Sound and meaning

Expression in the age of urban din

For the most part, I feel that the ascension of recorded music has been positive. It preserves performances and non-written music, and gives everyone access to music from everywhere. But one of the main downsides is that it has turned most of the world into listeners instead of participants. Whereas most people used to sing or play if they felt the need for music in their lives, now they just push a button, turn a dial, or swipe. Some people now listen to music for a large majority of their life – at work, at home, driving, shopping, walking, everywhere, but they never actually participate in any of it.

This easy accessibility comes with a price. Aside from the missed social opportunity, there is just a lack of any sort of first-hand musical experience. A lack of any understanding of what it actually feels like to make music. Though there are probably more people who consider themselves musicians now than ever before, the actual consumption of music has become completely passive. Michael Tilson Thomas, music director of the San Francisco Symphony, composer and new music advocate, once said that he thought that because nobody sings anymore, people have been losing contact with the emotional significance of the notes. As a result, he thought that many people now heard music as a collection of sounds, turning all music into percussion music. This doesn’t mean that the music is devoid of expression or nuance, but it does mean there is a general apathy toward tonal nuance.

This, I think, is most apparent in pop music, dance music, hip-hop, rock, and most commercial genres, but it is also apparent in Classical music. Minimalism, though no doubt chemically inspired initially, quickly became a serious discourse. Its popularity was also derived from its urban roots. John Cage talks about all the (urban) sounds around him, with a special love for the sound of traffic. This background hum of electrical, mechanical and other activity seems to be the very essence of Minimalism. Not much tonal nuance in traffic though. In fact, the numbing trance-like sameness of Minimalism is almost the antithesis of emotional nuance, though there is a cumulative aspect to the music that can be quite powerful. The pan-diatonicism and pan-metricism with which the style began quickly became highly structured multi-leveled hierarchies. Composers quickly saw the potential in the style for the organization of pure sound. Multiple layers of minimally changing sound ideas allowed composers to organize on several metric hierarchical levels at once. John Adams, for instance, has used Minimalism to create huge, intricate, almost “maximal” compositional structures. Composers essentially turned meter and texture into the new tonality. Specific sounds became structurally significant simply by when, where, and how prominently they were used.

Traffic conductor
Italian Traffic Conductor

But this kind of use of sounds, both musical and nonmusical, has a drawback; it demands meaning. A musical representation of an urban milieu is not enough reason to group random sounds together. There has to be a reason to choose which sounds are played together, and which ones aren’t. Why start here? Why end there? Do the sounds clash? Do they blend? Composers can’t really write what used to be called “pure music” with sound. It demands justification, otherwise, it just “is.”

Because of this, many composers started to use certain sounds for their cultural significance. This included using styles or direct quotes from other composers. One of the first (and still one of the best) uses of this technique appeared in the “Scherzo” movement of Berio’s Sinfonia (1968-9), which is a masterpiece. But recording artists have been using “samples,” “mash-ups,” and “remixes” now for over thirty years. This may solve the problem of meaning (and can be really interesting), but it doesn’t provide the same kind of direct emotional involvement that people are used to enjoying from the music they listen to.

This quandary of meaning and expression is not a problem facing only Minimalism and other sound-based music; it is a problem with all music constructed in “layers.” Composers have always composed in layers to a certain extent, but I am talking about independent layers. Today, composing with layers of music has become the norm. It started with multi-track tape recorders. That methodology was brought wholesale into computer sequencing and digital recording, and has worked its way into written music as well. Composers have toyed with the idea of juxtaposing unrelated musical materials for hundreds of years. Take the offstage band in Mozart’s Don Juan, the converging marching bands in Ives’ Decoration Day, or the unrelated layers of his Unanswered Question. Of course, Mozart’s layers are perfectly integrated harmonically, even if they are in different meters, but the Ives’ layers are unrelated in every way except meaning.

Stravinsky is another composer who explored the idea of compositional layers early in his career. The opening of the Rite of Spring and in fact, the entire Part One, is a textbook example of compositional layers. (Part Two is much more linear.) It is also very effective and some of my favorite music! I have always felt, however, that the reason Stravinsky abandoned this approach was not because he had to escape through a back window, and not because of World War I and the fact he was broke, but because he saw the limitations of this approach both structurally and expressively.

