Many times I have realized that my thoughts and hopes about life, happiness, my career, and many other things have turned out to be innocent fantasy. Innocence comes in many forms, from simple naivety to outright delusion. Sometimes the effect is inconsequential; sometimes it permeates the core of our existence. This album explores innocence through the metaphor of a magic garden. From the Garden of Eden to the “Primrose Path,” we have all been there! Quaint, surprising, enchanting, mysterious, even charming, this garden is an extravagant diversion for some, and a dangerous intoxication for others.
Strolling. The joys of a garden are in the details. A big picture doesn’t do it. The opening track explores these little intricacies as it works its way in deeper and deeper. At the end, it realizes that it doesn’t know where it is.
To the Right. Tracks 2 & 6 start in the same place but go in different directions. The piece actually works its way back to the opening chord several times in the interim, but it’s where it goes in between that is the most interesting.
Intermezzo No. 1. What distinguishes this intermezzo is how it proceeds. It uses an idea from Japanese oral poetry called chained verse, where new verses (or in music, phrases) borrow something from the preceding verse (phrase) to create a new idea. This can make for subtle changes or wholesale shifts, depending on the idea and inspiration. The Japanese used to use haiku and other syllabic poetry forms, and would chain them together at parties, with a different person inventing each verse. It would be like taking turns singing improvised verses to “Frankie and Johnny,” and often just as racy.
Oven Mitt. All pianists sometimes sound like they forgot to take their gloves off. On this track, it sounds like maybe I forgot to take off an oven mitt.
Bluebells. Bluebells chime in a magic garden.
To the Left. We return to where we started in Track No. 2, but it’s not the same. Awareness is not sin, but it does take the sheen off a little bit.
You Can Never Return. Innocence, like ignorance, may indeed be bliss, but once it is revealed, it can never be reacquired. Paradise Lost is usually more instructive than harmful, however, and there are many other gardens to explore.
This album is a bit softer and gentler than some of my albums, and tends to be rather good-natured. It’s not that innocence doesn’t resort to delusional ranting every once in a while, but that doesn’t happen here. This album was recorded at my home in Phoenix during the fall of 2010.
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!
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.
I’ve always had an interest in time, but now that more of it lies behind me than in front, I’ve come to savor its quirks and subtleties. Though time is often measured in ticks and tocks, it usually passes silently and unnoticed. “You don’t know what you’ve got till it’s gone” applies to time more than anything else. I’m still not sure I know what I had anyway.
My new solo piano album ponders the nature of both time and memories. I have chosen three silent or nearly silent clocks and three groups of memories, but the album is really about the endless patient passing of time. It seems ironic that this notion, when portrayed properly, is often referred to as “timeless.” Memories, though caught in an ever expanding and receding universe of reality, can seem to be fixed, as if forever yesterday. Though the details can become blurred, they are always emotionally vivid. The truly memorable events are always just beyond our reach. They are like bench players, always ready to substitute for the real players that become increasingly tired or flawed. This duality of how time is and how it is remembered provides the tension for the whole album.
Sundial. I can remember the first time I heard of a sundial, growing up in Seattle. “What use is something that only works when it’s sunny?” I thought. Now that I live in Arizona, it doesn’t bother me nearly as much. A sundial only works in the daytime, and it is different every day. That doesn’t make it unreliable; it makes it organic. It is tied to the motions of the earth and stars. Time is real, but it is not mechanical. It is punctuated by overlapping natural cycles, but is it in itself cyclical? Nobody knows.
Old Flames. Considering my wife and I are approaching our fortieth wedding anniversary, these memories are very old indeed. Memories are most impactful, however, when they are new, and we always remember our first stirrings of passion. Of course, when we truly allow ourselves to remember, these thoughts are not always pleasant. Embarrassment, conflict, relationships embody more yin and yang than just about anything else. And after all, these are relationships that didn’t last.
Hourglass. An hourglass measures a set amount of time. Then it measures it again. And again. It is good for timing a soft-boiled egg, or a Boggle game, or a fluoride rinse. But it is an illusion; there are no little bits of time, just as there are no little bits of space. The Eleventh Century Japanese Zen Monk Dogen had some very interesting things to say about time and cause and effect. He said that when a log burns; there is wood, then fire, then ash. The wood did not cause the fire, and the fire did not cause the ash. They are separate, and yet, all one thing. Time is a dimension, like space. It would be like watching a passing horse through a cardboard tube. First you would see the head, then the body, and then the tail. The head did not “cause” the tail; it is all one thing, but you experience it sequentially.
Young Children. Memories of young children bring back oceans of love, joy, wonder, and pride. They also bring back anxiety and fatigue. Young children have boundless energy and are always more resourceful than you think possible. I was wondering why it didn’t occur to me that this would have been a good reason to have my children at a younger age! It was, however, worth every moment!
