrast, and function. In other words, I play it by ear. It usually works. If it doesn’t, oh well, I’ll try again next time.

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).