One of the most interesting parts of this phenomenon deals with popular music. Popular music has always been rhythmic, but since the emergence of rock and the infusion of blues and other African influences, the music has adopted a more ethnic cultural outlook. Music in Western countries generally tends to be well integrated, with melody, harmony, and rhythm working together as a whole. Music in much of the rest of the world tends to be set up as a vehicle for individual expression set against a rather static and unchanging background. This could be a drone, a repeating rhythm or pattern, or a combination of the two. Popular music genres seem to be adopting this modal more and more. Vocal lines and solos are where all the expression is; the instrumental parts are the big bad unchanging world. This is a huge exaggeration, of course, but it seems to be one of the common and most successful answers to the problem of creating music with sound and not notes. And the music is even more rhythmic today. Hip-hop has become an art of sound collage. Of course, pop music always has words. There is never any doubt what it is about.

The drawback is that instrumental music is increasingly being pushed into the background. On one hand this has led to some very imaginative music for TV and Film, but on the other, it has led to some less than thrilling attempts at Classical music. New sound-based Classical music does well when it has an exciting soloist grabbing the audience’s attention, and has had success with new opera, dance, and video, but it is struggling getting its audience to pay attention to sound-based instrumental music in its own right. I don’t have an answer for this. But it would be a good idea for a composer to remember that a sound collage is exactly what the audience hears everyday when they step outside. In order to get an audience’s attention these days, composers must have something in the foreground. If not a soloist, or even a melody, then at least something front and center – electronics, whale songs, video, dance or some other “hook!” Otherwise, to the audience, the music sounds just like their real world and there is no reason to listen.

Changing music from events to processes

It changes the way music is organized and experienced

I first became aware of the role of emotional oscillation in music sometime around 1980, through the work of Manfred Clynes. (See my blog post on Music and Emotion.) His research suggested emotion was expressed through music using very specific oscillations of intensity and release. After becoming acquainted with his work, I challenged myself with the question of how this was accomplished in music.

Oscillations, or waves, form the very basis of music through sound, but how the music is performed or created to convey a specific emotional oscillation is a little different. Sound by itself does not possess these qualities though, of course, the voice, for instance, is very inflective. I had to examine the relationship between sounds to find the amount of motion necessary to express waves of emotion, which can vary from less than a second to over five seconds. To express these relationships you need at least two dimensions. One is of course time, but the other would need to be a musical field or parameter which has defined polarities, i.e., high and low registers or loud and soft dynamics. Oscillations could take place on single notes (i.e., crescendo/diminuendo or a glissando) but would primarily take place through the comparison of the relationship between separate events. This is not usually perceived consciously by the listener, and often falls more into the realm of performance rather than composition. But still, there are oscillating parameters that are commonly manipulated by composers. In fact, once I started to look for them, I found so many that it quickly became apparent I would not be able to keep track of them all at any given moment.

I began to think about the possibility of creating music using verbs instead of nouns.

Music is traditionally analyzed and organized according to its identifiable items: Keys, chords, motives, rhythms, etc. These items are given status or function (i.e., primary, secondary, cadential, etc.) and are often organized into hierarchies. Some hierarchies are traditional and enveloping, such as tonal and metric hierarchies, and others are set forth by the composer relating directly to the structure of a specific work. But my search for oscillating parameters had me now looking for processes instead of items. I began to think about the possibility of creating music using verbs instead of nouns.

If you are organizing music around specific items, you must of course play and use those specific items. Oscillating parameters, however, are in use all of the time. Sometimes they are prominent, sometimes they are more neutral, but they are always available! A structure using these parameters would consider which ones are being used prominently and when. It would also keep track of the types of emotional content being expressed. This is not only a very broad spectrum of possibilities; it is also a very different kind of spectrum. The expressive parameters will be changing quite a bit, but the structural parameters will likely be those that remain static for a while (i.e., upper register, very soft or loud, all the same articulation, all the same color or chord or scale). In a structure of this type, the actual items of musical material carry less importance, though they can be organized traditionally, if that is preferred.