Water Clock. Flowing water has been used to measure time for millennia. Ancient Persians would figure allotments of irrigation water by filling a ceramic vessel with water. As the gates were lifted, the irrigation officer would lift his finger from a small hole in the vessel. When the water had all flowed out, he closed the gate. The Greeks built a more elaborate mechanical water clock, the clepsydra, which measured time using a continuous water source. It had a refillable tank or could be run by a stream. The slow return of water to the sea is also a continuing metaphor for life itself.
Old Friends. One of the other realities of aging is that you begin to outlive some of your friends. When I first heard Queen’s song, “Who Wants To Live Forever?” my first reaction was, “Not if it means I have to keep getting older!” At some point we all become memories. The longer I live, the greater the number of memories I acquire and, like an old computer, the smaller the space for new experiences. I’ve always tried to live in the present; certainly this is the healthiest way to be mentally. But I’m not convinced this is how we are programmed to age. Maybe the accumulation of memories gradually makes us more obsolete than wise. I suppose that depends on the society in which you live. At any rate, the memories of old friends, especially those friends who now only exist as memories, are some of the fondest.
I alternate tracks of time with tracks of memories, but really, they mingle freely throughout. And after an entire album of timeless contemplation, the end of the last track finally gives in to tick and tock, and runs down. Though time is silent and seemingly unending, our own lives are measured in breaths and heartbeats.
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.
I 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.
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.
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.
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.
It is important to me that my music is created spontaneously, but for many others, it is of no consequence. Many musicians misunderstand what improvisation is, especially at the compositional level. Even such a creative icon as Miles Davis was quoted as saying he had “no idea” what Keith Jarrett was doing when he performed his solo improvisations. I have heard people say improvisation is “real-time composition” or, one of my favorites, “composition in motion,” but this is not really the case. Many people have said to me, “Well, at some point, all composition is improvisation.” Unfortunately, this couldn’t be further from the truth.
Composition is about ideas. It is about the methodical construction of music directly from those ideas, whether the ideas are musical or non-musical. Sometimes the ideas are subtle and seemingly unimportant, sometimes they are the whole point of the music. The ideas can be motivic or harmonic, or they can be philosophical. They can be a self-driven process, or they can follow a script, film, play, or dance. They can be about social comment or be completely introverted. Or they can be all of the above. And all of these ideas guide the choice of musical material, how it is developed, and what happens to it. Emotion and expression come into play, of course, but they are nearly always part of the overall plan. Composers develop musical plans, structural plans, and emotional plans. It is the same with writing a book or creating a movie, it is about “constructing” a work of art. Naturally, there are many moments of inspiration, some of them you never hear, but mostly the process falls into the category of Edison’s “one percent inspiration, ninety-nine percent perspiration.”
But it also turns out that improvisation is difficult to define and almost impossible to discern. If a musician is not playing from music, he could be playing from memory, or he could be playing by ear. Even if he is improvising, how much of what he is doing is spontaneous and how much is planned or familiar. It is impossible to tell. I’ve heard that Louis Armstrong worked out and practiced his solos in advance. I have played with several jazz soloists who played the same or nearly the same solo every night. I’ve talked with other musicians who have said that even during free-improvisation sets, the group will, over time, revert to those things that have worked before. This was true for me as well when I tried to do free improvisation gigs early in my career. So the only real way to tell whether a performer is improvising and truly creating new music on the spot is to ask him!
Most people consider improvisation to be a technique of performance. Often the standard by which to judge the quality of an improvisation is to decide to what extent the music does not sound improvised. But this means that the improvisation must sound “familiar,” which has a tendency to be rather inhibiting. Many suggest that improvisation is merely “stream of consciousness,” and some I have heard certainly is. But good improvisation is no more stream-of-consciousness than meditation is sleeping. Improvisation takes intense concentration and focus.
Improvisation differs from composition in that it is spontaneous. It is not “about spontaneity” (an idea); it is truly spontaneous. So what difference does that make? Primarily it means that you are listening to an “experience” instead of a presentation. It means that the focus and depth of the music is happening right now, and has not been reflected upon, perfected, and polished. This much is clear enough, but how does that make the music itself different? I had only a partial idea until I started transcribing my improvisations many years ago. Improvisation, indeed, handles the music differently. Instead of the music being “deduced” from another musical idea, it evolves within itself. It uses material that is actually played rather than referring back to material that was chosen beforehand. The focus of the music changes as the music evolves. The improviser “discovers” his or her material, and memory is not always perfect. Ideas, musical or otherwise, are induced and synthesized from the actual music itself. This suggests a different philosophical concept of time, cause and effect, specifics, and abstracts, and it also suggests the idea that change, relation, and juxtaposition is more fundamental than any abstract idea. As a performer, improvisation appeals to me primarily as a vehicle for expression. Music that is conceived in real time is as honest as it gets.
