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).

Quail Song

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.

Quail Song cover 2Besides 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.

 

The Privatization of Music

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.

earbudsBut 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.

 

 

Bridge to Nowhere

An album of piano improvisation that explores the idea of spiritual awakening.

I first heard the term “Bridge to Nowhere” during the 2008 US Presidential election in reference to the planned bridge to Gravina Island in Ketchikan, Alaska, but the term has been coined for several bridges around the world. Some other famous examples are in Norway, Kyoto, Japan, and outside Los Angeles in the San Gabriel Mountains. The artwork for this album is from a photo of a derelict bridge that appeared out of the fog on a train ride I took up the White Pass outside of Skagway, Alaska.

Bridge To Nowhere cover copyI am using “Bridge to Nowhere” as a metaphor for spiritual awakening. The experience is described in the literature of several religions and is characterized by replacing one’s image of oneself (ego) with an acceptance of one’s experience as oneself. It is a realization that we are not separate from the world. It is us, and we are it.

But the experience changes nothing except one’s attitude. Everything is the same. As the Buddhist Ch’ing-yüan puts it:

Before I had studied Zen for thirty years, I saw mountains as mountains, and waters as waters. When I arrived at a more intimate knowledge, I came to the point where I saw that mountains are not mountains, and waters are not waters. But now that I have got its very substance I am at rest. For it’s just that I see mountains once again as mountains, and waters once again as waters.

 I can’t say to have ever had this experience myself, but I have always been fascinated by what I have read about it. It is always described as a loss of self, or rather the loss of one’s image of oneself. It is sort of an intellectual and emotional suicide in order to accept the world as it is (or the world as God. depending on your viewpoint). It seems very risky. Mystical Christians have called it the “Dark Night of the Soul.”

My experience and link to understanding is through music. My music is spontaneous yet definitive. I am all the music I have played and experienced, but I also like to challenge myself creatively. It is not the same, but not different. “Not two, not one,” as the Buddhists would say.

The music in this album is more hopeful than hopeless. It is occasionally lonely, and even sometimes ominous, but is more interested in the journey than the outcome. The music is focused and detailed in a meandering sort of way. The world is beautiful, the bridge is beautiful, and nowhere is beautiful. Most of all, music is beautiful.

The tracks for this album were recorded in 2010 at my home in Phoenix, Arizona.

Bridge to Nowhere may be previewed on SoundCloud, YouTube, or CDBaby.

Music and Emotion

How the research of Manfred Clynes inspired and refocused my musical career

I was helping a friend of my son’s with her music theory. She was a first year theory student and her assignment was in figured bass. She was a sharp girl and seemed to have no problem with the material, but was obviously distracted. Finally, she shut the book and sighed. “I don’t care a thing about figured bass,” she said, “what I want to know is why, when I play Tchaikovsky’s Romeo and Juliet, it gets me EVERY SINGLE TIME?”

Clynes picSometime in the late 1970’s, I was in my doctor’s waiting room looking for something to read. I thumbed through a copy of Psychology Today (slim pickings) and discovered an article by Manfred Clynes. He had been doing research on emotion by asking subjects to think of situations that would cause them to feel love, joy, anger, etc., while recording their reactions as pressure on a finger sensor. I was struck by his intuitive knowledge that emotion was a timed phenomenon of tension and release. I later discovered that besides being a psychologist, neurologist, inventor, and computer whiz, he was also a concert pianist!

Subjects were able to generate emotions at first by visioning and later on their own, and Clynes was able to identify specific waveforms for a number of different emotions. These waveforms were the same among all of the subjects. Clynes then was able to secure a grant to test subjects of completely different cultures (Central Mexico, Japan, and Bali). His results were still the same. His research led him to presume that these waveforms, or sentic forms as he called them, were innately human and a part of the central nervous system. (Here is an article he wrote on sentic forms, with some illustrations.)

Being also a musician, he decided to play recorded music for his subjects. He found that the listeners responded emotionally to the music all in basically the same way, at the same points in the music, across different cultures. OK, now he had my attention.

As musicians, we know that we respond to music emotionally. It is part of the natural camaraderie between musicians. But it was news to find out that everybody responds to music in the same way, with the same emotions!

When Clynes first started experimenting with his finger-pressure device (sentograph), he had musicians “conduct” (on his device) while imagining different pieces of music silently. His first subjects were Pablo Casals and Rudolph Serkin, so he was not fooling around!  He soon found that a specific composer’s music generated a unique waveform that permeated all of his works.  A different composer, however, would elicit a different waveform. It was almost like a fingerprint. For a composer, this is very interesting!  For a performer, this helps explain why musicians can identify most composers after only a second of two of listening to their music.  Later, while doing his emotional research Clynes noted the interplay of the emotional waveforms with the previously noted composer waveforms and noticed some interesting results. In Middle-period Beethoven, for instance, which is often angry, the emotional waveforms usually ran counter to the composer waveforms; while in Beethoven’s later works, which can be nothing short of transcendent, the waveforms tended to run concurrently.