I also turned to improvisation because it is honest! The music I am playing, and emotions I am expressing, are actually being experienced.

My interest in musical processes eventually led to my exploration of process in both philosophy (i.e., Alfred North Whitehead and Charles Hartshorne) and Eastern Religions (Buddhism and Taoism). I don’t profess to have learned a great deal about any of these subjects, but my inquiries did turn my artistic activity in a different direction, namely, toward improvisation. Improvisation, being a realtime activity, allows for a much more acute awareness of these emotional oscillations. In fact, they are a constant source of inspiration. It also allows for continual exploration of identified oscillating parameters. The realtime free flow of ideas itself is the epitome of process and the artistic antithesis of constructivism. I also turned to improvisation because it is honest! The music I am playing, and emotions I am expressing, are actually being experienced. Not every musical listener will be necessarily interested in the emotions I am expressing, no matter how well they are expressed. However, I am much more comfortable expressing real emotion than conjuring up a contrived feeling through the manipulation of a musical magic show.

Listening to music as a process allows you to focus on small-scale momentary expression and yet make a note when new parameters come into play. You become more aware of increases and releases of intensity and their interplay, expressed often simultaneously in different parameters. In fact, music allows for multiple expression of the same parameter in different voices. There is never a lack of things to listen to, but it is not the same kind of listening. It is not a matter of keeping track of ideas and their manipulations; it is a continual unfolding of expressive creativity. It is not the usual intellectual exercise; it is a sequence of emotional experiences. It does not always have a point, but it is often well worth knowing.

Lessons learned from transcribing improvisations

The limits of music notation and the structure of spontaneity

Despite serious reservations about the merits of transcribing my improvisations, I have nevertheless done so, off and on, for forty years. These days, because I usually record to a MIDI file, I am able to easily access all the notes that I played and I have a good picture of the music in what’s known as a “piano roll” representation on the computer. But because I do not record with a click track, the notational algorithms of the various recording programs are rendered nearly useless. However, I have been transcribing my improvisations since before there were computers to capture them. My early efforts at transcription, from reel-to-reel tape recorders at half speed, taught me many things about both music notation and myself that I don’t think I would have learned otherwise.

The first thing I realized was that nearly all music that is notated was conceived that way. Composers are taught to write music deductively; that is, they are taught to derive more music from smaller bits of music whether it is motives, sets, sounds, or whatever. This process is carried out on paper (or more often on computer these days) and is done using music that is already notated. Even though music notation has been greatly expanded and enhanced these days with graphs and other formats, it is still an expanded use and development of ideas that are already in written form. Music is also taught in this written form, and so composers naturally have been conceiving of music in this way for hundreds of years.

I began to understand that, like mathematics, rhythm and pulse, though very useful tools, were not real in themselves.

When I first started to improvise, I used the ideas that I knew. I played in keys, meters, tempi, etc., but soon began to realize that that wasn’t really necessary. I found I didn’t need to think in a meter, I could think in phrases. I used a concept I called “macrometer” in which I thought of the focal point of the phrase as the “downbeat” and the rest of the music as leading either toward or away from that point. When I tried to transcribe these pieces, I found that putting the music back into traditional metric structures was difficult. Not only was it difficult, but it also could be done a number of different ways! I found that meter was a very fluid concept and not the musical foundation I thought it was. I began to understand that, like mathematics, rhythm and pulse, though very useful tools, were not real in themselves. They were concepts, but do not actually exist outside of the music that defines them. The pulse is defined by the music and not the other way around. This has been a very helpful concept to understand in ensemble playing as well. Members of an ensemble are not following the pulse, they are following each other! Collectively they are defining the pulse and the rhythm, not the other way around.

Tempo is also quite fluid. While transcribing improvisations, I found metric modulations, rubati, multiple tempo referencing (referring back to previous tempi) all turn out to be common and make the music quite complicated to notate. Because I conceived of the music using phrases instead of meter, tempo rubati happen often and are difficult to deal with. I still have not worked out a very good way to transcribe rubati. Recently, I tried transcribing all the rhythm against a fixed pulse so that different tempi were notated as tuplets or different note lengths. The method is more accurate but it is complicated, and the internal logic of the music becomes obscured. The difficulty of transcribing abstract rhythms and tempi has been a continuing problem and has caused me to return to the drawing board many times. I am beginning to think maybe I should be looking somewhere else.