In the sample below, (“Place of the Butterflies”, from my album Night Drift) listen to how each musical phrase draws upon the previous phrase and feeds the one that follows. In Japan, there is a form of oral poetry called “linked verse” in which new stanzas of poetry (such as haiku) are linked to the last stanza in some way.
Though how my music is created is very important to me, it does not mean that I am haphazard or casual about how I treat it. Though every single note is spontaneously conceived, that does not stop me from editing the MIDI files or adapting them to different piano samples. I don’t use the same sounds while recording that I do when I am mastering so I must adapt my MIDI files to the samples and to the response of my keyboard. But I not only edit for my equipment and software, I edit to make sure the music is exactly what I want. I am a composer, and this is my only shot at the material. This has involved me making two (or more) shorter pieces out of one longer one, starting at a more interesting spot than I did originally, or even making cuts within a take (cutting 10 seconds can make a world of difference). Though these techniques are all common in both classical and jazz recordings, I have drawn heat from many improvisation purists for using them. To me, it is not about the performance, it is about the music. But I have finally decided that instead of trying to change the world, maybe I should just try to get people to listen to the music for what it is, and not for how it was conceived. So I no longer am going to call my music improvisation.
The final tipping point in my decision came not from the improvisation or jazz world, but from Classical composition. New Classical Music now readily accepts music that only exists as a recording. Many composers put out recordings with electronics, samples, field recordings or samples from other composers, real world sounds, etc. Some composers write site-specific works, even site-specific operas, and the imagination for what is included in music these days is vast. Improvisation in New Classical Music, with certain limitations, has become rather commonplace. My concern about the acceptability of my piano improvisation within this genre has become almost silly.
I mentioned before that I have transcribed my improvisations and performed them live. I have also transcribed and adapted them for other instruments, including orchestra. At that point, these works can no longer be considered improvisations by any stretch of the imagination. I have also come across other works that have been conceived as strictly for recording but have also since been adapted for live performance. One of my favorites is Steve Reich’s Violin Phase (1967), which was originally done with two tape recorders playing the same violin melody on two slightly different length tape loops, but the piece has been adapted and is now often done live. Here are two versions, one done solo with a computer Steve Reich, Violin Phase (solo violin with computer), and a second done with four solo violins Steve Reich, Violin Phase (four solo violins).
The complicated social life and plaintive soulful cry of the Gambel’s Quail is the album’s inspiration
Though I grew up in the Pacific Northwest (Seattle), I have lived nearly my entire adult life in the Desert Southwest (Phoenix), having moved here to play in the Phoenix Symphony at the age of 23. Though it was a bit of a shock at first, I have grown to love the desert landscape, its stark but colorful silk-screen topography, no-nonsense flora and fauna, and Technicolor sunsets. Though you would not guess it at first, the Sonoran Desert is the second most diverse biome on the planet, next to only the Amazon Rain Forest. It is continually surprising and fascinating.
Besides the cloudless skies and bottomless sunlight, one of the most notable characteristics of this part of the world is the birdlife. My first morning here I remember being bolted awake by the cacophony of birdsong that has greeted me every morning since. The number and variety is stunning, and it changes as you go from plain to canyon to mountainside to oasis.
One of my favorites is the Gambel’s Quail. They are almost always in small groups racing through the brush or along your fence, flying only if absolutely necessary and driving my cat nuts. They make many different sounds as they keep track of each other in the vegetation, but their “call”, usually by a solitary male, is a simple plaintive single note. The note droops or sighs slightly as if he is running out of breath. It is very distinctive and lonely. It is the sound of this album.
That single repeating note is a common call throughout these tracks. Though I cannot make a piano sigh, I do try to give it that timeless lonely quality that it has in the early morning or right before dusk. It appears in various contexts, sometimes subtle, sometimes overt. But, of course, the album itself is about everything else that is going on: the sprays of color, the dense thickets of chords, the emotional outbreaks, the blankets of calm . . . The quail song is just there to remind you that despite all the waves of volatility, life goes on unaffected.
Morning Song starts with a rather ominous introduction as the sun rises. The song makes its first appearance in call and response fashion with the other sounds of the morning. After another interlude, its call receives a much more desperate response and then the two mingle together as the desert wakes up.
Quail Run is about motion. There is something delightful about watching a quail family race along with a brood of chicks swarming underneath. It is tiny cauldron of boundless energy going in sixteen different directions at once. This track is about running, and parenthood, with an occasional quail song thrown it.
Empty Nest hits me closer to home. It begins with an extended slow, almost chorale-like section before gathering energy and moving on – as we must.
Covey Talk strikes me as rather domestic. There is much back and forth with some joking and some squabbling ending with a serious panic attack. But things settle down at the end as the quail song is heard and everything returns to normal.