Clynes found these sentic forms, being biological, to be exceptionally specific. An expression of an emotion in music that wasn’t quite precise, would be perceived as less strong. If it is off a little more, the expression would be perceived as false or fake. Off even more and the emotion isn’t perceived at all. This speaks to the difference in “musicality” between performances. Musical expression turns out to be a very specific skill. Predictability also seemed to diminish the strength of the emotion. This speaks to the difference in skill among composers. Even emotional expression can become tedious! Tchaikovsky’s Romeo and Juliet, after probably 200 career performances, doesn’t get me “every single time” anymore, but it is still surprisingly affective even though I know exactly what is coming!

While working at the University of California at San Diego, Clynes developed a therapeutic discipline for emotionally disturbed patients that involved expressing a whole cycle of emotions with the assistance of his sentograph over a period of about thirty minutes. These sentic cycles are essentially both biofeedback and therapy. Learning to recognize, control, express, and develop intimate knowledge of these emotions, as well as allow patients to express and release these emotions in a safe environment, had a significant effect on patients. (These therapies are now readily available on the Internet.) Though the patients seemed to be getting better, however, the research ran counter to other research at the institution funded by drug companies and his funding was not renewed. After which, he was offered a position and lab in Sydney, Australia, where he concentrated more on music, emotion, and electronics.

At any rate, I was lucky that day in the doctor’s office that the doctor was quite a bit behind schedule and I was able to finish quite a bit of the article. I was so excited that I stole the magazine! A few years later, Clynes’ book Sentics – The Touch of Emotion was published and I ordered it. But I kept the magazine for many years, through a number of moves, and I may still have it somewhere.

No John, it’s not the sounds that are making love! Words and pictures don’t make love either, but they can break your heart!

As a professional performer, I have always known that it is emotion that makes music tick. Without emotion, there is no reason to listen to music at all. John Cage scoffed at the idea of emotion in music. He joked that some people thought the sounds were making love. No John, it’s not the sounds that are making love! Words and pictures don’t make love either, but they can break your heart! Music is sound, but it is sound in motion, and it’s the motion that is important. It is the ways that those sounds change which trigger our biologically wired emotional impulses. It is the verb, not the noun, where the action is.

Clynes has done some composing, but his musical interests are primarily interpretive. His later work involves programs that analyze music for its emotional content and shape the intonation, vibrato, and metrics to conform to that content. He wrote a program called “Superconductor” that allows someone to conduct a piece and alter it according to not only the tempo, but the emotional content contained in the conductor’s motions.

Though I can understand his excitement about how his work relates to musical interpretation, I am more interested in his theories from a creative standpoint. For me, he confirmed that emotion was the language of music. Emotional forms are very specific and unforgiving, but they are hard-wired into all of us so we already know what they are! How to create those forms in music takes a little skill, but whether or not the music is expressive takes more intuition than knowledge. Considering his research showed that composers are leaving an emotional record and a personal inner pulse within their music, it seemed to me that the most important characteristic for a composer to maintain should be honesty. At a time when music was being flooded with the importance of Ideas and Processes, it became clear to me that to keep an intimate knowledge and identification with the music I was creating was the only way to insure its emotional integrity.

I don’t think that the sound of the music is the only way music can have an emotional impact. Juxtaposition of style, texture, placement, social concerns, stark contrasts, and innumerable other techniques can all cause emotional involvement of a different sort by suggesting situations which trigger emotional memories, fears, or responses. But even by just manipulating the sound, I think there are still vast untapped resources for emotional expression.

As for that first year theory student, I was able to give her some hints about what was going on in the music, but mostly I just reassured her that she was on the right track. She had discovered the magic of music herself. Dr. Clynes has shown us the mechanism with which it gets us. It is up to the creative ingenuity of performers and composers to devise methods with which to deliver that magic to us all.

Disposable Music

Value in impermanence and depth of experience in improvisation

Improvisation has a disposability problem. Our (Western) civilization values longevity in general, and the art world is no exception. I sat on the Phoenix Arts Commission for a while in the 1990’s, which administers the city’s public art program. I made several attempts at convincing the other commissioners to consider commissioning music or another performing art as part of the public art program, but they could not get over the fact that after a single performance, the work’s visibility and association with the capital expenditure would vanish. A work of visual art is solid, always at the site, and a constant reminder of the commission’s insight. I never asked them about improvisation, but I am pretty sure it would have not received much more than a chuckle.

Because improvisation is impermanent, some people have a lot of trouble taking it seriously.