I have heard conductors tell me to play exactly what the composer wrote my whole life, but a computer really does play what is written and it sounds terrible.

When I started using a computer and used a software program to play back my notation, I began to realize how very generalized music notation really is. I have heard conductors tell me to play exactly what the composer wrote my whole life, but a computer really does play what is written and it sounds terrible. There is no tempo inflection, no dynamic shading, no phrasing, no balancing, no shading or coloring, nothing other than the notes on the page, some articulations, and six or seven volume levels. To get the program to play my written notation so that it sounded like my improvisation took so many tempo markings, articulations, and dynamics that the music became hopelessly complicated and over-marked. I then would try to back off and leave some of them out, but where do I start? Classical music performers, especially pianists, interpret music by adding these things to the more generalized representation that a traditional composer writes. It is very difficult to try to make a recorded performance less specific and more generalized! I must try to imagine how much notation a performer would need to make what I actually did as an improvisation a legitimate interpretation. This is not music – it’s psychology!

Some of the most interesting things I learned from doing transcriptions were about structure, musical material, and memory. It is perhaps not very helpful to say that improvisational structure is “organic,” but that is the best word for it. The way the music is organized is not hierarchical but “linked.” New phrases both react to previous phrases and borrow material from them. Musical ideas seem to hang around for several phrases and then give way to newer ideas. Sometimes older ideas would be referenced, but not regularly. A new idea would be like throwing a stone in the water; it would ripple strongly for a few phrases and then peter out, giving way to newer material. There often seemed to be a subconscious attempt to balance new material with old material, though that pendulum would swing in either direction from time to time. “Organic” in this sense means a gradual unfolding of new material mixed with and as a reaction to older material.

Before I went all in on improvisation, I went through a period in which I would use an improvisation to craft a larger composition. What I tended to do with my improvised phrases, when I used them in my composition, was to stretch or extend them into larger phrases or sections. In the meantime, when I wasn’t composing, I would continue to improvise. However, the work I was doing in my composition slowly worked its way into my improvisation to the point where I no longer felt that lengthening or extending the phrases was necessary. It was at this point that my improvisation became my composition.

However, this “organic” structure was not just one continual process. There were sections and larger sections that were identified by texture, cadential syntax, or other distinctive changes. I never am aware of the larger structure while improvising, though I am aware of the changes, which I often identify as opportunities. I do often have a certain “feeling” about where I am within a structure, somewhat analogous to the feeling of direction you get when hiking in a forest. Of course, sometimes I end up wandering in circles, but I don’t transcribe or even save those improvisations!

When you are composing and building your musical structure with motives or other types of material, that building-block material doesn’t change. Any alteration that is done would be inferred as deliberate, which implies “with good reason.” Even if you did decide to “transform” the material, it almost always would remain recognizable. There is little reason to not do it that way. When you are improvising, however, you must rely upon your memory, and memory is fickle and impressionable, especially when distracted by the constant act of creation. What you remember from what you have played may not be its most distinctive characteristic, or maybe you don’t remember all of it. You may get the intervals right but not the rhythm, or vice versa. And when improvising, the music is much more likely to be altered by context, not to mention an occasional accident.

As a result, the musical ideas change. The ideas that do appear seem to “evolve” out of what comes before. Sometimes, referencing that material is identifiable, but sometimes it is not. It is a little like the childhood game of Pass The Secret, where you whisper something to the next person and they to the next until it returns to the original person completely changed. [A fun variation on this game is to copy a phrase or story (a joke is especially good) into a translation program and take it through several languages before translating it back to the original language!) When we retell or reference something, we often tell it in a different way. In music, I have come to the point where I think this type of development is more natural. The music grows, instead of being constructed from identical musical bricks. To me this feels more honest, while constructed music feels somewhat affected. Nowadays, I grow weary when I hear composers using the same material all the time. When you do a lot of improvising, composed music sometimes begins to sound rather “contrived.” Such is life.

The process of improvisation

The value of nonthinking

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Spontaneous Composition?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.