Through the Underbrush finds the quail in probably its safest habitat. There is motion but things are more relaxed. The quail song is heard in the distance, and there is a flurry of activity before everything finally settles down for the night.
Left Alone On a Branch. When a quail is singing is just about the only time you ever see one by itself. The question: “Is the quail alone because it is singing?” or “Does the quail sing because it is alone?” I don’t know. Alone is alone; I’m not sure it matters.
Evening Song finds the quail singing accompanied by the colors of sunset, lulling the desert to sleep amid beauty and stillness.
Quail Song is my sixteenth album of solo piano improvisation and was released on July 15, 2017.
Music has always been a social phenomenon. It has been essential in organizing groups of people to work, march, fight, or play together. Singing together strengthens the will and binds the faithful. Imagine what it would be like to pull, row, or work together without a concept of a regular beat. Drums and singing have always been a regular component of group activity. Music has arguably been one of the most essential ingredients in the development of human society and civilization. It exists in every known society.
In many societies, the musicians are simply members of the group involved in the activity. But in some societies, musicians have become specialized and professional. Even when performing, though, musicians are still involved in a social activity, even if the event itself (concert or other social activity) has become more formal.
However, recorded music began to change this dynamic somewhat. Though recorded music is still used in social situations (dance clubs and parties, movies, shows and other social activities where it has replaced live music, and also restaurants, supermarkets, elevators, exercise, and even yoga classes), in many other cases, people are listening to music by themselves. Though this is not really a new phenomenon (people have always played and sung music for their own enjoyment), the one-on-one relationship that people have developed with their chosen music has now become more the rule than the exception and is beginning to help change the music itself.
Recorded music eventually supplanted live music as the predominant form of music on the airwaves, first radio and then also television. But even though most people listened to the music in their own homes, it was still something to which everyone had access. It was a social event that was experienced privately. Though radio and TV were optional activities, they were a source of social binding. If you told someone that you did not have a TV or didn’t listen to the radio, you would be treated as if you had had a recent death in the family. “Oh, I’m sorry, I didn’t know.” People had their own record collections, but access to music was still strictly controlled and the records were mass-marketed.
But with the Internet, iPods, smart phones, and exploding choices in cable and satellite TV and Radio, not to mention streaming sources, listening to music has become completely personalized. It is akin to the invention of movable type. Before Gutenberg, only a few people had books (or could read) and so everybody had essentially the same information. Because of this, most people within the society thought the same way. But after the development of printing, people learned to read and had a huge choice of literature. The result was an explosion of individuality because everyone read different books!
Now everybody listens to different music! I first noticed it when my children became teenagers. All of their friends had drastically different tastes in music. This was not the case when I was growing up. Some of their friends liked Broadway or movie music, some liked Classical, some had esoteric ethnic tastes, and popular music, itself, was beginning to divide into the hundreds of “genres” it is today. I remember my daughter telling me that one of her friends had stored five terabytes worth of music from Japanese Anime series! Everybody was “making his or her own taste” as one blogger puts it. My son and his girlfriend had a Y-connector on their ear-buds so they could listen to the same music. It was rather sweet, and very private, but still, I did own some pretty good speakers. Maybe it was good because I rarely had to listen to their music, but I’m a musician and WANTED to hear what they were listening to.
At any rate, this changed dynamic has influenced the way I think about the music I create. When speaking before a large audience, you have to be entertaining, and coherent, and you have to make sure you have something significant to say just to be invited to speak. But when you are in a private conversation, you are more low-key and informal, more personal and intimate, and “big ideas” are not as important as sincerity and the occasional insight. For a creative musician, these changes are huge. Sure, you can listen to a Wagner opera, or a marching band, or dance music, or any other socially derived music alone and be perfectly happy. But to take full advantage of the new dynamics of musical experience the music needs to be personal, not pompous. It needs to be a conversation, not a lecture. It needs to be expressive, not structured. A public building is an architectural monument, while a private conversation may take place at home, on a park bench, around a campfire, or even in bed.
It is a different dynamic between creator/musician and listener. It is closer to the relationship between composer and performer than the traditional relationship between performer and audience. When I play a Chopin nocturne at home, I am entering into a relationship between Chopin and myself. If I perform that nocturne in public, the dynamic is completely different.
For me, the perfect music for this sort of dynamic is individual improvisation. Group improvisation is more social and is more poignant for the improvisers than the audience. A group improvisation is best listened to when an individual hypothetically makes him- or herself a member of the group. But an individual improvisation is intimate, honest, and expressive. It is personal – take it or leave it. Though I have written chamber music, orchestral music and vocal music for many different concert and dramatic settings, I have more recently come to completely embrace this one-to-one dynamic. My solo piano improvisation has now become my major creative activity. It would be difficult for me to return.