Because improvisation is impermanent, some people have a lot of trouble taking it seriously. Nobody carefully unwraps their candy bar because they are going to throw the packaging away, no matter how wasteful they think it is. We kick the tires and slam the doors when picking out a used car, but we don’t do that when calling a cab. The impermanence of improvisation bothered me for a while. I felt I had to turn my improvisations into written music for them to command the respect I wished them to have. I remember once entering a transcribed improvisation into a composition contest. When I received written comments from the judges afterward, I found that one judge had written, “It sounds like an improvisation!” I was a little unnerved.

Though I am a child of the 1960’s, I didn’t learn about Buddhism and Taoism until I was in my forties. I had returned to graduate school during shaky times in the symphony business, and was taking Composition lessons from Chinary Ung. He is a native of Cambodia with a Buddhist background, and I was having trouble communicating with him because we had different ideas about fundamental concepts such as creativity. To remedy this, I began reading about Buddhist, Zen, and Taoist philosophy and discovered an entirely different attitude about spontaneity and impermanence, not to mention desire, time, concentration, and ability. I knew that I was not the first Western artist to discover these ideas, but it opened up a whole dimension to many artistic movements I had not previously understood or paid much attention to.

dark-roseImpermanence, being a tenet of Buddhism, is one of the fundamental aesthetics of Asian art. Spontaneity is more important to Zen and Taoism, but is a staple of their art as well. The Japanese, in particular, have a special eye for spontaneity in poetry and visual art that I can’t say I fully understand. But as a musician, especially one who improvises, I do understand the magic of moments of inspiration, even in written music. In a sense, my attraction to music has always been about those magical moments. Though knowledge of music has enhanced some of these moments, it is their emotional content that drew me to music in the first place.

Eastern religious philosophy started to appear regularly in Western art in the middle of the last century, and has flowered in my lifetime. Impermanence in visual art such as ice or sand sculpture, moving or living artworks, not to mention movements such as Performance Art, have become rather commonplace. Improvisation in dance and drama, as well as music, is common and now rather widely respected. But still, it is the existence of photography and audio/video recording that has allowed these arts to flourish. The old adage, “If a tree falls in forest and no one hears it, does it make a sound?” is very real when it comes to impermanent art forms. Without audio and video their impermanence would be lost as well!

When I perform, it is generally for Classical audiences. I had an audience member ask me once, “Could you play that piece again?” I told her I could improvise a different piece, but not that one. “Hmmph,” she said. I asked if that was good or bad; she said, “I don’t know.”

The ability to improvise has always been considered a performance skill. There is no doubt that there is skill involved beyond the ability to play the instrument in the first place. However, my interest in improvisation has always been as a compositional technique. I had a long back-and-forth with a good composer once when he asked me if I was really improvising. He said that the shape of my pieces was always so good that he couldn’t imagine that happening without planning. I told him that this was one of the mysteries of improvising; the overall shape was not only intuitive, but also subconscious. I suspect being a Classical musician for fifty years has something to do with it though. I told him that the trick was to trust my urge to end when it felt right. There was no preplanning, and it didn’t always happen but that was all I could tell him. Different parts of a piece feel different, and when it is time to end, it’s time to end.

Using improvisation as a composition technique comes with several complications, however. Though some improvisers like to work with given motives or even tunes (creating improvisations on something else), I always start from scratch and “discover” the musical material I am using. But things happen. Sometimes I don’t remember the material very well or transform it, sometimes I get distracted and forget it completely, sometimes I am remembering musical material from some other improvisation, sometimes I have even found myself playing parts of McDowell’s “To A Wild Rose”, or Barber’s “Violin Concerto” or some other piece. But all this is part of improvisation. When it is going well, I seem to be playing from one phrase to another, either drawing from or reacting to the last phrase. There is focus, but not planning. I end up where I end up.

Though not always, a composer can spend months or even years finishing their pieces. It is difficult to convince somebody that the quality of an improvisation could be as good as that of a composer spending so much time on it. To me, the quality of spontaneously generated art is different than that of deliberately created art. Music, drama, dance, or literature that is created piece by piece acquires the quality gained by continuous reflection. The creator goes over and over the work until it has reached a level of completeness that he or she feels comfortable with.

Quality in spontaneous creation is gained through depth of experience.

Quality in spontaneous creation is gained through depth of experience. How strong is the focus and concentration? How honest is the expressive content? Is their imagination engaged and taking chances or is it just routine? Do they take advantage of discovered material or just pass through them? These are the kinds of aesthetic questions that need to be addressed with spontaneous art. I can’t say that improvisation takes more concentration than composition. Working on a piece for hours and hours, keeping several different things in mind can become almost hypnotic if not meditative. But I can say that the concentration has a different type of intensity. Both take serious artistic effort, and need to be taken equally seriously.

Making Jazz “Legit”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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