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.

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.

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).